Like most players, I suspect, my first exposure to Akalabeth was with the DOS port released by Electronic Arts in 1997. I had made it my mission to experience the Ultima saga from start to finish (a mission I have yet to complete as of today, as Ultima IX still remains unplayed). Even then, I cared about chronology, but hadn’t yet adopted my appreciation of playing games in their original forms. I figured DOS games ran fine on my Windows 98 box, and any changes they made had to be enhancements, so why go to the trouble of emulating an old Apple game when the DOS version worked fine and was probably better? The DOS port offered color, music, and saves, all things the original Apple II version lacked.
I remember laughing at my first ignominious death of the game. At the starting shop I loaded up on weapons, a shield, and arrows, and then immediately starved to death as I took a single step outdoors. Seemed you needed to buy some food too, and unlike Ultima I, you didn’t start the game with any rations!
I remember finding that the mage class could utterly dominate and break Akalabeth. One spell has a chance of transforming you into a lizard man, which grants a massive, permanent, and cumulative stats boost, but also can transform you into a useless toad, at which point you may as well restart. The trick was to save before casting, and if it didn’t work, to reload until it did. A few successful lizard man transforms meant you could punch out balrogs.
I remember beating it on its hardest difficulty the same afternoon that I started it, and writing it off as little more than a relic, only of interest because of its place in Ultima history. I felt it offered nothing but very basic dungeon crawling, which Ultima I offered in a nearly identical format as a small part of a bigger and better game.
Since then, I’ve started caring more about the original platform a game appeared on. Sometimes the look and feel isn’t quite the same on a DOS port, sometimes gameplay balance is upset in subtle and not so subtle ways. Case in point, the lizard man spell which trivializes Akalabeth, only does so because of the DOS-exclusive ability to save the game. I’ve never actually played the original 1980 version, so I figured it was time, with my usual rules on save states (saving only permitted after 30 minutes of earnest playtime without loading or restarting).
We begin with an illustrated intro in color. It’s crudely drawn, but also the first time on this blog we’ve seen anything like it.
Interesting that Akalabeth first introduces not only Lord British, but Mondain too. It also raises some questions on the chronology and geography – by the time of Ultima, British rules Sosaria, not Akalabeth, and Mondain has very much not been driven out of it. Are Akalabeth and Sosaria separate places, or is one part of the other? When British drove out Mondain, was that before the Avatar killed him, or are these the same event? If the former, that makes Lord British either over 1,000 years old, or a time traveler like the Avatar. I’m sure I’m just overthinking this, and Garriott was just making everything up from game to game.
Next, some instructions:
Not quite as detailed as the PLATO helpfiles, but that’s a heck of a lot more detail than many contemporary CRPGs with lengthy manuals and nothing ingame whatsoever. In fact, the original release’s manual is just these four screens printed out, plus a map legend:
Starting a new game, we get some options:
The lucky number is actually an RNG seed. The land, dungeon layouts, and starting stats are generated according to the number you enter here. Level of play must be ‘10’ in order to truly finish the game, otherwise Lord British will end the game before you finish all of his quests and challenge you to increase this next time.
These seem like pretty good stats.
And so, I set out to explore the world of Akalabeth. I mapped out the overworld, which will look like this if and only if your lucky number is 1.
Some light farming in a dungeon to the south accumulated about 45 pieces of gold, which the game also sometimes calls “pieces of eight,” and really shouldn’t since the piece of eight was historically a large silver coin worth eight smaller denominations. I spent it all on lots of food and a few sets of weapons, and headed for the castle.
|Huzzah, I have been granted a name, and a quest, just not a favorite color!|
Sometime in, it became apparent that the fighter is not a viable class at this level of play. For all intents and purposes, fighters can’t use amulets, except perhaps to invoke them over and over again in the hopes that you eventually get a ladder spell in the direction that you want and to pray you don’t get turned into a toad. Fighters can do decent damage at first with rapiers, but it doesn’t take long before monsters with over 100 HP start appearing, and they only go higher the deeper you delve.
You can always farm for HP, and there’s essentially no maximum (there’s no such thing as “healing,” you are simply rewarded with HP when leaving a dungeon based on how much you killed), so outlasting the monsters isn’t necessarily a problem. That said, thieves are extremely annoying because they will randomly steal your gear, possibly leaving you with no weapons except your fists.
But the real problem is these little bastards who live deeper:
These gremlins have a chance, every round, to steal half of your food. And by the time I found my first, he had over 100 HP and I was doing maybe 10 hits per round on a successful strike. If we assume I can hit it three times out of four and do 10 points on average, then it will take 12-15 rounds for me to kill it. That’s a minimum of 12 chances for it to steal half my grub. If we assume 6 successful food steals, and assume I need 20 food units to safely retreat to town, that means I need at least 1280 food units just to beat this guy and not starve. And this is with making some very optimistic assumptions.
Why not just grind for levels? Here’s the thing – Akalabeth hasn’t got any. You can farm for gold, HP, and gear, but those things aren’t permanent character upgrades, and won’t enhance your ability to hit enemies or inflict damage. There are only two ways to increase your stats; by completing quests for Lord British, and through the lizard man spell. The first is problematic because opportunities to do quests are finite, the initial quest to kill a carrion crawler is already taking me through gremlin territory, and subsequent quests can only send me down deeper. The second is problematic for reasons already discussed.
The mage might fare better. He can’t use rapiers or bows, but amulets’ Kill spell can out-damage both, is ranged, and by using ladder spells might just be able to evade gremlins by skipping floors where they appear.
Alas, this approach didn’t last long. Amulets are expensive, and thieves infest nearly every level. On any level deep enough to have worthwhile treasure, thieves would have lots of HP, and trying to avoid them while farming for chests wasn't practical. So I'd engage them in combat, get stolen from again and again, and suffer a net loss; what a single thief would steal from me would cost more to replace than what I'd gain from collecting all the treasure chests in the area.
So, Lizard Man it is. A player in 1980 might not be able to save scum, but one could try right at the start of the game, and restart if they don’t like the outcome. So that’s what I did. For reasons I’ll get into in my next post, you have to do this after accepting Lord British’s first quest. The outcome of the RNG is predetermined when you step into a dungeon, so if the outcome is bad (as it was when I entered the dungeon near Lord British’s castle), go to a different dungeon next time. One dungeon granted a successful roll.
|I'm ready to punch a thief in his stupid face.|
And the best part? If you leave the dungeon, come back to the same place any time later, and use the amulet again, you turn into a lizard man again, which I found it necessary to do when even my 62 strength wasn’t enough to contend with a gremlin on level 5 before he could spoil all my food.
With 160+ strength and 130+ dexterity it was pretty smooth sailing. No monster could harm me. I did have to kill a gremlin as a quest for Lord British, and I prepared for it by farming gold and buying 2000 food, but it only stole from me twice leaving me with 500 food.
Eventually, Lord British asked me to kill a balrog, which I found roaming on level 10.
Like all other monsters, I killed it without taking a scratch, and then I returned to the surface with my amulet spells, and visited Lord British for the last time.
The game continues, but unless you want to see how deep you can spelunk, there’s nothing else to do at this point.
Playing the original version of this game has not endeared it to me. Instead of beating it easily by abusing spells with savescumming, I tried to beat it honestly, failed, and then beat it easily by abusing spells with RNG manipulation. And I can’t see how you’re supposed to beat the game at level 10 otherwise; even with one successful Lizard Man transformation, which alone took my stats far beyond what they can reach by any other means, I still wasn’t killing gremlins fast enough to save my food.
Maybe it’s my fault for playing at level 10, and maybe it’s more fun at a lower level, but I think the fact that it’s presented as a viable gameplay option means it should have been programmed as one. If there had been some ingame guidance advising me to play it at, say, level 5, I’d have done so. The additional fact that at any lower level, Lord British will challenge you to win again at the next one, indicates that Garriott intended winning at level 10 to be an achievable feat, and unless he also intended it to be beaten through multiple Lizard Man transformations, then he failed.