Released in 1992, Ultima Underworld set the CRPG world on fire when it arrived. Although first-person 3D dungeons were nothing new by the time it came out thanks to games such as FTL Games’ Dungeon Master, Interpla’s Bard’s Tale series, Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder games for SSI, or Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series, they were grid-based affairs restricting player movement in “blocks” and allowing players to view the world through the lens of 90 degree turns.
They were also fairly linear affairs with simple objectives and largely static worlds that catered specifically to simply getting out there and killing stuff to save the world. It didn’t detract from how fun they were, but Ultima Underworld went several steps further than the “average” dungeon when the idea began percolating in Paul Neurath’s head around 1989. Neurath, who worked for Origin, had finished Space Rogue which was a full-on 3D space exploration and combat game. Now he wanted to bring that kind of freedom, and sim-like quality, to a dungeon crawler. In the Spring of 1990, he founded Blue Sky Productions after leaving Origin to pursue that goal, kicking off development in May with a few new recruits such as Doug Church and Doug Wilke.
After creating a demo that Warren Spector recalls as being “totally floored by it”, Origin inked a publishing deal with Blue Sky with one condition — that it be tweaked to fit somewhere in Origin’s popular CRPG series, Ultima. The result was a dungeon crawler unlike any that had come before — or few of which since have managed to match in every way.
Ultima Underworld was a feature-rich juggernaut catering to crunch fans and tickling the survivalists’ fancy dropping players into the post-apocalyptic ruins of a fallen colony. Years before the game began, a colony was founded on the volcanic Isle of the Avatar as a town representing all of the Eight Virtues. But not only that, it would also be built underground within the volcanic tunnels and caves of the Stygian Abyss itself where the best representatives of each of the Virtues would toil to make it a reality. A town above would provide supplies as well as a link to this holy mecca, and all seemed to be well.
That is, until its founder, Sir Cabirus, died. The colonists quickly began quarreling amongst each other, especially over the holy relics of the Eight Virtues that he was said to have brought with him, and the dream burned out quickly afterwards. When the player steps into the Stygian Abyss, it has already been many years later and what used to be a thriving colony is now a place where criminals are sent to die by the lord of the town that is still on the surface.
As the Avatar, you’re suddenly pulled from your home on Earth back to Britannia where you are made the unfortunate victim of circumstances involving the kidnapped daughter of a local lord — who also happens to be the lord of the town before the gates of the Stygian Abyss. Blaming you for her disappearance, even though you try explaining that you’re the Avatar, he sends you to the Abyss for a little medieval justice. Return with his daughter, and you’re innocent. If you don’t, well, you’re where you should be anyway.
The game was packed with the kind of extras that were an Origin tradition, especially with Ultima. A handbook explained the setting, recent events, and monsters from the fictional point of view of a scholar’s pen and a player’s guide led would-be dungeon crawlers through a tutorial explaining the basics. The box itself was papered with great art and plenty of screenshots — PC games were still on top of the world when it came to the kind of packaging swag, at no extra cost, that is now more often seen as Collector’s Edition sets.
Ultima Underworld was literally groundbreaking. Gone was the grid-based, 90 degree worldview of the typical CRPG, now replaced with free roaming movement seen as early as Atari’s Battlezone in the arcade and scores of other titles since then on a variety of platforms that had nothing to do with dungeons.
But it was more than that. The game was not only amazingly detailed with lush textures, but it also came across as a living, breathing dungeon thanks to an impressive degree of interactivity. Players could cook food, barter with NPCs for items, strike up conversations with them, or simply plunge into the darkness with rocks in their pockets or a stick in hand until they could find something better.
Because you started out with literally nothing. After picking a gender and rolling up your stats, you start out with a bag of food and a few basics. You’ll need to scrape together anything else that you’ll need. It’s an approach that Bethesda would also strike out with in their ambitious stab at CRPGs two years later, 1994’s The Elder Scrolls: Arena.
If you wanted to ignore the main quest and simply start poking around, you were entirely free to do so and were helped with an automapping system which you could also annotate. Magic was restricted to the use of runes which you needed to find along the way to the bottom of the Abyss where true evil awaited to be vanquished. This also balanced things out, keeping truly powerful spells out of your hands until you were close to the end.
Torches flickered, darkness hid what was around corners, but not everything was entirely in 3D. It was still a mix of 3D environments and 2D art as seen with NPCs, monsters, and whatever you could lay your hands on. Keeping track of all of that stuff was the interface which was also artistically styled to match the medievalism of everything else as it appeared carved from stone with a metallic compass in the center and a parchment paper-doll representing your character and their equipment surrounding the viewing area. Adventure-like icons allowing players to pick up, examine, or interact with things.
Players could also go hungry without food. Swimming was part of the action. Being able to freely look around would be key to revealing hidden clues or items. Carrying too much could weigh you down, slowing movement and making it difficult to keep your head above water. Equipment could wear down in their effectiveness unless cared for. Combat swings were determined by where your cursor was onscreen allowing for overhead bashes, thrusts, and slashes.
A slew of different skills determined how well you could fight, repair items, pick locks, or even appraise items’ value — a laundry list of abilities turning an ordinary dungeon crawl into an involved adventure crammed with ways to involve players in every aspect of their avatar’s survival.
This was an amazing game that I had sunk so many hours into and one that made crawling through the dark bowels of the unknown as fun as it had ever been. It even had a bizarre boss battle at the end that had a few clever twists — and Mario-like jumping — to get through. But it wasn’t like anything I had played before. The sounds, music, and the idea of never knowing what might really be behind the next door or whether I might be able to find enough food to have a good night’s sleep to live just a bit longer made Abyss a great experience.
It was tough, but it had saves. You could throw away items and they would still be there on the ground — unless they fell out of reach into lava which the game didn’t prevent you from doing. If you dropped something important and it was gone forever, I hope you had an earlier save to go back to. In contrast, a number of RPGs today simply keep you from dropping anything that might be important.
Abyss was ported over to MS-DOS, the FM-Towns, PC-98, and even the first Playstation a few years later. A 1993 sequel, Labyrinth of Worlds, was a PC only release…no consoles this time. Today, players can snag them at Good Old Games. There’s also an effort by fans to remake them from the ground up listed here at a site dedicated to developers’ efforts are preserving Ultima.
It wasn’t just an iconic game — it was a title that went out to break as many rules as possible for CRPGs and largely succeeded in doing just that. Stygian Abyss was not only what its developers wanted a CRPG to be, but it also provided the tools for players to shape their own experiences through whatever they chose to do in the game — though being an asshole didn’t get you very far. It tapped into everything that dungeoneers wanted — loot, exploration, and a big dollop of the unknown lurking in the next tunnel — and these would also be lessons that many other games, not just CRPGs, would take to heart in the years ahead.