Sunday, 24 March 2013

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (MS-DOS) - Guest Post

Good news everyone, guest poster Faust has appeared to recite to us the legend of his journeys through the land of Bobbits, Gelatinous Cubes and EGA graphics in Ultima I, the semi-sequel to Akalabeth!

HAIL SAG READERS! It’s the period of the year where I get an arbitrary two week break from work thanks to an event of religious significance, ergo I’ve elected to enter the fray here at SAG and play a game that’s been eating up space on my shelf for a while: the original Ultima!

As I load the game up, the text informs me that this is a masterpiece by ‘Lord British’, and I’m treated to a picture of a castle:

The home of Lord British I presume? I vaguely remember this guy as he’s the alterego of the brain behind the series. I also think he went into space at some point, but I might be making that up. Either way: THE CASTLE BECKONS!

Ultima is a really long running series, beginning a couple of years before I was born. As the THIRTIES TRAIN fast approaches me, this means that this game is practically ancient. I’ve never played a game in the main series and yet I’ve heard wonderous things (I’m pretty sure somebody has once told me that they enjoy the series at some point), and as I have them all purchased and ready to play, this is probably a good place to start. From what I know of the series, you play ‘The Avatar’ (I think?), some kind of messiah that is here to save the day. Sounds pretty standard.

I did used to be a huge fan of Ultima Online back in the day however – it was basically the reason why I pressured my father into getting the internet hooked up back in the days of like 5p a minute internet use. My memories of Ultima Online largely consist of Player-Killing (a heinous crime!) and spoiling the fun of people who were trying to RP, but as this game is exclusively offline, I guess I will have to find other joys.

I get a choice between creating a new character or continuing a previous game. As I’ve not played before, I guess it’s less of a knuckle-biting decision than it could be.

Wait, where do I get to be a mighty dwarf?!

Designing my character is a relatively painless process thanks to the handy text provided. However, there’s no information about what any of these stats do, so I have to think outside the box a little. As I plan to be running around with some kind of two-handed murder-device, I elect to bump strength to the maximum. A bit of agility and stamina in there, to ensure that I can achieve aforementioned goal, then a bump for Charisma to reflect my affability. Intelligence and Wisdom can go jump in a lake however; I don’t really see how they’ll help me smash things to a pulp.

I assume that there’s magic to be had in this game, so hopefully I can get some stat increases to Int and Wis if it becomes necessary. If not though… we’ll have to see..

Upon confirming my stats, the game suddenly allows me to pick race, class, and gender! Doy. I guess I better be a warrior, considering my warrior-like strength, but the other classes are your standard thief, wizard, and cleric. I blatantly pick Dwarf as my race, and name him ‘Magnus Barelegs’. Well, actually it’s ‘Magnus Bareleg’ due to character restrictions, but sure, whatever.

And with this, mighty Magnus takes his first steps! Well, after being asked to “Please wait while thy game loads”. Nice touch. Nice touch.


I’m plonked down in the middle of what appears to be grasslands? Near some trees, at any rate. There’s no exposition or story here so far, just: I am a mighty dwarf in the middle of a green-dotted wilderness. I can see a castle in the distance, so I’ll head there. (As a sidenote, I had no idea that my character would be naked from the waist down when I named him. It’s a typical dwarfy name I thought, but in this game the character literally seems to have no trousers on, given that they’re the same shade as his face!)

You can’t see it, but that brown thing is animatedly shaking its fists at me for some reason. Thank goodness for that inlet!

I hit my first problem, which is that navigating myself atop the castle doesn’t automatically enter it. In fact, I haven’t been given any commands at all thus far. Maybe this is like a text adventure and I can type enter to go in…

And voila, merely pressing ‘E’ causes me to enter the castle interior. The legend reads ‘THE CASTLE OF LORD BRITISH’ – wait, this must be the castle from the intro! Allright, now we’re really getting somewhere. Exposition, here I come!

Genderless figures in boob-tubes abound in this castle, which has certainly improved my enjoyment of the game thus far. Unfortunately, I can’t really understand why there are pools of water inside the castle. I mean fair dues in the bit I’m currently in, as that’s outside maybe, hence the green trees.

I figure that the only guy wearing a full suit of clothes must be Lord British, so I’ll head over to him. As I head over though, it’d be nice to talk to a few of the semi-naked individuals, who might give me the skinny on the sitch here in the kingdom or whatever.

Damn, stuck again. Pressing T (T for talk, makes sense surely?) I’m told ‘HE IS NOT HERE’ and that I’ve tried to “transact” with the king. I teach English as my job when I’m not laying around and wondering what I’ve done with my life, so I’m amazed that I can’t immediately figure out what the hell this is meant to mean. Am I going to do some business with the king? Why a button for this specific action? Especially one that can only be used when I’m in the same place as the king? Mysteries abound!

H for ‘Hello’ asks me if I want to HYPERJUMP, which sounds exciting. However, that doesn’t help me at the moment. ‘S’ is STEAL apparently, but there’s nothing here to steal! ‘2’ leads me to attack south with my dagger, which is pretty lucky given that the guy is North of me and I’m currently in the castle interior.

‘K’ makes the humourous “K-Limb” joke, which I assume means climb? Makes sense, given that ‘C’ is cast spell. Damn, I’m just going to give up on talking to this guy and go see Lord British instead:

That guy with his arms flailing is apparently a jester. His contribution thus far has been to constantly shout “I’VE GOT THE KEY” after every fourth action I do.

Argh, now how do I talk to him?! This is Lord British I assume, given that I’ve been informed by the game that this is Lord British’s castle. In desperation of not having a clue what else to do though, I press ‘T’ to transact with the king.

Thankfully, it works! Even though this is Lord British, apparently he’s also the King maybe? I’m pretty sure medieval hierarchy doesn’t really work this way. Colonel Gaddafi was a ruler in Libya though, and he still used the title ‘Colonel’ rather than like ‘KING-GENERAL’ or whatever, so maybe Lord British is doing the same thing. Although, I don’t understand the need for modesty from a guy who went into space (that’s been confirmed right, from my earlier ramblings?)

Loving all the faux-Renaissance chatter! Thanketh thee kinge!

The King(?) asks if I want to offer pence or service. I have no idea what pence entails, so I figure I’d select that first. He then takes some of my coin and returns it as hitpoints, which is a weird little sideline of business he’s got going on. Historically kings would sometimes offer ‘The King’s Touch’ to cure unfortunates of diseases (like SCROFULA!), but I don’t think they asked for money to do it. It’s a little mercenary. What kind of King is this then, that I’m about to offer service to?

Come to think of it, what does service even mean? Hopefully a MAGIC QUEST or somesuch!


And just like that, I’m tasked with finding ‘The Grave of the Lost Soul’. Weirdly, the King tells me not to return until I’m finished, which is a little harsh considering that I’m doing him a favour here.

Well, it wasn’t much, but at least I have some kind of purpose now. I have no clue why the King wants me to find this place, or where to begin looking, but I’ll certainly give it the old college try! I should probably stock up on weapons and stuff before I go, as I apparently only have a dagger and 190 ‘FOOD’ to my name.


In my desperation to work out how to buy something, I end up opening the statistics menu with ‘Z’.

Apparently I gained like fifteen strength due to being a dwarf, and I’m wearing some leather armour. While interesting, this hasn’t helped me with my weapon-acquiring.

Not the messiah after all…

I completely give up as no one in the castle seems able to talk to me aside from the king and the jester, and even then that’s automatic. There were two huge signs in there saying FOOD and ARMOUR, yet I’ve had to leave without either. No key on my keyboard seems to open like a BUY conversation, or even a conversation of any kind. Argh, hopefully this dagger will do me for now.

I elect to explore the mysterious flagged fort to the south.

That one guy is pretty happy to be in the pub, clearly.

AHA! Now we’re getting somewhere. Magnus has found himself in a city, with actual shops! Pressing the ‘T’ button near one of them allows me to purchase much-needed goods! The ‘T’ button, far from being the useless “Are you standing next to the King?” button is actually multi-use: good for both king transacting AND buying from shops! Hooray!

In the weapon shop my choices are a simple mace or some ‘rope & spikes’. I choose the latter as it costs more, ergo I assume will do more damage. Magnus is all about the damage, even though he hasn’t actually encountered a foe he can battle yet! I also get the chance to buy magic or food, but a mighty warrior like Magnus travels only on his instincts and battle prowess, so I decide to save my money. Besides, I couldn’t even afford to upgrade his armour currently, and that must be where my priorities are before I traverse the skeleton graveyard or whatever it is I’m meant to be doing.

The close-up on the guard in this shot makes it clear that it’s worse than I originally thought…

ARGH, as I walk passed a guy running around with his arms up who looks like the twin brother of that jester from earlier, the game informs me that he’s stolen something from me. A quick check reveals that it’s my ‘rope & spikes’, which means that I’ve wasted my money. As I sold my dagger, I should probably avoid confrontation with this guy and instead go and spend more coin on rebuying my weapon.

I chase the guy around for a while, before realising that I have no idea how to attack. Pressing ‘A’ asks “Attack with rope?”, but then the game doesn’t understand when I try to respond with ‘Y’ (for YES DEFINITELY), pressing whatever direction number or letter corresponds with the direction he’s in, or hitting space or enter. It seems this guy is invulnerable, so I decide to cut my losses and leave him to it.

There don’t seem to be any houses in this city. Where do the guards sleep?

I head north and find yet another city, called PAWS this time. I also see another yellow-jester guy, who’ll presumably steal my rope from me again. I’m feeling a little like this game is more ‘Bridges of Madison County’ than ‘Conan the Barbarian’. Admittedly I haven’t seen the former, but I think it’s about visiting bridges and taking photographs of them. In this case replace bridges with cities full of half-naked people and you have a match!

EUREKA! I come to the shocking realisation that the “Rope & Spikes’, rather than being a device for slaughter, is in fact just a rope with some spikes on it. You know, for climbing (or in this case, K-Limbing!) With this new knowledge in mind, I equip BARE HANDS instead, and punch the yellow guy to death before he can steal anything.

Sentences in ultima consist of just verbs and nouns apparently.

It turns out that he’s a bard, and I’ve just murdered an innocent. None of the boobtube guys (who I’ll refer hereafter to as ‘BTGs’) seem to mind though, so he presumably wasn’t very good at his job.

Now that that is dealt with, I go to rebuy a weapon and…

Crap! The guards swarm me immediately the second I make a move. Apparently that bard was beloved by the city after all, and now Magnus is being hunted for his heinous crime!

At this point I elect to go food shopping, so decide to leave this situation and resolve it when I return. I don’t know how to save the game (or even if that’s possible!) so I’ll just leave it turned on.

Drat. It seems that while I was out for half an hour, the guards must have killed me or something. I return to find myself outside of the city, but with fewer hit-points, less food, and NO money whatsoever. So now I’m weapon-less and coinless. Ah well, at least I worked out how to punch things to death earlier. If it wasn’t for this feat, things would be looking pretty bleak for Magnus right about now!

In fact, I deliberated giving up and ending, but I can’t let Magnus give up his quest before he’s found the skeleton graveyard, for sure. He’s not a quitter, even if I am, so the adventure continues!

There’s a real lack of clothing all round in this game.

I wander the wilderness for a while, until I come across an orc. Magnus is going through his food supply at a resounding rate, so it’d be good if this orc has some coins or orc-muffins or whatever that I can take after I beat him. He doesn’t do me too much damage, but it turns out that I forgot how to attack while I was at the supermarket, so it takes a while for me to get back into the swing.

I just noticed that Magnus has a shield, even though no such item exists in the game itself!

Once I do, I quickly punch the orc to death – Magnus is pretty handy in a bout of fisticuffs it turns out! Joy is shortlived however, as another orc turns up relatively soon.

This game actually hurts my eyes to stare at too much…

He too meets his predecessor’s fate, when some kind of sea serpent has shown up to join the party. I’m in two minds at this point, as part of me thinks I should take my 24 COIN and split and buy some food, but the other part (the Magnus-influenced part) thinks I should charge straight over and start throwing punches. It’s worked well so far!

The monster goes down, but not before almost killing Magnus. Counting the wealth after the battle yields 47 coins to spend on food and maybe a dagger or something, so I’m pretty quids in on this deal. It also turns out that this was a ‘Ness Creature’, which is odd as I think the legendary monster from cryptology is named after the fact that it is rumoured to occupy Loch Ness in Scotland. Surely that isn’t an appropriate name for this creature, given that we’re in a fantasy world?

To be fair, the king of the place seems to be called ‘Lord British’, so maybe we’re actually in Scotland or something. I’ve never been north of Blackpool, but I don’t remember hearing about the place being filled with orcs though.

Everyone is so unfriendly in this game.

Magnus finds himself in a new city, one that has a king in fact! Wait, so is this like a series of petty kingdoms, like in Irish history? I don’t really get how you can be “king” of like five guys, but I’m not about to bring that up with his majesty.

I transact the hell out of the new king, and he gives Magnus a new quest – killing a Gelatinous Cube apparently. I know of these foul creatures from my days of D&Ding; I’m pretty sure that Magnus won’t be able to punch the gelatinous beast to death as that they don’t have a solid form. Unfortunately, this place doesn’t seem to have any shops and, as usual, I’m unable to talk to anyone who isn’t a merchant. End result: Magnus has to drag his starving ass back out into the wilderness.

Back in Paws, I buy an axe for Magnus, and try to buy 100 bails (or however it comes in) of food. I’m informed “Thou canst not afford it!”, so I buy 50 instead. This solves the food problem in its immediacy, but sadly for Magnus, I don’t see any way to heal his hit-points save from transacting with a king. As this is one coin for one hit-point and as I have nine coins currently, it’s probably not currently worth my time. I must be missing something in this area, but there’s no time to ponder upon the predicament as we have a skeleton graveyard to discover!

I almost get messed up by a dragon turtle when I stray too close to the coast in my quest. Magnus nimbly avoids the fireballs, which have quite the range it turns out, and runs into the nearby cave for sanctuary!

Also pictured: another ness creature which came out of nowhere, and some kind of wizard on the other side of the mountain to me, bumping up against it in an ineffective attempt to fry me with sorcery.

The game informs me that I’ve entered the DUNGEON OF DOUBT! For some reason the game has turned into a first-person shooter style of navigation also, rather than the top-down affair we’ve been experiencing so far. Discomforted by this reality-altering change of perspective, Magnus spends a turn or two turning around in his new surroundings when…

A ranger apparently jumps out of the coffin and takes away half my remaining hitpoints. The other half are taken when I try to equip Magnus’ axe for battle, leading to…

Look at all the other artwork in this game, then at this skull. They clearly expected the player to see the skull-image a lot.

Damn. This must have been what happened last time with those guards. A skull, the legend “YOU ARE DEAD”, then “attempting resurrection” while Magnus’ hit-points and food fill back to 99. Maybe that cave was too hard for me for now.

I’m plonked down again nearby outside with all my coin taken. Such is the folly of distraction when taking part in an apparently important quest – ONWARDS TO THE SKELETON GRAVEYARD!

Loving the minimalist, monochrome dungeon designs.

Or not. It turns out that the map is pretty big, and I have no clue how to find anything. I’m trying to explore in a logical manner, but as I haven’t been making a map, and as I’ve been actually wandering around randomly rather than exploring in a logical manner as stated earlier, I’m completely lost. I enter a new cave, hoping it’s my destination. It turns out to be another first-person dungeon, called ‘Death’s awakening’.

I wander down the corridors, striding confidently as I have lots of hit-points again and a mighty axe to smash my foes to pieces, when I encounter another ranger. Magnus readies his axe and lets out a mighty roar…

Only he doesn’t do either of those things, as it turns out that dying leads to a loss of all items, as well as coin. So it’s back to trying to explode villains with mighty punches!

Crap, I was sure I took a screenshot of the ranger him/herself.

The ranger goes down after one blow, which is good as I was about to turn this the hell off rather than get stuck in the horrible cycle of:
  1. Die and lose my weapon.
  2. Kill weak enemies until I can afford a weapon.
  3. Buy a weapon.
  4. Die and lose my weapon.
His cape is made of cardboard. Also it encompasses his entire being

After being attacked by many rats, bats, and rangers, suddenly an empty cloak flies up to me and starts some trouble. It turns out to be a thief. It also turns out to be the greatest threat Magnus has faced thus far, stripping him of all but eleven hit-points by the time it goes down.

Then a second thief shows up and…

The skull again. To be fair, this would scare the hell out of me if I saw it at night.

Right. Ok. I guess Magnus’ quest has failed.

I’ve actually enjoyed parts of this experience, although as a rule I’d have skipped this game the second I couldn’t work out how to do the simplest of actions. It’s pretty unforgiving in terms of difficulty, but it doesn’t operate on lives and allows you to die as much as you like.

Ultima I seems to be open-world, with many random quests from random kings, but the hints are few and far between. As in ‘there are no hints’ as I wasn’t able to work out how to talk to anyone in the game. Maybe there’s some secret key or something, but I couldn’t find it.  I also didn’t get to use the nifty-sounding HYPERJUMP, or the klimbing (of kliffs I assume). This seems to have basically context sensitive controls, only with modern games it tends to be “PUSH A WHEN I TELL YOU” as opposed to this game, which is “Each specific action has a different button, possibly one use in the game, by the way we won’t tell you when that is”. Neither is particularly a fun way of doing things, but at least here there is the aura of DISCOVERY rather than button-mashing.

This is the game that spawned a really long-running series, as well as the origins of MMORPGS, so if you have a lot more patience than me it’s probably worth giving it a try. There are clearly a lot of dungeons and areas to explore, and I didn’t even try out the transport shops that appear in every city – I assume they take you to other islands and parts of the map. Probably worth checking out, if you can ever get yourself into a position where you aren’t losing all your money by dying so much.

Crap, I didn’t even get to level up…



  1. Very nice first post, I look forward to reading more from you.

    Two things, though:

    - why do you use ALL CAPS so much? It's slightly annoying when not justified.

    - there isn't really any element of DISCOVERY involved with the controls, you just have to read the manual. I know that goes against the site's principles, but stating that having to figure out the controls by yourself was a thing of the time is just wrong. These games didn't have tutorials, they had manuals, you can't approach them the same way you do recent games.

    All bitching aside, again, nice post, I can't play these old Ultima games myself, they're way too clunky.

  2. Thanks for the compliments!

    1) I use ALL CAPS as part of my idiolect. It's an idiosyncrasy due to the need for great emphasis that I feel bold or italics don't provide. It's a decade old personal tradition that I'm often mocked for in my circles. Sorry that this annoys you though!

    2) Yeah, reading the manual kind of isn't allowed. In addition, there are a large swathe of gamers who flat out refuse to read manuals, hence the write-up was meant to mirror their experience. Besides this, the manual for Ultima I doesn't actually contain a map of the keys anywhere within it. It's very decorative, but each section is devoted to how each part of the game works, without any reference at all to which keys to press. For example, the section about buying items lists the types of shop and how coins work, but doesn't actually tell you to press 'T', for example, anywhere. Same with spells - tons are listed and described, but it doesn't actually tell you HOW to cast them at all. Besides, like half the manual is actually devoted to descriptions of monsters who inhabit the world. So, in actuality, this is indeed a thing of the times - despite the lack of tutorial, the information on key presses isn't actually contained within the manual anywhere unfortunately. Maybe in later editions (the version I played was apparently 87 according to this - I thought it was like 81) this was changed, but in the manual I have they really aren't listed anywhere.

    Besides - this is the approach I take to most games, and have done for a long time hehe, of whatever generation! Screw manuals. Just keep pounding away at the buttons until something works out for you!

    Thanks for your comments though, it's great to hear that you enjoyed the writeup. I've avoided these games myself for a long time due to the idea that they'd be clunky also. It looks like we're both vindicated on this hehe!

  3. Oh, just had a quick look at the manual for Ultima II, and it seems like that was noticed and addressed for the second game. The buttons are explicitly described and explained on one of the first pages in that game!

  4. EGA graphics? Pthui!
    I didn't need that kind of fancy stuff back in the day when I was still only a possibility based on my parents income.

    But seriously, this seems like the re-release version of Ultima from 86, rather than the original from 81:,310104/

  5. I think it might well be indeed - my criteria for choosing the version of this game was largely based on whichever version I got from!
    - Faust


Semi-Random Game Box