Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar on the Atari 8-bit was ported by David Lubar (who created the excellent Pastfinder) and first published by Origin Systems in 1986. It is an excellent conversion of a brilliant game and is arguably the best Role-Playing Game on Atari‘s 8-bit home computer.
It might not look as good, but it is faster than the Apple II original and has better input response than most of the other 8-bit versions, which helps the game tremendously as it means that you’re not fighting with the input buffer, and input lag, as you are in the Apple II and Commodore 64 versions. It comes on four disks, so there is some disk-swapping, but it’s not too annoying.
The game structure itself is identical to the Apple II original. You start off by answering a bunch of questions to determine your character and starting position. There are eight different character classes to play: Bard, Druid, Tinker, Paladin, Mage, Ranger, Shepherd, and Fighter, and each is linked to a series of virtues that form the backbone of the game’s storyline. I won’t go into too much detail about the plot and the story here – read my review of Apple II original for more about that.
What is brilliant about Ultima IV is that – the remaining seven classes you DON’T end up playing as – become your party companions as you meet and recruit them. Which saves you the trouble of creating characters from scratch at the beginning, as was the case in Ultima III.
Combat is faster and fairer than in Ultima III and does have some differences, but is mostly the same, in that: the game cuts away to a battle screen when you encounter enemies in the overworld (or in dungeons).
Ultima IV is much more enjoyable than its predecessor – that is: if you’re prepared to understand the game by reading up about it first (either the manuals or online guides will help). The game has depth, detail, nuance, humour, and is very absorbing once you get into it.
A quick couple of tips for first-time players: don’t run off and recruit all the companions you can as soon as possible. The number of enemies you face in battle is directly related to the number of characters you have in your party, so keeping your party numbers low to begin with (three max) reduces the time battles take to fight. Also: figure out the shrines/runes/virtues thing as soon as you can – it’s important during the first act. And try to get a ship as soon as possible. They appear randomly, so it can take time, but the longer you leave it without having one the more difficult the game becomes. And leave dungeons until later. It doesn’t hurt to have a peek inside one, but they’re tougher than in previous Ultima games so should be approached with caution (and maybe maps). Overall, though, Ultima IV is a must-play game on Atari 8-bit systems.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar Keyboard Commands:
a = Attack (followed by direction of attack)
b = Board; mount a horse or board a frigate
c = Cast a magic spell (followed by spell letter)
d = Descend; climb down a ladder in a dungeon
e = Enter a settlement, dungeon or shrine
f = Fire ship’s cannons in the direction indicated
g = Get; open a chest
h = Hole up; make camp and rest
i = Ignite a torch
j = Jimmy lock; use a ‘Magic Key’ to unlock a door
k = Climb up a ladder in a dungeon or building
l = Locate; determine your position
m = Mix; prepare reagents for a spell to be cast
n = New order; rearrange the order of the party
o = Open; attempt to open a door (followed by direction)
p = Peer at a gem; shows a bird’s eye view of a town, castle, dungeon or the overworld; one viewing per gem
q = Quit and save to disk (from the overworld only)
r = Ready a weapon for use in combat
s = Search; inspect your current location for hidden items
t = Talk; converse with townspeople or trade with merchants (say “bye” to end conversation)
u = Use; use an item found by searching
v = Volume; adjusts sound volume
w = Wear armour; outfits player with specified armour
x = Exit; leave behind or dismount your current transport and travel on foot
y = Yell any word that’s typed
z = Stats; displays your character statistics, possessions and spells
Spacebar = Pass one game turn without taking any action