I have set out on a new mission to look back through the history of video games and witness the growth of our medium and the genres within it. Picking a starting point proved difficult, though. I didn’t want to go all the way back to the arcade and Atari days, which would be games that are hard to get my hands on and titles that aren’t interesting enough to write about. I love the Atari, but I wasn’t about to dig through hundreds of its titles and write reviews for all of them.
No, after careful deliberation, I figured the most ideal starting point for this side-quest of mine would Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth: World of Doom from 1979; the precursor to the esteemed Ultima series and one gaming’s earliest RPGs.
The game is set in a randomly-generated fantasy realm where, in ancient times, an evil magus raised armies of monsters to wage war against his brother for control of the domain. The hero British would eventually rise up and free the land of the wizard’s tyranny, establishing himself as the new king and beginning an era of rebuilding. Still, the dungeons filled with monsters remain and heroes are needed if true peace is to be restored.
Firing up the game, you are asked to set a difficulty level and enter a seed from which the world can be randomized. The game then generates a character for you with semi-random points in strength, dexterity (hit chance), stamina, hitpoints, wisdom, and gold. While neat, the character creation is somewhat bodged and has no consideration for balancing. You can keep rerolling until you get all your stats in the high 20s and a generous helping of gold to supplement that power. There is no reason to make do with a mediocre build, so preset characters or letting players distribute points themselves would have been better.
After character creation you are booted to the first town and immediately enter a shop window where you can buy equipment and food. The game doesn’t offer much in the way of equipment, giving you the option between a rapier or axe, a shield, a bow, and magical amulets. There are no improved versions of any of them, but items can be lost or stolen while in dungeons. You can find new ones in treasure chests or simply get gold from enemies and buy new ones. Still, I did find myself in situations where I was 3 levels deep inside an orc-filled dungeon with pockets full of gold and not a weapon left in my arsenal.
You might be tempted to buy extra weapons ahead of such problems, but what you truly need is absurd quantities of food. Every moment you exist, you consume food. Every step on the overworld consumes 1 food and every action in a dungeon costs an additional 0.1 helpings of food. The moment you run out, your character drops dead on the spot from starvation.
Food may seem cheap at first, but before you can make meaningful progress in the game, you first need to find Lord British’s castle out in the overworld. There is nothing to fight in the overworld, so this might not seem like a problem. However, you also have no indication of where the castle is and a limited view of your surroundings. Multiple games would be doomed, just because I ran out of food running up and down the entire map trying, hopelessly, to find that castle.
At the castle, Lord British will provide you a quest to slay a monster and then return. The monster you must slay is, strangely, determined by your wisdom. If you rolled high in that stat, you might find yourself immediately tasked with slaying the likes of carrion crawlers that roam deep beneath the surface. Meanwhile, a dumb-as-a-brick fighter may be tasked with just killing a lowly thief. On top of that, a bug in the GOG version of the game means quests can literally never be completed and progressing in the game is made impossible unless you manually fix or replace the files with a working one.
Once you finally get into the dungeons proper and star questing, Akalabeth proves itself to have a good foundation for an RPG, lacking in just a little too much refinement. The simplistic visuals of the Apple II are adorable for the monsters and functional for the overworld map, but down in the dungeon’s narrow corridors, they are simply not sufficient.
You have to explore these randomized layouts that all look exactly the same and your movement through them is too fast and confusing. There is no map to work with and the perspective can make it difficult to see when to turn for doorways or make the same hall look completely different from another angle. You get hopelessly lost and not in a fun way. Exploring the dungeons just became a hassle, especially in the mid-game where you need to go up and down these labyrinths to fulfill quests and acquire new ones. That is, if your copy actually works.
Akalabeth is an interesting bit of history and the very origin of one of gaming’s most eccentric and lovable developers. On its own, it’s not a game worth seeking out, but if you consider it a bit of gaming pilgrimage, it’s worth a little visit.