Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Developer: Origin Systems
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:
Sega Master System
(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