Publisher: Pony Canyon
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
USA Release: 1990
Early video games were not necessarily the best medium for storytelling. Perhaps this is why virtually all vintage games follow some variation on a basic theme: the brave hero sets out to destroy the evil dragon or wizard or aliens or whatever, and in so doing saves the fair kingdom or princess or galaxy or whatever. While many of the oldest games are strictly formula and have no discernible story (Pac-Man, Frogger, Burger Time), just about any vintage game with identifiable characters follows this formula (Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda). This holds true regardless of genre.
That is why Ultima: Quest of the Avatar deserves an honored place within the pantheon of truly brilliant and special games. There is no villain in Avatar, no damsel to save, and no kingdom to rule. This is a game about integrity, and how the travails of daily life can chip away at it until, steadily, without us realizing, we lose it. Okay, maybe that's a bit too dramatic, but I don't think I'm far off the mark.
Here's Avatar in a nutshell. You, the nameless wanderer, have been summoned to a fantasy world. It's a land that has suffered through some hard times, but now enjoys an age of peace. Even so, the king foresees a day when heroes will be needed again. The common people look for an exemplar, someone whose virtue and fortitude they can emulate, and in so doing, become heroes themselves. That's where you step in.
Your job in Avatar is to travel around the world and master eight cardinal virtues: Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor. How do you do this? Well, that's the fun, and the challenge, of your quest. Your first step is to determine which of the eight virtues you are personally most connected to. You do this by answering a series of simple ethical questions that force you to choose between two of the virtues. This determines your character type. Valorous characters are strong fighters. Self-sacrificing types are jacks of all trades but masters of none. Humble characters have no special skills and are in for a very tough road.
Your quest begins as soon as your character is selected. You find yourself in the town most closely associated with your core virtue. From there, you can wander freely to any of the other districts in the kingdom. Along the way you encounter characters who test your virtue. Beggars ask for your hard-won gold as a test of compassion. Blind shopkeepers ask you to count out the coins for purchases, challenging your honesty. Moral dilemmas are presented to you as trials for your sense of justice. Monsters accost you, and you must defeat them in battle to defend your honor.
The game presents other challenges, too. You can recruit friends who are strong in the other virtues, but only after achieving a certain level of personal development. Maze-like caves are filled with magical items that you need to complete the quest. Clues have to be collected and collated to point the way forward. You must earn money to pay for the weapons, armor, and tools that you need to survive. Exploration also plays a big part in the adventure.
Still, the pursuit of the virtues is the meat of the game. Given sufficient time and wit, you eventually prove your mastery of all eight, at which time you can descend into a great abyss in search of the ultimate knowledge. There is no twist ending and no surprise final boss. Some might find the ending anticlimactic, but I found it philosophical and intriguing. It's especially impressive considering that popular games of Avatar's era were Duck Hunt and Bubble Bobble and similar fare, which were not exactly known for their insight.
I don't think there's ever been another game quite like Avatar. If you're an old-school RPG fan like I am, then this is one that you absolutely shouldn't miss. Go and explore the frontiers of the self, and try not to lose yourself along the way.