There isn’t really much more that I can say that so many others have already done so well about one of the giant cornerstones of CRPGs.
Richard Garriott’s hobby, which became Akalabeth, initially sold as a 5.25″ disk in ziplock bags from the Computerland store he worked at. One of those made its way to the now-defunct California Pacific Computer Company which went ahead and published it to the tune of several thousand copies sold. But its runaway success would pave the way for what would become the first chapter to a fantastic journey for the man who would become better known by his nickname, Lord British.
Ultima I was released in 1981 for the Apple II and a year later would come out for the Atari ST. The ad above is actually for the 1986 version which was the “HD” remake for the game, re-coded in assembly and packing on a number of other tweaks but otherwise, it was just like the original. Only faster and slightly prettier.
Plot-wise, it started out simple — an evil wizard, Mondain, is busy doing what evil wizards do. The land is in turmoil, petty kings scheme against one another, and Lord British is the only monarch hoping for a miracle in saving them all from darkness. To make things worse, Mondain has the Gem of Immortality granting him fantastic power. With it, he is invincible. That’s where “the Stranger” enters the picture from another world. In later games, he’d be better known as “the Avatar” (although you can be male or female in Ultima I when creating your character).
The game featured Garriott’s improvements on his work with Akalabeth. Instead of a vast, empty landscape with wire frame towns and squares, Ultima dressed itself in top-down, tile-based art featuring plains, castles, and wavy lines for water fleshing out the world. Creature icons in the overworld actually looked like the creatures they were supposed to be like. Monsters in the dungeons were also wire framed along with the walls and rooms, but they did the job. It, along with a few wargames from SSI, had a lot of eye candy compared to many other computer games out at the time.
But for the RPG crowds looking for a little D&D inspired fun on computers, Ultima I was exactly what they were looking for in the same way Akalabeth was — a simple character creation system, point allocations into stats, and race selection with humans being smarter than elves for a change when it came to magic. Dwarves were also in there along with a hobbit-like race called “bobbits”. It also boasted a wide variety of hotkey triggered actions in conjunction with the direction keys. NPC conversations were nearly non-existent and most existed in the game to either sell the player something or send them off on a quest. These were the simple, early days of CRPGs, but it was still more than enough for role-players.
There was even space combat which was part of the main quest which seemed to be inspired a bit by Atari’s Star Raiders from 1979. See, Mondain is already impossible to defeat. So the only way to kill him is to find a time machine to take you back to before the gem was made and kill him then. To do that, you needed to go into space. Flying up there in a shuttle, you could dock with a station and grab a fighter. Scanning the sector, you need to find bad guys that look like TIE fighters and blast enough of them from a pilot’s perspective using a cursor to aim your weapons.
Ultima I wanted to pack “everything” into one experience from its space grid showing where to go to find enemies to the slick sci-fi weapons in a medieval world. As strange as it was, it wouldn’t be the only game to do this, or the last. Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor, published by TSR from the mid-70s, included the Temple of the Frog setting which also blended together fantasy and sci-fi (a traveler from another world takes over a temple using ‘special powers’ and reports to a satellite overhead once a year as a part of his mission). A few years later, Might & Magic would also do the same thing on a much larger scale.
In 1986, Ultima I was re-released on a number of new platforms such as the Commodore 64 and IBM PCs and had even come with a huge manual, detailed with art and lore, and a map (which, by 1986, had become a staple of the series beginning with Ultima II). It even came with a bag of coins from the “Age of Darkness” which the first three Ultimas comprised.
It was also re-released in a few collections such as the one for Ultima IX’s Dragon Edition release. Today, players can snag Ultima I along with II and III at Good Old Games. There was even an attempt to remake Ultima I as a full, 3D experience by freeware authors, Peroxide, and according to them, Garriott gave the project his blessing. EA, unfortunately, did not, leaving only a few tech demos for the public to wonder over what could have been.
Garriott probably could not have guessed that his side-hobby, programmed in his first year at college, would explode into Ultima II, III, and a score of others in the years to come challenging design ideas and concepts on the true measure of a CRPG. It would forge Origin Systems into a development house to be reckoned with, expanding beyond CRPGs and into other genres from sci-fi to martial arts, dominating the genre and inspiring countless others from North America to Japan. But back then, in the early 80s, Lord British’s rule had only just begun.