Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Reminiscing about Ultima Underworld

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 3, 2011

GOG.COM announced that they will be carrying a bunch of older games from EA. They are leading out with three games – well, actually four – from Origin and Bullfrog. Ultima Underworld 1 & 2 are leading out in a single package as the first – but hopefully not the last – of the Ultima titles to hit their store. They are also selling Wing Commander Privateer and Dungeon Keeper, and will be releasing Origin’s Crusader: No Remorse, Bullfrog’s Magic Carpet, and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri by the end of the month.

Ultima Underworld – the first one – was definitely one of those formative experiences for me as a CRPG fan and, later, developer.  The second one didn’t inspire me quite as much, though it was also a lot of fun.

I thought I’d start out by sharing some links about this game:

My “Game Moments” experience of fear in this game

Dan Schmidt’s memories of bugs found during the development of the game. Also, the amusing ghoul special case. (I want to replay the game with a character named “Eyesnack” just because of this.)

And my favorite: Games that Changed the World: Ultima Underworld at Computer and Video Games.

If you haven’t played the game before, would I recommend it today? I’d give it a qualified yes. The graphics were groundbreaking at the time, but they used a lot of tricks to make it work that don’t stand up well today. Remember that this game was released with more “full featured” 3D long before Doom… it was released around the same time as Wolfenstein 3D. So they can take some getting used to. And the interface…! At one point, I was experimenting with borrowing the control system for Frayed Knights. Then I went back and played and remembered how weird it was.  I got used to it back in the day – even found it fairly natural – but I think it’s tougher going back to it now that WASD-style controls are deeply ingrained in my muscle memory. And the stories – while serviceable – aren’t exactly going to knock anybody out with their depth.

I’ve only replayed this game in short segments (often months apart) since the 1990s, so I don’t remember a lot of the details in the game. I do remember having to back up to a much older save game because I encountered a bug that would cause some of your inventory to disappear. That bug was patched later, but it wouldn’t make your inventory come back. I also remember giving up on the game for a few weeks in frustration over the anti-magic level.

But besides the technological innovation (which doesn’t age well), Ultima Underworld (and the sequel) did a lot of things very, very right. The ability to trade with most non-hostile NPCs, for one thing, was really cool (duplicated somewhat in the first Fallout games, but not so much elsewhere). The more open-ended “simulation” approach to the adventure was really refreshing and enjoyable. There were a few puzzles that demanded (or at least suggested) specific solutions, but much of the game allowed you to organically problem-solve. Maybe that capability seems exaggerated through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia that I look through, but that is how I remember it. This was long before anybody coined the term “sandbox game,” and I don’t feel it was too literally that kind of game. But if you are a fan of the Thief games, that open-ended approach to missions originated in the Ultima Underworld series.

In many ways, I prefer Ultima Underworld‘s approach over the common sandbox approach which feels like you are just encountering the random dungeon inhabitant of the week. (Huh? What makes you think I’m talking about The Elder Scrolls?)  As I recall, the world, treasure, creatures, and everything are fixed (and therefore, to me, feel more meaningful) – every game begins with exactly the same. But every game also plays out differently according to your approach (and, sometimes, just random events in the game).

The designers also captured  the claustrophobic feeling in both games. Both games had you trapped in an underground prison – in the second game’s case, the castle had been surrounded by an impenetrable blackrock shell, and the only escape was to similarly confined worlds also controlled by the Guardian.  In the first game, you encountered cultures that had adapted to living in a massive prison. In the second, you saw glimpses of the psychological toll of the imprisonment on the inhabitants of the castle over time.

The map system was also really ahead of its time. First off, the game featured not only an automap, which was uncommon at the time, and especially impressive considering the dungeon walls weren’t limited to the four cardinal directions AND weren’t entirely flat. But the game allowed you to write notes directly on the map. There was also usually some space at the margins to write more extensive notes as well.  I loved this feature a lot, and was surprised when later, more technologically advanced big-budget titles didn’t allow the same kind of feature.

Another thing that impressed me about Ultima Underworld is how the game offered a lot of gameplay for a fairly small “world.” While the levels were fairly large and sprawling, there were only eight of them in the first title. That would be the kiss of death for modern, mainstream games (or at least it was until recently — they seem to have shrunk a bit in the last six years). But it made up for the lack of quantity with quality and depth. I’d never blow through a level in a single hour, as we seem to expect to these days. There was some annoying puzzles that required revisiting previous levels, but mainly the time was devoted to carefully exploring the level and problem-solving.  The second game, as I recall, included more (but often smaller) levels, but still packed a lot of exploration and gameplay into a relatively small area.

The rune-based magic system of the game, where you “build” your spells with runes – is likewise kinda cool and interesting, though I think  more so in theory than in practice. Fortunately, they were neither the first or last games to experiment with this approach.

But in the end, much of the “coolness” of the title that won me over was just the little moments. Knocking a skeleton over a cliff and watching him fall to pieces when he hit the ground below. Whether it was the impact or my blow that killed him, I don’t know nor really care. Or the time that imp, trying to smash it’s way through a locked door, freaked me out with its relentless pounding on the door. Or the nyctophobe who would trade anything for more light sources in a world encased in pitch darkness. Or haggling with goblin fishermen in the sewers below Britannia Manor.  Or just playing a game where just scrounging food to survive was a challenge.

Ultima Underworld remains in my personal list of favorite RPGs probably as much for nostalgic and historical reasons as for it’s actual delivered experience, but that’s not to say it isn’t a great game. It still is, albeit kinda clunky in the modern world (as are most games that are nearly twenty years old).  If you are an RPG fan capable of overlooking primitive 3D and the ungentle learning curve for the unique control scheme, both games are worth your time today.

And I think modern indie game developers could still glean a lot of great ideas from ’em. Hint, hint

Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 21 Comments to Read

  • Menigal said,

    UU has been on my list of games to play for quite a long time, so I’ll definitely be picking it up at some point. I think Dungeon Keeper will eat up my time first, though. There’s a game that really needs a good spiritual successor (Dungeons is far too different and gimick-driven).

    I do wish more games would go back to mapping systems like this. It’s sad that most games now don’t even have maps, even some RPGs.

  • Picador said,

    the game allowed you to write notes directly on the map. There was also usually some space at the margins to write more extensive notes as well. I loved this feature a lot, and was surprised when later, more technologically advanced big-budget titles didn’t allow the same kind of feature.

    Yes. I loved this feature in the Thief games, and I’m baffled as to why it never caught on in PC games. It’s like developers think people are allergic to typing.

    The closest thing I’ve seen to this recently, surprisingly, is in a console game — Demon’s Souls on the PS3 has a way of leaving short text messages at various places on the map, to be read either by you or (more often) by other players using the “ambient multiplayer” system pioneered by DS.

    I don’t know why I’m so in love with this feature. I guess I’m a just sucker for annotation. I think it also conjures up much of what I love about RPGs: the ability to take a character, or a world, and to make it specifically yours. Allowing annotation on a map is a very cheap and very effective way to do this. An in-game journal (or an auto-populated quest journal with space for annotations) would be even better… I don’t know why developers have never explored these options.

  • xenovore said,

    Just want to point out that Arx Fatalis is the spiritual successor to the Ultima Underworld games and has many similar features. It’s quite well done and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. (At least until I got stuck; I think I killed someone I shouldn’t have.)

    And the source code is available, so if anyone wants to make a new RPG in the vein of UU, Arx Fatalis is a good place to start researching/prototyping.

  • Menigal said,

    Arx Fatalis was a great game. Yeah, it had some wonky controls and occasional “what the hell do I do now?” bits, but it easily places near the top of the list for me.

  • McTeddy said,

    I was never able to get into Ultima Underworld. When I was younger I didn’t play dungeon crawls… and now that I’m older I’m too spoiled by mouse look. I just haven’t been able to adapt to it’s older 3D technology and awkward control scheme.

    That said, I do believe it has plenty of good lessons for clever young devs.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I’m with McTeddy, I just can’t adapt (re-adapt? revert?) to playing a 3D game without mouse-look. Now that WASD controls and mouse camera control has been standard for over a decade, I just can’t go back to using arrow keys or clicking arrows on screen. It is too slow and I die a lot simply from fighting with the controls, then I say, “Screw it” and go back to playing other games.

    I guess it is kind of a sad and weird problem to have, since I was playing PC games for a long time before computer mice were even invented.

    I worry about our ability to enjoy old games in the future, since audience participation is mandatory to experience them. It would be like if old movies required the viewer to watch them through a pin-hole while balancing on one leg and juggling – AFTER the viewer had tracked down that those explicit actions were required – AND the viewer could not use that same information for other old movies.

    I’m not sure what can be done about it either, since even people that used the old tech, like me and McTeddy, can’t bear to go back and use it anymore. I fear we will have a whole generations of games utterly lost to the future, quaint artifacts known only by a box, manual, or screenshot, never to be experienced by a human being ever again . . . .

  • McTeddy said,

    Truth be told, LTW… that’s why I started to watch Let’s Plays.

    There are alot of old games that never struck my fancy. Things like Dungeon Crawlers and Flight Sims were too much for my tiny brain to handle.

    So, I started to watch other people play games. I started to understand the ins and outs of these other genres. Best case scenario… I’ve learned to play these older games with some level of talent. Worst case, I may never be able to PLAY the game… but I understand why somebody else can enjoy it.

    I’m even severely thinking about making those videos myself for some the classics… or even some of the flawed gems. Even if people just learn about why I love the Gold Box games… it’s one step towards appreciating them.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I watch Let’s Plays as well, but it just isn’t the same unfortunately. Just like watching a video of people shooting on a firing range or shooting in a video game doesn’t scratch the itch of actually shooting that I have missed since I left the military.

    And I love the Gold Box games. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of hours I have logged into those. I used to spend whole summers playing them. I actually don’t have much trouble going back and playing old games from before mice were invented – I might get a little impatient, but the controls are just fine, and I tend to enjoy them as much now as then. I’m super happy now that CRPG Addict has started with them on his blog.

    My personal trouble is only with those games in the middle – the ones that came after mouse controls were invented but before they were perfected. If the game is so old it only uses the keyboard, I am fine.

    I still don’t think our children or grandchildren will bother or be able to play these old games like Underworld, even though they will probably still watch and enjoy movies made fify years prior to the game like Wizard of Oz. It is just something I think and puzzle over in my freetime, how we can possibly future-proof games so their history and lineage is preserved.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Oh, and I wish GOG.com would hurry up and get the Gold Box games.

    For some reason, my current computer lacks a 5.25 floppy disk drive. Or a 3.25 floppy drive.

    But I still have my Adventure Journals and Code Wheels to use!

  • DGM said,

    Heh. Hear that, Jay? People like mouselook.

    I’m just sayin’. 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @LateWhiteRabbit – I finally dug up my CD-ROM of the entire collection (obtained from WizardWorks back in 1993 or so…) and reinstalled the entire Gold Box series on my hard drive… sans Unlimited Adventures. I’ll have to install that one too – I still have a 3.5″ drive. 🙂

    @DGM – What? Dredging up ancient history, dude!

    And yeah – I totally hear what folks are saying about the in-between games. I’m in the same boat. It’ like a certain era between 1990 and 1996 (which I *LOVED*, BTW) which are kinda hard to go back to. It’s not easy going back to play ’em – including these two – but I put up with it mainly because I remember how worth it they are.

    My hope is that some day we’ll have *real* remakes of these games — done the way the original designers would have done ’em if they’d had the tech. Unlikely, given the weirdness that is license ownership and so forth, but I’d love to go back and revisit an authentic-style remake of these games. And the Wing Commander games. And… and… and….

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    “. . . done the way the original designers would have done’em if they’d had the tech.”

    Haha. That can be dangerous and a real-life case of “be careful what you wish for”. Many gamers have discovered that the game developers they’ve looked up to all their lives have very different opinions on how a game should REALLY be done. Turn-based ditched for real-time, etc.

    It really is more of a case of what the original designers would do RIGHT NOW if they were making the game for the first time. Current interests or beliefs may not be at all in line with what they were 20 years ago. For instance, I probably should stay away from time machines, because I am fairly certain I wouldn’t be able to refrain from slapping the fire out of my smug teenage self. And I’m sure future me will be showing up to slap current me any time now.

    We need look no farther than George Lucas to see what the power to remake and change your own past projects at will with current tech does. Because not just the tech changes – maybe Richard Garriott would decide that Chuckles the Jester needed a bigger role, or there was another Virtue he wanted to add or take away. Or maybe he’d continue his recent sci-fi interests and make Britannia a VR world and the Avatar a REAL computer avatar.

    Every artist or creative person almost inevitably hates their past works or dislikes them. Many artists, even famous ones, have tried to re-edit or destroy past works. The re-edits often aren’t as good either. I know as an artist I keep any work older than 3 years at my family member’s house in a locked room that I don’t have the key to. I only keep digital copies at my home. It is safer that way . . . if I don’t want to destroy what I consider an amateurish picture, I often feel the intense urge to pick back up a charcoal pencil or brush and make adjustments . . . just a few . . . and a few more . . . hey, why don’t I just paint over this whole thing?

    No, probably best to keep the original designers far away, and only have a technical team of OCD super fans reprogram the interfaces and update the graphics.

  • Pessimeister said,

    This is a fine piece of nostalgia with some good commentary and analysis. I enjoyed reading it. *thumbs up*

    Just an additional comment:

    I don’t particularly want to see remakes of these brilliant games, as I’d much prefer that they be allowed to stand on their own, which I think they do. It’s the nature of players that have moved on and changed, not the Underworlds themselves.

    However, what I would like to see is more developers showing an understanding of what made these games great by incorporating more elements from them into newer technology. That means more interactivity, more player centred creativity and options for the player to experiment, a return of the writable map etc.
    So more games made in the spirit of the Underworlds rather than remakes themselves.

    Arx was also fantastic and I await with bated breath to see what Arkane can do with their new projects – which will surely show some of this philosophy.

  • DGM said,

    “What? Dredging up ancient history, dude!”

    Are you saying there’s an option in version 8 to have mouselook without constantly holding down a button? If so, I’ve missed it. And if there’s not, then the issue isn’t history yet! 🙂

  • Xian said,

    Ultima Underworld still remains as one of my favorite games. I was very impressed with what they were doing with the engine and how much more immersive it was from a first person perspective with fluid motion instead of the step-by-step movement of titles such as Dungeon Master. Before UU, the only real first person game I had played was Midi Maze on the Atari ST which was very limited in scope.

    The combat system was what really stood out in my memory. I never had played something that felt so natural. Depending on how you moved the mouse, you performed a different sword stroke – move the mouse forward and you did a thrust, side to side to slash, and backwards to slice down.

    As previously mentioned, the automap was groundbreaking too. I had played games with an automap such as Might and Magic, but never with the detail and the ability to make notes on the map.

    The mines on Level 5 recreated Pac-Man in first person. You were going around and picking up Zanium pieces while ghosts were chasing you.

    I never encountered the inventory bug, but I do remember I had dropped a component for Goblin Stew on a previous level and had to backtrack to find it when it was required on a later level. I think they should have flagged it as a quest item since I had to spend some time finding it since I didn’t remember where I dropped it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    As far as the remake thing is concerned, I’m mainly thinking about what Sid Meier did with his Pirates remake, or the Monkey Island “special edition” games that came out a while back.

  • Bad Sector said,

    Are you saying there’s an option in version 8 to have mouselook without constantly holding down a button? If so, I’ve missed it. And if there’s not, then the issue isn’t history yet! 🙂

    While we’re on modern feature requests, can i have some option to hide the parchments/papers at least from left and right? It feels like i’m wearing this stuff and my claustrophobia kicks in :-P.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    @Bad Sector
    I never minded the framing window when playing the Pilot of Frayed Knights, but I can see how it would bother some people, especially on lower resolutions.

    All this discussion has made me interested in perhaps Rampant posting an article on designing controls. Controls can certainly make or break a game.

    Some people feel it is unoriginal, but I firmly believe that if certain controls have been established as defacto in a game genre, such as WASD and free mouselook without holding a button in first-person games, then all games should use that unless they have a REALLY good reason for deviating. People don’t talk about muscle-memory for nothing. It makes new games easier to jump into and experience, allowing new players to start learning how to play the game, not how to interact with it.

    Maybe a posting on control design and evolution, Jay?

  • Calibrator said,

    Late to the party as always but whatever… 😉

    Practically everything has been written about the Underworld themselves, their revolutionary graphics, the automapping, the dreaded inventory bug (I was affected the third time I played the game), the limited relationship to Ultima etc.

    However, the most important thing I remember from the time I played both Underworlds was what I thought: “*This* is exactly the future of all games!” Of course not strictly as fantasy role-playing games but as a general, first-person game mechanic that could be suited to even more action-oriented games (think Deus Ex ot Thief) or similarily complex SciFi games (think System Shock).

    I don’t write this to praise myself – in fact I erred dramatically! Though this is how 80-90% of all games indeed *look* now (more or less real-time, first person 3D graphics) I was way too optimistic in regards to the marketability of such complex world simulation games with a dozen or so commands, an extensive dialogue system, loads of NPCs that interact and trade with you, give you quests etc.

    Yes, action RPGs today are heavily indebted to the Underworlds and rightfully so – but how many are there in comparision to the countless first-person shooters, “hunting simulations” and other crap that only needs a left mouse-click from the player here and there?

    The sad truth is that there is (or was…) only a handful of companies that delivered more than simple first-person shooters. Whether Looking Glass themselves, Ion Storm (Deus Ex 1+2) – both published by EIDOS, Arkane Studios (Arx Fatalis and to some extent Dark Messiah) and Irrational Games (Systen Shock 2) – most of them had limited success. In fact Irrational had their biggest commercial hit with the plain shooter Bioshock which mostly excelled in the atmosphere department.

    While I still see some future for games like this – Deus Ex 3 seems to be a testament to that (we’ll see if nostalgia is a large enough incentive for current console owners to play DX3) – it’s clear that the majority of players is simply overburdened with complex gameplay and large levels that need time to explore thoroughly. Most games seem to be awfully linear this day, with the player having a jump and a shoot button to bring them from cutscene to cutscene.

    It’s also feasible, though, that this kind of games will vanish completely in the mainstream market and live on in the indie sector (with a price tag or not), like interactive fiction for example.
    But even there it will rather be the exception than the rule because of the development costs and staying power needed to finish such a project.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Bad Sector – I think it was you that requested it before. It’s not pretty, and the text gets hard to read, but it’s in there…


    And yes, that IS Frayed Knights running at 1280 x 960.

  • Vaspasian said,

    Ultima Underworld is without a doubt one of the most revolutionary advancements in gaming history and my most enduring favorite. Truly 3D environments, non linear game play, in game physics and ambient lighting effects were all combined in one title ages before I would see them anywhere else. A combination of puzzles, errands and straight forward combat melded together into an over arching quest that could take ages to complete: truly great stuff.

    That having been said, if I could compare this classic with the much anticipated (and worthy) Skyrim, many of the roll playing features that made UW a classic are preserved and improved.

    There is a non linear element to progressing through the game, and these elements have become much more expansive. Most notably, for me, is the ability to be truly evil. In UW, if you wanted to be evil, all you could do is mouth off and kill all the non vital NPC’s (the ones with no names). In Skyrim you can run around killing people for money, taking their souls and eating their faces. Brilliant!

    If there is anything I think modern games are truly lacking in comparison, it is level layout. UW had eight brilliant levels with multiple intersecting parts that required time to explore and understand. The dungeons in skyrim are comical by comparison: a long series of rooms and hallways with one way in and one way out. Maybe they’ll put a fork in there somewhere. The player knows its over because there is no way out of the last room except the way you came.

    I don’t want to pick on Bethesda, so I’ll ask, when was the last time you were challenged to memorize a level in any game? The level layouts of modern games are in a word: boring. I just wish game designers would build a comparable labyrinth with today’s tech. If they already have, I just want to know about it…