If the first two Ultima games were impressed critics and pleased gamers, Ultima III: Exodus knocked their sabatons off. First published in 1983 by Origin, the third Ultima was an instant success, forever establishing Garriott as a true master of the genre: a "veritable J. R. R. Tolkien of the keyboard," according to one magazine reviewer.
The game would go on to influence not only countless other CRPGs in both the West and the East, where it led to the development of Japan's console RPGs such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. It's certainly no exaggeration to call it one of the most important CRPGs ever made and the pinnacle of the Silver Age.
Several innovations make the game stand out from the earlier games. The most obvious is that the player is asked to control a party of four adventurers rather than a single hero. By this time, another CRPG series called Wizardry (which we'll discuss later in this chapter) was making its presence felt, and Garriott felt that since "Wizardry had multiple characters, I needed them too."
It also features a tactical, turn-based combat system with strict time limits (if a player takes too long to move a character, the game automatically skips to the next character or monster's turn). There are 16 hand-to-hand and ranged weapons, eight armor types, and 32 magic spells with names inspired by Latin.
One unusual and somewhat frustrating aspect of the combat system is that only the character striking the deathblow gets any experience points for the battle -- a fact that can quickly lead to a severely unbalanced party. Garriott also reworked the scenes involving sea travel, introducing a ship-to-shore combat system and wind navigation. To top it all off, the Garriott added a dynamic musical score that changes with various settings, though Apple II owners needed the optional Mockingboard expansion card to hear it.
The third Ultima game offers solid-color dungeons and a sharp layout.
Another important innovation is the fixed dungeons. Rather than random and mostly irrelevant dungeons, Ultima III integrates a series of stable dungeons directly into the gameplay, perhaps as a response to the frequent complaint that the dungeons in the previous games were practically superfluous. Furthermore, the dungeons in Ultima III aren't wireframe, but solid color and reminiscent of later CRPGs such as The Bard's Tale (1985), though predated by Texas Instruments' Tunnels of Doom (1982).
The storyline is rather typical and avoids the sci-fi elements that played such an important role in the first two games. Simply put, the player must seek out and kill an evil overlord, this time one named Exodus. Exodus is the offspring of Mondain and Minax and has been terrorizing the land of Sosaria with no regard for diplomacy.
Solving the game requires seeking out the mysterious Time Lord and working out the secrets of the Moon Gates. It isn't enough just to build up a strong party, though -- players must interact with townspeople to gather enough clues to solve a series of puzzles.
Ultima III was a smash hit, selling some 120,000 copies and cementing Lord British as the foremost maker of CRPGs. It was ported to most of the available platforms of the day and later even to the NES.
The Ultima series would dominate the CRPG scene for years, and even after its popularity waned in the face of increasingly fierce competition, plenty of loyal fans hung on. Even today, over 100,000 gamers still subscribe to Ultima Online, an MMORPG based on the franchise. We'll have more to say about the series as we discuss the later ages.