Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, PC

The MS-DOS version of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was ported by James Van Artsdalen and first published on the PC by Origin Systems in 1987. It uses 16-colour EGA graphics, which is at least a step up from the previous three (un-patched) Ultimas, which used four-colour CGA graphics. It’s also currently – at the time of writing – available individually FOR FREE on GOG.com, or as a part of a paid-for package with episodes five and six. And it’s well worth playing, even today – some 35 years after the game’s original release. Which demonstrates just how good it is.

That said: this is not the best version of Ultima IV available to play today. In my humble opinion the Amiga and Atari ST versions are better because the mouse/keyboard combo controls give it the edge over this version, which relies solely on keyboard commands. Although that’s not really a problem since the game was designed to be played with keyboard only. Whichever version of Ultima IV you decide to play – whether it’s the excellent Apple II original; the brilliant 2015 Commodore 64 remake; the different NES or Sega Master System versions; this, or the Amiga or Atari ST versions – the structure of the story, and the gameplay, remain the same.

You begin by answering a series of questions put to you by a mysterious gypsy woman at a carnival and this determines the class of your character, and their starting position in the game world. There are eight different character classes in total, and whichever class you emerge as when the game starts, the aim is to then recruit the remaining seven by exploring various towns. And over time you become a party of eight adventurers.

If you want a detailed breakdown of the game structure and features of Ultima IV: read my lengthier review of the Apple II original. What I want to focus on here are the differences between the PC version and the other versions of Ultima IV, and how it relates to them in terms of playability.

The line-of-sight system doesn’t work nearly as well in this as in the original (or most other versions of Ultima IV to be honest) and it seems unfinished to me. The sound effects – especially during battle – are farty and horrible and get on your nerves quickly. The information window in the top right of the screen at least lets you cycle through the different sets of information (character stats, reagents, potions, et cetera), but the keystrokes are different to the original (up and down – and left and right – with Escape to exit), which is confusing initially (if you’ve played the other versions). The character conversation system is slightly different to most other versions, and is a bit messy. Worst of all: if you press the movement keys too quickly the keyboard buffer fills up and goes a bit mental, meaning that you can easily fly off in one direction and not stop until you hit something, which isn’t good. The Amiga and ST versions of Ultima IV don’t suffer from this problem but some of the 8-bit versions do. None are quite this bad, though.

On the plus side: the rate of traps on dropped chests seems lower than in other versions, which is good because constantly getting poisoned by opening chests is tiresome, and the game is faster than most other versions, so as long as you don’t fall foul of the input buffer issue by pressing keys too quickly, you can motor through the game quickly.

Although the DOS version of Ultima IV is somewhat playable, and the game is just as absorbing and as well-designed as the original, it does have a few niggles that make it more annoying to play than it should be, and I think that’s down to the converting programmer not taking enough care with his port. With better attention to detail this could’ve been as good as the best versions of Ultima IV, but it’s nowhere near top of my list.

There is a 2001 fan-made upgrade of Ultima IV, at moongates.com, that changes the game’s graphics to 256-colour versions, with MIDI supported sound, although it must be run under Windows. Which is a real problem as it won’t run under DOSBox without a further patch, sources for which are patchy at best (no pun intended). It also has a few bugs of its own, which means having to apply other patches to fix it. Which is not good. Also: I’m not sure if I even like the new graphics in the Moongates patch, so I’ve stuck with the classic Ultima IV as available on GOG.com – which is the version I’m showing here.

More: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar on Wikipedia
GOG: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar on GOG.com [free]
GOG: Ultima 4+5+6 on GOG.com

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

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