Ultima IV from the perspective of a kid back in 1985
Ultima IV gets a lot of renown for its unconventional plot but I think to truly appreciate what the game meant to the genre it's important to take it within the context of the release year.
In 1985 the first three Ultimas had been out awhile and some clones were starting to hit the market. None of them offered the same depth of package as a true Ultima however. Having devoured Ultima III the previous year, my brothers and I were waiting with bated breath for the sequel. Being only thirteen years old and of meager budget I joined with my brothers in begging our parents to receive it as a Christmas gift.
So fierce was my desire to hold this game in my hands that I broke my own morale code (I'm sure I lost an eighth) by rummaging in my parent's bed room to confirm that it had been purchased. Never before had I broken the rule of sneaking a look at Christmas presents before. I still remember holding the box in my hand and reading the back, visions of future adventures dancing in my head. It was almost physically painful to return the gift to its hiding spot.
Much has been said to great depth about the plot of Ultima IV, the quest for perfection of moral virtues. Yes, this was very revolutionary at the time and still echoes today with modern RPGs offering moral choices as a check box in their feature set. When it was released the RPG formula was not as solidified as it was today, so although the plot was novel, the game also came with sophistications that hadn't been seen in RPG mechanics before.
Of particular note was the sophisticated magic system that required mixing of reagents to make spells. What now seems as a simple keyword conversation system was revolutionary in terms of interaction with the hundreds of NPCs in the game. The moon cycles and moon gates were again advanced over Ultima III. The class system was expanded from the usual Dungeons and Dragons stereotypes to include such oddities as the tinker and shepherd.
The multi-party system also changed. Instead of forming your own party you had to seek out and find the NPCs that would be willing to join you on your quest.
Surrounding all this was a quest that challenged some assumptions you had as a player of RPGs in 1985. While you probably considered moral implications while playing a pen and paper RPG, for the most part there weren't any repercussions in computer RPGs. Every chest was to be looted and NPCs might be killed for personal gain without impacting your progress. In Ultima IV, denying a beggar some gold had risk.
As with previous Ultimas, the game began when you opened the box. The wonderful documentation played into the fantasy world of the game. The enclosed cloth map outline the world and was labelled in runes that required translation. Indeed both me and my brothers became fluent in that alphabet, reading and writing the runes at will. The presentation immersed you in the game world and fueled your imagination to look past the basic graphics and create Brittania in your mind. There was even a small metal ankh included in the package, just the same as your avatar would find at the beginning of the game.
By today's standards Ultima IV required a huge investment of time. My brothers and I kept journals of our progress, noting every possible hint given by NPCs and using copious amounts of graph paper to map every town and dungeon level. Even though the game offered gems to provide you a map, nothing beat having a hard copy. One of my friends created a one to one scale map of the land on graph paper, each square colored to represent a single square in game. The map covered one wall of his room.
The music also helped to immerse you in the world. On the Commodore 64 many excellent songs played forth depending on what you were doing. The music as you traveled overland, the town music, combat music and more still rings in my memory today.
A new Ultima wasn't something you just burned through, another one wasn't going to be out for awhile so what might seem like inconveniences nowadays were just part of the long and wonderful journey back in 1985.
I devoted countless hours to the game and it was by any definition the single best RPG of that year. Technically advanced with a unique story and a fascinating world, it was everything you could ask for at the time.
Ultima IV wasn't without it's flaws. From a modern perspective you can say that the game didn't lead you towards your goal unless you were willing to sacrifice the time to explore every nook and cranny and interrogate each NPC. The clues to your quest were littered all around and there was no straight path to uncovering them. For the most part though this exploration was expected and enjoyed.
The biggest flaw in my opinion came with the sheer size of your party. While Ultima III had allowed you four members, Ultima IV required you have eight members in order to complete the game. During the tactical combat each of your characters took a turn, one step at a time. This could lead to even relatively simple encounters taking time just cycling through all of your party members.
In dungeons this problem became worse. While the main dungeons are presented in pseudo-3D graphics, when you entered combat the game would switch to the tactical screen showing a rough layout of where you were in the dungeon. This was initially very cool as combat entered around a bend in a dungeon corridor was so reflected in the tactical map. It was however slow to load off disk and the combat and even slower to manage eight players.
Dungeons also had special rooms of combat that had to be negotiated. These led to even longer combat sequences. Your enemy could flee if injured and you often spent many turns just trying to chase after them.
There is no way to save the game inside a dungeon in Ultima IV which meant you had to finish it or else return later and do it over again.
The final dungeon (the Great Stygian Abyss) was a grueling slog to get through. If you made it to the bottom and failed the final questions at the codex, you would have to start all over again.
To get around this technical limitation we used a cartridge that could save the game state to disk in case we needed to reload. Cheating? Maybe, but given the time investment I think it was worthwhile.
The Bottom Line
Ultima IV is a classic RPG from the golden age. It has a very unique plot and a highly realized world. If you aren't a patient gamer with an interest in the history of the RPG genre, this is going to be a very difficult game to get into. None of the modern conveniences are present. You may find yourself bewildered and lost as to what to do next or surrounded by monsters well above your ability to defeat.
If you can commit yourself beyond its dated nature you will see one of the formative RPGs and be able to recognize its influence in many games that came along after.
Ultima IV is one of my top ten favorite RPGs of all time and I think it is clearly the most influential of its era. A true classic that requires investment on the player to appreciate fully. We've come a long way since 1985 but in some ways Ultima IV still hasn't been exceeded. Influential and inspirational anyone who wants to understand the history of RPGs has to take this journey.