Despite allegedly taking place mostly on our Earth and sometimes even in (basically) our time, very little about Ultima II has much in common with the world that we know. One of the more interesting exceptions is the town of New San Antonio, which is right where you’d expect to find it in 1990. Oh, there are still unanswered questions; it wouldn’t be Ultima II without them. For instance, why is it called New San Antonio? Still, the town hosts an airport where we can steal the second coolest vehicle in the game: an airplane, an obvious nod to the San Antonio of our own world, which hosts two major Air Force bases. Having grown up in Houston and attended university in Austin, Richard Garriott would have been very familiar with San Antonio’s personality. One of the bases, Lackland, houses a huge training center that has earned it, and by extension San Antonio, the nickname of “Gateway to the Air Force.” Wandering the River Walk and other tourist areas around the time of one of the various graduation ceremonies is like strolling through a Norman Rockwell painting — a sea of earnest, clean-cut young men and women in uniform accompanied by proud, doting parents and siblings.
I’ve spent a lot of time already pointing out the cognitive dissonance and design failures that dog Ultima II. Never fear, I’ll get back to doing more of that in a moment. But the airplane affords an opportunity to note what Ultima II, and the Ultima series in general, do so right. As nonsensical as its world is, it consistently entices us to explore it, to find out what lies behind this locked door or at the bottom of that dungeon. Most of the time — actually, always in the case of the dungeon — the answer is “nothing.” But we find something really neat just often enough that our sense of wonder never entirely deserts us. In this case we come upon an actual, functioning airplane. Nothing in the manual or anywhere else has prepared us for this, but here it is. We look to our reference chart of one-key commands to see what seems to fit best, experiment a bit, and we’re off into the wild blue yonder. The airplane is kind of hard to control, and we can only land on grass, but we can fly through time doors to range over any of the time zones in the game, even buzz the monsters that guard Minax’s lair in the heart of the Time of Legends. We made this crazy, undocumented discovery for ourselves, so we own the experience fully. When we take flight for the first time, it’s kind of magic.
That feeling can be hard for modern players, who have every detail about every aspect of the game at their fingertips thanks to a myriad of FAQs, Wikis, and walkthroughs, to capture. Yet it’s at the heart of what made the Ultima games so entrancing in their day. Games like Wizardry gave us a more rigorous strategic challenge, but Ultima gave us a world to explore. This likely goes a long way toward reconciling the rave reviews Ultima II received upon its release (not to mention the fond memories some of you have expressed in the comments) with the contemporary consensus of bloggers, reviewers, and FAQ-writers who revisit the game today, who generally hold it a boring, poorly designed misfire and by far the worst of the 1980s Ultimas. I don’t so much want to disagree with the latter sentiment as I want to also remember that even here in their worst incarnation there was just something special about the Ultima games. They speak to a different part of our nature than most CRPGs — I’m tempted to say a better part. The joy of exploration and discovery can make us overlook much of the weirdness of not only the world and the story but also of the core game systems, some of which (like the need to buy hit points as you would food) I’ve mentioned, but many others of which (like the fact that earning experience points and leveling up confer absolutely no benefits other than bragging rights, or that the gold and experience you earn from monsters has no relation to their strength) I haven’t.
What could be cooler than an airplane, you ask? The answer, of course, is a spaceship. We find a few in the one town in 2111, Pirate’s Harbor, located approximately where we might expect Moscow to be. (Apparently the Soviet Union won World War III.) We steal one and we’re off into space, in what must already be the hundredth videogame tribute to Star Wars‘s warp-drive sequences.
It’s possible to visit all nine planets of the solar system. (In 1982 Pluto was still considered a full-fledged planet.) As with Earth itself, however, Ultima II‘s version of the solar system doesn’t have much in common with reality as we know it. Here Mercury’s terrain consists of “water and swamp”; Jupiter of “water and grass”; Uranus of “forest and grass.” Owen Garriott, Richard’s scientist/astronaut father, must have been outraged. The rest of us can marvel instead that not one of these planets contains anything to make it worth visiting. Indeed, Ultima II can feel like a box of spinning gears that often don’t connect to anything else. In addition to the planets, there are the similarly pointless dungeons, which waste a new dungeon-delving engine that marks as big an advance over Ultima I‘s dungeons as Ultima II‘s town engine is over Ultima I‘s generic towns. For some reasons spells only work in the (pointless) dungeons, meaning that there’s absolutely no reason to make one’s character a cleric or wizard, unless one feels like playing a hugely underpowered fighter. In space again, it’s actually possible — albeit pointless — to dive and climb and turn our spaceship, implying that Garriott originally intended to include a space-combat section like that of Ultima I but never got around to it. Thus, while Ultima II is an impressive machine, it feels like a half-assembled one. A couple of those meta-textual dialogs that are everywhere perhaps offers a clue why: “Isn’t Ultima II finished yet?” asks Howie the Pest; “Tomorrow — for sure!” says Richard Garriott. The only possible riposte to this complaint is that a contemporary player wouldn’t know that planets, dungeons, and so much else were superfluous. She’d presumably explore them thoroughly and get much the same thrill she’d get if her explorations were actually, you know, necessary. I’ll let you decide whether that arguments works for you, or whether Ultima II plays a rather cheap game of bait and switch.
In addition to all the unconnected bits and bobs, there are also problems with pieces that are important. The most famous of the glitches is the ship-duplication bug. We can make a new ship by boarding an existing enemy ship and sailing one square away; we’re left with a ship under our control and the original enemy, which we can continue to board again and again to crank out an endless supply of ships. It can be so much fun to make bridges of ships between islands and continents that it’s almost tempting to label this error a feature, one more of those juicy moments of discovery that make the Ultima games so unique. Other bugs, though, such as certain squares on the map where we simply cannot land a blow against a monster, are more annoying. And there’s one bug that is truly unforgivable. Flying into space requires a certain strength score. There is only one place in the game where we can raise our statistics: the clerk at the Hotel California (don’t ask!) in New San Antonio will sometimes randomly raise one when bribed appropriately. In the original release of the game, however, he will never raise our strength, thus making the game unwinnable for anyone who didn’t choose a fighter as her character class and put a lot of extra points into strength. Sierra did release a patch that at least corrected this problem — one of the first patches ever released for a game.
But, you might be asking, why should not being able to go into space make the game unwinnable if there’s nothing there to find anyway? Well, there actually is one thing we need there, but not on any of the familiar planets. Sifting through all of the jokes and non-sequiturs spouted by characters in the towns has revealed hints that a tenth planet, “Planet X,” exists. There we can pick up a blessing from one Father Antos, which in turn will let us buy a ring from a fellow back in New San Antonio on Earth. All we actually need to beat the Ultima II endgame is: the blessing; the ring; a special sword (“Enilno” — “On-Line” backward; the meta-textual fun just never stops!) that we also can buy in New San Antonio; and of course a character with good enough equipment and statistics to survive the final battle with Minax. She’s tricky, constantly teleporting from one end of her lair to the other, but in the end we finish her.
Like so much else in the game, the final message doesn’t really make sense. The optimistic reviewer for Computer Gaming World took it to suggest that Sierra might release new scenario disks to utilize some of those uselessly spinning gears. But that was not to be. Instead Ultima II is seen in its best light as a sort of technology demonstration, or a preview of the possibilities held out by Garriott’s approach to the CRPG. A better tighter, finished design, combined with another slate of technology upgrades, would let him do the job right next time.