This has truly been the slowest game hunting year I’ve had to date, so my blog has been pretty quiet lately. Though I have a few things on the go in terms of posts coming your way, in lieu of game collecting and blogging here, I’ve been busy playing through some of my crushing backlog, livestreaming, and putting together Let’s Plays and reviews/retrospectives on my YouTube channel. One game that I played through recently has really changed the way I approach RPGs in general. Though I put it more succinctly in the video below, I still wanted to share a few thoughts about Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar for the Sega Master System.
Now I’ve played enough RPGs in my life to know what makes one good or bad in my mind. The game has to have a good story, likeable characters, and have a good buildup towards vanquishing the ultimate evil that has turned the game’s world upside down. What I had never considered before playing Ultima IV is what happens when there is no evil to conquer. What happens when you’re just a person on a quest to not fight a malevolent being, but to instead personify all good things about human nature to be a beacon of hope and an example for others?
Ultima IV challenged everything that I knew about RPG tropes and forced me to think about it all in a different way. Normally I rush into battles and kill everything to become more experienced, but the game’s virtue system forced me to think about what I should be killing, if anything. A few questions I kept having to ask myself were do all creatures deserve to die in battle? Is valour more important than compassion towards other living creatures? How is justice served out to beings that are evil? Am I the one that should choose to inflict death on something that I have no jurisdiction over? So many questions! The game’s virtue system not only forces you to think of these things so that you can eventually beat the game (you need to increase your virtues to win), but it also makes you think about these concepts in reference to your own morals and values. I’m by no means doing the game’s virtue system justice by rambling on about battling, but so many other things in the game’s adventure force you to think about your actions in-game and contemplate how you as a person might handle similar situations in your own real life. For example, many of the shopkeepers are blind and you can underpay them and get away with it. Your virtue rating for honesty goes down if you do, but you’ll have a pocket full of reagents to use and money left over to buy weapons and armour if you want to. Though I’d never steal from someone in real life, my curiosity would swell once in a while and I’d wonder what would happen if I did steal from those women. Usually games allow us to live out a life we might never lead ourselves. Ultima IV puts a stop to that pretty quickly and punishes you for becoming the “bad guy”. Every action you take in-game only affects you and your progress. If you steal treasure that belongs to others, you’re going to have to make up for that by being extra honest in the future to regain those honesty points. If you don’t donate to beggars or give blood at the healer, your sacrifice rating will never increase. Even dying in battle rewards you for sacrificing yourself! Ultima IV is upside down and topsy-turvey from every other game I’ve ever played.
The other thing I really loved about the game was that the main character is a completely blank slate. Anyone can step into the shoes of that character and experience the game from a personal perspective rather than have to try to conform to a developed character with a backstory. I could never really relate to characters that were forced from their homes and were joining a rebellion to regain their destroyed worlds. I also couldn’t relate much to the protagonist chosen by prophecy to become the hero of the land and strike down negative forces. The protagonist in Ultima IV, the Avatar, is very much relatable. All you know about him or her is that they got sucked into a magical world and have been asked to lead a good life and become virtuous to encourage others to do the same. As a regular human living a regular life, you could literally be that random person who was drawn into the world of Britannia to start your quest. Very few games let you shape the game’s experience from your own perspective rather than seeing it through the eyes of a pre-formed character, and that was a really special thing for me in this experience.
Now how has the game changed me and the way I think about RPGs you might ask? A lot of it stems from how going forward, I will never be able to play other games without feeling incredibly spoiled. A few examples are:
- Ultima IV makes you do everything yourself. You want to heal? You need to make a potion for that. Got poisoned wandering around in some swamp? You need to make a potion for that. Oh, you want to cast a spell that requires mandrake root or nightshade that can’t be found in stores? Get ready to talk to every single person in the world of Britannia to find a vague hint about where to look for those reagents. Everything is work, but there’s a great degree of satisfaction in that type of gameplay. I also love games like Harvest Moon for that very reason. It’s gratifying to see your work pay off.
- Acquiring information and using it isn’t easy in Ultima IV. Many games I’ve played give some sort of auditory cue or highlight phrases to let you know that they’re important. Those words are then thrown back in your face when you need them again. Ultima IV does none of that. As a first-time player, I sat through conversation after conversation with many different people and had no idea what was or wasn’t important in our discussions. I had pages of notes that I never used, diagrams of things that I drew out just in case I needed them, and very little of it turned out to be relevant to my quest. In the Master System version, once keywords are discovered they will appear in conversations with people you’re supposed to talk to about certain things. This isn’t the case in all versions of the game.
- Battles can’t be won by smashing the Attack command over and over. You have to avoid physical obstacles and plan ahead in each battle based on what kind of terrain the battle is triggered on (for example, hilly areas have giant rocks in the way of ranged attacks.) You also have to think about your weaker characters and make sure that they’re never exposed to enemy attack. This is similar to front/back row dynamics in other RPGs, but sometimes when you enter a room in a dungeon and your weakest character is facing a bunch of enemies despite the best planning, it can be pretty devastating.
- Spells can only be used in battle if you’ve made them in advance. There is so much planning involved in Ultima IV, and you can soon be up the brownest creek of them all if you haven’t bought and mixed reagents to make various spells in advance of battle. Though there are no bosses to fight, there are still really tough enemy encounters that can wipe out your entire party in an instant if you aren’t prepared. And in Ultima IV, it’s not just a matter of using a magic point restorative and casting away… if you don’t have a spell made up in your inventory, you don’t get to use it. And don’t think you can just run from battle and try it again. You’ll lose valour!
- Dying in-game is costly. You might remember me complaining a long while back about needing to pay $30 000 to revive a character in Miracle Warriors. This was the worst thing, right? Well don’t think that dying in Ultima IV is going to be any easier. If anything, it’s far, far worse. If your whole party is wiped, say if you’ve gotten sunk at sea, the guy who is supposed to be helping you can’t get your stuff back from the void. Any food, money, and fancy armour or weapons you had are gone. It’s often easier just to reset than to try to revive your party. Other games obviously let you start over from your last save or back where you died with everything intact. There is a huge difference in Ultima IV that again requires thinking ahead and careful planning.
Pretty much, Ultima IV has made me a more gracious and thankful RPG player. I’ve played Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and Illusion of Gaia since finishing up Ultima IV, and I felt like I had a lot more patience for all the little things that used to annoy me in games like those. Compared to the things I had to do in the land of Britannia to make it through, these other RPGs felt like a cake-walk. Mystic Quest and Gaia are both very linear so that might have a lot to do with that feeling, but it’s almost as if the trials and tedium of Ultima IV have increased my expectations of other games and they’re falling a bit short somehow. Though other RPGs produce less worrisome things both in quality and quantity making the game feel easier (easier = more fun), these other games I’ve played lately lack a lot of the micromanaging and head scratching that made the payoff feel so much more deserved and amazing in Ultima IV. I hope that I can get back to just enjoying games for what they are rather than constantly making comparisons, but in a way, I’m really glad that I stuck it out through to the end of Ultima IV. I feel like I can call myself a true RPG veteran after becoming the Avatar.
Before I go, I do think it’s important to say that I’d completely recommend Ultima IV to anyone wanting to play a game from a series that established so much of what we consider to be normal in the RPG genre. Just be aware that the learning curve is pretty steep and though it might feel frustrating and unintuitive at first, there’s lots of really thought-provoking gameplay just beyond the clunky interface. I almost quit several times along the way myself, but some good old fashioned encouragement from people in the know helped me to push through. If you don’t want to play the game yourself but want to see more of it, I did play through the entire game and recorded it for the internet. Though I’m sure there are only a small handful of people who want to watch this, I really wanted to put it out there so more people might get to experience the game in some form or another. It’s really worthwhile.
Have any of you dabbled in the Ultima series? I’ve recently bought up most of the rest of the games on GOG and am looking forward to dive into Ultima V some day. I also wanted to put it out there that if any of you want to play Ultima IV and ever need an ear or some advice, I’d be happy to help you through it. There’s nothing like having a friend in your pocket to rely on if you need it. These are the kinds of games that are meant to be played with company!
Thank you guys so much for reading! I hope you’re all enjoying what’s left of the weekend.
I’m so glad you enjoyed Ultima IV. It’s one of the bright spots in the series, and came out the way it did in part, because Richard Garriott took criticism of RPGs to heart. You have to remember this came out at a time when parents were concerned about anything with a fantasy setting. A lot of people back then worried about the violence level in these CRPGs, and Tabletop games. Fundamentalist Evangelicals also weren’t keen about the pentagrams, demons, and zombies walking around in these games. There was a crusade to label a lot of this stuff Satanic, even titles that didn’t really have an occultist aesthetic. D&D wasn’t the only target. I remember my Aunt from Florida chastising my toy collection! “Skeletor is evil!” “Well yeah, that’s why He-Man fights him.” “The Smurfs are blue. Dead bodies turn blue. The Smurfs are evil zombies! Also Gargamel said the name of the devil one time! AAAAARRRGH!” I had no comprehension of how she was getting this stuff. All I knew was that she meant well, but didn’t know what she was talking about.
So Ultima IV was, in part a response to that, and showed that RPGs didn’t have to revolve around slaying demons. They could be about choice, and choosing to be loving, and merciful, as well as showing how something good could be perverted, and twisted into something bad. It influenced countless games after its release like System Shock. Sadly, the Ultima series kind of went off a cliff after Ultima IX’s troubled production, but Ultima Online would prove there was a market for MMORPGs after that.
I really hope you enjoy the rest of the series though. They’re all great games that even modern games sometimes take cues from. Can’t wait to see your reviews!
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I’m pretty excited about Ultima. There are so many folks that have engaged me in the, “Which Ultima is Best” debate, and it’s pretty close between V and VII. It’ll be fun to be the judge of that!
I never knew that Ultima IV was a response against all of the religious push of that time period, but now that you mention it, it does make sense. I grew up Catholic but I was a bit too young to catch that wave of criticism you’re talking about: He-Man was a staple in my house as a kid. I’m glad all of that has washed away and that nobody’s up in arms about that sort of thing as much anymore.
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I haven’t had the chance to get into the Ultima games, despite the fact that they are sitting in my GOG library just waiting to be played. I really enjoy a lot of the elements you mentioned, though, and I feel like this may have been the push I need to check them out finally! It sounds like the virtue system might actually be thought-provoking and interesting to take part in rather than a cut and dry black-and-white system a lot of games fall back into nowadays.
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I really hope you do decide to play them. I’ve heard the first three are just meh so everyone was happy I was starting with IV. I honestly think this game is what you make it. Some people can look at it as a black and white thing, like “how many times do I need to donate to a beggar to show sacrifice” and then go and do just that without thinking about it. But for me, the experience was far more personal and I felt like my own thoughts and personality shone through in the decisions I made in game. It might have also been the fact that I was streaming it in my first playthrough and didn’t want to disappoint my viewers by being secretly evil, but I really hope that you do enjoy it no matter which way you play it. I’ve already played it twice and I’d like to play it again, so that’s saying something!
On Twitter recently, someone asked people to post their favourite games and I was really surprised at how many people put down Ultima IV. It really has resonated with people. Please let me know if you need anything if you do decide to give it a shot.
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