I was reading the keynote speech Richard Garriott gave at last week’s GDC Europe, and realized that while I had played some of his more recent titles, I had yet to experience his original claim to fame: Ultima I, first released in 1980, and then later recoded and re-released as Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness in 1986 by Origin Systems, is one of the earliest graphical CRPGs out there and laid the foundation for one of the most successful franchises in PC gaming history.
Eager to fill this particular gap in my retrogaming experience, I acquired a copy and fired up dosbox to play the game. As is to be expected with games from this era, you receive little to no background information to help you out. Instead, you’re asked to create your character by distributing attributes, and picking your race and class. Since I did not really know what effect each of these factors would have, I decided to play it safe and went for a dwarven fighter.
When the actual game starts you find your character at the center of the world map. As you travel around, you are soon attacked by various creatures that roam the land, and while the mechanism for fighting is fairly simple, I need to confess that I died on my first encounter – off to a great start, aren’t we? Well, once you figure out the basic controls, all you really have to do is to make sure that your HP and food levels don’t fall too low. If they do, you can visit towns and castles strewn across the map to buy more food and to pay the resident lord to heal you.
In the first castle I entered I encountered Lord British himself, who proceeded to give me a quest when I approached him. I decided to spend the few coins I had on some new armor and weapons, and was off to fight more bad guys. As you travel the map, you’ll find plenty of dungeons filled with monsters that you have to kill in order to fulfill the other Lords’ quests. Inside these dungeons the game switches from an overhead view to a 3D-wireframe rendering which was taken straight from the game’s predecessor, Akalbeth. Of course, I died again in the first dungeon after straying too far from the exit, but quickly enough figured out that the key to survival is to know when to leave in order to replenish your HP, which you do automatically once you reach the surface.
As you started racking up money and experience from killing a variety of monsters, you return to the towns to upgrade your equipment at the local shops. You can also buy different means of transportation ranging from a horse to a space shuttle (yes!). I decided to go for the more affordable aircar, which allowed me to travel across land and water alike.
The size and detail of the game world is pretty impressive given when and how this game was made, and you can certainly see that Garriott managed to create a lot of gameplay despite the limited technologies available to him. On the other hand, I did find some of the game mechanics to be in dire need of some adjustments. For example, once you start visiting the sign posts, you just get the best weapon in the game for free. Oh, it’s a blaster by the way! Also, leveling your character and attributes hardly requires any actual skill, which ultimately makes the dungeon levels pointless, as they only supply you with money, which you don’t really need that much anyway since you already have all the weapons you could ever want.
In the end the game is more about exploration than it is about skill, which is certainly a valid goal in its own right. It certainly sets itself apart from pretty much any other RPG I’ve ever played when in the later part of the game you get to fly into space and fight tie fighters (no kidding!). Ultimately, the game provides an educational trip to the very beginnings of CRPGs which will easily keep you entertained for an evening or two.