Ultima 3: Thirty Years Ago

I was reminded via Twitter (thanks, Soryu Dragon!) that Ultima 3: Exodus was released thirty years ago as of August 23rd:

I’d lament being wholly unprepared for the occasion, but in truth there’s not much I could have done to prepare for it. Ultima 3 is from the deep and ancient part of Origin Systems’ history; no material pertaining to its development — concept art, design notes, etc. — are likely to exist outside of Richard Garriott’s personal archives, and/or possibly the University of Texas at Austin.

As such, perhaps a bit of historical commentary will suffice.

Ultima 3, in addition to being regarded as one of the most challenging Ultima titles, is arguably also the grandfather of modern RPGs, both Western and Japanese. True, it iterated on concepts introduced in Ultima 1 and Ultima 2, but it is arguably Ultima 3 that inspired such games as Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, which in turn are at the inspirational root of the Japanese RPG scene. Equally, Ultima 3 paved the way for Ultima 4, which is often hailed as the first game to introduce morality as a gameplay mechanic. (Moral dilemas are now pretty standard fare in modern RPGs.) Of course, it did so in part because of its challenging, violent nature, and in part because of the demonic imagery that adorned its cover. Both factors led to Richard Garriott receiving mail expressing concern (and worse) about the immoral nature of computer games, which in turn inspired him (in no small part) to create Ultima 4 and put its focus on the Eight Virtues and moral action.

The story of Ultima 3 was the conclusion of the tale which began in Ultima 1 and became, for the Stranger from Another World, personal in Ultima 2. Though Mondain and Minax had been vanquished in these first two games, they had brought forth into Sosaria a child of sorts…Exodus, who is ultimately revealed to be a machine of sorts. The Stranger from Another World must find the lost land of Ambrosia and explore the deepest reaches of Sosaria’s dungeons in order to receive certain markings — and find a set of magical cards, not to mention the mysterious Time Lord — in order to ultimately reach Exodus and defeat him.

And here too, Ultima 3 innovated somewhat, and gave us a taste of Richard Garriott’s tendency to bend the conventions of the RPG genre. Exodus did not end in a traditional “boss fight”, despite being one of the most action-packed Ultima games. Instead, players won the game and defeated Exodus by inserting a series of magical cards into the appropriate slots.

Finally, within Ultima lore, the story and legacy of Exodus inspired the story of the Forge of Virtue add-on for Ultima 7 (in which Exodus’ core makes a re-appearance), and also shaped the story of Serpent Isle (which portrays a world being torn apart by Imbalance, the result of Exodus capture (and use as a gate guard, in effect) of the Great Earth Serpent, the Serpent of Balance.

Ultima 3 also introduced several technical innovations to the RPG genre and the Ultima series. It featured animated sprites, introduced the idea of the party to Ultima lore, and required players to use elementary tactics in combat. Gone were the wifeframe dungeons of previous Ultima titles; Ultima 3 allowed players to explore solid 3D dungeons, and monsters in dungeons didn’t scale to player level. Finally, this was the first Ultima to be deliberate in its choice of screen layout; previous Ultimas had tended to fall back on particular hardware characteristics of the Apple II platform for this.

In short, Ultima 3 is not only thirty years old as of a few days ago, but in fact is the beginning of the last thirty years of computer RPG development history.

And it was the first Ultima title published by Origin Systems. Respect!

3 Responses

  1. Eric Kinkead says:

    Fantastic and respectful tribute to, what I think, is the most important CRPG in History. For me this game triggered the renaissance of Western RPGs. I think most JRPG culture should really study and understand western RPGs more and realize that is where their roots are from.

    I still have my childhood Ultima 3 clue notebook… Signed by Richard Garriott himself!!

    if anyone wants to check it out can do so here…

    • WtF Dragon WtF Dragon says:

      That’s awesome!

      And thanks for the compliment. I won’t spoil the mood by commenting on how much (or how little) time I had to write this in. 🙂

    • Sanctimonia Sanctimonia says:

      After heavily playing ff1 and dq1 on the NES, Ultima Exodus for the system was a revelation. It was obvious that Garriott’s graphical style had been adopted, but the Japanese games didn’t have the same elements of experimental gameplay or hints of emergence. I quit messing around with the NES RPGs and got Ultima IV for IBM/PC (16-color EGA at 320×200 or some such). Ultima V amped up the graphics and VI did the same but with added physical simulation. VII did it again, and that was the last one I played other than UU1.

      I’m excited about the ultimate RPG (SoTA/Shroud). The real danger of straddling the lines of singleplayer and multiplayer is testing “emergent” story against “scripted” story. What happens if one wins at the expense of the other?