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Ultima

June 1981
Ultima - cover art
Glitchwave rating
2.49 / 5.0
0.5
5.0
 
 
58 Ratings / 2 Reviews
#16 for 1981
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so much yes.
This is a timeless and classic game that any gamer should complete! Wow, such creativity flows like the biggest river you can even go to space in a goddamn racket and play a little shooty thing. this game has it all. scary dungeons with crazy cool monsters. space shooting. buying food at the grocery store. stealing stuff from a castle and getting a gun that you shoot critters on land when your standing on your awesome boat thats in the water. wow. richard garriott you are a genius. 10/10 with an extra star for being ahead of the curb. id like to see a remake of this in the style of ff7 remake
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_cojiro 2024-06-11T03:13:22Z
2024-06-11T03:13:22Z
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So begins a legacy that would endure generations...

Too bad the game is either a thoroughly unfair or exploitive work of clumsiness, the growing pains of developing an RPG as a cultural force. Although the overworld is peppered with many randomly-generated dungeons and towns, in reality they are all the same and bear very little distinction, so you can stick to just one dungeon to grind and a couple of cities to shop from. Often you will have fetch quests that are vital to completing the game, but that they send you to uninteresting landmarks makes much of it feel so unrewarding and pointless. Overworld encounters are also annoying as mosquitos, as the same set of enemies will continually come at you just to die in three hits.

And there's the irksome transition to a space fighting sim ala Star Raiders which makes no sense for the game's fantasy setting. Fortunately all the Ultimas that would come after would see to fix these bothersome issues.
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While it’s not as widely observed today as game series like The Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect, Ultima was one of the most defining series of CRPGs throughout the 80s and early 90s, alongside other classics of the time such as Wizardry, Might and Magic, and the Gold Box RPGs, which continue to fade away from the spotlight as time goes on. Starting with the first game in 1981, Richard Garriot would consistently expand upon and establish many common tropes of the genre with each successive entry in the series for over a decade. Looking back at the first official entry in the series, dubbed in the re-release as The First Age of Darkness, it’s not hard to see why. In a time where virtual role-playing games were still just being brought to home computers for the first time, Ultima appears very ambitious, featuring a complete open world with quests, towns, and dungeons to explore. If that sounds familiar, it’s likely because this is the same structure that persists in many CRPGs being made over thirty years onward. Was Ultima truly so innovative? Or have the core gameplay structures of many role-playing video games largely remain unchanged? Also, how does an interpretation of this structure from three decades ago hold up in a modern setting? Respectively: Yes, kind of, and pretty well actually – at least the 1986 re-release does, which I will be reviewing.

First off, when I say that Ultima was innovative – I mean that mostly in the sense that it introduced a largely untapped style of video games to home computers. Even before developing Ultima, Richard Garriot had released Akalabeth for the Apple II, which was essentially a precursor to the Ultima series (it plays a lot like an early-release demo actually). While there were also other CRPGs before Ultima, they were largely relegated to university mainframe systems like PLATO, or were primarily text-driven adventures, such as Eamon and debatably even Zork. In their earliest known incarnations, these CRPGs largely built off the rulesets of Dungeons & Dragons with few games adapting their own styles like Moria or using statistics-based gameplay to develop roguelike dungeon crawlers such as Beneath Apple Manor and, of course, Rogue. What makes Ultima so readily stand out is that it feels like a sort of fully realized package of these types of games. It features a fully explorable world with towns, dungeons, and castles that the players can freely travel through at their own pace, while fighting monsters and leveling up their character. Basically, it takes most of the elements from these previous games and packages them in one complete experience on home computers. Conceptually, Ultima is the unification of the many elements present in marketed CRPGs at the time – in practice, it’s a decent CRPG that also feels largely standard and somewhat generic amongst the many similar games that have followed over the past three decades.

The backstory for this game is very simple. Mondain, an evil wizard, has recovered a gem of immortality and invaded the lands of Sosaria, summoning his minions to terrorize the realm…and you’ve got to stop him. Yeah, it’s not particularly original. The setting itself is no different, largely based off Tolkienien fantasy tropes (hmm… a Bobbit you say, race selection menu?) At the start of the game, you must create your character by choosing a name, race, class, and sex. Other than marginally altering a few starting stats, these choices have no real lasting consequence, except for wizards who have access to high-level spells. After that, it’s straight to the overworld. If you were raised on modern CRPGs from the last decade or so, playing Ultima is rather jarring on first attempt. On my first play-through of this game in 2013, I had to individually map out all the controls on a piece of paper as I used them before getting stuck at the first ladder and looking them up online. Ultima is clearly a product of its time, but as mentioned earlier, it’s also just as much an innovator. Right off the bat, you have free reign to pretty much do whatever you want within the confines of the game mechanics. Go to one of the towns and upgrade your equipment, get a quest from one of the kings, go dungeon crawling, etc. The game offers a degree of freedom that’s largely unmatched in earlier RPGs available on home computers. It also gives you a good chance to learn the controls and general workings of the game in a mostly unrestricted space.

Eventually, if you’ve succeeded in your first dungeon quest or have run up a high enough bar tab, you’ll learn that you must collect gems from a king on each of the four islands to travel back in time and stop Mondain before he became immortal. Each quest involves going down into a dungeon, killing a specific creature, and reporting back for a gem. Considering that each dungeon is randomly generated at the start of the game, there’s not much incentive to explore, and you can theoretically only visit one and still complete the game. You can also receive side quests from another king on each island to find a specific landmark and report back to increase your strength attribute. And that’s the bulk of the game. Each of the four islands should only take about an hour at most to complete both quests and, frankly, they’re pretty easy. The combat is pretty simple in this game, and most dungeon encounters are overcome by learning one’s positioning in relation to the enemies and having a lot of hit points as backup. Hit points are basically the ultimate determinant in how strong your character is due to the cheap equipment prices and low health of enemies. In what is a somewhat odd system, you do not actually have a maximum health cap in the game and instead earn hit points by exiting caves after killing multiple enemies or offering "pence" (money) to a castle lord. Because of this, you can easily become more powerful by killing weak enemies on the top two levels of a dungeon, rinse and repeat. While the dungeon crawling is quite simple, exploring the lower levels of the caves to hunt high-level monsters can actually be quite chilling. After my first encounter with a gelatinous cube, modeled to look just like a normal rectangular wall, I actually began to tense up at normal walls when returning to the higher levels out of fear that I may unknowingly be encountering another one. The character models may be simple, but you will likely feel some degree of fear upon seeing a gremlin in the distance or the intimidating mask used to represent a wraith for the first time. While it’s clearly the result of technical limitations of the time, the game often uses such minimalist graphics quite well.

Unfortunately, however, the sense of pacing is actually quite unbalanced. Towns increase their supplies depending on how many steps you’ve taken, and after not even an hour of playing, you’ll likely have access to an aircar, which you can use to fly around the world while blasting lasers at orcs and necromancers (seriously, I’m not kidding), thus nullifying all sense of combat difficulty above ground. World exploration actually became the most tedious part of the game for me due to the globular, four-continent design, which is sensible but confusing at first. Even your experience points are actually somewhat detrimental as each level-up increases the amount of enemies on the overworld without offering any stat increases for your character. Stat increases are instead obtained by visiting landmarks on the overworld. This system is easily exploitable as well since each landmark resets after visiting another one close by. So to max your stats, you just have to travel back and forth between landmarks. The game design even seems to acknowledge this as your stats increase exponentially on each visit. Personally, I think it would have been better if there was simply a one-time increase depending on your class, but sadly that is not the case. While the game balance itself seems to be the result of a series of odd ideas on how to transfer an RPG to a systems-based computer program, you will get better at playing the game yourself by learning how to best utilize the controls, interact in the dungeons, and traverse the overworld. At the start of the game, I was cautiously maneuvering the dungeons and getting lost, but at the end, found myself lunging straight through creatures and learning how to best position myself in dungeons to avoid flanking and getting the jump on enemies. It definitely is a game you get better at the longer you play, even if the learning curve is not very steep. It’s simple, but fun.

The endgame, however, is really weird. After you’ve collected the gems, you must locate a time machine to travel back to Mondain’s lair and steal the gem of immortality. To do this, I kid you not, you must kill a court jester, take her key, and free a princess locked in a prison cell, fighting the castle guards on the way out so she will tell you where to find the time machine. In order for her to tell you this, though, you must prove you can defeat Mondain by becoming a “space ace.” To do this, you must purchase a shuttle and launch into space, where you can access a fighter ship to take through space, fighting Mondain’s minions who pilot TIE Fighter look-alikes. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious that Mr. Garriot was more interested in making a game first and a believable world second. Despite this, I must admit that I actually enjoyed the arcade-y space fighting mini-game, despite its complete irrelevancy to the rest of the plot (how is spaceship combat going to help me kill a wizard?) The actual fight against Mondain is easily one of the most pathetic boss battles out there. After stepping out of the time machine, I hit him five times with a magic missile, after which he turned into a bat and died in two more hits. During the “fight” he did not even attempt a single attack – I think this was murder. Anyway, you grab the gem, lose a huge portion of health, travel forward in time somehow, and everyone greets you to celebrate your accomplishment even though they should have no idea what you did because you completely rewrote history by killing Mondain. It’s a weird ending, but I can’t help but find its ridiculousness rather endearing.

Ultima’tely (ha), it’s a fun game, even though many of its features seem archaic now, such as the persistent turn-based movement, the simple models of the characters and environments, and the odd decision to map every action to a different key when a single ‘use’ function would have worked much easier for the player. Not to mention that I’m talking about the 1986 re-release. The original version from 1981 also had remarkably slow load times and a way-too frequent need to switch between the master and character disks. But given the fact that there were so few role-playing games available on home computers at the time, it’s not hard to see why Ultima would have appealed to a niche audience or people who just wanted to see what their computer was capable of and were excited just to experience an open-world game where they could fight monsters and explore dungeons. And it’s a timeless concept - so much so that it remains the basis of so many computer role-playing games even today, over thirty years later. While its execution may be simple and rather unexceptional by today’s standards, Ultima is still very playable and surprisingly enjoyable. While I wouldn’t recommend Ultima to the casual CRPG fan due to its simple, largely traditional concept and gameplay mechanics, I do urge anyone who is interested in the history of the genre to give it a try, if only to see how far the genre’s and come and, in some ways, how much it’s stayed the same.
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Catalog

_cojiro Ultima 2024-06-11T03:13:22Z
2024-06-11T03:13:22Z
5.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Sznapiak Ultima 2024-05-22T09:37:25Z
2024-05-22T09:37:25Z
3.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
urielink Ultima 2024-05-16T22:34:07Z
2024-05-16T22:34:07Z
1.0
1
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
communitypeach Ultima 2024-05-04T11:05:36Z
Apple II • XNA
2024-05-04T11:05:36Z
2.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
FirstMate Ultima 2024-04-19T08:14:47Z
2024-04-19T08:14:47Z
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
kafeis Ultima 2024-04-09T18:38:14Z
2024-04-09T18:38:14Z
2.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
jamep Ultima I 2024-03-17T04:48:27Z
DOS
2024-03-17T04:48:27Z
4.0
1
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Vektor_Zvuka Ultima 2024-02-26T11:27:16Z
2024-02-26T11:27:16Z
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
NordicBeans Ultima 2024-02-05T03:46:38Z
2024-02-05T03:46:38Z
1.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
tackyy Ultima 2024-01-24T12:46:09Z
2024-01-24T12:46:09Z
2.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
basicneutron Ultima I 2024-01-18T02:16:08Z
Apple II
2024-01-18T02:16:08Z
2.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
chikin Ultima 2024-01-06T04:08:37Z
2024-01-06T04:08:37Z
4.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Player modes
Single-player
Media
1x Floppy 5.25"
Franchises
Also known as
  • Ultima 1: The Original
  • Ultima I
  • Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness
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