Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Ultima: Victory!

Having completely the quests given out by the eight kings of "Ultima" (as the world seems to be named in the manual), the next stage of my mission to defeat Mondain was to become a "space ace".  The chain of quest-lines went like this: to confront Mondain I needed a time machine; to get a time machine, I had to rescue a princess after becoming a space ace; to become a space ace, I apparently needed to go into space and shoot down 20 enemy ships.

The obvious way to get to space was to buy a shuttle from the Transport shop in one of the cities.  I had saved my last game just outside Castle Shamino, which is right next to the city of Gorlab.  I can't remember how much the shuttle cost; I just tried to go back and check, but for some reason my air-car has vanished in my saved game, leaving me stranded on an island.  It didn't really matter though, because by that point I had amassed around 40,000 gold, and money worries were a thing of the past.  The shuttle appeared on the wilderness map, one square north of Gorlab.

I'm a rocket man...

After I boarded the shuttle, it gave me a short countdown before blasting off into outer space. I remember from previous times I've played the game that you need to be wearing a Vacuum Suit here, or you instantly die.  It makes perfect logical sense, but as far as I can tell there's nothing in the game that clues you in to the deadliness of outer space (aside from, you know, common sense).  I guess it's no big deal, as long as you've saved your game recently.  It's just a "gotcha" death that results in a quick reload, and any player that's reached this point of the game should already have a Vacuum Suit in their inventory, or enough money to afford one.

Once you reach outer space, the game switches to a completely different style of play.  Ultima isn't exactly what you'd call a cohesive game.  It's cobbled together from bits and pieces of various styles and genres, and is composed of at least three separate games, each with their own mode of play.  Wilderness exploration is different to dungeon exploration, which is different to space combat.  If someone were to break it down even further, it wouldn't even surprise me to find out that the cities, castles and the final confrontation with Mondain all operate under different rules as well.  Garriott could probably have split the three major sections into separate games and sold them on their own, and he might have even made more money that way, but none of those games would have had Ultima's special brand of kitchen-sink charm.

From a modern perspective it does feel odd to be going into sci-fi territory in a fantasy game, and it felt odd when I first played the game 20 years ago, but I wonder how unusual it was at the time.  I've read a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop gaming stuff from the late 70s, and fantasy/sci-fi mash-ups were all over the place.  The D&D module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, which takes place in a crashed spaceship, was published in 1980.  Even in literature, I get the sense that sci-fi and fantasy weren't quite as separated as they later became.  It's hard to know, having only been about three years old at the time, whether Garriott was following trends or smashing genre boundaries.  In terms of CRPGs, at least, it seems to be more the latter.

After taking off into space, you're given a "top-down" view of the sector of space you're currently in.  Aside from your shuttle, there's also a planet, a sun, and a space station with two other docked ships.  Flying into the planet will return you to the wilderness.  Of the three ships you can fly, only the shuttle has heat shields.  It's supposedly the only one that can survive re-entry, but I wasn't about to test it out and jeopardise my "no deaths" record.  Flying into a sun will kill you regardless of the ship you're flying.  Again, I didn't test it to make sure.

Commencing count-down, engines on.

Every ship has a different amount of Shields and Fuel.  The shuttle has 1,000 of each, but from what I could tell it doesn't have any weapons, so you want to dock at the space station and switch to another.  This can be tricky.  The "Enter" key activates the thrust, which moves you forward; the "/" key activates the retros, which slow your forward movement or move you backwards; the left and right arrows turn your ship around.  As you'd expect there's no gravity, so once you start moving you won't stop until you reverse that movement.  Docking at the station requires pixel-perfect precision; even if you're just one pixel off, you'll crash and sustain damage to your Shields.  It can be frustrating at first, but eventually I was able to eyeball it pretty accurately.

Of the two ships at the space station, one (the slightly fatter one to the left in the image above) has 5,000 fuel but only 100 Shields.  A single shot from the enemy will destroy it, so I'm not sure why you'd ever want to use it unless you're trying to challenge yourself.  The other ship (slightly skinnier, on the bottom in the image above) has 1,000 Fuel and 5,000 Shields, so it's a much safer bet.  Having high fuel is good, as running out leaves you drifting in space forever, but the other ship's Shields are just too low to even consider.

The goal of the section of the game is to find enemy ships and shoot them down.  Finding the enemy is done by using your long range scanner, activated with the (I)nspect command.  This gives you a small text-based read-out at the bottom of the screen, indicating what's in the surrounding sectors.  To travel to a sector, you need to face it, switch to the first-person view with the (V)iew command, then warp by using the (H)yperjump command.  This took me absolutely forever to get right.  I spent ages hyper-jumping, only to find that I hadn't moved at all.  Eventually I figured out that you need to give your ship a little thrust in the overhead view to get it to work; after that I was off, exploring sectors and looking for enemies to destroy.

I found some enemies pretty quickly; they're very obviously modelled after Imperial TIE Fighters from Star Wars (the movie's real name, don't give me none of that A New Hope bullshit).  You'll have to trust me, as the one screenshot I took doesn't capture it very well.  I ran into trouble immediately, though, because I was completely unable to hit them.  Combat happens in first-person view, and is a simple matter of getting a ship into your crosshairs before pressing (F)ire, but no matter how well I aimed I couldn't score a hit.  I ended up running out of Fuel and having to restart, which I guess counts as a death, albeit through no fault of my own.  I did a little internet research, and soon figured out the problem: I needed to run my emulator in Apple IIe mode, not the default Enhanced Apple IIe mode.  With this done, I was happily blasting TIE Fighters to smithereens, and well on my way to becoming a space ace.

Trust me, it's a TIE Fighter.

With 5,000 Shields the enemy ships presented little danger; they only deal 100 damage per hit.  The main danger of space combat is running out of Fuel, so it's imperative that between every one or two space battles you dock at a space station to refuel.  Every time you dock it costs 500 gold, but I suspect this is only a danger for those who go haring off into space as soon as the shuttle becomes available.  I tend to leave it late, at a point when I've got loads of money, so I don't recall it ever being a problem.

I have to say, I'm impressed with how smoothly the game runs its space combat.  The contrast between this segment and the dungeon exploration is night and day.  One takes literal seconds to render the walls between every move, and the other has a smoothly scrolling starfield.  Perhaps there's some trickery involved under the hood (and I'm sure the reduced screen size that you can see above has something to do with it), but whatever Garriott did with this part of the game, it runs really nicely.

Each occupied sector of space has two or three enemy ships, so I had to travel to about eight different occupied sectors to shoot down the required number of enemies.  This involved a decent amount of cautious backtracking, so that I could dock at space stations to refuel in between battles.  Each hyperjump drains 100 Fuel, and flying around within a sector drains it as well, so I was having to refuel every couple of combats.  I considered trying to see if it was possible to kill all of the enemies in space, but I honestly have no idea how big space is in Ultima, or if the enemies eventually respawn, so I thought better of it.  After becoming a space ace I immediately hyperjumped back to the sector with my home planet - I'd been keeping careful track of my movements so that I wouldn't get lost - docked at the space station, switched back to my shuttle, and landed near Castle Shamino.

It was time now to rescue a princess.  I wasn't too concerned, as I'd been able to do it much earlier in the game without too much difficulty.  Rescuing the princess involves killing a jester, unlocking her cell, and either killing or escaping from the guards as they give chase.  Last time I'd been able to outmaneuver the guards, but this time around I wasn't so lucky.  The guards cornered me, and I had to fight my way out, getting pummeled from multiple sides as I desperately hoped that the guard's hit points would run out before mine did.  They did (I had thousands of hp), and when I escaped I was told by the princess that I could find a time machine to the north-west.

It took me a while, but eventually I found the time machine on the island north-west of the fourth continent.  At this point I got a little nervous about whether I was strong enough to battle Mondain, so I went back to Shamino's castle to buy some hit points from him (he was unconcerned by my recent murder of his guards; the status of the castles and cities resets as soon as you leave them).  I got my hit points up to around 20,000.  I still had close to 25,000 gold left over, but I got bored of going through the process of buying more.  Besides, I figured that I was owed some sort of monetary reward for defeating Mondain.

Activating the time machine.

Having loaded up on hit points, I made may way back to the time machine, got inside, and inserted the four gems.  The machine whisked me into the past, where I came face-to-face with Mondain, who was in the process of creating his Gem of Immortality.  (I really cut it fine with this time travel business.  Couldn't I have landed a week or two earlier?)

Witness Mondain, about to get rekt.

The battle with Mondain happens in a top-down arena, using the same controls as in the wilderness.  Flames ignite all around you during the battle; I'm not sure if you can be damaged by them, but if it is possible I managed to avoid it.  Mondain hits hard; he was dealing over 700 points of damage to me with each attack, and managed to get me down to about 13,000 hp before he turned into a bat and tried to flee.

While he was fleeing, I took the opportunity to (G)et the gem.  This destroyed the gem, and dealt around 10,000 points of damage to me.  (I'll never forget that you need to use the (G)et command here, because the first time I played this game I kept walking into the gem and taking damage over and over.  I had to call a friend to get some advice from him, but he couldn't remember what to do.  In the end I just started pressing buttons on the keyboard, until G did it for me.)  There was nothing left to do but kill Mondain in bat form.  I managed to corner him against a wall, and after repeated attacks he was dead and I had won.

Mondain goes down in defete.

As with every game in the Ultima series (including Akalabeth) I was instructed to report my feat.  In later games that instruction tells you to report to Lord British, but here it tells you to report to California Pacific.  Obviously that's not viable any more, but Lord British himself is very accessible these days, so I reported my feat to him on Twitter.

I deactivated my Twitter account yesterday, so that
I can mostly avoid the US election. Interactions like
this are what will bring me back.

I love that Garriott takes the time to do this for people on Twitter.  He's very friendly, seems like an incredibly cool and down-to-earth guy, and is pretty high on the list of people I'd love to have a conversation with over some beverages.

Well, after many years I finally got this blog to the point where I could play Ultima again.  I had to cheat a little by going out of sequence, but I got there.  I have to say, it was well worth it; it might be the most fun I've had with a game on the blog.  It's certainly the most enjoyable of the CRPGs I've played.  As far as the RADNESS Index goes, I expect it to do very well indeed.  I don't think it will unseat Zork at the top, but I won't be surprised if it comes close.


This game is a bit too big for me to play through it a second time so soon, and aside from that I'm not doing Ports of Call for the Priority List Games.  I'll play another version of the game when my chronological list gets to 1981, by which time I'll definitely be ready to play it again.  Taking a look at Mobygames, it seems that the only straight port of this version of the game was for Atari 8-bit, released by Sierra in 1983.  That's the version I'll play when I get to 1981.  All of the other ports were for the redesigned version of the game, called Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, and released in 1986.  If this blog ever makes it to 1986, that's when I'll play the re-release.


Story & Setting: It's tempting to rate this game high for story and setting, because it is Ultima after all.  The thing is, what I'd be rating is barely present in this game at all.  This isn't Britannia, with its rich history and developed NPCs.  It isn't even Sosaria, as it would be named later.  If the manual is to be believed, the world is called Ultima, which at least makes some sense of the series' name for me, finally.  There's no rich history, the world is pretty sparse in its details, and the ultimate plot is to kill an evil wizard.  It doesn't sound that great when you boil it down, does it?

So yeah, the goal is cliched, but without a doubt this is the absolute best "kill the wizard" story that's been presented in a video game thus far.  How many others have you dog-fighting in space and travelling in a time machine? Sure, little of it makes sense.  Why are the princesses held captive?  Where does the sci-fi technology come from?  Why do the princesses hold the key to a time machine?  Who's piloting those ships you have to shoot down in space? You can rationalise this stuff away (and some have), but when you get down to it the details don't really matter, because the world feels so much vaster than anything presented in a game before.  Zork may be more interesting and detailed on a smaller scale, but no game before Ultima has spanned an entire world with multiple cities, castles and dungeons, as well as featuring a trip into outer space.  The details are still sparse, and much of the content is repetitive, but for the time its scope is unparalleled.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The cities and castles feature plenty of characters: guards, shopkeepers, wenches, bards, jesters, princesses and kings.  The problem is that every city has the same shopkeepers and guards, and every castle has the same jesters and kings.  Interaction with them is also minimal: each type of character exists to serve one purpose and one purpose alone.  (Okay, so the kings serve two purposes.)  The game does better with its monsters, which are plentiful and with a lot of variety.  Unfortunately, only a few of the ones encountered in the dungeons have special abilities; the others are all just sacks of hit points, and the wilderness creatures don't even get unique icons.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Aesthetics: By modern standards Ultima isn't going to earn any plaudits for its graphics, but it looks very good for its day.  Okay, so the wireframe dungeons and the monsters therein are a bit crude, but the wilderness graphics are colourful and attractive. I'd be hard-pressed to find another CRPG of the time that looks as good as this.  Unfortunately there's no sound, aside from the odd beep when a blow is struck in combat.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Combat: In general terms the combat simply involves trading attacks with your enemy until someone is dead, but there's no separate combat interface, so every command is available to you.  As such you can cast spells, flee, or perform any other action that's normally available.  Not that you often need to; combat is rarely difficult beyond the first hour or so of play.  Once you have a few thousand hit points there's not much that can kill you.  Only the lower dungeon levels present a real threat, and that's more due to food-gobbling Gremlins than actual combat.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: Ultima does a lot, and does most of it pretty well: wilderness exploration, dungeon exploration, and especially space combat.  It does perhaps use too many keyboard commands; is it necessary to have a command for (U)nlock and (O)pen?  Do (B)oard and (E)nter really need to be separate?  That said, it's pretty intuitive, and after one session I didn't need the reference card open any more.  The only major complaint I have in this category is with the sluggishness of the dungeon routines; it takes ages to redraw whenever you take a step or pass a turn.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: Given that I didn't die once during my play-through of Ultima (I don't count having to reboot because I was in the wrong emulator mode), it's tempting to mark this low.  After all, wouldn't that make it too easy?  It should be remembered, though, that I've played the game before.  I knew at the beginning that I needed to buy food.  I knew how to build hit points, and roughly where to go to advance in my quest.  I also know from previous experience that this game is quite challenging when you're unfamiliar with it.  To its credit, it doesn't have a lot of frustrating areas; only the Gremlins are truly annoying, and they can be avoided.  Ultima gets the difficulty balance about right.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Fun: I've already said that this is the most fun I've had playing a game for the blog, and I stand by it.  That's probably because it's the first game that provides the type of gameplay that I really enjoy: I like CRPGs with long quests and a world to explore.  Most of the CRPGs before this have been heavily dungeon-based, and quite repetitive.  Ultima provides a lot of variety: if you're sick of exploring the wilderness, hit the dungeons. If you're sick of the dungeons, go shoot some spaceships.  If you're sick of all those, you could try robbing a town, or rescuing a princess. There's no shortage of things to do in UltimaRating: 5 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 2. How can I not give Ultima the top marks here?  It's one of the first genuinely good CRPGs, it's the beginning of a major series, and it's extremely influential on a global scale.  It could even be said to be the first "open world" game, in its own primitive way.  It's tempting to bust the scale and give it more than 2 points, but I must restrain myself and stick to the rules.

The above categories total 27, which doubled gives a score of 54.  Add the two bonus points, and Ultima gets a RADNESS Index of 56.  That places it second overall, and on top of the CRPG list.  It's 4 points higher than Rogue, which was the only CRPG that I thought it might not beat.  Rogue is very good, but Ultima plays to my tastes a lot more, so I'm not surprised that it scored higher.

NEXT: My next game by Garriott is Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, which is a disheartening 18 games away.  I must admit to being a little sad when I finished Ultima, and the temptation to go right on to its sequel was a strong one.  It's very possible that I might switch it with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain, just so I can get my fix six games earlier.

As for my next chronological game, that's Kadath, a Lovecraftian text adventure for the Altair, of all things.  My chances of emulating an Altair seem slim, so I'll be playing a port.  There's a later port for the Commodore PET that I couldn't find, and a still later one for the Commodore 64.  I suspect that's the one I'll have to play, so hopefully the differences between the versions are entirely cosmetic.

ADDENDUM: For anyone who wants to learn more about the inner workings of Ultima, I highly recommend the posts by Ahab over at Data Driven Gamer.  He really goes in depth into the code, and extracts pretty much all the data you could want, from all of the game's many modes.  It's excellent stuff.


  1. Use the Sorcerer version of Kadath. It is almost certainly 1-1 with the Altair version (Sorcerer BASIC is compatible with Altair, they advertised it as such).

    I have detailed instructions here how to set it up.


    The C64 version edits down the text a bit.

  2. Make sure to post your results to Lord British!

  3. Make sure to post your results to Lord British!

  4. When you mention the ships available in the space stage, you say, "Of the two ships at the space station, one (the slightly fatter one to the left in the image above) has 5,000 fuel but only 100 Shields. A single shot from the enemy will destroy it, so I'm not sure why you'd ever want to use it unless you're trying to challenge yourself." I can think of another possible use for that ship, though I'm not sure whether anyone ever bothered to do this: mapping out the space sectors in advance. The biggest concern during space combat when flying the other ship, with 1,000 Fuel and 5,000 Shields, is making sure that you don't run out of fuel. This can be tricky when you're looking for sectors with enemies to fight or bases to resupply at, since you can only scan the sectors immediately adjacent to you. You have to be careful to remember where the nearest base is and to reserve enough fuel for the jumps needed to get back to it, plus some extra for maneuvering to dock. If, however, you went out in the high-fuel/low-shields ship first, you could exploit its high fuel capacity to map the occupied sectors for the entire area, jumping only to sectors without enemies for safety and repeatedly scanning the surroundings. Once you'd mapped the surrounding space, you could then plan out an efficient course of jumps and attacks for the short-range combat ship with little or no risk of running out of fuel. Incidentally, the manual claims, "Space is divided into 64 sectors on a 8 x 8 grid", so the area to map is definitely limited.

  5. “It does perhaps use too many keyboard commands; is it necessary to have a command for (U)nlock and (O)pen? Do (B)oard and (E)nter really need to be separate?“

    Yes, I think it is necessary because atmosphere is king in the Ultima games, and that is a large part of their enduring appeal. It may be a detail but it makes the world (and your abilities) seem larger than the actual code it represents. And that describes the early Ultima games in a nutshell: they feel much more complex and vast than they are because of details like this one.