The best video games ever?

Part one: Ultima Underworld I & 2

Photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash

Brooding, dark and utterly compelling, The Ultima Underworld games came along at a point where PC gaming was just starting to become something more than a hobby enjoyed by spotty teenage boys. Following the success of systems like the Atari ST, the Sega Master system and Nintendo’s NES, kids were realising that Dads word processer could do way more than just letters and spreadsheets. Obviously, PC games were nothing new, but the real home of gaming up until that point had been with purpose built games machines, and down the road at the town’s arcade, with the PC gaming scene just a small side project for a handful of nerdy developers. One of those nerds, Richard Garriott had been making a long running series of games dating back to 1980’s Akalabeth, which featured a god like hero called the Avatar. This grew into the Ultima Franchise, which eventually spawned 11 full titles (culminating in 1999s abysmal Ultima IX: Ascension) and several non-canonical spin offs, and today we are going to be examining two of those spin offs.

Developed by Blue Sky Productions/Looking glass Technologies in 1992 with the sequel coming out a year later, and based on the successful Origin published series Ultima (later accepted into the Ultima canon by the series original creator with some hasty retrospective historical tweaks), The Underworlds were a game changer in more ways than one. It is a commonly held (but mistaken) belief that Wolfenstein 3D was the first true 3D video game to make it onto the market, but Underworld 1 got there nearly a year before and with a considerably more complex engine. However, it was difficult to run, even on state of the art machines, so didn’t really take off until the technology caught it up. By that point, Wolfenstein had burst onto the scene and Underworld remained forever in its shadow, a victim of its own complexity. In its original floppy disk format, it was only available for IBM PC (later coming out on a couple of other platforms), and boasted advanced 256 colour graphics, 3D rendering, animated cut scenes, 16 bit original sound track, and a classic good versus evil storyline. Consistently voted as one of the top RPGs of all time, it now takes its place as one of the pinnacles of the Ultima series, themselves amongst the highest points of the whole genre. Sure, it required stacks of spare hard drive capacity and an unusually high amount of EMS memory to run, but if you had the means, boy was it worthwhile. I will discuss both games as a whole, as although they have distinct stories, the basic mechanics and gameplay are the same. I will refer to them as UW1 and UW2 when discussing specific differences hereafter.

Your player character is The Avatar, an ordinary citizen of planet Earth, called by magical means to the fantasy realm of Britannia and chosen to be the living embodiment of the eight virtues, a moral code which guides the land and its people. A brief cinematic introduction sets the scene as you arrive, before its on to the title screen where you can chose to start a new game, continue a saved game or view the game credits. Character creation is nice and easy, with a few variables such as choice of male/female player character, a selection of character portraits and then a choice of various character classes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, with a couple of bonus skill boosts dependent on your class. Your three basic attributes are strength, dexterity and intelligence, and the starting levels for all three are determined by your class and will impact on your maximum health and mana (magic reserves) at the ceiling level of 13. There are two difficulty settings available, standard and easy, with standard making enemies harder to hit and with more health. After that, a name for the Avatar and then its straight into it and you awaken at the starting point.

UW1 takes place in a multi levelled dungeon, and you are sent in there to rescue the beautiful daughter of a baron, and as a consequence set off a chain of events that leads to a showdown battle with the Slasher of Veils, a powerful demon about to be set loose on the world. On your way, you will meet many other denizens of the ‘Stygian Abyss’, which is also the subtitle of the first game. Not all of them are friendly, so you will have to make careful alliances to help you on your way, and build up your skills to assist you as you travel deeper into the darkness. UW2 takes place many in-game years later (although time moves differently between earth and Britannia), and you arrive as a guest at a grand party in a castle to celebrate the reconstruction of the land after a great cataclysm which took place in the intervening years. As events transpire, you and the rest of the revellers become trapped by your arch enemy, a being known only as the Guardian, who proceeds to set a series of traps and tasks for you as you magically travel through a ‘Labyrinth of Worlds’ (this games subtitle) in a bid to free yourself and your companions from the deadly confines in your own plane of reality before its too late.

The two games protagonists are very different. The Slasher of Veils is a one off villain, a being of pure evil summoned into this reality by a misguided wizard who is bound by the lands innate virtue, but will gain enough strength over time to escape his bonds and destroy the world. A very one dimensional character, it cannot be physically defeated and in the end all you accomplish is returning it to its own reality and sealing the path back to Britannia up for ever. The Guardian is a long running baddie, and features in five Ultima titles altogether. The living embodiment of the opposite of the eight virtues, he is the ying to your characters yang and has a multi-faceted story arc. He does not seek to destroy, merely to corrupt and dominate, a bit like the devil. As he is literally all the negative aspects of your player character, he cannot die unless you die, so while he can be vanquished, he cannot be killed unless you make the ultimate sacrifice. The Guardian is supremely powerful, as he is always as strong as the demigod player character, but lacks any of the limitations of the good virtues, because for you, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

The user interface is relatively straightforward. It features a more or less central viewing pane which makes up about one third of the overall screen area, and is where all the action takes place. To the left there is a sidebar with various world interaction tabs, allowing you to choose whether to examine objects at a distance, pick up or use items, or talk to NPCs or creatures. Of course there is also a combat tab which activates your chosen weapon. The final tab opens up in game options such as save/load games and graphics and sound options. To the right of the viewing pane is your character sprite and storage panel. This is where you keep any of the things you acquire throughout your progress, and the character sprite is where you equip items such as armour, weapons and other hand held items like lamps and rings. Elsewhere on the screen you will find a health and mana indicator, a weapon swing strength indicator, an enemy health level indicator, a slot for your current spell and a directional compass. Its all very well laid out and intuitive and the relatively small viewing area doesn’t detract from the immersion at all, and its size was a consequence of the available hardware at the time. Needless to say, it doesn’t scale well on modern machines.

Gameplay is mostly linear and event driven, with very few side quests available across either title, although NPCs will often give out small tasks that are supplementary to the main quest and not dependant on it. There are a few mini games/puzzles like UW1s puzzle of the bullfrog, and UW2s map quest in the Tomb of Praecor Loth, but these are exceptions, and almost everything you end up doing is either driven by the main quest or as an effort to develop your character. Both games are split into levels, and for the most part the next level will be progressively harder to traverse than the last. There is no point in the game where a level may be considered complete, and you will often find yourself having to revisit previous levels more than once. NPCs will not respawn once defeated, so depending on your playing style the game world may start to become an empty place as you progress. There are several scripted events in both games which will be set in motion once you reach a certain point in the main quest, but you do have some choice in how you deal with them. Character interaction is through dialogue box, with a choice of scripted questions and responses depending on which NPC you are talking to, so there is some freedom with conversations, with different responses leading to different options the longer the conversation goes on. This will often lead to new information, rumours or a secret being revealed, so talking to each NPC more than once is highly recommended. There will often be an option to trade items at the end of a character interaction, which can be a good source of provisions or weaponry early on in the game, but becomes less important as the game develops.

Combat is simple, with a variety of weapons available to suit different styles, each with their own skill to use them effectively. The longer the game goes on, better quality weapons appear as loot and unique weapons are always available in the same place. The ability to repair damaged or broken weaponry either yourself or by paying a smith was a novel idea in UW1, and was carried over into UW2 and was copied a great deal by many games that followed. The magic system in game is governed by three things. Firstly, the cost of the spell in mana (magical stamina), the ‘circle’ or level of spell you are trying to cast, and thirdly, the actual casting mechanism, which is via 24 individual rune stones, each corresponding to a word of power. There are multiple examples of most runes and they are scattered throughout the dungeon, with the more powerful ones being much rarer and harder to find. Each spell is made up of two or three runes, with a fixed mana cost, depending on its ‘circle’ with first circle spells being the most basic costing the least, and eighth circle spells costing the most. The ability to cast a spell is dependent on your character level (level 1 can only cast level 1 and so on), whether you have enough mana to cast it, and your own casting skill. Casting skill is just the percentage chance that your cast will be successful, although even at maximum 30 points, there is still a 10% chance the casting will fail and injure your character. All spells are known to the character when the game starts, and are provided as part of the game box when purchased. Interestingly, this runic magic was only used in the Underworld games, which makes them unique in the Ultima series which used a different system. There are also various single use magical scrolls to be found all around the abyss which can come in handy.

Character development is simple and effective in these games. Your character has a range of skills available, each with a corresponding level of proficiency denoted by a number between 0 (no ability) and 30 (maximum mastery). Skills have three subsets which are combat, magic and other, and experience points are gained from each in game action (like killing a creature or finding a secret) which add up to give you skill points which can then be spent on upgrading a particular skill. Your character has a maximum possible level of 13, with each level gained from reaching a specific number of experience points and after that no further skill points will be awarded. As you ‘level up’ the corresponding number of points awarded increases (at levels 10 or above you will gain 15-20 skill points per level). This stops you developing your character too quickly and keeps a good level of difficulty as you progress. Not all skills are useful all the time, and 90% of players will mostly max out their attack, defence, chosen weapon, mana and casting ability to make a powerful but one dimensional character. But this is a role playing game, so the committed gamer will look to utilise as many skills as possible to build a well-rounded player character, which makes for a much more rewarding play through. The way in which skill points are utilised differs between the two games. UW1 has by far the most satisfying process. Once you have accrued some skill points, you can ‘pray’ at a shrine by reciting a mantra, which will confer a boost to a specific skill. The mantras are hidden all around the dungeon, and some are not accessible until very deep into the game, so this is one way in which careful exploration is rewarded, and it does take some time to find them all. UW2 dispensed with this process, and instead training for specific skills is by NPCs either in the castle itself of from a select few individuals on other worlds.

Technically, these games were very advanced and a big jump compared to what had gone before. They spawned the 3D genre, enabling a host of RPGs, shoot em ups, flight sims and adventure games to be made and become the dominant platform of first person computer gaming for many years to come. The 3D engine was ground breaking, limited only by the commercially available hardware of the time. Full digitised sound and music was also used, with some short pieces of digitised speech limited to the introductory scenes and subsequent cut scenes, but none the less impressive for the time. Full environmental rendering (including several unique textures for floors, walls and ceilings are available at the highest detail settings and feature varying terrain types such as stone, water, ice, earth and even brass, with immersion in the water even depleting your health – unless you chose to build your swimming skills up! The games feature a map which auto updates itself as you explore new areas and can be added to from other scraps of info you find on your adventuring, and can also be annotated by the player and is accessed by the click of a mouse key. Another innovation this game brought was a 100% mouse user interface, meaning that for every in game task (except for one or two specific instances where you need to type), the character was wholly controllable with the mouse. You could however still use the keyboard interface if you wanted to and most people come up with a hybridised controller set up that suits them. In most of the technical aspects, UW1 was surpassed by its sequel, although I prefer the slightly more cartoony graphic style of UW1 to the smoother and more detailed attempt of UW2, but there were very few differences beyond the superficial given the time allowed, with both games coming as they did less than 18 months apart. For each game, the music is limited to seven or eight unique pieces, but all are original and of high quality and in total there is about 30 minutes of soundtrack for both titles. Although it all sounds very artificial and electronic, it complements the often claustrophobic and perilous atmosphere of the games, and is best enjoyed in SoundBlaster pro configuration.

One thing I love about classic games is the sense of ownership. In this modern digital age, you just download the program and that’s it, you don’t even get a disc any more. Not so in the old days when games could need 5 or 6 floppy disks to install and run them. Developers went to town on the box art, and Ultima’s covers were always exciting and vivid. The packages themselves would contain Lore books, guides, maps, figurines and a whole host of other things. I often trawl eBay for good second hand or unused original copies of these games just so I can get the whole experience with them, and I now have a rather large collection of retro games. Getting Dos based games to run on 32 or 64 bit systems has become a bit of an art form, often requiring bespoke emulators, but the ultima series of games is well served, and I can highly recommend both the freeware titles Exult and DosBox.

Its hard to criticise these games as in my mind they are iconic, and for their time were simply astonishing. Looking back to them now, you can see flaws, but taken in context they don’t really matter, and provided you can get a 1992 game to run (I use a freeware program called DosBox its still very playable. I suppose a lot of the same criticisms can be levelled at any game, the main one being that once you have played it through, you know where all the secrets are, but I can honestly say that it doesn’t really matter here, its more akin to reminiscing old times than going through the motions, and It took years of playing this for me to find every single little secret out, so there are plenty of surprises to be had. You can always have another go at it from a different angle, try something new with your character. There are some very simple in game exploits which can spoil it and most people found by accident. Magical items like scrolls and potions are generally single use, but using a crafty trick, you can physically degrade the item so it becomes a ‘piece of debris’ which just happens to have infinite uses of its original attribute. Handy to have, but takes away some of the jeopardy. There are also shortcuts which once known make the game winnable in less than an hour, but its your choice if you want to use them. All in all, I’m not sure there is anything wrong with the games per se, its more akin to blaming the player for their own shortcomings if they chose to cheat.

If you dont trust me, then how about the opinion of some other internet random?

Overall, I would give this pair of games a magnificent 9.5/10. There really is very little to dislike about them, and a lot to recommend them. A very small team of developers brought this ground breaking game to market in a short space of time, and that was probably their biggest mistake, as most computers simply couldn’t handle it. It was pure luck that my mum had just bought the latest state of the art PC and it could just about run it, and I had never seen anything like it. A cult classic from the vaults.

© Columba Palumbus 2022