I bought Ultima Underworld 1 (hereafter: UW1) shortly after it was released. It came on five 3½ inch floppies, and it came bundled with a guide book and a map of the first level. I'm not sure if it was this game or its sequel that had the runebag as I no longer own the boxed versions of either. One of the two did.
I remember the absolutely cheesy voice acting from the intro. Richard Garriott himself did the voiceovers. "Your lies would have brought thee low" and here it is in all of its YouTube glory. After that fine piece of cinema, you're carted off into the Great Stygian Abyss to recover the innocent maiden.
The background of the Abyss is well known to fans of the Ultima series so I won't go into it here. In this game, a knight, Sir Cabirus, has tried to establish a colony in there in an attempt to reconcile mutually hostile races and start his own utopia. It didn't quite work out, mainly due to the manipulations of a bad guy known as Tyball. Tyball is the mage who has kidnapped the maiden Arial and plans to use her in some ghastly ritual...
UW1 was ground-breaking in many ways. It was one of the first true 3D games and was also one of the first to pioneer the now-familiar mouse and keyboard movement design. It had a deliciously clean interface that worked with you rather than against you. It was, for the most part, non-linear.
You weren't railroaded into going this way or taking that path as such. The sense of exploration I got when I first played it was mind-blowing. Just wondering where a path led to, or what was on the other side of the bridge were compelling. It is exceptionally well-made.
The Abyss has eight levels and your job was to traverse down to the eighth and solve the puzzle of UW1. Along the way you met friends and foes, often of the same race. Clues and riddles abound and some of the puzzles were exceedingly crafty.
Most of the time, the Abyss had poor illumination, so you really felt like you are in a dungeon peering ahead to see if any tribulation was about to spring out upon you. The game had a "con" system years before Everquest popularized it.
You look at an NPC and it tells you what they are and their state. E.g: you look at the NPC Oradinar and the game tells you: "you see a friendly human named Oradinar". It ranged from friendly, to mellow, to upset, to hostile. Only the hostiles were guaranteed to jump you. Others may well jump you if you antagonize them through dialogue choice or action in the game world, such as theft of their belongings.
The spell system is definitely worth mentioning. Rather than a book of spells or scrolls, you had the Britannian runes. You were given a few runes depending on the character creation choices you made and the rest you find in game. Combining certain runes enabled spell casting, such as Daylight or Levitate. Your ability to cast the spell was based on mana, which is nothing new for games of this nature.
What distinguished the Ultima series from other CRPG's was the concept of virtue. Essentially every action you made elicited a reaction either at that time or later in the game's progress. UW1 is no different. Not everything you encounter is hostile, in fact there's a few NPC's in the game vital to the story and to your progress in freeing Arial and escaping the Abyss. To run amok and kill everything probably won't get you very far and I doubt you'd enjoy the game anywhere near as much as it was intended.
- Take a look at the maps of this game.
- Check out the music for the game.
- This place has maps (bigger ones!) too, and lists locations of notable objects. Great if you want to collect all the runes.
- And if you're so motivated, check out the speedrun for this game. What took me weeks, it took this guy 17 minutes. So sad.