A blog about tabletop hobby and or strategy games, with a side order of electronic turn based goodness here and there. Now with tons of retro gaming content both electronic and tabletop. Also with 20% more self loathing douchebaggery!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Little Bit About Ultima, the Electronic RPG Series I Love the Most!

I'm a huge Ultima fan, though these days I am a bit of a heretical one. (Because I dislike 7 and love 1 and 5 the most.)

To me Ultima was possibly the best series of RPGs ever made for most of its life. Each game was more alive and more advanced than its predecessor even though in the end it helped kill the series. Each game had these wonderful boxes filled with full color maps usually made of cloth, an amazing faux leather covered rulesbook with stunning woodcut like art by Denis Loubet that was 80-90% fluff, the gameplay mechanics and stuff on a handy card, and of course the usually gorgeous cover art which was usually also done by Mr. Loubet.

Unlike many RPGs Ultima was about being a noble hero just because it was the right thing to do. But you had freedom to go on murder sprees or be a raging klepto even if most of them wouldn't let you complete the game doing so. Most of the games returned you to a mostly familiar land. It was like a trip to an amusement park where you got to meet old friends and help get the Tilt a Whirl back in shape every generation or so.

They were just so damned magical its hard to explain to people who are used to the kind of mindblowing graphics our modern systems pump out these days.

I will go through the Ultimas as I see em and hope it'll help a bit to anyone who wants to go through them, or just understand the history of the electronic RPG that isn't Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.

Akalabeth: Its stupid and irrelevant. Don't bother with it. Basically a dungeon crawl designed for Apple 2s in the late 70s. There is a PC port, but I forget if its for Dos or Windows.

Ultima 1: The game that turned me into an RPG gamer dork. (Or at least the biggest culprit..) Its a mixture of sandbox exploration and a light grind for money and XPs. Overworld is top down tiles, dungeons are 3d wireframe. It has a semi realtime mode (If you do nothing after a minute or so the game treats it like you passed your action for the turn. Bad when surrounded by monsters in a dungeon!), and an action space sim mode in the middle. If you can get it working, Ultima 1 is best played on Dosbox. Second choice is the C64 version from the mid-late 80s on an emulator. Its actually a pretty fun quick and dirty RPG. Mapping and magic are largely irrelevant. There are few locations you NEED to know, and the drawn maps pretty much cover everything. Spells are usually purchased and largely useless outside of the ones that make ladders to go up and down floors. Dungeons are largely places to gain Hit Points and kill a few quest monsters. Don't bother mapping, just bring some spells to get to whichever level you want to fight on. Each dungeon merely has a different layout made irrelevant via said ladder spells.

Ultima 2: The game I missed in its day or even when I was playing every Ultima my C64 could run. Its like U1 except U1 got a nifty revamped rerelease in the mid-late 80s. Ultima 2 never did. Its the link technologically between 1 and 3. You can probably avoid it entirely. Dosbox with the PC port and some of the fanmade graphics tweaks to ease the CGA graphics pain are available if you must play it.

Ultima 3: Probably THE Ultima from a historical perspective. Its the one that with Wizardry got the Japanese developers to begin their own RPGs. Except Ultima and Wizardry were classy and such. First party Ultima, and dungeon mapping really matters. Overall the game is basically a large grind with less than 2 hours of actual questing if you know what to do. (Sort of like U1, except killing things is basically most of U1's quests.) If you like making RPG parties and killing beasties its still kinda fun. Best versions are the NES version on an emulator, or the Macintosh shareware edition from Lairware. I'm responsible for the NES tileset being implemented onto it.

Ultima 4: The most popular and well respected of the Ultimas. Its a mixture of exploration, monster bashing, and clever text adventure like conversations with a touch of puzzle solving. Its like 3 only much bigger, a far more involved set of quest objectives, and you get a massive 8 player party in most versions.
Best version to play would be XU4, a fan made patch to run the sucker in most major OSes. Includes improved graphics, the music, and most of the bells & whistles. The NES version isn't bad if you are a graphics whore and hate typing words to NPCs. But you drop down to a smaller party.

Ultima 5: My personal favorite. Much deeper story. Much better and realistic world. Vastly improved combat system. Best art design on the C64 for a tile based RPG. If you wish to play one classic Ultima this is it. Best version: U5 on Dosbox or the C64 version which has less colorful graphics but in my mind prettier ones if you like your primitive 8 bit computer RPG sprites. Japan got some amazing ports on their computer systems though.

Ultima 6: First non Apple 2 designed Ultima. Its mostly a primitive version of what U7 would be. Its evolved from U5, but its got a weird mix of more modern and old school design decisions. Best version is probably the PC version on Dosbox.

Ultima 7: The game most modern discussions of Ultima consider to be the greatest of the series. I found it to be technically amazing, yet from a gameplay standpoint it kind of bites. It turns combat into a sucky unfun RTS thing, managing your party inventory is even more annoying than it was in 6, and you have to deal with feeding your bad AI band as they whine at you every 5 minutes fpr more chow. Best version is probably running it through the fan made Exult program.

Ultima 7 Part 2: Its more U7 with a few interface tweaks and slightly improved graphics. I barely played this one, mostly as Computer Gaming World's Scorpia tore its' story a goatce sized asshole and it made me suspicious of it. But as I am an Ultima whore I bought it. I think you can play it through Exult if you want.

Ultima 8: Its like U7 but you only have your single character to control and its more arcade like. Story largely seems to be a continuation of U7 Part 2 in that it mostly sucks and isn't properly Ultimaish. Best version is Landstalker on the Sega Genesis or Wii VC. Seriously. U8 isn't really worth it. Landstalker does the same basic isometric action RPG thing as U8 except its light years better. I guess you could run U8 with Dosbox if you are a masochist. I am not sure the fanmade sourceport ever made it out.

Ultima 9: Take the continuing sucky story of the EA owned era Ultimas and turn it into a bad 3D Zelda game. Like U7 to this game's date it was technically amazing, but gameplay and story were pretty horrid.
Best version is your favorite 3d Zelda game. Its the same thing only better and its not barfing over what was the KING of electronic RPGs. Tripe like this is why Final Fantasy is the RPG most gamers talk about now. (Except for the bitter RPGcodex/NMA types who talk more about Fallout 3 because they can't stop sperging over it, especially since its popular and well liked.) Last time I checked it still ran on XP if you really must play it. Just read a Let's Play and avoid it. Its too heartbreaking.

Non main bit Ultimas:

Savage Empire and Martian Dreams: These games use the U6 engine for a pulp Lost World and Victorian Trip to Mars tale. If you like U6 but wanted dinosaurs or that Smashing Pumpkins video meeting an RPG they are worth it. Sadly I never got Savage Empire as by the time I had a PC instead of a C64 I could only find it on 5 1/4 floppies and my Tandy 486 25 was 3.5 only. Dosbox is your friend here.

Underworlds: Like proto Elder Scrolls games, except the worlds are WAAAY smaller and manageable. If you liked the first 2 Elder Scrolls titles (Arena and Daggerfall) the Underworlds are their more fun daddies. Again, use Dosbox.

The Game Boy games: Only played the second one (which had a SNES version) a loong time ago. Its basically an action puzzler using the Ultima tileset and a rough Ultima theme. You can safely pass. Or use your Super Gameboy SNES thingie, a Gameboy emulator, or your Gameboy original compatible portable Nintendo game player. Hint: Itll say Gameboy on it most likely.

Mines of Mt Drash: A Vic 20 only game that actual copies sell for absurdly high amounts. Its some sort of action adventure only apparently sucky. Use a Vic 20 emulator if you need to play it.

Ultima Online: Its like Ultima 7 only with prettier/uglier graphics depending on your thoughts on SVGA vs VGA and the associated palettes. Its much more playable than U7 outside of it being a filthy MMORPG. Many people say it was better when it was Grand Theft Britannia but once they actually put in a player killer switch it really became fun. Best actual roleplaying I have done in an online game. I still want someone to hack this into an Ultima 7-9 total conversion and fix the story beats plus put in a decent party AI.

A final thought on running the Ultimas: Most Ultimas were on multiple machines, some of which were only in Japan. Even though they were English made games. Many groups have been working on either remakes, source ports, or modern OS executables for years. Most of these projects never make it out sadly. But its a testament to how GOOD and important the Ultima series was that so many people even try.

And just so I can show it off, my small shrine to Ultima:

My Shrine to Ultima

We see the Ultima 9 Dragon edition which has all the previous Ultimas on a bonus disk plus documentation. Its in a stupidly large box, but nice to put FAQs and printed out maps from online in there. The original edition of Ultima Online, with the 2nd Age upgrade disk and manual in it. The Ultima Online that caused great wailing and gnashing of teeth (Renaissance) as no longer could bored teenagers and anti social basement dwellers happily PK anyone trying to play an Ultima online RPG like it was an actual Ultima. Ultima 4 Amiga version which I got for 5 bucks and happily ripped open just to luxuriate in the glories of the awesome packaging and goodies that used to be in every Ultima. We also see Ultima Underworld 2, 2 versions of Ultima 8, the NES version of Ultima 3, a collection of hintbooks including the wonderfully sublime Official Book of Ultima. Some of the other EA Classics Gold Box releases are hiding in the Dragon Edition U9 box. Because its large. (Note I do not keep the EA PSP collection with a bastardized U7 on it near the shrine. It would taint it.)

Wow. That was fun! I wished I could better put into words what Ultima means to me. Its not about graphics, its not really about nostalgia as my life at the time was mighty awful. But there is some spark, some soul to this series so few games have. It captured my imagination. If people wonder why I hate Electronic Arts, its how their hand is behind the fall of this once legendary series, and their continued disrespect of it since.

But I still remember Ultima. With luck this will cause some of you readers out there to look into the series and maybe fall in love with it yourself.

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