A long time ago on a very different internet I used to play a little MMO called Ultima Online. Even to this day, sometimes my friends and I often laugh about what a strange anomaly that game was. I never played the original Ultima games, but always meant to. GoG.com fortunately has Ultima 1-8 currently for sale for DRM-free download. I always heard that 8 really sucked, so I decided to go download the first seven and go through them one at a time in order.
Luckily, Ultima 1-3 and 4-6 are sold in packs. All seven games cost me roughly fifteen dollars which is pretty good. Quite honestly, I cannot recommend GoG.com more highly. The site is a fantastic place to pick up some old games and reconnect with former loves, and discover some real classics that may have slipped under your radar over the years.
Ultima 1, henceforth to be called just Ultima, was made in 1980. As you can imagine the game is more than a little primitive. Since this was a game I had never played before, it was a little extra difficult to get into the swing of things. When you go back and replay an old game that you were familiar with, that familiarity helps to readjust to it’s interface or lack of current expectations.
The thing that I forgot when jumping into Ultima was the fact that the game was made in 1980. It’s older than I am by one year. I started playing games with the Nintendo Entertainment System, which was more advanced. Ultima was made by one guy, Richard Garriott. The character models and monsters are just barely above stick figures. Even to me the game feels ancient, like it was the kind of computer RPGs people played in the Great Depression. To someone who only knows RPGs by Skyrim, the game would just be pre-historical. It was comical the way I stumbled around it in the beginning, trying to figure out how to talk to NPCs before realizing I couldn’t. ‘Right, 1980,’ I thought to myself.
Once I got into the right mindset, kicking my own expectations away, I started seeing the game for what it was on its own terms. As repetitive as it could be, Ultima turned out to be pretty damn fun. It also turned out to be pretty damn insane. The game starts with you as a penniless adventurer in a strange, fantasy land. Before you know it, you’re in space having dog fights with Imperial Tie Fighters. I am not kidding. But it all fits in together with the main plot. You see you need to earn the rank of Space Ace so that when you rescue the princess from a castle, she’ll tell you where the time machine is. Makes perfect sense.
The game was made well before certain conventions made their way into the RPG genre. Conventions that raising your level via experiance points will raise your hit points and stats. Not so in Ultima 1. Stats are raised by visiting special locations and doing quests for the various kings. Hit points are earned when you come out of a dungeon. The more and higher level monsters you kill, the higher your hit points raise when you exit the dungeon. As you can imagine, almost all of Ultima 1 is grinding and farming. By the time you use the time machine, you’re equipped with either a phazor or a blaster rifle. In a medieval-fantasy game. That has space battles with Imperial Tie Fighters, but sadly no Death Star to destroy.
When you exit the time machine(and yes, there is a Time Lord in the later games), you find yourself in the big bad’s lair. The villain of the game is Mondain, an evil wizard doing something evil that you have to stop. You kill the wizard and you win the game. When you finish the game, you have saved the princess, gone questing, bought a ship, explored dungeons, found phazors and vacuum suits, initiated a space program in medieval Britain, gone to space, battled Imperial Tie Fighters, become a space ace, rescue the princess again, steal the TARDIS, go back in time, kill the shit out of an evil wizard and destroy his magic gem that makes him immortal. No wonder the people of Britain made you the central figure of their new religion.
When you read that list, you can’t help but think that is one fucking epic game. It really is an epic game with incredible scope that was made in 1980. Holy shit. Conceptually this game destroys almost anything in the AAA market. Could you imagine playing through this set of goals in a current generation game? Hell, there is no developer in the East or West that is crazy enough to attempt it. It’s everything the geek heart loves thrown into one game.
Ultima 1 is a game whose primitive graphics and design might put off a lot of players. If you let yourself get sucked into it, it offers a fun experience over all. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in going back to the roots of not just the RPG genre, but PC gaming as well. Regardless if you enjoy the game or not, Ultima 1 demands to be respected.
I rate Ultima 1 as highly recommended.