In the process of looking at some first person dungeon crawlers, I decided it would be best to start at the beginning and build up some decent knowledge on the subject. I’ve never played any of the Ultima games either, so this is an equally good chance to get acquainted with those. However, it took a few days to decide where exactly I wanted to start – i.e., do I even want to write this particular review at all?
The reason (other than consistently being unable to spell “Akalabeth”) is that this title is effectively a prototype for the first Ultima. The overall gameplay and first-person dungeon exploration is unabashedly similar. However, there are enough differences between the two games that it seems worth taking a look at the original. And coming in at the vintage year of 1979, it is almost certainly the oldest first person game you’re going to see me talk about. Mostly because, unless I add a new system sometime, they don’t get much older.
Akalabeth was cranked out in BASIC by nerd extraordinaire Richard Garriott when he was still in high school. Based off of Dungeons and Dragons sessions with his friends, the game has the player plumbing dungeons to prove their worth as a knight. The overworld area is a simple top-down icon map, and towns are just a single store menu. Dungeons, however, are rendered in a wireframe first-person view with chests of gold and dastardly foes prowling the halls. Research shows that this runs extremely similar to early Ultimas (specifically, I – III), so it’s easy to see why Akalabeth is frequently referred to as “Ultima 0.”
When you boot the game, you are first asked to pick a lucky number (more on that in a minute) and a difficulty level from 1-10. Next, a series of Dungeons and Dragons stats (Strength, Endurance, etc) are “rolled” with the option to keep re-rolling until the RNG gods smile upon you. Finally, you pick between the mage and fighter class. Fighters have exclusive access to Bows for distance attacks, and the deadly Rapier. Meanwhile, Mages can choose which spell to cast with the Magic Amulet, letting you pick the insanely useful option to leave the dungeon at any time. Unless you’ve got something to prove, you’ll want a Mage.
Character made, you begin at Ye Olde Adventure Shoppe. How much gold you start with was one of the stats rolled, and this defines what kind of weapon and defenses you’re able to afford. An axe is the cheapest, the rapier is best, and bows give range at the cost of lesser damage. You can find new weapons down in the dungeons, and you can fall back on your fists if you have no other alternatives. You cannot sell any of your gear. Instead, frequent Thief enemies will steal a random piece of gear off you every combat turn. You can’t get this gear back, even if you kill them, so multiple copies of your stuff becomes beneficial.
Even more important is food. Similar to The Oregon Trail, food is the ultimate resource that defines the success of your game. Every step you take (every move you make) consumes food, at the rate of 1 per move in the overworld, and .1 per move in a dungeon. If you run out, you die. Food is sold in packs of 10 for a single piece of gold, and there’s no encumbrance limit on what you can hold, but the need to buy food eats into the gear you can afford. The status of your food stores will be a constant spectre over your shoulder, and it’s probably a good time to mention that there’s no saving here. When you die, the game mourns the loss of your character and begins anew.
The overworld is a 20×20 square map, and the “lucky number” you picked is used to seed the world generator. The same lucky number will always produce the same results. Basic icons delineate towns (a four square symbol), impassible mountain (a jumble of lines), and dungeons (X marks the spot). The original Apple II keyboard had no up and down arrow keys, so left and right move you appropriately, while “/” moves south, and “Return” moves north. The X key lets you enter towns and dungeons. All towns are identical, and all dungeons are virtually similar – the layout changes, but both enemies and loot respawn when you leave. Therefore, you really just need to find a patch of land with a town and a dungeon near each other, and you’re set for the rest of the game.
The game has no defined ending, and continues eternal until you die or power off the system. There is, however, a meta-goal of becoming a knight in the service of benevolent Lord British (yes, Garriott’s moniker was with him from the start). Somewhere in the overworld is Lord B’s castle. Finding it will allow you to type a name for your lowly avatar, and set you up with a mission, such as “kill X orcs in dungeons.” Off you go to complete said quest, and returning triumphant grants you a boost to your skills, a new mission, and a step closer to hearing yourself declared a Knight.
Entering a dungeon shifts the game to its wireframe first-person mode. As with the overworld, the layout is generated based on your lucky number. Chests of gold and gear can appear on the ground, doorways indicate entrances to new rooms or hallways, and ladders or pits allow travel up and down. Also like the overworld, there’s not much in the way of decoration here. It can still be tense enough as the game draws out your next step, and in those seconds you wonder what lies ahead. Or when a “you’re hit” message appears, and you turn frantically to find the enemy flanking you.
There is no compass and no map, except the one you can choose to draw yourself. This, combined with the wireframe graphics, can make dungeon crawling more than a bit tricky to navigate – especially when perspectives don’t always match when you turn, and I swear there are walls that you can walk through. This is where the magic amulet’s teleportation ability becomes extremely useful. As the Mage, you can drop a ladder up to the next dungeon level at any time, all the way up to the surface and out. As a Fighter, you can still use the amulet, but its effects are random and often dangerous.
The dungeons are also where a quirk of the original Apple II programming shines. A color TV could be used as the system’s display, and by manipulating the RF signal, the system could produce white, green, and magenta lines. Garriott uses this very intelligently, setting up color contrast to highlight doors, or walls on opposite sides of a room. The later PC port of this displays only white lines, and becomes even harder to navigate for it. Sometimes the original really is the best, and Apple II emulators can reproduce this effect.
Enemies only appear in the dungeons, and all combat is effectively turn-based. Each of your attacks or movements with an enemy nearby lets them perform another attack themselves. Most critters can only do melee damage, and spotting them with enough distance to use an arrow, thrown axe, or amulet blast will save you some damage. You must be facing a foe to attack, and pressing the A key lets you pick a weapon and shows the randomized results of your strike. Beyond that, it’s simple back-and-forth until someone prevails.
Curiously, you cannot rest or use/eat anything to regain lost HP. HP is only restored when exiting a dungeon, and the amount is calculated per the number of enemies you defeated. It’s one of the few games where you actually have to seek out fights to heal yourself, and further heightens the risk/reward gameplay. It’s also (obviously) exceptionally easy to get yourself into a situation you can no longer survive, but death is cheap and constant in the World of Doom.
It’s easy to see why computer aficionados would go bonkers over this in 1980, but the real question is if it’s still any fun. Surprisingly, yes, it still works. It hits the right notes of curiosity, choices, and consequences, and the game itself is so short that an untimely death is nothing to get too worked up over. The primitive dungeon graphics would be damn near unplayable long-term if it weren’t for the magic amulet. With it, you’re free to stumble around until you find your goal and then warp right out, with a chance that the amulet will break or backfire to keep you from become too complacent. It’s a great start to the Ultima series, and a clear indication that there might just be something to this newfangled “computer game” thing.
Basic, but engaging. Permanent death makes many actions into a decision. Short, so multiple hours of progress aren’t lost if that decision doesn’t work out. Impressive start to the computer RPG.
Wireframe dungeon hard to navigate and enemies are fairly scarce – a problem if you don’t have the magic amulet to get around. Not much on exploration, and virtually nothing to discover once you’ve found and faced all ten enemy types. Precious little difference between fighter, mage, or even multiple characters.