|This main screen is from a later DOS re-make, by which time the game had become known as Ultima 0.|
[Edit from 2 March 2013: Over three years after I hurriedly wrote about Akalabeth at the beginning of my blogging experience, I revisited the game in much more detail, playing the original Apple II version. I strongly recommend reading the updated posting for a more thorough understanding of the game and its mechanics. I also visited some of the PLATO games discussed here in a December 2011 posting on “The Earliest CRPGs” and further entries on each of the PLATO games that you can read by following my Index of Games Played by Year. This posting is preserved for historical reasons, but there’s really no reason to read it.]
Wikipedia’s chronology of CRPGs starts in 1974 and 1975 with dnd and Dungeon, two games that never received a DOS port. I would have liked to try them out, and indeed the article notes that dnd “continues to be played this day on the NovaNET system and Cyber1.” But frankly, if it’s not downloadable and installable on my laptop within a reasonable time frame, it’s off the list.
The first DOS-based game we come to is Origin’s 1979 Akalabeth: World of Doom, also known as Ultima 0, because it features Lord British and several gameplay mechanics that I remember from Ultima I. In this game, we first find the outdoors top-down perspective contrasting with the 3D dungeon-crawl perspective that would remain part of the series, if I recall correctly, all the way through Ultima V (I haven’t played any of the Ultimas in about 10 years, so I might be misremembering).
I played Akalabeth more than four months ago now (the idea of a blog not having occurred to me back then), and I was surprised by how quick it went. There really isn’t much to it; it’s more of a demonstration project than a game. After you create your initial character and buy a few supplies (your weapons are limited to a rapier, an axe, a bow, and a magic amulet), you head over to Lord British’s castle to get your first monster-killing quest, and then start plumbing the dungeons.
Akalabeth shares what I remember as Ultima I’s odd trait of awarding hit points based on the time you spend in the dungeon. If you descend with 25 hit points, go down two levels, kill five or six monsters, and head back up to the surface, the game might up you to 30 or 40 hit points. Descend again, try another level, and re-emerge and find yourself with 50. You essentially keep doing this until you have enough to brave the lower reaches and kill the monsters you’ve been quested to kill. Monsters appear predictably on their levels. Level 1 always has one skeleton and one thief. Level 2 will have a skeleton, a thief, and an orc. Level 3: a skeleton, a thief, and orc, and a snake, and so on down the line. The dungeons are generated every time you start a new game, but within that game, all the dungeons look the same.
You gain gold in Akalabeth, but after you make your initial equipment buys, it’s really only good for food. In the early stages, starving to death is a real danger, but after you’ve made a couple of dungeon trips, you have a few thousand meals in your backpack and gold ceases to be very useful. So do weapons, for that matter, once you learn that repeated use of the magic amulet will increase your net statistics to the point that you can kill the toughest creature with one strike from your bare hands.
Wikipedia’s next titles on the list were two 1979 games in the Dunjonquest series, then Space and Space II, also both 1979. If these were ever available for DOS, I couldn’t find them. Temple of Apshai was next but the only version I found was the trilogy released in 1985. Based on my rules, I should have played it next anyway, but I didn’t have a clear plan back then so I moved on to Rogue. That’s where my blog really begins.