Hidden Gems: Ultima (Franchise)

by Jason Parker (Ragachak)

Or, “What is a Paladin?”

Ultima Hidden Gems - Ultima 1

From the most humble of beginnings…

Now, now, I know what a few of you might be thinking: “Ultima? A hidden gem? Are you off your nut?!” and if you’ll calm down, and delete your Twitter post, I’ll start explaining. Now, I love the Ultima franchise, and one of the people I most would like to interview or meet is Richard Garriott, aka Lord British. He’s responsible for a franchise that has spanned decades and spawned some truly revolutionary games. Now that his latest venture, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues is live, and I did review/enjoy it, I want to take a look back at where it all began. Now, I grew up in a poor Jewish family, who did not have a personal computer. I missed out on so much because we simply could not afford it. I found Ultima on the NES and Super NES consoles because I had friends who owned the carts and would let me borrow them to explore this exciting world of Britannia. No matter how many games were made, how popular it got, almost noone I knew played or were familiar with the Ultima franchise. My closest friends were, but outside of that circle, it was rare.

Ultima Hidden Gems - Exodus

Nothing was cooler or more frustrating than making my own party.

From childhood to adulthood, I only knew a few people who even knew what Ultima was, and fewer who cared. It’s a fantasy-RPG franchise that has nine games, split into three “Ages”. There’s The Age of Darkness (Ultima 1-3), The Age of Enlightenment (4-6) and The Age of Armageddon (7-9). The world, Sosaria is obliterated in the Age of Darkness, and the remaining portion of the world comes to be known as Britannia, led by the kind and wise Lord British. The main character is not always the Avatar, though. He has to come into that role (and does so around Ultima IV~) and in future titles is referred to as such. The Avatar is the vehicle of destiny, the main character, the hero of the story. That’s how I always perceived them. The Ultima series received a lot of criticism early on, because the player could do basically what they wanted. Kill, steal, be as vile as they wanted. But the franchise also introduced many audiences to the notion of the Virtues.

Ultima-IV-virtues (1)

I learned a lot from this important diagram.

The Ultima Hero, the Avatar/Stranger was always most interesting to me, when the focus was on these Virtues. Keeping them in balance, restoring kindness and order to the land. The Eight Virtues of the Avatar/The Eight Virtues of Goodness is a system introduced in this franchise, and in several of the games, the player is forced to follow these Virtues if they want to succeed. That doesn’t mean the ability to steal or kill is written out, no no. But let’s talk about these Virtues. They are balanced into Three Principles: Truth, Love, and Courage. Each of these Virtues falls somewhere into a Venn Diagram (or a more complex graphical design that fits into a magical symbol). Outside of the circle is the final Virtue, Humility. All of the others meet somewhere in the Venn Diagram, whether they are Pure Love, Love, and Truth, Courage and Truth, Courage and Love, et cetera. Only Spirituality meets in all three. What is fascinating about these, is that in Ultima V, Lord Blackthorn codified the Virtues into a series of laws. Honesty was “Thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt lose thy tongue”. They were very strict, draconian laws.

Ultima Hidden Gems - Exodus 2

Damn that Devil!

What made these Virtues the most interesting was not making them laws, but that how you judge the Virtue’s worth/how you lived by this virtue was internal. Codifying ethics does not make them good because unethical people can take these Virtues and pervert them. Just look at Shroud of the Avatar. People use Love, Truth, and Courage for their own personal, perverse gain. From a storytelling perspective, that’s wonderful. It’s also a mirror of our own world. In these games, you don’t “have” to be honest. You can steal, you can lie or cheat. But it can definitely come back to haunt you. It sure did to me. If you are fraudulent and don’t live by the Virtues, it shows you in its own way, there are consequences for your actions. I feel like, at an early age, this was a very formative lesson for me. My mother was already teaching me right from wrong, but in this game series, I learned first-hand that by doing something dishonest, or cruel, there was a price to pay. You should be a good person because it’s the right way to live. Ultima also taught that with every villainous act, a price had to be paid.

Ultima Hidden Gems - Ultima V

These were not games for people who wanted an easy time.

I have not played all of the Ultima games, because honestly, no matter how smart I thought I was, the Ultima games were smarter. That’s what I loved about them, but what also made me resent them in a way. There is not a ton of guidance in the games to tell you where to go and what to do. You have to really pay attention (or you did, before the days of the Internet) and learn from your experiences. I had friends that kept notebooks of what they did in Ultima, to make sure they were on the right track. They were complex, intricate, and could be beaten fairly swiftly if you know exactly what to do. I’ve seen a few speedruns of Ultima games that honestly blew my mind. I had no idea some of these things could just be done so quickly. The two I spent the most time with were again, Ultima: Exodus, and Ultima VI: The False Prophet.

Ultima Hidden Gems - False Prophet

This scene pulled me in immediately as a teen.

Ultima VI I admittedly played the most of. It really grabbed my attention when I borrowed it, with Britannia being under siege by a group of evil gargoyles, and the Avatar all set up to be sacrificed. Right on cue, a few of the Avatar’s companions show up to save the day though. This game was so complicated that it hurt my feelings. I have never felt so dumb as when I’m playing an Ultima game. Despite that, when I started to piece the puzzle together and get it going, it made me feel like I was on top of the world. I really felt like a hero in the Ultima franchise. The quest in Ultima VI was not a long one, but it sure felt like it. The games are only as long as you make them. But what makes them so special is how open-ended they are. For example, in Ultima VI you are liberating the Shrines, acquiring the Magic Ballon, and getting the Silver Tome. If you know what to do, you can do these in whichever order feels right for you. This is not a franchise where all the games have you grinding for hours. Ultima VI’s level cap is level 8 for example, and many quests you don’t even fight stuff. But the monsters are ferocious, so you should at least level some.

Hidden Gems Ultima - Lord British

Thank you, Lord British.

The Ultima franchise was creative, well-told in basically every game I played, and challenging. I learned valuable life lessons and found a rich fantasy world that was just mine for the asking. Many people know about Ultima Online, and Shroud of the Avatar, but not enough people know where it all began. Now I really want to sit down with the series and explore them again, from the games I played once or not at all, to the ones I devoted months of my time to. In Ultima, you learn, you grow, you are challenged. Some are definitely better than others, but the series as a whole really shaped my love of Roleplaying games. Dragon Warrior 1 and Ultima Exodus were my first RPGs, and I cannot be thankful enough for finding both of them. I cannot stress enough how fun Ultima was as a franchise, despite being vexed by it.  Regardless of what platform you find them for, (Though I believe GOG has the entire mainline series), I highly recommend at least seeking one of them out.

Thank you, Lord British. In a time when I needed something to lift me up and give me hope, Ultima was there to do just that. I remain as ever, a humble citizen of Britannia.

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  • Mike Guzman

    I remember my brother really loved the one we had