Posted by: Ben | December 30, 2009

Man vs Genre: Ultima

Click here for more information about genres and the men who fight them.

The Facts

The sequel to Akalabeth, originally developed by Richard Garriott for the Apple II and released by California Pacific in 1981, although this is Origin’s 1986 remake, full name Ultima 1: The First Age Of Darkness, coded by John Fachini, obtained from a dodgy bloke in the pub and running on Dosbox. I’ve played Ultima before, and finished it too, although this time I will still be using a walkthrough because I’m a blouse.

The Cover

Man on horse with sword vs big dragon in lava pit, is what was on the cover in 1986. The 1983 Atari release featured an image that was less exciting but arguably more representative of the game, a castle pictured against an alien sky. In ’81, anyone’s guess.

The Lore

Hail, Noble One! Our land is in need of a stalwart hero, one who will brave perils too horrific to consider. A plague has be-fallen the Realm, a scourge is upon the land! Our villages lie sacked, ruinous mounds of ashes where once trod peasants stout of heart and sound of mind, where once lay fields of grain and fruit. where kine and fowl grew fat upon the bounties of our fair Sosaria. All manner of wicked and vile creatures prey upon our people and ravage the land. ‘Tis the doing of one so evil that the very earth trembles at the mention of his name. Yes, Mondain is back, and this time he’s really mad.

Character Building

Oh God. For the first time, I’m faced with having to give my character points in the skills of Strength, Agility, Stamina, Charisma, Wisdom and Intelligence. What there isn’t is any clue in the documentation about how these skills will affect my character. Using my common sense, Stamina is likely to be about how many blows I can take before I fall over and Strength is how hard I can hit the other fellow. Wisdom will be to do with casting spells, while Agility is likely to relate to the use of weapons and/or ducking out of the way when someone hits you. I can’t imagine Charisma or Intelligence will be very much use to me, and I’m going to take a punt that they’re only there to create a deeper illusion of simulation. Then again the author of the Ultima 1 Technical File at seems to think that Intelligence is useful for spellcasting as a wizard, so I’ll defer to his wisdom, or possibly his intelligence. Other than that, I only have my own attempts at roleplaying to go on.

So: Keema Korma III’s principal ambitions are (1) to avenge the death of her ancestors by killing a thief, an orc, a giant rat and a kestrel, (2) to complete this here quest, and (3) to overturn the natural order of things. I am aware that I will be making it more difficult for myself playing as a wizard, as I will probably be more vulnerable to fatal injury and have to do more complicated things like spellcasting, but this is part of the fun of role playing.

I reckon Keema will also have inherited some of her grandmother’s attributes, so that will also be taken into account. After entering the attributes, I discover that these are boosted when I select my race, sex and occupation (which is a human female wizard.)

Strength: 18
Agility: 11
Stamina: 22
Charisma: 10
Wisdom: 19
Intelligence: 25

The Game

Right, I’m out in the wild, with 150 hit points, 200 food and 100 coin, all of which is considerably more generous than what Akalabeth started me off with. Ultima 1 has a considerably better exterior map than that game, and I’ve invested in some graph paper since last time, so time to take notes.

I’m going to start by heading for that nearby town, or is it a castle? Hey, there’s a town next to the castle. The walkthrough’s telling me to go to a pub, so that’s where I’m going. The city of Britian. (That’s Britian. Not Britain.) Iolo the Bard sings: Ho eyoh he hum. The walkthrough says to talk to the barman until he tells me about my quest, and every time I buy a beer the screen flashes black for a fraction of a millisecond. I fear my emulator is running too fast. I slow it down to what I believe might be 1986 levels. Five pints of ale later, I’m half-cut and whatever he had to tell me about my quest, I didn’t catch it and would have forgotten it by now if I had. Still, I have my walkthrough. I’m off to buy some weapons. Eeew, slowing the game down has had the unwanted effect of adding a horrible clicky sound effect every time I move. Now I go to the castle. Gwino the Jester sings: I’ve got the key! The king – Lord British – asks me to find the Grave of the Lost Soul. Nice.

Traversing the wilderness, I see a creature in the distance. It looks like a man in a green demon costume. Scary.

Orc attacks! Hit! 3 Damage.

It’s an orc. Like the orc that killed my grandmother! (who, admittedly, probably killed three or four orcs herself. But that isn’t the point.) Have at ye, foul orc. A few blows are traded, and my grandmother’s murder is one third avenged. It could be the same orc, after all.

Hey! A pirate ship is bombarding me from the shore! Not a whole lot I can do about that, right now, except keep moving. Its aim is not, after all, exceptionally accurate.

I enter the Castle of the Lost King, where I find the Lost King. He tells me to kill a Gelatinous Cube. That’s not something I’d expect to find in a dungeon, I think. Right, time for some dungeon action. The walkthrough advises me to save before I enter the dungeon, but that would be counter to my oath of permadeath.

The trained eye may notice a resemblence between these dungeons and those of Akalabeth.

Unlike Akalabeth’s dungeons, Ultima’s have a convenient directional indicator which should make it harder to get lost and easier to map. I map myself into a dead end and am attacked by a Giant Rat I didn’t hear coming. Quickly I turn, kill the rat and steal its money. In the next corridor, a thief – the third killer of my grandmother – peers at me from behind bars. Corridor 3 contains a chest. Unlocking it sets off a trap. I am then attacked by a Ranger. Apparently the rangers of Sosaria have turned to evil, stalking travellers in dungeons when they should be looking after parks. I kill ’im. There’s another one right behind him.

The dungeons, at least at this level, are made of a series of connected, parallel corridors which shouldn’t take too much mapping. I fight and map until my hit points get low, then leave. Surprisingly, on leaving the dungeon I gain 144 hit points. That should make things easier. I go back in and kill that thief. My spirit is lifted. If only there were kestrels in Ultima, I could avenge my mother too.
After exploring the top level of the dungeon for a while I realise that if there is an exit to the lower level it must be behind an impassable barred wall. Because I’ve played the game before, I know level 2 can still be reached by magical means. I return to the town to top up my weapons and armour, but as I leave the town I am attacked by a wandering warlock and reduced to 20 hit points. I leg it back to Lord British and buy 75 more hit points from him. But it’s not enough. The warlock is waiting for me, and he’s been joined by his friend the Pirate Ship. Surely this is the end

But all is not lost. I wake up somewhere else. Somehow, I have been spared. But I’m in a strange and unmapped land, unarmed and low on food. I need to find a town where I can sell anything I still have for food. But the city of Fawn doesn’t sell food. Desperate, I get into a fight with a ranger, and get myself killed again. I wonder how many times I can come back from the dead.

After a few deaths and resurrections, I find a gelatinous cube and kill it. Ha! Using my marvellous map, I return to the Lost King, who gives me a red gem and tells me I need this and three other gems to work a time machine. A time machine! Now I need to earn enough for an aircar. An aircar! Back to the dungeons.

One surprise, on this playthrough, is how soon you can afford science-fiction flavoured vehicles. The man in the shop was also offering to sell me a shuttle. It turns out that an aircar can cross oceans. Fab! I discover a new continent and sink a pirate ship with my sword. I discover the Pillar of Ozymandias and the Pillars of the Argonauts, which is not what I was looking for. Then I get lost and killed again, losing my ship, my gold lame suit (which I bought because it was more expensive than regular armour so I figured it would be more protective) and my sword.

The trouble with all of this dying is that very little of it seems to be happening underground. Usually it’s the combination of necromancers, warlocks, orcs, thieves, rangers, pirates, ness creatures and dragon turtles that I meet in the spaces between dungeons and towns that seem to be doing for me. Ok, you respawn with 99 health and 99 food, but most towns don’t have sufficient amenities to stock up sufficiently, so you head for the next one, and that’s when they get you. I’ll come back to this another day.

Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here

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