VGM Entry 11: Ultima
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
Ultima I, Wizardry, Bokosuka Wars, and Dragon Slayer–if we ignore this last title’s half-hearted attempt–all lacked my topic of interest here: music. When music first came to Eastern-style adventure/RPGs is as difficult to pinpoint as a precise definition of the type of game itself. The NES port of Bokosuka Wars had continuous music, albeit much to its detriment, but a December 14, 1985, release date renders this historically insignificant; Koji Kondo’s work in The Legend of Zelda would take the Japanese gaming world by storm only two months later. There may have been others with some music of worth, but they have evaded my notice. Western RPGs are an entirely different matter.
Kenneth W. Arnold’s work experience summary on LinkedIn claims that “Ultima III was the first game for personal computers (Apple II originally) with a musical score.” I have found no reason to doubt this claim. If I have overlooked an earlier RPG with music, it should nevertheless stand that Arnold’s work on Ultima III: Exodus (Origin Systems, 1983) is among the very first.
Much more importantly, it’s amazing. The songs are exquisitely attuned to the properties of the Mockingboard A sound chip. The deep tones carry a real sense of depth into the gameplay, and the natural distortion is wholeheartedly embraced to create a sense of something hinged between danger and mystery–this idea of an old world that is never entirely safe or wholly understood. The style of each song is ideal. It’s got everything you could expect in an RPG soundtrack: an adventurous overworld theme, a peaceful tune for towns, a haunting dungeon, and an especially noteworthy tense combat melody. In what is quite possibly the first RPG soundtrack ever written, one finds style-scenario associations which are pretty much the same today. Kenneth W. Arnold deserves a lot more credit for Ultima III than the history books grant him, not because he invented RPG music–I am inclined to believe such games naturally lend themselves to particular musical styles–but because he did everything right the first shot out the gate, without any previous standard having been set. And he did it so well that his works still stand among the finest today. Cheers to that.
It just got better from there. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin Systems) was released on September 16, 1985, and with it Kenneth W. Arnold achieved a level of quality in RPG music that even Nobuo Uematsu would not be topping any time soon. The Castle theme especially (3:09) is one of the most commanding of its kind for any RPG. Shopping (1:34) presents an audio vision of some medieval market place filled with crooked old cranks peddling dubious potions. The combat theme (5:27) is a mere 12 seconds long, yet its exciting, adventurous spirit lends itself to continuous repetition better than nearly any other RPG non-boss battle music I’ve heard.
Credit goes to Apple Vault for actually reproducing this music. It wasn’t easy to come by. Ultima must be one of the most heavily ported series in history, with Ultima III appearing on the Atari 800, Commodore 64, IBM PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Mac, PC-8801, PC-9801, FM-7, NES, and MSX2, and Ultima IV appearing on the Atari 800, Commodore 64, IBM PC, Amiga, Atari ST, PC-8801, PC-9801, FM-7, FM Towns, Sharp X1, Sharp X68000, NES, MSX2, and SMS. Most of these ports contained the original music adapted for different sound chips, and you can see how the original Apple II Mockingboard take might get lost in the clutter. Some of these ports are pretty good approximations. Others, like the NES version, inexplicably toss out Arnold’s soundtrack altogether. But the game was originally intended to be heard on an Apple II Mockingboard, and I believe this is the most accurate version you’re going to find. Accuracy does matter here, I think. Given the amount of attention to tone quality I think Arnold put into this, preserving the medium is just as important as preserving the melodies themselves.
It’s no matter of chance that many of the best game soundtracks were RPGs. By nature among the most diverse games in setting, they naturally demand a diverse score. Thus it was the case that Ultima III, possibly the first RPG soundtrack ever, might also have been the longest soundtrack up to that time, clocking in at about six and a half minutes in 1983. But it’s the shear quality that deserves most of the attention. Kenneth W. Arnold was brilliant. These are the first truly great RPG soundtracks, and it’s a shame that they have been largely forgotten.