Posted by: seanmalstrom | January 14, 2014

Email: I just beat Ultima V

It’s that time again, I beat an Ultima game and now it’s time to report my amazing feat. I played the DOS version from GOG with the upgrade patch (adds mostly MIDI music, which is fantastic, to the game and the ability to quit to DOS) and the runic font patch that replaces all the runes with latin characters. I already know the latin and cyrillic alphabet from the languages I speak every day, and I know the Greek alphabet because I need it in formulas (I don’t speak Greek though), so I really don’t want to learn useless runes on top of that. I see what Garriot wanted to accomplish, adding an immersive experience by presenting the player with an unfamiliar font (because why would Britannians use the same alphabet as we do?), and in a way I actually applaud that, but at the same time it’s just extra busywork. It also doubled as off-disc copy-protection, though not a very effective one. I think this is also the game that introduced the Stones song, which has become iconic for the series. The music in general is really well done.


Here are the links to my emails about Ultima Underworld and Ultima IV for reference:



Ultima V was released in 1988, the same year I was born, a few months after my birth, making this the first game in the series that is not older than me. Looking at Wikipedia, it took Origin three years to make this game, and it really shows. The graphics are a huge step up from the previous game; while I wouldn’t want to play Ultima IV without the upgrade patch (it’s just hideous), this one actually looks really good, not as good as the upgraded Ultima IV, but it’s still nice to look at. Characters have little animations and extra sprites for sitting, lying in a bed or climbing ladders, it’s really nice to look at. The only problem with the graphics is that many sprites look clearly male with beards or half-bald heads, even though they are supposed to be female. In Ultima IV, even with the upgrade patch, the sprites were drawn gender-neutral enough, but here it’s just wrong to see Mariah with a flowing white beard in my group. The sound was improved as well, and I think the ambient noises are completely new. At first it took me a while to figure out that those ticks were coming from the clock and that the weird clicking noises were running water. The sound quality is not particularly good, but it adds a nice extra touch to the game.


The interface improvements are really outstanding. Up until now the games used hotkeys for everything, so if you wanted to cast a spell you needed a list with all the button mappings. Ultima V features cursor keys support an while that may be trivial today, it’s a huge step up in usability. No joke, when I tried Ultima IV for the first time I couldn’t figure out how to start the game, I thought the cursor was frozen. There are some other additions like being able to talk to people across tables, but those pale in comparison to cursor keys.


The day & night cycle with its corresponding NPC schedules is really impressive. In previous games the NPCs were just standing around, doing nothing, just waiting for me to come by, but here they actually have a life. They go to work, they have meals, they go sleeping and sometimes you might catch someone doing something suspicious. One thing I would do was sneak into people’s houses and sleep in their beds while they were out, instead of paying for a stay at the inn. The game also shows a first introduction to interactive environments, you can search containers or push objects. In Ultima IV you couldn’t do anything with the objects, they might as well be just walls. It’s not nearly as deep as Ultima VI or VII, but it’s cool to be able to pick a torch off a wall or find a potion or scroll in a drawer.


Speaking of which, potions and scrolls are new as well, now even when you run out spells to cast you still have some last resort. I remember in the final dungeon in one room everyone except the Avatar was killed, and even he was poisoned and out of MP. If it wasn’t for the red potion this would have been the end, but thanks to the potion I was able to cure the poison, rest to regenerate MPs and then resurrect the rest of the party. Pretty cool.


This was my general impression, now I’d like to go over some specific parts in general and what worked and what didn’t.




Ultima IV had no villain at all and I can’t think of any other RPG that ever did that sort of thing, making it really unique. Ultima V on the other hand went back to having a clear villain, but it still gave the villain a unique angle. Imagine for a moment that Ultima V was a Final Fantasy game; the game would be linear, you would go and kill each Shadowlord in order, you would have to take Saduj into your party because the script demands it and everyone would be shocked that the guy whose name is Judas backwards was a traitor and when you finally confronted Blackthorn he would be about to finish off the construction of his “Armageddon Device”. He would go on an endless rant about how the virtues are the *ultima*te (see what I did there?) goal, how life by its very nature is unvirtuous and how he has to kill everyone because when no one is alive no one can break the virtues. The group would fight him, he would lose and then they would use the power of friendship to make him see how wrong he was. Of course right when he is about to redeem himself the Shadowlords would return and fuse with him to form the “Ratava”, the living embodiment of sin, and the party would have to kill it by hitting it repeatedly with regular swords and axes. Bleh!


Ultima IV established the Virtues as a sort of universally good philosophy. Finally a utopian society free of the restraints and backwards-thinking of traditional dogmatic religion, an endless possibility for self-enlightenment, no one will ever start a crusade or an inquisition in the name of Virtues, right? Right? Hahaha! See, this is the real genius part of Ultima V’s story and the Age of Enlightenment in general, the real evil is not from the outside, it comes from the inside. Any ideology, no matter how good the intentions, can be warped and twisted into a means of oppression.


Anyway, it’s really disturbing to see the Virtues twisted in such a way. The first town I visited was Yew, the city of Justice and the first thing I saw was a farmer and his son, sentenced to death by starvation for donating less than half of their income for “charity”. This is some really disturbing shit after the highly idealogical Ultima IV.  I think Iolo’s hut was intentionally placed near Yew so the first town the player would come across could display just how badly Justice can be twisted. It’s easier to twist Justice than Compassions or Valour give the technology used for this game. Other cities are not that bad and vary in the amount of oppression, in some cities people will openly speak against Blackthorn, while in others you can even find sympathisers and collaborators.


Then you come to Blackthorn’s castle and shit gets real. You really see (or rather read) the depravity that’s going on. There is the chef who cooked and served his own nephew, the story of a woman who was executed for not “humbling” herself to a guard (i.e. get raped), Blackthorn even has daemons as his personal guard, and of course there is the scene when you get caught. Not only are you thrown into prison, but one of your companions is *permanently* killed, no matter what you do! And the only person to be blamed is you for allowing to get caught, one of your friends had to die for *your* mistake, not because the plot demands it.


All in all the story, or rather the setup for the story, in Ultima V is really grim and dark. Despite the technology this isn’t limited just to words, but it also extends to the game’s content. In most games you get *told* things like “the evil wizard has taken over the land” but you don’t really feel it, you just walk around, and do your chores while people patiently sit on their asses waiting for you to trigger the next part of the plot. Take Final Fantasy 1 as an example, the world is falling apart, yet people sit in towns while you go and check the individual elements off the list.


In Ultima V on the other hand you are *shown* the effects. The council members are not just standing out in the open waiting for you to come by, they are hiding, in disguise and they won’t trust everyone. You have to travel the world , find clues, piece them together, learn about the situation and how it can be solved. Even if you know what you need to do (purify the shrines, get LB’s artefacts back) you still have no clue how to accomplish all this. You might even have come across a council member without recognising it and some might only show up at certain times of day. Just as you would for real if you were looking for a person hiding in disguise. At the same time the Shadowlords aren’t just sitting around in Stonegate twisting their thumbs while you go around tossing their shards into the flames, they actively seek you out. You might want to enter a city to stock up on supplies and all of the sudden you are informed of a Shadowlord’s presence. You never know where they will strike next, and you don’t want to be in a city with them, they corrupt every citizen.


The real strength in Ultima 5’s story is not so much its narrative, but the way it sets everything up for *your* adventure. It’s a campaign setting, but what you do with it is up to you, you go traveling around, collecting clues, finding secrets and piecing everything together. There are many things to do, many ways to do it and pretty much every approach is valid. For example, I came across the magic carpet entirely by accident while I was snooping around in Lord British’s castle after just hearing a rumour that he would have one. It was me who decided not to trust Saduj, because why would a gardener be sneaking around the rooftop in the middle of the night? It was me who decided not to join the oppression even though I had the opportunity and it would have made things easier. It was also me who just plundered the treasure rooms of Castle Britannia instead of earning his loot the honest way. And it was all a valid decision, I wasn’t exploiting the game or breaking rules.


The World


It’s a good thing I played Ultima IV before, because Ultima V got even bigger. Cities can now have two floors, castles even more, there is lighthouses and dwellings. This would set a trend in motion where until Serpent Isle each Ultima game would have a more realistic world, but it would also be easier to just drown in all the content. Ultima IV was simple: there are eight cities and three castles, visit each one, talk to everyone, learn stuff, find the rune, done. This really helped in Ultima V because I was able to start getting things done instead of figuring out where anything is. I knew where the shrines were, what the mantras were, where he moongates were, what the connection of everything was… I know the game explained everything to newcomers, but I would still recommend Ultima IV as a starting point for new players.


With that said, as someone who already played Ultima IV I loved it. It was the same world, but yet it was different. Some areas changed entirely (how the f’ did the lake around the shrine of Sacrifice turn into a desert?), others moved on and grew. When I last visited Magincia it was all in ruins, but here it was rebuilt as a new town. Towns and castles in general got bigger and more populated, they were entirely different places with new people and new secrets. It was really cool to see the Britannies, small villages growing around Britain, like the capital city was growing and needed more farmland to supply the population. The lighthouses and small dwellings were pretty cool ideas as well, they gave you something interesting to look out for when traveling the world. To top it all off there was even a second world, the underworld!


Traveling was improved as well. The large frigates allowed fast sailing, but couldn’t move up rivers, while small skiff were mobile but had no cannons. The magic carpet really kicked ass, it allowed me to just fly above all those trapdoors and swamp tiles. Moongates were pretty cool, but for some reason they glitched out in my game and became practically useless. When entering a moongate I would end up in an area full of gates and each of them would send me back to the same point; luckily the shrine of Spirituality still worked. I don’t know what was going on, but I like to imagine it was the Shadowlords manipulating the very essence of the moongates to keep me trapped in an endless loop of moongates. Either that or it’s because I used the savegame editor.


The Journal


here is something I didn’t like: having to go OCD on the journal and keep track of each NPC’s name, location, profession and possibly where they work. I kept a simple pen&paper journal in Ultima IV and it worked, but here I went straight for a text file, so I could add information anywhere on the fly and keep it organised. For instance, you get the hint that one council member’s daughter works as a sails maker, so if you haven’t written down which NPC is making sails you will have to travel the whole world all over again looking for that one person. Sometimes you will be given just a name and no clue as to where that person lives, so you better have it written down.


See, none of this would be an issue if I really lived in in Britannia, but I don’t. Sometimes I’ll take a break from a game for several months and when i return I’ll have no clue where I left off. In a game with a proper journal everything will be nicely ordered and I can usually get back on track quite quickly. Then again, most games don’t have the depth that Ultima has :/ I’m sure I missed some things and I used the internet quite often when I got completely lost instead of just wandering around aimlessly.


The Dungeons


I really didn’t like the dungeons in Ultima IV, they were really cryptic and had respawning rooms. You can have one of the two, but not both; it’s very frustrating to find you had taken the wrong turn and know you will have to go through all those rooms *again*. I ended up using a walkthrough to find the proper route and just go for the exit, which is a shame, because I like dungeon games in general. Another thing that pissed me off was the lack of textures on the walls, it all looks the same and is disorienting.


Ultima V fixed those complaints. Walls were now textured and each dungeon had another theme, giving it some sort of history. One dungeon was like an old prison, complete with skeletons shackled to the walls, while another was like a natural cave system. There were hidden trapdoors you could climb up and down, secret switches to push, and the dungeons in general were nowhere as cryptic as before. Most importantly though, dungeon rooms didn’t respawn anymore! It was actually satisfying to clean out a room because you felt like you actually did something and it wouldn’t be reset the next instance. It also meant that failing to find the right way wouldn’t force me to fight the same group of monsters all over again. If it wasn’t for the combat system itself dungeon exploring in Ultima V would have been really great.


While I used a walkthrough for Ultima IV’s dungeons to get through as fast as possible, there for no need for this in Ultima V.  Such simple changes can make a huge difference.


Combat & Magic


I really don’t want to complain, because the combat in Ultima V is a good improvement over Ultima IV, but I still have to. It is better than in IV where you could only attack in four directions, while enemies were allowed to target diagonally as well; in V you get an aiming reticle that allows you to aim anywhere within the weapon’s radius, which makes combat way more interesting. Really the problem I have with the combat has been inherited from Ultima IV (or rather III), but the reason I’m bitching about it only now is because it isn’t as irritating on its own, but after two games it does wear you down.


The problem is that you essentially control every character in turn, even if you don’t want to move them. Let’s say I just want to kill a single rat and move across the room. I only need one character for that task, yet I’m slowed down by having to drag four characters across the screen the whole time. Sometimes I don’t even want to move all characters, sometimes I just want to go around opening treasure chests, but I still need to command them to move them out of the room. It’s just so annoying and after a while I start just pressing keys routinely, but then the order changes and I accidentally move one character to the wrong spot because some characters get to move more frequently, blocking another character’s path, wasting an entire round to just fix that and argh! This wouldn’t be such a problem if you could assign AI behaviour to your companions or at least put them on auto-skip while you go around collecting loot. In Ultima VI I can just put my companions on auto-pilot and for regular encounters that is enough, but for hard battles I can take full control of them.


My problem with magic is similar to the runic font. In Ultima IV each spell had a regular name like [H]eal, so all you had to remember was the hotkey. Sure, you had to mix the spell first, but really all that meant was looking up on a list what reagents you need, then buying 50 of each and pressing the same button combo 50 times. It was annoying, sure, but you only did it once in a while and that was it, the hotkeys for spellcasting were intuitive enough.


Ultima V inverts the problem. Now you can mix any amount of spells at once, which is nice, but casting the spell is like learning a new language. No longer do you just press H, instead you must press V and M for Vas Mani. What is a Vas Mani? That’s not a thing, it means nothing, it’s something made up. Oh sure, the Words of Power all have a meaning and the spells are reasonable combinations, but to know the meaning I have to learn a new fake language.


If I want to cast a spell I first have to look it up in a table, which is not alphabetically ordered and then look up the made-up magic words and type them in. Again, I see where Garriot was going with this, he wanted to give a sort of mathematical nature to magic. A spell shouldn’t be just some bastardised Latin word you say and stuff happens, like in Harry Potter, it needs a sense of order and system. The reagents and words for each spell reflect exactly the spell’s effect, and it’s all explained greatly in the manual. My problem is really that it requires constant extra fiddling around with the documentation, there is no extra challenge in it. This really wouldn’t be a problem if I lived in Britannia, I mean ten syllables is nothing, but I don’t.


Apparently I’m not the only person who thought like this either, because in Ultima VI the spell system was changed: you no longer need to mix reagents and remember words. Instead you just have to buy enough of them and when you want to cast a spell it is mixed on the spot. You choose your spells from a spellbook that features the names of spells rather than meaningless syllables and the syllables are now just part of the fluff, not required to play the game.


Levelling Up


The only way to gain experience points is by fighting, and as I just explained, fighting is not fun for long stretches. It is really only interesting when going against really strong enemies, which have strong attacks and spells, because it demands strategy and planning. The problem is that until you get there you are stuck fighting boring stuff. Until your casters reach a reasonably hight level, like 6, you won’t have any interesting spells and the ones you have will not be worth the casting effort. When you get access to higher spells they get so costly you can cast only a handful, which makes sense, but then your casters suck again. Plus you have to put up with the annoying magic system.


It’s not an issue as long as you are still on the surface collecting clues, but once you are ready to go dungeoneering it hits you in the face. As I said previously, I do like dungeon games, so that’s not the problem, it’s that Ultima V’s combat makes it a subpar dungeon game. It can be fun to plunge into a dungeon and see how far you can make it and still get out alive, but it just isn’t that well done here.


In the end I decided to just use the savegame editor and give myself the needed amount of experience. The only problem is that the editor is very buggy for Ultima V, so I had to suck it up and go through the grind. Or I could get a hex editor and read up on the Ultima V savegame file format, find the relevant bytes, convert them to int, change the value and convert the result back to bytes. In the end that’s exactly what I did, it beats grinding and I learned something about how computers store files in the process.


Of course this had the side effect of making the top floors of dungeons entirely pointless. The bottom floors on the other hand remained still quite challenging. Even at level 8 monsters like daemons remained a very serious threat and sometimes it was better to try to run past them as fast as possible. The worst enemies were the wisps, they can possess any of your party members, and if they possess your casters you have no chance of casting charm to negate their effect. And yes, I know that wearing the crown stops them from doing that, but it also stops them from teleporting through walls, so if they are hiding in the walls you can’t clear out a room and the room will respawn again. Taking off the crown is the only way to get them into the open, but it also exposes you again. It was really scary.


Oh, before I forget it, it’s total BS that Lord British grants you stat points completely randomly. I mean, what is Durpe supposed to do with INT points? He could be the smartest guy in the world, he still won’t know how to cast spells. It would be much better if I could choose what to increase.




With all hat negativity, does it mean I hated Ultima V? Well, no, it is actually a great game, but it makes me sad to see it bogged down by so many seemingly tiny issues. It’s like the interface in Ultima VI, it’s not as bad, but a lot of small issues keep piling up and make for an ultimately frustrating experience. It’s a shame Origin never took backups and code preservation seriously enough and the source codes are lost in oblivion, because a modern source port could easily fix most of these problems. Have a spellcasting system and companion AI like in Ultima VI and you have reduced the most glaring issues. I mean, just try playing Ultima VI in DOS and then in Nuvie with its new interface mode side by side and see the difference (make sure you use the latest snapshot of Nuvie). Imagine what a port could do for V as well.


Yes, Ultima IV had most of these problems as well, but there the game was simpler and smaller. Did I enjoy my time with Ultima V? Definitely. Will I be coming back to it? Probably, but not anytime soon. I would rather play Ultima Underworld or VI (with the Nuvie port) instead, they aged much more gracefully. I might try playing the game solo next time, that would cut down on the downtime a lot, but I don’t know if the game would be too difficulty then. Well, there’s an idea for an interesting challenge.






Above: Yes, all that came inside every Ultima V game.


1988 was a great year for video games. I remember reading previews about Ultima V back then in PC gaming magazines. They hyped Ultima V by saying you can now talk across tables and during nighttime, you can only see one square around you.

1988 was also when the NES began to take off in America. When Ultima V was released was when Contra, R.C. Pro-Am, Double Dragon, Life Force, 1943, Blaster Master, Castlevania II, Paperboy, Blades of Steel, Zelda II, and Super Mario Brothers 2 came out. Dragon Warrior 1 would be released in 1989 and Final Fantasy I would be released in 1990.

The value of an Ultima game back then was a game you played for months on end and immersed yourself into its world. It was like a MMORPG before MMORPGs (Ultima did invent the MMORPG after all). Console games were very arcade-like and did a different job. Other PC games, including adventure and RPG games, weren’t really this detailed. Ultima was unique in how it was more interested in role playing than in min/maxing stats. Each Ultima also had a new game engine.

You did a fantastic summary of Ultima V. There is a fan made remake called Lazarus made with the Dungeon Siege engine. I haven’t tried that out yet.

Let us listen to Lazarus’s music!

More? You wish to hear more, reader? Here you go.



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