About the Ultima Series
The games comprising the Ultima series were, between 1981 and 1999, the defining computer role-playing games. Both the Western and Eastern RPG “schools”, if that is an appropriate term for them, were heavily inspired by the Ultima games, and still feature numerous gameplay and interface conventions that one Ultima or another introduced.
The Ultima series arguably began with the game that was later retroactively (and not entirely officially) termed Ultima 0: Richard Garriott’s “first” game, Akalabeth. In reality, Akalabeth was not Garriott’s first developed game; it was the first game he’d made that he bothered to release. Much of the code of Akalabeth was later incorporated into the first official Ultima game, Ultima 1 (which, at its release, was simply entitled Ultima). First released in 1981, and re-released several times thereafter (and then on several platforms), Ultima 1: The First Age of Darkness told the story of the Stranger from Another World, who was summoned to the land of Sosaria by Lord British to confront and defeat the evil and immortal wizard Mondain.
Ultima 2: Revenge of the Enchantress was released in 1982. While a larger game than its predecessor, it featured marginal, if any, graphical improvements over Ultima 1. It was re-released several times after its initial publication (1983, 1985, and — most notably — 1989) on a wide range of platforms. The game incorporated a lot of science fiction elements into its story, and stands out as the entry in the Ultima series that is least in tune with the overall fantasy-oriented tone of the games.
Ultima 2 picked up where Ultima 1 left off. Following Mondain’s death, his protoge and (young!) lover Minax vowed revenge, and launched an assault on the Stranger from Another World’s homeworld: Earth. Her attack ushered in a nuclear holocaust there, but also had the side effect of opening numerous doorways through time and space. The game took place in several different eras and epochs of time, from prehistoric Earth to a devastated future. At the game’s end, armed with Enilno the Quicksword, the player traveled through time to Minax’s castle to do battle with her, putting an end to her reign of terror once and for all.
Ultima 3: Exodus was released in 1983, and its graphics were virtually identical (in the first release, at least) to those of Ultima 2. However, the game was subsequently re-released on several platforms (including the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987), and many of these re-released versions featured upgraded music and graphics.
Ultima 3 picked up where Ultima 2 left off. Following Minax’s death, the child/spawn of Mondain and Minax surfaced on the Isle of Fire to lay siege to Sosaria and claim revenge for the death of its parents. The Stranger from Another World returned to battle legions of monsters, and even the Great Earth Serpent, in a desperate effort to defeat the “neither human, nor machine” creature known as Exodus. Players of the Ultima series returned to the Isle of Fire in an expansion pack for Ultima 7, and were re-introduced to the Great Earth Serpent in Serpent Isle.
Ultima 4: The Quest of the Avatar was released in 1985, and its graphics showed a marked improvement over those of the previous Ultimas. This was the first Ultima, from a strictly canonical perspective, that featured the recurring character known as the Avatar. Whether the Avatar was the Stranger from Another World of previous titles is the subject of some debate, and Ultima documentation at various times has given both “yes” and “no” answers to the question.
In Ultima 4, the player worked to master the Eight Virtues and achieve the title of “Avatar”. Along the way, he or she was required to journey into the heart of the Underworld and discover the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.
This Ultima was produced by Richard Garriott in part as a response to complaints about the violent tone of the first three games, and in part because of his desire to take RPG gaming in a different direction, eschewing the hack-and-slash roots of the genre in favour of a deeper story about personal discovery and enrichment. It is also his personal favourite title in the series, and he successfully lobbied to have it released online for free.
Ultima 5: Warriors of Destiny was released in 1988, and again featured an improvement over the graphics of its predecessors. This was also the last Ultima to feature the truly classic overhead “dual-scale”, low-resolution world view. All Ultimas after this (until Ultima 9) would feature some variant of a monoscale isometric view.
Ultima 5 brought the Avatar back to a darker, corrupted Britannia, in which Lord British had been imprisoned and the land had been caught up in the oppressive rule of the treacherous Lord Blackthorn, himself a puppet of the evil Shadowlords — three beings of great evil spawned from the shards of the shattered Gem of Mondain.
Ultima 6: The False Prophet was released in 1990, and featured the first (and arguably the most vibrantly colourful) of the isometric Ultima engines, which eliminated the need for “dual-scale” world maps and allowed a greater level of immersion into the world of Britannia.
Ultima 6 told the story of the invasion of Britannia by the Gargoyles, and the racial prejudice that marred both sides of the conflict. Force of arms was not the way to resolve this conflict — a dispute over the ownership of the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom — and so the Avatar had to find a peaceful solution. Indeed, approaching the game with a combat-focused mindset can quickly become counter-productive; killing the wrong gargoyle characters can render the game unpassable.
Ultima 6 game also set a new technical standard for the Ultima series, in regard to both the size of the world and its interactivity. Many scenery objects in the game could be manipulated by the player, and/or interacted with. Additionally, NPCs in the game followed complex daily schedules, and even refused to do business with the Avatar and the party if approached outside of their normal working hours.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss was released in 1992, and marked the first foray of Ultima into the world of 3D adventure gaming. For its time, the game’s 3D engine was remarkably advanced, featuring sloped floors, angled walls, true 3D spaces, 3D object models (but sprite-based characters), and several features not found in other 3D games of its era.
Ultima Underworld has not always been considered a canon Ultima, for while it certainly fit into the overall storyline of the series (or, at least, did not overtly conflict with it in any major way), it added very little to the overall plot arc of the series.
Ultima Underworld saw the Avatar wrongly accused of kidnapping the daughter of the lord of a new city in Britannia, built upon the Isle of the Avatar near the entrance to the Great Stygian Abyss. The Avatar was forced to navigate the perils of the Abyss to find her. Along the way, the Avatar defeated the evil wizard Tyball, who was bent on bringing a great demon — the Slasher of Veils — into Britannia.
Worlds of Ultima: Savage Empire was released in 1990, and used the same engine as Ultima 6 (albeit with a different graphics tileset). It was not considered a canon Ultima, though characters from the series canon do appear in it. Savage Empire saw Lord British sending the Avatar to the land of Eodon, a prehistoric jungle empire, to defeat the Myrmidex queen and shatter a dark moonstone.
Worlds of Ultima: Martian Dreams was a strange, but novel, game that again featured the versatile isometric engine of Ultima 6 (again with a new graphics tileset, this one having a decidedly steampunk-like flair). Released in 1991, it was not considered a canon Ultima. In Martian Dreams, the Avatar wass sent to Mars to rescue a group of famous historical figures who had accidentally been sent there aboard a cannon-launched space-ship.
Ultima 7: The Black Gate was released in 1992, and featured a new isometric engine that vastly expanded both the functionality and detail of the world of Britannia. With this game and this engine, Ultima set a new — and still largely unrivaled — standard in world interactivity.
Ultima 7 saw the Avatar mysteriously summoned to Britannia after being contacted by an apparently malevolent being called the Guardian. Arriving, the Avatar found Britannia and its people giving up on the Virtues, and witnessed a new group called the Fellowship spreading its philosophy throughout the land. Only a few people knew or suspected the Fellowship’s true purpose — to assasinate the Avatar and summon the Guardian to enslave Britannia. The game was later given an expansion pack, entitled Forge of Virtue, which brought back the Isle of Fire as a setting and set the player on a short but deadly quest to banish the Dark Core of Exodus into the void.
Ultima Underworld 2: Labyrinth of Worlds was released in 1993, and featured an upgraded version of the 3D engine of the original Ultima Underworld. Underworld 2 has not always been considered a canon Ultima, although unlike its predecessor it does tell a somewhat important part of the Ultima story following Ultima 7, and leading up to Serpent Isle.
Underworld 2 saw the Avatar and the leaders of most of the towns of Britannia entombed inside the castle of Lord British by a blackrock dome conjured by the treacherous Guardian. The Avatar, exploring the castle’s depths, found a portal to another world, this one already subjugated by the Guardian and enslaved by his anti-Virtues, and from there journeyed between worlds in search of a way to break the massive dome.
Ultima 7 Part Two: Serpent Isle was released in 1993, and again used the isometric engine of Ultima 7 to continue the tale of the Avatar. This time, the game’s setting was not in familiar Britannia but the alien (and yet somehow familiar) Serpent Isle. (This land was an almost exact re-imagining of the Lands of Danger and Despair from Ultima 1.)
In Serpent Isle, the Avatar pursued Batlin, the fugitive leader of the Fellowship, to the titular continent, a land populated by people who had fled Lord British’s rule to preserve their cowardly and unjust ways, and who hated all things Britannian. Surrounded by this hostile culture, the Avatar nevertheless had to determine Batlin’s, and the Guardian’s, purpose in this strange land and bring the rogue Fellowship monk to justice.
Ultima 8: Pagan featured yet another isometric engine and, for the first time, advanced motion control features for the Avatar such as running and jumping. While this was certainly an advancement in many respects, it was also received with mixed feelings by fans of the series, and several jumping puzzles in particular caused more than a little frustration amongst players. What was truly novel about the game was the way it continually put the Avatar into morally dubious situations, in which the only way through was, at times, to commit acts that would be considered evil by most players.
Captured by the Guardian, the Avatar was, in Ultima 8, abandoned on a strange world called Pagan. Far away from his allies and familiar equipment, the Avatar struggled to understand an oppressive and foreign place long dominated by the Guardian. Ultimately, to escape, the Avatar was required to defeat the four Titans of the Elements and take on the mantle of the Titan of Ether. Even this course of action is morally suspect, however, as the game strongly implied that the world of Pagan (what was left of it, at any rate) was left badly damaged — if not destroyed — by the downfall of the Titans.
Ultima 9: Ascension was in many respects the most controversial Ultima title ever released. To some Ultima fans, it is not even an Ultima, except by name. To others, it is not seen as a canonical Ultima. To others, it is accepted as canon, although emotions concerning it range from enjoyment to disillusionment. To many, however, it is a fine — if somewhat unstable — game that ends the Ultima saga well.
What is generally beyond question is that the game was buggy and incomplete, with several plot aspects that contradicted previous Ultimas. Features that had been accepted as being “uniquely” Ultima — Avatar gender selection, companions — which had been notably absent in Ultima 8 were likewise absent in Ultima 9. An earlier version of the plot of the game, known colloquially as the “Bob White Plot”, was leaked some time after Ultima 9’s release, and in its wake many fans of the series were left feeling that the game they ultimately got could have been so much greater.
That said, the release version of the game did feature exceptional sound editing and a marvelous 3D world that showed Britannia in unparalleled detail. Its interface also set the standard (yet again) for RPGs, and its “over the shoulder” 3D perspective is now common — and, indeed, the standard — in modern RPGs and action games. The engine and graphics hold up reasonably well despite the game’s age, and the engine boasts many features that are strangely absent from 3D RPG engines today. Playing the game is, overall, an enjoyable — if somewhat click-heavy — experience, save in certain buggy areas of the world.
In Ultima 9, the Avatar is sent to Britannia by the spirit of Hawkwind, only to find the land invaded by the Guardian and on the verge of being torn asunder by eight massive columns. The Virtues have been corrupted by these columns, and the people of the land have become cold and cruel. Assisted by the mysterious pirate lady Raven, the Avatar must solve the mystery of the Columns and defeat the Guardian once and for all, even if it costs him his life.
Ultima 9’s development was paused for a time while Origin Systems worked on Ultima Online, and the planned sequel — Ultima X: Odyssey (UXO) — was in many respects intended to unify the multiplayer and single-player Ultima games into a single gaming experience. Sadly, Origin Systems was closed after the cancellation of UXO, leaving the single-player Ultima series finished at its ninth entry.
However, both during and since the time that the series dominated the RPG scene, Ultima fans kept the series’ name alive by producing numerous patches and utilities for the various games in the series, as well as remakes and parodies of some of the games. Some of those remakes — such as Ultima V: Lazarus and the Ultima 6 Project — have even garnered critical acclaim and recognition in the gaming industry press. Others are still in development to this day.
More recently, BioWare Mythic — who are the developers now in charge of Ultima Online — have begun teasing the possibility of a new Ultima title. Details about this new entry in the series are sparse at present, though it is known to be a browser-based title and is suspected of being related to Ultima 4 in some way. Mythic’s staff are Ultima’s champions within Electronic Arts, and it is thanks to their efforts (as well as the efforts of several dedicated Origin fans) that many of the Ultima games are available at Good Old Games.
The Ultima series is not as well-known today as it was during Origin’s heyday, but it has not disappeared yet, and may even experience a revival in the months and years to come. We can certainly hope!