Posted by: Ben | November 9, 2008

DOSBox Live Arcade: Ultima 1: The First Age Of Darkness

(videogame. PC. Origin, 1986)

That’s the 1986 PC remake of the Apple II hit from 1980, which effectively marks the beginning of computer-based role playing games, and does so by ripping off Dungeons and Dragons with such gusto that it’s quite astonishing that whoever it is that owns that one hasn’t got around to suing them yet. Ultima 1 is pretty big and impressive for 1980’s standards, taking place as it does in a largish, finite but unbounded world, where you are advised to slay the fierce beasties but beware the enigmatic jesters and their malign prancing. All of the predictable elements that still haven’t been dispensed with in modern RPGs are present and correct, including endless repetitive and unmotivated subterranean exploration and genocide in order to achieve arbitrary “levels”, the opportunity to assign experience points to numerous categories that make no difference to the game experience unless you assign them to stamina, tedious skill-free dice-rolly “combat”, and the fact that if you were playing it without a walkthrough and on a computer approximately one million times faster and more advanced than the one it was designed for you’d be wandering around the game world for about six months wondering what to do, which I grudgingly suppose might be an actual selling point, if that’s your idea of a good time.

There must be a reason for all this sub-Tolkien, post-Dungeons and Dragons, cod-medieval dwarf-tossing elf-singing “fantasy” (who fantasises about it, exactly?) coming out of America, and perhaps the clue is in Garriot’s in-game alter-ego, Lord British. That’s right, this is the sort of shit Americans imagine was going down in Europe prior to 1492. Orcs and hobgoblins stalking the filthy rookeries of the East End. The Emperor Charlemagne’s court magicians summoning a Flame Demon to stem the tide of Islam. That kind of thing. (Throws 10000 word Nanowrimo entry out of window and starts writing a historical fantasy novel.)

What else? Well, if you type a command the game doesn’t understand, it rather ignorantly says “Huh?” as though Paul Panks wrote it, which he might as well have done. Oh, and I notice that the Ultima Underworld games were outsourced to Looking Glass Software and that Garriot’s surrogate in Martian Dreams was called Garrett, which can only mean that the Thief games’ gruff-voiced antihero is in some way connected to Lord British.

Oh, there’s also a first-person space combat minigame which is stunningly good for 1980 but which is so comically incongruous that it’s difficult to believe that there was anyone at Origin who didn’t at some stage advise the programmer to put it in a drawer and make a proper game out of it another time.

Whoever came up with this tripe deserves to be put in a rocket and launched into orbit.


  1. […] the sadistic imagination of the man who calls himself “the evil author”. (Shades, perhaps, of another, more illustrious, Richard?) Now as a complete virgin when it comes to Otter (that’s something I thought I’d never write), […]

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