Ultima III isn't the best game of 1983, I'd argue it's the most
important. This is the point where the series matured and found its
footing, shedding most of the wacky vestiges of its predecessors that
often felt like they were cobbled together from elements of a geeky
teenager's D&D sessions. It had a cohesive world, a coherent plot,
and codified a formula for party-based open world RPGs that would be
standard for decades, and still seen today in games like Larian's
Divinity series, the retro-styled Nox Archaist, and Pokémon.
The first and only time I played Ultima III was over 15 years ago, emulating the Amiga version, which at the time I had believed was the highest quality port. This time, as with previous Ultimas, I'll play the Apple II original, which features ingame music through Mockingboard sound card support - something rare on the system.
Emulating Ultima III on the Apple II used to be problematic, as for a long time, there were no "clean" cracks available, and the cracked copies circulating all had incorrect overworld monster spawn rates. But in recent years, the Woz-a-day collection has dumped pristine copies with the original code and data intact, and AppleWin can now simulate low level disk reads accurately enough to emulate the copy protection routines instead of needing a crack to bypass them. Ultima III can finally be played correctly in its original format.
1983, Richard Garriott's partnership with Sierra had fallen through,
but it didn't matter. With revenue from the Ultimas and an increasing
reputation, he didn't need them, and founded his own company, Origin
Systems, to produce and publish the Ultima series. The high production
values and packaging budget of Ultima II hardly suffered from this
newfound independence. If anything, the contents of the box are even
more lavish than before. Once again, a cloth map of the world is
bundled, and in addition to the manual and reference cards, there are
two spellbooks, with gloriously over-elaborate descriptions of what each
spell does, and illustrations. They could have simply listed all of the
spells and their effects on a page or two, but instead there's a
20-page "Liturgy of Truth" and another 20-page "Book of Amber Runes,"
with a full-page of prose and illustration dedicated to every single
The manual opens with some heavy duty retconning, making it seem like Ultima I & II were always party-based RPGs, and just ignores the fact that Ultima II was set largely on earth rather than Sosaria, never mind the time travel involved in both games. We're then told that we can either venture out alone and recruit up to three companions along the way, or assemble a party of four first. I'm pretty sure that the first approach isn't an option here - maybe it was a planned feature that Garriott had to scrap? Later Ultimas would have a recurring cast of standard party members to meet and recruit, but Ultima III isn't quite there yet and has you create a roster, like in Wizardry.
The manual details core gameplay, outlining returning and new features. Combat now takes place on a separate screen on a tactical grid, where each player and monster moves and fights in sequence. Dungeons continue to dot the land, putting the game into a first person mode as you explore the mazes beneath. The overworld can be navigated on foot or horseback, and finding a rare ship allows crossing the seas, but now the wind direction is a factor. Moongates return, but their behavior is dictated by the phases of Sosaria's twin moons, which are always visible on screen. Towns are places where you can buy weapons, armor, food, horses, and spells, thieves' tools if you can locate the hidden guild, interact with citizens, and hire the services of bartenders, healers, and oracles. A few more pages outline the monsters you may encounter on land and sea, such as orcs, pirates, giants, demons, and dragons.
Finally, a single page at the back actually explains the plot, showing why we're called to action yet again. After the fall of Minax, peace reigned for 20 years, and then a volcanic island rose out of the ocean. Soon, monsters roamed the land once again, forcing people into fortified settlements, and pirates terrorized the sea. Some have gone mad, many succumb to despair, and life just sucks in general. It seems Ultima II was too hasty in declaring that in Minax's defeat, all of her creations would die with her, as her child, now adult age, is implied responsible for this third age of darkness.
Before playing with a WOZ copy, you'll need to make a backup copy of the scenario disk. Unlike Ultima II, which would happily let you to ruin your scenario disk by saving a game in progress to it and provided no means of restoring to its original state, Ultima III can tell the difference between a master scenario disk and a backup copy, and won't even let you play with the former. To do this, you need a copy of DOS 3.3; the Ultima III boot disk won't do this for you. The procedure in AppleWin is simple if not necessarily obvious. First, you must boot from a DOS 3.3 disk. Then, insert the scenario master WOZ file into disk drive 1. Then you select disk drive 2 to change its disk, but instead of opening an existing file, you type in a filename that doesn't exist yet, and it must have extension "nib." For example, "Ultima III side B copy.nib." This creates a new disk image with that filename. Then you can simply follow the disk copying instructions seen in the game manual, and you have a backup disk! With the boot disk in drive 1, you can play.
The first order of business is to create some characters - we need four in order to have a fully slotted party.
Character creation is just like previous Ultimas, having you define sex, race, class, and starting stats, only with more choices. Sex can be male, female, or other, but as far as I know this doesn't affect anything.
Race determines your maximum final stats, and the choices are:
- Human - 75 points in all stats
- Elf - more dexterity, less wisdom
- Dwarf - more strength, less intelligence
- Bobbit - more wisdom, less dexterity
- Fuzzy - more dexterity and intelligence, less strength
There are 11 classes available. Four are your usual fighter/wizard/cleric/thief classes, and the rest are hybrids.
- Paladin - fighter/cleric
- Barbarian - fighter/thief
- Lark - fighter/wizard
- Illusionist - cleric/thief
- Druid - wizard/cleric, regains mana twice as fast
- Alchemist - wizard/thief
- Ranger - fighter/wizard/cleric/thief
Finally, you assign points to the four stats. The minimum for each stat is 5, initial maximum is 25, and the sum of all stats must be 50.
I initially went with a fighter/wizard/cleric/thief party, knowing that if a pure class turned out not to be useful, I could always create a new character or two and swap them in.
technical aspect I noticed here is that Ultima III is, for the first
time in the series, running in a pure graphics mode. All of the previous
games, including Akalabeth, ran in a hybrid mode where the top 160
lines of the 192-line screen had graphics, but the bottom 32 were
reserved for four lines of text, which displayed in the standard system
font. This screen mode is built into the Apple II and is incredibly
common in its early games. Wizardry had a fancier variation of this
thanks to running in Pascal where text could be rendered anywhere on the
screen, but the glyphs still came from the system font. Ultima III uses
a fullscreen graphics mode, and all text is rendered as graphics, and
the font is custom-made and loaded from the game disk. One drawback is
that things like dialog and game messages are relegated to the space in
the lower-right corner. Even your character sheets are displayed there
and have to be scrolled - I'd have much preferred a separate screen for
this, like in Wizardry (or previous Ultimas).
My first step, after equipping everyone's starting daggers and cloth armor, was to enter the castle.
A neat trick of Ultima III is line-of-sight rendering, obscuring tiles that shouldn't be visible to your party. This does complicate mapping.
Nothing here was immediately useful, but there were a few points of interest:
- L.B. himself, who had nothing to say at this time except that we needed more experience. Also occupying the throne room are Chuckles and Gwino, who were useless as ever.
- Multiple locked doors, including one in the throne room, and one near a guard who challenges us to enter if we dare.
- A force field by the storerooms which hurts if we try to cross it.
- An inaccessible boat in the northwestern part of the moat.
Next, I went to the nearby town.
Here, there's a pub where Dupre is naturally hanging out, and shops for weapons, armor, and food. As in Ultima II, most of the NPCs walking around have nothing useful to say, but a few, including two hiding in the dense, vision-blocking woods, offer clues.
|A wizard chills out in the forest north of town.|
I gathered these clues:
- 'Dawn' comes each new pair!
- Exodus lies beyond the silver snake
- Only with exotic arms can you win
- Quest ye unto lost Ambrosia
I left, and almost immediately encountered some zombies.
Monsters can be seen wandering the overworld, like in Ultima II, but encounters are now resolved on a sub-screen, where each party member is controlled individually. This lends itself to deeper, more tactical combat, with a positioning aspect that even Wizardry doesn't have, but also means combat is a much more drawn out experience.
The most frustrating
thing here is that your command input is timed. You have about five
second to make a decision or else your character's turn gets skipped.
Invalid input also skips your turn.
Zombies are no problem. The cleric gets PONTORI - basically a turn undead spell - which costs no mana. The mage has an analogous spell REPOND which kills orcs, goblins, and trolls. After one PONTORI, four of the six zombies fell, and I mopped up the rest with conventional attacks. They left behind a chest of 49 gold and an acid trap that was easily remedied with cleric magic.
After two fights, I returned to town to buy some slings for ranged attack and restock my food.
At the pub, overpaying for drinks gets you clues.
- Ambrosia, ever heard of it?
- Dawn, the city of myths & magic!
- The conjunction of the moons finds link!
- Nasty creatures, nasty dark, sure thee ready, fore thee embark
- None return or so I'm told, from the pool, dark and cold!
- Shrines of knowledge, shrines of strength, all are lost into the brink!
There are likely more, but that was all I found before running out of money, so I left and went exploring Sosaria.
Heading in a northwestern direction, I passed a sea to the north, in which I could see a town on a small island and a swirling vortex moving quickly through the water. I eventually came to a pair of towns separated by an inlet.
The twin cities of Montor East and Montor West were rather spartan, befitting a garrison town. Both towns had four guard towers, standard armor and weapon shops, and pubs, and Montor West had a provisions store and a prison guarded by a single sentry. Several NPCs walked around Montor East advising me that I'd need 4 cards to insert into 4 panels, and also that I'd find "exotics" and "marks" to be useful. Montor West was sparser still, with most of the occupants guards, though Sentri and Shamino also lived here, praising the grog and food. The sole tip-giver was a fighter telling me to seek a jester in Castle Fire.
disasters struck soon afterward. Food was running out and gold was low,
so I wandered around the overworld looking for some remunerative
fights. One of the prizes from such a fight was trapped with poison, so I
had to return to Lord British's castle to visit the healer. Unsure of
whether the service I needed was "curing" or "healing," I picked the
latter, which turned out to be wrong and cost an outrageous 200 gold,
leaving me broke and still poisoned. I scrounged for more gold and
eventually farmed up another 100 for curing, but this left little for
food which grew dangerously scarce. During one fight I accidentally
threw my mage's dagger - an easy thing to do by inadvertently hitting
the "attack" key during their turn when there's no adjacent enemy. A big
team of fighters killed my cleric, and shortly after my party, wounded
and hungry, encountered a big team of wizards, who left them really most
No free resurrections for you, and deceased characters are saved to the disk, ensuring they stay dead on a reboot. And yet, a total party kill is not quite as arduous as in Wizardry, where you had to either assemble a rescue party to retrieve the corpses and resurrect them (or more likely bring them back to town for professional resurrection), or abandon them. Here, you may assemble your party at the title screen with any combination of living and dead characters, and as long as you have at least one living member, may continue at the exact point where your party fell. If you have a powerful enough cleric in the reserves you could form a party with him and three corpses to revive. Or if you lack that but have enough money for resurrections you could roll a new character, use him to drag three bodies back to the castle, and pool your gold to him so he can pay the healer. Or you could forget about the old party and just transfer their material goods to some newly rolled characters before terminating them.
This early on, though, none of
that's worthwhile, so I just re-initialized a new scenario backup disk
to try again from the start.