The First Age of Darkness. The first CRPG (unless you count Akalabeth) and also the first game in the Ultima series. In this game the player is sent the world of Sosaria to aid Lord British in defeating the Evil Wizard Mondain. This game originally appeared on the Apple II but was eventually ported to the PC and others. This is the continued in Ultima II and Ultima III, which make up the Ages of Darkness, or the first Ultima trilogy.

The Birth

D&D28b eventually took on a life of its own, becoming a game that my friends began to take interest in. One day, the owner of the Computer Land store where I was working during the summer told me, "You know, you really ought to consider publishing that." Eventually, I spent $200 on Ziploc bags and photocopied cover sheets, and started publishing the game. Those were the early, early days. The motivation for Akalabeth was really just fun, not to get published. However, as soon as it became successful, I decided to build a new game from the ground up that had a user interface and a good plot. And that's what started the Ultima series. - Richard Garriott


Ultima I, is the first in the long (and still ongoing) series of Ultima role-playing games. It was originally written for the Apple II by Lord British (Aka Richard Garriott) back in 1980. In 1987 a remake of the original Ultima was made, featuring updated color EGA graphics and a new title screen. (The original version of Ultima came out in 1980, but no PC version existed at all until the 1987 remake.)

The Story

There's an actual plot to Ultima I, after a fashion. At the time the game was originally created, it was fairly original you can say this because it was one of the first games of its kind.

The Realm has fallen into a dark time. The evil wizard Mondain has used the Gem of Immortality to summon evil monsters and import otherworldly high technology to conquer the land of Sosaria. Your task as one of the many heroes running around the world is to journey the four lands of Sosaria searching for a way to destroy Mondain, who is unfortunately made invincible by the aforementioned Gem of Immortality. Along the way you'll meet kings, kill annoying Jesters, fight orcs with swords or vaporize them with phasers, and even take on Mondain's alien allies in a starfighter.

It all sounds pretty shallow at this day and time, but for 1980, this was all pretty amazing.

Playing the Game

It was not unlike Dungeons & Dragons: The player created his character from among several races - such as elves, humans, dwarves - and several classes, like the ubiquitous fighter and magic user. The reward for a well-fought battle was gold and experience points. Money and food were constant concerns.

Although the graphics are primative in today's age of polygons and textured skins, in its time Ultima was revolutionary. What else can you say about a game that combined a 2D tilebased world map (still a standard in 1997 with Diablo), a 3D vector-line dungeon system, and even a space combat simulator?

It also introduced some new concepts like this all-important rule: time doesn't stop just because you're not pressing keys. If you don't press a command key after a few seconds, the game advances to the next turn anyway. So don't leave your computer unattended while you're in a dungeon or you'll be attacked and killed while you're not even looking.

This epic battle also introduced the concept of the Moongate, one of Ultima's well known features, a sort of teleporter between places and worlds that depends on the setting of the moons and elements.

The Pros

As far as I know, the Ultima RPG series was fairly unique for its time as it featured overhead tile-based maps rather than the first-person 3D mazes which were the standard for the genre (See Bard's Tale). Since I've got a pretty bad sense of 3D navigation this is pretty good for me, plus it means I don't have to be constantly drawing maps throughout the entire game.

The combat in the game was actually pretty simple, your single character would hit the enemy, than they enemy would hit you, etc. It was very much like an action-adventure (like Zelda) only not in real time.

I liked how the game introduced a "futuristic" edge towards the end by bringing in high technology items like power armor and phasers. These items (especially the phaser) were pretty fun to use in the generic fantasy world.

Another interesting feature in the game are the various vehicles you could pick up. Some of them, like the horse, were kind of pointless and only let you travel faster to save food. Others, like the ship, would allow you to travel to new lands and also came equipped with an onboard cannon you could fire. One interesting vehicle was a hovercar you got towards the end, which let you travel pretty much anywhere on the map and which could fire lasers to boot. You could also go into space in a space shuttle, which was an interesting concept.

The Cons

Well, the space combat part seemed a bit badly implemented. It was pretty difficult to maneuver your crosshair over the enemy fighters since you could only control it with your keyboard, and even if you could catch the fighter with your crosshair you shots didn't always hit. The problem was the space fights weren't challenging because the enemy barely put up a fight, they were just annoying since the enemy was so difficult to shoot at.

This game actually have very little interactivity. The towns and castles are all only one screen big, and all the characters are little colored dots. You also couldn't "talk" to any of the characters, you could only "transact". Also, the only characters you could "transact" with were the kings and the shop merchants, who were all business without any witty dialogue. In fact the only other characters in the game with anything else to say were Iolo, the jester, and a wench, and they all only had one line each.

A little variation in the quests would have been nice. Basically, there are two kinds of quests in this game, a) find a location and b) kill a monster.

The final battle was a bit easy. At first Mondain throws some nasty spells at you, but after taking a few hits he turns into a bat and flies away, and the rest of the fight basically involving chasing him around the room while hitting him with you weapon (he doesn't even fight back). This takes a while and seems a bit anti-climatic. There is a semi-clever twist in that Mondain is immortal and if killed will keep coming back to life until his Gem of Immortality is destroyed. Most Ultimas are story-driven and also avoid the cliché of a big final showdown, however since the whole point of this particular Ultima was to kill Mondain I would have liked him to have put up more of a fight.

The Bottom Line:

The Ultima series has gained a reputation for complex story-telling, interactive game worlds, multiple side-quests, and colorful locations and characters. To be honest this game has none of these. However it is a very fun "RPG-lite" game which you should try if you're a completist like me who wants to see the entire series.

Compared to the other games in the series, Ultima I isn't particularly complicated. In fact if you know what you're doing you can finish it in a single day. This is nice if you're looking for a "quick" game to kill a few hours (kind of like those old "Laptop adventures" Lucasarts released a while back, only Ultima I is actually fun).

It is the game that started it all, the original Ultima. Not only did it eventually spawn forth the computer RPG industry we know today, but it is also inadvertantly has a part to play in the birth of the infamous console RPG market as well, as it's influence in Japan is partially responsible for the creation of the first console RPG, Dragon Quest (which in turn influenced countless successors such as the well known Final Fantasy series).

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