My first experience with a console role-playing game—any role-playing game for that matter—was with Dragon Warrior. It was a joy to play the hero who literally goes out to rescue a princess by defeating a dragon, and then goes on to save the entire kingdom by defeating The Big Bad Wizard. The game established standards and cliches for console RPGs that are still common after more than twenty-five years.
But there was one RPG I played as a child that challenged all of my conceptions about the genre: Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar, now legally available for free. Next May I will be thirty years old, and it makes me feel like a dinosaur when I talk to my younger friends who are oblivious to this game because it’s simply not part of their generation. So I am writing this as an attempt to convince them, and you, that despite being released in 1985, Ultima IV remains one of the most interesting role-playing games ever.
A Different Type of Hero
The first three Ultima games followed the traditional formula. You controlled a group of heroes who set out to defeat evil people who threatened the world. Ultima was similar to most contemporary RPG franchises in this way.
However, the fourth game presented a radically different scenario. The fictional world of ‘Sosaria’, heavily destroyed by the battles of the first three games, was enjoying an unknown era of peace. The ruler Lord British worried about the well-being of the people, despite there being no evil looming in the distance. So he decides to send out someone—you—to become a spiritual leader for all by mastering the Eight Virtues:
This was such a foreign concept for a role-playing game. You were not the good guy who fought evil. You were the common man who strives to be a model of good for all. Mastering each of the virtues demanded different actions. For example, to learn Compassion you had to give alms to those in need. To excel in Humility you had to avoid boasting in conversations. To be an example of Justice you needed to exercise care in who you fought in combat.
Justice is a terrific example of what sets Ultima IV apart from its peers. As you traveled the world you may be attacked at random by wild animals. That’s typical for the genre. However, indiscriminately killing everything that attacked you would prevent you from mastering Justice. If a wild wolf attacked you could kill it, but the right thing to do to win the game was to carefully retreat. In this way the game tried to drive home the point that slaughtering every single creature in world is not justice. Ultima IV is the earliest RPG I can think of that deliberately rewarded pacifism, and few games since have ever attempted anything similar.
Yes, you went to dungeons. Yes, you fought monsters. Yes, you had to grind for experience and money sometimes. But the over-arching goal of Ultima IV was to become a shining example of morals and ethics so that others could learn from your example. That is a premise that few role-playing games dare approach. It was the first title in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ trilogy for a lot good reasons.
If you’re an RPG fan and have never played Ultima IV then give it a chance, if you can accept the obviously out-dated graphics. There was a port of the game available on the NES; personally I would not recommend that one, as it simplified and removed a number of elements from the original version (although it does look better). But you really can’t go wrong either way.
Nowadays we search for and praise innovation so much in video games that it can be easy to forget older titles like Ultima IV which had a design that is surprisingly and entertainingly divergent, and which few games have attempted to emulate after nearly three decades.