Saturday, February 6, 2021

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness


On the Origin of a Series

In 1979, Richard Garriott, son of astronaut Owen Garriott, developed and released the very first computer roleplaying game, Akalabeth: World of Doom, which I found surprisingly decent for the grandfather of one of my favorite gaming genres. It would later see rerelease alongside its sequel series, Ultima, whose first installment, retroactively titled Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, would in contemporary times find new life as a digital release through Given its inclusion alongside its first two sequels for the generous price of around $5, I took a chance on the forefathers of the franchise, a decision I definitely don’t regret.

When starting a new game, the player can create a singular playable protagonist from among several races and classes that dictate starting stats and things such as whether the created character can use certain magic spells. Visible enemies randomly wander the overworld, and when the player’s character sprite is in range, one tile from a foe or at most three if equipped with a ranged weapon, they can press the A key and input one of four cardinal directions to execute a standard attack. Enemies can, of course, counterattack if they’re in range as well, and as with just about any RPG new or old, the loss of all health results in death, and in Ultima I’s case, the player restarts with a little HP at a castle.

Killing enemies, on the other hand, nets the player experience and money, with level-ups occurring every thousand experience points, although unlike most other RPGs, there really isn’t much benefit to higher levels, with the player’s hit points more critical to success in the game. How, then, does one raise their health? By eradicating foes in dungeons and then exiting, which rewards HP dependent upon how many creatures the player has slain. Another facet to consider is food, of which the player must keep a good supply, else perish from consuming it all, with depletion occurring regularly as the hero or heroine wanders the overworld.

Players can also obtain various means of transportation across the overworld’s four continents, such as horse and aircar, whose use slows the consumption of food, mercifully buyable in towns for a fair price depending upon the amount purchased. Another form of conveyance the player must use to complete the central storyline is a shuttle, necessary to enter outer space, where destroying twenty enemy ships through first-person combat makes the hero or heroine an ace, a title needed to win the game. Trying to fire lasers at enemies can be tough at times, given their constant movement, sudden change of position, and the inability to move the crosshairs diagonally (though players can recenter it with the spacebar).

Back to character development, Ultima I also has an interesting form of stat development, with the player increasing all stats except strength by reading one of eight signposts spread throughout the world, two per continent. One of said signposts gives the player the weakest weapon currently not in their inventory, so players may wish to hold off on selling weapons. In order to exploit stat advancement through these signs, the player mustn’t read the same one twice in a row. As for the other stat, strength, the player builds it by completing quests from kings in one of two castles on each continent, one involving reading a certain sign, and the other involving killing a specific foe in a dungeon.

The game mechanics generally work well, especially for a game whose original version released in the early 1980s, even more so than in contemporary roleplaying games, given the simplicity, lack of complex elements from tabletop RPGs of the time, and growth systems that remain unique even today. Granted, one may need to use a guide to understand how the battle system works in the first place, and there are some other issues such as the hero or heroine still receiving damage from enemies while turning direction in the first-person dungeons, and a cheap monster in the third and fourth levels of the dungeon that can destroy the character’s armor. Regardless, the original Ultima largely succeeds with its “keep it simple, stupid” philosophy of gameplay.

Given that the first entry was one of the first open-world games, direction on how to advance the narrative can be poor and necessitate a guide, but there are positives like the unlimited inventory, given that items are stackable, the fact that each dungeon has the same layout in a single playthrough, the existence of magic that allows the player instant ascent or descent through a dungeon’s floors, and the like. Granted, said magic can occasionally lead the player to get stuck in between laser barriers and need to reload, saving only allowed on the overworld, and the top-down outer space movement is somewhat awkward. Ultimately, Ultima I is slightly on the positive end of user-friendly.

As is expectant from a title of its time, the game’s narrative isn’t anything much to write home about, with much of the backstory relayed in the manual provided with the game, the player’s character generally being blank slate, and most plot development occurring in its latter portion, with what little story there is being generally decent, aside from the damsel-in-distress trope. One could correctly argue that the plot isn’t thrown in the player’s face unlike quite a few later RPGs, and in the end, despite the minimalist presentation, the storyline comes across as passable.

The sound isn’t anything about which to write home, either, given the total absence of music, the only effects coming in the form of blips and other generic computer sounds, although those during the space exploration sequences are good. Things could have definitely been worse, since there are rare cases where a game’s soundtrack isn’t good at all, and the original Ultima is still easy on the ears.

The graphics look okay for a game originally released in the early 1980s, with simple character sprites on the overworld and in towns, the colors being good, and the player’s protagonist and NPCs having decent anatomy despite their small size. There don’t seem to be any reskinned enemies, and another quirk is that within the first-person dungeons, foes show in different volumes depending upon how close or far they are from the player. Still, the dungeons are totally black and white with red laser barriers, and there’s no distinction of scenery within them, either. Probably the high point of the visuals is the title screen, and while they certainly aren’t an eyesore, they could have certainly been better.

Finally, the first game is fairly short, around three to six hours, with decent replay value in the form of different races and occupations to play as, not to mention the mild enjoyability of grinding, although there isn’t any narrative variation, and doesn’t have any achievements for the modern port.

In summation, I had a decent time with Ultima I, given its simple but quick game mechanics, half-decent control, okay visuals for the game’s time, and some semblance of replayability, although the other aspects come across as average, including the barebones narrative and the lack of music. It was very likely a good game for its time, while it admittedly hasn’t aged well, I very much found it preferrable to many more contemporary Western RPGs, particularly those that have roots in convoluted tabletop roleplaying games. The financial and temporal investments aren’t terribly burdensome, so it definitely wouldn’t hurt to try, but definitely don’t go into it blind.

This review is based on a playthrough of the version downloaded from alongside the second and third games as a human fighter.

The Good:
+Surprisingly good, simple game mechanics.
+No limited inventory space to worry about.
+A little lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Minimalist storytelling.
-No music.
-Graphics could have been better.

The Bottom Line:
A half-decent start to the Ultima series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PC (
Game Mechanics: 7.5/10
Controls: 6.0/10
Story: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 6.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.5/10
Difficulty: Relatively easy if using the internet.
Playing Time: 3-6 Hours

Overall: 6.0/10

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