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Jukebox Heroes: Ultima Online's soundtrack


Ultima Online and EverQuest were bound in blood by their early place in MMO history, but both titles were also two of the very few MMOs that released with a MIDI soundtrack. I've talked about the charms of MIDI before, although I think that a good chunk of the modern playerbase has no idea how games used to sound. In short, UO's original score used to be 100% computer produced, but eventually the MIDI format was replaced by much better-sounding versions in MP3 files around 2002.

The core game's music was done by a pair of composers, Kirk Winterrowd and Joe Basquez, both of whom worked on previous Ultima titles. There's not a lot out there about the duo's experience creating the soundtrack nor whom the game studio tapped for music duties after Origin Systems went away.

What I find interesting about this score is that not only is it beloved by players who have fond memories for Ultima Online but it is part of the larger Ultima framework, harkening back to The Olden Days of gaming. Seeing as how I was never into any of the Ultima titles (for shame, I know), I'm going to have to fall back on a simple gut-check: Which of this music is appealing simply for its own sake?

1. Minoc

What I like most about this entire soundtrack is that it's not trying to emulate epic fantasy in such a way that makes my eardrums bleed; instead, it's trying to be classic fantasy. Simple fantasy. Fantasy that isn't ashamed to be homespun, old-fashioned, and even a little simple. I'd also like to throw in the word "quaint" for consideration, too.

That's what I like best about this track. It's charming without any delusions of greater glory. The melody is catchy, the tone is warm, and it seems to sum up the best aspects of old-school RPGs in a quick tune.

2. Britain

The trumpets come out and the realm is called to pause in respect. It's Britain! Or should it be Britannia? Maybe the composer ran out of letters when throwing together the album. (OK, OK, my editor informs me the continent is Britannia and the capital city is Britain.) In any case, the resounding horns are majestic and regal, though kind of cheesy. I don't mind cheese when it's played sincerely, however.

3. Stones

Stones is not just a fan favorite of the Ultima Online soundtrack; it's also a tune that has a long history with the franchise that dates back to its first appearance in Ultima V (1988). It was composed by David R. Watson, a man who was perhaps better known as his in-game counterpart, Iolo. Fans seem to love performing this piece, from the harp to the piano.

For the theme of the game, official or otherwise, Stones is a remarkably laid-back piece that focuses more on beauty than knocking our socks off with promises of huge raids or massive PvP battles. It suggests that the world and lore behind it are perhaps the most important thing, and through the track you can hear the game contemplating its past history and future potential. I like it very much (although, for my money, Minoc is better).

4. Linelle

I'll say this for Ultime Online's score: It actually has the ability to make MIDI music sound fairly good. I mean, I still prefer the remastered versions, but check out this rendition of Linelle. Even with the simple computer music, it's catchy, playful, and is headbob-inducing. It even has a hint of lullaby in there, albeit one sped up.

5. Moonglow

This tune feels more anxious and foreboding than the ones that we've heard so far. It's still retaining that simple fantasy spirit, but there's a darker side to it this time. I like the electronic harps in the background, constantly flitting up and down. It comes to a nice conclusion and polite claps are heard all around for it.

6. Forest

I'll wrap this up with one final MIDI blast from the past. Forest isn't as catchy as some of these other tracks, but I do like how it achieves the feeling of actually creeping through dense woods. You can hear the trepidation of the steps and the unknown of what lies ahead. Yet it's not dour and evil; it's just part of the journey.

I'm sure we'll have a lot of opinions this week -- and memories -- of favorite Ultima Online tracks. I wanna hear them, so share!

MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Every Tuesday, Jukebox Heroes will check out a game's soundtrack and feature the best tunes to share and discuss. Your DJ for the hour is Justin Olivetti, and the request line is open!

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