I missed the Ultima boat when it first came around. My gaming diet was all action: Doom and Tie Fighter. Even years later, after understanding that an RPG’s love is different than that of a square, I couldn’t stick more then a toe or two into Ultima‘s ancient waters. I’d print out maps, manuals and spell tomes, only to stay long enough to buy the t-shirt. When I did visit Britannia, I made sure to see the well-regarded realms of Ultima VI and Ultima VII. It seemed that nothing could have convinced me to delve into the black-and-white dungeons of the Ultimas from the early 1980s. But one day, I did travel in the past, all the way to 1981, to Ultima I. Not only did I survive to tell the tale, but I also played it all in one obsessive binge.
There are a few precautions to take before playing Ultima today. First, make an all-Rush mix tape. Second, read the manual. Not only because you want to know what’s going on, but also because it’s fabulously written. The words are the skin draped over the black-and-white frame of the game. Richard Garriott’s descriptions put color and life in something that’s primitive as a stick-figure skeleton. It’s not hyperbole to say you’d be missing half of the experience if you skip the manual.
While there’s a different action mapped to every letter key, the controls are actually easy to grasp. It helps that the combat and magic system is simplistic. Your lone hero has two options: attack or cast the single offensive spell. With no mana, all spells (aside from the random “prayer” spell) are bought from stores and cast like disposable scrolls. It’s much more playable then the early Might and Magic games, which require you to look in a manual to compare gear for each of your six party members. Ultima I‘s simplicity keeps the game within the confines of its technological abilities.
Ultima I includes some pretty odd design choices. For instance, there’s no such thing as a maximum HP score. You never heal; you just add more numbers to your current HP. You can gain HP either by buying them from a king or dungeon diving. When you exit a dungeon, you regain a certain amount of HP depending on the monsters you’ve killed. If you do it right, you gain a net profit of HP. Yes, you actually grind dungeons for HP as well as XP.
Speaking of dungeons, there are dozens of them around the world, but they all function in the same way. Monsters are randomly generated based on a monster table, which is dependent upon which level you’re on. There are no unique monsters or treasure in any dungeon, leaving all of them identical except for layout. Even this can be changed with “Ladder Down” and “Ladder Up” spells, which make handy portals. Dungeon crawls of this era tend to be tedious, but those in Ultima I are eminently approachable.
Experience levels mean almost nothing. Stats are gained by visiting certain landmarks or by completing certain quests. This system is easy to exploit. Once you visit a landmark, all the others reset. Thus, all you need to do is find two fairly close to each other and bounce between the two until they both max. Then there’s “The Pillars of the Argonauts,” which give you the next best weapon for free. This can be exploited just like the landmarks until you’re toting a blaster rifle.
Yes, a blaster rifle. Soon you find yourself soaring through outer space in a shuttle, dogfighting with tie fighters. After becoming a Space Ace, you break into castle prisons to rescue a few princesses, who then tell you how to find a time machine, which you use to travel to the past and murder the evil sorcerer before he becomes immortal. Ultima never lets any sort of seriousness or gritty realism get in the way of a kick-ass adventure.
The end result is that Ultima I isn’t a hard or long game to go through if you know what you’re doing. The exploits let you bypass most of the tedious grinding, which makes the game far more fun. While not exactly as deep a role-playing experience as the other games in the series, it’s a spiffy hack-n-slash to play on a rainy day. For best effect, enjoy on a small monitor with a clacky keyboard that sticks while playing your all-Rush mix tape.