Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 10, 2012
Ultima Underworld was released in March, 1992. Twenty years ago last month. I missed the landmark, somehow. But now I feel freakin’ old.
By comparison, at least, Wolfenstein 3D doesn’t turn the big two-oh (that’s big, for video games) until next month. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, the much-lauded precursor to the entire 3D First Person Shooter genre came out after the 3D first-person role-player. (Okay, so Wolf3D was predated by Catacombs 3D which was basically the same game but not nearly as good, but that’s besides the point…)
It was the kind of game I had dreamed about when I was playing on the Commodore 64 in the 1980s. It captured the feel and first-person perspective of a big, D&D-style dungeon. It felt like what I’d always imagined when playing D&D. While it was far from perfect, it was another one of those mind-blowing gaming experiences that forever spoiled future games because I’d hold them to such high expectations.
Sure, the free-form 3D movement was a big deal. That’s what most people talk about when they talk about what a breakthrough game Ultima Underworld was. And yeah, there’s no denying that the first-person perspective, 3D world and action-oriented gameplay was landmark. But there’s more to it than that:
* Ultima Underworld was one of the first games to use recorded voices for full cut-scenes. It wasn’t really breaking new ground here, but it was still a novelty back then. Unfortunately, the voice acting sucked and added some unintended humor to the game (“Treachery and DOOooooom!”). But it didn’t matter, it was still kinda cool back then.
* Ultima Underworld had what is still one of the best auto-maps of all time. While the features stood out, the walls and parchment background looked like it belonged. And your ability to write (and erase) directly on the map, anywhere, was a big deal. Actually, it still is. It’s fortunately more commonly matched in the modern era than it once was, but I don’t think it has been surpassed. I’m not sure what you’d do to surpass it, to be honest.
* A dynamic music system. Many games at the time would switch between combat and exploration music, but the music in Ultima Underworld was even more situational, and was designed to (almost) seamlessly transition between themes as you transitioned between states. The UU music remains on my inspirational music playlist.
* Barter. Very few games have let you trade as freely with other characters as Ultima Underworld. (Fallout comes to mind.) I think more could be done with this.
* The simulated dungeon. This was reflected in the game’s economy, the need for food, the passage of time, the physics, the AI, the interactions with the world, secret doors requiring manual searching, and just the feel & mood of the game. In retrospect, some folks have called this a mistake, and that the sales of the game were hindered by their efforts to try and make the dungeon as realistic of an environment as possible. But I absolutely loved it, and would love to see more games not only take this approach, but take it further. (I’ll once again point out Din’s Curse as an example of an indie game that does just that, although its style is quite different. And of course Arx Fatalis and the entire Elder Scrolls series were directly inspired by Ultima Underworld.)
* A wide variety of puzzles, problem solving, and flavor. From combat, negotiation, careful jumping, use of spells, learning a language, etc. – there was a lot to do in the dungeon. I may never forgive them for the anti-magic level, but the Pac-Man level had me almost falling out of my chair laughing when I “got it.” But I loved how, for example, you could break down a door or smash open a chest if you couldn’t be bothered to find a key for it. There was an open-endedness to the solutions to many (but not all) challenges that were pretty common in the Ultima series but fairly rare until several years later.
* While people complained around Ultima Underworld 2 of the claustrophobic environment of both games, I really liked it. The oppressive feel of being locked in a dungeon, with no escape but to probe deeper into the more dangerous areas – that was frickin’ fantastic stuff. It captured the feel of a massive dungeon perfectly.
* While it was technically an action-RPG – the success of your character depended heavily upon your own timing and real-time actions – Ultima Underworld played at a much more thoughtful, exploratory pace than many later ARPGs like Diablo.
Graphically, the game isn’t so pretty to look at today, and the mouse-based interface (the first of its kind, so cut ‘em some slack) is pretty tricky to get used to today. But it remains a landmark title, one of the best CRPGs of all time, and definitely a major influence on me as a gamer and game developer.
Happy (belated) twentieth, Ultima Underworld!
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