From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima IX: Ascension

This ad tantalized players on the visual brilliance that Ultima 9 promised to them. The big question on everyone’s mind, though, was whether the gameplay would also be as impressive. The answer, unfortunately, was a disappointing no for me. And my PC at the time.

My Pentium II PC at the time couldn’t run Ultima IX worth a damn 14 years ago.

For me, it was the Crysis of it’s time, a game that some viewed as ‘prophetic’ or so ‘far reaching’ that the only reason it didn’t run well wasn’t because it was meant to scale for PCs better than what most people had at the time. Much like Strike Commander. Others blame it on shoddy code. Period. I had no idea what the problem was, only that I was deeply disappointed in what I had managed to push myself through before moving onto something else that was actually playable. At the time, all I knew was that I was sort of crushed. I had even gotten the Dragon Edition of the game because despite Pagan, I still had hope for a grand finish to a titanic struggle. Years later, and after discovering the power of the internet as I started going through archives of saved interviews and usenet posts, I finally began piecing together a picture of what the story was, finding out that there was a lot more to simply not having a PC that could actually run the thing.

Partly due to the rough development history it went through and EA’s lack of support for the game. Ultima IX, when it was released in 1999, wasnt quite the grand finish to the Guardian trilogy that fans had expected, especially after Ultima VIII. There were still some fine ideas and concepts buried in the game, but it wasn’t remembered with the most fond of memories even by the series’ most ardent supporters over the years since. It seems to be one of those games that fans prefer to forget focusing instead on what the series had done fantastically well in the past.

In this climax, the Avatar has finally escaped Pagan and returned to a Britannia blasted and ruined by the servants of the Guardian. The Avatar’s arch-enemy had won and a last second escape literally saves the Avatar from being char-broiled by a flying wyrm. His friends driven underground, forming a loose resistance against the overwhelming misery that the Guardian has inflicted on the world, struggle against the Guardian’s minions and his plan to tear what is left apart. The odds aren’t good, Lord British himself is a prisoner in his own castle, and it’s up to the Avatar to set things right. Not only for himself, but once and for all so that the world would survive without him.

This was an incredibly ambitious game. Imagine a game like Ultima VI or Ultima VIII with the ability to manipulate everything within their environment transported over into a 3D world with fully realized polys and textures — a Britannia with all of the openness of an Elder Scrolls with the mechanics of a third-person action adventure game like Eidos’ Tomb Raider or Adeline’s Twinsen with cutting edge graphics. Or expanding on what Looking Glass had already accomplished back in 1992 and 1993 with Ultima Underworld and its sequel, respectively, now into the kind of open outdoors that Bethesda’s procedurally generated wilderness gave players to run wild with.

Unfortunately, with as many pieces as there were out there, Ultima IX: Ascension had some difficulty in fitting it all together. But 3D was the hottest trend at the time and even today, the flamewars over what any platform offers on its visual plate continues to rage. Titles like Valve’s Half-Life in 1998, id’s Quake series, and 3d Realms’ Duke Nukem 3D in 1996 were pushing gamers’ expectations. Even Sierra On-Line’s venerable King’s Quest series had bowed to the 3D route with Mask of Eternity in 1998. The rush to merge interactive movies into gaming with the arrival of CD-ROMs in the first half of the 90s had given way to the monster that 3D graphics cards would unleash. Consoles were also busy boasting their own 3D chops from the Playstation to the Saturn and the N64. The impression was that if you didn’t go 3D, you were left behind by potential audiences.

There was jumping, swimming, and running — but it felt inferior to what Tomb Raider had already been doing. There was a wide open world, but it didn’t have the crunchy stats, gear variety, or skill depth that Bethesda’s Arena and Daggerfall (despite its many bugs) had already spoiled me with. While it boasted a remarkable attempt at creating a living world with its emphasis on 3D, I found myself wishing for the kind of textured experience that the statistics and gritty aesthestic that 1997’s Fallout had already given me. It wasn’t so much that the game had decided to jump onto the 3D bandwagon — just that the actual experience felt relatively shallow. The gypsy that had been missing since Ultima VI was back (answering her questions determined stats and starting gear), yet it seemed more like a token gesture reaching into the series’ history to win back fans.

The Dragon Edition of Ultima 9 was huge. It had TWO booklets, one discussing magic and another covering the world, poster, fancy thank you letter from Richard "Lord British" Garriott, a set of gypsy cards, ankh, map, a CD compilation of all of the classic Ultimas, through U8 (and included Akalabeth), and an advertisement for Westwood's Nox. I put the Grandia game for the PSX (also lots of fun) next to it for comparison.

The Dragon Edition of Ultima 9 was huge. It had TWO booklets, one discussing magic and another covering the world, poster, fancy thank you letter from Richard “Lord British” Garriott, a set of gypsy cards, ankh, map, a CD compilation of all of the classic Ultimas, through U8 (and included Akalabeth), and an advertisement for Westwood’s Nox. I put the Grandia game for the PSX (also lots of fun) next to it for comparison.

However, what was there looked good…and sounded good. The Avatar’s model actually changed appearance depending on what he was wearing and using as a weapon. Soundtrack-wise, it was filled with enhanced orchestral pieces from the older games pouring like honey from the tiny speakers I had at the time. The starting tutorial area was your house on Earth. You could go into the fridge and feed yourself. The scenery and the scaffolding holding it all together was all there. The game just didn’t seem to do much with it.

The Codex of Ultima Wisdom, Ultima’s wiki, lays out the grueling story of the game’s troubled development history spanning five years. It’s a depressing read.

I won’t recount the whole history here — the link’s there if you want the details — but a number of things stood out for me. Early on, it was implied that the new game would take place on the Guardian’s homeworld. That didn’t happen. The intention to go 3D was always there, however. The engine developed for Pagan and used for Origin’s Crusader series wasn’t enough.

Bob White, a friend of Richard Garriott’s was made lead designer early on and the team around him began developing an iteration that had the makings of a classic Ultima — a party system, skill system based on proficiencies that sounded similar to that used by Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series complete with specialties, and a story pitting the Avatar against the Guardian. The 3D engine would take the look of Ultima VII and keep things isometric allowing players to rotate the scenes.

And then Ultima Online happened.

The success of the Alpha for the game was huge. EA made Origin assign the Ascension team over to working on UO at the end of 1996, shelving this version of Ascension — which was 80% complete according to accounts — until what was left of the team came back to it almost a year later after. The rest was history as UO became a huge success. But Ascension looked dated against everything else. And then they saw what the game looked like ported over to Glide, 3DFX’s API for their graphics card, and made another change.

Gone was the 3D isometric view despite concerns by White and a number of other designers to keep it. Surprisingly, because they felt the new 3DFX focus would tax lesser machines. Ed Del Castillo, with his experience on Command & Conquer, would now be joining the team as Ascension’s producer in 1997 to get things back on track with UO behind everyone. Now Ultima IX would be a third-person game with 3D visuals and be described as an action adventure game complete with a heavy-metal inspired trailer (something that Dragon Age 2 would apparently carry on years later):

No more party. No gender selection (again). But players would have the choice to temporarily control other characters in the game, such as Shamino or even Lord British. In 1998, four of the title’s developers would leave — two reportedly acrimoniously over the direction that the game was taking. Bob White would even leave, joining Ion Storm and working with Warren Spector, another former Origin alum, on Deus Ex. Ed Del Castillo would also leave the team in the same year. All of these events prompted Garriott to step in personally and take over development of the game directly, the first game he had taken control of himself since Ultima VII (and since EA had taken control of Origin).

A new story was written under Garriott’s focus with a new lead designer, focusing more on the Virtues and the Avatar than a widespread war raging on Britannia against the Guardian. Unfortunately, as technical and structural issues were being worked on to accommodate the latest changes, EA handed down the mandate that the game be out by Christmas in 1999. The vast scale envisioned for the game, features such as the scheduling system used to great effect in previous Ultimas such as VII, were dramatically scaled back or omitted entirely to make the deadline.

3DFX had also lost relevance by the time 1999 dawned, giving way to future juggernauts like Nvidia, making its 3DFX Glide friendly engine a slagged beast under everything else like my machine and its TNT card. With a plot that mutated through the years, features that came and went, and a design direction that alienated a few of its gifted developers in the process, and the neglect from EA, it’s a miracle that Ascension had ever come out at all.

Origin has always wanted to push the bleeding edge even further with every game — it’s the signature that a number of its designers from Richard Garriott to Chris Roberts wrote into their titles whether it was in learning assembly or incorporating sound and branching story paths in a space sim.

It can also be argued that Pagan should have warned fans of where the series was headed, yet the game was, at one point, planned around the classic Ultima formula. Ultima IX could have also gone the way of Ultima Underworld in taking the series into a different direction outside of the officially numbered titles, the major chapters of which were perceived by a number of veterans as the private reserve for the harder crunch of the series’ CRPG roots despite what Ultima VII had distanced itself from while delivering so much on everything else. It was also much like what Bethesda wisely did in segregating their Elder Scrolls sandbox games with the Elder Scrolls Legend series, Redguard and Battlespire, which eschewed the CRPG trappings of Arena and Daggerfall for focused slices of action and adventure. In particular, Redguard in 1997 was a lot like what Ultima IX was reaching for (and was even tied down to 3DFX). Taking Ultima into a different direction wasn’t inherently a ‘bad’ thing — just look at the many interpretations that SSI and its licensed devs put TSR’s IPs through. But the meandering changes made to the game over the course of its five-year development history to mold it into so many different directions at once seemed to hurt it more than help it.

It also seemed to longtime fans, that Ultima IX was heading into a direction that Pagan did — emphasizing visual immersion over that of what made an Ultima game ‘Ultima’. Debates comparing it to Tomb Raider or the Legend of Zelda were tossed around even before the game came out, implying that Ultima IX continued to chase after a ‘larger’ audience versus its core — something that was on Garriott’s mind with Ultima VI in comparing its relative friendliness to newcomers versus the hardcore audiences Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series catered to. It was something that he had also indirectly mentioned in a (download link) text file included with the last patch for Ultima VIII, apparently released in 1995, part of which read:

With each Ultima we have created, we have made massive changes
in technology, interface and approach.  This pattern was started with the
first few Ultimas.  Back in those days we were just learning how to make
games.  By the time one was finished it was clear that there was a much
better way, so the best plan was usually to start over from scratch.  
Interestingly, it had another effect as well.  Since each game was really,
measurably, noticeably better than its predecessor, it also sold better.  
Whereas, most of Ultima’s competitors, were cranking out sequels in the
same old engine and selling to a subset of their initial market.  So our
pattern of innovation and experimentation that began as a learning
experience became a powerful tool to insure success.

Garriott was always looking ahead to ways in which Ultima could be better and bring in both veterans and newcomers. As I said before, Ultima IX is nothing else but ambitious. Perhaps given more support or a less tumultuous development history, if only Ultima Online hadn’t proven as disruptive to the work being done on the game, if it had actually stuck by the isometric 3D look or had even done something 2D with pre-rendered backdrops as a number of its rivals did, it could have turned out to be a fitting capstone to the series that early interviews hinted at, joining its torch to the same brilliant fires of CRPG excitement stoked by relative newcomers such as Bethesda Softworks,  BioWare, and Black Isle. Instead, to some, it would be an omen of things to come for Origin.

If you’re curious about trying it for yourself, you can snag it at Good Old Games who have it available on their site. There’s even a fan made dialogue patch that fixes up a number of holes that the story still has over at Hacki’s Ultima Page and even more that fix up bits and pieces of the rest of the game here at the Ultima Codex’s Ultima 9 site.

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