Ever since my childhood, I have had exposure to the Ultima series; considered as one of the pioneers and major contributors, alongside Wizardry, to the role playing genre as we know it today. Though my exposure was primarily restricted to Ultima VII: The Black Gate and Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, the series has always piqued an interest in me due to how important it is to the genre as a whole. The “gaming historian” in me could not resist going back to the beginning of this series and seeing how it all began, despite knowing the archaic medium I was about to experience. And while I trudged through Akalabeth, Ultima II, and Ultima III (Ultima I being played around eight years prior to this), none of them stood out to me in the way Ultima IV did.
The story of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is simple; you, known at this time as the Stranger and the hero of the previous games, must go on a journey to become a sort of paragon, an Avatar, of noble ideals called Virtues, which encompass all that is good and just in the land of Britannia. In addition to this, you must find the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, a book of endless knowledge, to confirm your Avatarhood once you have meditated in all eight Virtues. That’s pretty much it.
An important thing to keep in mind is that this game was released during a time when there was a different standard for storytelling in video games, so most of what you get out of the game itself is minute while a majority of the story and lore are found in the supplemental materials included in the game’s box. Because of this, it’s hard for me to gauge the game’s story, as the presentation is far from impressive by today’s standards. Having played its predecessors before I delved into Ultima IV, I can definitely see improvements in the way that the game itself portrays the plot. Rather than the standard “go here, do this, slay the evil” formula, you are instead cleansing your character of negativity and wrongdoings, becoming a virtuous being to bring prosperity to your own life and, by extension, those around you.
As far as gameplay goes, Ultima IV is fairly simple. You start by creating your character, albeit in an interesting and largely unused fashion by answering questions of morality asked to you by a fortune teller, which determines your class and starting location. You travel the world, exploring cities and dungeons, fighting against monsters in a top-down, tile-based combat system, and you meet friends along the way that help you toward your ultimate goal. It is RPG 101 at its core.
The first thing that is apparent to me with Ultima IV, having come from the previous games in the series, is that it is a definite jump in quality. Taking approximately two years to develop compared to the single year for the previous titles, Ultima IV shows the many improvements in the end product. However, when you boil it all down, this is still a PC game from 1985, and while it is a definite step ahead of its predecessors, there was still something lacking from it that made a game feel fluid and help it to age well. The game essentially requires the aid of the supplemental materials included in the box for you to complete it. For example, nearly every lettered key on the keyboard had a significant use in game, but it wasn’t ideal to just hit every single one to figure out what it did. You needed the reference card to tell you each one’s function.
Certainly, this created an interesting experience for players back in the 80s, but it is something that most people would not have the time or patience for in this age, given the array of games available and the competitors grasping for the attention of the consumers. People who are nostalgic for such an experience would most likely still enjoy this way of playing, but then again they are the ones that these games most appeal to these days anyway. I will admit there was a sort of “magic” to this experience, but it is certainly a relic of an age gone by.
One glaring issue I noticed with Ultima IV was the combat. When you encounter an enemy in the overworld or in dungeons, you are transitioned to a scene of a small battlefield and the enemies that are approaching you. In a turn-based fashion, you and your enemies all move along one tile at a time, eventually reaching a point where you can attack each other until one is the victor. If you know magic or have a ranged weapon, then you can gain the upper hand by being able to attack your melee opponent before they can reach you, but the same can be said for enemies that are equipped in the same way. This system is fine and enjoyable at first, but the more party members that join you, the more enemies there are to attack you in each battle scene, and that means combat as a whole gets more and more drawn out. It’s understandable that they wanted to have a party member that represented each of the eight Virtues, but it really starts to make the combat drag on and feel more cumbersome than it actually is.
In addition, this becomes utter suffering at later points in the game, where you will be attacked by 2-3 Balrogs that will cast area-wide sleep spells that can knock out an entire group at once. That is, unless you use a ridiculous hole in the coding to your advantage by having everyone poisoned in order to avoid being put to sleep, as the game cannot stack status ailments. Yes, sometimes it is more beneficial in this game to poison yourself than to deal with everyone being struck by sleep and then continuously assaulted while they’re taking a snooze. In concept, it is sort of a laughable “Oh, 80s games,” situation, but in practice it’s rather exasperating.
On another side of things, I do find it a little ridiculous how easy it can be to lose your Virtues once you have already meditated on them and gained it as a part of you. Part of the game’s charm is how it is always monitoring you to make sure you are actually being true to these ideals, rather than just treating it as, “I did good once, I’m set for the rest of the game.” But I shouldn’t have to be penalized for fleeing from a group of food-stealing Gremlins, for example. It’s not cowardly, it’s just smart in order to preserve my food in a long, dungeon-delving experience that I’ve been waist-deep in for over an hour without any ability to save my progress. The risk of starvation in this game is hardly apparent until you run into those little jerks. Though understandable as to why this system is in place for lore reasons, I still feel like it is a little bit unfair at times.
Graphically speaking, this game is difficult to gauge, as it all depends on what version you’re playing. This is one of my least favorite things from a review standpoint about a lot of computer games from the 80s. It’s that there are just so many versions and each one had something different about it. It’s not like now when PC and console versions look generally the same, give or take some visual enhancements for the better equipped PC crowd. Many things could be different between versions of games back in the day. For instance, the Apple II version of Ultima IV has a completely different color palette from, say, the FM Towns version. They also have different sound processors, resulting in much different sounding music. Granted, there are several years difference between those two platforms and what they could produce at those times. So for the sake of simplicity, I will be restricting this to the DOS, Apple II, and Commodore 64 versions for comparison.
Ultimately, the DOS version wins out of the three named platforms for appearances. It has more detailed sprites and colors, bringing the game to life visually more so than its Apple II counterpart. There is still a sense of endearment to be found from the way that the Apple II version look, as it melds in better with its predecessors. But seeing as how Ultima IV is the beginning of a new trilogy, it is also nice to see it stand out from the games that came before it. As far as animations go, everything seems rather similar between the versions. They each perform their job as expected and get the point across without being either bad or good, doing precisely what they needed to do.
The biggest disappointment for me in Ultima IV came from the music. Not how it sounds, mind you, but the fact that the DOS version completely lacks it. While Apple II and Commodore 64 players could enjoy a short but well composed, fitting soundtrack, DOS players had to explore Britannia with nothing more than a few sound effects for movement and attacks. It makes the game’s world a lonely place, as music can typically breathe such life into a video game. However, this isn’t the first time that the DOS version of an Ultima game was shafted, as this also happened with Ultima III. So I suppose it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but still disappointing. As for the versions that did get music, I do feel like the Apple II rendition of the soundtrack is just a little above the Commodore 64, as the latter feels like it has more “noise” in the background that distracts from the compositions.
Having played the games that came before it, as I mentioned before, I feel as though I can appreciate Ultima IV more for what it did do rather than what it didn’t do. I will admit that it is hard for me to fully enjoy games prior to the 90s as they are almost all much slower than what I am used to, but a part of that does have to do with the age of the title and how different the standards, or lack thereof, were back then. Ultima IV is, admittedly, a game that has not aged well and will not be enjoyed by many beyond those who played it in its heyday or shortly after, or those who consider themselves gaming historians and find enjoyment in exploring games from different periods. Personally, it was a slog, namely in the later parts of the game. The first half of the game wasn’t so bad. That said, it is clear that Ultima IV is where the series truly starts to kick off, straying from the odd, endearing, but ultimately out of place science-fiction-meets-fantasy storytelling of the first few games and solidifying itself as a high fantasy world with multifaceted lore. The series still has a bit to develop from this point before reaching its peak, but it is apparent from this game that it is going in the right direction.
Pros & Cons
+ Unique story
+ Enjoyable soundtrack, in non-DOS versions
– Combat can become a drag
– Awkward coding can create frustrating scenarios
A definite improvement over its predecessors and a solid foundation with interesting execution that shows potential for future Ultima games.
Atari 8-bit, Atari ST, Amiga, Apple II, Commodore 64, IBM PC, iOS, Sega Master System
9/16/1985 (PC, Various)
1987 (Atari ST)
1990 (SMS, EU/AU only)