In many senses the Trope Maker of the computer Role-Playing Game, Ultima is a long-running series of CRPGs created by Richard "Lord British" Garriott and Origin Systems that, along with Wizardry, more or less defined most of the classic computer role playing game tropes, going on to influence games more broadly. Though the series was computer-based, its general mechanics became likewise imprinted on the console RPG market thanks to its influence on the mechanics of the Dragon Quest franchise (and via osmosis, to a lesser extent the Final Fantasy franchise). Ultima IV and VII, in particular, had a major influence on general RPG mechanics and open-world games, respectively.
Overview of the Ultima series
The Age of DarknessThe world of Akalabeth was fleshed out to form "Sosaria", the setting of Ultima (later subtitled The First Age of Darkness). Its plot saw an Evil Sorcerer named Mondain defeated by The Hero known as "the Stranger from another world".
The series continues with Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress, as space-time distortions threatening Earth are Best Served Cold by Minax, the
jilted widowed lover of the first game's last villain. Time Travel is required to save the day.
The series started to find its legs in Ultima III: Exodus, in which the evil robotic child of the previous two villains wreaks havoc across Sosaria. This game started laying the foundation of RPG elements such as towns, overworld, dungeons, and monster encounters in the way many video game RPGs came to emulate. This is the one that specifically influenced the creation of Dragon Quest I, and thus unintentionally spurred the birth of the Eastern RPG.
The Age of EnlightenmentBut when people speak of the Ultima series, its tropes and mechanics, they tend to think of the next three games in the series, Ultima IV, V and VI, collectively called the "Age of Enlightenment". In these games, "the Avatar", another visitor from our world (who, by Ultima IX, appears to be a middle-aged park ranger) becomes a key player in upholding Britannia's virtue and keeping the world safe.
With the unification of Sosaria under the rule of Lord British — a visitor from "our" world, — the place was renamed "Britannia". After the fairly cataclysmic events which ended Ultima III, the whole world was largely rebuilt, and its geography and culture would remain more or less unchanged for the rest of the series history. (As a result, the cloth maps given out as Feelies for some releases of the games can be used for any game in the series.)
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar sets the player out on a quest, essentially, to bring virtue and general goodness to the land — the main objective of the game is, quite simply, to live a virtuous life. In Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny, the Avatar must once again journey to Britannia, to reclaim Lord British's throne from a usurper. The last game of this era, Ultima VI: The False Prophet, deals with some of the long-term consequences of the events of Ultima IV, as the Avatar must save his own life from the gargoyle race, whose ancient and infallible prophecies tell them that he will one day destroy their race (also, they're pissed off that the Council stole the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom two games ago).
The Age of ArmageddonThe third age of Ultima, "The Age of Armageddon", is a mixed bag, despite considerable technological improvement (although VII ended up having an enormous influence on the concept of open-ended, open-world RPGs). In all three, the Avatar battles an other-worldly being called "The Guardian". Ultima VII: The Black Gate pitted the Avatar against a cult seeking to allow the megalomaniacal "Guardian" into Britannia, and is often considered the best game of the entire series. Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle featured the Avatar returning to one of the lands from Ultima I that is now a separate world. Each of these games had an expansion pack that added new sub-quests and locations to the game.
Ultima VIII: Pagan follows on from Serpent Isle. The titular "Pagan" is a very different world from Britannia, to which the Avatar has been banished by the Guardian. Pagan lacked the Britannian virtues, and while there, the Avatar found himself forced to violate them as well, eventually sacrificing that entire world.
Ultima IX: Ascension is the last canonical Ultima game (though some fans say otherwise). It changed things even further, replacing the traditional tile-based top-down (later isometric) display with a standard 3rd person 3D view, and made numerous deviations from the canonical series history. The Avatar was summoned one final time to Britannia, where the Guardian has resurfaced and totally corrupted the hearts and minds of the people (not to mention the code of the game), perverting the traditional virtues.
Other gamesA number of other Ultima games exist: the Ultima Underworld sub-series were first-person RPGs in the Ultima universe developed by Looking Glass Studios that spawned the genre Immersive Sims. Two games based on the Ultima VI engine, and outside of the primary continuity, were called Worlds of Ultima, one based on a prehistoric land, the other on Victorian space travel. A Britannia-based MMORPG, Ultima Online was the first large-scale MMORPG success. There were also two aborted MMOs that would have followed: Ultima Worlds Online: Origin and Ultima X: Odyssey, the latter of which was intended to be a direct continuation of the storyline of Ultima IX and among other things, was to have incorporated the Virtues of Ultima as a significant gameplay mechanic.
There was also Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash, which came out between Ultima II and III. Richard Garriott was not directly involved in it, but despite a common myth, he actually did agree to his friend Keith Zabalaoui (the programmer of the game) and Sierra using the trademark "Ultima" to help promote the game. It didn't (not that Sierra had any high hopes for it), and Garriott left to found his own company, Origin Systems, shortly after finishing Ultima III.
Akalabeth was first self-published by Garriott, then picked up California Pacific Computer; Ultima was originally released by California Pacific; Ultima II and subsequent re-releases of the first Ultima (retitled Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness) were published by Sierra On-line. Ultima III through Ultima VII were released by Origin (a company formed by Garriott after he became dissatisfied with Sierra), and the remaining games were released by Electronic Arts (which bought Origin).
While Garriott no longer owns the rights to the games, and is no longer with EA/Origin, he still holds the copyright of several characters, and therefore future Ultima games can only be made if EA and Garriott can be persuaded to get along with each other. EA ran Lord of Ultima, a Browser Game similar to Evony, from April 20, 2010 to May 12, 2014. In July of 2012, BioWare announced a new Ultima game, Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar, a freeware multiplayer game for the PC and iPad, based primarily on the setting of Ultima IV, with a few changes. For example, Lord British is now Lady British, since Garriott didn't give permission to use the character. Ultima Forever was released for iOS in 2013, and was shut down in August 2014.
Meanwhile, Garriott himself announced plans to produce an MMO Spiritual Successor, Ultimate RPG. He's also expressed possibly buying the rights to the series back from EA and releasing it as an actual Ultima Online 2. Garriot eventually turned to Kickstarter to fund Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, a Spiritual Successor to both the classic single-player Ultimas and Ultima Online, and closed with a respectable $1.9M.
Origin released Ultima IV as a freely-distributable download on the internet. A free version updated for modern systems exists.
All nine games of the main series (with the first six bundled into two trilogy packs), both Underworld games, and the Worlds of Ultima series are available from GOG.com for a quite reasonable price (some even for free).
There's also a widely praised Fan Remake of Ultima V, done with the Dungeon Siege engine. Featuring lots of added content like extended side-quests, an optional, alternate main quest for evil-inclined players, and an improved class and skill system. There's also a remake of Ultima VI, and while it wasn't made by the same team, it still uses the same basic engine, and has gained just as much praise, if not more so, than the Ultima V remake.
Finally, there's Exult, a reverse-engineered reimplementation of the Ultima VII engine that can either use the data from the original games (Ultima VII and U7-2: Serpent Isle) or can be used with Exult Studio to create new games. It was originally written to allow Ultima VII to be played under Unix, but it's now cross-platform and adds some new features, both cosmetic and gameplay-affecting.
Games within the Ultima series
- Akalabeth: World of Doom (a.k.a. Ultima 0: Akalabeth) (1980)
- Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (1981)
- Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress (1982)
- Ultima III: Exodus (1983)
- Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)
- Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (1988)
- Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990)
- Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992)
- Ultima VII Part II: Serpent Isle (1993)
- Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994)
- Ultima IX: Ascension (1999)
- Ultima Online (1997)
- Ultima Online: The Second Age (1998)
- Ultima Online: Renaissance (2000)
- Ultima Online: Third Dawn (2001)
- Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn's Revenge (2002)
- Ultima Online: Age of Shadows (2003)
- Ultima Online: Samurai Empire (2004)
- Ultima Online: Mondain's Legacy (2005)
- Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn (2007)
- Ultima Online: Stygian Abyss (2009)
- Ultima Online: High Seas (2010)
- Ultima IV Part II
- Multi-player Ultima
- Mythos: Caribbean Pirates and Legends from Greece
- Unnamed Pencil and Paper Ultima
- Arthurian Legends
- Ultima Underworld III
- Ultima VIII: The Lost Vale
- Ultima Online 2 A. K. A. Ultima Worlds Online: Origin
- Ultima X: Odyssey
- Ultima Reborn
- Ultima Resurrection
Major tropes and elements of the Ultima series include:
- An Aesop: Themes about the evils of totalitarianism.
- Artificial Script: The default Runic, Gargish, and Ophidian Alphabets.
- Author Appeal: Richard Garriott has included several instances of young children who are attacking and can only be attacked or run away from as a type of moral dilemma the player must face.
- Author Avatar: Lord British, the ruler of the kingdom, very heavily based on Richard Garriott himself. Lord British is always asking you for favors and is Nigh-Invulnerable. Clever players amuse themselves by finding creative new ways to kill him.
- Awesome, but Impractical: The Armageddon spell, which destroys the entire world. It doesn't kill Lord British, though.
- Butt-Monkey: Lord British wasn't originally this, but after the rise of the Lord British Postulate players trying to murder him in innovative new ways became a beloved series tradition. One game even features an Easter Egg in which the player can drop a plaque on his head to kill him and get away with it.
- Captain Ersatz: Bobbits and Balrons are based on the Hobbits and the Balrog of Middle-earth. In Akalabeth, the final enemy is a Balrog. Gazers are based on Beholders.
- Create Your Own Villain: The Avatar is indirectly responsible for the problems of every game in the series except I and IV.
- Darker and Edgier: Ultima VIII was Darker and Edgier than Ultima VII-2, which was Darker and Edgier than Ultima VII, which was Darker and Edgier than Ultima VI, which was Darker and Edgier than Ultima V, which was Darker and Edgier than Ultima IV (that was pretty idealistic).
- Flat World: In Ultima VI, Britannia is surrounded by an ethereal void. Ambrosia, the land of the Gargoyles, was the flip side of the world in Ultima VI. (In Ultima IX, it is a domed underwater city instead.) This causes continuity issues with the rest of the games, which depict it as a spherical world.
- Glass Weapon: There are glass swords from Ultima V onward: one-hit-one-kill weapons for practically every enemy in the games that shatter beyond repair upon a single use.
- Keywords Conversation: The series generally let the player type in the topic they want to discuss with an NPC when engaging them in conversation.
- Last of His Kind: The Ultima IX Bob White plot would have revealed the Time Lord to be the last of the Ultima.
- Lizard Folk: Lizard Men are one of Mondain's creations in Ultima I, an underground tribe in Ultima Underworld, and a planned enemy in Ultima X. In Savage Empire, the Kotl and Sakkhra are reptilian.
- Magic A Is Magic A:
- A consistent spellcasting system (in Ultima IV-VII), where spells consisted of incantations built up from individual semantic atoms (thus, the common "Help" spell was "Kal Lor", literally "Invoke Light"; noting which constructions were spells in a previous game, and what their requirements were, sometimes allowed a player to access high-level spells early in the next game), and were powered by alchemical formulas (more-or-less consistent across games) which had to be mixed.
- In Ultima IV and V, magic spells had to be explicitly mixed before use, requiring the player to look up which reagents were needed and, frequently, do all this in the heat of battle. In Ultima VI and VII, reagents were mixed automatically, so long as the player had enough on hand. By Ultima IX, reagents were only needed once for each spell, as a "binding ritual" allowed the player to cast the spell whenever he liked afterward.
- In Ultima VIII, much of the story and gameplay revolved around the Avatar achieving mastery over not one, but five exotic magic systems, each of them manipulated differently, themed upon the five (western) elements.
- Narnia Time: Time passes faster in Britannia than Earth, though the ratio seems to be random; the general explanation is that the Avatar is called to the time s/he is needed most. The presence of Time Travel just serves to confuse matters further. This doesn't explain how the Avatar's companions, Lord British, and Blackthorn can live for centuries (OK, Blackthorn spent time on Serpent Isle, but still).
- Old Save Bonus: The ability (in some games) to import character data from an earlier game.
- One-Word Title: For the series, anyway, being just "Ultima".
- Only Flesh Is Safe: The Telekinesis power from various games does not affect living things.
- Retcon: The Time Lord is revealed to be Hawkwind the Seer from Ultima IV, the last of the Ultima, and the creator of the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.
- Sequence Breaking: Parts IV-VI had you converse with NPCs by typing in keywords. A good chunk of quests had you follow the chain of a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who has what you need. If you knew who the final link in the chain was, you could skip right there and type in the keyword. From VII onwards conversation options were set to match what your character knows.
- Spiritual Successor: Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues to the core series and Ultima Online, Underworld Ascendant to Ultima Underworld.
- Tie-In Novel: Novels and some Japan only novels and manga.
- Title Drop: The Ultima IX Bob White plot would have revealed the Time Lord to be the last of an ancient race, the Ultima.
- Wide Open Sandbox: Ultimas V to VII offer a fully interactive world that carries on with or without you. NPCs follow their own schedules (sleeping at home at night, going to their place of work, then to the inn for lunch), and almost everything can be interacted with - shear a sheep for wool, spin the wool into thread, etc. Even before Ultima V the game was completely non-linear and you were free to travel through the world. That changed in the second part of VII, Serpent Isle.
- Year Inside, Hour Outside: Not only does time on Earth flow ten times slower than in Sosaria/Britannia, but people from Earth age ten times slower than natives even when living in Britannia.
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Everything was written in this style: dialogue, room descriptions, the manuals, everything.
- You Keep Using That Word: There are "gremlins" in the series that are little critters that steal food. In Ultima VIII they're shape-shifting creatures with a mocking laugh. Neither of those descriptions even remotely matches the concept of a gremlin.