March 27th, 2012, is the 20th anniversary of the North American release of Ultima Underworld, the ground-breaking and revolutionary 3D dungeon crawling adventure developed by Blue Sky Productions/Looking Glass Studios and published by Origin Systems.
The game was a dungeon simulator in the truest sense of the word, and though it did not begin development as an Ultima title, its developers had always hoped that the game would represent a chance for the Ultima series to return to the 3D perspective that had characterized its first five instalments. This “virtual reality” (a term that meant a very different thing in 1992) role-playing game used a 3D engine that was, for its time, remarkably advanced. Though it came out several months before Wolfenstein 3D, it featured textured ceilings and floors, sloped surfaces, angled walls. These came at the cost of higher system requirements, of course, but were also features that took a number of years to return to mainstream 3D gaming.
In Ultima Underworld, the player is cast in the role of the Avatar, who is summoned back to Britannia approximately twenty years after the events of Ultima 6. He arrives in the room of one Princess Arial, the daughter of Baron Almric, who is the lord of a castle set to guard the now-sealed entrance to the Great Stygian Abyss. When Arial is kidnapped shortly after his/her arrival, the Avatar is of course blamed, and is sentenced to imprisonment within the Abyss. If the Avatar is to have any hope of leaving the Abyss again, he/she must return to its entrance with the still-living princess in tow.
Within its depths, the Avatar will find the Abyss peopled by numerous races, all of whom at one time had heeded the call of Sir Cabirus to found a colony — built upon the Eight Virtues — within its depths. That colony failed with Cabirus’ death, of course, and the surviving inhabitants of it were left trapped within the depths of the Abyss when the doorway into it was sealed. Eventually, the Avatar learns of a terrifying plot to summon a great demon, the Slasher of Veils, into Britannia, and must put a stop to it before the princess can be safely returned to her father.
Ultima Underworld, despite its technical excellence and critical acclaim, did not sell well…at least initially. Word-of-mouth boosted its popularity over time, and it went on to sell over 500,000 copies, capturing numerous awards as it did. More recently, it has been made available for purchase on Good Old Games, where it continues to garner rave reviews.
To mark its 20th anniversary, The Ultima Codex has put together a tribute website for the game, featuring numerous pieces of information and history about the game, including:
- an interview with Dan Schmidt, who was a programmer on the game
- Dan Schmidt’s design notebook, scanned and presented for your reading pleasure
- a look at the game’s automapping feature, one of the unsung features of the game
- Warren Spector’s cover art concept sketches, which were later rendered in greater detail and colour by Denis Loubet
- Old advertisements for the game
- The completion certificate for the game
- Numerous fan projects and patches for the game