The fourth game in the Ultima series first came out on the Commodore 64 in 1985 and the game was converted by Chuck Bueche, who also did a great job of porting the third Ultima to the C64. So it plays similarly to its predecessor. Ultima IV was also re-made by The Genesis Project in 2015, with superb new graphics, a trainer, bugfixes, a savegame editor, fast-loading d81 and CRT (cartridge) versions, and various other enhancements. If you’re playing the C64 version for the first time then that’s the version I’d recommend – unless you deliberately want to play the original version. I’m showing the 2015 remake here first, then at the end of the set I’ve shown screenshots of the original 1985 version, for comparison. It’s easy to tell them apart.
Unlike Ultima III, in Ultima IV the character creation process is done by answering a series of questions, put to you by a mysterious gypsy at a travelling carnival. The character you end up with – and their starting position – is governed by the answers you give.
There are eight different character classes to play as: Bard, Druid, Tinker, Paladin, Mage, Ranger, Shepherd, and Fighter, each one representing a different virtue. Virtue is a key theme of the game and your quest in Ultima IV is to become a paragon of virtue, so that you are able to become “The Avatar” and thus enter into The Great Stygian Abyss and become enlightened. Ultima IV is the first game in the “Age of Enlightenment” trilogy (a sub-set within the Ultima series), which basically means that the storyline is more about the player character’s personal self-improvement, rather than having to defeat a great evil, as is usually the case in fantasy role-playing games like this.
Of course there’s combat in this, and it’s much improved over Ultima III. You can have up to eight people in your party, but you have to find and recruit the other seven first. There’s also magic, and quests, and puzzles galore, and the game is very open-ended, so that you can basically play it any way you like.
If you want to read a more detailed breakdown of Ultima IV, read my article about the original Apple II version of the game. There’s no point repeating much of it here. What I will say is that Ultima IV is – for the most part – much better than Ultima III. NPCs have more personality; the information windows are much better than previously and the game is easier to play as a result.
On the downside: the C64 version unfortunately doesn’t have the very useful function to cycle through character stats/inventory items by pressing left and right, like the Apple II original does, which is a pity (the C64 remake doesn’t even have it, which surprised me). The directional controls seem a little laggy for some reason, which means that the input buffer sometimes fills up if you’re pressing the keys fast, so you end up running into walls, or fumbling in battle. The original 1985 version also has weird pauses when sectors of the map load in, which makes the music stop temporarily, which isn’t great. The 2015 remake doesn’t have this problem, and also doesn’t have disk-swapping if you play the d81 or CRT versions.
Whether you’re playing the original version or the remake, one thing’s for sure: Ultima IV is one of the best RPGs ever released for the Commodore 64. Arguably even one of the best games ever released for the machine as a whole. It’s deep, absorbing, better thought-out, and much less annoying to play than Ultima III. Ultima IV is definitely one of the best role-playing games ever made and the C64 version (particularly the remake) is well worth playing today. It really is an excellent game that has stood the test of time better than previous Ultimas.
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