Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Game 4: Ultima (1981)


United States
Independently developed; California Pacific Computing (publisher)
Released in 1981 for Apple II and Atari 800
Remade and re-released as Ultima I in 1986 for Apple II; 1987 for Commodore 64 and DOS; 1988 for PC-88, PC-98, and Sharp X1; 1989 for MSX; 1994 for Apple IIGS
Date Started: 16 February 2010
My little project encompasses...I don't know...probably more than 500 games. I haven't counted them yet; I don't want to discourage myself. But considering the sheer number of games on the list, I was surprised how quickly I found myself playing a game I had already played. I assumed I would have to slog through dozens of unfamiliar titles before I got to something I remembered. But here I am, starting one of the best CRPG series of all time, replaying Ultima for the first time in over 10 years.

The original Ultima came out in 1981. I'm playing the 1986 re-release for DOS, downloaded (along with a suspiciously contemporary manual) from some abandonware site. From what I understand, the gameplay is the same, but the graphics were notably improved.

The manual follows the usual practice of explaining the somewhat limited game world in vivid and florid prose. Of orcs, it says: "Tribal by nature, they are sub-human at best, just a slight cut above true bestiality. They abhor all things human and cultured and will lay waste to anything fashioned by human hands. 'Tis said that they relish the taste of human flesh." In the real game, of course, orcs are little icons against which you hit (A)ttack over and over until they are dead, with no other interaction or depth. This isn't to say the manual isn't fun. If you're of a mind, whenever an orc approaches you can make up a little conversation to have with it. (It will end with the orc sniffing and shouting, "manflesh!", naturally.)

This one page has more text than the entire on-screen game. I'm not complaining; just saying.

I'm surprised at how many oddities I didn't remember. The character creation process allows you to choose from among elf, hobbit, and dwarf races in addition to humans--anyone remember any of these races in later Ultimas? I don't often play nonhuman spellcasting classes in single-player CRPGs, so I thought I'd go against type on this one. Oddly, it later appears my wizard character can still use any weapons and armor. I'm not sure what the downsides are to being a wizard.

The top-down game perspective starts you off in the middle of a plain on the continent of Sosaria, knowing only that your ultimate goal is to defeat the scourge of Sosaria: Mondain, an evil wizard who has unleashed unnatural monsters on the land. A few steps away are Lord British's castle and, right next to it...the City of Britain?! Really?! Was this something changed in the remake to make it more like Ultima IV-VII, or were these two locations always side-by-side? In any event, it's time to role play. You're a new adventurer seeking to rid Sosaria of an evil tyrant. First thing to do is to have a chat with the young benevolent sovereign that the manual has gone on about: Lord British. I wandered into his castle hoping to gain some insight into my quest, but I was immediately and tersely told by His Highness to go find the Grave of the Lost Soul and not return until I had. I guess a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Lord British's castle and the City of Britain. Alas, no one's telling me anything about mantras and runes yet.

The interaction is pretty basic keyboard-only stuff. I failed to remember that you cannot talk to any characters except the king and some merchants. But even here there are fun little touches. Iolo the Bard, your stalwart companion from Ultima IV onward, shows up in every town singing "ho eyoh he hum" (it's an anagram; get it?) in the background. Here's the city of Paws, which I remember located south of Lord British's castle in Ultima IV, and here's Yew, the future home of the druids. And why does the City of Fawn sound a forgotten echo in my brain? Do we encounter that again in Ultima VII? (Edit: we do! And Montor, too! Now I know where those cities come from. I just got a little tingle.) (But I have to force myself not to mess around on that Ultima wiki; too many spoilers.) The shops, although they all sell essentially the same things at the same prices, distinguish themselves with colorful names: Li'L Karelia's Finnish Grocery, Cold Steel Creations, Fastest Freshest Food Market, Mystic Melinda's.

In the castle of the Lost King.

Almost immediately you begin starving. Why are all these early CRPGs so obssessed with food? Every two steps consumes a meal, so at the beginning, almost all the gold you have goes into food. Only when you have more than 1000 meals on hand do you start to feel comfortable buying better weapons, armor, and (in my case) spells. Fortunately, if you buy some method of transport like a horse, it cuts down on your food use.

I don't want to spoil how this battle turned out, but...

Looks like meat's back on the menu, boys!

Hit points are awarded the same way they were in Akalabeth: you descend into a dungeon, slay some monsters, and return to the surface. It seems a silly way to do it, but keep in mind that there are no experience points or levels in these early CRPGs. Hit points are your only measure of advancement. Since in later CRPGs, hit points are dependent upon your level, which is dependent upon your experience, which is dependent upon slaying monsters, this method actually makes sense--it just cuts out the middle man. You can also get hit points by bribing Lord British for them. In just the last post, I was lamenting how most games don't give you much to do with all the money you make. Already I find one that proves me wrong. Also, as a mage, I need to keep buying spells if I want to use them. You can never have too many "kill" spells!

Like Akalabeth, dungeons are first-person. Like the towns and shops, they have creative and forboding names: the Dungeon of Perinia, the Mines of Mt. Drash, the Unholy Hole. Monsters are more randomized than in Akalabeth, and there are fun add-ins like coffins, chests (which are usually trapped), and magic barriers. Monsters regenerate on levels so you're never truly safe--you never know when one is going to sneak up behind you and start walloping you. Stray too far in a dungeon and you won't be able to get out in time (although the mage spell "ladder up" seems to help a lot).

Rats again. Every game has rats.

I explored a bit, made a few forays into dungeons, died a couple of times and was resurrected with only 99 hit points and food, and got an additional quest from someone called "The Lost King" (does he ever show up again in a later Ultima?) to kill a gelatinous cube. In both castles I've visted, a mysterious princess is being held captive in a guarded prison, and I remember vaguely that I have to do something with her later, but I forget what. In any event, it's clear that the Grave of the Lost Soul isn't on this island, so I have a plan: screw around in the dungeons until I have at least 1000 hit points and 2000 gold; spend the latter on food and a frigate, and set out to explore the rest of this world. Already I'm having more fun than in Akalabeth, Rogue, and Temple of Apshai combined.


Further reading: The story continues with Ultima II (1982), Ultima III (1983), Ultima IV (1985), Ultima V (1988), Ultima VI (1990), Ultima VII, Ultima Underworld, and somewhere in there we have the dreadful Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash (1983). For a British copy of the original Ultima, see The Ring of Darkness (1982).


  1. Just wanted to let you know this is an awesome series that I plan on following for a very long time. And would love to see turned into a book ;)

  2. Thanks, man. Let's see if I can just keep up the blog for a couple of weeks first, though!

  3. What's "ho eyoh he hum" an anagram of?

  4. Ha! I was just messing with y'all on that. I was disappointed that no one ever asked. Thanks, Anon!

    1. Dammit, I used an anagram generator and everything!

    2. It's an anagram of our reaction to the Addict's trolling us with his lofty fake anagram:

      "Hm...hehe, oh you!"

  5. You'll be happy to hear that I spent a minute googling that, too. :P


  6. Google just directed me here when I ran a search for "ho eyoh he hum"! (I was wondering what it meant after an old article made me remember that it appears in a few of the Ultimas. No luck finding out yet, but now I know it's not actually an anagram and can stop trying to make sense of it. *g*)

  7. Darn! I thought I was finally going to find out what "ho eyoh he hum" meant. Haha. Oh well.

    I remember really enjoying Ultima V when it came out and deciding to play the earlier games. I was a bit taken aback by the rather silly nature of the first 2 but still enjoyed the first game enough to play it to completion (in fact, I think it is the only Ultima game I've ever finished).

    BTW, the manual page you posted looks like it came from the Ultima Trilogy which came out in 1989.

  8. Good point. Sometimes it's tough to sort out the documentation between versions. Now I wonder what the original looked like.

  9. Heh, I really racked my brain for a few minutes on the 'anagram'...

  10. Well, technically it is an anagram for "eh homey oh uh." I think that's a Snoop Dog song.

  11. Crude as Ultima I is, when you play it alongside the other RPGs that existed at the time you can recognize the immense amount of polish that went into the game. It's easy to see why the series became such a huge hit even before Ultima IV completely revolutionized computer games.

  12. You got me too on that anagram comment. I thought about it and the best I came up with was 'hey home, uh oh'. Then I even ran it through an anagram program, and with no obvious choices Googled for the answer. Then I checked the comments. You do like your tricks.

  13. He Uh Oh My Hoe? Maybe a young Garriott lost his "garden tools" to his best bud?

    ...Uh Oh, Hey Home!

    Huh. He Home Yo!

  14. I just could not get into this game. I didn't like grinding up hp, having to buy every single instance of a spell, losing everything at death, etc.. I moved on pretty quickly!

  15. I just started this game the other day as a way of exploring the evolution of crpgs. I grew up with a Nintendo and didn't really begin exploring computer games until VERY late. So far, I'm actually loving the feel of the game. I can be a very grindy player at times so I don't really mind the hit point grinding. I also never though I would like having NO clue what to do (or at least very few) but I like figuring things out.

    1. It's a fairly limited game world, though, isn't it? It would be a big difference if you had no clue what to do in, say, Skyrim.

  16. "Monsters regenerate on levels so you're never truly safe--you never known when one is going to sneak up behind you and start walloping you."

    Yes, but to clarify it is also possible to clear one level completely and be safe. Monsters will not use ladders and more monsters will regenerate to cleared level only after you use ladder. Actually beeing idle inside a dungeon is safer than beeing idle outside, since food is not consumed in a dungeon (just press space to try).

    I wonder if "Li'L Karelia's Finnish Grocery" in the town of Britain is a tribute to J.R.R. Tokien... (Karelia is a province of Finland)

    “It [discovering Finnish] was like discovering a wine-cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.”
    ― J.R.R. Tolkien

  17. This is a game I often think about checking out, but never quite get around to.

    Since GOG links are permitted by your blog rules, I figured I'd throw the link out here,since GOG sells Ultima 1-3 as a bundle, so people can get this legally if they wish.


  18. Ho Eyoh He Hum were the names of the four continents I believe.

  19. I remember King Shamino showing up on in one of the continents, I'm tempted to say "Lands of Danger and Despair" but I'm unsure. If you look at the maps of the four lands and look at the map for Ultima VII: Serpent's Isle, they're the same place! Which I thought was really awesome at the time when Serpent's Isle had just come out.

    He Hoe Oh Uh My (among others that make an equal amount of sense)

    wordsmith.org/anagram/ (yes, I cheated)

  20. There might be a better place to put this, but I guess it might as well be on the first Ultima entry...

    I just found this series of interviews with Richard Garriott browsing through Spoony's video archive:


    Now, these might be old news to a lot of people. Also, not everyone might be a fan of Spoony. But if you don't know these videos, and you're even remotely interested in Ultima's history I highly recommend taking a look.

    By the way, as interesting as the actual interview might be, I found the additional episodes ("Richard Garriott’s Art Gallery" and "How to Make Apple II Artwork") especially fascinating.

  21. A completely fascinating project. I found it today, and I don't even remember how. Your FAQ is very self-deprecating -- it's only my opinion, of course, but I think such a project has inherent value, subjective though it might be. Looking forward to rolling through the archives to see what games we have in common. What do you think of Jason Scott / archive.org's playable archive of 80s/90s software?

    1. To be honest, I wasn't having trouble finding games before archive.org offered its archive. It's a nice contribution that gives more attention to both the worthy site and some worthy games, but it didn't do a lot for me specifically.

      Always nice to get a new reader!

  22. Obviously you've been making out OK since 2010 and before, so yes! I was more wondering what you thought about the whole concept -- "Click here and 1980s CRPGs come to life!" (or whatever else). People might start playing these games along with you!

    Certainly when I found it I spent a couple evenings going "Ah! I remember that one!" It was a time with a lot of weird and hairy software to be discovered but the field wasn't impossibly huge like it's become in the post-Internet world.

    Cheers! :)

  23. In the process of looking for some Telengard info, I stumbled across your massive project! I had a web page in the mid-90's dedicated to my favorite Ultimas and Gold Box games. I've got a lot of reading to do to catch up, looking forward to it!

  24. "The character creation process allows you to choose from among elf, hobbit, and dwarf races in addition to humans".

    The original 1981 Apple II version also had "Lizard" as a choice for this and "Peasant" for the type/class, both being Akalabeth references, though apparently you'd have to dive into the code to find and activate them: https://tcrf.net/Ultima_(Apple_II).

    The effect mentioned there when force-loading a blank character was experienced by this threadposter as well who played the 1981 version through Applewin:

    "Another weird issue, and maybe this is just a bug from the original game - if I take the disk images in their pristine state and try to continue a previous game without generating a new character, it plops me in the middle of the ocean, dead on arrival. Then I resurrect onto an island with a signpost. I appear to have no name, no inventory, and be a Level 1 Lizard Peasant. "


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