Saturday, October 10, 2020

Priority CRPG 3: Ultima (1981)

The original cover of Ultima,
painted by Dennis Loubet

It's time to return to the Priority List, for the beginning of what may very well be my all-time favourite CRPG series.  It's been a long time since I played through the first Ultima.  The first time was around the year 2000, when a friend of mine bought the compilation of all nine games.  I think I played it one more time after that, around the time I got married in 2007.  Both of those times, I played the DOS port, which I gather made quite a number of changes from the original.  This time, I'm going right back to the source, and playing the Apple II version.  I'm very interested to see how it differs from the game I remember.

The last time I checked in with Richard Garriott, he'd just released Akalabeth, his first commercial game. It made quite a decent whack of money, which was obviously encouraging for a 19-year-old who was still taking classes at the University of Texas.  Fresh off of that success, he launched right into developing his next game, originally to be titled Ultimatum, but shortened to Ultima due to a name conflict with an existing tabletop wargame.

In a lot of ways, Ultima is a rehash of Akalabeth.  It uses the same basic engine for dungeon exploration, with the same wireframe graphics.  It has a top-down view for exploring the wilderness, albeit one that's had a huge graphical and technical overhaul.  The major difference that came with Ultima was its scope: an enormous overworld to explore, castles and cities that are represented graphically rather than as menus, and even a section in outer space (I'll get to that in a later post, I'm sure).  About the only things that are smaller in Ultima are the dungeons, which are no longer infinite in depth as they were in Akalabeth.

The Ultima series is renowned for the way in which it brought greater depths of storytelling and world-building to the CRPG genre, so it's surprising to see that none of that is evident in the manual or the game intro.  Even Akalabeth had its backstory in the manual, but with Ultima a player from 1981 would have been completely in the dark.  I remember what the story of the game is, of course, but I'll refrain from describing it here just yet.  I'm interested to see when that story is made clear, and I feel as though I'm more likely to pay attention to that if I haven't already laid it out for the blog.

Yep, that's a space shuttle alright.

The manual is just ten pages, and focuses mostly on gameplay elements.  It goes through character creation, a very brief segment on monsters, weapons, and the interfaces for dungeon, city, wilderness and space exploration.  There's also a reference card, which details all of the keyboard commands required for the game.  On the reverse it shows the benefits of the various races and classes, as well as the names and effects of every spell.


It's interesting to note what's not in the documentation.  The backstory for one, though I mentioned that already.  There's nothing said about how you advance your character, which seems like a pretty important omission.  The player is left in the dark on a lot of gameplay elements, with trial-and-error being pretty much the only way to learn.  There's also no world map, which feels very odd.  The map seems to me like a vital part of Ultima, and starting without one feels very much like being thrown in the deep end.

The title screen presents the game's name with an image of a rampant lion that's quite skillfully drawn for the time (although I have to be careful when making comparisons now, because I'm a couple of years ahead of my regular chronology). It's not as impressive an intro as the sequence at the start of Akalabeth, but this is a much bigger game, and I suspect there was less room on the disk to play around with that sort of thing.

Is that a tiny sailboat behind the lion?

This is followed by a menu that asks whether you want to create a new character or continue your game.  You only get one character and one saved game in Ultima, but I've never found that to be a problem in Garriott's early work; it's hard to get into an unwinnable scenario in the first few Ultima games.  By Ultima VI things start to get more complicated, and having just one saved game would be awful, but here it shouldn't be a problem.

From there, it goes straight into character creation.  Characters in Ultima have six attributes: Strength (which influences damage dealt in combat), Agility (which affects the ability to land a blow), Stamina (which affects your hit points, and how well you hold your liquor), Charisma (for haggling), Wisdom (for spell-casting) and Intelligence (for spell-casting and haggling both).  You have 90 points to distribute between these attributes, but every score must be between 10 and 20.  I gave myself a 20 in Strength, Dexterity and Stamina, and a 10 in the remaining three scores.  You also begin with 100 hit points.

I earned that knighthood when I completed Akalabeth.

After assigning your attributes, you have to pick a race and a class.  The races available are Human, Dwarf, Elf and Hobbit (just as in early Dungeons & Dragons).  Humans get a bonus to Intelligence, elves get an Agility bonus, dwarves get a bonus to Strength, and hobbits get a bonus to Wisdom and a penalty on Strength.  As far as I can tell, your race doesn't otherwise affect the game.  I chose to be a human, because later games in the Ultima series are based on the idea that you're playing as yourself.  I'm a human, so I'm playing as a human.

There are four classes to choose from: fighter, cleric, wizard and thief.  Fighters get a bonus to Strength and Agility. Clerics get a bonus to Wisdom, and certain spells will always work for them.  Wizards get twice as many spells, as well as an Intelligence bonus. (I'm not sure what this means in the context of the game, as you have to buy each single use of a spell. Do they get a two-for-one deal?)  Thieves get an Agility bonus, as well as being better at stealing and unlocking things.  I chose to be a fighter, which is probably the most boring option.  I'll choose a different class if I ever revisit this game for the blog.

I started playing, and found myself in an open grassy field, with absolutely no guidance as to what to do next.  I was armed with a dagger, and had 99 units of food and 100 gold pieces.  There was little else for me to do except strike off in a random direction, and I decided to go south.  Movement in the Apple version of Ultima is tricky, because the Apple II keyboard didn't have up and down arrow keys.  Up/north is mapped to Enter, and down/south is mapped to the "/" key.  It took some getting used to.  I suppose I could remap the keys, but I'd like to keep the experience as authentic as possible.  Besides, I'm accustomed to it now.

The quest begins with some aimless drifitng.

To the south I found a mountain range, with what looked like a dungeon entrance.  I didn't feel quite up to exploring dungeons just yet, so I headed west hoping to find a place where I could buy some equipment.  It wasn't long before I found the lakeside town of Fawn.

Towns in Ultima have their own screen, although each town uses the exact same layout.  There are six stores in every town: Food, Arms, Armour, Transport, Magic, and the Pub.  There are also a number of characters wandering about, although you can only really interact with the shopkeepers (using the (T)ransact command).  Most of the others are guards, and the one in the pub is a wench, according to the manual.  Most notable is Iolo the Bard, who will go on to become one of the most important characters in the whole series.  Here, he simply wanders around, occasionally singing "Oh eyoh he hum!"  I've never figured out what it means, and as far as I can tell nobody else has either.

Exploring Fawn

My first stop was the food store, more properly known as Little Karelia's Finnish Grocery.  They were selling food in packs of 10 for 5 gold pieces.  I bought nine packs (45 units of food).  This is the most you can buy in one transaction, because the prompt only accepts a single number.  You consume food every few steps in the wilderness (and at a lesser rate when in cities and dungeons).  If your food ever drops to zero, you instantly die.  I remember having all sorts of food-related problems in the early Ultimas when I first played them, but this time around I've been able to manage it well.

From there I went to check out the weapon shop (Naughty Nomaan's).  All they had for sale were maces, and ropes with spikes.  I bought a mace for 8 gold, and readied it instead of my dagger.  Then I checked out the armour shop (the Armour Shop of Lord Eldric D'Charbonneux), where I bought some leather armour.  The manual says that the types of weapons and armour available to buy will change as time advances in the game.  It didn't have a list of what would appear, but it did make special mention of a weapon called a "triangle", a type of magical sword.

My gold had just about run out, but I did the rounds of the other stores anyway.  Super Duper New and Used Transport had horses, carts, rafts and frigates for sale, but all of those were well out of my price range.  The spells at Chad the Mad's Magic Shoppe were also too expensive; I'll discuss how magic works in a later post.  My final stop was the pub, where I bought a few drinks for 1 gold each.  On the third drink the barkeep, Varg, gave me the following hint: "Bub, you best know that the princess will give great reward to the one who saves her, and an extra gift if the player is 8th level or greater!"  So, I finally had some guidance: if I find a princess, I should try to rescue her.  I was also given some incentive to grind beyond general power gain, as I was keen to find out about this special gift.

Thinking about the towns, I was wondering just why Garriott felt the need to switch from a menu system.  After all, there's not much to do in them except visit the shops, so using a menu would be a lot more user-friendly.  Then I remembered the (S)teal command, which lets you try to rob the various stores.  This can set the guards after you in a frantic chase, which only works because of the change to  a top-down interface.  Robbing the stores is tempting, but at this point I don't think I'm strong enough to take on the guards.

Now that I had a better weapon and some armour, I headed back east to try my luck in the dungeon I'd spotted before.  As I neared the entrance I had my first combat, as I was attacked by some "wandering warlocks".  Unlike in later Ultimas, you can't see the enemies approaching; they simply appear in the square next to you when they attack.  Combat is a simple matter of using the (A)ttack command, and alternating blows with the enemy until one of you is dead.  All of the game's other commands are still available in combat, so other tactics - such as running away - are also possible.  I had no trouble with this battle, and after about five hours of playing I've yet to be in much danger.  Even when you have poor equipment and not many hit points, the enemies in Ultima aren't all that hard to kill.

Battling multiple warlocks.

Enemies often attack in groups, up to four at a time.  When you fight multiple foes, each one gets an attack on the enemy's turn, but even against four foes at once I haven't been all that troubled.  I could be misremembering, but I'm sure that the DOS port only ever had you face one foe at a time.

I entered the dungeon, which was titled "the Mines of Mt. Drash" (a name which would later be applied to the Ultima spinoff Escape from Mt. Drash).  As I mentioned above, it uses the same first-person perspective and wire-frame graphics as Akalabeth.  The engine has been improved in some ways, and worsened in others.  The big improvement is that the number generation is a lot more random; the results of your actions aren't as predetermined and easy to predict as they were in the previous game. It also seems as though more monsters spawn in the dungeon levels.  Akalabeth generally only had a few per level, and when they were all killed that level was empty.  I explored the first level of the Mines of Mt. Drash for a while, and never ran out of enemies to fight.  What's gotten worse is the speed; it takes forever for the game to draw the walls, and it redraws with every single command you type.  What makes it even worse is that you can't crank up the speed on the emulator; if you wait around the game will pass a turn after a few seconds, and that time gets even shorter at higher emulation speeds.  Passing turns can leave you open to attack, not to mention wasting food, so I've been playing at authentic Apple II speed.  I might crank it up once my character has gotten stronger, but for the moment it's too risky.

Giant rats are the toughest dungeon enemies I've fought so far.

After poking around for a while, fighting skeletons, thieves, evil rangers and giant rats, I decided to head back to the surface.  My hit points were getting low, and I wanted to try to find some healing.  I was surprised upon leaving the dungeon to be rewarded with about 120 hit points.  I'd forgotten about this, but gaining hit points in Ultima is done by fighting monsters in the dungeons.  When you return to the surface, you gain hit points equal to twice the value of the experience points you gained for killing monsters.  I was reminded of a line I read somewhere (I think it might have been at The CRPG Addict) that said that Ultima is the only game where you go and find a dungeon when you're low on hit points.

Making gains.

On my way to the Mines of Mt. Drash I'd spotted the town of Montor to the south-east, so I swung through there to buy some more food.  From there I followed the coastline to the west, and found another dungeon at the end of a peninsula: Death's Awakening.  In this dungeon I was reintroduced to a nasty surprise carried over from Akalabeth: pit traps that drop you to a lower dungeon level.  Luckily I'd already found the location of the stairs, so I was able to quickly make it back up to safety.  These pit traps can be avoided if you're carrying a rope and spikes, but each set of rope and spikes is only good for one use, so it's a good idea to stock up.

I had some money to spend once I left the dungeon, so I returned to Montor and bought a horse and some plate mail armour (the best type currently available).  Swords and axes were now available at the weapon store, so I bought a sword as well.  The sword didn't seem to increase my damage all that greatly, but the plate mail had a definite effect on how often I was being hit.  As for the horse, I think its main effect is to decrease the amount of food you eat when travelling overland.

I continued around the coast, fighting monsters and dipping into the first levels of dungeons as I went.  By the time I reached the town of Grey on the east coast I had over 600 gold pieces, so I splashed out and bought a frigate.  My mind was awash with memories of sailing around the coast and blasting monsters with impunity, but I was probably getting mixed up with Ultima II (or perhaps this game's DOS port).  Monsters don't appear from far away in this game, so there's no way to attack anything on land with your cannons.  Instead, the cannons are simply (F)ired in lieu of the (A)ttack command when you're attacked at sea.  The oceans are infested with various kinds of sea monsters; they have lots of hit points, but the frigate's cannons do lots of damage, so it all balances out.

There are a lot of frigate puns I could make, but I won't.

Using my frigate, I decided to explore around the coast in a clockwise direction.  I'm not sure why, as I was covering a lot of territory I'd already explored, but it just felt like the natural direction to go.  I continued checking out dungeons and towns when I found them, but what I was really looking out for was a castle.  I eventually found one on the north coast of a large bay: the Castle of the Lost King.

Castles in Ultima have their own screen, and just like towns all castles use the same layout.  Most of the inhabitants are guards, but there's also Gwino the Jester, and a prisoner in a cell to the south-east.  Gwino occasionally exclaims "I have the key!", which will become very important later in the game.  I won't get into it just yet, but needless to say at some point I'll need to get that key from Gwino so that I can unlock the cell.  (Gwino is probably the same character as Gwenno, who in later games is married to the bard Iolo.  For many reasons which will later become apparent, I prefer to believe that this is not the case.)

Talking to the Lost King.

The castle has storerooms for weapons, armour and food, which I'm pretty sure you can steal from.  I didn't want to take my chances with the guards just yet, so I went to talk to the king.  I was asked whether I wanted to offer him gold or service.  I chose service, and was tasked with killing a Gelatinous Cube.  Finally, I had a quest!  Choosing gold, if memory serves, increases your hit points, but I'm not sure because I haven't tried it out yet.

Further around the same bay I found another town, with a castle nearby: this was Britain, and the Castle of Lord British.  Lord British, of course, is Richard Garriott's nom-de-plume, and one of his counterparts in the game world.  (There are a number of game designers who have a version of themselves in their game, but how many have more than one?)  I'd already met Lord British during Akalabeth, where I'd killed a bunch of monsters for him and been knighted.  He gave no indication that he recognised me though.  Upon offering him my service, he told me to find the Tower of Knowledge.

I spent the rest of the game session exploring and mapping the continent.  Aside from the aforementioned towns of Fawn, Montor, Grey and Britain, I also found the following towns:

  • Tune, in the south-east
  • Moon, along the east coast
  • Yew, near a large forest to the west.  This town will return in later Ultimas, still surrounded by forest.
  • Paws, north-east of the Castle of Lord British.  This town will also return later, not far from Britain.

I also found the following nine dungeons:

  • The Mines of Mt. Drash. There are actually two dungeons with this name.  I'm not sure if this is a mistake.
  • Death's Awakening, near Montor
  • The Dungeon of Doubt, south-west of Moon
  • The Dungeon of Montor, in a north-eastern mountain range nowhere near the town of Montor
  • The Unholy Hole, close to the north coast
  • The Lost Caverns, in a mountainous maze to the west
  • Mondain's Gate to Hell, on an island in the middle of the large bay
  • The Dungeons of Perinia, to the north-west

That is a lot of dungeons, and I'm pretty sure that I've only explored one of multiple continents.  It really does highlight just how vast this game is in comparison to its contemporaries.

While exploring I came across an island off the continent's north coast, with a landmark represented by a signpost icon.  When I entered the area the landmark was titled "the Pillars of Protection", and visiting it increased my Agility by 6 points.  It only worked once, but I'm wondering if there's some way I can get it to work again.  Perhaps it will reactivate when I start a new game, or after a certain number of turns?  I have no idea.

This is what I've mapped of the wilderness so far:

The starting continent, fully mapped.

Somewhat annoyingly, if I'd just gone north at the beginning I would have found the Castle of Lord British right away.  I like to visit him as early as possible in any Ultima game.

Towards the end of my last session I had a wilderness encounter with an unusual enemy: hidden archers.  They attacked me in a forest, but every time I tried to attack them I was told that I was "out of range".  I tried to flee, but the archers blocked every direction I tried to move.  I was starting to worry that they'd whittle my health down to nothing, but eventually they disappeared when I tried to move into their square a few times.  This is the only monster I've encountered with anything approaching a special ability.

I hate these guys.

To end the session, I went to the pub in Paws and downed a bunch of drinks.  I didn't suffer any negative effects (probably due to my high Stamina), but I did manage to gather a few more clues.

  • Bub, you best know that you should go back in time!
  • Bub, you best know about space travel! And that you must destroy at least 20 enemy vessels to become an ace!
  • Bub, you best know that many if not most lakes and ponds have strong magical powers!

I can remember what the first two clues are getting at, but I have no idea what the deal is with lakes and ponds.  I tried messing about with the ponds in Lord British's castle, but none of the commands I used accomplished anything.

I ended my session with a 2nd level character, and a few leads.  It's tempting to start dungeon delving so that I can kill a Gelatinous Cube for the Lost King, but I've been having more fun exploring and mapping the wilderness.  So I'll probably focus on that, which will also allow me to search out the Tower of Knowledge for Lord British.

I've had a great time revisiting Ultima.  It's undeniably primitive by modern standards, but after playing most of the CRPGs that came before it, it's a revelation.  Nothing before Ultima had its level of scope and freedom; it really does feel like a game where you can explore an entire world.  More than anything else I've played on the blog so far, this feels like a fully formed CRPG.


  1. The manuals were definitely revised in later releases, the DOS manual seems to be twice as long and definitely includes some backstory. You might want to check them out when you're doing Ports of Call.

    1. I won't be doing a Ports of Call for Ultima, since it's on the priority list. When it comes up in regular chronology, I'll hit up some of the earlier ports. I I ever make it to 1986, then I'll check out the DOS port and maybe some later rereleases.

  2. "Wizards get twice as many spells"

    Wizards do get exclusive access to the spells Blink, Create, Destroy, and Kill. Maybe it's referring to this? It's not exactly twice as many - there are ten spells, and nine of them do something.

    "The manual says that the types of weapons and armour available to buy will change as time advances in the game."

    Iruvpyrf gbb. Lbhe yriry vaqvpngrf ubj zhpu gvzr unf cnffrq.

    "These pit traps can be avoided if you're carrying a rope and spikes, but each set of rope and spikes is only good for one use, so it's a good idea to stock up."

    Cerff "V" jura snpvat n fdhner lbh xabj vf n cvg genc gb qvfnez vg sbe serr. Guvf nyfb erirnyf snyfr jnyyf.

    "When I entered the area the landmark was titled "the Pillars of Protection", and visiting it increased my Agility by 6 points. It only worked once, but I'm wondering if there's some way I can get it to work again."

    Ivfvg nabgure ynaqznex naq erghea.

    "I tried messing about with the ponds in Lord British's castle, but none of the commands I used accomplished anything."

    Qebc lbhe tbyq vagb gurz.