As most of my long-time readers know, I tend to handle my game reviews using a two-pronged approach. First, I tackle games by generation. But naturally, there’s always some games that fly under my radar the first time around. So, aside from my backlog reviews, I also have a “special project” on the side. The focus of these special reviews changes from time to time. Currently, they are focused on RPGs that I overlooked when I originally played through my backlog.
To keep things balanced, I try to alternate between my regular reviews and my special project. Most recently, I posted a “special” review for Dragon Quest V. This means, that my next post should shift focus back to my general backlog. But I’m going to break format today and move right along with my next RPG review. To buck tradition even further, I also making this a combo review. Why? Because the games I’m going to discuss today are worthy of some special attention. Today, I’m going to discuss both Ultima Underworld and Ultima Underworld II.
It’s been almost three years since I last discussed an Ultima game. Back then, I was working my way through the main Ultima series. As many old school gamers know, the Ultima games are nothing short of iconic. If you’re curious about the series, you should definitely start there. But, there’s also a handful of spin-off titles that are just as worthy of your attention. The Ultima Underworld series is a prime example of this
Before I get into the specifics about what makes these games so unique, I want to talk a bit about how these games fit in to the Ultima story as a whole. As I mentioned above, the Underworld games are not part of the main series. But they do take place in the world of Britannia and they do focus on the character of the Avatar. The first game’s place in the Ultima timeline is vague (and honestly not particularly important). The first game begins when the Avatar is summoned back to Britannia from his home on Earth. Upon arriving, he finds himself in the bedchamber of a young woman who has just been kidnapped! After peering through the bedchamber window, the Avatar sees the offender carrying the maiden away into the nearby woods. The castle guards quickly break into the room and find the Avatar present. Assuming he had a hand in the kidnapping, the Avatar is taken before the Baron for questioning. It is during this conversation that the guards reveal that they believe the Baron’s daughter to have been taken to the Stygian Abyss – a deep underground dungeon. The Baron tasks the Avatar with rescuing the maiden and thus, proving his innocence.
The sequel, Ultima Underworld II, goes in a completely different direction. This game takes place after the events of Ultima VII: The Black Gate. It assumes that the player is familiar with the Ultima VII storyline and the characters from that game. The backstory is as follows; During a celebration at Lord British’s castle, the Guardian appears and enshrouds the castle with a mysterious black dome, trapping everyone inside. While trying to find a way out, the Avatar discovers a portal that leads to eight other worlds currently under the control of the Guardian. From here, the Avatar sets out on a quest to free each world from the Guardian’s influence, hoping to weaken his power enough to liberate Castle Britannia.
Sounds exciting, right? Ready to dive right in? That’s all well and good. But if you plan on playing these games today, there’s a few things you should know going in. Getting these games to run properly on modern systems can be a bit of a challenge. To start, I recommend getting the games from GOG.com. The GOG versions of Underworld come bundled together and the package is built from CD ROM versions (which was the original definitive release). GOG has a reputation for doing an excellent job of distributing older DOS-based games and making them playable on modern systems. But even after installing the GOG releases of Underworld, there’s still a little tinkering of the config files needed if you want the best experience. These tweaks can vary widely from system to system, so I won’t get into them here. But if you’re looking for guidance, I would recommend the following pages: Ultima Underworld and Ultima Underworld II. Usually, I have no problems getting older games to run in DOS BOX. But getting these titles to run smoothly was a bit of challenge.
The Underworld games are first-person 3D dungeon crawls. Now, first-person dungeon games were certainly nothing new when these titles were released. But they were almost always presented in a step-by-step grid-based format. Ultima Underworld introduced the concept of a free-moving, 3D environment. This means that players were able to move forwards and backwards (or side-to-side) without being confined to a grid. Also, players were able to look up and down. This might not sound like much today. But back in 1992 it was groundbreaking. The game can played with just a keyboard, but doing so is rather cumbersome. Instead, the Underworld games were designed to be played with both a keyboard and a mouse. Again, also setting up a framework for future first-person games.
Character creation is pretty standard for these types of games. When creating a character you select a gender, name, and portrait. Then you are given a number of bonus points that determine your stats. From there, you select a class and a handful of skills to specialize in. The choices made during character creation have a HUGE impact on the gameplay. For this reason, it’s best to take the time needed to re-roll and get create the character you really want to play. The game manual gives in-depth descriptions of each class and how that class is handled during gameplay. For this reason alone, reading the game manual is an absolute must.
As players explore the dungeon they will encounter items and other interactive objects. Items can be picked up using the mouse, then dragged into they player’s inventory. Alternately, they can be picked up and set back down in a different location. Players can even hurl them across the room. Aside from the equipment worn by the player, characters can only hold eight items on their person – unless they find a bag or some other container. Each bag is able to hold additional items. Using a paper doll-style inventory system like the one seen in later Ultima titles, players can drag items from the environment to various bags in their collection.
The developers intended Underworld to be as interactive as possible. The dungeon is dark, so players are expected to light a torch so that they can see better. But, torches can attract monsters. Some monsters are dangerous and will attack the player on sight. But not all of them are evil. Instead of fighting everything that moves, the player will often have the opportunity to try to avoid the encounter or sometimes even talk to/reason with the creatures they come across. Ultima Underworld is a game designed to give the players a number of ways to handle the different situations that arise. In this way, it has often been referred to as more of a “dungeon simulator” than a regular game.
Aside from the drag-and-drop UI, the biggest difference between these games and the dungeon crawlers that came before is the combat. Until now, most first-person RPGs used some form of a turn-based combat system. But Underworld is quite different. Instead, it features real-time combat. Using the mouse, the player can determine what angle they want to swing their weapon from. This directional-attack combined with regular movement, makes combat quite a bit different than anything seen before.
The same can be said about the magic system in these games. Magic in Ultima Underworld is performed using rune stones that are found at various points in the game. The player can equip up to three runes at a time and when placed in various combinations, the runes represent different spells. Finding new runes and figuring out all the possible combinations and their effects is a big part of the gameplay. A number of combinations are given to the player in the game’s manual. But there’s also plenty that are considered to be secret and must be discovered through trial and error.
For me, both the combat and magic system are pretty revolutionary. I absolutely love the rune-based magic and I think the model is something that has been largely ignored by other developers. There’s so much potential in this type of system. It’s shame that other games don’t take the concept and run with it. The combat system on the other hand… I’m not a fan. I like the idea in theory, but in practice it just feels a bit clunky and imprecise.
But being the dungeon-crawl fiend that I am, my favorite aspect that this game brought to the genre would probably seem odd to most people; the auto map. That’s right, Ultima Underworld has a dynamic mapping system. The map starts off blank, but as the player explores the dungeon, progress is drawn on the map automatically. The player is able to handwrite notes and highlight areas of interest. As someone who used to use graph paper to map out dungeons while playing Wizardry, this is an absolutely amazing feature!
These days, the Underworld games have been largely forgotten by RPG enthusiasts. And that’s really a shame. Once upon a time, these games were heralded as the future of PC gaming. Everything from Wolfenstein 3D to Elder Scrolls Arena cited these games as being a major influence. I spent countless hours with both Underworld titles when I was younger and while they weren’t my favorite games, the time I spent playing them was nothing short of magical. It’s a sad fact that due to the aging technology these games employ, many modern gamers will probably never take the time to enjoy them. If any retro titles have ever deserved a remaster or remake, it’s these two games.
Version Reviewed: PC
Difficulty: Variable – When starting the Underworld games, players can opt to select the difficultly level. Regardless of the level you choose, these games are pretty brutal. For first time players, I highly recommend selecting Easy. From my own experience, this option has mostly to do with the intensity and frequency of combat in that game. The difficulty of the game itself is very much dependent on your character’s build and the skills you select when your character is made. Make no mistake, the game can be completed with any type of character. But the difficulty of the path will vary considerably.
Story: The storylines serve as little more than a set up to games themselves. But considering that these games are all about exploration, that’s more than acceptable. Of the two games, Ultima Underworld probably has the weakest backstory. But even so, it’s more than adequate for this time of game.
Originality: It’s easy to dismiss these games as being nothing more just two more dungeons crawlers. But nothing could be further from the truth. What these games contributed cannot be overstated. True 3D environments, action-based combat, rune magic – all of these things very extremely revolutionary at the time.
Soundtrack: This one is going to be tough to rate simply because the midi-based soundtrack for these games could vary in quality depending on the hardware of the PC. But even with the best hardware, the soundtrack is… well, a little odd. The music is often ambient and appropriate, but the coding behind the instruments seems wonky at times. And don’t get me started on the voice acting… Yes. It may be hard to believe, but in 1992 the first Underworld game features recorded dialogue in the opening cinematic. However, it is absolutely atrocious. Seriously.
Fun: For players that like old school CRPGs and dungeon crawlers, the Underworld games will be an absolute blast. Each game has their own high points. For me, the first game has an air of mystery about it. The atmosphere is fantastic and you never know what going to be just around the corner. The second game, on the other hand, feels much more polished and refined. But the fun always lies in the exploration and the discovery.
Graphics: It’s easy to see that these are older games. But at the time they were released, they were absolutely top-of-the-line examples of what PCs were capable of. These titles are both colorful, yet also atmospheric. The software rendered 3D environments were unlike anything ever seen before.
Playcontrol: If there’s going to be a big gripe about these games, the playcontrol is going to be it. Keep in mind, that during this era of PC gaming, there really was no “standard” control scheme. Every game featured unique controls. Underworld is an odd mixture of keyboard and mouse, and while it worked, it didn’t exactly work well. Playing these games today takes a bit of getting used to – even for me. And I’m someone who played them often many years ago.
Downloadable Content: No.
Mature Content: Fantasy violence.
Value: These days both games can be purchased together on GOG for around $5. At this price, it’s an absolute bargain.
Overall score (1-100): 90 – It’s impossible to overstate just how important the Ultima Underworld games are to PC gaming history. They contributed so much to the industry and were legendary in their time. Today, it is understandably difficult for a new player to get into them. But if someone is willing to put in the work needed to get them running correctly, take the time to read and study the game manuals, and go in with an open mind, there’s plenty of magic left to discover in these two games.
Original System: PC
Available today on: PC – (Updated as of Summer 2022)
Best Experience: PC – (Updated as of Summer 2022)
Other Games In This Series:
Ultima Underworld I – Ultima Underworld II – Underworld Ascendant
Savage Empire – Martian Dreams