Lord British beckons you to take a virtuous journey in this 1990 port of a classic RPG. Just because it’s Friday, I decided to review it. Is it still worth playing in 2013?
I first played Ultima IV via the Master System back in the early 1990s, and it’s one of the less common Master System titles. I have to admit I got rather picky about the copy I put in my collection, tracking down not only the game, but also the associated paraphernalia, which in its case includes two spell books and a map.
It’s a rarity in that there aren’t many other (in fact, I can’t think of any) Master System games where the instruction manuals are larger than the actual game box. That’s probably why they’re rather hard to find.
But does it still stand up today? I donned the rosy glasses of nostalgia to dip back into Britannia to explore anew, inspired largely by the release of the “free” C64 version recently. If you’re particularly keen, Good Old Games also offers the PC version for the grand price of nothing.
Ultima IV (Sega Master System): On the plus side
Ultima IV is the quest to become the Avatar, which means it positively rewards good behaviour based eight “virtuous” principles of Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Honor, Sacrifice, Spirituality and Humility. Or in other words, you’re meant to be a bit of a goody two-shoes.. except you really don’t have to be.
There’s a lot of quite open game here, years before the concept of a “sandbox” game really took hold. So if you want to spend ages simply running against the coastline so that pirate ships will appear, you’re free to do so. Want to just dungeon hack and slash? You’re free to do so. Want to attack the guards in Britannia, Lord British’s own city? It’s your funeral.
Still, even if you do follow the game’s plot, it holds together well without being necessarily constricting. It’s understandably limited by the technology of the day, so that, for example, conversations are basically about unveiling the key words that each character can then spin off game details from. As such, keeping notes is a good idea.
I’m rather thankful that the Master System version uses a battery backed save. Astonishingly, even though it’s two decades old, the battery backup in my copy still works well.
Ultima IV (Sega Master System): On the minus side
The Master System version also has to accommodate the lack of keyboard, and this means that conversation trees are rather easily exposed. That’s a plus for smooth gameplay, but it does rob the game of some small character.
There’s also no first person dungeons as there are in the “original” versions; everything uses the same top-down tiles. It’s totally nostalgia talking, but I don’t mind that at all, because it’s what I played originally anyway.
Ultima IV (Sega Master System): Pricing
Ultima IV is rather expensive if you’re a pedant about completeness as I am with this particular title; at the time of writing the few copies I could see ran to $50+ on eBay, and all of those were incomplete in some way.
You could always emulate it, but there I find that the same emulation problem crops up again and again; it’s all too easy to figure that there are hundreds of ROMs available (and there are), and as such it’s tough to “settle” on a single game.
Putting a cartridge in a slot and waggling around an RF plug is a commitment, and when I sit down to play properly, I tend to actually play. If I throw it on an emulator, I tend to think about all the other games I could be playing, and end up paralysed by choice.
Ultima IV (Sega Master System): Fat Duck verdict
It’s been a while since I’ve dusted off my copy of Ultima IV, and I was somewhat worried that I’d find the slower pace and technology limitations frustrating in an age of Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim.
It’s not so, though; there’s a whole lot of depth and character to this title, along with the strategy of its tile based battles. It’s still got a strong nostalgia pull, but that’s not the only reason that it’s worth playing.