40 - Past is Future

After playing only five minutes of Ultima Underworld, I was already floored by its brilliance.

OK, that may sound a little dramatic, but I am extremely impressed with the quality of game design and imagination that has presented itself while playing Ultima Underworld. It plays like a modern action dungeon crawler that has been stuffed into a retro game wrapper. The clunky user interface and cumbersome controls cannot weigh down the innovative game play and feeling of immersion that shines through. Although this may sound gushing, and my tune may change in the future, I can certainly see why Ultima Underworld is held up as one of the greatest PC games of all time. It is a technological marvel for the time it came out and this experience will have a huge impact on my feeling about all similar games I have played and all those I will play in the future.

The background of Ultima Underworld.

Ultima Underworld does not have much of a story, admittedly. I mentioned that the original design was hastily shoved into the Ultima canon in the last post and it shows. The introduction starts with the player being pulled into the world of Britania, much like in the other games, except this time through sleep instead of a moon gate. The player appears in the bedroom of Baron Uldrich’s daughter only to see a cloaked form kidnap her and toss her to a lumbering troll waiting below her window. As she is carried off into the woods, castle guards burst into the room and assume that I am responsible for the kidnapping. Even though I claim to be the Avatar, the savior of Britania, they do not believe me and tossed me into the Stygian Abyss to rescue the young girl. This ridiculous theme of not recognizing the most famous hero in all of Britania’s history occurs in almost every Ultima game and is often used as a cover for copy protection to make sure “thou art truly the Avatar”. To prove my worth and innocence I am thrown into the Stygian Abyss dressed only in what I can assume are my pajamas and given meager rations and a torch. It seems like they would have given me more resources if they wanted to ensure my success in the rescue of the Baron’s daughter.

[I think the voice actors were in house talent.]

I have no intention of lambasting the story of Ultima Underworld since it was added so late and was never intended to be there in the first place. The real star of the show here is the simulation of dungeon exploration and the discovery of exciting places and scary creatures. It does well enough to set up a simple plot and motivation for exploration which is more than I need. The real story emerges as the player explores the dungeon and deals with its dangers.

Exploring the Underworld

Ultima Underworld fits squarely into a family of games that I like to describe as ‘respectfully difficult’. Not that I want to be punished all the time, but I appreciate when the designers of a game give the player enough information and tools to get started while also trusting him or her to be clever enough to head off on their own. Many games I have loved do this including STALKER, Deus Ex, and Dark Souls.

This game begins the minute you step into the dungeon from the outside. Lighting up a torch, I found a bag containing several useful tools including a dagger. The wall also bore etchings describing a previous attack by a group of dungeon denizens that evidently went poorly, thus removing any hope that I can escape the way I came in. I continued down the hallway toward whatever dangers awaited me.

[Who knows what adventures await down this first darkened tunnel?]

Exploring the dungeon is both tense and exciting. Every corner reveals new secrets and possible treasures. Trash scattered on the ground can be examined to find useful equipment and items. In true Ultima fashion, almost all of the objects littering the dungeon can be picked up or moved around. Just around the corner from the entrance I found two magical runes that can be arranged to cast spells. I found more runes and a rune bag on the corpse of a previous adventurer so that I could begin experimenting with magic, although I have not had the chance to yet. It is already evident that I need a keen eye to make sure I check every item to give me the best equipment and chance of survival. I also found a silver seed that I can plant and remove on any patch of dirt so that I may be resurrected from the sprouting silver tree. It operates like the VitaChambers in Bioshock, but encourages some strategy because it must be moved to safe places so that the player may regroup and continue after each death.

[Low-tech VitaChambers!]

The twists and turns of dungeon passages guarantee that no player will follow a set path through. It is more than likely no two players will explore the space the same way giving very different experiences each time. I found myself getting lost on several occasions, even though there is a highly functional automap system in the game. Not only does it display hallways and natural features, but also allows the player to write notes on the map to remind him or her of any notable locations. I plan on using this feature liberally.

[My discoveries and various notes.]

The coolest thing I have found on the first level of the dungeon is an entire river running from East to West. I was glad to find it is not an instant death trap when I fell into it and swam up the river for quite some time discovering secret alcoves and item caches. The scope of the map blew me away. I was expecting a quick start to the game as it is only the first level, but the designers had other ideas. Not only do the mysteries of the river interest me, but I also ran into an NPC who informed me that the world was much bigger than I had ever imagined. He had wandered from an entire colony of humans living INSIDE the dungeon and warned me about warring factions of goblins that infest other parts of the level. I ran into a few green goblins and am not looking forward to the more dangerous grey breed he described. I have yet to find the human base and am just bumbling about trying doors, exploring nooks, and fighting small animals.

[Getting the low down on level one from this dude named Bragit.]

Combat in Ultima Underworld is very simplistic so far. All that is required is to enter combat mode by clicking the icon in the UI (or pressing the F5 key) and holding down the attack button until the gem glows green indicating the character’s wind-up is complete. Upon releasing the mouse button, the character will swing/thrust the weapon hitting any enemy the player is facing. So far I have only fought weak cave dwellers such as slugs, bats, rot worms, and a spider. I also ran into a green goblin that pelted me with rocks from a sling but went down without much trouble. I picked up the sling but haven’t tried ranged combat yet. A major problem is that the small window and slowness of looking up and down make awareness of monsters difficult. On several occasions I did not realize I was being attacked until I noticed my health indicator (the read vial) dwindling to almost nothing. Luckily, the game includes dynamic music that changes in the presence of monsters making this occur less often as I learn the game. I was able to heal myself by taking a nap using a bedroll I found, but I forgot to extinguish my torch. When I awoke it was completely burned out forcing me to light my only remaining torch. I need to remember this is a simulation and there is no ‘easy mode’ here. I love it.

[Bragit says the ankh represents safe areas with humans... how do I get in?]


I hope to complete the first level before the next update. My current plan is to explore the rest of the river and use a silver key I found to unlock a door marked with a skull that I had to bypass earlier. After that, I will search for the group of humans I was told about so that I can trade for more items. I am running low on torches and food and do not feel comfortable going too far until I get more. I have found pieces of armor here and there, but it is mostly leather and will need to be upgraded before I face more difficult enemies. Wish me luck on that front.

As for other news, I have been playing a few other games when I have shorter periods of time available. The Binding of Isaac is an action roguelike that has been eating lots of my fifteen to twenty minute gaps and I recommend it highly. It plays a little like The Legend of Zelda with top down dungeon exploration and items, but it is much more difficult. The challenge is refreshing and the strategy of finding and using certain items is very deep. The imagery is also haunting. Most of the art draws on the themes of mental illness, psychosis, and religion to produce a very disturbing game world consisting of deformed monsters, feces, and other darker corners of the mind. I recommend you check it out because the game is very good, but certainly not for the faint of heart.

In addition to The Binding of Isaac, I have also started replaying one of my favorite games: Dark Souls. This is in anticipation of the new show friends of the blog Kole Ross and Gary Butterfield are releasing later this month titled The Bonfireside Chat. The show is a podcast about any and everything Dark Souls. Each episode will be dedicated to certain areas of the game discussing their lore, monsters, and strategies. Given how deep and opaque these are in Dark Souls, I am anticipating a very stimulating conversation. Be sure to check it out and join the Facebook group to give them some support. As always, I highly recommend you check out the other shows on Duckfeed.tv as well.

Join me next time when I will (hopefully) be finished with the first floor of the Stygian Abyss and ready to dive deeper into its mysteries. Also, follow me on Twitter (@backlogkiller) to get real time updates to my progress!

--Backlog Killer