Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series of the various RPGs I beat, most of which will be on stream.
Richard “Lord British” Garriott is a video game development legend who I’ve referred to as “The geek’s Ric Flair”. Among some of his numerous other accomplishments, he’s one of the very few private citizens who has been into space, and is the only private owner of property on a foreign celestial body (his words, not mine). Within video gaming, Garriott is best known as the creator of the Ultima series, which spanned 9 “main” games plus several spinoffs, and also coined the term “MMORPG” with Ultima Online. He’s recently been a part of a new MMO, Shroud of the Avatar, which is effectively Ultima Online 2 in all but name.
Before Ultima, though, a teenage Richard Garriott created a game titled Akalabeth: World of Doom. Based on his Dungeons and Dragons games, Akalabeth is one of the very first computer RPGs, and is commonly called “Ultima 0” by fans (And even some later official releases, like “Akalabeth 1998”, use the Ultima 0 title), as some of its concepts and story elements made it into some of the early Ultima games.
I won’t lie, one thing that attracted me to Akalabeth is the fact that it is free on GOG. And it’s at this point that the history of the game’s releases gets a bit complicated. While it’s a PC game in simple terms, the original version of Akalabeth actually came out way back when on the Apple ][. While there was at least one fan port over to the PC architecture, Akalabeth didn’t actually get an official “PC” release until Akalabeth 1998, which was included in the Ultima Collection. I bring this up because, while Akalabeth 1998 is included in GOG’s “Bonus Features”, it’s actually one of the fan ports that’s the “standard” GOG release, that gets included with GOG Galaxy, etc. This is important to know, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit (An aside: From my very limited research, it appears the fan port is actually closer to the Apple ][ original than Akalabeth 1998, for whatever it’s worth).
The plot of Akalabeth doesn’t really figure into the main gameplay, similar to early Wizardry games. But it involves you, a peasant, fulfilling quests for Lord British in the land of Akalabeth. The land has been damaged by the evil wizard Mondain, and though Mondain was defeated by Lord British, Akalabeth is still trying to recover. You help this recovery by killing various creatures in dungeons.
As for the gameplay, it’s similarly rudimentary. After picking your lucky number (Actually an RNG seed), difficulty, stats, and whether you’re a Fighter or a Mage, you begin in a town, where you’ll need to buy food (Seriously. Running out of food means you die. Leaving the town without purchasing food means you’re in the overworld with 0 food, which means you die.), as well as any other weaponry you may want, before venturing out into the world. In the world, you’ll find other towns, dungeons, and most importantly, Lord British’s Castle. Enter the castle to get a quest, which is to kill a monster in a dungeon. When you’re done, return to Lord British to get another, harder quest.
And that’s basically it. You’ll kill tougher and tougher monsters in a quest to become a Knight of Akalabeth. Or at least, that’s the idea. For you see, for whatever reason, the “standard” GOG version of the game is broken in a couple ways. For one, the Lucky Number doesn’t seem to fill its intended purpose–you’ll get a different game each time, even if you input the same lucky number. More importantly, though, the game is impossible to complete. Killing your first monster and returning to Lord British simply results in him saying “Now go and complete thy quest!” infinitely. To fix this, you can either play Akalabeth 1998, or do what I did. That was to download a later version of the .exe here (And yes, it says the site’s security certification has expired. Why someone would want to impersonate a fansite that looks like it’s out of 1996 and is devoted to a game three years older than I am, I couldn’t tell you, but I guess it’s a risk). Read a bit more about the bug here.
Fixing the game so it actually works yields a rudimentary, yet pretty fun, experience. Once you take out what the game considers to be the most difficult monster–which is not the same thing as the most dangerous foe–you’re made a Lord, and asked to either try a higher difficulty, or (If playing on the highest difficulty) call a (defunct) number to report your feat. Trying to defeat all the monsters Lord British asks you to can actually be quite challenging. Besides having to keep your wits about you in dungeons so as not to get lost, getting surrounded in the early game is a real worry, and one monster in particular can put a major damper on your questing, if not outright end it, at any time, even long after you’ve killed it for the Lord British quest.
The game is sometimes called “Ultima 0”. And many of the concepts that carried over to at least the early Ultimas are first found here. Some are fairly obvious, such as killing monsters for Kings being one of the main objectives of Ultima I. Some are obvious in the Ultima-specific sense, such as the concept of gaining HP when you leave dungeons. And some are more far-reaching. Let’s be honest, the model of “Get told to kill something, do it, repeat” is what forms the basis of many an MMORPG–see this page. It’s also impressive that the enemies have something approaching a survival instinct–once you weaken them beyond a certain point (Depending on the floor of the dungeon and the difficulty you chose), they’ll retreat to regroup and regenerate HP, only advancing back toward you when their HP is back above that threshold.
One interesting side effect of Akalabeth’s simplicity is that it’s a more coherent game than the early Ultimas, especially Ultimas 1 and 2. Akalabeth is a pretty standard Dungeons & Dragons/Sword-and-Sorcery adventure all the way through. This contrasts with the early Ultimas, which had science-fiction and fantasy elements in varying proportions (The best weapon in Ultima 1 is a Laser Blaster, and you need to become a Space Ace by shooting down Totally-Not-TIE-Fighters basically because a Princess wants you to. Both Ultima 1 and 2 also have time travel, with the latter having it as a central game mechanic). There’s certainly a fun element to Ultima’s “Everything Lord British liked in one package, regardless of how well it all fit together” approach, but I can also appreciate that Akalabeth is more focused in its design.
None of this is to say that Akalabeth is a perfect game, by any means (Even when you fix it). For one, “game balance” was, at best, an afterthought. Fighters can use a wider selection of weapons, including a Bow and Arrow, while Mages get access to Magic Amulets. Magic Amulets have the ability to instantly create a ladder leading up or down in a dungeon. Suffice to say that this is HUGELY useful, much moreso than any of the Fighters’ weapons. And as mentioned before, the final foe you’ll be tasked to kill is hardly the most dangerous thing in the game. That honor would go to the Gremlin, a foe who can steal half your food, repeatedly. Worse, as a Mage, you basically have to engage it hand-to-hand, as while Magic Amulets offer a projectile attack, it’s not enough at higher difficulties to overcome the Gremlin’s “retreat regeneration”. Killing one basically comes down to “get a ton of gold to in turn get more food than you would otherwise ever realistically need, and even then hope you get lucky rolls and that it doesn’t steal all your food”.
Akalabeth also isn’t particularly long once you learn what to do. Indeed, the original versions don’t even have a save function included, although Akalabeth 1998 does. And the graphics are, to say the least, rudimentary, although they were pretty darn good for 1980 (By virtue of the fact that the game had graphics at all, admittedly). There’s also no music in the original or the fanport, though Akalabeth 1998 includes, I’m guessing, music from some of the early Ultima games (The overworld music is the music from Exodus’s Castle in Ultima 3, for instance).
Still, though, Akalabeth is fun both as a historical document, being one of the first commercially available computer RPGs with ideas that would carry over into the Ultima series, and as a game on its own. As I mentioned on stream, “I’ve spent more time with worse games and enjoyed myself less than I did playing Akalabeth”. This sounds like faint praise, but I mean it as more than that. And of course, it’s hard to beat the price of $0.00 on GOG. Just remember to either play Akalabeth 1998 or overwrite the GOG install with the later version of the fan port if you ever want to officially advance in the game.