Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Happy Birthday Ultima IV

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 16, 2015

Ultima_IV_boxUltima IV was released 30 years ago today.

How can it be that old? How can *I* be this old?

I didn’t finish it the first time I played it (on my Commodore 64). I had, you know, stuff.

Eight years later, I was in college and injured. I spent the next day (Friday) laid up and unable to walk very well. I’d been playing Ultima 7: The Black Gate, and since I wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to focus the day on finishing the game. I did, by mid-afternoon. I guess I was closer to the end than I thought. It was kind of a magical experience. When it was over, the Black Gate destroyed and the Guardian blocked from entering Britannia, I didn’t know what to do with the rest of the evening, and I seriously wanted to keep playing.

A neighbor had recently picked up the “Complete” Ultima collection for DOS, and so I called him up and asked to borrow one of the disks. I chose Ultima IV. I had forgotten a lot about it. For the first hour, I was really struggling to deal with the primitive graphics and interface (and today, the same happens when I play Ultima VII!). In another hour, I was doing okay, and starting to get into the swing of things. By the third hour, I was lost.

If you play it today (free on GOG.COM!), you’ll note that the much-discussed virtue system is really pretty straightforward and mechanical, particularly once you figure things out. You can even visit Hawkwind and see how you are progressing in your progress to embody the virtues.  While the game doesn’t spell out the exact details of how many points you move up or down, it’s reasonably transparent, and really kind of expects you to game it. Like the choices at the beginning of this and the next two games in the series, it’s not about attaining perfection, but achieving a personal balance.

What it did was add another dimension to the RPG, one that was on equal footing with the traditional power-gaining race. This was a huge step, and while other games have turned this into much more detailed and complex alignment or faction systems, the fact that it was a primary game mechanic changed the feel of the game in a way rarely experienced in today’s games. In my view, it still holds up today, although you do need a bit of patience for such a retro-game.

I love Ultima IV, but man. Thirty years? Really? Sheesh!

Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Xian said,

    Even to this day, when someone asks me what is my favorite game, Ultima IV is my stock answer. Ultima III was my first RPG, and like you, I played it while laid up, in my case recovering from surgery. I loved it so I got Ultima IV as soon as it was available. The differences were amazing to me. Real conversations such as asking someone their name or job instead of the cryptic messages from the earlier Ultimas, a larger party, and of course the morality system.

    One memory I have is when I made a typo buying from the blind reagent seller and received the message “You have lost an eighth!” I had accidentally underpaid and cheated her, so I lost my honesty virtue. This was before the days where you could just instantly look up an answer on how to remedy a problem, so I started buying more reagents from her, making sure to OVERPAY. Eventually I got my honesty back, but that memory stuck with me. In later games, I was always hesitant to steal, even in games where you could take everything that wasn’t nailed down right in front of the owner with no penalty.

  • Xian said,

    Oh, one other thing. I played it on an Atari ST and one day I got a surprise that really amazed me. I had my Yamaha DX7 keyboard hooked up, I had been playing some music right before I started gaming and still had the keyboard and amp turned on. I loaded up the game and music started coming out of my amp, WAY better sounding than the Atari ST speaker (sound was always a week component on the ST). I mean exponentially better sound. I didn’t hear anything that came even close until a decade later with a Soundblaster AWE. The Atari ST had built in MIDI ports, and Ultima IV was one of the very first games that allowed you to output the sound to an external MIDI device. Mind blown!

  • lakerz said,

    Ultima IV was I think my first RPG as well. I don’t believe I ever finished it though. I did however beat Ultima V which I thought was epic. Then came Ultima VI which was a whole different style but still fun. I could never quite get into any Ultima after those. I did like the Ultima Underworld games as well, those rudimentary pseudo 3D worlds were fun to explore.

  • OttoMoBiehl said,

    I loved Ultima IV but leave it to Ultima V to subvert everything that happened in U4. Both games are classic in my book…as well as U7.