PC gaming was something I was never heavily into, not because I wasn’t interested, but mainly because I rarely ever owned a PC that was capable of running the games of the time. So, I became aware of most PC game series through their ports to home consoles, and their subsequent coverage in Nintendo Power. It was how I was introduced to Origin’s Wing Commander franchise, which I was a big fan of, and it was one of the few PC series I did attempt to follow.
Origin’s other big franchise, Ultima, was a little more of a mystery to me. My earliest experience with it was through Ultima VIII: Pagan, which came with a bunch of other games when we upgraded our clunky old PC with a CD-ROM drive. I didn’t play much of it, though, because Origin’s games tended to be so technologically intense that they were a bit unstable, and our PC wasn’t good at running things in general. But in 1997, we finally bought a spiffy new PC that ran all the old games swimmingly. As this coincided with the flow of console RPGs to the Sony PlayStation, and me being left high and dry with my Nintendo 64, perhaps it coaxed me to take a closer look at Ultima for an RPG fix.
I knew a little about it, just enough to pique my curiosity, but really nothing in-depth. When I actually started playing it, however, I was, to put it simply, overwhelmed! I had no experience with Western RPGs (unless you count Secret of Evermore on the SNES), and I quickly learned that everything I knew about the genre from playing Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and Dragon Warrior meant absolutely nothing in Ultima. Kill monsters for money? Nope. Talk to every NPC I come across? Pointless. Cast spells by selecting them from a list? Not happening. Gain experience points to raise my level and get stronger? Sort of, but not exactly. This was an entirely different beast altogether, and I was completely lost.
And yet, I was also completely fascinated. Something about the style and atmosphere, as well as the series’ legacy, intrigued me to no end. My recently gained Internet access allowed me to learn more about the franchise, as well as its huge fan base. Little of it helped me to get a grasp on the gameplay, but one day I decided that I was determined to get through the game, and I relied heavily on an old walkthrough, step-by-step, until I finished it. It was only after the fact that I realized I was playing the unpatched version of the game, which some fans considered nearly unplayable anyway.
In fact, Ultima VIII was viewed as the worst chapter in the series up to that point. I can understand why, as it has a frustrating interface, confusing design, and was pretty much released unfinished. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, myself, but being that it was my first Ultima, I admit I have a bit of a soft spot for it.
I picked up a copy of the Ultima Collection when it was released, which contained all of the main games up to VIII, and I was able to explore more of the series. Yet, most of them were so archaic by that point that they didn’t hold my attention, and the ones that did (VI, VII and VII-2), I never actually finished. I didn’t really get a firm grasp on these Western-style RPGs, even though I loved their designs. They addressed the misgivings I had developed with Japanese console RPGs in that they were more open-ended, less linear, and it felt more like I was the one driving the story rather than being led around by a leash. On the other hand, I had also been a bit spoiled by the simpler, more streamlined designs of console RPGs, and Ultima was asking for a little too much work on my part.
It was frustrating, because I really wanted to see the best parts of both Japanese and Western RPGs combined into the best of all possible worlds. Instead, they seemed to represent two opposite extremes, each of which was somewhat alienating. My taste in games was changing, too, and I would slowly drift even further away from RPGs over the next few years….