Over the last two articles, we've looked at a sequel that failed on its gameplay, and a sequel that failed on its story. This time, we're going to take a very special look at a sequel that boldly failed on both. Actually, we're going to look at two sequels, in fact, as a special 2-for-1 deal. Or maybe that's 3-for-2. Whatever math makes it work.
SUBJECT III: Ultima(s) VIII and IX
But of course, let us first look back to the beginnings...
: Ultima I - VII
Ok, a full history of the entire Ultima series would make these already wordy articles notably more wordy, so let us condense...
The original Ultima came out way back in 1980, and was a fairly routine "stop the evil wizard" type roleplaying game. Of course, back then, Ultima was at the head of the pack, so such a thing was still pretty new. Your character, "the stranger," pulled from Earth to help out the land of Sosaria (later Britania), traveled through a top down overworld, then popped into 3d-perspective dungeons to slay beasts, get treasure, and teach evil the meaning of the word "Klimb."
The important bit here, however, is that Ultima did quite well for itself by the standards of the day, and thus its creator, Richard Garriot (aka Lord British) was able to continue telling the story he had began in subsequent titles. Thus, approximately every two years after, a new Ultima title would hit the shelves. With each installment, the gameplay grew a little deeper, the world of Britania grew richer, and the series popularity just plain grew.
The Ultima series truly began to distinguish itself when it entered its second trilogy, episodes IV - VI. Called (later on) The Age of Enlightenment, this arc of the game centered around the efforts of your character, at the request of Lord British, to become a shining Avatar to the desperate people of Britania by understanding and embracing the Eight Virtues of Honesty, Valor, Compassion, Justice, Humility, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Honor. That's right, here was a game that wasn't about overcoming any sort of dread monster, but instead about self-improvement and teaching others what it means to be good. As you might imagine, this was a pretty revolutionary idea at the time, and Ultima continued to grow in fame and fans. Of course its spelled with a "Z"
The next two games in the series continued the theme of the Virtues and followed the continued growth of the Avatar as a hero to the people. Britania continued to grow and change, becoming even more of a living, breathing world. The world cycled through day and night, and NPCs followed their own personal schedules. Can't find the baker in his shop at night? He's probably at home eating dinner. Other characters had better things to do than just stand around all day waiting for the player to show up and bug them.
In 1992, Ultima entered its third age with Ultima VII: The Black Gate, and things started off with a bang. The Avatar is summoned back to Britania by the mysterious Guardian to find that two hundred years have passed since his last visit. The world has changed again, and a mysterious pseudo-religious group known as The Fellowship has been slowly supplanting the virtues in the minds of the people. This, of course, just won't do. Heading into Britania to find out exactly what the deal is, the player soon discovered an even larger game world, a huge leap forward in graphics, and a generally vast improvement in gameplay. Sprites were large and colorful, movement was no longer tile-based, almost anything in the world could be picked up and moved, and dialogue now had keyword options and trees so conversations were a breeze. On top of that, the game continued with the Ultima tradition of being relatively non-linear, so you could explore the whole world at your leisure without feeling like you were being shoved down any one particular path.
Someone got corpse all over my stable.
At the end of the day, though you thwart the Guardian's plan temporarily, his minions make their escape, leading us into Ultima VII: Part 2: The Serpent Isle, which I would classify as a semi-sequel. It used the same engine as VII, and was a direct continuation of the story, but it was otherwise an entirely independent game. There is much speculation as to why it was not deemed to be Ultima VIII, but only Lord British knows for sure. Serpent Isle was far more linear than VII, and strict adherence to the virtues was a far looser thing than in previous versions (a trend that would continue...). However, it was still a solid game overall, and an excellent continuation of the Avatar saga. After reuniting his companions, slaying some baddies, and bangin' a few barmaids, the Avatar finished off the minions of the Fellowship, and the player was left with the always tantalizing question of "what does the Guardian have in store for me next?"
The answer, unfortunately...
The Sequel #1
: Ultima VIII: Pagan
What went so wrong with Pagan can be summed up in two hideous words: jumping puzzles. Yes, Ultima, which in 1994 was a certifiably venerable series, was reduced to hack-n'-slash combat and jumping puzzles. I exaggerate slightly, of course, but only slightly. Pagan picks up with the Avatar being plucked from Britania by the Guardian and being transported to a world he has long since conquered. Pagan is an ugly place, both aesthetically and in personality. No, the Virtues did not exist in Pagan, which was a good thing because the Avatar would be doing some highly unvirtuous things on the road to victory. At any rate, finding himself in a conquered land, the Avatar discovers that the only way to overthrow the Guardian's rule is to harness the power of the elemental Titans, and thus he sets out on a journey of danger, adventure, and jumping.
The world of Pagan was much smaller than previous Ultimas, and much of the life seemed to have been sucked out of it. NPCs no longer even had quaint portraits next to their text, as had been the case in previous installments. The magic system of Pagan was completely changed from previous Ultimas, and was rather poorly implemented. On top of that, the Avatar was completely alone in this world, with none of his trusty companions from days past to travel with him, nor anyone else to travel with him for that matter. Truly, Pagan was a desolate, lonely game. It was also incredibly buggy.
As you might have guessed, Pagan was not met with resounding cheers of joy from the fans. Most of them felt a little betrayed, in fact. So much was different, so much was gone, and so much just plain didn't work that people began to grumble that perhaps the series had hit its peak with VII and everything else was going to be downhill. Lord British himself expressed dissatisfaction with the game, saying that he should have stayed personally involved, and that it was far too rushed to have ended up a good product. The timeline supports his claims, as not one, not two, not three, but 5 Ultima titles came out between 1992 and 1994. That level of output lets you know that perhaps not the fullest of attention was being paid to quality on some of them...
Ultimately, however, fans accepted that the story was not complete yet, and that Pagan might just be a bump in the road. All eyes turned towards the future and to the conclusion still yet to come:
The Sequel #2:
Ultima IX: Ascension
The first real whispers of Ultima IX came from Lord British himself in a text file included with a patch for Ultima VIII. In it, he said that fan reaction to Pagan was being taken into account, and that IX would be returning fans to Britania for a more classic Ultima adventure. This, of course, was greeted with much rejoicing. Subsequent revelations also revealed that the game would be in full 3d, and would feature top-notch cinematics. Early screenshots leaked out in 1996, and the game look amazing. It was at this point that the first signs of trouble began to rear their ugly heads. Having discovered that Ultima Online was making them fistfulls of cash, EA decided to move most of the Ultima IX development team over to that in the hopes of making additional fistfulls. The game languished in development oblivion for a few years, but was finally resurrected in late 1997. Now, as any gamer knows, when a game shows off visuals that look kickass in year X, and then the game is delayed until year Y, those visuals generally start to look less kick ass. So, in addition to, you know, finishing the game, the dev team now had to upgrade the now out-of-date graphics. This looked pretty awesome back in 1998.
To top off the problems, a new producer was brought in, and that soon led to the exodus of much of the original development team due to some creative differences. Even the lead designer quit, which is never a good sign. Following that, the producer that drove those people out also
quit, causing Garriot himself to step back in. If this series of events is not inspiring confidence in you, rest assured that you are not alone. The fans (and me) were starting to have some serious concerns. Yet still we held out hope, because damn if those new screenshots didn't look awesome.
In 1999, the waiting was finally over, and Ultima IX: Ascension, hit the shelves. I, in my usual fashion, giddily rushed it home and began installing, my mouth moist with anticipation. Finishing the install and loading it up, I met sweet bliss as I discovered that apparently my video card wasn't supported. Or my driver. Or something. The game wasn't very clear on the subject. Doing some quick internet research, I quickly discovered I was not alone. This game had some serious issues with being played.
Fortunately, a patch came out in relatively short order that made the game playable for most of us, so after that short delay, back to Britania!
To be honest, the beginning of the game (once it worked), was amazing at the time. Wandering around the Avatar's Earth home, checking things out in the garden, putzing around in the kitchen, the game really did look and feel amazing. Once you got through the prelude, though, and ended up in Britania, well, things took a turn for the worse.
To start, there were the technical problems. The engine was not optimized very well, and unless you had a 1999 supercomputer, you probably couldn't get your draw distance to more than about twenty feet in front of you. So, while the world was gorgeous, you couldn't see most of it. Object clipping was atrocious, and it was far to easy to get the Avatar snagged on a rock or a twig and just find yourself stuck for all eternity. Oh how the mighty hero is brought low! Combat itself was just not fun, as the controls and timing were very difficult. Fortunately, the enemy AI was apparently clobbered by a brick somewhere along the line in development, and most enemies would just stand there and let you wail on them. One almost started to feel bad for them. Almost.
Beyond that, though, as I have said before and I will probably say again, poor gameplay can sometimes be forgiven in the face of a great story. This was not one of those cases. Looking past the inexplicable fact that the Guardian had apparently decided to send you, his mortal enemy, back to your cushy home after the events of VIII, Ascension was just so riddled with plot holes, linear questing, and a seeming disregard for what made Ultima so adored by fans that it just couldn't be forgiven. Yes, that's right, yet another game that some fans decided to label non-canon. You don't want to fuck with the fans.
Yes, during the course of your adventures to destroy the Guardian's evil PILLARS OF DOOM, you could kill your old companions without even realizing it (like I did the first time), wander in a straight line from town to town with little choice (as the towns were also now approximately thirty yards apart), and demonstrate a general disregard for any of the virtues that had been so touted in the previous titles (as I most certainly did). Yes, the Savior of the People that had been the Avatar could now just be a general shitbag with little to no consequence. Truly, is there anything more embarrassing than dying in lavender armor with purple frilly bits? I think not.
And then, beyond all else, there was the final twist, which I took as the final kick to the teeth from Origin to me (get ready for spoilers!). Yes, in your final showdown with the Guardian, you discover that he is... dun dun dunh! The evil side of you! Yes, it's ultimate cliche time, brought to you by the fine folks at Electronic Arts! So, of course to defeat him, you have to sacrifice yourself because as long as one lives blah blah blah. So, you engage him in mortal combat, surround yourself with a magical shield, and blow the shit out of yourself with the nuclear weapon of magic spells, Armageddon. Then, with your friends watching (the ones you haven't killed), your spirit gathers from the dust and ascends skyward as you, assumedly, achieve godhood. In this case, godhood is represented by kooky techno music as you zoom through space under the credits. Yes, that was how the glorious legacy of Ultima came to a close: kooky techno music.
Where They Went Wrong
Ultima VIII and IX are really textbook examples of the best ways to totally screw up a beloved series. On one level, you've got your corporate overlords rushing development to try and cash in, followed by them then shifting resources away from the project to go make money somewhere else. You have the man who had been the founder and guiding light of the series stepping aside and bowing to that same corporate pressure. And again, you have the people who did work on it seemingly not understanding what fundamentally drew people in to the games to begin with, attempting to branch off in different directions that neither fit nor worked in the grand scheme of things.
Yes, fans of Ultima were forced to watch as the games suffered the full array of ills not once, but twice, and had to hang their heads as the series died a drawn-out death. And with the fact that EA owns the rights to the title, but Garriot owns the rights to the characters, it looks like any sort of proper resolution is nothing but a dream. Fortunately, the fan community has stayed amazingly active, and remakes and patches for the older titles are plentiful. Exult
, for instance, is a fan project that lets you play Ultima VII and VII:P2 on modern Windows systems (which is a good thing since the old DOS versions just don't work, period).
So, while the series may never get a fitting end worthy of its legacy, at least we can still remember the good times whenever we want to. And then, as we glance up on our shelves to the empty spaces that sit past Serpent Isle, we can slowly shake our heads and wonder just how they screwed this up...