Retro Review: Ultima IV (Sega Master System)

u4sms_2Lord 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.

It's only now that I realise that Lord British has spent serious coin putting up a sign with his surname above his throne. No lack of ego on that Lord, then.
It’s only now that I realise that Lord British has spent serious coin putting up a sign with his surname above his throne. No lack of ego on that Lord, then.

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.

"When you're a professional pirate, you don't have to wear a suit." Stripy tops are, however, the preferred dress option.
“When you’re a professional pirate, you don’t have to wear a suit.”
Stripy tops are, however, the preferred dress option.

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.
With no ranged weapon, I get the feeling that I'm about to get massacred.
With no ranged weapon, I get the feeling that I’m about to get massacred.

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.
Yep, I was right. But death isn't the social barrier it once was.
Yep, I was right. But death isn’t the social barrier it once was.

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.

Several decades later, my loathing for Chuckles has not abated. Not even a jot.
Several decades later, my loathing for Chuckles has not abated. Not even a jot.

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.

I must not steal Lord British's secret gold. I must not... oh, look, he'll never miss one chest...
I must not steal Lord British’s secret gold.
I must not… oh, look, he’ll never miss one chest…

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.

Pause a while in Paws. (Hey, I don't write the jokes. Except that I totally do.)
Pause a while in Paws.
(Hey, I don’t write the jokes. Except that I totally do.)

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.

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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