I Played That! #35: Ultima Underworld I and II (PC)

As we’ve seen, the Ultima series always tried to be on the cutting edge of gaming. While never sacrificing story and mechanics, they always pushed the graphics to whatever the current limits were. It was tough being an Ultima fanboy on a budget.

People think of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D as the originators of the FPS, but Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, predated both of them, unveiling a fully 3D world that was far ahead of other emerging 3D games. It was a true dungeon crawl, with the player searching dark caves and lava flows, hacking at monsters, and finding lost items of power.

Although it was developed around the same time as Ultima VII, it takes place before those events. The nemesis that would star in the Ultima games starting with VII was not in this one. Instead there is a more vague threat, a powerful demon that is about to be released into Britannia. The player’s character, the Avatar, must search the Abyss for the demon, a victim its minion has kidnapped, and the means for which to defeat it. It’s standard dungeon stuff, and less intricate than previous Ultima games, but there were still plenty of interesting moments in it.

The Guardian does show up in the sequel, Ultima Underworld 2: Labyrinth of Worlds. He imprisons Lord British’s castle under a large gem, with several inhabitants (including you, the Avatar) inside. The player discovers the source of the spell, which leads him to other worlds that the Guardian has previously conquered. By moving back and forth between them, the Avatar must weaken the Guardian’s hold on those worlds and thus free his friends.

Underworld 2 features one of the most interesting bits I ever encountered in an Ultima game. One of the worlds you visit is Talorus, an alien world that was truly alien. The Talorids have a society that doesn’t mirror human society, and the player never does get a sense of how it all works, but can suss out enough to complete his mission.

It also featured one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments I’ve ever encountered in a game. Uh, spoilers here, in case you’re thinking of working on a 22 year old video game. The final confrontation takes place in “the Ethereal Void”, which is reachable only in a dream state. In order to get there, the Avatar has to eat a certain plant before going to sleep. In these games, the character had to constantly find and eat food and rest, or else suffer hunger and fatigue. I was ready to finish the game, head into the final moment and free my friends and the world. I grabbed the magic plant and went to eat it…

…and the game told me I was full. I had recently eaten food in the game and my hunger was 100% sated. I simply couldn’t eat another bite, even a small plant that would open the gateway to eliminate a worldwide threat. I had to actually run around in circles until I worked up enough hunger that I could finally eat the damn plant.

The Underworld games were great fun and a nice side trip from the main Ultima storyline. Still, I was eager to get back to the “real” games and the showdown with the Guardian that awaited me in Ultima VIII.

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