Ultima Underworld – 20th Anniversary

Today is the 20th anniversary of the North American release of Ultima Underworld and I couldn’t let that pass without commemorating the occasion in some small way. In a never to be repeated fit of organisation, I’ve several Underworld posts ready to go which will be appearing throughout the day. I’ll be starting slowly with some reminiscing and finishing off with something a little special.

I’ve often described Ultima Underworld as my favourite game of all time. It was the first RPG I ever finished and the game that got me into Ultima all those years back. I expect that any gaming veteran will hold a soft spot for their first completed RPG which may be a large part of its lasting appeal. It was never the most accessible genre, and the game that could entice any unwary youth to spend enough hours to get to the end would need to be something special.

With the amazing 3D engine Underworld clearly had a huge advantage in drawing in the uninitiated but I had to turn most of the textures off to play the game on my PC and it still managed to absorb me completely. The aspect that appealed the most was the world simulation. In fact it was even nominated by the SPA for simulation of the year, eventually losing out to SimLife. You can’t read too much into these award ceremony results. In the same year Ultima 7 along with Star Trek 25th Anniversary and Fate Of Atlantis lost out for best game to Darkseed. I’ll say no more.

Despite losing out for that particular award, Underworld was at its heart a dungeon simulator first and foremost. Everything in the game followed the rules of that world and problems presented to the player often had numerous solutions because of it. I remember that I used to be quite fond of luring creatures to the edge of a cliff, then jumping at them to knock them into the water and drown them. In hindsight this wasn’t the best way to play the game, but it worked.

I’m sure that playing it these days, my appreciation is largely nostalgia but anyone who played this at the time will recall the sheer immersion and oppressive atmosphere which far surpassed anything before it. For me it typifies what Origin games are about, even if it was almost entirely created externally. It took an amazing game engine and added layers of depth, polish, gameplay and story to create something that blew every one of its competitors completely out of the water. A year later, major releases like Lands Of Lore still looked like relics by comparison. Suffice to say, it will always remain one of my all time favourite games although I’ve played it to death over the years.

It’s a game that should have spawned a genre and perhaps in the shape of Elder Scrolls it arguably did. Arena was very clearly influenced by Underworld although massively inferior in my eyes, if more ambitious in scope. While Elder Scrolls would build momentum over the years, this never happened with Underworld itself and the series was all too short-lived. There was a single sequel which was something of a rush job being completed in about 9 months to capitalise on the success of the first. This meant the engine was largely unchanged but at least the rush wasn’t evident in the gameplay and storytelling which improved on the original all round. A further sequel was planned but never made it into development. Origin allegedly saw Underworld as something of a fad and when Underworld 2 sold half as many as the original this confirmed it. Later attempts to revive the series never got too far out of the blocks.

About a decade later, we did get Arx Fatalis which could have been Underworld 3 had the license been acquired. This game is still a spiritual successor but despite that I’ve never got around to playing it myself. If there was ever a time to put that right it has to be now and I’ll be blogging my way through it in the near future.

Less well known is that a sequel to Arx Fatalis was developed but the publishers weren’t keen on the IP and that sequel ended up becoming Might And Magic – Dark Messiah. This is a game I have played although without that bit of knowledge at the time. It didn’t strike me as being Underworld 4 when I wasn’t looking for it but there are certainly similarities and it was even worked on by Looking Glass founder Paul Neurath.

1 thought on “Ultima Underworld – 20th Anniversary

  1. Ultima Undwerworld was indeed a great game. It was the first Ultima I saw, but not the first one I played (that one was u7). Underworld was not translated to spanish and at that time I didn’t understand english at all.

    The thing I remember the most about it was watching my brother play it and get stuck at a cliff that seemed unpassable. He tried to jump several times but he never got to the other part. I was just a kid and I didn’t understand how games worked, so I just told him to drop the backpack first and then jump. Both my brothers looked at me as if I didn’t knew it was just a game and those kind of things didn’t work on games, but in the end It worked and I was really intrigued with the game and how realistic it was. I don’t know if it was just luck or was the physics of the engine, but at that time just watching that was great.

    A year later I started playing Ultima VII (which was translated to spanish and was more accessible for me). I didn’t knew both games were part of the same series (even though they both were named Ultima) until years later.

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