Hard to believe that this is only the second PC game that I’ve reviewed. It’s probably because I’ve always been more of a console gamer. But as far as RPGs go, before Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Dragon Age, or any MMO, there was Ultima. So without any of these templates, how did Ultima I fare? Let’s see…
Plot: -2 out of 10
This game is designed around quite possibly the worst plot I have seen in any medium. It’s about you trying to stop the evil wizard Mondain from taking over the world of Sosaria. At first glance, that’s all there is to it. In the Atari era when games couldn’t handle cutscenes, that was all you could expect. The problem is all the futuristic shit you get along the way. You can buy a Raft or Frigate to travel by sea to other continents. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, there’s a better vehicle: an Aircar with its built-in cannon. Yes, in a Dark Ages world you can buy flying cars. Also, there are some areas where searching will boost your stats (except for the one that upgrades your weapon) gradually. The best available is a Blaster. Yes, you can use a laser gun in this game.
The cherry on the sundae is when you buy a Space Shuttle and learn to fly it. You use the laser turret to destroy Tie Fighters from Star Wars and become a Space Ace. Now, why become a Space Ace? Because you can’t get a princess to help you find a Time Machine (which doesn’t seem to exist before you’re told where it is) until you’ve mastered space. And you need the Time Machine because Mondain’s got the Gem of Immortality. Therefore, you’ve got to go back in time to before he got it and became invincible.
Unfortunately, all the princesses are in the dungeons of their fathers. Either the kings are mad tyrants no better than Mondain or the princesses are spoiled, crackhead brats who are being disciplined for their irresponsible behavior. The jester’s got the key to the dungeon, so you kill him for it, free the Princess, and fight your way out. By the way, if you come back, the Princess is re-kidnapped and nobody thinks anything of your kidnapping and mass murder.
After you activate the Time Machine with the items collected in dungeons, you go back in time to kill Mondain. Personally, with the insanity of the Dark Space Ages and “rescuing” princesses from their own kingdoms, I had forgotten about this guy.
Graphics: 7 out of 10
I should note that the version I played was the more advanced version released six years later. The graphics are pretty bland yet a sight above Atari. At least you can pretty much tell what everything looks, whereas the Atari was famous for making you use your imagination.
Sound: 8 out of 10
Unlike a lot of retro gamers on the ‘net, I have never owned an Atari, nor was I around for the first era of PC gaming. Other than Ms. Pac-Man in arcades, I started with the NES. As a result I always have to get used to playing a game without any music. Having said that, the sound effects are pretty good. You can believe that the sound that was just made was what it represented. Just do yourself a favor and have a song on your phone ready before you start playing this.
Gameplay: 6 out of 10
More towns and castles than I expected, and a bigger world in general. You have only one character. After naming him/her, distributing points to physical and mental attributes, and picking his/her race and class, you fight monsters to build up gold. You can use this gold to buy Hits, Food (see Challenge for more on this), and eventually buy vehicles and better equipment. There is no level system. Instead, you can do quests given to you by the kings to raise your stats. You’ll have a very high upper limit to your Hits, Ultima I’s weird name for hit points. I’d say this works out fine. It’s not hard or inconvenient to find your way around like many other old RPG, and the quests mean that you’ll always have something to do, even as you try to figure out your next objective.
The one big problem: the controls of the space portion are absolutely terrible. I strained to get the Shuttle to go where I wanted in the navigational portion and the targeting cursor in the shooting portion is sluggish and can’t even move diagonally.
Challenge: 5 out of 10
The difficulty seems really high at first. The reason is that the Ultima series is one of the few to ever use a Food system. You lose a point of Food for every second or third step you take, and a step after you run out kills you! As a result, if enemies take too long to show up, you’ll actually take a loss because you have to keep buying Food. I found myself resetting repeatedly for this reason. And in classic fantasy fashion, the possibility of hunting to get free food is not even considered.
Fortunately, this doesn’t last long. Once you get a good enough weapon and suit of armor, you can fight in dungeons for a good while. How is this better? Because you don’t lose food anywhere but the outside world, not even in dungeons. That makes no sense, but it’s a little late to start now.
Once you start successfully finding everything to complete the game can be challenging, but replay value is nil. You get Hits and Gold very quickly and Mondain ends up dying fairly easily if you’re at full strength, so without the mystery, you can beat the game in a few hours of play.
Overall: 5 out of 10
It’s not good, but not bad either. RPGs had to start somewhere, and this series would get better with time. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to skip to Part III, when the series starts to finally resemble contemporary RPGs.