Ready for some very serious RPG adventuring? The Ultima series has been grabbing players and pulling them into complex worlds for over 30 years, creating games that may look primitive on the surface but have helped define what a role playing game is since the beginning. The titles have graced almost every gaming platform known to humans, from the Apple II to the NES, PlayStation, and modern computers. Now, thanks to the nostalgia-hungry folks at GOG.com, the Ultima series is being made available as a series of digital downloads, packaging the games together in groups of three for all to enjoy, starting with Ultima 1+2+3!
If you're unfamiliar with the Ultima games, what you need to know to get started is this: they are the RPG experience. It's possible to wax on for hours about any single game, but for starters, just know they practically birthed the genre and contain elements most modern role playing games are build around. The Ultima series slowly perfected the formula and expanded it with each new release, providing a good story along with plenty of gameplay to digest.
The first clump of titles with a digital release is Ultima I, Ultima II, and Ultima III, representing the early stages of the series where the formula was established and ultimately transformed into the seed of the modern role playing genre. It all begins with Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness where the Stranger (you) is summoned to Sosaria to defeat an evil wizard. Par for the course as far as role playing games are concerned, but then you end up locating a time machine and traveling back in time to defeat the wizard. There's even an arcade-like first-person space shooter section! Most of the elements found at the core of the Ultima experience are rooted here, and the game attempts to translate traditional pen and paper elements, including character creation, spells, and the like, to the video game world as best as it can. A great game that stumbles at times, especially if you're not giddy-nostalgic for the series, but worth experiencing for the bragging rights alone.
Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress hit shelves two years after Ultima I and is stylistically similar to its predecessor. The most notable new feature: a larger world to explore, including optional dungeons to complete and different planets to visit in the solar system. This time around, you're working to defeat an enchantress who was a lover of Mondain, the wizard you defeated in the first game, as she spreads evil across worlds. This release is often considered the weakest in the Ultima series, though that bar is admittedly quite high considering the stock it's derived from.
The third game in the series, Ultima III: Exodus, was released in 1983 and had the player returning to the world of Sosaria to destroy the final remnants of Mondain and Minax. The game took quite a technological leap forward from the previous games. Now, animated characters could be displayed, and your party increased from just one character to four. Battles took place on a separate screen, and the 3D elements were greatly improved, allowing hidden paths, treasures, and secret characters to be discovered. This game is credited as spawning the type of RPG that thrived on early console systems, including Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy.
Analysis: Summarizing a single Ultima game within a short article can be considered madness, so what does that say about featuring three at the same time? Fitting any of the games within a few paragraphs or less is a lot like writing your autobiography as a Twitter message. Lots of juicy details are left out, but the gist of the experience is conveyed. And, when you've got games as epic as Ultima, that's the best you can hope for with a mere few hundred words!
Who is going to enjoy the first three Ultima games? Most likely devoted RPG fans and nostalgic retro gamers. Your average gamer is probably a bit frightened of these primitive-looking titles, and the series has a reputation for being unfriendly and confusing for the uninitiated. That doesn't mean there's a lot of entertainment to be had, even for casual gamers. If you take little bites of the games, you'll realize it's more easily digestible than rumor would have you believe.
The entire Ultima series changed the world of computer role playing games. They created a cozy little den where epic adventures could thrive, providing dozens of hours of play time with a seemingly limitless supply of quests, spells, enemies, NPCs, items, treasures, etc. If you want a good, if dated, RPG experience, any of the above games will do you just fine. The only obstacle to entry is the decades-old visuals and interface, which is admittedly off-putting to many. But the gameplay is there, the story is there, and the creativity most certainly is there, and that stands the test of time better than anything.
More Ultima games have been released as digital downloads, and with any luck the entire series will soon be available. You might want to clear your calendar for a few weeks so you can sit down and absorb them properly!
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