Open-world gaming: From the beginning, the Ultima games took place in worlds which were as big as possible given the tech constraints. You traveled across swamps, oceans, and hills, discovering what the world had to offer. The world was rarely "gated", letting exploration proceed in a non-linear fashion. What's more, the developments of open-world gameplay throughout the course of the series presaged the open-world games to come.
Ultima VI (1990) may be the most important open-world game of all time. Previous games in the series had switched perspective based on your context – dungeons were first-person, combat was top-down, and exploration on the world map had a completely different scale than exploration of towns. In Ultima VI, perspective was consistent. Your party walked into a town in the same way that it walks through a dungeon. It was a seamless, consistent world, that felt lived-in, and that open-world games from Grand Theft Auto to Skyrim owe a huge debt to.
The deeper into the series you go, the more complex the world. Want to quit adventuring for a while and bake bread? You could do that. Want to explore dungeons that are totally irrelevant to the plot? That was an option. Grab a cannon and start slaughtering guards so you can steal everything in the town? Well, you could do that, but there were consequences.
Morality: Modern games with morality systems tend to operate with a strict good/evil dichotomy, as they have since Fallout. But game morality didn't start with Fallout. It started with Ultima IV. And in many ways, it ended with Ultima IV, a game about morality more so than virtually any other.
The character you played in the first three Ultimas was known as the Stranger, for visiting this fantasy world in order to save it. Saving the world entailed defeating the villain, no matter how that was done – stealing, murder, what-have-you. Ultima IV had no villain, and the world of Britannia was in a moral crisis, and only savable by embodying the world's new eight virtues and becoming the Avatar. That term became the default for a player character within a video game.
How did you do this? You solved quests and explored dungeons, sure, but more than that you had to adhere to the moral code of the eight virtues. Honesty meant no stealing. Valor meant not fleeing from combat, but had to be balanced with Justice, where you didn't kill enemies who weren't evil. It's considered a unique game, and one of the greatest in gaming history. It's not entirely alone, either, as Ultima VI had a storyline about bringing two warring races together via diplomacy, not combat.
Narrative: In addition to being the driving force behind open-world gaming, Ultima was also at the forefront of plotting in video games, at a time when RPGs, as a genre, was pushing gaming forward. Ultima III was one of the first non-adventure games to have any kind of in-game story development and, for the first time, conversations with various non-player characters in towns became an important, necessary way to understand the game. U5 took the virtues of its immediate predecessor and attached their exploration to a story with a villain. And the series' stories culminated in the two parts of Ultima VII, which were stunningly well-developed for the time and included one of the most shocking plot twists in gaming history.
More impressive than the overarching plot was Ultima's commitment to smaller-scale conversation and character-building. While Ultima III required some basic conversations, they tended to become a single button press and reading a line or two of dialogue. Starting with Ultima IV, the series used a more complex text system, where the player would type in keywords in order to get information, starting with the ubiquitous 'name' and 'job' as introductions. This remains one of the most complex and in-depth conversation systems in RPG history. It was simplified slightly with the move to mouse-based gaming in Ultima VII, a move which laid the groundwork for the more common click-on-the-line-you-want-your-character-to-say conversation mechanic still in use.
As a final note, Ultima was one of the first games to have you control one specific character, the Avatar, which you create. The other characters already exist with pre-determined roles and personalities, and can be engaged for conversation. This has become the default mode for party-based games these days, but it was rare in that era, where you rolled an entire party yourself, or occasionally played pre-determined characters.
Technology & Interface: Ultima was also at the forefront of technical innovation. Its graphics and sound were consistently among the best available at the time. The games helped usher in the age of the mouse, especially with Ultima VII, one of the first games with an interface optimized for that instead of keyboard. Gone were piles of menus and stat bars. Instead you had a game whose gorgeous world and characters took up the whole screen. Click on something to interact with it.
It seems so obvious now, but Ultima VII was one of the most important games in removing a level of abstraction from how players interacted with their games. This has become one of the most important trends in gaming in the last decade. Consider how many shooters don't have health bars or stats at all, instead showing the player they're in danger via blood on the screen or intense heartbeat sound – and consider how Ultima VII was doing that 20 years ago.
Business: A prominent independent developer is purchased by a major publisher. Everything seems to be going great at first – the games are as good as they were but with bigger budgets. But suddenly, they collapse. What made the games interesting is lost by corporate medding, and what made the games great is buried under a pile of bugs caused by rushing to meet a shipping date. Is this BioWare, EA, and Dragon Age II? Nah, this is Origin Systems, EA, and Ultima VIII, one of the biggest disasters in gaming history. It didn't take long after that for the studio to be gutted, with Ultima quickly losing its cachet as the premiere series in gaming, instead simply becoming synonymous with the on-going Ultima Online. A half-hearted finale, Ultima IX: Ascension, was released in 1999.
That Ultima is no longer a top-selling series in the current generation of games has caused it to slip out of the public consciousness. But no other series in gaming history has been so important across so many different dimensions of gaming. Final Fantasy and Zelda may be longer-lasting, but influence outside of their genres is rare. Mario can compete, perhaps, but in my view, Ultima's innovation in storytelling and character building push it over the top. I have no hesitation in saying that Ultima is the greatest series in video game history.
If you've never played an Ultima, there are several entryways, many of which are at Good Old Games. Ultima IV, the most important title in the series, is even available for free, but it's not aging well and probably isn't the best gateway for new players. I'd recommend Ultima VII as a starting point, although Ultima VI is my personal favorite. There are also dozens of fan remakes and ports. And no, I don't recommend starting from the very beginning.
Coming Soon: Questing rhythm in New Vegas, the question of morality, my first foray into The Witcher, and what Lands Of Lore & Betrayal At Krondor have in common with Final Fantasy.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.