Long before Warriors of Light and the Hero Erdrick, there was the Avatar and his quest to defeat the evil wizard Mondain. That’s right—we’re talking the birth of RPGs as we know them today. Many of the tried-and-true conventions found in modern RPGs can easily be traced back to Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness.
Read on as Pop GO inducts Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness into The Hall of Games.
Ultima originally saw release in June of 1981 on the Apple II. The game was developed by California Pacific Computer Company. After that company went bankrupt, it was picked up by Origin Systems, who would later go on to create Wing Commander and System Shock. The game’s creation was led by Richard Garriot, who is better known as Lord British. Garriot created roughly nineteen subsequent releases in the Ultima franchise, which also includes the still running Ultima Online.
The game was based on much of the code and concepts that Garriot had used in his first game, Akalabeth: World of Doom, which borrowed heavily from Dungeons and Dragons. The core concepts that both games presented was a top-down world, overhead world, dungeon crawling and random encounters which are now staples of the RPG genre. While many titles that emulated this set up retain the overhead view in all locations, Ultima instead used a first-person perspective within dungeons. The use of this perspective helped popularize the First Person Shooter genre and was used in many other RPGs, such as Eye of The Beholder and Shin Megami Tensei.
Players took the role of a nameless character, who would go on to be referred to as the Avatar in subsequent releases. The class, race and gender of the character is completely up to the player, with the stats being randomly generated. Players can choose to play as a Human, Elf, Dwarf or Bobbit (a halfling race, and obvious nod to Tolkien, which is also where Akalabth derived its name). Each race has its own specialized stats, which is something common in games today. After choosing a race, the player is then able to choose a class: Fighter, Cleric, Wizard and Thief. These four classes have been a staple in RPGs, with almost every game to date using at least three of them.
The world of Sosaria is comprised of four different continents, each of which hold two castles. Within these castles, players are tasked by the ruling Lord to go on one of two quests: traveling to a location on the map or venturing into a dungeon to defeat a specific monster. While not as advanced as quests found in RPGs today, the influence can easily be seen. Towns allow players to purchase equipment, spells and food. Without food players would starve, and luckily it wasn’t something that many RPGs share in common with Ultima. While HP and MP are a standard of RPGs today, Ultima only featured HP. In modern RPGs, HP can be increased by leveling up. However, in Ultima, HP was only granted after completing dungeons successfully of by paying tribute to the Lords of Sosaria.
Dungeon crawling serves as the majority of the game with players adventuring through several dungeons to face the monsters there or to search out treasure. The dungeons, while all having the same relative appearance, were all randomly generated. This key factor would prove very popular and helped create successful game series like Diablo. The rest of the game was primarily spent on the over world map traveling from castles and towns alike, taking quests from the Lords in hopes of attaining special items that would progress the game.
The monsters were heavily based upon Dungeons & Dragons and other Fantasy media at the time. Many of the monsters, such a Giant Rats, have become Tropes of the RPG genre and are featured in roughly every title in some form or another. Combat was purely based on stats, with each side taking turns at attacking until one was victorious. Spells could be used, but they were one use items, so players would need to stock pile them o save them for stronger battles. While battles on the overworld map happened via random encounters, which is now a staple, battles in dungeons were a less random affair with the monsters appearing in front of the player in real time. Players could choose to face the monster or retreat from them, but once the battle had started it would be to the death.
While much of the game falls into the realm of cliche, by today’s standards, it also featured some elements that don’t exactly fit. The first element is time travel, and not by way of magic. The Avatar is tasked with finding a Time Machine so that he can travel back in time to defeat the evil wizard before he comes into power. But before that can happen, he must purchase a Space Shuttle and do battle in space with Tie-Fighter like enemies. Yes, you read that right: space battle. The inclusion of this comes from Garriot’s love of Space, as well as him wanting to fill up the remaining space on the diskette.