Ultima VII: The Black Gate

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North American MS-DOS cover.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate is a fantasy role-playing video game developed and published by Origin Systems for MS-DOS on 1992-04-16. The game is the seventh title in the Ultima main series and showcases a radical new game engine. In the game, you play a character known as The Avatar, a person who occasionally travels from Earth to the Renaissance-era fantasy land of Britannia to help save the land from various evil denizens. The current threat comes from a strange entity known as the Guardian who has created an insidious cult that is taking over the land.

Personal

I first saw Ultima VII at a friend Kevin's house not too long after the game was released. Until this point, the only other Ultima title I had played was Ultima: Exodus, so I was completely blown away by the game. I remember us deleting the game from his computer to free up memory for other games, and then being completely unable to get the game to load when we reinstalled it later due to the very specific memory requirements. Thankfully, a family friend of his made us a boot disk which got the game running again. We played the game a lot, but never got that far in the game. I borrowed the game from him for awhile and got it to work on my computer, but ended up filling up my hard drive because the game took so much space and had such large save-game files. Because it had such a big impact on me, I ended up buying the game from him after he got tired of it, and I still have the original box and disks. He also bought Ultima VII, Part II: Serpent Isle which we played and enjoyed, but never beat either. I continued to come back to Ultima VII off-and-on over the years. I also bought a CD-ROM collection of The Complete Ultima VII which included both parts and both expansions. In the late 1990s, once Windows became the primary OS for PCs, it became extremely difficult to get the game to run and I rarely played it. In the 2000s, someone created a memory manager for Ultima which allowed it to run natively in Windows, which re-piqued my interest in the game. However, it wasn't until the Exult project (an attempt to re-create the Ultima VII engine from scratch) became stable that I hunkered down and played the game completely from beginning to end.

An SNES port of Ultima VII was made, but it's so different from the DOS release that it is effectively a new game.

Status

I own four copies of this game. I have an original boxed copy with 5.25" disks (I'm missing the Fellowship medallion, but have an otherwise complete box). I also have the Complete Ultima VII CD-ROM, the Complete Ultima CD-ROM, and an Ultima IX: Dragon Edition which includes the Complete Ultima. I have beaten the game.

Review

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8 10 10 10 10

Best Version: MS-DOS

— This section contains spoilers! —

Good

  • The game engine is quite revolutionary for the time. It is incredibly immersive with a lot of sandbox elements that let you live in the world, rather than just walk through it. You can take a sack of flour, open it, place flour on a counter, add water to the flour to make dough, place the dough on a burning hearth and bake bread, and finally eat the bread. Many other objects are equally as detailed. NPCs actually act like people, waking in their beds in the morning, going to work, working about in their shop, taking meals, and then returning to their homes at night.
  • Ultima VII has an engaging story revolving around ritualistic murders, a suspicious religion, and a dastardly plot to overthrow the government and assassinate the king. It really shows how dangerous religions can be when they're made up of blind-faith believers and the person at the top has ill intentions.
  • The mouse-driven interface and inventory system really makes the game run smoothly, and was ahead of its time in the industry. I especially like the paper doll player interface.
  • The game has gorgeous graphics for the time; the pixel art is top notch. It also makes good use of palette shifting animation.
  • The soundtrack is quite vast featuring over 50 tracks of music. It also has a lot of sound effects, environmental ambiance, and a fair amount of speech.
  • There are dozens of side-quests to solve, secrets to uncover, and Easter eggs to find. Every time you play the game you'll discover something new.
  • The game has a massive amount of dialogue. Every character in the game will talk your ear off about all sorts of topics. By the end of the game, you will have read the equivalent of an entire novel. There is also a really impressive feature where, if specific NPCs are in the area during a conversation, they will join in. This adds a lot of verisimilitude.
  • The game has fantastic packaging. The manual is written as though it were an actual book in the game world and is very interesting, the map is cloth and written using in-game runes, it even comes with a shiny Fellowship medallion seen in the game.
  • Although many players have criticized the combat system because you can't control each party member directly (like in previous Ultima games), I like that you can only give them general commands and think it fits the game's theme perfectly. These are meant to be actual humans with minds of their own.
  • The Fellowship is well designed, functioning very much like a religious cult. New recruits are suckered into it, as a helpful enterprise, but as they get deeper involved, they become ensnared and devote their lives to it and work to recruit others. It has tons of money, yet most of their members remain poor, and it actively fights against the progress of science.
  • It's minor, but, I like how the game's copyright protection is based on the game's internal story.

Bad

  • One of the problems with the massive amount of dialogue is knowing what is useful. You can spend hours reading about stuff that doesn't pertain to the main goal.
  • Likewise, with all the side-quests, you often find yourself spending hours on them only to discover they have nothing to do with the main quest of the game.
  • The transportation system, though quite visionary, is poorly implemented. Ships and carts are pretty difficult to operate, and the relatively small size of the map makes the cart unnecessary. Also, once you learn just how easy it is to get the vastly superior magic carpet, the others are totally worthless.
  • The game tries to prevent the player from stealing by implementing a system that protects against it, but it's easily circumvented, and sometimes backfires.

Ugly

  • Even at the time, it was very difficult to get the game to run properly with the restrictive memory constraints, but it only became more difficult when Windows 95 came out. Even if you had a top-of-the-line computer, you still had to use a boot disk, which was pretty much unheard for other video games of the time. Also, the instructions for setting up a boot disk were a little archaic.
  • There were several game-breaking bugs. One would cause large sections of the game map to be lost, the other can be accidentally triggered by flying over the Isle of the Avatar on the magic carpet.
  • Although the game world is highly open right from the get-go, this often backfires. Major plot points can be skipped, quests can be completed out of sequence, and lots of story elements can be spoiled because of this. For example, you can reach the hideout of one of the main villains pretty early in the game, and they evidence of several murders which have yet to take place. The designers should have either have come up with ways to prevent this from happening, or adjusted the in-game dialogue to account for it.

Media

Box Art

This is the original box which was used for all regions with minor changes to the layout. I originally thought the box was really dull, and that the designers should have made actual art. Later, I can now appreciate that they were trying something unique, but I still think it's a bit of a cop-out and would have much rather seen something like the art on the cover of the clue book.

Documentation

Maps

These maps are 24,576 x 24,576 pixels; too big to be handled properly by the web site. You'll have to download them to see them.

Screenshots

Videos

Introduction.
Longplay.
Speedrun.

Links

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