Ultima 7: The Black Gate Was Released 25 Years Ago
I missed posting about this on the actual date of the anniversary — which was April 16th — because I was observing Easter Sunday with my wife’s family that day. However, it’s true: as of this week, Ultima 7: The Black Gate, is a quarter-century old; the game was first released on April 16th, 1992.
It’s kind of a shame that this rather significant anniversary hasn’t — that I’ve noticed — been picked up on by many outlets of the gaming press, because Ultima 7 was (as I’m sure the audience here needs no explanation of) a groundbreaking game that, really, still serves as a useful standard against which to evaluate other, more modern RPGs (especially now that open world is back en vogue).
Ultima 7 was a step change compared to its immediate predecessor in the Ultima series. Gone, for example, was the windowed interface that had defined Ultima games to date. In its place, the entire monitor was filled with a view of the world around the Avatar. Gone, too, was the primacy of the keyboard for controlling the Avatar and interacting with the world; the mouse took priority in Ultima 7, and almost everything in the game could be accomplished using it. The keyword-driven conversation system, which had already seen some needed refinements in Ultima 6, was almost completely reinvented in Ultima 7, taking full advantage of the game’s mouse support. And the quality of the writing was also noticeably better, no doubt a result of Raymond Benson’s careful stewardship of the writing team.
Furthermore, Ultima 7 offered the first true open world experience in the Ultima series. Ultima 6 had come close, but had been forced to use separate maps to store its dungeons. Ultima 7 did away with this; dungeons, wilderness, and towns alike were all on a single, massive map, and Britannia could be explored in a truly seamless fashion. (Arguably, the size and quality of the dungeons suffered a bit because of this, but it was still a very novel experience to be able to venture into caves in the mountains without even the momentary pause that attended map switching in Ultima 6.)
And, of course, we would be remiss to discuss Ultima 7 and miss mention of the high degree of interactivity that also characterized the world of Britannia that it presented to players. Interactivity was not a new thing to Ultima when Ultima 7 was released; Ultima 5 had experimented with it, and Ultima 6 had expanded upon that idea mightily. But Ultima 7 was nevertheless a major leap forward even from its predecessor’s achievements in this regard; Ultima fans still lovingly speak of baking bread to this day based almost entirely on the experience of doing so in Ultima 7.
Perhaps the reason why so few media outlets noted the anniversary of the game is because, for all its achievements, Ultima 7 has very few modern successors. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t a plethora of games that claim to draw inspiration from the Ultima series; there are. But the unique combination of features which made Ultima 7 special has proven to be a very rare one; few games in the intervening quarter century have managed to recapture all of the same experience. Larian Studios attempted it, for a while, with Divinity: Original Sin, but even they fell short of the mark. And these days, the handful of Infinity Engine games that came out years later seem to command greater overall influence and significance in the memory of RPG gamers.
Still, Ultima 7 was a masterpiece, and the RPG segment of the gaming industry is poorer that more games do not, even in this day and age, offer the experiences to players that Ultima 7 did.