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Blast from the Past | Ultima Underworld

David Brown
Blast From The Past, Features, Retro, RPGs, Ultima: Underworld

Blast from the Past | Ultima Underworld

Right, so I have vague recollections about my time in Ultima Underworld, mainly two sections of the second one, Labyrinth of Worlds. There's a distinct image of an ice world that's difficult to navigate, then there's another of Lord British's utterly dank and dingy castle. Or is it a temporary shelter because of some great evil banishing us there? It's difficult to remember when you get to this age, you see.

Ah, there it is on the cover. A winter/ice scene. I knew my mind wasn't playing tricks on me. Apparently this area was called the Ice Caves of Anodunos. Why didn't I remember this? It's so simple.

But I digress. You may not know anything about the games, so to proceed without even a tiny explanation would be purest folly. So here goes: Ultima Underworld and its sequel were groundbreaking first-person RPG affairs, with the ability to look up, down and all around. It needs to be remembered this was before Doom, and even that game didn't allow you to do this, plus first-person games were not ten-a-penny.

We won't waste time talking about all the basic interface elements or the fact, even nearly 20 years on, the next Elder Scrolls game will probably end up using pretty much the same design template, showing how little real progress has been made. To make a direct comparison, Ultima Underworld introduced the whole “loads of junk with no value” concept into RPGs, as seen in the likes of Oblivion, for example.

Blast from the Past | Ultima Underworld

Plot-wise, the first game is set in Britannia, the main world used in the Ultima series, although it takes place in one area alone, the titular Stygian Abyss, a vast dungeon descending into the bowels of the earth. There are goblins to be slain, a baron's daughter to be rescued and something called the Slasher of Veils to be defeated.

The second game trapped you in a castle, just like I thought, but you could also travel across the void into new worlds that were controlled by constant Ultima menace, the Guardian, who wasn't even remotely left wing or anything. There were more goblins, a school of mages brutalised by the Guardian and even a “strange dream world with floating glowing paths and teleports”.

It's also the one I actually played extensively, as I have virtually no memory of the first game at all. I probably had a go, but I really don't recall. Hey, it was the early 90s and I was barely in double figures, give me a break!

Blast from the Past | Ultima Underworld

It definitely evokes more vivid memories, perhaps because of the more colourful, varied nature of the environments, with the ice and everything. The castle where Lord British and chums are trapped is one of the grimmest places I've explored in a game, a very dark, gloomy place. I guess that's what happens when your house is encased in a giant opaque magical crystal, though.

What's amazing to us nowadays is that the second game had only four full time designers working on it, which for those days was a very large number. Watch the end credits on any modern game and you'll be sitting there for 10 minutes while they scroll slowly past, and yet they still seem to have far, far less content than was packed into the Ultima Underworld games.

It was also one of Warren Spector's finest hours, demonstrating a number of ideas and concepts he would take forward into Deus Ex, and it also inspired people like Ken Levine, Cliff Bleszinski, Toby Gard and, of course, ended up being instrumental in the creation of System Shock. Which was pretty good too, I hear.

Blast from the Past | Ultima Underworld

But after all this, is it worth playing now? Obviously a game with such an advanced technological backbone for the time will have aged more than others, but in terms of material to get through, it's much more worthy of your time than, say, the Ishar series of which we spoke so recently. Certainly you won't get as fed up or turned off as quickly as you will by Ishar, for all that series' good points.

Just the fact it's not flick-screen gives it a more acceptable feel to modern audiences and it'd be fascinating to see a revamp done with up-to-date visuals. If only rights laws weren't so ridiculous, eh? Imagine how much more fun the world would be.

You can get Ultima Underworld over on GOG.com with the sequel all bundled in with it too.

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