Developed solely by Richard Garriott, a.k.a. Lord British. and published by Sierra On-Line, Ultima was an extremely influential early role playing game that spawned eight numbered sequels, several spin-offs, and the game developing and publishing company Origin Systems Inc. Ultima used a primitive 3-D engine for exploring underground dungeons, much like its predecessor Akalabeth, but it added the colorful tile-based 2-D map of the surface world that was the hallmark of the Ultima games through V. It also included a simple space simulation that combined 2-D and 3-D gameplay. As Richard Garriott later noted, he wanted to add as much to the disk as possible without really thinking about unity of theme.
The player controls a single character with a customizable name, race, class, and gender. The interface is entirely keyboard based, with a single command being mapped to almost every letter of the alphabet. For example, since "S" corresponded to "Search", "Q" was used to "Quitt & Save", even though pressing "Q" simply saved the game and did not actually quit. On the 2-D map, the character could move in the four cardinal directions and attack enemies. Entering a town or castle would load a seperate 2-D screen, while entering a dungeon would load the 3-D engine. NPCs encountered in towns could buy or sell items or offer atmospheric comments, including hints, and very powerful guards would pursue the player if they caught him or her stealing or murdering. Garriott commented that he did not want to force characters to do the right thing, i.e. not steal, but he did want there to be consequences. Several different vehicles were accessible in the game, including a horses, a ship, and a hovercraft. Different weapons and armor were available for purchase, as were magic spells which were purchased and consumed each time they were cast. As the game progressed, more technologically advanced items became available, including phasors, blasters, and powered armor.
Eventually the character would gain access to a space ship, which allowed access to the space portion of the game, which consisted of 1 screen "sectors" on which the character's space ship could rotate and thrust, much as in the game "Asteroids". Spaceports allowed the character to switch to other types of space ships, including the Shuttle, the only ship that could survive the reentry to Sosaria (the game world), the Fighter, which had more hitpoints, and the Freighter, which carried more fuel. Fuel was used to jump to different "sectors" in hopes of encountering an enemy. If there was an enemy in a sector, the character would first have to destroy it in a simple 3-D space simulator. Interestingly enough, in this view the enemy space ships look like Star Wars Tie-Fighters.
The story of the game is based on the protagonist's quest to defeat Mondain, an evil wizard who has created an immortality gem and threatens to conquer the world, and whose existence is announced in the game's manual. Mondain is no where to be found on the game's map, however, or in any of the dungeons. In order to complete the quest, the player must speak each of the kings (of whom there are eight) who rule the various parts of Sosaria. Each of these kings will give the players a quest to kill a specific monster that can only be found in the dungeons. Four of the kings will increase the player's attributes in return for completing the quest, while the other four will each give a different colored gem. The kings all each keep a princess prisoner in their castle. If the player rescues a princess, a task which usually requires defeating one or more of the powerful guards, she will say that she is looking for a space ace. The player can become a space ace by acquiring the shuttle and defeating seven enemies in the space portion of the game. Once the player rescues a pricess as a space ace, she will tell him or her about a time machine. The player can then find the time machine on the world map and [B]oard it. If the player has all four colored gems, the time machine will take him or her back to a time when Mondain is still mortal for the final showdown.
The player then appears in a one screen arena area that is clearly Mondain's lair. Mondain is a powerful enemy who can turn into a bat and move more quickly than the player. No matter how much damage the player does, Mondain will not die unless the player first destroys his gem of immortality by attacking it. Once the gem is destroyed, Mondain can be defeated and the game completed.
Ultima I laid the groundwork for many western role playing conventions. Its mix of fantasy and science fiction was carried on in the sequel but abandoned for a more traditional fantasy setting in Ultima III. Interestingly enough, in Ultima VII it is retroactively revealed through an easter egg that the space enemies in Ultima I were none other than the Kilrathi, the cat-like adversaries in Wing Commander, Origin's hit 1990's space simulator.
Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness is a re-release of the original game of the Ultima series. After founding Origin Systems Inc with his brother Robert and releasing Ultima III, Richard Garriott acquired the rights to Ultima from its original publisher, Sierra On-Line. The game was rewritten in machine language (the original was rewritten in BASIC) and given the full "Ultima treament', published in a box rather than a zip-lock bag and accompanied by a cloth map, trinkets (the three coins of the Sosarian realms), and a full manual. The gameplay and story of this re-released version are identical to the original release. The subtitle "The First Age of Darkness" is a reference to the subseqent games, Ultima II and III, which are the Second and Third Ages of Darkness.