The original 1981 Apple II version of Richard Garriott‘s Ultima was the first version of Ultima ever released. It was published by California Pacific Computer and is a stripped-down version of the more widespread re-release version put out by Origin Systems in 1986 (which can be seen here).
The idea is to explore the world of Sosaria on a mission to find and destroy The Gem of Immortality, which is being used by the evil wizard Mondain. You play as “The Stranger“, who has been summoned from another world to defeat Mondain.
You explore the Sosarian overworld in a mixture of turn-based and real-time adventuring, delving into dungeons, fighting monsters and trying to stay alive. You have Hit Points (HP), which indicate your health; food (which you must eat to survive); Experience Points (EXP), which you acquire by killing monsters; and gold, which you need to buy food, weapons, armour, spells, and transport.
The game is very similar to Akalabeth: World of Doom, released in 1979, which is considered a precursor to the Ultima series. The overworld part of the game is more detailed than Akalabeth, though, with tile-based graphics representing different terrain from an overhead perspective. The dungeon-crawling part of the game, though, is almost identical to that seen in Akalabeth, and is represented as a first-person viewpoint with basic line-drawn graphics.
You begin the game by creating a character and saving it to a player disk, and must occasionally swap between this and the game disks as you play. Movement of your character is achieved via the cursor keys, and the keyboard is used to issue other commands, like: ‘a’ for attack, and ‘e’ to enter a town or dungeon, et cetera. For a full list of Ultima keyboard commands look at the bottom of this article.
Equipping weapons and armour is clunky, but is done by pressing ‘r’, then the first letter of the item you want to use. You don’t start the game with a weapon readied, so you need to make sure you do that before entering combat (otherwise you’ll default to using your fists). The same for armour. You’ll need to buy some with your starter gold, then equip it using the ‘ready’ command.
If you die in combat (by having your HP depleted) you’ll be resurrected, but you’ll lose any weapons and gold that you were carrying. So it makes sense to invest whatever gold you’ve acquired into extra sets of armour – especially when you start to encounter Gelatinous Cubes which can destroy your armour with one hit.
Dungeons have multiple levels and the monsters get more dangerous as you descend downwards. It’s very easy to get lost inside a dungeon, so it’s probably worth mapping your progress (or not venturing very far to begin with). There are invisible doors (that you can search for to reveal them) and invisible pit traps too, which will drop you down a level if you fall into them. This can be particularly annoying, and escaping from a dungeon can be very difficult if you lose your bearings. If you do enter – then manage to escape from a dungeon – you’ll have a proportion of your HP replenished – based on the number of monsters you’ve killed. Which is worth remembering as it’s the best way of healing (that I could find – at least during the early part of the game). You can also buy hit points from a King at any castle.
I did read that levelling-up is achieved by acquiring one thousand EXP per level, but I don’t think that’s correct in this first version of the game, because it didn’t correspond to what I saw in my playthrough. Levelling-up happens silently, with no fanfare or on-screen messaging, so you have to look at your stats to see that you’ve actually gone up a level.
Real progress is made by buying transportation, which can include a horse, a cart, a raft, a frigate, and later on even a floating car and a space shuttle. Using vehicles will lower your food consumption when moving, and in the case of the latter will even take you into space. If you die while using transportation, though, you’ll lose it, so it’s worth exiting a vehicle (or a horse) before entering a dungeon.
While this first release of Ultima is historically very important, and is still somewhat playable (when you get used to the many keyboard commands), it’s probably not the version to play – if you want to try the very first Ultima. I’d probably go for the 1986 re-release as it’s better-looking and much less frustrating to play. That said: this first version of Ultima is a really old school way of playing CRPGs and may be too archaic for some people. There’s still value to had playing it, though, which demonstrates just how far ahead it was of anything else at the 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