Retro Sample Week: Ultima I

(This is part of my a special week in which I sampled several smaller or more niche retro games from my GOG library. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

One of the side effects of GOG sales is that you feel like you’re getting an incredible deal by snapping up an entire game series — maybe $200-$400 if evaluated by original box prices — for a pittance and beefing up your library. But as any GOG or Steam sale purchaser well knows, there’s a dark side to quickly amassing a huge library of titles that, let’s be frank, you’re probably not going to ever play. You just paid for a fleeting sense of satisfaction and the feeling of ownership, but not much else.

It’s why I don’t buy a lot on GOG or Steam these days unless I’m pretty sure I’m going to play it, and soon (or if it’s insanely discounted, because I’m still a sucker for a really, really good deal). It was hard to pass up buying the full Ultima series a few years ago, because (a) a FULL series and (b) I had never played these and thought they’d make good blogging fodder. But ever since doing Ultima VII (aka “the best one”), I’ve struggled with returning to these games. Which would I do next? Start from the beginning? Look to the internet to evaluate the “second-best one?” I still don’t have an answer for that, but I do know that it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever play the first Ultima in its entirety, so I might as well get a taste of it for this sample week!

Ultima I came out back in 1981 and was remastered and rereleased over the next decade on different computer systems. It looks like the GOG version is from 1987, which is why we get a decent-looking opening screen instead of vector art. I’m still not holding my breath for animated cutscenes, however.

Another reason that I have a hard time finding a starting point in this series is that the earlier installments were kind of weird and hadn’t found their footing as a formed franchise. As this menu screen informs, this game goes from fantasy to outer space for some reason, because we all need a hearty dose of genre whiplash in our games.

I was pretty impressed that character creation does allow you to distribute points among different stats at will. This is something that many CRPGs just didn’t have back in the day (a lot would rather prefer you continually rolling an RNG dice). I made my guy super-wise and super-intelligent, just like me.


Then comes racial selection:

We’re deep in the Tolkien-and-nothing-else era of fantasy, because we have Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and… Bobbits? Bobbits. Bobbits, really. Bobbits. Bobbits.

I had to look this up because I’d never heard of this before. These halflings apparently disappeared from the series after Ultima III, but yeah, they’re hobbits. Just with a B.

Naturally, I rolled a Bobbit wizard named Syp.

I’ll admit that I can’t really get into the faux-renaissance faire talk that Garriott and the Ultima series seems to cherish (it’s just too cheesy, sorry), but this loading screen charmed me a bit.

Here’s the full Ultima adventure screen in its full glory. Serviceable and straight-forward, I’ll admit. The water is even animated here. No exposition though, just a Bobbit in a field wondering what to do and where to go. Guess the castle?

The arrow keys work as expected, allowing me to get around, but I have no idea how to do anything else. Every time I move, an item of food disappears (we Bobbits are hungry folk), so I’m guessing that’s my time limit right there. I looked up keyboard commands for the game, which include things like (E)nter, (A)ttack, and, um, (H)yperjump. Excuse me, but when exactly will Han Solo pick me up in the Millennium Falcon?

Lord British’s castle, now purchasable for just $10,000 of real-world cash! (sorry, Shroud of the Avatar joke)

Inside his castle, a jester bounces around like a madman and Lord British mourns the fact that he has long arms but no legs. Oh wait, that’s supposed to be his robe? Kind of hard to tell in this era. I like my legless king version.

Lord British asks me, “Dost thou offer pence or service?” which makes me wonder if I was just asked for a bribe. Um, service, m’man. That’s what we Bobbits are good for. He tells me to go find the Grave of the Lost Soul and not to come back until I do. I imagine that kings have a hard life, figuring out lists of weird quests to send adventurers on.

I set out on my quest and am immediately ambushed by a Ranger and a Necromancer. Kind of feels unfair, especially since all I have is a dagger and a complete lack of knowledge about how to cast spells. So I just flail away with my dagger for a while, eventually killing the Ranger. Ah, (C)ast! But before I do that, I have to (R)eady my spell! And the only spell I have is… “prayer.” Hm. Don’t think I’m going to topple this Necromancer with some quiet and heartfelt prayers, but here goes nothing.

Nope, prayer did not work in this case. I would think that the Necromancer would be pleased with this death screen, however.

What I wasn’t expecting is that the game immediately resurrects me back to 99 hits and 99 food, which is mighty generous of it. Maybe there are no multiple save game files, so you just keep coming back as with MMOs? Interesting, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go today.

2 thoughts on “Retro Sample Week: Ultima I

  1. Hey, what’s wrong with having a mix up of Fantasy and Sci-Fi!

    It’s unique, and the only other games to ever do it to my knowledge is the Might and Magic series.

    I really wish more games would do it, rather than repeating the same old cliches.

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