The Game: Not happy with her consort’s defeat at your hands (assuming, of course, that you won Ultima I, the enchantress Minax tracks you down to your home planet of Earth and begins the test anew, sending legions of daemons and other hellspawn to strike you down before you can gain enough power to challenge her. This time, you have intercontinental and even interplanetary travel at your disposal via the moongates, which appear and disappear based on the phases of the moon. Each destination has unique challenges that help to prepare you for the showdown with Minax herself. (Sierra On-Line, 1982)
Memories: The second in the seminal Ultima role-playing game series, Ultima II has always managed to elicit little excitement from me. Richard Garriott continues to refine the Ultima engine here, stepping up from BASIC to machine code, and creating the palette of sounds that would bring future Ultimas to life. But the gameplay itself is, in a word, tedious. And not just by yesterday’s standards. Enemies have way too many opportunities to land crushing blows on you early in the game, and the melee system gets downright boring. It’s hard to fathom, but the first Ultima was more fun and balanced than this one.
There’s also something a bit “off” about the game being set on Earth, especially with the familiar continents super-simplified and miniaturized; if I’m to take my character’s size on the map literally, then my guy is a warrior roughly the size of the state of Minnesota. But more than that, it seems to go against the spirit of the Ultima series to have a game on Earth, and partially in space – that element of Ultima II just never gelled with me, and it seemed out of place. Though future games in the series didn’t completely eliminate the science fiction conceits – see Ultima III‘s computer-as-boss-supervillain – they were used sparingly enough to not overwhelm the swords & sorcery elements of those games. (That said, I wouldn’t have minded seeing a full-on, non-Ultima space game from Richard Garriott, who is actually a space buff in his own right, having helped to fund the Ansari X Prize; he’s also the son of Skylab astronaut Owen K. Garriott.)
The moongates do foretell one feature of the third and fourth games in the series – it’s possible for your character to jump straight to the climactic battle of the game…and promptly get sliced and diced to bits if he hasn’t fought enough battles to “level up” and be ready. I always liked that about Ultima III and Ultima IV – you can jump straight to the end of the game if you’re feeling daring, but you will pay dearly for this glimpse of the future. Ultima II also begins the tradition of each towne/village/castle/keep being its own fully-realized world, played out in the same view as the “world” view instead of in a miniaturized form.
Ultima II is a mixed bag that has never caught on with me personally, but it apparently did catch on with other gamers – enough that Garriott was able to publish his next game in the series under the moniker of his own company, rather than keeping the series at adventure-gaming giant Sierra.