iOS port Hope: Ultima 7 – the greatest RPG ever

a grisly day in the stables...

Back in the early 90’s, I was in love two things: a cute girl named Christina, and a fathomless role playing game called Ultima 7. But because of my awkward appearance on the one hand, and our horrid computer on the other, I had no luck with either. I got dumped by one, and until I was able to shell out for four more megabytes of RAM, I’d have to play Ultima 7 on a borrowed computer. That was the way of it for a long time ago, but in the intervening years, the ONLY games I’ve come back to are Heroes of Might and Magic (see Palm Heroes) and Ultima 7. Ultima 7 was the pinnacle of computer engineering at the time and even today remains unrivalled for a complete role playing experience. Many today consider it the best computerised RPG ever. Unfortunately, it isn’t truly playable on iOS devices for many reasons. The first is that EA hold the rights to it, and the second is that in order to run playably (in a virtual environment) on iOS devices, it needs a complete overhaul.

The Ultima serieshas been known for taking what was a flaky gaming genre and tossing in acutely tailored role playing elements. Highlights include the virtue system, a realistic kharma engine, and capped character stats among many others. Technically, Ultima was always on the cutting edge, but Ultima 7 in particular, sporting paper doll animation, real day/night NPC scheduling, fathomless object interaction, ultra-detailed graphics, was and according to certain benchmarks, still is the most advanced RPG game to date. Today, RPGs still clamour to implement the same elements and most fail brutally.

But as advanced as Ultima 7 is, it lacks modern ports. You can get it to run as it did originally using DosBox, but it is best played in Exult, a full environmental runtime engine that can be ported to any system with enough power. There are many problems, however, with both systems, at least for the iDevice.

iPhone gamers are an elite lot: we are pampered by very good ports and/or excellent original programming. Running DosBox to play Ultima 7 might work (though it would be woefully slow), but Exult (which has been ported to the PSP) would be better. Here’s the catch though: both Exult and DosBox rely on original files. Currently, EA hold the rights to those files. Both systems fall under the category of emulator, a category that Apple are wont to reject at the App Store.

Even if Apple gave the ‘go ahead’, EA could pull the plug on the project. Obtaining original disks is very hard and even though several CD versions eventually were published, they have been gobbled up by fans and are almost impossible to find unless you live trust eBay, or live in parts of the USA with collector game vendors. EA have been on a talented streak recently, re-creating classics such as SimCity/SimCity Deluxe and a slew of mostly excellent board games. But, they’ve a gold mine on their hands in the form of the Ultima series, specifically Ultima 7. Fans have been playing the game for 20 years and will continue to play it for 20 more. There isn’t a game like it and there won’t be one like it again. EA, if you are listening, either release Ultima 7 to adoring fans, enjoying your do-good wuffie; or monetise the franchise by investing in runtimes engines like Exult and build us a good iOS port with the technology. I can promise that the money would flow. App Store buyers are a loose bunch – they’d spend 5$ on such a game before they knew it and you’d make mega bucks.

There's even romance!

Without EA’s release, RPG fans will be left with a bunch of Final Fantasy wannabes and a very few good role playing games. With good programming, the iDevice could be the perfect Ultima 7 platform. But I have the feeling that the only modern console to play a sanctioned version will be the unergonomic PSP version.

EA: as an Ultima fan and an iDevice gamer, I can promise that a good port of Ultima 7 with the modern improvements seen in Exult would net you big bucks. Helping sponsor fan projects, of course, would assure you a strong, devoted fan base and a dramatic turnaround to this pivotal game in the franchise. ***For those in the don’t-know, Ultima 7 was published in the height of a big fat fight between Richard Garriot (Ultima’s creator) and Electronic Arts.

EA: when/if you do it publish Ultima 7 for iOS, consider the following:

1. Mouse-driven interfaces don’t always translate that well to the touch screen.
2. Worlds like the uber-detailed Britannia of Ultima 7 require RAM. In order for Ultima 7 to work properly on the majority of iDevices, you will need to build the engine from the ground up for older iPhones and iPod touch models. Alternatively, you will need to tweak Exult extensively.
3. Since the games were created for much lower resolution displays, a good graphics scaler must be implemented. If not, plot elements can be spoiled by the high resolutions of the iPhone 4 and iPad.
4. Copyright holders have to relinquish hold, or support fan projects, allowing them to publish to mobile devices.

If those four items can be met, Ultima 7 will prove a big hit both in mind share and in wallet share.

These screenshots were taken from Moby Games’ Ultima 7 Screenshot page:

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