I really didn’t warm to the RPG genre until recently, only somewhat thanks to a lengthy global quarantine. But even in my decades of thinking RPGs were hundred-hour time sinks for dorks, I knew the most popular PC franchises were Wizardry and Ultima. There were many potential usurpers, but these two beloved series were the unquestionable GOATs; the finest examples of their craft, the inspiration for hundreds of RPG series the world over. I came away from the first three Wizardry games extremely impressed with what Sir-Tech had accomplished, and I could only imagine what Ultima must have in store to have been a contemporary competitor! So imagine my surprise when I came away from my first few hours with Ultima thinking that it just… kinda…
But let’s put Ultima into necessary context. It’s 1981, and if you’re lucky enough to own a >$1000 Apple II, most of the games you’re going to find for it are unlicensed clones of arcade titles. They probably take place in space. They definitely have you shoot things with a little laser ball. Nothing about these games are meant to be sprawling, ongoing, or particularly feature rich – you drop in virtual quarters and go for a high score. When Ultima comes out with a lengthy quest, four whole continents to explore, 20+ dungeons to scout, towns and dungeons with unique names, and a character to build up over weeks or months, that’s something you’re not going to find anywhere else. Even the first Wizardry was just one town with ten dungeon levels, coming out three months after Ultima.
The difference between these two games, however, is focus. Wizardry refines and adds layers to the dungeon crawling experience. Ultima treats it as one bullet point among many in an extremely “kitchen sink” approach. In comparison to Wizardry’s narrow depth, this first Ultima is wide and shallow. Any rapturous talk you may have heard about grand story, memorable characters, virtues, moral dilemmas – that apparently doesn’t happen until Ultima IV. What you’re paying for with (at least) Ultima I and II are essentially teenage Richard Garriott’s final projects in his self-taught BASIC and Assembly courses.
When I wrote about Akalabeth, I didn’t realize that was Garriott’s 28th version of digitizing Dungeons & Dragons, with previous attempts laboriously coded on punch tape and Teletype. Ultima really represents a continuation of his quest to refine that same dungeon game. Akalabeth’s successful sales under California Pacific Games encouraged him to write a bigger game that more readily justified the cost – i.e., he recognized he wasn’t just doing this for himself anymore, he was in the league now and needed to play like it. Almost certainly to keep the task interesting for himself, he added a real dog’s breakfast of features from a pretty diverse set of interests. We’ll get to just how diverse a little later.
Ultima appears to use Akalabeth’s first-person dungeon engine lock, stock, and barrel. I couldn’t detect anything about the dungeon sections that looked new or changed, with the exception that they are no longer seeded by your lucky number (I’m guessing this now takes place automatically behind the scenes).
What has changed is the overworld. Ultima takes enormous strides to increase the usefulness and versatility of the world outside the dungeon, to the point that dungeon diving is only directly required to kill specific enemy types as part of a quest. Instead, you’ll save up money to travel to all four continents of the land of Sosaria, looking for the necessary items to crack the skull of the evil, oppressive wizard Mondain.
You begin with creating a character. Apple Ultima came on a double-sided disk with a Scenario and a Player Master side. You are asked to create a copy of the Player Master side – the copy passed around as abandonware has that function cracked out, so just make a copy of the image file because you’ll need it if you screw your character up or want to try a new one. You can’t make a new character off a disk where one already resides. It’s also important to note that Ultima switches between the Scenario and your new Player disk constantly (such as every time you enter and leave a town) so a dual disk setup is double super extra advised.
There are 90 points to divide among the same stats as Akalabeth, both directly derived from D&D. You must have a minimum of 10 points in each with a maximum of 25, so you really only have 30 points to play with. Your race choice of Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Hobbit give a boost to certain stats, as does your class choice of Fighter, Cleric, Wizard or Thief. You’ll likely want to min/max your stats to how you intend to play, while the class bonuses encourage you to follow through with that style.
Character made, you’re plopped into the wilds with two daggers, leather armor, and absolutely no bearings. Unlike Akalabeth, random encounters happen out in the overworld, with no obvious limitations on the monsters you’ll be facing. My first character died while staggering around and looking for a city, just because enough Necromancers and Orcs found him first. Also unlike Akalabeth, death is not the end for your new hero. You’ll always resurrect with 100 hit points, at the cost of your equipped weapon and every bit of your gold. This doesn’t matter at first, but becomes a pretty steep penalty as you carry more gear.
Crucially, Ultima never tells you what to do. You know that Mondain’s gotta go, and you know from the manual that he’s created a gem that makes him invincible, but that’s it. Again, like Akalabeth, you’re going to want to seek out castles and the kings that reside within them. There are eight of these kings, two per continent, and they’ll set you up with straightforward quests out in the world. Completing them gives you some specific items that start to hint at what you’re supposed to do.
For the rest, you’ve got to hit up the pub in true D&D style. Ultima doesn’t contain commands to let you talk to anyone. The stick figures that populate any town or castle are simple guards or the occasional jester or bard, but your only possible interaction with any of them is to fight. You can, however, (T)ransact, which is how you buy from shops or deal with kings. The barkeep at the pub in any town gets by this limitation by throwing in free advice when you buy a drink – up to and including fourth-wall breaking instructions on what your specific goal is.
It’s kind of neat to see your goal set up within the gameworld, but a little annoying that such critical information is somewhat hidden. Still, it seems par for the time. As noted in Wizardry II, you’ve got to pay 100k gold to even read the patch notes. It’s also worth noting that you’re still buying mead, so every shot of booze and hints gets you closer to blacking out and having your gear and gold stolen by the tavern’s wench. These early CRPGs were pretty weird in which details they chose to focus on.
Likewise, Akalabeth’s requirement for food continues here with few changes. Food is sold in packs of 10 for 4 gold and you eat at the rate of one per every two steps in the overworld, or eight steps in the dungeons. You even eat one morsel per 100 steps in the city (I counted). When you run out of food, you drop dead instantly. It’s not so much a timer, as an obvious drain on your gold and an unnecessary resource to track. There’s no additional benefits to being fed, you just have to make sure you visit towns frequently enough that you don’t run out of gas. Fortunately, you can carry unbelievable amounts of chow. Once you have stacks of gold, you can essentially buy your way out of this problem entirely.
Now you know what you’re doing, but executing this plan is going to require gold, experience, and a shitload of hit points. Like Akalabeth, the first Ultima treats HP as a currency. There are no items to heal you, no cure spells to cast, and no village healers to visit. Instead, you’re awarded HP when leaving a dungeon, based on how many monsters you killed within. This odd system requires you to seek out fights – but only in dungeons! – to heal yourself, which isn’t a survivable proposition if you’re already low on health. It didn’t make sense in Akalabeth, and it doesn’t make sense here. However, Ultima adds the option to just buy more HP outright by offering “tribute” to any king. Toss gold his way and he’ll give you a percentage back in hit points – a far easier and more reliable method than hitting up the dungeons.
It’s one of many ways the first person dungeons get de-emphasized as the Ultima series goes along. I don’t know if this is to differentiate the game from Wizardry. I don’t know if it’s because coding them was an early programming challenge Garriott figured he’d already solved and wanted to move on. Also, as said, there’s no dungeon improvements here compared to Akalabeth. You can map them, if you desire, but it’s far easier to stock up on “Ladder Up” and “Ladder Down” spells. These are just bought outright – no longer tied to the whims of the magic amulet – and allow you to reliably tunnel to lower levels where the tougher, quest-target baddies are, then reliably escape back to the surface. No mapping needed, and enemies are so plentiful in the dungeons that it shouldn’t take long to find the one you need.
Akalabeth came off pretty light and consequence-free. There was the goal of becoming a Knight, but overall, runs were a lot like Rogue in just seeing how long you could keep going. By contrast, Ultima feels like it drags. Early continent mapping is awash with random encounters and pursuing branches of land that ultimately went nowhere. Towns in this version are completely identical. Shop names change, but the stock does not. Castle layouts are copied as well, so the only unique part is the name of the king and the quest he gives you. There are monuments to find out in the world, but not on the first continent, so exploration ends up pretty unsatisfying.
I recognized, though, that I was playing from more of a modern perspective than I should. The gains I was making were lost on me when I just wanted to hurry up and git gud. So I started a new character, grabbed an iPad to sketch dungeons and continents, and set about actually playing as intended. Now I was building my character up over time. The dungeons that seemed useless give some benefit when you’re trying to explore them, and the double bonus of free HP actually comes off as a smart convenience. Much like Wizardry, you’ll push on a little deeper, retreat when your health is getting low, and spend collected gold on better weapons, armor, or attack spells. This would surely occupy the time of anyone playing in 1980, and when directly set against Wizardry, would seem to offer greater value with a whole overworld to explore. I was definitely enjoying the game more when I took my time.
However, two things do work directly against this first version. Again, it’s shallow. There are no poisons or similar afflictions. Monsters don’t have traits or unique attacks; you just encounter ones that hit harder the lower down you go. Your own weapons have no special attributes, and there’s no strategy – just use the strongest item you can afford. Ultima’s gameplay loop is basic and bland when compared to Wizardry. Given that three months separate the two, you could argue that’s not a fair comparison, but you’d definitely have a choice between the two by the holiday season. I think a lot of people would be lured in by Ultima’s promise of so much extra, but be disappointed that Wizardry does its vertical slice better.
The second problem is performance. By the completion of Ultima, Garriott knew he’d taken BASIC as far as it could go, and it definitely shows. Put simply, BASIC is a programming language existing between the programmer and code the machine understands. BASIC programs need to be interpreted in real time for the computer to run it, which slows everything down. Dungeons take seconds between screen refreshes, when I don’t remember Akalabeth being that bad. Garriott’s friend Ken Arnold coded up the overworld’s tile graphics in Assembly, which certainly refreshes quickly, but the BASIC code driving player interaction introduces a roughly .5 second delay with each move. Navigating the continents or a city feels plodding, with all this on top of the slow read speed of the floppy drives regularly pulling new data into memory.
Ultima was remastered in 1986 as “Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness,” released for DOS and other systems. This is the version for sale today and the one I would recommend if you’re still interested in playing. Simply put, it doesn’t drag like the Apple II version does, and you’re not constantly waiting for screen refreshes. Both versions treat combat as turn-based, but while the remaster waits for your input, the Apple II original gives you a second or so to react before deciding you’ve actively passed your turn. Enemy damage can stack up while you’re just thinking. The dungeon sections further redraw the entire screen on each turn – about every second – whether you react or not. Now you have to wait a few seconds for the redraw to finish before you can make your next move. Ultima I does away with all this, and is much better for it.
I don’t know that you can really blame the game for this part, but the first Ultima is easily exploitable. Doing so was apparently extremely common, which helps me feel a little more confident that any sense of boredom I had wasn’t entirely from a modern perspective. While Wizardry eventually had its save editors, Ultima creates a way for you to game its systems right at character creation, and in a way you can easily figure out yourself: Thieves get an automatic 2x bonus to stealing. So, give yourself high Charisma and Agility, head into any town and rob. them. blind.
A couple more things make this possible. First, you can hit (Q)uit at any time in the overworld to save your game. You don’t actually quit, so it’s easy to save outside a town before heading in to take your chances, and restart the game if you get caught. You can also easily dodge guards, leave the city, and everything resets on your return. Second, a bug(?) will allow you to steal items from shops that they aren’t actually selling. Every time you (S)teal, you have the same chance to pull a leather vest as you do the best armor in the game. You can repeat this process until you’re geared up with the top kit in a matter of minutes instead of hours of long, toiling grind.
It gets better. According to the manual, the game is programmed to “release” technological improvements over time. As you stay within Sosaria, shops will start to sell more advanced gear – which is presumably why they’re in the shop but disabled at the start. The game’s invisible tech tree progresses all the way up to phasers, vacuum suits, and space shuttles. Enemies don’t progress in kind – the Necromancers don’t get lasers or nukes or anything – so the effect is that you’re bombing around a medieval fantasy world with sci-fi tech and absolutely tearing ass. As you bisect your fifth “Balron” with a lightsaber, it feels a bit like you’ve cheated in Civilization.
I’ll admit, doing this feels pretty bad ass, which is probably why it was common. It did have an interesting effect on Garriott, however. As players wrote in regaling him with tales of rampant thievery and regicide (they sure loved killing Lord British), he realized players were playing more like the villains of this tale than the Lawful Good heroes he envisioned. He apparently starts to clamp down on this as the series goes on, and it directly inspired the virtues and moral choices he introduces in Ultima IV – again, I’m told, a much better game than this one.
Finally, if you know anything about the first Ultima, it’s likely the next part. Blasters and Aircars weren’t enough – part of your quest requires you to rocket up to space, borrow an X-Wing, and shoot TIE Fighters until you’re granted the rank of Space Ace. Most people discussing the first Ultima really exaggerate the OMGLOLWTF aspect of this, but I… sorta get it. If you’re already down on the ground recreating your own version of the best scene in TimeCop, then sure, why not throw in some space battles. As Garriott likes to point out, it also brings this up to three game engines in one, which is approaching a “whoa, okay, calm down” level of value for the time. But, of course, it’s shallow and quickly over.
After spending time with it, no, Ultima I does not suck, though the Apple II release kind of does. I have to acknowledge that this is a gargantuan effort for one programmer, and a game that dwarfs even the giant PLATO RPGs that came before it. It makes total sense that such a wide net can only cover surface-level gameplay. It’s also an amount of world exploration that could not be beaten in 1980, and all of these points deserve praise and consideration.
But playing today, I got bored. It was better when I took my time, mapping and playing as intended, but progress was still slow and the Apple II’s performance was a real hindrance. I never felt that way with Wizardry, or even Akalabeth. I think this one just added more features than BASIC could comfortably handle. Ultima is definitely a bigger, friendlier game than Wizardry offered, but I know which team I would have been on in 1981.
Massive world to explore for 1981. Neat overworld system that would influence many RPGs to come. Great variety of gameplay – roaming continents, sailing seas, shopping at towns, exploring first-person dungeons, and yes, zapping starships in space.
No real story, just a list of items to get and to clues to get them. No depth to combat. Identical towns and castle layouts give less reason to explore. Dungeons can be mapped, but are abstract and its unnecessary – one dungeon is just as good as any of the others. Performance chugs on the Apple II – not just from a 1Mz processor, but from the way it was coded.
You better know, bub. This is a great game.” — Barkeep