Sunday, March 15, 2020

Akalabeth: This Time With Actual Gameplay

The title screen

Woah, a two post game? Haven't had one of those in a while.

Anyway, I'm currently posting this from a hotel balcony, enjoying some traditionally changeable Melbourne weather.  I have some mild cold symptoms and a too-cautious family, so here I am in luxurious solitude.  I'm quite certain that I don't have coronavirus, but I do have a Corona in my hand that I'm drinking right now, and it's pretty good.  If I seem to be in a good mood throughout this post, that's probably because I'm an introvert basking in enforced solitude.  I'll try not to let my good vibes influence the rating for Akalabeth too much.

In my last post I got through the preamble, with some quick notes about Richard Garriott and the creation of his first commercial game. (Here's where I congratulate myself for writing perhaps the first biography of Garriott that doesn't once bring up the words "Lord" and/or British"). Today I'm looking at the game proper - as previously noted I'm playing the Apple II version - but before I get to that I'll look a little bit at the manuals.

The manual that came with the game's original self-published release is predictably simple, being a recreation of the instructions found at the start of the game.

The original manual

This version of the game is credited to "Shamino Salle Dacil", which was Garriott's name in the Society for Creative Anachronism.  No doubt most readers will know this already, but he got the name by rearranging the brand name of his bike. (I know a few SCA people, but alas, they're not familiar with Richard Garriott. Also, people will tell you that the SCA is about medieval recreation, but as far as I can tell it's mostly an excuse for people to either drink or do politics while wearing funny clothes.)

Here's the backstory as given in the manual:

"Many, many, many years ago the Dark Lord Mondain, archfoe of British, traversed the lands of Akalabeth spreading evil and death as he passed.  By the time Mondain was driven from the land by British, bearer of the White Light, he had done much damage unto the lands.

'Tis thy duty to help rid Akalabeth of the foul beasts which infest it, while trying to stay alive!!"

So far so standard, but it is interesting in how it connects to the larger Ultima saga.  I'd forgotten that Mondain - the villain of Ultima I - was mentioned here.  He's apparently already been defeated by this point, but I guess he stages a comeback later on.  Akalabeth being the name of the land is another odd one, as this world will later be known as Sosaria, and more famously Britannia.  Nations and landmasses changing names isn't unheard of though, I can roll with it.  I'd love to have the chance to sit down and grill Richard Garriott about his old D&D campaigns, and find out how much of this stuff is drawn from those.

The second manual, published by California Pacific, is an altogether more professional affair, with a delightfully visceral cover from Dennis Loubet.  It's also credited to Lord British, which was the nickname Richard Garriott got at computer camp for being a touch too formal, and became his gaming alter ego.

I'm not sure, but is this guy just wrecking that skeleton barehanded?

The gameplay information given in this manual is about the same as that from the original, but it does have an extended backstory that gives us some more information about Mondain.

"'Tis said that long ago peace and tranquility covered the lands, food and drink flowed freely, man and beast lived in peace, gold and silver abounded - it was the Golden Age of Akalabeth.

Mondain, second born of Wolfgang, a great king of old, wished to gain his brother's inheritance and so he used his great powers for evil. Many years had Mondain traversed the lands of Akalabeth spreading evil and death as he passed. He created deep dungeons, so deep and extensive that their lower depths had never been explored. In these dungeons he unleased more evil.  He sent thieves, skeletons and snakes to dwell near the surface, and daemons and balrogs to guard the depths. Now blood flowed freely in Akalabeth, and foul creatures soon came to roam near the surface. Mondain cast such sickness and pestilence upon Akalabeth, that both man and beast lived in constant fear.  Thus was the Dark Age of Akalabeth.

There arose from the land a man, pure and just, to battle the Dark Lord.  British, Champion of the White Light, did battle with Mondain deep within the labyrinth of dungeons, eventually driving him from Akalabeth forever. British of the White Light was proclaimed Lord British, Protector of Akalabeth.  Alas, much damage had been suffered unto the lands.  The revival of Akalabeth has begun.

'Tis thy duty to rid Akalabeth of the foul creatures which infest it, whilst trying to stay alive!!"

That's possibly more than ever gets revealed about Mondain in the later games.  I think it fits with Ultima continuity (such as it is), but I'll keep an eye out for discrepancies as I get to those games.  I think the only thing I'll definitely have to ignore is that bit about him having been driven from the land "forever".  What's most interesting to me is that this is a game where the big evil dark lord has already been defeated.  This is a much smaller story, where the goal isn't to vanquish Mondain but to mop up the dregs of his armies.  I like a modest goal in a CRPG now and then.

One thing I've always thought that Garriott excels at is presentation. That's evident in the lavish boxes, maps, manuals and trinkets his games were originally packaged with, but it also comes through in their opening moments and introductory sequences.  Most of the Ultima games I've played have openings that are impressive for the time, whether it be the charming icons adventuring across the map of Ultima IV or the more elaborate cutscenes of Ultima VI and VIIAkalabeth is similarly impressive, with an opening unlike any CRPG before it.

The protagonist prepares to enter the dungeon.

Akalabeth is a World of Doom, shouldn't the sign point in all directions?

This doesn't represent any of the monsters, so I've decided
it's the player in Lizard Man form.

Look, I did say "impressive for the time".  I know I'm skipping ahead in my chronology for this, but technically Akalabeth is a 1979 game so I'm not skipping that far ahead.  There are only a handful of known CRPGs released before this that I haven't played, and I'm pretty confident in calling this the best CRPG opening title sequence to this point.  Hey, it beats out all of the adventure games as well.

Character creation is dead simple.  The game asks you for your lucky number, which acts as a seed for random number generation and pretty much lays out the whole game: the wilderness map, the dungeons, and every random roll in the game are determined by this number.  I chose the number 7, because I use it so much in my Final Ratings score.

After that it asks you for a level of play, from 1 (easy) to 10 (hard).  As far as I can tell, the only thing this influences is how many hit points the monsters have.  If you beat the game on a level lower than 10, though, Lord British challenges you to step up your game.  You only get the "best" ending for beating level 10.

After that you receive a number of randomly generated statistics.  I say randomly generated, but they're actually the same sequence every time, dependent upon what lucky number you chose at the start. You can keep rerolling them until you get scores you like, but the number sequences will be the same every time you play.

Hit Points work much as they do in every other game in existence: when you get hit you lose them, and when you have none you die. Strength determines how much damage you do, Dexterity determines how accurate your blows are, and Stamina determines your defense.  Wisdom is a trickier one: it relates to the quests that Lord British gives you, and I'll talk about that a bit more below.  The last score is Gold, which you use to buy equipment on the next screen.

Before that, though, you have to choose whether you will be a Fighter or a Mage.  Both have advantages and disadvantages.  Fighters can use all of the weapons, but aren't able to fully control the Magic Amulet.  Mages can't wield rapiers or bow, but have much more control over the Magic Amulet.  The Mage is probably the best of the two, but for various reasons which I'll get to eventually it doesn't matter which one you pick.

Buying weapons is the next step.  Rapiers do the most damage, Followed by the Axe, and then the Bow and Arrow, but the Rapier has no range.  The Axe can be used in melee or thrown, and the Bow can be used at range with no limit on ammunition.  The Shield improves defense, and can also be used as a weapon (albeit a weak one).  The Magic Amulet is the most expensive item, and as you'll see later the most important one.  For now, though, the most vital thing to buy is food.  The early Ultimas are notorious for their stringent food requirements, and Akalabeth is no different: if you run out of food, you drop dead on the spot. My recommendation at the start is to buy one weapon, and spend the rest of your money on food.

Buying equipment before the adventure begins.

After that the game begins, and you are dumped into the wilderness with no other guidance beyond the manual's note to seek out the castle of Lord British.  The wilderness is 20x20 squares, and ringed by impassable mountains.  Scattered around are other mountains (similarly impassable), trees (passable, and presumably there in the game as landmarks), Adventure Shops (where you can buy gear) and Dungeons (where you can kill monsters for gold). Lord British's castle is also there, of course, and that's where you go to receive quests.

The map is presented from an overhead view, with your character represented as a small cross.  Movement uses the arrow keys for left and right, with Enter to go up and / to go down: an odd configuration necessitated by the Apple keyboard's lack of Up and Down arrows.  It's a little awkward, but coming off Super Dungeon I was already accustomed to odd movement controls, so I got the hang of it quickly.

This is what the wilderness map looks like with Lucky Number 7:

My map of the wilderness, done in Excel.

I lost my first character to starvation while mapping this out, but to be honest once you've found the castle there's not much point to further exploration.  Just find the closest shop and dungeon to the castle, and you have everything you need.  I was unlucky enough that the castle was pretty much the very last thing I found, but it was clustered very close to a shop and dungeon, so I had very little wilderness movement to do after that.

At the castle, Lord British asks you for your name, and whether you desire adventure. You can answer no here, and he tells you to get lost, but if you answer yes he gives you your first quest.

If Lord British can just increase people's stats, why doesn't he buff me up
into the hundreds and let me rip? 

The goal of Akalabeth is to keep killing monsters at the behest of Lord British, until he decides that you are worthy of knighthood.  The beginning quest depends upon your Wisdom score: the lower your Wisdom, the further down the quest progression you begin.  With a high Wisdom, you'll start with perhaps a quest to kill a(n) Mimic, and have only two quests to fulfill after that to beat the game.  With a low Wisdom, you'll start all the way at the bottom, and have ten quests on the path to victory.  The progression is as follows: Skeleton, Thief, Giant Rat, Orc, Viper, Carrion Crawler, Gremlin, Mimic, Daemon, Balrog.  That's also a list of every monster type in the game, from weakest to strongest.

The dungeons are presented in 3D, from a first person perspective, with simplistic wire-frame walls. We've seen this before in games like Moria and Oubliette, but those had views that were cramped into tiny windows.  Akalabeth's view is big, and doing it for the first time in a CRPG that was widely available.

The dark fire will not avail you, Flame of Udรปn!

Every level of the dungeon is 9x9 squares, which doesn't take long to map. The main trick with mapping is to remember that the doors count as a whole square on their own.  To be honest, you could probably get away without making maps, because the stairs up and down are always in the same place: two diagonal squares away from the top left and bottom right corners. (This excludes level 1, where the stairs to the surface are in the bottom left corner.)  Aside from the stairs, you can find holes that you can jump down, taking a little damage to descend to the next level.  There are also traps that dump you a level below without warning, which can be deadly if you get stuck on a level you're unfamiliar with.

As well as regular doors there are secret doors, which you can only find by bumping into walls (although sometimes you'll find one because a monster comes through it).  The levels have loads of secret doors, and you can usually find a path around any trap. Sometimes you can use them to skirt around monsters you don't want to fight, but they pursue you pretty relentlessly.  There's a pattern of sorts to where doors will appear on the maps. They are always in alternating squares, and you'll never find doors that are side-by-side, so finding the secret doors is never hard.

Maps of the first ten levels of Dungeon 6 (D6 on my map above).

The monsters get stronger the deeper you descend.  They are visible on the screen, impressive in their size despite being crudely drawn.  There are only a limited number per level, with the same ones being generated each time you enter.  The dungeon I frequented, for example, had no monsters on level 1, an Orc and an Thief on level 2, and a single Giant Rat on both levels 3 and 4.  Combat is a simple matter of pressing (A)ttack and then choosing the weapon you want to use, while the monster attacks in return.  There are some rudimentary tactics: you can use the Bow or the Axe to attack from a distance, cast a damaging Kill spell with the Magic Amulet, or simply turn around and flee.  Monsters will flee if their hit points drop below half of their total.  It's not much, but it's  more than many other games of this vintage.

Most of the monster's don't have special abilities, except for two that are particularly annoying: Thieves and Gremlins.  Thieves steal your items one at a time while you are fighting them. For this reason it's important to have multiple weapons, or you'll end up having to fight your way out of the dungeon with your bare hands.  They die pretty easily though, so they're not too bad.  Not like these hateful bastards:

Don't let the cute hat fool you.

Gremlins.  They are, without a doubt, among my most hated video game enemies of all time, because they attack the one thing you need most to survive in this game: food.  Every round one of them can steal half of your food storage, regardless of how much you're carrying.  I've never had one drain my food down to zero, but they don't need to.  All it takes is a few rounds and you'll be so low on food that your chances of getting back to the surface are next to nothing.  I hate them so much, and unfortunately they're going to be plaguing me all the way up to Ultima V, at least.

The dungeons also have chests, which contain treasure (referred to here as pieces of eight) and items.  The items found are just the same ones you can buy from the shop, but they can come in handy sometimes in an emergency.  The main purpose of finding chests though is to build up gold to buy more food.

Characters don't advance by level in Akalabath.  Instead you simply gain more hit points when you exit the dungeon, based on how many monsters you killed while you were down there.  It's a rough approximation of how experience points work in other CRPGs, it just hides the math.  You can also increase your other stats: when you visit Lord British after completing one of his quests, he will raise all of them by 1 point.

Gaining hit points as I leave the dungeon.

Except, well... that's not the only way to raise your stats. There's also the Magic Amulet, which I've been avoiding talking about until now.  Because, to be honest, it completely breaks the game.

The Magic Amulet can cast four spells.  If you're playing as a Mage, you can choose which of these spells you want to cast whenever you use the amulet, and each time you cast there's a chance the amulet will disappear. If you're a Warrior the amulet will never disappear, but you have no control over the effect you get when you use it.  The spells are Ladder Up (creates a ladder you can use to climb to the next level), Ladder Down (the opposite), Kill (an offensive spell that can blast monsters at a distance) and one labelled as "Bad??".

The first three are very handy, but it's that last one that breaks the game.  Whenever you cast it, you get one of three effects: it backfires, draining half of your hit points; it turns you into a Toad, setting all of your stats to 3; or it turns you into a Lizard Man, multiplying all of your stats by 2.5.  You can keep casting Bad, and keep increasing your stats as long as the Lizard Man result comes up. On their own those effects would be fine, because more often than not you'd be penalised when you use the amulet. The problem is, the game isn't truly random.  Once you enter a dungeon level, the "random" numbers used will always be the same, so fights will always go the same way and you'll always get the same effects from the magic amulet (as long as you do everything in the same order). The trick is to find a level where using the amulet turns you into a lizard man without first giving you a negative effect, then you can climb up and down a ladder repeatedly and spam lizard man until you are unbeatable. Once your stats are in the hundreds you are unkillable, and the only danger comes from starving to death.

Using the amulet, I was able to beat Akalabeth with my fifth character.  The first starved because I was using him to map the wilderness.  The third got killed by a Giant Rat on dungeon level 3, because I hadn't yet figured out that the random numbers are always the same sequence.  I knew the Magic Amulet was key to winning the game, but without save-scumming (because this version of the game has no save feature) I didn't know how to exploit it.  (I wouldn't use save-scumming to do that now, anyway.)  My third character had his food eaten by a gremlin deep in the dungeon, and I managed to limp all the way back to the surface only to drop dead one square away from the shop.  With my fourth character I beat the game on difficulty level 1, and with my fifth I achieved victory on difficulty level 10.

I reported my amazing feat to Lord British on Twitter, but he hasn't responded.

I wasn't entirely satisfied with winning like that, so I did have a stab at beating the game without using the amulet.  On level 10, it was pretty much impossible.  Even with maxed stats (if you reroll 133 times on lucky number 7, you'll get Strength, Dexterity and Stamina of 24) I couldn't do it.  The monsters just have too many hit points, and there's no way to kill a Gremlin before it will steal all of your food. You can't even snipe it with arrows, because the monsters heal between each move, and often I'd have one gain hit points when I hit it with an arrow.  (I did discover that you can shoot monsters through walls, though)  I tried it on difficulty level 1, and that was a lot more manageable.  I reckon I could do it if I made more of an effort, but on this attempt I fell afoul of Gremlins.  I could have spent today trying to do that, but I opted to write this post instead.

Before finishing with the game, I tried to see how deep the dungeons go.  I loaded up on food and made a mad dash down, avoiding Gremlins wherever possible.  I got to level 35 before I starved to death.  I've heard it said that the game has infinite levels down, but surely that can't be right.  Is the Apple II really capable of that?

So, fairly or not, I'm done with Akalabeth.  There's a lot to like about it, at least presentation-wise: it's probably the most immersive game I've played on the blog to this point.  It really falls down mechanically as a game, though, especially once you figure out that the numbers aren't at all random.  On the whole, it's more of an interesting piece of gaming history than a game that's fun to play.


Okay, here's the thing about the final rating: I think I've had it with the Innovation & Influence category.  I put it in as a way to recognise games that are important, and doing things for the first time, but my ratings for it have been all over the place.  It's skewed a lot of results, and I'm tired of justifying it to myself.  So I'm thinking of replacing it with a new category that's somewhat more about objective quality (as much as these types of ratings can be).  I'm thinking Combat/Puzzles, one applicable to CRPGs and the other to adventure games.  Those were wrapped up into other categories before, but they tend to be the central activities of each genre, and I don't think it's such a bad idea to make them more important in the final score.  I'm going to think on it for a couple of days, and my Wednesday post should let you know what I've decided.  If it's my Final Rating for Akalabeth, then I'm leaving things alone. If it's a post about the new rating system, obviously it's getting changed and I'll need to rejig everything.

NEXT: My next game is Dog Star Adventure, by Lance Micklus who previously gave us the not-particularly-great Treasure Hunt. It's a text adventure with some Star Wars elements by the looks of things. Might be fun!


  1. Akalabeth uses AppleSoft BASIC and stores the level as a signed real, so hypothetically you could go as deep as level 10^37. Granted, the level is used for other calculations so you would run into overflow errors some time before that, but still.

    1. Though on closer inspection, integer precision tends to fall apart at 4,294,967,296, or 2^32.

    2. So while the dungeons aren't actually infinite, I guess they are practically infinite.

  2. Do you have any thoughts on how beatable the game would be if you were to use the Lizard Man conversion just once (perhaps as intended?) instead of spamming it over and over? I guess using your best "random" character that would give you 60 for all of your stats.