Monday, February 15, 2010

Akalabeth and Skipped Games

This main screen is from a later DOS re-make, by which time the game had become known as Ultima 0.
[Edit from 2 March 2013: Over three years after I hurriedly wrote about Akalabeth at the beginning of my blogging experience, I revisited the game in much more detail, playing the original Apple II version. I strongly recommend reading the updated posting for a more thorough understanding of the game and its mechanics. Note that in doing so, we more firmly established a 1980 publication date for the game. I also visited some of the PLATO games discussed here in a December 2011 posting on "The Earliest CRPGs" and further entries on each of the PLATO games that you can read by following my Index of Games Played by Year. This posting is preserved for historical reasons, but there's really no reason to read it.]

Wikipedia's chronology of CRPGs starts in 1974 and 1975 with dnd and Dungeon, two games that never received a DOS port. I would have liked to try them out, and indeed the article notes that dnd "continues to be played this day on the NovaNET system and Cyber1." But frankly, if it's not downloadable and installable on my laptop within a reasonable time frame, it's off the list.

The first DOS-based game we come to is Origin's 1979 Akalabeth: World of Doom, also known as Ultima 0, because it features Lord British and several gameplay mechanics that I remember from Ultima I. In this game, we first find the outdoors top-down perspective contrasting with the 3D dungeon-crawl perspective that would remain part of the series, if I recall correctly, all the way through Ultima V (I haven't played any of the Ultimas in about 10 years, so I might be misremembering).

I played Akalabeth more than four months ago now (the idea of a blog not having occurred to me back then), and I was surprised by how quick it went. There really isn't much to it; it's more of a demonstration project than a game. After you create your initial character and buy a few supplies (your weapons are limited to a rapier, an axe, a bow, and a magic amulet), you head over to Lord British's castle to get your first monster-killing quest, and then start plumbing the dungeons.

Akalabeth shares what I remember as Ultima I's odd trait of awarding hit points based on the time you spend in the dungeon. If you descend with 25 hit points, go down two levels, kill five or six monsters, and head back up to the surface, the game might up you to 30 or 40 hit points. Descend again, try another level, and re-emerge and find yourself with 50. You essentially keep doing this until you have enough to brave the lower reaches and kill the monsters you've been quested to kill. Monsters appear predictably on their levels. Level 1 always has one skeleton and one thief. Level 2 will have a skeleton, a thief, and an orc. Level 3: a skeleton, a thief, and orc, and a snake, and so on down the line. The dungeons are generated every time you start a new game, but within that game, all the dungeons look the same.

You gain gold in Akalabeth, but after you make your initial equipment buys, it's really only good for food. In the early stages, starving to death is a real danger, but after you've made a couple of dungeon trips, you have a few thousand meals in your backpack and gold ceases to be very useful. So do weapons, for that matter, once you learn that repeated use of the magic amulet will increase your net statistics to the point that you can kill the toughest creature with one strike from your bare hands.

Wikipedia's next titles on the list were two 1979 games in the Dunjonquest series, then Space and Space II, also both 1979. If these were ever available for DOS, I couldn't find them. Temple of Apshai was next but the only version I found was the trilogy released in 1985. Based on my rules, I should have played it next anyway, but I didn't have a clear plan back then so I moved on to Rogue. That's where my blog really begins.


  1. Gotta say Akalabeth is just a horrible game. I was impressed to see the first person dungeon view used with actual dynamic objects in the distance, but man this game was just no fun at all. I didn't even bother finishing it. That's another thing, I won't necessarily play for 6 hours, especially when the game is so boring and dreadful.

    1. Not fun at all? I'm playing it in 2020 and having a blast. I love its simplicity, and its lack of annoying animations that slow down the gameplay.

  2. It's good for historical value, but I agree that it doesn't offer much now. Thanks for being the first to comment on this posting from over a year ago!

  3. Hello! Find out about this amazing blog yesterday from a post on rpgwatch :) Great blog mate!

    As you see I decided to read through all entries from the start :D

    As for Akalabeth, I tried to play it but just skipped it in minutes for Ultima 1 ;)

  4. Glad to have you, Manolis. Keep commenting!

  5. There’s one on eBay as well:

    Current Price: $499.00

    Time left: 5d 21h (Jul 29, 201119:45:04 PDT)

    item #:- 220818172778


  6. oh wow, the auction ended at $4k!
    And according to the description the game doesn´t even work :o)

  7. Wow. I'm a CRPG Addict, but not a CRPG Lunatic.

  8. Hi! I too decided to read through your amazing work. Looking at this stuff and comparing this to modern "rpgs" is just stunning. I have thought of embarking into a similar journey, even though I'm quite the newb in crpgs. But I'm under 20 and eager to learn haha.

    Keep up the good work!

  9. Thanks, Mutt. Feel free to comment on older postings--I read everything. It'll be interesting to hear your perspective on these older games as a younger reader.

  10. Damn.. so I found your blog just after you decided to call it quits. This is a great concept! I've been retro gaming since the day my games became retro - they were brand new in -79 when I got my first console :)
    what is the going rate of "retro" these days anyway, before -99? :)

    This is the exact right way to do the blog and afaik nobody else has done it in similar fashion. I'd love to start something similar because I'm already taking the hours for gaming, my problem is that I love all platforms and a number of genres, therefore my list would probably be around 100 000 games or so :D

    Have read quite a bit, will read through the whole blog. I'm quite sure you will continue one day, 2014 the latest ;)

  11. Found this blog when I Googled 2400 AD. I've been thrilled every since. Quite an education for me. Thanx!

    1. Glad you enjoy it, Chris. Feel free to comment on older posts; I read all the comments.

  12. Found this blog, hey wait, I don't want to sound like the last guy...I came here from a link from a Slate article book review.
    They didn't like the book, but they liked you!
    Looking forward to reading your blog :) +1 32-year old un-lady-like lady to your blog rolls.

    1. Welcome! Always good to get a new reader. If you don't like the early posts, stick with me to 2011, and I think you'll find it gets better.

      I'm certainly honored to be mentioned in Slate, especially when they're using me as a contrast to something that's bad! I just wish I didn't get this sudden influx of traffic when I'm in the middle of a dry spell in posts.

  13. found this blog while looking into mega traveller 1 i think ive found some good stuff to read ty

  14. This blog is awesome. Glad it's still on the net.

  15. Hey, just letting you know this old post was still worth a read. Onward!

  16. Is the publisher correct on master game list? Should it be California Pacific Computer Co. instead of ComputerLand

    1. ComputerLand was the store that published the first set of Akalabeth games in plastic bags. My flat-file spreadsheet doesn't really track the nuance of multiple publishers, so I just chose the first one.

  17. i figured that since i've been playing these, i should likely comment on them as well.

    i played the 1997 remake of akalabeth, mainly because i wanted more sound and more colour in my version when i tried it.

    having said that, i really didn't play it for long. my gog status says one hour and twenty five minutes, and i think the first ten or so minutes of that was fiddling around to get it to look graphically ok. so just over an hour, then.

    how did it go so fast? the 1997 remake has a save and reload feature. this, coupled with amulet spam got me to where i needed to be pretty quickly. after that, it was just descending to the various levels and feeling them out [finding a straight passage where i could back and forth, so i could meet dungeon denizens.]

    this is not likely how i would have played it in the early 80's when i may have encountered it, but it seemed to "suit" this game.

    i say that largely because u0 feels more like a toy and less like a game. or maybe that's not the right way of putting it. maybe a better way of putting it is that this is richard getting his sea legs and doing what amounts to a technology demonstration.

    here, for example, he proves that he can do wireframe dungeons.

    and on that basis, i think it's fairly solid. [not as a game, so much, but as a demonstration.]

    again, i do want to thank you for your time in blogging these, even if you're not thrilled with your earlier entries, they're still interesting to read.


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