Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

I Wanna Hold Your Hand: Thoughts on Ultima 7

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 3, 2014

u7convo1Since it’s now for sale again after nearly twenty years via GOG.COM, when a friend told me he had never played Ultima 7, I made a gift of it to him. I was kinda excited to hear what he thought of it, but I was not immune to one noteworthy fear: What if he didn’t like it? Ultima 7 was different even in its day, in an era when RPGs were a bit different from how they are today.

He promises to do a little write-up in the future, but the bottom line is: He got lost, bored, and gave up. While I don’t believe he’s a fan of extensive hand-holding in games, he really felt like he could use a lot more direction in U7. And to be fair – even back in 1992, when I first played, I hit a point where I got lost and bored and put the game on the shelf for a few weeks. Then I came back with a vengeance, finished the rest of the game within a couple of days (including one full where I was stuck at home with a wrenched knee – yes, queue the old Skyrim meme jokes…)  It was a mesmerizing, wonderful experience – so much so that only hours after finishing the game, I re-installed Ultima 4 and started playing it just so I could spend more time in Britannia.

This saddens me on a number of levels, because U7 still remains not just a milestone, but still an old favorite. I haven’t played it start-to-finish in a long time, but every time I do jump in – to grab a screenshot or just as a reminder – I find myself sucked in, talking to characters I only vaguely remember (if at all). It’s impossible to completely go back, as after a couple of sentences of dialog I find myself remembering a little bit more about the entire game and what’s supposed to happen next. So I can’t quite join my friend in giving it a clean-slate playthrough.

I think that the interface is a bit cumbersome by today’s standard (of course), but not quite so bad as its half-siblings of the era, the Ultima Underworld games. The mouse was still kind of a novel device in the games industry back in the day, only barely risen from the status of an optional peripheral. And of course, the screen  resolution is tiny. But – after a little bit of practice – the game still seems to be amazingly playable and enjoyable.

What I want to share is really that feeling of playing it the first time, what it meant waaay back in the day. Ultima 7 was in many ways the pinnacle of Origin’s motto, “We create worlds,” although the trophy might belong to its immediate predecessor. It’s debatable which was a more complete “world simulation,” but it was not only a pretty impressive feat even today. But it was not a sandbox game. It was not even all that “open.” It presented you with an illusion of openness, and didn’t have too many artificial limits to your ability to roam around and explore, but the storyline progressed somewhat linearly. You weren’t led by your hand (or by your nose), but you still had to follow the clues to follow the story. You felt a little bit like a detective – which seems appropriate, as part 1 opens with a murder mystery.

Let’s say we were to remake Ultima 7 today – I don’t care if it’s 2D or 3D, but let’s say it largely runs from exactly the same scripts that ran the game in 1992. Let’s say we give it a new, more modern interface, with cleaner pathfinding and smoother movement and everything. Now let’s create two variants: One with the addition of modern conveniences like an automap / minimap (maybe with fast travel), a quest journal, and even a path or pointer to where the next “stage” of the quest can be found; and one without. Here’s my question – how would the two different versions of Ultima 7 feel? Would they really feel like different games? Would one be superior to the other?

My feeling is that the one with the hand-holding would definitely feel different, would probably be more popular, but perhaps less satisfying of a gaming experience. The reason is that the Ultima games – and particularly Ultima 7 – tended to have a little bit of the “adventure game” philosophy built into them… more so than modern games, at least. As in adventure games, figuring out what to do next is half the fun. But – admittedly – it’s also the main source of players getting stuck, lost, and giving up on the game.

Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    That last bit – the adventure game philosophy – is what I really like about the series.

    That blend of RPG and adventure game can work really well (as Quest for Glory also shows), and for me U7 gets this spot-on.

    You could almost consider it to be more of an adventure game than an RPG really, considering how much of the game is reliant on speaking to characters and using items on things.

  • McTeddy said,

    To be entirely honest… I think U7 has one worse issue than the getting lost.

    The combat system.

    With many of the earlier Ultima’s I’d get lost… but I enjoyed the wandering. I could battle monsters, gain money and XP, rob blind shopkeepers and feel adventurous.

    While the story in U7 is good and I enjoyed talking to people… I didn’t enjoy “the game”. Most of the gameplay felt like it was on autopilot… without the navigation systems of course.

    U7 absolutely had a great world and an interesting way of doing things. But I’ve never been able to enjoy the game itself.

    I did just remember though… U7 was one of the first computer games I ever owned. Part of an Best of EA pack my parents got me the day we got our first PC.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I wish I could disagree with you on the combat system – but you are right. I got to the point I could mostly manage it, but it really was pretty messy. I loved it in spite of the combat, not because of it.

  • Baudolino05 said,

    @McTeddy: you are implying that combat = gameplay in RPGs, which isn’t necessarily true, especially in an RPG like Ultima VII. Exploration and quest solving are as much as important in my book, and Ultima VII is hands down the best episode of its saga in both these areas (not counting Ultima Ulderworld). Yeah, the combat system sucks, but still the game has lot to offer in terms of gameplay.

  • Califer said,

    Okay, I think I finally have time for that U7 write up for Jay. Let me just check his blog to … oh. Hmm. This is awkward.

  • Xian said,

    Ultima VII fell flat for me. It was such a radical departure from the previous games. The combat felt like it was on autopilot with the interactivity during a battle that you had before sadly missing. I enjoyed the murder mystery and finding out about the Fellowship, but it felt more like playing an adventure game than an Ultima RPG in some ways.

  • AngeloB said,

    Ultima VII was my first open world sandbox RPG I’ve played, almost 20 years ago. When I could get the autoexec and config.sys files configured just right so that I had enough EMS memory to play it, it was a joy. The game had life. NPCs that acted like people, a story that I unfolded, not just trailed through.
    This article made me want to try it again, as I never played Serpent Isle. What would you recommend me? GOG version or to use Exult?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Exult needs the original version to work, so unless you still have the one from 20 years ago laying around, I’d recommend the GOG.COM version regardless. It includes both part 1 and part 2, and all the expansions. Then, if you choose, you can run it through Exult instead. I’m not sure about the state of Exult right now, to be fair. The last time I tried it, it seemed pretty stable, but there were still warnings. Still, I dunno if it’s significantly more buggy than the official Origin releases 20 years ago… 🙂