Released in 1990, Ultima VI marks the final chapter of the “Age of Enlightenment” trilogy.
Do I dare say Ultima VI was once again a revolution? In many ways it was really. Being the first episode developped for the PC, it offered a brand new kind of engine with 256 VGA colors that blew away any RPG ever seen before. It had an even improved interactivity over Ultima V, while still keeping most of its enhancement (like the Night/Day cycle, combat and character schedule), but also a streamlined interface with all action being set to a smaller number of commands.
Oustide of some comesetic additions (such as character portraits, or useable keyword appearing a different color during dialogue), this game’s main addition however was the the appearce of a fully seamless world, with the entire world of Britannia on a single map, towns and wilderness alike. This change also extended to the dungeons which dropped the first person 3D view aspect, and kept the same view and gameplay as the rest of the game.
While I wouldn’t say Ultima VI has the same special place in my heart an Ultima IV, it was probably my most awaited game at this time. Indeed I don’t there were any other game back then that I awaited as much as Ultima VI, even though I was only 10 years old.
I was basically drooling at Ultima VI screens and reviews in magazines back then… because at this time the idea of having a PC just seemed like a crazy wild dream and I was eagerly awaiting for the Atari ST release of the game, unaware really that the Atari 16 Bit computer was living its final days.
My brother had a chance to play Ultima VI while he was at the army and even brought back a copy to try to run it under a CGA PC Emulator… but it didn’t work. He tried to tell me that even had it worked, it would have been awfully slow, but I stood and said that it wouldn’t have matered to me as long as I could play it. I als remember him trying to explain it the concept of the game having a seamless world as opposed to the dual maps of earlier game and didn’t quite understood it at the time.
The came really late for the Atari ST really – probably late 91 because I know at the time both Savage Empire and Martian Dreams had already been reviewed and there had already been pictures of Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld (which I was, naive as I was back then, hoping to see ported to the Atari as well).
The Atari ST version was awful really. The 16 colors graphics were really ugly but the main issue is that the Atari ST really wasn’t meant to handle such an engine so it was very slow (it was not quite as bad as the NES Version of Ultima V, but if you tried that one you get the idea). Also the game had to be installed (!) on four floppy disks and required to insert the “Populace” disk whenever initiating a dialogue. And since the game was buggy, using and external floppy drive to use two floppy at once caused the infamous bomb crashes, which means it was a pain to play.
Being the crazy fan that I already was, me and my brother actually devised a way around it : you see we had an Atari STE with 4 Megs of Ram, which was quite unusual… so we basically created a Ram Drive with the extra memory each time and copied the whole game on it as if it were a HDD to play it with no issues. Of course it also meant one should not forget to copy the saves back to the floppy disk before turning the computer on, and that any crash of the computer would make you lose your progress. But it worked.
I really enjoyed Ultima VI in spite of this though, although the glarant continuity issues really bugged me at the time (which should probably come as a shock by anyone who know how much I enjoyed Ultima IX… but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but taken into proper context Ultima VI really was just as bad as Ultima IX in that regard). The game wasn’t so hard to me because I almost knew the walkthrough by heart (you see since at times it felt like I could never get the chance to play it, I actually read it many times), though in retrospect I do feel the Orb of the Moon spoiled things a bit since I spent almost all the game travelling with it. Unfortunately I never managed to finish it : I got stuck in the Shrine of Diligence, incapable of finding the secret doors leading to Exodus.
It took a couple more years before I actually got to finish Ultima VI, and that came in the guise of the Super NES version. You see I saw on a shopping listing in a magazine (from a shop that was doing a lot of import), names for Ultima VI and Runes of Virtue II which of course were never released in France (and hell I barely new anything about RoV II at the time, so can you imagine the indea of a new Ultima ?). I first bought Rune of Virtue II, and then Ultima VI a few month later.
I know this ports tends to get bashed by some fans due to its censorship and reduced interactivity, but it felt like a revelation to me – the minute I plugged the cartridge into the console I was awed by the music and utterly baffled upon hearing the Ultima V main theme (because you see the Atari ST version of Ultima VI was lacking many music and had a terrible rendition of Stones). The game also looked gorgeous (in restrospect even better than the PC version I would argue), and was fast. Sure it has its shortcoming but it was bliss after playing the Atari ST version for so long. And this time I finished it and loved every second of it (because the secret door were rendered far more visible in the SNES version). After that I even went back on the Atari ST and figured where were those damned secret doors!
So while Ultima VI does have that special place in my heart Ultima V has – looking back I think it was really the first game I anticipated this much. And in truth it was also a great game indeed which brought a lot of novelty to the Ultima series.
So this playthrough is gonna be interesting, especially after having played through most of U6P.