When he was 18 years old, Richard Garriott, living in his parent's home in Houston, Texas, developed the original Ultima on his Apple computer with the help of his friend Ken Arnold. Later, the black and white original, known simply as Ultima, was published by California Pacific Company in 1980 and filled one 5.25" diskette. After the publishing company ceased operations, Garriott sold the rights to Sierra, resulting in an Atari 8-bit conversion by Sigma Micro.
The PC version of Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness from Origin Systems, being reviewed here, is an update of that original game. The renovation includes updated graphics, use of assembly language, and minor changes to some character names, towns and puzzles. In addition to the PC version, converted by John Fachini, updated Ultima versions can also be found for the Apple II and Commodore 64.
Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, is a considerable improvement over Richard Garriott's previous role-playing game, Akalabeth, and showcases his designing skills. The addition of races and classes to the character-creation process adds a layer of depth that was lacking in the somewhat simplistic Akalabeth's "fighter or mage" mentality, particularly as character statistics are not randomized as they were in that release. Immediately noticeable is the full-color use of EGA on the overworld map as well as all of the towns and castles.
In terms of fluidity and gameplay, the initial structure has been left mainly intact so as not to alter the interesting elements of the original game. Gameplay, with the advent of improved graphics, shines when compared to that original version and the world seems far more accessible.
Combat is very simple and requires nothing more than the push of a button. Even so, it is nonetheless rewarding to venture forth into the land, slay dozens of evil denizens, and return to a town to stock up on supplies and maybe even buy a better weapon or piece of armor. The selection of arms and armor is quite adequate and, together with miscellaneous items such as transportation methods, magic spells, donations to the kings of the realm and so forth, will easily keep you scrambling to find more money and increase your holdings.
The game's plot is unusual for a CRPG -- a thousand years before the timeframe in which the game takes place, the evil wizard Mondain built a Gem of Immortality and has been, not surprisingly, immortal ever since. Your quest is to travel back to a time before he constructed the gem and kill him. Since time machines are not an ordinary sight in most medieval villages, it stands to reason that the game will take a strange turn at some point -- and it does.
As time passes in the game world, technology seems to advance at lightning speed. After extended play, the same small towns and castles that once sold you axes and horses now sell you laser guns and rocket ships, items that apparently exist in such abundance they can be mass produced. Once you reach the portion of the game that features space-travel, events become even stranger as you find yourself navigating a shuttle through a series of small star maps, a far more action-based activity than you might expect from the medieval world of Sosaria.
As far as the main story arc is concerned, however, in order to assemble a time machine, you need to appease each of four lords of the realm to get the required gems to finish the construction. The quests seem to always involve either finding a certain landmark or killing a certain monster but the randomness involved in the creation of dungeon monsters can make the quests difficult.
Aside from the quests, though, Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness is easy enough that it's nearly impossible to be killed after you get used to gameplay, or it is until you delve too deeply in the dungeons. There you'll find creatures have a habit of killing you quite rapidly if you are not sufficiently prepared.
The graphics are easily recognizable as well as colorful and pleasing to the eye. Technological limitations apparently hampered any upgrade of the dungeons, however, as the monochrome wire frame walls and monsters create a jarring transition from above to below ground adventuring. Sound in Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness is not terribly effective with occasional beeps and other odd noises thrown in. Although there is music, it's played through the PC Speaker and not a soundboard.
Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness combines a moderately original plot with plenty of entertaining hack and slash action. If you played the original black and white version, you may be pleasantly surprised by the enhancements in the IBM version. Though the designers might have done something to modernize the underground dungeon-crawling aspect, the game is still worth a play.
Graphics: While there are certainly better looking EGA titles available, the graphics are never particularly bad and, in fact, are often quite pleasant, particularly portions like the opening screen and the over world map.
Sound: Really not much sound to speak of, aside from a very rudimentary assortment of combat-related beeps and bleeps.
Enjoyment: The game is a thoroughly enjoyable hack and slash romp set in a world that will continue to grow bigger and more impressive as the series develops.
Replay Value: Gameplay moves rapidly enough to not seem repetitive. But, at the same time, once the adventure has been completed, there isn't really much of a reason to go through and do the same thing again.
People who downloaded Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness have also downloaded:
Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, Ultima III: Exodus, Ultima 5: Warriors of Destiny, Ultima 7: The Black Gate, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, Ultima 8: Pagan, Ultima 9: Ascension, Ultima 6: The False Prophet
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