I recently reviewed the soundtrack of Heart of Thorns as well as Wildstar and Blade and Soul here on MMOGames. Having spent so much time on relatively new MMO music, I feel it’s high time we turned the clock back a little – are you ready for this?
Once upon a time there was an MMORPG called Ultima Online. In the collective memory of MMO players, old enough to remember or have played this early title, Ultima Online is one of the great trailblazers of the genre, together with other similarly worshiped titles like Everquest. When I think back on my first UO experiences, they are full of magic and nostalgia. The two-dimensional world of Britannia with its top-down perspective and 16 bit colors doesn’t hold up to the visual splendor players get to enjoy nowadays but there was a unique charisma and medieval renaissance flair to Ultima Online that still seeks its rivals today.
The original soundtrack for Ultima Online was composed by Kirk Winterrowd and Joe Basquez, who are known for their work on various Ultima and Wing Commander games. The original music format was MIDI before UO received a major sound update in the Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge expansion five years later. From there, the soundtrack has seen many remasters and remixes by passionate fans who have kept this subscription based MMORPG alive for nearly two decades. There are still players active and busy in UO to this day.
Now I won’t lie; as a spoiled collector of high-quality MMO music, I tend to have my issues with a lot of the MIDI sounds of old. There are noisy and repetitive pieces from many older games that give me headaches but there is also an undeniable charm to many of Ultima Online’s original tracks that have surprising variety. When it comes to enjoying MIDIs, there’s a certain nostalgia factor that influences our general judgement of older soundtracks. You may still listen to original Atari and Amiga tunes and love them to eight bits, but they’re a hard sell to anyone who lacks your personal history with said games or platforms.
I would therefore describe my relationship with the UO soundtrack a mixed bag. It is, however, a mandatory station for anyone’s personal MMORPG soundtrack education and simply requires some cherry picking. And the good cherries are really delicious, so let’s get right into it!
Five Tracks for an Introduction to the Music of Ultima Online
The original music files for Ultima Online are available for free from various sources such as UO Guide. The roughly 45 tracks are either available as MIDI or MP3 conversions. There is also one particularly beautiful playlist of remastered tracks available on YouTube, which you should definitely check out!
Oddly enough, newer version tracks don’t always beat the original in my humble opinion. Sometimes our fondness of an original melody just can’t be beaten by better audio quality. I don’t know if that’s just the nostalgia speaking or not, so judge for yourself!
It’s only right to kick off this journey with Stones, which is not only Ultima Online’s very popular main theme but well-known to fans of the Ultima franchise in general. This track was originally created by David R. Watson, who composed for previous Ultima games and was dedicated his own Ultima Online cameo, known as Iolo. I decided to feature Stone’s original MIDI version here as a starting point, despite also liking enhanced versions. Stones always struck me as a very lightweight and merry main theme for this oftentimes more heavy-handed high fantasy MMORPG.
2. Character Creation
This is one of the most unusual character creation tracks I’ve ever encountered. I’ve always loved UO’s character creation melody for its foreboding and eerie sound. Back when MMO adventure was still new and special, it must have left quite the impression on players entering Britannia for the first time, wondering what was going to be in stall for them. This track works beautifully both in its original MIDI form as well as peppier remastered versions, don’t you think?
The official capital city of Britannia, Britain was afforded the type of pompous and epic theme generally associated with great MMO towns and cities. This fan favorite comes with a high nostalgia factor and really encompasses much of that renaissance vibe so particular to Ultima Online. I can’t help but miss the simplicity of these older games a little. Sometimes all we really need in MMOs is a great city to explore, with taverns to sit in and folk to listen to as they make their way from the docks to the market square to haggle with vendors! Where can I buy a void orb?
My favorite Ultima Online track by far, the remote mining town of Minoc greets weary wanderers with this delightfully jolly and carefree track that I always keep on my active playlist. Minoc’s melody just screams happy dances and clapping your hands to the minstrel playing! My only qualm with this is its short duration but that goes for all tracks really.
Another city location from within the game, Yew represents the more serious, ominous side of the Ultima Online soundtrack. This slightly scary piece is interesting for its exotic cues in the second half which are much more agreeable in this enhanced newer version compared to the original MIDI.
Would I buy? – Yes!
Who is it for? – Everyone with an interest in MMORPG history and/or love for MIDI sounds
The Ultima Online soundtrack isn’t everyone’s cup of coffee. I was certainly among those who didn’t think too highly of it for a time, as I was busy exploring newer worlds with better music, unrestricted by format and disk size. Still, it is remarkable what videogame composers had to deal with back in the day and the end results they still came up with, many of which deserve attention and praise today. If you’re skeptical of MIDI tunes, I recommend browsing mp3 and remastered versions of the Ultima Online soundtrack; I can almost guarantee there’s a handful of pieces you will come to enjoy if you give this older title a chance! Happy cherry picking!Related: A Bard's Tale, Column, MMORPG, Ultima Online