Yeah, I was afraid of this. I remember years ago when I first developed my curiosity for old PC games, Good old Games handed out some adventure games as freebies. There were some interesting games in there, including Ultima IV. I played it for a bit and didn’t have the best time with it. I could only imagine how much more rudimentary Ultima I would proof to be, but if anything, Akalabeth was already plenty amazing and gave me hope that, maybe, these bizarre passion projects by Lord British wouldn’t be as bad as I thought.
Ultima I effectively reimagines the backstory of Akalabeth. It tells the story of the wizard Mondain. In ancient times, this wizard created a gem of immortality and began releasing hordes of monsters upon the world of Sosaria. You play the role of an adventurer and you must find a way to travel back in time and slay Mondain before his evil ambitions are realized, saving Sosaria in the present time.
The game opens up on character creation and allows you to distribute skill points and pick a starting class. From there, you are put in the world of Sosaria and left to your devices. I began exploring on my first round and was immediately attacked by a black knight who locked me in combat and killed me seconds after having started. Things weren’t looking bright.
Ultima I maintains many of Akalabeth‘s sensibilities. You must acquire quests at castles, equip yourself with items bought at stores, and venture into dungeons. It adds a lot of new mechanics on top of this, but also removes some.
The world is no longer randomly-generated for one thing. The world is always the same on every go and your adventure will be largely the same each time. On the flipside, towns and castles are now actual places you can enter and explore, with characters to interact with. You no longer just walk up to a town and open up an identical store window, now the towns have different shops that offer different items altogether. Your options are expanded too, with a host of new weapons & armor, as well as upgrades like horses that decrease how much food you eat while traveling.
However, two major issues became immediately obvious to me. Firstly, the game sets you on convoluted quests and then harasses you non-stop while exploring. Quests now involve more than just going into a dungeon and slaying a monster, but the overworld now has patrolling enemies that will constantly and relentlessly bother you. You’re constantly pursued by monsters and villains or shot at by archers and mages, some of which are not feasible to take on in the early-game.
Secondly, Akalabeth‘s dungeon system is copied almost wholesale and the new additions made to them serve only to make these even more of a pain. You are once again exploring samey labyrinths with boring visuals; random hallways with no logic or pacing to them. It’s still a chore to keep track of where you are going, but now additional blockades are thrown in that require magic to dispell and if you don’t have the right spell, you just can’t progress anymore. Hell, with a bit of bad luck you can get yourself completely stuck in a dungeon and be forced to wander back and forth until you drain your food and die.
Not even death is an escape anymore. When you die, the game brings you back with a paltry 99 hitpoints and 99 food, with which you need to grind yourself back up all over again. Depending on how far you were and how much you lost, this might well be a fate worse than death.
The controls are also more complex than those seen in Akalabeth, which was pretty easy to pick up and play after only a quick glance at the manual. Ultima I‘s manual, however, is way too fancy and tries to present everything as if it’s in-universe knowledge. It’s written in gratuitous, old-timey English and doesn’t actually tell you how to do most actions. It’ll tell you that it might be smart to buy a horse, but how to mount the thing? Nah man, just get back on the overworld and try every button while an evil mage pelts you with magic.
And what perplexes me is that Ultima I seeks to push new RPG mechanics, all while constantly shirking sensible design. You gain experience, level up, and your statistics rise, but once you get your hands on overpowered equipment, all of that ceases to really matter. The game hits peak nonsense when it sends you into space and briefly turns into an arcade space shooter, where you are obliged to shoot down randomly-appearing enemies until the game is sufficiently impressed to let you resume the fantasy adventure.
Ultima I is more developed than Akalabeth and makes bold strides in introducing RPG mechanics, yet it’s also obsessed with authorism and getting people to recognize the marketable “Lord British” name. It interrupts its gameplay for silly distractions and I can’t help but feel that these came at the cost of overall gameplay. Especially when you consider how much groundwork for Ultima I was already provided by its spiritual predecessor.
It’s a game that is fun to remember. I sure know it amuses me to think that a game cited as the origin of all roleplaying video games gets bored halfway through and has you play around in a spaceship for a while. However, it’s not a game I’d honestly recommend, whether that would be its original Apple II release or the 1987 DOS remake.