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The Ultimate Ultima

For the second time, I have given The Spoony Experiment's Ultima retrospective video series a view, an exercise in self-confirmation bias considering I was there when these games were first out too, so he was basically just preaching to the choir.
Watching it again, an old opinion felt even more certain: Ultima V was the highest point of the series.  Yes, that is definitely just my opinion, however, there are some verifiable points supporting it: 

Point 1: in Ultima V, the graphics and sound effects were still simple enough that the players' imagination needed to do the greater lifting

This was the fifth (or sixth if you count Akalabeth) such game Richard Garriott made along those lines, so that many generations of design thought went into each element.  Aside from the combat and magic sounds, the main sound effects I remember from Ultima V were the poignant tick-tocking of grandfather clocks, the peaceful trickling of fountains, and the crackling of the campfire... all presented by hardware capable of little more than beeps and noise!  As the series progressed from here, suspension of disbelief become less necessary, and the content producers over-reached further and further.
Oh come on, there could not possibly have been that much lore in the manu-
WAIT, nevermind, it's written right there in big, bold letters!
This aspect partially extends to the lore.  Each Ultima game leading up to, and including, Ultima V came with some great supplements, mostly manuals and maps.  These primarily were around to make up for the hardware, as it was difficult for early home computers to present this much information, but the vital information within the supplements also extended into copy-protection somewhat: if you did not read the notes to Stones from the manual, you were not completing this game.  There was still some lore supplements in the later Ultimas, but it tapered off a bit, more inheriting a legacy than anything else.

If it were not for these supplements, would there have been any impetus to develop some of the really cool lore in the Ultima series, such as a runic alphabet, a set of magic words, and its unique bestiary?  Maybe, but it would have been a heck of a lot harder to communicate to the players.

Point 2: Ultima V was the last game in the series that put you in complete control of your characters, especially in combat.  

I may have mentioned before how, as a gamer, I like to play the game, meaning player involvement is key.  You really cannot get a better level of involvement than straight up turn-based combat of your entire party because it gives you all the time you need to make the exact choice you want to make. 
Ultima V's combat, in glorious 320x200 full resolution.
  • Ultima VI still had the option to control each character individually.  However, the removal of a dedicated combat map made the battlefield large enough that manual movement was overly protracted.  Most players would likely turn on the new automatic combat mode for all but one or two characters. 
  • The combat in Ultima VII was a highly amusing spectacle, medieval violence everywhere, but it was unfortunately automatic.  You would set a basic combat behavior on each character, equip everybody before battle, and maybe choose to cast spells during battle.  Aside from that, from beginning to end of a fight, you just sat back and waited for the bodies to hit the floor.
  • One could argue that you were completely in control of the combat in Ultima VIII and Ultima IX, but they had changed to become full-fledged action games, the turn-based roleplaying aspect was gone, and you only had one character in the party now.
By simple logical progression, this was core to the degradation of the series to me.  Practically by definition, player involvement means influence in the main aspects of resolving the conflicts in the game.  Combat was pretty much the main method of conflict resolution.  As the series progressed, the player's influence in combat decreased.  Thus, to this gamer, the overall gameplay quality of the Ultima series just got worse and worse after Ultima V.

Point 3: Ultima V was the last game with a fairly clear message of moral superiority. 

Sure, it's foolish to expect absolute good in reality, life is a matter of shades of grey, everyone but the insane does what they do because they think they're doing the right thing.  Fair enough.  However, as of Ultima IV, this series had become a fantasy scenario about being the ultimate good guy! 
You. Freaking. Monster.
  • In the Ultimas I-III, things were pretty rudimentary, it was just you on a protracted quest to defeat some ultimate evil of such overwhelming gravity that the ends could easily justify the means. 
  • In Ultima IV, there was no ultimate evil, eight virtues were introduced, and your only goal was to become a champion of them all... pretty far out and innovative. 
  • In Ultima V, the quest to defeat ultimate evils came back, but the real job was to rescue the ruler of the land who was kidnapped, and the virtues had been turned against themselves by a corrupt replacement ruler.  It was your job to set all this right again, no moral ambiguity here.
After that, the shades of grey began to obfuscate the message. 
  • In Ultima VI, it is determined those dangerous demons from the previous games in the series were actually part of a race of innocent, sentient gargoyles, doomed by your callous actions.  Whoops!
  • In Ultima VII, the virtues were relaxed considerably, and you end up doing quite a bit of lying, stealing, and even sleeping around. You were about as much a moral paragon as your average modern politician.
  • In Ultima VIII, you were deliberately forced to abandon all the virtues, dooming the tentative order that had been reestablished on an already doomed world in order to escape it. (At this point, I think most fans probably jumped ship, not just because of the morality aspect but because the gameplay was an utter abandonment of the core appeal of the previous games.)
  • In Ultima IX, they reached for the higher morality of the earlier games, but the whole thing was crushed under such release pressures that they not only failed to restore that, they made things considerably worse with their blundering!  Spoony had a glorious conniption over it but, honestly, it's not worth it: Ultima VIII already burst the bubble of morality for this series, and Ultima IX was delayed so long (five and a half years since Ultima VIII) that was a miracle that half of its carcass had crawled across the finish line.
I believe the idea of rejecting the morals of Ultima IV was to be edgier and produce more interesting stories.  However, it ended up alienting the core fanbase who expected to be the good guy.  A large part of this was because they ended up botching the implementation, particularly when Electronic Arts' iron fist was clenching around Origin in Ultima VIII and beyond, resulting in their shooting for edgy overruning into full-on evil or misguided because you can not expect burnt out developers in a pressure cooker situation to manage better fidelity than that.

Point 4: Ultima V was the last game to feature hybrid game views.

Since the beginning of the series, Ultima had at least two central modes of gameplay: the top-down map view for traveling the land and combat, and then a first person view that showed up when you were wandering in the dungeon.

Perhaps the main purpose of this first-person view was to make it harder to navigate dungeons.  This was a hostile underworld, so the only map you get is one that you cobble together yourself on graph paper, a Wizardry tradition.  However, this first-person view was also a cool feature because this was a precursor to true 3D graphics.
If the hybrid game views were such a cool feature, why did the rest of the series abandon this feature?  Well, 3D graphics were now being done far better in other mainstream games (including Ultima Underworld (1992)) and navigating those dungeons was pretty frustrating, so maybe they were right to leave the first-person view on the cutting room floor in order to focus on the core gameplay in the isometric view.  However, as long as I am taking count of a number of things Ultima V had that the later games in the series did not, possessing multiple game perspectives definitely counts.

Ultimately, games after Ultima V became something completely different.

I am going to throw them a bone here: yes, the later games in the series did not have the above points, but they did have a number of cool points of their own:
  • Ultima VI (and its spinoffs) were essentially the last traditional Ultima game, most of the gameplay mechanic were still in tact, even though the multimedia upgrade ended up compromising the suspension of disbelief.  
  • The story of Ultima VII, and its half-sequel in Serpent Isle, was really cool and riveting at the time, thanks in part to what they were able to do with scripted in-game scenes.   Plus, the new aesthetic really nailed great sense of life in the dark ages (though the corpse count was ridiculous, there were about ten times more recently deceased than there were the living, purely for decorating your average dungeon).
  • Even Ultima VIII and Ultima IX had some really cool moments and innovations, even though they are generally panned as a step down for the series considering they utterly abandoned nearly everything that made it great.  Yet, for some unknown reason, I ended up finishing both of these games twice.
Further, each game inherited the dialogue system that began in Ultima IV and proved to be a powerful launching system for quality narratives and a sense of open-world exploration: meet people, ask them their "name" and "job," and go from there.  However, I still think Ultima V's quality of gameplay has yet to be beaten for the reasons outlined above, and I am honestly tempted to turn my would-be indy game development talents towards picking up where Ultima V left off...
... but, as it turns out, I have been beaten to the punch somewhat.  Mulling it over, I realized that this is basically what Spiderweb Software has been doing for years.  The geography is laid out similarly, with towns, dungeons and other locations accessible from an overmap.  You manage an entire party for whom you have complete, turn-based control over during combat, although the combat takes place on the main map and has been upgraded to action point system.  There are plenty of NPCs to talk to but, instead of prodding them for name and job, there is simply a numerical list of reasonable responses to drive the dialogue tree with.  There are as many similarities to early Ultima games here as there are differences.

I speculate that the Ultima series has gone in another big direction as well, and that would be what you see in the Final Fantasy series.  That sounds like a bit of a reach, but look at it this way: those early Final Fantasy games were basically every bit the tile-based RPGs that the earlier Ultimas were, and the main difference was that the turn-based combat got rid of the map.  (That combat system was nothing new, I particularly liked the implementation in the Commodore 64 version of Phantasie.) The first Final Fantasy game released in Japan in 1987, a little over two years after Ultima IV, although the original talent behind Square had worked on other games before that, and they were probably trying to capture some of the best-selling success of 1986's Dragon Quest.  Some way or another, I think that there was definitely some Ultima influence behind what made Final Fantasy.
The Final Fantasy XII gambit screen: evolution or devolution?
However, as the Final Fantasy series progressed, they demonstrated some radical innovation of their own.  Final Fantasy IV (1991, relabeled as Final Fantasy II in the US) introduced scripted cutscenes to great effect, something the Ultima series did not make central to gameplay until Ultima VII (1992).  While Ultima VII threw out turn-based combat, the Final Fantasy series managed to keep that in tact until Final Fantasy XI (2002) or perhaps Final Fantasy XII (2006) if you need a non-MMORPG example.  (Modern-day Final Fantasy games are such weird pastiches of otaku culture that I am not entirely sure the turn-based mechanic is gone or just reimagined.)  While Ultima IX (1999) crashed and burned when making the transition to 3D, Final Fantasy VII (1997) went 3D with aplomb and today Square Enix is renowned as having some of the finest 3D talent on the planet.

The point I am making here is that the Final Fantasy series proves the Ultima model could have evolved into the 21st century just fine (it was most probably Electronic Arts mismanagement that killed the series) but I am not saying that Origin necessarily needed to go in the same direction that Square Enix did.
Thinking back, I can think of many directions that the Ultima series went via other western developers.
  • Excelsior: Phase One was based heavily on the mid-to-earlier Ultima series and established that the formula of game works well and is reproducible.  Lacking instanced combat nor simulating a party, it reminds me more of Questron (1984) a game so similar to the early Ultima series that Garriot settled out of court for licensing.
  • Mindcraft Software's Magic Candle series was a glorious departure.  Made by talent from the same era in gaming as Richard Gariott (it has roots in Rings of Zilfin, 1986) each installment of the Magic Candle was a highly ambitious undertaking.  They often told dense, epic stories and included cool features such as NPCs on event schedules and the ability leave some heroes behind in towns for tasks like apprenticeships and earning money by working in shops.
  • Then there's the likes of Realms of Arkania (1992) which was navigated in first person, but combat was instanced on a map and executed in turns.  It starts to become a bit of a reach saying just how much it owes to the Ultima series given that there would seem to be more Bards Tale here, but I think it is in the genome somewhere, and this is one direction that series could have gone. 
The list goes on and on, and this introduces some cognitive dissonance to my assertion that Ultima V was the best in the series: how can I say for certain that the approaches taken by any game to follow Ultima V was objectively better or worse?  For that matter, can I say that I would not have made some of those same decisions were it up to me?   After all, as hardware has certainly moved forward, and much of what games did was move forward with it, and Ultima V was seemingly left behind.

Yet, in recent times, the renaissance of 3D coming to gaming is looking more and more like a gimmick, and 2D games would seem to be making a resurgence.  If so, maybe Ultima V really was the better design, perhaps in need of some modernization, but the core fundamentals have yet to be beaten.


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