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Binary: Computer RPGs

We Are Spoiled

by Wes Johnson
May 16, 2001  
After thinking for a long time about the state of CRPGs I came up with one thought: we are spoiled. There are a couple of good CRPGs released every year. There is a number of bad ones released also. Even the bad games, when compared to ones 15 years ago, are good. Thus I decided to go into the Way-Back Machine and figure out what the most important CRPG of all time was, the game that really changed how CRPGs were designed and played.

Let's go... back... back... back to the dark ages of computing. Ah, here we are, a game that we have to slay three dragons, avoid a bat, maneuver through mazes and reclaim a chalice. Wait, this is Adventure for the Atari 2600. Looks like I have gone too far back. Here we are in 1985, the year Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was released. Ultima IV was the game that revolutionized CRPGs.

Ultima IV is the most important CRPG of all time, it is that simple. Does that make it the best? No. Is it without flaw? No. But I am not looking for either the best or perfect CRPG, just the most revolutionary. The game design and ideals behind Ultima IV were harbingers for what was to come and better than anything before. It was certainly evolved from Ultima III, but that was only a great execution of standard CRPGs of the time. Certainly the later Ultima games were usually better games in graphics, plot and game design, but they were spawned from one source: Ultima IV.

CRPGs before Ultima IV were about finding stuff, hitting critters over the head to get more stuff and fighting a big bad guy at the end. This was fun and it did mirror many of the role playing games at the time and perhaps our maturity levels too. Ultima IV changed the onus of the game from combat to a quest that required moral choices and virtuous deeds. And yes, there was also combat and plenty of it. Wrapped around the combat, was living up to the virtues that would make you an avatar. Thus you had to act honorable, humble and courageous to advance the plot and save Britannia.

If the above were all that was added to the CRPG genre, it would be enough in my opinion to merit Ultima IV as the most important game of all time. But it did a few other things as well. Magic was given a depth that other games could not claim to have. This focused around the fact that spells had to have the right words and reagents had to be cast. The better the spell: the more rare or costly the reagents. Those could be quests all by themselves, particularly when looking for mandrake and nightshade.

There were many classes in Ultima IV and you had to use all of them, including the humble shepherd. Each class had it's own abilities and limitations. Mind you this was nothing fancy and classes were broken down by the amount of spells they could cast, armor they could wear and weapons they could use. It was no more complicated than early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but more complicated than most of Ultima IV's CRPG peers.

The graphics and audio in Ultima IV were revolutionary for the time. They set a tradition that Origin Systems kept for a very long time: a technical cutting edge. The terrain of the game was sculpted and Britannia looked much more lifelike than previous games. The monster and character icons were animated and well drawn for the day. Also there was a score to the game and a composer ascribed to it. Both are impressive achievements for a home PC, in the 1980's. Ultima IV can be downloaded from the Ultima Dragons for free and there has been additional patches created to modernize the now dated graphics and sound. Mind you they are very primitive compared to Diablo or Baldur's Gate.

Ultima IV represented a high point for Origin Systems CRPGs and brought a depth of plot and world design to follow up titles to the series. More importantly the improved game engine and role playing elements that Ultima IV introduced to CRPGs makes it the most important of it's genre. That is not to say someone would not have revolutionized CRPGs in the same manner, Origin got there first.

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What do you think?

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All Binary columns by Wes Johnson

  • All I want for Christmas December 18, 2001
  • Is it role playing or just 1s and 0s July 24, 2001
  • We Are Spoiled May 16, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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