Posted July 15, 2012 by Julie W in GO Critic Originals

Retrospective – Ultima Online

Ultima Online
Ultima Online


Ultima Online, released on September 24th, 1997 is a game that I can hardly compare to any other gaming experience. I purchased it when I was 16 years old because all my friends had it. It was my first MMORPG. And though my list of MMORPGs that I have played is a long one, (Final Fantasy XI, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, Rift, Lord of the Rings Online, Everquest, alongside of ones I forgot and betas I played) I have yet to find a game that has etched itself so deeply in my gaming heart as Ultima Online.

I remember begging my parents to allow me to play the game. This was because at the time, it was hard for them to grasp that people honestly had to pay to play a video game. We had to give them the money, and they in turn would write a check and send it to the company. Oh, the good ole days of sending a check in the mail to play a game. Secondly, we had dial up. My parents didn’t want us to tie up the phone line at all hours of the day, nor did they want us to wait until night time and then stay up until 5am playing.

In the end, they agreed. I always have to give my parents credit for trusting us and trying something new such as monthly payments for a game. (We paid, but it was their checking account being used.)

I remember just staring deeply into the game cover. What a gorgeous cover and what a hotty on the front! The photo shown is the version of the game I owned. I wanted to make a character just like the woman on the cover.

I made my first character, and set out!

Ultima Online is a highly detailed point and click MMORPG that in my opinion set the bar really high for the genre. The one thing that was so enchanting about Ultima Online was the world was indeed dangerous. If you stepped too far off the path, especially during the beginning levels you would most likely die. Dying in Ultima Online was devastating. You think running to your body and recovering is a hassle? Try having only a certain amount of time to get back to your body before you decay.

In Ultima Online you had very little time to return to your body. If you did not make it back to your body in time you would not only decay, but lose whatever item you had on you! Now that is quite a punishment for death! It was easy to die in the game as well. There seemed to always be something after you. And yes, there were PVP servers.

…running from an enemy and one hit away from dying, I would literally be shaking.

It was one of those games that when running from an enemy and one hit away from dying, I would literally be shaking. There was a lot at stake when you died. And if somehow I made it, perhaps by chance, or a friendly passerby saved me, I would let out the biggest sigh of relief.

When I first started my character, I remember spending a lot of time in the sewers killing rats. Once I was strong enough, I moved on from the sewers and into the graveyard where there were terrifying skeletons, and ghouls.

Moving forward eventually you could build up your taming and ride a horse. Taming was an awesome, but difficult skill to learn. Eventually you could tame incredible mounts such as a Nightmare horse, Dread War horse, or even a dragon that would also fight for you. Of course other little creatures would fight for you as well, if you could tame them, but they often died in a hit or two.

The one thing you could find in Ultima Online unlike any other online game was the ability to have your own house, decorate it, and set up NPCs that have merchandise for sale.  You could even dress your NPC vendors. This system is often tried by games, but often fails. It was fun to be able to flip through merchant after merchant bags quickly without lag. The farther in the forest, the more likely you’ll find some awesome weapons, crafted armor, specialty items, furniture for your house, but also dangerous enemies.

There was no auction house system when I played… there were the houses, the NPC vendors, that players would only hope someone would find them in the forest. If not, people often shouted like a mass bazaar by the bank in the middle of town. There was quite a lot of spam, but it never seemed to bother me. I always liked seeing what people had for sale from their shouts. It was really the only safe way to acquire anything without trudging through the forest.

Owning a house was hard to do on most servers as well. Buying a house deed was easy, which could be purchased in the shops. But then actually finding a plot of land to place that house was a whole other story. Players who owned a house had to open the front door, to refresh it. If the house was not refreshed within I believe 3 days, it would start to decay. Other players would know when a house was about to decay and disappear, and would actually camp a plot of land in hopes the owner of that house didn’t return.

This is just another example of how the game was unforgiving, but that just made it all the more rewarding when you actually succeeded in something.

Adventuring out was scary because you never knew if you were going to be killed, or even find your way back home. There were teleport scrolls and other players who could help you out, but this usually came with a price.

My main character was a knight, who wore black specialty crafted armor and a red cape that I dyed.  I had to purchase all the ignots and hope to find a trusting blacksmith to make the armor for me. The crafting in the game was very detailed, but also made you high in demand if you had the skill. Weapons and armor also became damaged over time, and had to be repaired or else they would break permanently.

I also learned to bandage pretty well. To heal you could take wool and turn that into bandages. The bandages could then be used on yourself or on others. If you acquired a high enough skill in bandaging you could cure poisons, or even bring someone back from the dead (before they decayed).

I recall a time fighting lizardmen in a cave. The sound they made, I tell you, will stick with you for the rest of your life. The twists and turns of dungeons have a similar lighting effect one would see in like a Diablo game. It’s dark, until you walk right up to an area.

My dial-up internet went out, (a telemarketer probably was calling) and I spent several tries to get back online. I logged in, to a black and white screen. Dead. Stupid dial-up!

Meeting people was always fun in that game as well. One could spend hours just sitting in their house, getting drunk (in game) and chatting.  *hic!* Other times, other players were out to get you. They would befriend you, teleport you somewhere, and then abandon you.

“Hey, I have a great place to get you a horse, want to come with?” They might ask.

“Sure, I’ll come.” Of course at that point you are trusting them because you are either stupid, desperate, or spent the last hour thinking this person genuinely wants to be your friend.

And 10 seconds later when the game loads you are standing in the middle of a black dungeon, being chased by monsters. Dead. The screen goes black and white, and now you cry, pray, and slam on the keyboard hoping you can get to your body in time. Then again, when you return to your body, and are revived you still have to run through the dungeon without being killed for the second time. Your only salvation is perhaps a teleport scroll, but how to activate it while everything is chasing you?

To me, Ultima Online was way ahead of its time. And it’s a shame that no matter how enchanting an online game is, eventually the community changes. There are always those diehard players that play for 10 years and have every item of the game and have 5 different characters. Then you’ll have the few that will buy the game on a whim, try it out and go, “This game is stupid.” because they just don’t understand. Communities in online games never seem to stay the same. And it’s a shame, because of all the online games I have ever played, there are only two I would ever consider going back to: Final Fantasy XI, and Ultima Online.

The music, composed by Kirk Winterrowd was also very mood setting for each environment. It really helped bring it all together, making Ultima Online a full and rich player experience.

The game has been around for around 15 years now, and there are still people playing. I am unsure how the game economy is or about the changes that were made since. There were many expansions released since I played last, but the core of the game still appears the same. Maybe some day I’ll take a chance on it and try it out for what it is today.

It’s hard for me to find games that I appreciate to such a level as I did with Ultima Online. It will always have a special place in my heart. And though this maybe sounds a little bit like I’m some fangirl, I’m not. This all happened 12 years ago, with 12 years of a variety of games in addition to MMORPGs, and somehow I look back on this one and wonder if there will ever be another online game that I hold so dear in memory as this one.


Julie W

Julie W
Editor in Chief / Site Owner - Playing games since the Sega Master System and Atari, Julie has a love for games of all kinds; although her main focus in gaming is RPGs, RTS, and simulation. If she's not writing or playing a video game, Julie is baking nerdy cakes, playing piano, or illustrating.