Priority CRPG 1: Akalabeth – World of Doom (1979)

From CRPG Adventures

For those who missed my earlier post on the subject, I’ve decided to prioritise some of the games and series that I really want to play.  I’ll still be going through my chronological list, but after every four games I’m going to jump ahead a little in the timeline to play a classic.  The first game on the Priority List is Akalabeth: World of Doom, the first ever commercial release from Richard Garriott and the first game in the Ultima series.

I have a pretty long history with Ultima, although I only played Ultima IV as a kid (on the Sega Master System, which is an excellent and faithful port of the game).  The rest of the series I came to as an adult, when a friend of mine loaned me a collection of all nine games when I was 21.  Akalabeth was the first game I played out of that collection, making this another first for the blog: a game that I’ve actually played before.  I played it back in 2000, and maybe once or twice since then, but probably not for over a decade.  I  also only ever played the DOS port.  For the blog I’m going back to the original Apple version.

Do I need to go into Garriott’s history?  Probably not; for those who want to do a deep dive on that, the Digital Antiquarian has written it up better than I ever could.  The short version is that Garriott grew up in Texas with an astronaut father and an artist mother, got into computers as a teenager at computer camp, and managed to get school credit for creating CRPGs on a teletype machine.  Garriott was an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons, and used it as inspiration for the games he created, calling the first one DND.

That first game was created in 1977.  Over the next two years Garriott continued to iterate upon it, eventually creating 28 different versions.  Most of these are lost to the ages, but a few years ago he released the source code to the very first one, and some implementations of it were put up on the internet. I covered it a while ago, in this post.  After he finished high school, Garriott made a deal with his father that allowed him to purchase an Apple II, and it was on that machine that he created Akalabeth.  (Whether he did so before or after starting college has been a point of minor contention, as has the initial release date. I’ve listed it as a 1979 game in deference to Garriott’s longstanding version of events, but there’s compelling evidence to suggest that it might have been 1980.)

Akalabeth was inspired by a game called Escape!, a simple 3D maze game on the Apple II.  With artistic help from his mother and some mathematical help from his father, he was able to implement a similar system, and wed it to a port of his most recent version of DND, giving it the rather prosaic name of DND28b.  Garriott spent some time over the summer working for the local Computerland store, and the owner saw the game and suggested he should package and sell it in the shop.  This he did, renaming it Akalabeth, and sealing the disks in ziploc bags with an art insert drawn by his mother.  (It’s been said that Akalabeth was the name of one of his D&D worlds, but obviously he nicked it from Tolkien’s Akallabêth, the tale of the rise and fall of Numenor. Regardless, the content of the game has little to do with Tolkien’s work.).  The games – somewhere between 15 and 200 according to various sources – eventually sold out.

Perfect perspective?! I gotta buy that game!

This was enough to gain the attention of California Pacific, a software company of the time. This version of the game received new cover art from Dennis Loubet, and a much wider distribution.  According to Garriott it sold approximately 30,000 copies, netting him the tidy sum of $150,000.

The California Pacific cover, and Garriott’s first dabbling with Satanic imagery.

I did want to cover some gameplay in this post.  I played it for a good couple of hours on Saturday while I spent the day in quarantine. (I don’t have the coronavirus, but I did have some hayfever sniffles, so my wife put me in timeout just in case.)  Alas, it’s 2:30am right now and I do have to go to work tomorrow, so I’ll be back with more on Sunday.  Perhaps I’ll have finished it by then, perhaps not; I’m not looking to rush through this one.

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