Ultima Underworld Was Released Twenty-Five Years Ago
Blue Sky Productions’ (later Looking Glass Studios) Ultima Underworld, if you can believe it, was released in March of 1992…fully a quarter-century ago. And looking back on the history of video games, it’s indisputable that Ultima Underworld has had a significant impact on the shape of video games — across multiple genres — today.
For example, many first-person shooters owe a great debt of inspiration to Ultima Underworld, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way. The game was released a few months before another well-known first-person game: Wolfenstein 3D. And, in fact, John Carmack drew inspiration for the Wolfenstein game engine from Ultima Underworld…or, at least, set out to build a faster renderer. And while he did succeed in that goal, he did so at the expense of several features that Ultima Underworld had, including angled walls, textured ceilings, and sloped floors. 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.
Additionally, if you’ve perchance heard of a little game called Skyrim, the fifth entry in the The Elder Scrolls series, it’s well worth noting that Todd Howard and others at Bethesda Game Studios drew considerable inspiration for the The Elder Scrolls games from Ultima Underworld. And, of course, the developers of Ultima Underworld would go on to create System Shock and Deus Ex; the BioShock games are direct descendants of the former.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Underworld Ascendant, an effort to create a modern, spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld being spearheaded by many of the same developers who worked on the original game.
Ultima Underworld 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. The virtual reality (a term that meant a very different thing in 1992) that the game boasted — what we’d now call the immersive sim features of its 3D engine — was, for its time, remarkably advanced. And, indeed, the immersive features that it pioneered can be found in many games today, including the newly-released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
So it should come as no surprise that Ultima Underworld continues to be included on lists of the most important games of all time, even after games like Ultima 7 have been stricken from same.
Sadly, I don’t have any special/new content lined up to celebrate this anniversary of the game. However, I would encourage you to check Ultima Underworld out if you haven’t yet done so — it can be obtained for a pittance from GOG. Additionally, I’ll be working on the Ultima Underworld subdomain here at the Codex for the rest of the week, making sure that all of the download entries there are in good working order.