Thursday, March 16, 2023

On a First Experience with Ultima Underworld

Out of nowhere, I decided to try out Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. Commonly cited as the predecessor to the Elder Scrolls games, and as one of the great early 3D fantasy games period, I was already halfway sold on it, and it's cheap too, so why not. I got it bundled with Ultima Underworld II for 6 bucks. 

I buy it, install, have to go fiddling with GOG but... it runs! Credit to whoever is maintaining DOSBox that installation was clean and the game ran... well not smoothly, but as smoothly as I expect it ran on computers of its era. On MacOS at that, plenty of modern games can't claim the same (I long ago tried to play Gothic, no dice). 

I boot it up, ooooh! A pixel art cinematic! Gets us efficiently into the shoes of the Avatar and pushes us to search the Stygian Abyss for the damsel Ariel. I make myself a paladin with charm and swordsmanship (named Jethro Tul, same as my first PC in Baldur's Gate) and we're off to the races!

Okay, I'm trapped in a dank, dark dungeon and- wait no, that's a bit faster than I intended, woah, and that does not move me backwards. This does have keyboard movement as default in addition to the Elder Scrolls: Arena-style mouse movement (haven't played Arena myself, just recognize the system) but it's not quite the same setup as most modern games. Take a few moments to accustom myself to the controls and peek through the manual. I'm already nervous about my first steps into the dungeon. I'm reminded of the opening moments of my first playthrough of Daggerfall, and those are great vibes to have. I can't tell what's part of the track and what might be a sound from around the corner. 

Mess with a sack on the ground, read a note, pick up a skull, get some food. Feeling a lot like Legend of Grimrock. I try to open a locked door, maybe this pull chain opens it? No dice, and I'm not trying to bash it down with this measly dagger. If I don't find the key I might try to do it with an axe later. Ah, and I have a map, which I can annotate!? Lovely! Peek around the dungeon, arm myself, kill a rat. I didn't lose a hit point (er, vitality point) to a rat, no sirree. 

Find an pack with a goodbye note, poor sucker. Peek around some more, find a more expansive area with red walls, sneak around the edges with my torch unlit. Looks secure, going t- DEAR LORD- ahem. It's juts a guy. Just a human. Standing in the middle of the room. Friendly fellow this Bragin guy, tells me to beware the green and gray goblins and to seek out the human stronghold whose banner is the ankh, and whose leader is... Caliburn? Caribu? I missed the guy's name, sorry. 

Take a moment to get my bearings and double back, then move on. I'm getting comfortable with these controls, moving cautiously... and I move a bit too fast and fall into a crack in this ramp. No issue, I can climb back up. 


This is not Daggerfall. I cannot simply climb back up. 

Oh well, I must be able to double back somehow. Trudge through water, kill an overgrown centipede, pick up a shield, throw a switch open a doorway, everything's coming up Jethro. Now just gotta GOOD LORD WHAT THE HELL IS THAT! AH, I'M POISONED, DIEDIEDIE!

Is it dead? I don't hear anything or see it anywhere, but neither do I see a bloodstain. Goddamn mass of blood-red wings and teeth. This apple isn't doing much to help the poison either, and I don't have anything resembling an antidote. No two ways about it, just have to keep moving forward. Let's try swimming through here. A bit slow going, but seems fine, is that a frog-NO THAT IS NOT A FROG GODDAMN SATANIC TEETH AND TENTACLES! I have to... oh no. I can't pull out my weapon on water. Gotta swim away, so slowly, so slowly, ow, ow, ow.

Okay, it's gone. And I have exactly one hit point left. And I wound up fleeing in the opposite direction I knew. At least I can check the map while in water. Wow, I've made it a long way. No turning backwards, I'll be easy prey for that tentacle monster. Gotta keep moving forward. Got to. Keep. moving. forward...

I sink in the freezing waters of an underground river. My vision swims, full of skulls with flaming eyes. 

In case it's not clear, this first <1 hour with Stygian Abyss has absolutely sold me on the game. Highly recommended, pick it up if you want a videogame experience that simulates old-school dungeoneering.