The King of the Underworld is Exploration

Ultima Underworld

Chalk another game off my backlog, I just completed Ultima Underworld and I must say it was much more than the game I was expecting. Sometimes when the nostalgia bug bites, you head back to an older game or two, and they just don’t hold up. It’s not as good as you remember it being, the graphics are just too dated to enjoy it, or times have changed so much that the flow of the game is totally opposed to today’s standards. Ultima Underworld, though, was more of a look into the future from the past.

Did I forget to mention that you could also play musical instruments in Underworld? Yup, you totally could. Not only that, but at one point it became integral to the main quest. Fishing, too. The amount of features stuffed into this one game, a game who this month is turning 23 years old, is absolutely staggering. Not only did the game hold up well over time, it held up well enough for me to play a complete runthrough of the game without even wanting to divert my attention elsewhere.

Ultima Underworld

I should… call Origin to receive a personal congratulations?! I wonder if any one of the old Origin employees or anyone at EA would honor this.

The best feature of Underworld, hands down, is it really nailed that feeling of exploration. The storyline was bare at best, and revolved around saving a maiden and finding a handful of particular items, using clues given by the NPCs you met. Finding them is what drove you forward, and every item you needed was just down one more level tucked into a far corner somewhere or held by some unsuspecting NPC, and all you had to do was find it. Around any corner could be a monster that would slap you around, a friendly face, a pile of treasure, a piece of lore, a freaking game of Pac-Man, a talking door, a developer homage, lava and waterfalls, a platform puzzle, etc. In other words, Ultima Underworld rewarded handsomely the person who explored every nook and cranny.

Ultima Underworld, Pac-Man

So I’m to collect these blue orbs as I run around this maze that’s filled with different colored ghosts. Sure, that sounds perfectly reasonable.

And not a single drop of procedural generation was used. The only randomness seemed to come from periodic monster spawns. After clearing a level occasionally you would meet a random monster, and these either didn’t happen often, or happened and they mixed in so well that they weren’t that noticeable. They didn’t use random encounters as an experience crutch, though, as is commonly found in a metric ton of other games. Everything was on purpose. But even with those rails, it felt like the rails didn’t exist.

Werit, another Star Trek Online player, makes a couple great points about the topic of exploration. If “exploration” is made procedurally generated, it doesn’t “feel” like you’re really exploring. It instead feels like you’re traveling down the highway and seeing yet another rest stop. A few restaurants, maybe a quirky gift shop, bathrooms, and that’s about it. If all you have to look forward to with more exploration is yet another rest stop, it doesn’t feel that fulfilling. And yet, Star Trek Online players, like many other players, are clamoring for more exploration!

Ultima Underworld really nailed what games today are still having problems trying to emulate. The Elder Scrolls series, I think, has come the closest to that feeling of rewarding exploration, where you could pick any direction and find rewarding adventure. That’s the reason why Skyrim has sold an almost mind-boggling amount of units. Rewarding exploration is what players really want. It is also why The Elder Scrolls Online didn’t fare so hot on release, their rails were showing too much.

Ultima Underworld, Warren Spector

A spectre named Warren, a not-so-subtle nod to Warren Spector. Wonder why he’s upset, though? Maybe the whole ‘ghost’ thing has something to do with it.

Not many younger players these days can stomach a game that has such dated graphics, no matter how good it is. Ultima Underworld, though, felt like listening to good classic rock. Different from today’s music, both in structure and style, but the soul never changes.

Playing Ultima Underworld evoked feelings like listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. You know that what you’re experiencing is from a different time period, but that does nothing to diminish the genius that went into producing it.

//Ocho

P.S. – By the way, mark it down. On March 2nd, 2015 the Internet was won by Ocho.

Ultima Underworld, Richard Garriott, Congratulations

P.S. – Supporting the Underworld Ascendant Kickstarter for me was a no brainer. It’s being produced by the same designer, Paul Neurath, someone who obviously knows what’s up. Their biggest hurdle, I believe, will be in topping what was an industry-changing game. No small feat.

P.P.S.- Here are links to my other two writeups on Underworld: My initial writeup, My mid-game writeup.

Ultima Underworld, Moongate

The whole Pink Floyd analogy was a little more apt, too. The run after the final encounter is a little… trippy.

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8 thoughts on “The King of the Underworld is Exploration

  1. Completely disagree with Werit, but I will save that for a post of my own. Congrats on the fun trip down nostalgia lane, I enjoyed the same with Might and Magic 2 last year. Its amazing to see which games have aged well and which haven’t. Its an exploration process in its own right I suppose.

    • Might and Magic 2? Nice. Not long ago, I tried playing some of the old M&M, too, but I started with 3… and didn’t get that far in. More recently, though, I picked up M&M X, the homage to M&M games of old, but with newer graphics, and have been making progress in that. You’re absolutely right, it is an exploration in it’s own right. That’s why I think I get frustrated with grind in games. Like, I could be running the same stuff over and over and over again, but why would I when there’s still so much great stuff I haven’t played yet.

  2. Is it just me or are these classic RPGs just SO much harder than new age titles? I enjoyed having to grind before advancing in these games, but there’s no sense of challenge in newer titles. I loved Ultima Underworld. I remember buying a collection of all the Ultima Games and playing through them on my PC years ago. Good times.

    • It’s not just you. Newer games don’t have the difficulty level of some of the older games. Of course, some of that difficulty was wrestling with the old UIs, though. Newer titles, I think, make themselves purposefully easier just to attract more customers. I’ve been watching a Twitch streamer lately that has been playing through the first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, and she keeps being floored as to how challenging it is. Out of all the Ultimas, I have never completed 1, 2, 3 (and may not, they are just *too* dated), 5, 7:Part 2, Underworld 2, Martian Dreams, and Savage Empire. I *will* finish all of them, though… eventually. 🙂

  3. X left me feeling kinda meh after the first dungeon. I then went back to 8…7…6…5…and finally realized I just wanted to play 2 again.

    And I agree about the challenge. M&M2 is about taking baby steps and doing a lot of save and load. I’m wondering if, since I seem to handle that okay, something like Elminage Gothic would be a fun investment (http://store.steampowered.com/app/291960/).

    • Maybe it’s because I cut my teeth on Clouds/Darkside/World of Xeen that X felt so… natural. I have no idea how far I am in it, though. Through a few dungeons, anyway. Ha! If you like the challenge of 2, have you looked into the old Wizardry titles? I remember at the time I played Xeen that the Wizardry titles were like M&M but more hardcore. … and sure enough, that Steam link even says a lot about how it’s reminiscent of Wizardry. For something even close to point-and-click graphics, I believe Wizardry 7 was the first that utilized it.

      And thanks. I’ve tweeted back and forth with Garriott a few times. From what I’ve seen, he’s not one to pass up acknowledging fans, especially when it’s something small like this. 😛

  4. While I’d agree with you on the sentiment behind exploration in games and that the Elder Scrolls has probably done the best job of matching what Ultima did in regards to it, I’d argue that Morrowind did it better than Oblivion or even Skyrim. Both of the latter titles had ways of ‘streamlining’ the experience via more fast travel options, quest markers, and the like, whereas Morrowind almost expected you to get lost at some point or another. And that’s when the magic really happens – the discoveries you make when you wander off the beaten path and actually find something worthwhile there. Whether it’s the backstreets of a European city, the wilderness of Vvardenfell, or the dungeons of Britannia, it’s those moments where I’m most likely to go “Whoa, now THAT was cool to find.”

    And yeah, it’s hard to find something procedurally generated that truly feels ‘natural.’ There’s a lot to be said for them in regards to efficiency, and they work when it comes to things like roguelikes and more pure dungeon crawls, but if you’re aiming for something else – well. You just can’t beat the human touch.

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