The Game: You set out alone on an adventure spanning countryside, mountains, oceans, towns and dungeons. You can purchase food rations, weapons and armor in the towns, visit Lord British in a castle for his wisdom, maybe a level-up, and your next assignment, or you can venture forth into the dungeons to test your skill against the denizens of the underworld. (California Pacific Computer, 1981)
Memories: Richard Garriott has said that the first Ultima game – which was originally marketed as Ultimatum – essentially “uses Akalabeth as a subroutine”, and while that may be oversimplifying how much or how little new code Ultima added to the game, it’s essentially true – the dungeons are practically vintage Akalabeth fare, while the towns and the above-ground portions of the game are literally a whole different animal. Here we see the origins of the familiar Ultima tile set for grass, oceans, mountains, and in-game characters – the whole template for the next four Ultimas are set down here, and at the time, it was quite a revelation. (And yet it certainly had an influence on other game designers, programmers and artists, but hey, we’ll discuss Questron another time.)
But was it fun – and does it still hold up? If you came to the Ultima series anytime after the third or fourth game, the sheer simplicity of it all will be utterly alien to you. Melee screens didn’t appear until Ultima III, so above-ground combat is fought on the same screen as your movements around the countryside. The commands are certainly different, owing largely to the fact that the Apple II and Apple II+ computers that Ultima ran on didn’t have the compass of arrow keys that became standard issue later on. But it was enough to get the attention of gamers at the time, and that was enough to get a bidding war going between potential publishers of Garriott’s sequel game.
With the near-simultaneous arrival of Ultima and Wizardry, RPGs were suddenly providing clear evidence of what home computers could offer gamers that the console systems of the day couldn’t.