When I say "Ultima", I should really say: Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. For this game, and for Spellcasting 201: The Sorceror's Appliance, I bought a new computer, just so I could play in colour. The money was well spent: a 286 replaced the old Amstrad (which was sold for one-fifth of its original value) and also proved its use for other games that required a display that could handle (gasp) 16 colours. The box contained: a completely useless plastic coin; 5-inch and 3-inch floppy disks; a game booklet; and a cloth map. This was something I'd never seen in a game before, and that cloth map served its use, never creasing or tearing as a paper map would have done.
The game booklet, which I read from back to front and back again before beginning, advised me to install everything on harddisk, and I popped in the 5-inch disk 1 to do just that. The files couldn't be copied, as the disk was corrupt. I went back to the shop to ask for a new disk 1. First, the replacement disk that came back was for Amiga. Then, the shopkeeper found out the disk wasn't really corrupt, but had had certain sectors corrupted to prevent it being copied to harddisk. That was my first encounter with copy protection. Annoyed at having put off playing the game so long only to find there was nothing wrong with the media, I ran into a second imperfection: the only way to shut down the game was with Ctrl-Alt-Delete. This is not healthy for inserted disks, and I'm amazed that disk 1, which had to remain in the drive when playing, survived so long. Now, over twenty years later, it may have expired; I don't care, because on eBay I bought a compilation of the Ultima games up to VIII, on CD. I haven't played them yet, partly because I don't fancy quitting the game by rebooting again. It appears the earliest playable Ultima game was Ultima IV, the older ones being so graphically underdeveloped as to have purely historical value. I also bought Ultima IX separately, but it was a "modern" 3D game with 360 degrees movement in all directions using the mouse, and after I'd so screwed up the navigation that I was staring up my character's crotch, I ditched it as unplayable. (Since Morrowind works the same way and I'm getting used to 3D, I may unearth it someday.) Connecting all the games is the character of "Lord British", as Richard Garriott is called when he suddenly finds himself in another world (the pipe dream of any RP gamer) called Sosaria, which he makes available to us, the consumers, through his computer games. He is first nicknamed "British" after his homeland, then becomes "Lord" (and later King) after uniting the city-states of Sosaria. Every game has the player defeating a subsequent installment of evil; in Ultima V, the player must rescue Lord British who is being held captive in yet another dimension by an evil sorceror who was simply a no-good son of a mage before he got his hands on a certain magical gem. A coin (that plastic one) appears before the player, inviting him(/her) to step into that other dimension and play a hero's part.
Ultima V has a flat view-from-above map for travel where the player's party is represented by a round-edged square moved by the cursor keys, and a frontal view for combat, although the combat field is still a grid of squares seen from above. It has Ctrl-letter shortcuts, including Ctrl-J "Jemmy" for what I would call lockpicking. Although the graphics were primitive, they were pleasing to my eye (and so much better than Phantasie's) and the conversations had with characters, including an actual unicorn asking me to send positive feedback to the maker if I liked the game, spiced up my hitherto dull RPG game experience. There were several dungeons full of rooms with monsters, each room needing to be cleaned out completely or the monsters would all be back again next time I entered it. Monsters, especially headlesses and ettins, would also attack outside in the open, and fields of crops could be harvested for free food. The treasure, mostly weapons, was... okay. A halberd is the best weapon there is if you can carry it, since it can poke through dungeon walls and kill the invisible monsters behind them. As well als monsters in the woods and dungeons, the game had pirates which could be engaged in battles at sea, and even a hidden pirate island whose gates shut at curfew - I had more trouble getting off that island than on it. The big fun about this game was getting around and seeing places; the most alarming place was the underground world where Lord British had led an expedition gone nightmarishly wrong. It was high rocks alternating with pockets of negotiable terrain, and the first time I ended up there, I had to quit and start over. The second time, I had ample ingredients and mixed many light and teleportation spells, first lighting up the area to see my travel options (visually quite a startling effect) and then taking a jump. After hours of jumping and jumping (and casting spells at flying monkeys... and healing up...) I was finally at the right spot to rescue Lord British (now King British, if I remember correctly) who was... behind a looking glass. And when, after endless exploring and fighting and collecting clues and that hair-raising final exploration underground, I (the game player) returned "home", the house was empty - burgled. A reminder that real-reality is not so easily ignored.
Hmmm, that was fun... Let's start another game.
After first reading the booklet, I'd wondered if I wanted to play this game at all, because I ran into a feature of many RPGs: strict, but iffy ethics. In this case, there are eight rules of "ethics", drawn up by British's replacement Lord Blackthorn, that are unsound ("Thou shalt donate half thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income", sounds like extortion to me) and tyrannically enforced, and in the game itself I soon ran into a man and his young son, put in the stocks disobeying these rules, who I quickly freed. They then obstructed my way as long as I was in town. (The dungeons also held some prisoners - wtf?? - and actual children in cages - wtf??? - which I also freed, but then they attacked me, so I had to kill them, which was somewhat off-putting.) To make things better, one of the reasons to free Lord British is that Lord Blackthorn uses the laws of ethics in unjust oppressive ways, and it will take Lord British to set this right. But what I also discovered: RPGs are non-moral. This is part of the cerebral aspect: there is no "you must" or "you must not", there is "if you do X then the consequences will be A, if you do Y the consequences will be B" and as in real life, crime often pays, although it may brew some bad karma. The game has no races, and I can't remember choosing a class, but I did get a series of questions testing my adherence to the rules, which I answered according to conscience, only to discover they were cleverly coded stat determiners and I'd given my character lousy stats. I was also allowed to give myself a name and sex, making this the first RPG I'd played that allowed for females.
What I did enjoy about the booklet was the section that should have been titled "magic cookbook". Note to self: always bring lots of spell ingredients. Food is a luxury; weapons are optional. But spells... A very nice one is the spell that makes the enemies attack each other instead of your party. At the end, you sort through the bodies for treasure, and you still get experience points. A reviving spell or scroll is important too - although you can't get it at the start of the game - because your party has a maximum of six members at a time, and although you can switch members by leaving one at an inn and then inviting another to join, dead members can't be left behind at an inn ("What do you think this is, a charnel-house??"). A killed, unrevivable member is literally a dead weight. When you yourself are killed, you reincarnate but lose a level, and your possessions are scattered. Best let no one die.
Apart from the name "British", the game contains several references, probably more than I can spot. The language of Sosaria sounds like Old English, the alphabet is the Futhark (Scandinavian rune alphabet), the spells contain (parts of) Latin words ("Sanct", "Nox") and the wife of bard Iolo FitzOwen (old French and Scottish in one) is called "Gwenllian Gwalch'gaef" which sounds Welsh, and is so compatible with the idea of ballads about standing stones. To get into a specific room, the player has to know and play a tune, just as in Nethack. The three figures in black that shoot the person who summoned you, the player, with a paralyzing arrow, remind of the scene where Frodo faces the Nazgul at Rivendell. The underworld journey sounds like the Harrowing of Hell, where the king Arthur of Celtic myth descended into the underworld to retrieve a magic cauldron; later retellings transformed this into the quest for the Holy Grail. The game's setting is obviously a fairytale version of medieval England with its pseudo-morality and barbaric laws; witch-burnings are replaced by death sentences for those who don't follow the rules of ethics, and who are judged by a Torquemada-type character. As said, there's probably more that I didn't spot. RPG makers love cultural references.
Although crude and primitive by today's standard, this game, like the Ultima
series generally, was a classic in its time. As the salesman said, approving my
choice at the cash register, "there's plenty of playing hours in this game". And
now, two decades later, plenty of fond memories.