Title: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Developer: Origin Systems
Publisher: Origin Systems
Year: 1985

Description: Ultima IV was a breakthrough game for Richard Garriott in many ways. Set in a world sixteen times larger than Ultima III, Ultima IV was the first Ultima to not have a villain to defeat at the end. Instead, the player was asked to go on the Quest of the Avatar and discover the secrets of the eight Shrines of Virtue.

Also, everything players didn't like about Ultima III was fixed; you could now have eight members in your party instead of four, the game no longer threw you into combats you couldn't possibly win, and if you found yourself outclassed in combat, you could run away.

Notables: This game is most notable for the depth of the emotional responses it elicited from the people who played it, people who at the time didn't even know computer games could elicit those responses. Sure, games could make you happy or mad or maybe even scared, but who could have guessed that a game could make you want to go out and be a better person?

The seed of Ultima IV was actually the feedback Richard got from Ultima III. While most of it was positive, a few people wrote in criticizing Richard for the symbology he was using as he created his games, and how the game seemed to reward socially aberrant behavior (stealing was one of the fastest ways to get ahead in Ultima III). Such feedback bothered Richard, who up until then hadn't realized that he was sending messages through his games.

Having discovered this, Richard set out to deliberately send the best, most positive message he possibly could with Ultima IV. Though he was careful to avoid all religious symbology (Ultima IV was the first Ultima not to have clerics in it), Richard devised a game whose whole point was to become the best person you could possibly be: an Avatar, moral example to all of Britannia. Even as he plotted out his game, he was aware of the thin ice he was skating on; coming across too "preachy" could have cost him his entire fan base.

Fortunately, he performed this delicate balancing act marvellously, and Ultima IV became his biggest-selling game ever.

My Opinion: There just aren't enough superlatives in the English language to bestow upon this game. Richard's superb combination of the already-strong Ultima III engine (sans errors) with his gentle revealing of a compelling message make this one of the best games ever. There really isn't anything else to say.

Notes: The original game was released for the Apple II and then ported to a large number of other machines. Here's a complete list:

Apple II
Commodore 64

Atari 800

Atari ST


Sega Master System

FM Towns

(Thanks to the Ultima Collector's Guide, http://www.ucg.f2s.com/ for much of this information)

In 1999, Richard Garriott declared that Ultima IV was now freeware, meaning that if you find a version online, you can legally download and play it. Over the years, there have been many patches made to the original IBM PC version to improve the graphical quality and add music (the original version had none). The best of the lot is Ultima IV VGA, which turns the original game into a 256-color VGA game with full MIDI support for the music. The official home page for Ultima IV VGA is http://www.moongates.com/U4 , but that site is down as I write this, so you can get it here instead:


Encyclopaedia of Computer and Video Games

Once a game is complete and the quests have all been accomplished, it's fun to go back to earlier points in the game and take the paths not chosen just to see what the results would have been. Specifically, you want to choose those options that seemed as if they would lead to the most disastrous consequences. The teasing question to be answered is, How entertaining would my ruin have been?

In Ultima IV, the player at one point comes into possession of the skull of Mondain, the evil wizard from an earlier adventure. The skull can be picked up and carried around like any other item, and there is no doubt in one's mind that it can be used to commit acts of badassery on a truly grand scale. However, since the game focuses entirely on the quest for moral and spiritual perfection, one also suspects that slinging a magical artifact of great evil around could have some ill effects on your character.

Having completed the game and acheived Avatarhood, I decided it was time to take the skull out for a spin. I returned to a saved point in the game just after I'd retrieved the skull and set sail for a village full of test subjects.

Once there, I entered the gates of the city. USE SKULL, I typed. There was a loud buzzing noise, and all at once I was alone. I searched every shop, every home, every corner of the village and found no one. I had utterly disintegrated everyone there.

I had also lost all of my accumulated virtues. But no matter, because a great and evil plan was forming in my now-smoldering brain: I would use the skull to KILL LORD BRITISH.

Lord British, for those of you who don't know, is the wise and kind ruler of the fantasy kingdom depicted in the Ultima games. He is invulnerable to harm and it has become a challenge for players to figure out ways to off him. (I recall that in one game a bug in the program lets you fire a cannon through his castle wall and into his throne room to good effect.)

I high-tailed it across the countryside to Lord British's castle, vaporizing the monsters I met along the way with my newly-discovered death ray. When I arrived I went straight to the throne room. I knelt before the monarch and engaged him in innocent conversation for a few moments. Then I whipped out my secret weapon. USE SKULL!

Everyone vanished except Lord British.

The enraged ruler hopped down off his throne and raced toward me. I ran out of the throne room and all through the castle with the furious king at my heels. Diving into the kitchen, I ran around the single table with Lord British in hot pursuit; I bolted back out into the hallway where I slammed the door shut on my pursuer. Lord British, apparently mad with rage, continued to run around and around the kitchen, too blinded by fury to think to open the door himself.

Watching him go I realized that nothing else I could do with the skull could possibly match this, and quit the game a happy, happy boy.

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