Today is a day of finally accomplishing things--I set up an appointment for an eye doctor after about three years, and now I'll talk about Ultima and Ultima II after about three weeks of nothing!
Of the first group of "learning" games I think Ultima I (technically the name of the game is Ultima, but that will just get everyone confused, so I'll stick with Ultima I) is the most successful. The game has essentially three components: Dungeoneering in the depths of various continents to solve quests, exploring the continents to solve quests, and flying into space to shoot down aliens! The dungeon section seems like it was ripped directly from Akalabeth, but with the addition of a few monsters, and a significant improvement of the gameplay and interface. The exterior world is a tremendous improvement, abandoning the goofy vector-drawn huge squares of the first game for a much zoomed-out view of the world, with distinctive albeit repetitive towns and castles.
The new graphics and the carefully sculpted world abandon the absurd randomization of Akalabeth and make the game world seem larger. In fact, that's the main advantage of the multi-scale game world that persisted from Ultima I to Ultima V, in that the world feels gigantic even if the size is essentially illusory (as it is, for that matter, in the single scale games...but we'll talk about that later). Ultima I also strives for a grandiose time scale, where as game turns proceed, new weapons, armor and modes of transport become available, beginning with horses and ending with air cars and rocket ships. Technologically, the game is almost impossible to play today without substantial hacking. On an Apple II emulator, it runs abysmally slow or incomprehensibly fast--I'm not sure how it behaved on a real system--and is prone to game-stopping bugs if you die or go into outer space. It's no wonder it was remade later into the game most people have played!
Bugs aside, the game is really quite attractive for its time; I especially appreciated the speed of the outer space sequences, which utilize a few assembly routines as compared to the shockingly slow BASIC of the rest of the game. I enjoy how Lord British crammed so much into this game at the very beginning of the series. All of the early games up to and including Ultima IV barely have a plot in the sense of a storyline that grows as you learn more; in Ultima I, what you know in the beginning is the back story (Mondain is evil, kill him) and this doesn't change at all. That's the main reason the early games get to feel so open-ended.
There are two really interesting moments in Ultima I, in my opinion. First there is the insanity of the princesses trapped in jail cells in the castles of the land. The requirements to beat the game are truly strange--you must kill a clown, rescue the princess (presumably the king's daughter, in spite of the total lack of queens), she tells you where a time machine is located (in plain sight, but apparently invisible before) and you go back in time to kill Mondain. Of course, the princess only does this...if you've shot down twenty ships in space! I think this is one of the more oddball quest sequences in any of the games, but yet there's something charming about it.
The second favorite moment is that final confrontation with Mondain. I guess a lot of people would view it as a total letdown, because his domain is just one big square with Mondain and a vaguely diamond-shaped gem in the center. Yet there are also random blasts of multicolored lightning about, and I enjoy imagining what the primitive graphics might represent. I prefer to take it very literally--an empty void of space, with nothing but you, Mondain, and a gem surrounded by nothingness. No doubt a contemporary version would render the final chamber as some cliché evil fiend's domain with blood here and there, some tasteful torture implements, maybe a skull...So for that reason I enjoy the Ultima I ending quite a bit! It's almost as mysterious a chamber as the one which Lord British resides in at the end of Ultima V...
I think Ultima I is clearly superior to Akalabeth as it contains all its predecessor's major features, and Ultima I feels like a much more complete game than Ultima II. In spite of the strangeness of some of the game elements like space tracel and time machines, it doesn't feel like one gigantic joke the way Ultima II does, and the game play and the path to victory while strange are not as counterintuitive as those of Akalabeth, and there's a much stronger sense of accomplishment once you finish the game.
I should get back to work on that port of the original version of the game. The remake borrows far too much from later games in the series and loses the sense of excitement Lord British obviously felt as he tossed all these interesting game elements into one big soup. It's not great game that stands the test of time, but it was a very successful experiment, so it would be nice to bring the original version back to life in a playable form.