This first game in Richard Garriott‘s Ultima series was initially released for the Apple II in 1981 by California Pacific Computer and was originally called just “Ultima“. It was later re-named as “Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness” when it was re-made and re-released by Origin Systems in 1986. This 1986 re-code features improved graphics and gameplay, with a number of significant changes made to bring the game up-to-date with market conditions in the mid 1980s, and that is the version I’m featuring here. If you want to see the original 1981 version (and an explanation of how to play the game), click here.
The first change I noticed in this version was that the character class of “Hobbit” has been changed to “Bobbit“, which should come as no surprise if you consider the legal implications of Garriott‘s original nod to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings. He realised that it just wasn’t worth the risk… Character creation has been re-vamped, adding a gender choice to the equation and making it easier to generate and save a new character to disk.
Other changes and enhancements include: towns – when you enter them – are now all different (in the original Apple II version the towns all looked the same, which was confusing); the game plays faster and movement response is much better; time no longer automatically passes if you do nothing – you need to press a key to pass time (which is a blessed relief); the screen refresh in dungeons is much faster and it now tells you on-screen what dungeon level you’re on and in which direction you’re facing (both useful); the layout of the various dungeons have been improved and there are fewer invisible pits to fall into (another blessed relief); the first-person viewpoint when standing inside a doorway is now more obvious, making it easier to navigate inside dungeons; gold has been re-named as “coin”; the game features better use of colour and graphics are chunkier and better; and you even start the game with a weapon and some armour equipped, which was not the case in the original.
On the downside: thieves are now much more light-fingered and will steal from you repeatedly (which is a pain in the arse, frankly), and combat in the overworld is more difficult and you get harassed by hidden archers and monsters more often. On balance, though, the pluses far outweigh the minuses when comparing this newer version to the original.
Overall, though, Ultima I on the Apple II still plays really well, considering its age, and is arguably one of the best games ever made for the system. It’s a groundbreaking RPG that set the standard for everything that came afterwards. And if presented with a choice between playing this version or the original I’d choose this version every time.
Ultima keyboard commands:
a = Attack = Attack a monster
b = Board = Mount a horse or board a ship or vehicle
c = Cast = Cast a readied spell
d = Drop = Drop gold, weapons, or armour in a castle or city
e = Enter = Enter a town, castle, dungeon, or landmark
f = Fire = Fire a vehicle’s weapon
g = Get = Pick up Mondain’s gem or an item from a king (with permission)
h = Hyper Jump = Travel to next system in the direction you’re facing in space
i = Inform & Search = Tells you where you are on playfield; looks for secret doors in dungeons; performs a sector scan in space
k = Climb = Climb up or down ladders in dungeons
l = Lag Time = Sets the amount of time the game waits after a monster’s attack (default is 3)
o = Open = Open a coffin in a dungeon
q = Quit = Save game (doesn’t actually quit)
r = Ready = Equip weapon, armour, or spell
s = Steal = Steal from shops or castles
t = Transact = Buy from merchants or speak to a King
u = Unlock = Open a cell in a castle (requires a key) or a chest in a dungeon
v = View = Switch between top view and front view in spacecraft
x = Exit = Dismount from horse; disembark from vehicle
z = Stats = Look at your statistics and inventory
Spacebar = Pass time