There is no other word from which to define “Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar”, which was released in 1985.
While this might seem like a grand word for a game that at first look might just feel like an updated version of Ultima III (even moreso with the 16 Bits versions of the game which sported nearly identical graphics), this is in no way an exageration.
The basic gameplay is indeed very much like Ultima III, altough with one truly major addition: interactive dialogues. Rather than having NPCs who just utter one line, all NPCs have unique names and dialogues, that you trigger by actually typing to them through the use of simple keywords: the basis of which being the now traditionnal Ultima keywords: “Name”, “Job”, and “Bye.” This helped the world feel more alive, but also more interesting as you really had to talk to everyone on every subject you could think of to further your quest.
But that was the “Quest” in itself that was the revolution.
Not only the concept of Ultima IV was revolutionnary for its time, but even by today’s standard it remains more original than the vast majority of RPGs on the market. Indeed I would go as far as saying that no RPG developper in their right mind today would dare craft a game with a concept as unique as Ultima IV for fear it might not cater to the masses.
At a time where RPGs were basically (and I would argue still are) about killing monsters and saving the world (even if it means being a complete bastard about it), Ultima IV offered an unique concept through a personal and philosophical quest whose only focus was about the betterment of oneself’s and following a set of Ethics, and not about saving the world or anything of the like.
In a word: this was a game were the goal was about being a good man and that could only be completed by doing so: as such it’s easy to consider that Ultima IV might be the first true “Role Playing Game” of the Computer World, because you actually have to roleplay your character to win. You can act like a bastard if you wish… but then that means no success in your quest. And this is even more a revolution as the previouses Ultima games really enticed and even forced you to commit immoral acts at times.
This was rendered even more personnal due to the introduction: for it is indeed you the player who are taken from your earthly life to live this deep personal quest to find yourself. This is part of what made Ultima IV unique, because more than any other game it actually felt like you were actually living this adventure, and for the kid I was back when I first played it… this was the stuff from which dreams are made of, and I could truly envision myself someday going to Britannia and becoming a true Avatar.
This is also why I’ve never been very fond of Ultima VI’s retcon to make the Avatar and the Stranger(s) who defeated the Triad of Evil one and the same, because it really diminishes the impact of this first journey to Britannia.
In addition to all this though, this was also the true beginning of Ultima and Britannia as a game world and story with Ultima I~III basically being relegated to distant legends, and the establishment of a single world and a (tenuous) continuity that would continue one game after the other.
This is why I mentioned that is in a sense the true beginning of Ultima, because it was the beginning of Britannia as well as the beginning of the Virtues which have and always have been the main focus of the series from that point.
Personally while I do have some very vague memory from childhood about Ultima IV, I only got to play it after Ultima V (perhaps even after Ultima VI altough I don’t believe so) when a friend lent me his copies of Ultima IV and Ultima II for the Atari ST when I was in sixth grade, but this was a wonderful experience from the start. Alas, I was stuck with the french version of the game which (in addition of being terribly translated) was awfully buggy and impossible to finish, leaving me stuck as a 7-part Avatar for ever.
I only got to finish Ultima IV the first time years later on the PC with the very first available upgrade patches. The last time I played the game was, of course, in 1999.
I’m actually not quite sure yet as to what version of Ultima IV I will be playing. I often played with the Sega Master System version actually, because in addition to very neat graphics, it offered the combat system of Ultima V which is a most welcome improvement, but I feel like having a more Computery interface this time around in order to remain consistent with the other games.
I’ll of course let you know my choice in my next post.
In the mean time: Britannia awaits…