Just as they did with their historical Might and Magic piece, the editors over at Hardcore Gaming 101 have put together the first half of an excellent fifteen-page history of Richard Garriott's classic Ultima series. While there's plenty of nostalgia-inducing text within, there are also some interesting tidbits to glean, such as the fact that Brutal Deluxe Software is attempting to re-release Rebecca Heineman's "technically superior" version of Ultima I:
Ultima was originally released for the Apple II in 1981, very close to the release date of Sir-Tech's Wizardry, a series with which Ultima would have a sales rivalry throughout the first part of the 80's. A port of the game was released for the Atari 8-bit computer series two years later by then-publisher Sierra On-Line, but Ultima remained fairly inaccessible for non-Apple gamers until 1986, when Origin Systems released a remade version. Retitled Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, this enhanced version of the game is playable on multiple platforms, including the Apple II, IBM PC, Commodore 64, MSX and NEC PC-88/PC-98. The remake of Ultima I included multiple improvements, the most immediately obvious of which being the vastly increased game speed due to it being written in assembly language instead of Apple BASIC. The game also has more colorful graphics with animated tiles as in Ultima III and IV enemies wandering the overworld visibly instead of popping out of nowhere at random, a new title screen, and a general fix of various glitches which plagued the original game. This version of Ultima I is included in the various game collections later released, including Origin's Ultima Trilogy and Electronic Arts' Gold Classics Collection, among others; for this reason, among the PC versions of the games, Ultima II seems lower-tech than Ultima I. The Apple II, IBM PC and C64 versions of the game are largely identical to each other save for graphical quality. The Japanese-only MSX and PC-88/PC-98 versions published by Pony Canyon offer an entirely new, brightly-colored tileset in a higher resolution, which changes the feel while otherwise remaining the same game (and amusingly, appears to make Lord British look like a Daimyo in a castle full of tatami mats). The PC-88 and MSX versions are very similar in quality, while the PC-98 graphics are higher resolution and look cleaner. Pony Canyon also added a new original score, which seems jarring compared to the silence of the other versions. The FM-TOWNS version was released by Fujitsu only as a special edition trilogy CD with Ultima II and Ultima III, and has vastly improved graphics (look at that glorious 16-bit water!) and sound, with yet another new score as well as better sound effects than any other port. The FM Towns Trilogy disk also includes an introduction movie with impressive painted art.
Much later in 1994, AppleIIGS programmer Bill (today Rebecca) Heineman, who had previously served as lead developer of Interplay's The Bard's Tale III and programmed the Apple IIGS port of Eric Chahi's Out of This World, reassembled the Out of This World team to create a new definitive version of Ultima I with completely redrawn, high-resolution graphics and modern sound. This version was released by Vitesse Inc., and is the most technically superior version of the game. However, it is now extremely rare due to the distributor going out of business shortly after release. Very little information about this version of the game is available. It seems to have been available as a paid download from the company Shareware Solutions II for a while in recent years, but the store is currently unavailable due to the death of the proprietor, so the status of the AppleIIGS version is in limbo. As of writing, Paris-based programmers Brutal Deluxe Software are working on making this superior version of the game available again.
Exodus is the first game in the series to include adventuring parties, among many, many other additions and improvements which redeem the awkward Revenge of the Enchantress. The game opens with an impressive animated title screen, playing a movie of how the game works as a party of adventurers wanders and gets into trouble; this animated demo would remain in the series until Ultima VI, when it was replaced with cutscenes. Many of the graphics tiles are now animated, with lapping water, waving flags, and posing monsters and NPCs, giving the game world a far more lively look. Exodus features music composed by Ultima I co-creator Ken Arnold, becoming the first game in the series with a soundtrack. Combat is no longer an affair of just pressing (A)ttack and a direction to aim, but now takes place on a separate battlefield screen where you control each member of your party individually against bands of monsters in turn-based style. Victory in battle leaves a chest behind, usually trapped, a gameplay mechanic that later saw wide use in early Japanese console RPGs. The world of Exodus sets the trend that all later Ultimas would follow of a stronger high fantasy feel, doing away with the science fiction elements of aliens, rocketships, phasers, time travel and power armor from previous games, with one notable exception.
Exodus begins with the creation of characters with which to form a party. There are more races and classes than before, which still for the most part follow the template of Dungeons & Dragons races and classes with humans, dwarves, hobbits (bobbits), fuzzies (think Ewok) and elves electing to become thieves, priests, magic-users and fighters or various combinations thereof (such as the alchemist, a sorcery-casting class with some thief ability). The goal of the game is again based primarily around diving into dungeons, this time to gather 'marks' which bestow new abilities on your party members. Monsters provide gold to spend in towns on equipment, items, and oracle and pub services. Victory leaves a chest on the overworld, seemingly always trapped, which you had best have your partymate with thief skills open. Dungeons are largely the same as in the previous games in the series, though with solid walls instead of vector graphics lines, and more features to be found like fountains or traps. Monster encounters in the dungeon are random, unlike previous games; walking will occasionally bring you to the combat screen like in the overworld, and there is no indication of monsters wandering ahead. Characters become more powerful with better equipment and higher statistics, and once prepared, they can storm the mysterious Fire Island and raid the castle of the evil Exodus to save Sosaria from Mondain's legacy once and for all.