Monday, April 2, 2018

Ultima Underworld: Summary and Rating

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
United States
Blue Sky Productions (developer); Origin Systems (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS; 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98; 1997 for PlayStation
Date Started: 15 February 2018
Date Ended: 24 March 2018 
Total Hours: 33
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating:62
Ranking at time of posting: 287/290 (99%)

Ultima Underworld is in many ways a typical Origin game: groundbreaking, innovative, well-produced, addictive, enormously fun to play--and at the same time a bit disappointing in what they did and didn't do with the story. This simply has no business being an Ultima title, and the protagonist has no business being the Avatar. Fusing the game with their hallmark series may have ensured sales, but it creates a confused continuity and subtracts from what otherwise might have been a compelling story designed specifically for this game. It also blunts any sense of role-playing: if you're supposed to be the Avatar, you can't very well run around choosing the "evil" options.

If they were going to insist on making it an Ultima game, they should have gone all-in. Make it clear that the three-part key is the same one the Avatar originally carried into the Abyss. Replace the ankh shrines with Ultima IV's altars. Replace Cabirus, Almric, Garamon, and Tyball with people we've heard of--Ultima IV, V, and VI had plenty of possibilities. Make it clear that the chamber in which the Slasher was trapped was the old Codex chamber, and make the player answer questions to get in. Toss in a gargoyle NPC or two. Blame the fall of the colony on one of the factions finding Mondain's skull, which the Avatar had last cast into the lava. Instead, they did everything to make it seem like the game was an apocryphal part of the Ultima universe.
I don't know what to think about the story that was told. The cluebook gives an entire history of Tyball and Garamon (reprinted here), and it makes the backstory much clearer than what was presented in the game: the brothers accidentally released the Slasher of Veils while researching interplanar travel. They created the Chamber of Virtue, imbuing it with "virtuous energies" to trap and weaken it until they could find a way to send it home. In the meantime, the Slasher corrupted Tyball and led him to arrange for Garamon's murder. To get into the Chamber of Virtue and free the demon, Tyball needed to find someone of great virtue and sacrifice her to "shatter the virtue of the chamber"; hence, he kidnapped the baron's daughter.

Aside from not making a lot of sense and reflecting extremely outdated views on virginity equaling virtue, the story has a feeling of being written after the game, to explain the elements within it, rather than vice versa. For instance, consider this paragraph, which seems like a clumsy way of explaining why Garamon's bones were somehow found in a random part of the lower level instead of in the chamber.
Dying, Garamon was still not without great power. Yet if Britannia were to survive, he could not afford to use his power to defend himself. Instead, he cast a mighty spell which, despite Tyball's best efforts, drew closed the door to the Chamber of Virtue. The demon was bound in place, but Garamon was not. His act of sacrifice made him virtuous enough to leave the Chamber of Virtue, and so he did by magic; but he died immediately thereafter, and his remains were lost on the lowest level of the Abyss.
Whether this supposition is true or not, I don't think this overall backstory is discoverable within the game itself. Sure, there are scraps of it here and there, and it's possible that the developers meant it to be something of a mystery, but I just feel it was poor story-telling--and, again, not well-integrated into the backstory of the Abyss presented in the game materials, let alone the rest of Ultima canon.

Beyond that, and a couple of bugs, it's hard to think of a negative thing to say about it. Even the things that don't work have a spark of a good idea, and you can see how they might work. For instance, the "bartering" system is a bit under-developed and unrewarding, but it's not a bad idea on the surface. Of the three major character builds--fighter, mage, and explorer/ranger/rogue--the last one seems mostly untenable, and yet it's a valiant effort.

There are a lot of "firsts" in Ultima Underworld and even more "seconds"--meaning some other game technically did it first, but probably not as well, and even if it did, it's not coming to mind right now. My list, on which I invite you to expand or correct, includes:
  • First RPG with the ability to look and move up and down
  • First continuous movement in a 3D RPG.
  • First 3D RPG that doesn't use straight lines and right angles for all the dungeon walls and has complex textures. Without that last bit, Alien Fires: 2199 A.D. (1987) is technically first. 
  • First 3D RPG in which each corridor and room is uniquely designed with wall details, ground details, and furniture instead of just repeating textures.
  • First RPG with a realistic dungeon ecosystem
  • First 3D RPG with realistic item interactions, such as using a fishing pole to catch fish, making torches out of wood and oil, using a torch to light a candle.
  • First RPG to allow direct bartering of goods without the need for intermediate currency (although that's possible, of course).
  • First game with an automap of this level of detail, on which you can make your own annotations.
There are a lot of other areas in which it isn't first but still rare: full sentences for PC dialogue, for instance. A fully-voiced introduction. Contextual music. Flowing water. A realistic item identification and repair system. Dynamic lighting levels depending on the source.

Add to all of these things an overall approach that isn't offered here for the first time, but perhaps for the first fully-realized time: the ability to explore and solve puzzles from multiple perspectives. Take something as simple as opening a door. I'm hard-pressed to think of a game from even the last 10 years that takes as realistic (and yet still challenging) an approach as Ultima Underworld, where you can pick it, smash it (including with spells), cast an "Open" spell on it, or find the key. Just as in the real world, some doors are sturdier than others or harder to pick than others. Once opened, you can even close and lock them behind you. Meanwhile, in Fallout 4, 23 years later, just to preserve the integrity of their little lockpicking mini-game, I can't even nuke a door open.

Because of the multiple approaches it offers, I have an almost insurmountable desire to replay the game as a mage. Part is the reason is for penance: I didn't even test 80% of the game's spells. Some of them would have made life a lot easier; for instance, "Fly" would have cut an enormous amount of navigation time out of Levels 7 and 8. "Resist Fire" would have come in handy against all those elementals. Why did I keep casting In Lor once I was capable of Vas In Lor? I was almost always saving my mana for "Heal," "Create Food," and (later in the game) "Gate Travel" that I didn't experiment with many fun-sounding combat options like "Ally," "Paralyze," "Summon," and "Confusion." 

Such a replay would be a challenge because although I know the main quest steps, I didn't record, and I barely remember, where I found each rune. I'd have to take a nonlinear approach to exploration, avoiding combats I can't win, re-assessing my capabilities with each new rune. 

It might be equally fun to try a stealth game: hardly fighting anyone, trying to sneak in and out of areas, reaching the endgame at a low level. (Are there any required fights other than the Chaos Knight?) I guess it depends on how well the "Sneak" skill works at high levels. Or to play as a fighter again but go for more of a "barbarian" build: high "Attack" and "Defense" but no weapons and armor; maximize "Unarmed," "Acrobat," and maybe "Swim." Or to try a ranged fighter.

Of course, I won't get to all of these. That's why I have you. Please tell me your experiences with these alternate character types. If you don't have any, get the game and give it a try. These comments will stay open indefinitely. Don't be afraid to set the game to "easy" mode if you choose a challenging character.

Here are some other miscellaneous notes:
  • I played a tinker, but never once did I repair my own weapons and armor. Early in the game, my skill wasn't high enough; late in the game, they stopped degrading very fast. Also, I only ever found like two anvils.
  • Apparently, the wisp on Level 4 is supposed to talk (I don't know why he wouldn't for me) and provide the rune sequence for "Armageddon." Why are those wisps always up to such mischief? 
  • Casting "Armageddon" actually does destroy the Slasher of Veils, but it also wipes out every other creature in the dungeon, causes the stairways to collapse, and destroys your entire inventory, including the rune bag.
  • If you go back up to Level 1 after rescuing the princess, nobody acknowledges you at the door.
  • It appears that the only "undocumented" spells are discoverable within the game. You can't just string together logical sequences of runes to find new ones.
  • Something pointed out in the reviews that I didn't notice: you can keep clicking "next page" on the automap after Level 8, and use the blank pages just to write random notes.
I don't generally buy the idea that consoles have "dumbed down" games, but it's probably true that the reason you can't do this in modern games is because of console compatibility.
  • The record for a speedrun of the game seems to be 17 minutes and 25 seconds. Look at that guy go. He doesn't hesitate for a second. I don't know my way around my own bedroom as well as he knows that dungeon. At one point, he drops the moonstone while in mid-air, knowing that it will land where he wants it to be when he casts "Gate" later. 
  • But there is a bit of an exploit: he has piles of ash that seem to be able to shoot fireballs and other spells. I guess there's a bug in the game by which turning a wand into a pile of ash keeps its abilities but prevents it from every running out and "breaking." I guess I'm glad I didn't know that. The game was easy enough.
Now, I don't want to jinx it, but having revised my opinion on the game's combat system (as per the last entry), it's entirely possible that Ultima Underworld might unseat Ultima V for the top spot. I'm not going to engineer it that way, but I'll bet it's at least close. It's thus with some excitement that I begin the GIMLET:

1. Game World. As per my concerns at the top of this entry, the backstory and in-game story may offer more detail than the typical RPG of the time, but they're still a bit clumsy, unsatisfying, and uncomfortably seated within Ultima canon. What little lore we got on the Abyss and the collapse of the colony was appreciated, but I still wish there were more. More in the game's favor, the world feels like a realistic environment. Days pass at a sensible rate. The dungeon is logically structured, has clear sources of food and water, and feels like a real place. The game experience is almost better if you ignore everything presented in the backstory and just piece together the scraps of information the game provides as you find them. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. The "classes" don't matter so much as the more basic "builds," but it's still a good system. The different choices create quite different approaches to playing the game. There's admirable flexibility in character creation, the skill system is mostly well-realized (minus some useless skills), and leveling is more rewarding than any previous Ultima title. My major quibble in this area is the artificially-low level cap. Score: 6.

3. NPCs. Fantastic. I love the importance of dialogue, the dialogue options, the fun use of classic "monsters" as NPCs. There could have been more dialogue options, or starker distinctions to accommodate different role-playing styles, but it's early in the era. I like that NPCs are vital to understanding the quest and game lore, but you still have some options, such as joining (or not) the knights. The barter system needed some work but was still fun and original. Score: 7.
Dialogue options are: 1) what I need to accomplish the quest; 2) unnecessarily cruel; and 3) a lie that will just prolong things. Some of the other conversations are better.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game has a small but effective menagerie, well described in the game manual, with an interesting set of strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and special defenses. I like that some "enemies" are on the edge and can be tipped (or not) into hostility depending on your actions, and that expectations are inverted by making goblins, trolls, and lizardmen friendly. The game is full of non-combat encounters that aren't designated as such (i.e., no text box pops up with a menu of options) but that still call upon your creativity, knowledge, and skill. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. Literally, there isn't much to combat--just a choice of weapons and attack types. But as I discussed last time, in any game where combat is integrated into the main exploration engine, anything possible in that engine becomes a combat tactic. If combat was a little harder, it would have made more sense to explore those various options. More than any game so far, however, you can truly "role-play" combat here, including avoiding it entirely.

I feel like a fraud even commenting on magic. I like the variety of spells, and that so many can be used to solve puzzles and explore rather than just engage in combat. Having to find the runes adds a fun twist. Score: 5.

6. Equipment. Also better here than any previous Ultima title. I always like when you have plenty of item "slots," so you're constantly getting upgraded. The variety of items is fantastic, accommodating just about any play style or set of skills. I didn't mind the wear-and-tear system, nor the identification system, and in both cases I appreciated that there were multiple approaches. I liked that so many items (poles, spikes, fishing poles, lockpicks, torches) could be duplicated by spells, or not, depending on your preference. The encumbrance system altered between challenging and annoying but at least wasn't annoying full-time. Lots of magic items. Lots of things to read. Lots of worthless items, but in the game for atmosphere. Lots of ways for items to interact with each other. My only real complaint is that I don't like fully deterministic games in which items are never varied nor vary locations. Score: 7.
Late in the game, I replaced my black longsword of Great Accuracy with a jeweled longsword of Unsurpassed Damage. It seemed to kill the enemies faster.
7. Economy. A lot of dungeon crawlers eschew an economy. This one not only offers one but also makes it somewhat realistic by allowing direct bartering rather than passing everything through a standard currency. Beyond that, however, the economy isn't very good. There's not enough interesting to buy, and thus hardly any reason to sell. I do like that the dwarven smith and the seer who identifies things provide a "money sink" if you don't have those skills--if only it didn't take so long to get to them when you need them. Score: 5.
All the treasure found on the lower levels is wasted.
8. Quests. Decent main quest, although it could have been clearer, and a handful of side quests along the way that add flavor and role-playing. No options or alternate endings for the main quest. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics are state-of-the-art for the time, though obviously a bit blocky today. To allow continuous movement and views from multiple angles, they had to take an acceptable step back in some detail. I found the sounds adequate but not outstanding. The voice acting at the beginning of the game was just awful. The interface, on the other hand, couldn't have been better. The game supports intuitive, redundant use of both mouse and keyboard, and I didn't have to think about either after the first 10 minutes. The automap is the best we've seen so far. Score: 7.
This is what the dungeon looks like if you set the textures to "low detail."
10. Gameplay. Easily the best category. It's as non-linear as a multi-level dungeon game can get (although a central staircase with quicker access to earlier levels would have been appreciated), even in monster difficulty. The lowest levels still have plenty of rats, rotworms, and mongbats. The experiences of different character builds make it very replayable. It was perhaps just a tad too easy in combat, at least for a fighter-type character, but the puzzle difficulty was decent and the game lasted just a perfect amount of time. At no point did I say, "I'm ready for this to be over," but neither did it leave me wanting more. Score: 8.

That gives us a final score of . . . drum roll . . . 62. Ah, well. Not technically enough to unseat Ultima V (69), Ultima VI (68), or even Pool of Radiance (65). On the other hand I rated the "newest" of those games 4 years ago, and 62 is within the margin of error for how my rating approach may have evolved. I wouldn't fret too much about it. It's at least made the average for its year, as of now, the highest yearly average we've seen so far. Perhaps more telling, Ultima Underworld is one of only two games--the other is Ultima VI--in which every score is at least a 5. It could have done a few things a little better, but it didn't do anything truly bad.
Organizing those three enemies in that screenshot must have taken forever.
My opinion is hardly original. Ultima Underworld makes the "Best X games" list, even today, for every category that it qualifies for. In its day, Dragon magazine called it "the best dungeon game we've ever played," particularly praising its auto-mapping, controls, and simulation of a real environment. Having cheapened their rating system by awarding 5/5 for just about anything, they gave Underworld 6 stars on a 5-star scale. PC-Spiele gave it 100%; Pelit 98%; Play Time 95%; Power Play 94%. ACE, PC Joker, ASM, PC Format, and PC Review UK were all above 90%. The only truly negative review seems to have come from a Swedish magazine called Svenska Hemdatornytt, which gave it 66%. I have't been able to get hold of that particular review.

The July 1992 Computer Gaming World, as was its tradition by the early 1990s, pairs Scorpia's "distinctive and often controversial perspective" with a review by Allen Greenberg. Greenberg's review isn't negative, exactly, but he seems to like the game more for what it portends than how it plays. Half his problem is declaring that the game "is best controlled using the mouse" and then spending several paragraphs explaining why the mouse doesn't work very well. If he'd used the WASD cluster to move like 90% of players, he'd have nothing to complain about. He praises the game as a "significant step" towards quasi-virtual reality and simulated environments but doesn't seem to have had much fun with the "murky and dim" graphics and "minimal" sound effects. He praises the automap but complains that you can't send it to the printer. A couple of complaints are just mystifying ("certain doorways that appear to be within reach remain frustratingly unapproachable"). Overall, though, he rates the game "an enjoyable challenge with a unique game-playing engine."

Scorpia's review is similarly mixed. With her historical perspective, she fully understands the major leap forward that the game represents, and it was fun to see that she had to spend an entire paragraph explaining what "continuous movement" actually means, because players wouldn't have encountered it before. She sees right through the less-useful skills like "Search" and "Appraise." She says the automap is the best she's ever seen but also complains that you can't print it (honestly, name one game in which you could). Her summary is that "the meticulous construction of a real-world dungeon environment is outstanding" and that the game represents "the dungeon trek of the future."

For "RPG of the Year" in 1992, it was up against Eye of the Beholder II, Might and Magic III, Planet's Edge, and Ultima VII, and it took the prize. It lost overall "Game of the Year" to Sid Meier's Civilization.
I just thought this was a fun shot of a goblin getting hit in the face.
To listen to the developers, Ultima Underworld was almost never published. You'll recall that it wasn't an in-house Origin product, but rather the brainchild of former Origin employee Paul Neurath, now running his own company in Salem, New Hampshire. Neurath's own account says that the project started off with enthusiastic support from Richard Garriott, but that otherwise Origin hardly communicated with Blue Sky during development. Two consecutive producers assigned to work with Blue Sky quit, and there were rumors that Origin was going to cancel the game, a horrifying prospect to Neurath as he had personally fronted most of the development costs. Fortunately, things changed when Blue Sky requested, and received, Warren Spector as their third producer. Spector took a much greater interest in the title, communicated regularly, and shepherded the project to completion. Even then, success wasn't assured. Although the game sold half a million copies, it took a while--and word-of-mouth from excited gamers--to build momentum. That it was released only a month before Ultima VII probably didn't help.

Thanks to the ultimate sales total, Origin commissioned Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds (1993), which fits more solidly in the Ultima canon, featuring Lord British and the usual Ultima NPCs, and occurring between the two parts of Ultima VII. By then, Blue Sky had merged with Lerner Research to form Looking Glass Studios, and the company continued to specialize in 3D games like the System Shock series, Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, and the Thief series. To some degree, of course, Ultima Underworld's influence is seen in nearly every first-person, continuous-movement title, including The Elder Scrolls and Deus Ex and even non-RPGs like Half-Life. Arkane Studios' Arx Fatalis (2002) was originally intended as Ultima Underworld III (Electronic Arts rejected it).

Looking Glass Studios closed in 2000, its employees scattering to companies like Ion Storm, Westwood, Valve, and Arkane. Paul Neurath formed Floodgate Entertainment in 2000 and co-developed Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide (2003, with BioWare) and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (2006, with Arkane). Floodgate closed in 2014, and Neurath almost immediately formed OtherSide Entertainment. Their first project? Underworld Ascendant. It achieved its $800,000 Kickstarter goal in 2015 and has an official license from Electronic Arts (albeit only for the Underworld setting, not the totality of Ultima canon). The graphics look very nice, but the project seems to have exceeded its anticipated delivery by a non-trivial margin.

In talking about this game's development and legacy, I could publish an article six times this length, but those articles have been published, and are out there, so I leave you to them. I'm grateful to have such a fun and fascinating start to 1992. How do you possibly follow that? Adventure Gamers, are we ready for Quest for Glory 3 yet?


Further Reading: My reviews of the entire series: Ultima, Ultima II, Ultima III, Ultima IV, Ultima V, Ultima VI, The Savage Empire, and Martian Dreams. You'll also definitely want to look at two excellent entries at "The Digital Antiquarian" (starting here) that go much deeper into the development and technology behind Ultima Underworld.


  1. I was also thinking that this might unseat Ultima V, but I don't mind that it didn't. They're my two favourite games in the franchise, so I can't complain.

    I'm looking forward to you eventually hitting Underworld 2. I think it improves on almost every aspect, particularly when it comes to fitting into Ultima canon.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. If Underworld 2 is an improvement in almost every respect (an opinion I agre with), why isn't that game one your two favorite games? I would say Ultima V and Ultima Underworld 2 are my top two Ultimas.

    3. For whatever reason, I just enjoyed Underworld 1 more. I think it's the setting, and the initial scramble for resources that I loved. Unarmed, hunting for food and weapons in a dangerous dungeon... It was gripping. I can recognise that Underworld 2 is technically better than Underworld 1 in most respects, but it just didn't affect me as strongly as its predecessor.

    4. I had the same experience. I don't remember a lot of details, except about the early part of the game. Before you get into the dungeon, while you're exploring Lord British's castle, you meet many (possibly all) of the archetypal characters from Ultima IV and others - Iolo, Dupre, and so on. The catch is that the dialogue was so limited that I felt I was back in the mid-80's talking to cardboard characters. I'd have to say that this was actually an "uncanny valley" experience in which the game felt real enough that any deviation from realism broke the fantasy. Again, this is all from hazy memory; there might have been other issues that made me feel I was in the Ultima canon, but things didn't fit.

    5. The thing I remember most about UU2 is being completely disgusted by Lord British. That disgust had been growing since his behavior in U7P1--or maybe even all the way back to U6-- but it reached its zenith in UU2. He's a blithering idiot who hides in his bedroom throughout the entire crisis. I can't believe Richard Garriott didn't object to the characterization.

    6. Lord British is fairly consistently written as a buffoon after Ultima V. I'd like to believe that Garriott was in on the joke.

    7. I know I say this a lot but here it is again: it isn't funny to those of us who met Ultima IV at an impressionable age and took it seriously.

    8. I had a pretty similar first experience with Ultima 4, to the point where the perversion of the virtues in U5 made me physically angry. I kind of appreciate that the games don't take themselves too too seriously, though. I mean, how irritating would it be if Garriott portrayed his alter ego as all-wise and utterly infallible? There's a fine line to walk when a creator uses a self-insert character, and I feel like Garriott dealt with it well by (eventually) poking fun at himself. A bit of Humility, you might say.

    9. Very true. For one thing, Lord British is supposed to be immortal, invulnerable, extremely rich and obscenely powerful.

      The bugger also have the original Orb of Moons, Crown Jewels that can alter reality, time & space, a standing army and a retinue of councillors whom are all renowned albeit retired magi/warriors.

      If he was wise and infallible, there'd be no reason for the Avatar's presence. Which was the whole reason for U4, right? Finding a paragon of virtue because he is not?

    10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    11. This short movie is pretty decent evidence that Garriott was more than willing to be the butt of the joke.

    12. Ultima Underworld was where I first encountered Ultima. When I bought it, it was in a combined package with UU2. I also bought Ultima: Pagan at the same time.
      That means UU2 was the first time meeting Iolo and Dupre and such...

  2. The good thing here is that I love every Ultima so much that it means I'm happy no matter where a particular one falls. If it's above the earlier titles I'm happy because they've improved things, if it's slightly below I'm happy because it shows just how solid those earlier titles are. It's win-win as far as ratings go.

  3. I did a gimlet of my own a few months back when I replayed it and managed to come up with exactly the same score to you! The only category where we differ by more than a point is economy where I only gave it a 3. The barter system might be innovative, but there is nothing to barter for! Apart from Shak and maybe a couple of bits of equipment and food on level 1 and 2 there is nothing worth trading for. I set up a "treasure room" at the bandits on level 3 and kept dropping all my gold and gems there until it was starting to get ridiculous towards the end of the game. It could be simple to make a few easy sinks, have one of the mages sell runes, have the mongbats with the Crown of Maze Navigation want the equivalent of 100 gold for it off the top of my head.

    The one thing that I would give it a 10/10 is "exploration" but I'm not really sure where you capture that in your gimlet. There was always something interesting in every corner of the dungeon and you could tell how carefully crafted each level was, making exploring and discovery such a joy.

  4. "First continuous movement in a 3D RPG." - what about the overworld movement in Drakkhen though?

    1. Well, that's a good point. There was also continuous movement in the vehicle-driving parts of a couple previous games. I guess you have to add "indoor" as a qualifier. The other big difference, of course, is what you can do with in those 3-D engines.

    2. There's also a game called "Legends of Valour" that was received shortly after UU, so it must have been in development in parallel. It was pretty poorly received, but I remember playing it on the Atari ST ( with poor framerates ) and thinking "wow, the Atari has its own Ultima Underworld". How naive :)

    3. I think the one factor that lets UU stand out in comparison to those earlier titles that realised continuous movement is this: in UU, everything is done within the same engine. You never once leave the basic interface, meaning you are constantly in situ, in the dungeon. Even in Skyrim etc., once you enter the inventory or spells/powers menu, you leave the game world for a moment (the game even pauses while you eat a hundred cabbages at your leisure). In UU? You are THERE, all the time, and immersion is never broken once.

      ...except for the dream sequences and the cutscenes around freeing Ariel, but you take my meaning ;-)

    4. What does "continuous movement" in this context even mean? Not based on squares?

    5. That is exactly what it means.

      More precisely, it means that movement is not broken up into discrete chunks with a pause after each one. All previous games worked exactly that way - to go down a hallway you would take a step, stop. Take a step. Stop. Take a step. Stop. Take a step. Stop.

      A hallway in continuous movement is "walk steadily forward without stopping until you reach the door at the end, or see something that somebody dropped on the floor that you want to stop and pick up.

    6. When I was exploring early 3D games I found title called The Eidolon from 1985. Action take place in some cave or dungeon and clearly it dosen't have pure continuous movement as individual steps can be see in videos I've watched, it also shows that you can turn less than 90 degrees. And when character is moving and turning it feels almost fluent! In 1985! Sadly not a RPG :⁠-⁠)

    7. There's Star Cruiser, which came out some 5 years before this. Probably isn't as well known because it was originally released in Japan and the purposed English version on the Genesis fell through, though there is a fan translation.

  5. I feel the score is a bit low, at least compared to the amounts of praise you (rightfully) showered the game with. Maybe a couple of bonus points for innovation are in order?

    1. This is an excellent point. So MUCH innovation deserves to be reflected in the final score for its own sake.

    2. That's not how my scale works, unfortunately. It only rewards "innovation" when it translates to enjoyable gameplay and one of the categories.

    3. And I don't understand concerns that it's too low. It's the fourth highest rated game on my list.

    4. You do award bonus points every now and then, though.
      Anyway, I'm fine with the score, it's your call, but I would have expected to rank it a little higher, too.
      For me, that's because, even if you fire up UU today, you can quickly enjoy playing it and at the time, it was simply spectacular.
      If you fire up U5, it's less then stellar.
      You have to do quite some digging to find (appreciation for) the parts that made it spectacular in it's day. $0.02 and all.

    5. I award bonus points, but only for things that affect my enjoyment, not to reward the developers for innovation. I guess the bottom line is that I disagree that U5 underperforms UU. I had just as much fun with U5. Maybe even about 10% more.

    6. Like I wrote, I'm totally fine with that. :)

    7. I love your reviews, and even when I disagree with the actual numbers, I very much appreciate your reasoning. That reasoning is really the essence of the GIMLET, I think. Whether UU gets 63 or 56 or 70 in the end doesn't really matter to me.

      I do find it interesting that immersion seems to play a minor part, though. To me at least, Ultima 5 and Pool are highly abstract games, and it takes a conscious effort on my part to transport myself into the game world. Ultima 6 is much less abstract to me and offers much more immersion (there's just so much more little things you can do, the interface allowing more interaction and the graphics being more 'realistic' whatever that means).

      But UU takes immersion to a whole new level, one which no other game of the period attained and which even today few games manage to achieve IMO.

    8. Agreed, Paul. Though I do get the feeling that immersion is not really universally valued, considering that almost all games that heavily emphasize this factor (Thief, System Shock, Deus Ex etc.) are in a niche, sales-wise.

    9. The thing about innovation is that the game (or app or device or whatnot) that does it FIRST often doesn't do it WELL, and that most recognition goes to the game that does it SECOND and polishes it.

      In terms of playability, it is entirely fair to point out that UU's innovative trading is a worse economy than U5's classic gold; or that UU's story and quest are a kludgy afterthought whereas U5's fit the series well; or that UU simply has less variety in monsters than U5 does.

    10. And I thought Zelda fans were bad for Jim Sterling's score, it's 99% for gods sake.

  6. I've played it through as a mage and spent most of the game avoiding direct conflict. As you say, the only essential combat is the Chaos Knight, and I managed to defeat him by luring him to the puzzle room nearby (the puzzle of the bullfrog?) then trapping him when he followed me into a deep pit of my making, that i escaped with Leap. I then picked him off at my leisure with my weak magic arrows.

    As you say, the tactics offered by the integrated interface are amazing!

    1. In addition to the chaos knight the golem holding the shield and Tyball would be mandatory I would have thought.

    2. No kills = no XP = no leveling

    3. There are other ways to earn experience in the game, but I didn't really get a handle on all of them. You definitely earn some just by descending levels. I would often arrive on a new dungeon level and get awarded a new experience level. I have no idea how many levels you could possibly achieve though without killing.

      Mikrakov is right about the other essential combats. I don't know what I was thinking. But the golem, at least, could be defeated by throwing spells or missile objects at him from off the platform.

    4. This is one of the few reasons why this game is not on the top of your list: you don't enjoy this game as much as you did Ultima IV-VI. In all those Ultimas, you actually spent some time off-beaten path to do many things; e.g. gypsies, and even thinking about the shape of Britannia. Here you just breezed through, not exploring what else you can or cannot do in game.

  7. Have you tried using Armageddon AFTER pulling the Slasher into the void? I'm guessing it destroys the moongate out so that you can't finish, but it would be amusing if you could actually nuke him without hurting anyone else and then just go home.

    1. Very "Deus Ex" way of thinking :⁠-⁠) And since I completed UU recently and had a save right at the end I have test it. And the developers anticipatrd something like that and no magic can be use in the Void! Every spell that I tried to cast failed, also potions and wands didn't work!

  8. I feel like that one guy who gives a negative review which leaves everyone else scratching their heads:

    I found the movement and inventory management both to be quite lumbering, and I found the automap slow to bring up and it's facing ambiguous (I get turned around easily in 1st person games and have to continually lean on maps).

    The jumping puzzles aggravated me, and combat, economy and character development were weak.

    The most tantalising aspect of the story to me - the breakdonwn of Cabirus's vision - was never really explored and attempting to fulfil it would have made for an interesting backdrop to the demon quest. As it was interaction between factions were limited.

    I respect the game for what it achieved but it's only a curio when compared to modern titles.

    1. I suppose it's the difference between coming to this game from the past versus coming to it from the future.

    2. You measure a game against what it set out to achieve, and its peers at the time. Measuring it against an imaginary standard of perfection is going to lead to disappointment. This works in other walks of life, too.

    3. If you want to measure a game that way, feel free. I measure games foremost by how much I like playing them.

    4. Criticisms of my approach to rating are certainly valid, but I've been doing it this way for 300 games, and I'm not going to change it now.

      Besides, what if it "sets out to achieve" something stupid? Or vile?

      Despite the dangers of measuring things against a perfect ideal, I was not in any way disappointed in this game. I simply recognize that, as good as it was at the time, it's still not perfect.

    5. Which games the addict plays aren't more or less only curio when compared to modern titles/expectations, though?

      I think it's a matter of taste, for the most part. I just wrote in another comment that I'd have expected the game to rate even higher, but I'm mostly here for the reading (and very rarely playing) along and don't obsess over the scoring or reasoning behind it.

    6. My understanding is that one of the reasons Chet began this blog was to demonstrate that old games are still worthwhile on their own merits - that it's not just nostalgia. This is why the Gimlet doesn't award points for games being ahead of their time. The idea is that you'll have a means to compare quality across generations.

      I don't often play old games that I'd never played when they were contemporary - Of the games I tried for the first time thanks to this blog, QFG1 was the only one that really grabbed me, and I think it's still got a lot to offer modern gamers.

    7. For one thing, no game will ever be perfect. There's always room for improvement. Doubly so with advancement in technology.

    8. I do get your angle - for me though, replaying UU a couple of years back was still fine for the most part, the things that bothered me most were the visuals. Heh.
      As Chester outlined, a few things in UU aren't quite standard in many modern RPGs made today, there's something to be said about that.

      Also, I agree with your point about old games and their own merits, but it's just a fact of life that most people wouldn't play games that didn't offer at least a certain amount of ... user-friendlieness?

      Personally, I'd think it reasonable if there was a seperate rating area for "test of time" where a score was awarded how worthwile playing a game was to a modern gamer with modern expectations. For the record, I feel the best score in this area up to the point where the blog is at would have to go to Dungeon Master, which is still pretty well playable a friggin thirty years after the fact.

      On the other hand, different gamers likely have different expectations - some folks might come to terms with a top-down Ultima like game with stick figures without issue, whilst others would dismiss it for esthetics alone. So I'm fine with whatever metrics the Addict sees fit.

    9. I think we just have to take the GIMLET for what it is: a measure of how well a CRPG does the things that Chester likes a CRPG to do. I mean, he has a whole category for Economy, who else would do that? It's an idiosyncratic beast, and there are going to be games (like Dungeon Master) that don't rate as well as people would like. For the most part, I think the ratings hold up pretty well: it's hard to argue with the games that are near the top of the list, however much you might want to quibble about their exact order.

    10. I've replayed both Underworlds repeatedly over the years. Nostalgia may have played a part in getting me to pick those games up time and again – but to actually keep me playing, the game itself needs to provide an enjoyable experience (challenge, accessibility, rewards etc.) beyond just feeling in my late teens/early twenties again. The Underworlds do that for me. I know that the interface, graphics etc. have not "aged well", but they don't put up an obstacle that detracts from my enjoyment whatsoever. So I guess that to me at least the Underworlds score just fine in that hypothetical "test of time" category!

    11. "I mean, he has a whole category for Economy, who else would do that?" When I designed the GIMLET, it never occurred to me that this category would be so controversial. There must be at least SOME other players like me, or I wouldn't have gotten a pair of guests posts on why the Gold Box economy sucks, but are most other players truly indifferent to the part of an RPG where you earn and spend money?

    12. I think most players regard economy as an aspect of a more general resource management system. And even then, there are players who like tight resource management, and those who hate it.

    13. We have one gimlet category for each of the three major avenues of character progression: XP, loot, and stores.

    14. I think Economy makes sense as a category. One issue though is that the rare game designed without an economy will score lower (0) than a game with a bad economy (1-2), and I think you could argue that the latter is actually worse. This could apply to other categories too, as sometimes a good game just doesn't need every common aspect.

      I think the weakest part of the GIMLET is the "Magic" in "Magic And Combat" since it's genre-biased. The quality of the magic system, when present, should just be represented in how it works in the other categories.

      But in practice, it all works out.

    15. I've gradually grown to accept "economy" category as one of our gracious host's charming quirks - even if it's still utterly baffling to me. Yes, most RPGs involve buying and selling things, and yes, it's better for that aspect to be well balanced instead of not, but to care about it so deeply that one adds it as a permanent component of the score - and thus imposes a heavy penalty on the games that lack it - that I cannot fathom. I don't comprehend caring about selling many Swords of Crappiness to buy one Sword of Pretty Decent I Guess on that level. To me, that's just something that happens during the game, not something that I'm specifically there to enjoy.

      What would I compare it to? It's like having "dragons" as a category. Majority of RPGs will have a dragon or several, and obviously it's better to have cool dragons rather than lame ones, but caring about them so much that I'd assign a permanent score to them - well, that would be nonsensical, unfair almost. That would be assigning undue importance to a trifling side detail.

      Ultimately though, I'm not the one writing the blog so I don't get to make the rules. But it's a bit weird to me, and has always been.

    16. I guess the overarching problem with economy in it's own category is that if there was a game that scored 8 in economy and 2 in Combat, and another game with those scores reversed, the vast majority of players would pick the latter (e.g. Gold Box, DM). Not all categories are equal but they score equal. It generally doesn't affect too many ratings significantly, it's just a quirk of the rating that readers have to accept.

    17. Just to correct something: "I think the weakest part of the GIMLET is the 'Magic' in 'Magic And Combat' since it's genre-biased."

      When I rate a non-fantasy game, I only consider this a "combat" category. Non-fantasy RPGs aren't punished for having no magic.

    18. That's sort of what I meant by "it all works out". But if it was my rating system -- and it isn't -- I would have just called it "Combat" which is expansive enough. "Magic" is conspicuous among the rest of the category language as being of a specific sub-genre of RPGs.

      Also, magic isn't solely part of combat anyway. It can influence lots of other categories too, and play little or no role in combat.

      Anyway, my point was to defend Economy. I think it's overlooked because it's so often done poorly. (What category scores lowest on average?) But when it's done right and you are dealing with tough trade-offs and prioritizing various goals, then it's a lot of fun.

    19. Personally, I can't think of very many single-player RPGs that had a particularly good economy.

      MMOs? There's several that do it fairly well. Sandboxes in the vein of the Elite or X games? It is there.

      In single-player RPGs, the handful that go beyond "here is a store, go kill monsters to get money so you can buy things. As you go further into the world, you'll find better stores" tend to be worse (in my opinion, of course) because either the simulation is too bare-bones (with highly visible cracks), or because it never manages to interact with the rest of the game very well.

    20. "are most other players truly indifferent to the part of an RPG where you earn and spend money"

      I like having a good economy, but a bad economy would be hard pressed to ruin an RPG, whereas some of the other categories that's not the case. Take this game for example, sure the economy is lousy but once you realize that and just start leaving stuff on the floor it doesn't really affect you in any negative way.

    21. "When I rate a non-fantasy game, I only consider this a "combat" category. Non-fantasy RPGs aren't punished for having no magic."

      But then there is a danger that fantasy games would be punished for having magic. E.g. let's say a fantasy game gets 4 for combat and 3 for magic - that adds up to 7. Now a sci-fi game with the same quality combat but no magic would, due to a doubled scale, get an 8. Effectively, having no magic system would score higher than having a magic system that is worse than combat system (i.e. not even necessarily bad per se).

    22. To me economy in CRPGs is an extension of equipment and the loot system. I'm one of those fools who have a bad tendency to hoard limited use items. At the end of the game I've hardly used them.

      If you can grind gold in the game, I am more likely to engage with the economy. If you can't, I'm very hesitant to ever buy or use anything. Extremely foolish, but it's a tough habit to break. I rarely replay anything, but I've found that replaying something also enables me to engage with the economy better, because I can make the decisions over the totality of the game.

      I think my particular compulsive behaviour isn't common, but I have encountered others who have similar tendencies, and for fools like us economy is of limited importance.

    23. I have this compulsion to hoard items too, fwiw. Plus a compulsion to clear areas of items that have any value. An inventory limit makes this even harder to manage. I've been playing the first Geneforge, where I sold so much stuff that most of the vendors have run out of money, so I've been having to make item stashes on the floor because I can neither sell nor carry it all (encumbrance limit by weight). Kind of like UU, in fact.

    24. I'd guess it's a common problem, at least I do the same thing.

      At the end of the game it looks irrational, but each step of the way, unless you are truly stuck, it's rational to save limited use items for a possibly more difficult problem in the future.

      I'm not sure it can be fixed, and it might just be bad game design to include too much of this stuff. I guess it does have some value as an in-game safety net to prevent a player from getting stuck.

      One option might be to have expiration times for these type of items, which would setup a use-them-or-lose-them dynamic and get them actually used during the game.

    25. Although a few years ago I might have agreed with y'all, but after having read about so many rpgs, and had a lot of time to think about it, I think that including economy as part of the rating system is pretty insightful. It's a lot more than a system for buying and selling things. Imagine a pinnacle of rpgs... Morrowind? Now remove the economy. Obviously it's a different game, but think about why. You're removing a huge amount of freedom to modify your character, to prepare for combat, to learn about the game world, to feel like you're in a living society, to roleplay. It's kind of an invisible element, but when you don't include it, or design it poorly, it seriously limits the game's role-playing potential.

    26. Well, you're depicting a binary economy/no economy system, of course having no economy can be harmful to a gaming experience ... at least in a way.
      However, the rating seems to be based on how tight money is in the long run or, put differently, how many money sinks there are.
      Chester gave the goldbox games a ton of flak for having a very bad economy, as you could amass insane amounts of money as early as Pool of Radiance, and there wasn't much to do with it, there's no denying that.
      But would PoR really be a considerably better game if it let you invest in one of the shops to get reliable access to higher level magic items or purchase a house in Phlan which you could in time turn into a palace with guards and servants and stuff?

    27. I never realized how much a bad economy affected gameplay for me before this blog, but having either too much or not enough money all the time always bugged me. And on top of that I was a bad item hoarder u til recently when I've been forcing myself to use them and enjoying some games more because of it. I think it makes sense as part of the Gimlet, at least to some people.

    28. I think the Economy category makes sense.

      I do wonder if anything's ever going to score terribly high on it, because all the games I can think of that actually do "you collect money to spend on useful things, and over the course of the game you have more and can buy more powerful things, but you never have so much that you can just buy whatever you want" really well are console JPRGs.

    29. It is of course not about the quantity of money sinks. It is about a purpose to get these treasures in the first place. About the use of mundane "rewards" for combat, exploration etc., which only are rewards if there is something to be done with it that makes you feel actually rewarded - even if often it turns out to be just the ability to get more rewards easier. And of course about the quality of the mechanism which implements it.

    30. Hello, I have discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and was happily lurking through your wonderful posts! Born in ‚77, I can fondly remember many of those games from my youth, but as it seems many commenters, I’m a non native speakers and therefore had difficulties enjoying many early crpgs due to lack of English proficiency. I remember starting with Bard‘s Tale and Ultima V, butit was much later when I also could understand subtle hints that I truly started to njoy these games.

      In come the Gold Box games and UU. Both very enjoyable but both left me wandering with too much monies. So yeah, I also do enjoy the economic aspect of crpgs.

      Maybe it’s better to call it resource management? I don’t think it’s actually necessary to have money and shops to have a good economy. The Savage Empire is a special favorite of mine due to its setting, but the near lack of economy is very much substituted by the hunt for guns, ammo and other things that the nativs don’t have.

      This might serve as an example of what makes economy in a crpg for me enjoyable: one or more resources which are rare and whic/ I only do get access through grinding, exploration and dialogues.

      Anyway. Thanks for posting and I am looking forward to the Ultima VII-parts, Darklands (which I never played due to the poor reviews it got in magazines of my home country), UU2, Fallout and Planescape!

  9. I always though (without thinking much about it) that picking, breaking, casting and using a key were standard options for doors in RPGs. Maybe because Wizardry 7+ and Realms of Arkania had them, and those were the RPGs I knew best.

    Terra Nova was a fun game. A bit like Wing Commander with Mechs. Better than Wing Commander, really, as you were able to use the terrain.

  10. The ash pile/debris bug is also present in UW2: Grab a potion of healing, throw it repeatedly against the wall, pick up the debris and use your brand new debris of healing as often as you want.

  11. Glad you liked it. It's one of the few RPGs that I felt I ought to play before reading your thorough appraisals, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it held up. A lot of its systems are either futureproof, or became so integral to the blueprint of this type of continuous movement 3D dungeon crawler that they still persist in modern interpretations like Skyrim.

    I had no idea Arx Fatalis was meant to be UU3, but in retrospect its rune magic system was a dead giveaway. I'll have to revisit it one of these days. Arkane's been on quite a tear over the past few years so I'd be curious to see if any seeds of Dishonored or Prey were apparent that far back.

    1. Prey is more System Shock than it's Ultima Underworld. System Shock is sort of Ultima Underworld in space, but it has its own aesthetic too. "The place is deserted and only the journals of the dead are left to tell why" is a very System Shock thing. UU, not so much.

    2. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic was also meant in some ways as a spiritual successor to the UUs and other games in Spector's 'Immersive Sim' lineage, at least that's the way it was hyped on the Looking Glass fan forums. Oddly, it has nothing to do with the classic Might and Magics, being in a completely different universe.

    3. I completed Arx Fatalis about 7-8 years ago... it was fine, but to me at least not a great game. The balance was way off, the story made no sense to me, some sections (dwarf mines) I felt were downright unfair, some puzzles didn't do it for me, the game was nonlinear except it was linear... all in all, an OK game but a much much more jumbled, all-over-the-place experience than the Underworlds with their clear sense of tone, place, and identity.

  12. "First RPG with a realistic dungeon ecosystem"

    To expand on that a little: many (most?) other RPGs have levels or areas that are artificially filled to the brim with monsters, and the player goes through and kills every last entity that moves. This is the case in pure Dungeon Crawler games like Dungeon Master, but also in modern games like Baldur's Gate (in some of its areas). In contrast, UW has levels that are populated with plausible distributions of civilized, neutral and hostile creatures, and you never have to do something like a "monster genocide".

    "Because of the multiple approaches it offers, I have an almost insurmountable desire to replay the game as a mage"

    Why resist it? We'd enjoy a couple more posts on UW. If not now, maybe at the end of 1992's games, or before UW2? You could argue that some RPGs need to be played through with multiple different characters to be properly evaluated. :)

    "I'd have to take a nonlinear approach to exploration, avoiding combats I can't win, re-assessing my capabilities with each new rune."

    That sounds great, but a mage can probably win every combat too, if he retreats, sleeps to regenerate mana, and returns. It makes sense to play with an additional constraint: to only sleep once per level, which seems like a normal rate judging from my current playthrough with a druid (mage/fighter) character, or sleep only once for every two levels (which might be a bit harsh).

    "3. NPCs. Fantastic. I love the importance of dialogue, the dialogue options, the fun use of classic "monsters" as NPCs."

    I agree, and I want to point out that the player never encounters a hub with dozens of NPCs with unique dialogue for each, and that's a good thing in my opinion. When entering a city in Ultima or Baldur's Gate, for example, I find it quite time-consuming and sometimes tiresome, despite the interesting dialogue, to go through them all.

    UW is now one more real-time game in your "Highest Rated So Far" list aside from the RPG/Adventure hybrid Quest for Glory.

    I'm grateful for your coverage, as it led me to "rediscover" this fantastic game. As Mikrakov said above, the sense of exploration is absolutely superb.

    1. Very thoughtful additions. Thank you. I particularly agree with your first paragraph and now I wish I'd spent more time discussing that aspect of gameplay.

    2. I think that's really what sets this game apart (in my mind, quite positively, but that's a matter of taste) from previous CRPGS: It's the successful continuation of the 'dungeon simulation' concept introduced in a very basic form by Dungeon Master. The added detail and realism out by way of more complex, natural room architecture and general layout, varied dungeon denizens etc. really go a long way to make you feel like you're in a somewhat plausible environment and not just something a DM made up to throw at you. And the way that there are multiple approaches to many problems are a first step towards what is now called an 'immersive sim', which is of course fleshed out by Looking Glass later.

    3. You're the first person I've ran across to point out hubs in CRPGs as tiresome – you're so right! I feel exactly the same way, but could never put my finger on it why some sections in CRPGs felt more like chores than fun. It's just too much same-same gameplay-wise, too much dialogue, too many shops etc. I am playing Pillars of Eternity for the first time right now, and like it quite a bit, but since reaching Defiance Bay yesterday, I feel like I've hit a bit of a roadblock in my enjoyment of the game.

    4. I generally find hubs tiresome second and subsequent times that I play a game, not necessarily the first time, because the first time I don't know how long they'll be or exactly what they'll throw at me.

      In subsequent plays, I have a sense of how frequently I'll be returning to the hub and thus can cut down on the boredom by engaging in a little more role-playing. In real life, if you visited a city on a mission, you wouldn't knock on every door and talk to every resident. There's no reason to do the same the first time you show up in Whiterun.

  13. "It might be equally fun to try a stealth game: hardly fighting anyone, trying to sneak in and out of areas, reaching the endgame at a low level."

    How does stealth work in this game anyways? It seems that a system where some monsters detect the player by sound and some by vision was either implemented or at least planned. I haven't found any info online where players really exploit this system. The question is, is it because the game is much easier with other approaches, or is it not really possible at all?

    From the manual: "Sneak (DX) The ability to move quietly. This skill automatically reduces the noise you make, making it less likely that creatures will notice you."

    From the Ultima Codex Wiki: "Stealth skill: useless. The need for light makes the skill useless anyway, as light makes the enemy aware at once."

    But what is not considered here is that there's the Night Vision spell, which enables the player to see without a light source.

    Description of the Stealth spell: "Many monsters of Britannia's dungeons rely heavily on their sense of hearing, owing to the lack of light in their environments. The Stealth spell allows an adventurer to move with magical silence, which lessens the chances of such creatures detecting them, although it is of little use against foes who depend on other means of detecting their prey."

    Description of the Conceal spell: "Conceal obscures a caster's form and makes them difficult to detect visually, although it does not render them invisible. Such magical obfuscation may make it easier for a mage to evade creatures strongly reliant on their sense of sight, although it does little to protect against foes who track their prey through sound."

    So from those descriptions it seems that a combination of the Night Vision, Stealth and Conceal spells and not using a light source should enable the player to move past hostile creatures without being detected. I wonder if walking or running makes a difference too? (Of course, you can simply run past most enemies anyway, so you need a roleplaying approach for this to make sense.) I'll experiment a bit and report back.

    1. Please do! I'm wildly curious now.

    2. Quick note. I'm an editor on the wiki, and there are a lot of opinions and errors there. Uncertain what the skill does.

    3. Not a particularly useful post this, but I am 90% sure I remember reading (ether online or in my long lost UU2 hintbook) that monsters do have at least two different detection values in inherent for sight and hearing.

    4. In tests with a hostile ghoul, a hostile bandit, a Lurker and a Headless, I think I found a slight difference in their behaviour, but even that is not clear. When using the spells Stealth and Conceal, and using Night Vision instead of a light source, the first three of these enemies spotted and tracked me just fine. The Lurker might have spotted me a bit later than normal, and the bandit seemed to lose track of me a bit more easily (not that it makes a practical difference, given the fact that the player can easily outrun any enemy), but it's not a clear difference.

      I noticed that a Headless easily loses track of the player regardless of active spells or light source, which fits the Headless' description in the "Memoirs of Cabirus" (part of the game materials): "Having no visible eyes or ears, it has long been a mystery how the Headless find and pursue their prey. It is a simple matter to avoid a pack of these beasts by exercising silence and keeping a prudent distance."

      The following monsters also have descriptions about their sensory capabilities. Fire Elementals: "As they can kill a man in only a few blows, it is often prudent to avoid their attention by passing quietly and at a distance (Elementals are said to be nearly blind)."

      The Earth Golem: "Knight Galloway claims that he once escaped from such a Golem by entering a maze of passageways — he thinks these beasts track their foes by eyesight, and are probably hard of hearing."

      The Metal Golem: "Knight Galloway concluded that Metal Golems were practically blind, but his recent death at their hands has put this theory into disrepute."

      When I encounter these, I'll try again (I'm currently on the fifth dungeon level). There's also the Seventh Circle spell "Invisibility" which should make more of a difference. Also, I used my normal Druid character for these tests, who has nearly no training in the stealth skill (skill value of 3), but I would assume that the Stealth spell should make a clear difference by itself. Another problem is that the spells don't last long; Stealth lasts about two minutes, and Conceal less than one minute.

      Going by this rudimentary examination, I'm skeptical that there is a reasonable way to eke out a cool stealth playstyle, except maybe in rare situations such as when encountering the aforementioned monsters in the lower dungeon levels.

    5. "Not that it makes a practical difference, given the fact that the player can easily outrun any enemy." That might be the bottom line here. What's the point of stealth when you can just run into a room, grab what you need, and run away before the enemy has much of a chance to react?

    6. I can tell that info about fire elementals is just pure lie. I can't count how many times on lvl7 they killed me with fireballs when I was floating at the celing and they were at the bottom of the chasm. Maybe it has to do something with how game engine calculate heighs but for me that river of fire was just some sniper ally :⁠-⁠)

  14. I'm hard-pressed to think of a game from even the last 10 years that takes as realistic (and yet still challenging) an approach as Ultima Underworld, where you can pick it, smash it (including with spells), cast an "Open" spell on it, or find the key.

    Well, NetHack, but that's a favorable point of comparison indeed!

  15. Reading this review makes me loof forward to your take on Arx Fatalis, since it´s an underworld sucessor with it´s own settign instea dof ultima´s

  16. SSI's 'Dungeon Hack' lets you send the automap to your printer, but I'm not sure what the physical output looked like. The manual says the printer must support the 'IBM' character set, but that was probably like demanding Notepad support ASCII.

    And I'm always ready for more Quest for Glory...but the third game isn't the strongest of the series, though it was originally not meant to be anyway.

    The end-game credits are pretty funny though.

    1. I share your assessment of QfG3, though for some reason it's my second favourite of the series. It's just got a very casual, relaxing feel to it (in a positive sense). The shortness and lack of challenge is regrettable, but I'm sure it will serve as a fun little detour from more 'serious' titles to the Addict.

  17. I think it's a stretch to say Ultima Underworld is any meaningful influence on Half-Life, which is more clearly based in the lineage of Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake.

    That aside, as always, thank you for the wonderful blog.

    1. It is hard to imagine, but Ultima Underworld predates Wolfenstein 3D by several months. I would not be surprised if W3D incorporated play-testing lessons from UU in its final release...

    2. That's extremely unlikely. By the time ID could have got their hands in UU, they would have been in late-stage level design and bugfixing. The designs are so fundamentally different that they wouldn't have had much to learn from one another to begin with

    3. A quick google shows a few sources claiming that John Carmack was inspired to make a faster renderer, that would ultimately become Wolf3d, after seeing a tech demo for Ultima Underworld.

    4. From Wikipedia: "Id Software's use of texture mapping in Catacomb 3-D, a precursor to Wolfenstein 3D, was influenced by Ultima Underworld.[27] Conflicting accounts exist regarding the extent of this influence, however.[58] In the book Masters of Doom, author David Kushner asserts that the concept was discussed only briefly during a 1991 telephone conversation between Paul Neurath and John Romero.[59] However, Doug Church has said that John Carmack saw the game's summer 1990 software convention demo, and recalled a comment from Carmack that he could write a faster texture mapper. Paul Neurath has recounted the incident similarly, with both Carmack and Romero present.[20][58]"

      So chase the references for the full story.

    5. In many ways however, UU's engine is more similar to Doom (1993) than Wolfenstein anyway.

      Wolf3d was a flat environment without dynamic lighting.

      Doom added dynamic lighting and a very basic "altitude" idea where floor and ceiling tiles could be placed such that you have the appearance of height, but in reality you could never have an overpass or a bridge because it's still mapped as flat.

      I don't believe it was until Quake (1996) when we had a fully-realized 3d space with liquids, bridges, etc. That is quite a ways after UU. (Other games had those earlier of course. I'm thinking of the Carmack engines here.)

      Someone with a better memory or idea of the history of those games can correct me. It's been forever since I edited WAD files to design Doom levels...

  18. I played this game for the first time a few years ago, and while it took me three separate attempts to get the hang of the controls (and the graphics), once it clicked I really became immersed in the setting. I was really looking forward to your playthrough of this game, and now I await the next Ultima title.
    In his Let's Play, Kikoskia explains that he thinks Ultima Underworld essentially takes place in an alternate universe of sorts, explaining some of the inconsistencies with other titles.

    1. I suppose it solves some of the issue, but it's a deeply lazy explanation.

  19. One interesting aspect of this game is this whole virtual reality thing, which I think was the real ambition of this game. In the early 90's realism was still very much a goal in itself. The FPS genre was spawned as a side product.

    Since then we've reached almost the exact opposite, with most games featuring very abstract, almost board game like mechanics. I think that peaked in 2012 or so and I'm waiting for realism and deep interaction with the game world to get fashionable again.

  20. Not to stir up more trouble, but a reader pointed out in an e-mail that my categories only added up to 62, not 63. He was right; I had mis-typed some of the scores into the spreadsheet. Doesn't change the raking, though. There are still only 5 games to top 60.

  21. A commenter wrote by e-mail and said that I never noted that you gain experience just by exploring. I didn't have a good handle on that, so I quickly ran through Level 1 again. Here's what I got:

    2 for picking up first sack and lighting torch
    1 for opening switch on wall
    1 for picking up another sack
    1 for picking up the backpack with the rune bag
    1 for finding the chamber of the Ankh
    1 for speaking my first mantra
    5 for killing a slug
    3 for killing a rotworm
    6 for killig a different slug
    1 for walking down a ramp into some water
    15 for killing a goblin
    1 for picking up my first pile of gold coins
    2 for crossing a bridge
    1 for I don't know--I was just standing there getting hit by sling stones
    21 for killing a different goblin
    (Leveled up here)
    17 for killing a skeleton
    1 for going through a door
    1 for going down some stairs
    1 for speaking to my first NPC - a gray goblin
    1 for speaking with a different goblin and getting directions to the green goblins
    2 for killing another slug
    1 for picking up a piece of meat
    1 (!) for defeating a giant spider
    1 for penetrating further into the spiders' lair
    36 for defeating the wolf spider
    (Leveled up)
    4 points for killing another giant spider
    1 for finding a box with a couple of runes
    3 for killing another slug
    1 for finding the green goblins' settlement
    13 for killing a hostile goblin
    (Leveled up)
    13 for killin another hostile goblin
    4 for killing a giant rat
    12 for killing another giant rat (different color)
    4 for killing a third giant rat
    16 for killing a mongbat
    (Leveled up)
    3 for killing a giant spider
    2 for killing a giant rat
    2 for killing a rotwormd
    2 for killing a giant rat
    25 for killing a lurker
    25 for killing another lurker
    4 for going down stairs to Level 2

    It was interesting what I DIDN'T get points for, including most of the NPC dialogues (none from any of the humans or finding their lair), including the goblin kings, none for my first barter, getting the rotworm stew recipe, or solving the jumping puzzle to get to Korianous's grave.

    Thus, while the game does reward you for simple exploration, I think you'd be hard-pressed to level-up based on it.

    So you do get some points just for walking into various areas and

    1. Thanks a lot. That was very interesting.

    2. Those XP values look as if there is a huge variance in them - at least the combat XP.

  22. A worthy addition to the top 5. I would have wanted UU to climb a bit higher, but I can't argue with any of the Gimlet breakdown. It will be interesting to see where Ultima 7 ends up. For a long time U7 was my favourite, but over time I've lost a lot of appreciation for it. It's too silly, too linear and the character development and combat are quite weak.

    In fact my prediction is that Ultima 7 will not surpass Ultima 5 or Ultima 6. Perhaps a tie with Pools of Radiance.

    At some point I really liked Serpent Isle as well, and replaying it several years back was a harsh splash of reality over nostalgia. It is so obviously rushed, but the concepts were incredibly fascinating when I was a teenager.

    I am very much looking forwards to QfG 3. I know it has some serious weaknesses, but I've enjoyed the game immensely both times I've played it.

  23. Related to the Economy category discussion above, I was curious what GIMLET categories scored the lowest on average. Economy is 4th lowest after NPCs, Quests, and Character Development. The first two aren't that surprising since so many early games neglected them entirely. But I am surprised it slightly outperformed Character Development.

    It will be interesting to see how these change as newer games get added.

    Gameplay: 3.48
    Encounters: 3.21
    Gameworld: 3.18
    Equipment: 3.11
    Graphics: 2.96
    Combat: 2.95
    Economy: 2.87
    Characters: 2.81
    Quests: 2.68
    NPCs: 2.25

    1. Character development ranks lowest just because it had the furthest to grow. We've got games today in which you can customize your character down to the jawline, invent just about any backstory for him or her, and during the course of the game choose a variety of skills, attributes, and role-playing options such that no two players out of millions end the game with the same basic person. In contrast, you could create some excellent tactical combat scenarios as early as the first commercial RPGs.

      It makes sense to me that "gameplay" averages highest. So much in that category is about pacing and difficulty, and even non-RPGs can do a good job there.

  24. I played this back in the day and felt that it was as comsistent with Ultima lore as virtually any other title. You are the Avatar, it takes place in the Stygian Abyss, there’s virtues, open world, detailed characters and dialogue, a story about a social experiment. If i didn’t know about its developent history as a non-Ultima I never would’ve suspected. It was way better than UU2 which was a very ham-fisted attempt to directly make it an Ultima. In that one you are in LB’s castle and all the usual characters show up and you face off against the Guardian. UU1 was much more interesting with you re-visiting the Abyss and not only trying to figure out how to escape but also to figure out what happened that turned this planned utopia into the dystopia that it came to be.

  25. I just found your site recently and look forward to reading a bunch of it.

    Ultima Underworld is hands down one of my favorite games ever. I hate that the modern gaming market just seems to not have games like it. Exploring a dungeon like this that it's own little world. Yes I have tried Elder Scrolls and don't like them. Sorry I could feel someone typing the response already.

    Anyways I'm glad that you enjoyed the game I love how much it holds up. One thing I wanted to bring up for when you reach Ultima Underworld 2. Jumping. So you mentioned the keyboard method but there is actually a second method for jumping I find easier. Click both mouse buttons at once or while moving forward with the mouse click the right button and you will jump.

    Meaning you can just be walking along and click the right mouse button when you want to jump. Just wanted to mention it hoping to make the next game a little better.

    Also in the talk in the comments of a speed run it is mentioned using the ashes of a wand. this is close to how that works but not quite. If you take a potion or a scroll and reduce them to debris with fireball or something it becomes magical debris with infinite uses. it is so very useful if you want to just mess around a bit.

  26. Yesterday I finally got to the end. I did not play at the time, though I felt it is still enjoyable today, even if the combat is not totally pleasurable. Nevertheless, I agree with the plot issues: it was great to unravel the eco-system present in the Abyss, but the fall of the utopia is put behind in favor of a new threat out of nothing, the Slasher of Veils. Level 8 was so massive, but totally out of "plot content", that I did not cared seeing through it all, just wanted get to the endgame. I had more fun with Might and Magic 3 that I just finished before, even without a central plot, it was a non-linear colorful delight.

  27. We'll be returning to the Stygian Abyss soon, as Underworld Ascendant now has a 15 Nov, 2018 release date.

  28. So I got some time and decided to play through as a full Mage, putting points only into Casting, Mana, Lore, and some other non-combat skills. I also prioritized Intelligence during character creation (26) and had a relatively low Strength score (17). It was more fun than I thought it would be.

    Here's some things I noted;
    Despite my low strength I had very few inventory problems, and went through most of the game in leather armor. Near the end I ditched the armor.

    Magic Arrow is basically useless, but Lightning Bolt and Fireball were quite potent. The problem was getting the runes for those, as Magic Arrow stopped being enough to survive with around level 3. Lightning Bolt also has a small area of effect, which most guides fail to note it seems. One more thing; damage seemed hugely variable -- sometimes an enemy that would fall in a single Fireball was able to survive two or three. This was very annoying, as my Mana even at max only allowed for about 4 or 5 castings before I had to rest.

    Freeze Time is insanely overpowered -- it lasts a long time! Unfortunately as a Mage I was unable to kill enemies through melee even with time frozen, and Fireballs just hung in the air (which I stupidly walked into once). The other great spell was invisibility, which was a godsend against Fire Elementals since they were immune to Fireballs and killing a single one them with Lightning Bolts would deplete all my mana. They were still able to detect me occasionally, I guess I was too noisy.

    For most of the endgame I used a combination of Fly and Invisibility to survive.

    Flame Wind is an amazing spell, even killing groups of Trolls in a single cast sometimes. Unfortunately aiming it is incredibly finicky so I didn't use it much, but clearing entire rooms of Goblins on Level 7 with it was immensely satisfying.

    Speaking of Level 7; it wasn't so bad if you use to medallion to avoid most combats. Tyball was a tough fight without magic, but I had enough wands to kill him.

    Most of the buff spells weren't very useful to me. As a mage they don't help enough, and as a fighter they're unnecessary. Confusion seemed to do nothing, and neither did Ally. So Fireball, Fly, Invisibility, and Create Food were the vast majority of my castings. I kept a lantern for most of the game because Daylight costs a lot of Mana. Wizard Eye showed a cool isometric view of the dungeon, kind of like Daggerfall's maps, but scrolled unusably quickly.

    I ended the game on day 95(!), which is a hell of a lot more time than Gideon took. But because that was primarily from resting my actual game time wasn't much longer than a standard playthrough. It was very fun clearing rooms methodically and then retreating to safety, and I really did "feel" like a mage should, squishy but with a bag of tricks for every situation. I even decided to visit each level with a civilization and wipe them out. Reloading afterward of course.

    All in all I had a lot of fun and will be doing the same with UU2, which I understand is more mage friendly. If anyone has any spell questions I'll answer them, I set a save aside just for testing effects out.

  29. As feared, the pseudo reboot 'Underworld Ascendant' is a steaming mess. I hope no one is holding their breath for System Shock 3.

    1. I have 100% lost faith on anything that starts on Kickstarter. Too many developers are appealing to players' rosy memories of past games and those same players are forking over twice as much as they'd pay, and waiting twice as long, for a traditionally-published game.

      I thought Kickstarter was a good idea when I first heard about it. Now my attitude is, convince a reputable publisher that you know what you're doing or GTFO. I'm not trusting any more games that raise their development capital from an undiscriminating mob.

    2. It's almost always a bit of a dice roll. I haven't been stung but I've only backed developers that I knew, and who were working within the scope of previous projects of theirs. Even doing that you're still taking a bit of a punt in order to pay ~half price for a game on release.

      Of course, I've picked up plenty of titles the regular way that did get their original funding on KS, but that's totally different.

  30. The 1997 Playstation version of UU, which was only released in Japan, has recently received a fan-made English translation patch.

    It has some notable differences to the DOS version (description taken from the PSX Data Center):

    "- All the creatures and NPCs are now polygon models. Everything else, from the surroundings to the items, is still the original graphics, only slightly blurred.
    - The game is fullscreen, with only some indicators visible. The inventory is in a separate screen, which makes it less readily accessible.
    - The intro and endgame were completely redone. They also have more dialogue.
    - Numerous character portraits were changed to give them a more anime-like look. [I'm sure that will motivate Chet to play it when he gets to 1997... .]
    - All of the music was remixed. Most of it has a slight resemblance to the original music.
    - The PSX-port has many sound effects, while the original had no digital sound effects (apart from the voice acting)."


I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) This also includes user names that link to advertising.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters. I will delete comments containing profanity on a case-by-case basis.

3. NO ANONYMOUS COMMENTS. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. If you don't want to log in to Google to comment, either a) choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank, or b) sign your anonymous comment with a preferred user name in the text of the comment itself.

4. I appreciate if you use ROT13 for explicit spoilers for the current game and upcoming games. Please at least mention "ROT13" in the comment so we don't get a lot of replies saying "what is that gibberish?"

5. Comments on my blog are not a place for slurs against any race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or mental or physical disability. I will delete these on a case-by-case basis depending on my interpretation of what constitutes a "slur."

Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

I read all comments, no matter how old the entry. So do many of my subscribers. Reader comments on "old" games continue to supplement our understanding of them. As such, all comment threads on this blog are live and active unless I specifically turn them off. There is no such thing as "necro-posting" on this blog, and thus no need to use that term.

I will delete any comments that simply point out typos. If you want to use the commenting system to alert me to them, great, I appreciate it, but there's no reason to leave such comments preserved for posterity.

I'm sorry for any difficulty commenting. I turn moderation on and off and "word verification" on and off frequently depending on the volume of spam I'm receiving. I only use either when spam gets out of control, so I appreciate your patience with both moderation tools.