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Ultima: Quest of the Avatar (NES) artwork

Ultima: Quest of the Avatar (NES) review


"RPGs have always been about trying to combine disparate genres into a seemingly endless cycle of nerdier and nerdier products. It started when a bunch of guys sat down, threw some board games and copies of Tolkien on a table, and ended up with Dungeons & Dragons, which resulted in some other guys sitting down, throwing D&D rules in with computer programming manuals and creating Wizardry. RPGs have been combined with every conceivable genre, from first-person shooters (The Elder Scrol..."



RPGs have always been about trying to combine disparate genres into a seemingly endless cycle of nerdier and nerdier products. It started when a bunch of guys sat down, threw some board games and copies of Tolkien on a table, and ended up with Dungeons & Dragons, which resulted in some other guys sitting down, throwing D&D rules in with computer programming manuals and creating Wizardry. RPGs have been combined with every conceivable genre, from first-person shooters (The Elder Scrolls) to strategy games (Tactics Ogre) to platformers (Castlevania II: Simon's Quest) to third-person shooters (Valkyrie Chronicles) to dating sims (Persona 3). The influence RPGs have had on gaming is so wide-spread, that it is conceivable to argue that nearly any game has, in some form, elements that were inherited from the D&D rule book.

Ultima: Quest of the Avatar is perhaps one of the earliest examples of an RPG attempting some blatant genre-bending to differentiate itself. I suppose it could be said to be a mix of the usual dungeon-based exploration with a novel (and primitive) form of social simulation, such that one might consider it a prototype for later and more refined games like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. Throw in some philosophical influences from eastern religions – which, by the way, should not be understated, considering this game dates from a time when a plumber jumping on turtles was considered the apex of interactive art – and you get an RPG that really wants to stretch its legs and cover more material than was usually expected.

It's difficult to appreciate just how different Quest of the Avatar really was, considering how common place it is now to see an RPG cross-dressing as a shooter or blaring rap music or what-have-you. I am tempted here to reproduce the backs of the boxes from several RPGs just to illustrate the differences, but I'll spare you my bibliographic fetish and give you this from Wizardry:

Are you ready to step into the world of Wizardry? Unmatched by any other fantasy role-playing game, the Wizardry Gaming System allows for unlimited combinations of strategies and tactics, so that each quest into the Maze is always fresh and interesting... under your command, brawny warriors, frail magis, pious clerics, and nimble thieves accumulate experience and treasure. As your characters gain experience, they develop greater capabilities to become even better adventurers, allowing them to venture deeper into the Maze...

The focus here being almost exclusively on the exploration of the Proving Grounds and the sense of adventure created for the player as therein. It's pretty obvious what type of game this is, and what the player can expect when he or she descends into the explicit labyrinth. Compare that to Quest of the Avatar:

The ruthless Triad of Evil has been vanquished and peace now reigns in the land. But without the threat of danger the people have become corrupt. Darkness dwells in their hearts and minds. The countryside is plagued by dragons, trolls, and long-dead wizards. Only an Avatar, a shining example of heroism, can destroy the monsters and conquer the internal wickedness with his mastery of magic and weapons. Become the Avatar! Save Britannia! And master the challenges of the ultimate quest – the search for good within yourself.

Were it not for the Ultima name and the fact that this is the fourth part of a well-regarded series, it wouldn't even be clear from this description what this game even plays like. Compared to contemporary titles, Quest of the Avatar must have seemed like a literal novel, an attempt to turn a game into something intellectually engaging rather than a child's play thing. Suddenly we aren't here to get treasure and experience, we're here for self-explication and strange interactive spirituality. It was in the 80's what V for Vendetta must have been like sitting in the comic book section of a local store, with such lofty ambition and promise that it feels like a misnomer to even call it a game.

This promise makes it all the more unfortunate that, for all its interesting ideas, Quest of the Avatar never manages to redefine the traditional RPG formula beyond a few superficial touches. Dungeon crawling and frustratingly redundant mazes are the attractions here, and the avatarhood that is so central to the game's experience is shallow at best, and more of a joke than a lesson in eastern religion. In short, Quest of the Avatar is neither fun nor enlightening.

After answering a series of hypothetical questions, the player eventually choses the virtue (e.g. humility, compassion, etc) that represents their class. Each city in Britannia is emblematic of one of those virtues, and the player will start in his or her respective home. The player must then embark on a very formulaic journey that can be ordered thusly:

Step 1: Cultivate each virtue (see below)
Step 2: Collect some runes and stones from dungeons
Step 3: Walk to some shrines and pray
Step 4: Go to the last dungeon
Step 5: You are the Avatar. Have a pleasant enlightenment!

Walking around redundant dungeons and smacking palette-swaps of monsters you already fought in the face with your sword, and waiting patiently for monsters to complete their turn. The pacing of this game couldn't be more wrong. In dungeons and on the world map (i.e. everywhere except in town) you can encounter enemies. Random encounters are initiated not by walking around but by a timer within the game, meaning if you simply put down the controller and stand in one place, a battle will eventually start. Considering that the dungeons in Quest of the Avatar are first-person affairs that demand a piece of graph paper and some patience, this is one of the most asinine ways to integrate combat that I've ever seen. It just ruins the flow of the game. At one moment, the player is rushing through a dungeon hoping to cover as much ground as possible before the next battle starts, then the next moment, the player is twiddling his or her thumbs while a dull fight ensues. Myself, a person usually predisposed to older RPGs, actually fell asleep in the midst of combat at one point.

If you played Ultima: Exodus, know that combat here is a more refined version of that game. Battles take place on a rectangular grid with enemies on the top and the player at the bottom, and during each turn the player may move or attack. Casting a spell is perhaps the most interesting aspect of battles, in that it consumes both MP and ingredients like garlic and ginger. You'll need to discover the exact ingredients needed by finding recipes, trial and error, or simply reading the instruction manual.

It is worth mentioning how much the gameplay is downplayed here. Simply reading the included instruction manual will tell you almost every secret and every step that is needed to complete your journey. It feels as though the player is expected to get something else out of the game other than a raw sense of satisfaction after slaughtering his or her 10,000 kobold. The other portion of the game, the highly appealing psychological experiment in which the player cultivates his or her virtues through their interactions with the external world is disappointingly shallow. Allow me to give an example: in order to improve your honesty, you must pay full price to all in-game herbalists, who are all completely blind and require you to count the money into their hands. Want to improve your valour? Don't run from battles. Want to cultivate your compassion? Give coins to the NPC beggars in each city. It never becomes more intricate than this.

The human condition is simply not this easy. Compassion, humility, and so forth are nuanced traits and emotions. Love, for example, is so ridiculously complicated that it has been the subject of written texts since we've had written texts, and to the best of my knowledge no one has ever lived who could explain it in all its faces, from friendship to patriotism, to sexual appetite to piousness, to passionate intercourse to unrequited lust, to two old people who constantly fight but become painfully depressed when separated for more than a few hours. There have been hundreds upon thousands of books and movies that are absolutely obsessed with the nature of love, what it means to be in love, and what it means to lose love, and no one seems to have a bloody clue what any of it means.

My point here is that we human beings lead very complicated emotional lives, and while I can accept that Quest of the Avatar is an early game, its ambitious nature makes its shallowness readily apparent. It isn't the mix of philosophy and role-playing that it seems to promise, it is a cluster-fuck of boring battles and cheap parlor tricks.

The technology simply wasn't there. So much of this game needs more processing power. For example, to have certain human values portrayed in the landscape of a game, like having cities represent specific virtues as they do here, requires a lot more colour and the ability to think outside the old-school tile-set designs of yore. Could you imagine dungeons that, rather than just bearing the names of different vices, actually reflected those vices in their design and imagery? They don't here. Such a thing would require mountains upon mountains of text, music that reflects specific emotions, and most importantly experience with the artistic capabilities of the medium that simply were not there in the mid-80s when we were still enamored by Duck Hunt and Gradius.

Yet despite all its problems, despite its redundancy, and despite the fact that I fell asleep playing it, Quest of the Avatar is still a game that is hard not to recommend. It might be poorly executed and boring to play, but the very fact that it tried something so bold and so far removed from the game design paradigms of its time gives Quest of the Avatar the absolute right to be remembered, replayed, and reappreciated today, not for what it did but for what it tried and failed to do. It is a botched experiment, a Frankenstein of an RPG, and it has earned its place in the canon.

Rating: 7/10

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Featured community review by dagoss (March 17, 2009)

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JANUS2 posted March 22, 2009:

Interesting review. I hate playing these old RPGs, but I enjoy reading about them. I like how you differentiate Quest of the Avatar from other adventures (comparing the descriptions of Wizardry and Avatar was an effective idea). The conclusion was convincing, too. After reading the review I accept the idea that Quest of the Avatar deserves a seven for its significance, although I'm not sure I would ever want to play a game that made you fall asleep!
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wolfqueen001 posted March 22, 2009:

...Britannia? Seriously? That's... original. >_> Is there a mock Stonehenge, too? Haha. And yet the main religion is Buddhism/Shinto?

Anyway, nice review. Very analytical well explained, and your argument is quite believable, especially with how you justified it in the conclusion. The comparisons to other RPGs of that era and this is much appreciated because it gives a clear example of what this game tried to do, even if it failed. It's interesting that the game tried to do something unique, specially during it's time. I'm glad you recommend it even if it's boring, shallow, and otherwise fails completely; I've been interested in the Ultima series for a little while (and even downloaded Exodus on my comp), so it's good to know that this one, even though it comes later, is worth checking out despite its flaws.

I did find some typos, though (sorry), but just in one part of a sentence.

like having a cities represent virtues as they do here, requires a lot more colours and the ability

I think the "a" should be removed. And I think "colors" (or your preferred spelling of it) should be singular.
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overdrive posted March 25, 2009:

WQ: The land is called Brittania because the creator of the series was known by the pseudonym of Lord British during the heyday of the Ultima series. And, I guess, for all I know, he still calls himself that. The king in the series was named Lord British and the land was named after him.

Good review, dagoss. I remember how just a few months ago, someone else wrote a review for this game and received second place in the Alphabetolympics with it. I just wish I could remember who that rugged sex-panther of a man is!
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bloomer posted March 27, 2009:

"Compared to contemporary titles, Quest of the Avatar must have seemed like a literal novel, an attempt to turn a game into something intellectually engaging rather than a child's play thing. Suddenly we aren't here to get treasure and experience, we're here for self-explication and strange interactive spirituality."

Heh, I find it interesting to muse on this ventured idea, which is a good one, since I was a functioning 10 year old gamer who'd already played Ultima III when this was released. I enjoyed answering the moral questions at the start of U4, but I found the game to be the most confusing, unwieldy Ultima to date. (And Ultima III was already bloody confusing.) Relatively speaking, I got nowhere. Some of you guys reviewing these things in the age of walkthroughs, you potentially have no idea how impenetrable a game like this was. If you were stuck or confused, you could remain that way for years. Years!
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sashanan posted March 27, 2009:

Years indeed. There is a Commodore 64 adventure pragmatically named The Detective Game, and it took me eighteen years to finish. And that's not even an RPG!
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dagoss posted March 29, 2009:

I don't know about any other versions of the game, but do know that Ultima IV's NES port came with a game and an instruction manual that gave most of the recipes for spells, basic maps for all but the final dungeon, complete instructions on how to use moongates, and pretty much everything that you'd expect to find in a competent walkthrough. With this stuff, there is almost no mystery or guess work for this game, which I think further downplays the importances of the actual game here. But again, I don't know how other versions were packaged, so this may simply be a cause of reducing the challenge for Nintendo's younger audience.
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randxian posted March 29, 2009:

Wow. Very descriptive. I've spent very little time playing any of the Ultima games, but I've got a good sense of what this one is like. The timer thing sounds like a bad idea. I am confused by a couple of things however.

Allow me to give an example: in order to improve your honesty, you must pay full price to all in-game herbalists, who are all completely blind and require you to count the money into their hands.

I'm not sure what else you want the game to do to show your character has honesty. For valor, I can see wanting something more than not running from battles, but for ideas like honesty, there is only so much you can do.

And you pretty much reprimand the game for most of the review, yet it somehow gets a 7. I get the impression you gave it that score because you do like at least appreciate the attempt at original ideas. I guess I can kind of see that, but it just seems that score just came out of nowhere. I was pretty surprised it scored that high after reading the entire review.

Anyway, I still enjoyed reading it and how you covered all the important features in the game.
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aschultz posted April 09, 2009:

I enjoyed this review, too. It's interesting to see what made it from the Apple/PC version and what didn't. Now this may be more about my experience with the Ultima series, but I hope you find this extra info useful/entertaining.

The dungeons in the PC are set up differently--for instance, in the PC you can run from monsters, who roam the dungeon just as you do, and you have rooms where you have to push walls to find secret passages. Timers? Awful awful awful.

As for virtue, you're right--there IS only so much you can do in one game, with the memory/disk space involved. And I imagine the NES could not retain a lot of the dialogue from the PC, which may slightly seem like mumbo jumbo but is still interesting.

The PC had an amusing quirk where you could steal from the castle, losing several virtues, before giving extra money to blind reagent sellers, pumping those virtues up to avatar level. And also you could achieve the virtue you needed by finding the right virtuous action to repeat. Sometimes it'd be talking continuously to the same person and answering them correctly.

It's dilemmas like this that spawned the sequel Ultima V where virtue is corrupted into bad laws, and you fight from the inside.

I'm even more interested in the game than before. And I understand where you are coming from, because it's pretty clear what the port had to drop from the PC version.

BTW, I'd be interested to read if you think the PC version works. It's freeware. While bloomer mentions he had trouble getting a start(and so did I,) I was able to do better the second time around.

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