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Ultima and Wizardry retrospectives at the Digital Antiquarian

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Ultima and Wizardry retrospectives at the Digital Antiquarian

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Sat 17 November 2012, 17:57:14

Tags: Akalabeth: World of Doom; Richard Garriott; Sir-Tech; The Digital Antiquarian; Ultima; Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness; Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress; Wizardry; Wizardry II: The Knight of Diamonds; Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Back in March, we reported about two Wizardry-related articles at Jimmy Maher's Digital Antiquarian, a blog dedicated to covering the early beginnings of the gaming industry. Since then, we've unfortunately not kept track of this excellent blog. Now it's time to catch up.

While primarily dedicated to early interactive fiction, the Digital Antiquarian has continued to cover the genesis of the two famous early CRPG franchises - Wizardry and Ultima. After a retrospective playthrough of both Ultima I and Wizardry I, he penned this article in March, titled "The Wizardry Phenomenon":

Of the two long-lived CRPG franchises that made their debuts in 1981, the Ultima series would prove to be the more critically and commercially successful in the long term. Yet in a state of affairs that brings to mind clichés about tortoises and hares and battles and wars, it was the first Wizardry game that really captured imaginations, not to mention the most sales, in 1981 and 1982. Ultima, mind you, was another very big success for Richard Garriott, receiving positive reviews and selling 20,000 copies in its first year. It along with Akalabeth made him a very prosperous young man indeed, enough that he would soon have to question whether there was any point in continuing at university to prepare for a “real” career (a story we’ll get to later). But Wizardry was operating on another plane entirely.​

If reviews of Ultima were very positive, early reviews of Wizardry were little short of rapturous. Softalk, who published a review even before the game was available thanks to a pre-release copy, called Wizardry not just a game but “a place,” and “the ultimate computer Dungeons and Dragons,” and said those who “don’t give this game a try” would be “missing much.” Computer Gaming World called it “one of the all-time classic computer games,” “the standard by which all fantasy role-playing games should be compared.” Even Dragon magazine took note. In one of its occasional nods to the CRPG scene, it said that “there is so much good about this game, it’s difficult to decide where to begin,” and that it “would excite any dedicated fantasy role-player.” The consensus of these reviewers is that Greenberg and Woodhead had in some sense perfected the idea of D&D on the microcomputer, producing the first compulsively playable example of the form after all of the not-quite-there-yet experiments of Automated Simulations and others. While Ultima, for one, certainly has its own charms, it’s difficult to entirely disagree.​

The article recalls Wizardry's enormous initial success and its effect on the fledgling gaming industry of the time, while also noting some of the missteps which perhaps heralded its eventual fall from grace.

After an hiatus, the Digital Antiquarian resumed posting about the early CRPGs in October, with this article about the sequels to Wizardry and Ultima. He notes that while Wizardry II was a solid and "more of the same" title, almost like an expansion pack, Ultima II was a more problematic project, perhaps marred by Richard Garriott's personal issues with his publisher, the future Sierra On-Line:

Woodhead and Greenberg, then, did the safe, conservative thing with their sequel, leveraging their existing tools to give the gaming public more of what they had loved before, and very quickly and with minimal drama at that. It was a commercially astute move, one of the last that the pair and Sir-Tech would make for a franchise that they would soon mismanage to the brink of oblivion. The story of Ultima II, by contrast, is much longer and messier, spanning eighteen months rather than six and involving major technical changes, business failures, and some minor crises in the life of the young Richard Garriott. The game that finally emerged is also longer, messier, and much more problematic than Knight of Diamonds, but in its gonzo way more inspiring.​

[...] Without the distractions of a full-time university course-load, Garriott could now work full-time on his new game. Yet progress proved slower than expected. He had jumped in at the deep end in attempting to code something as ambitious as this as literally his first assembly-language project, ever. Ken tried to be as patient and encouraging as possible, keeping his in-house programming staff available as a sort of technical-support hotline for Richard. When Richard truly looked to be foundering about mid-year, he invited him to stay in Oakhurst for a time in one of the flats he had bought up around town, to work in On-Line’s offices and enjoy the feedback and comaraderie of the group. It seems to be here that the relationship really began to deteriorate.​

[...] The game he was promoting had taken a full eighteen months to create, an unprecedentedly long time even in comparison to previous monster efforts like Sierra’s own Time Zone. Like that game, Ultima II proved to be a deeply flawed design, whose internal messiness echoed much of the stress and confusion that had marked its maker’s life over the months of development. At the same time, however, it may have been a necessary step on the way to the later, more celebrated Ultimas. We’ll talk about both aspects next time.​

The Digital Antiquarian's latest CRPG-related post is, as stated, a retrospective playthough of Ultima II, which notes the many oddities of this title (widely considered to be the black sheep of the early Ultima series) but also praises its sense of exploration.

That's it for now. We will continue to report on more articles from this fascinating blog in the future. If you'd like to read more, you may also want to check out this post from last year on Ultima Aiera (now the Ultima Codex) that recapped the Digital Antiquarian's Ultima-related articles from last December. These articles covered Richard Garriott's early beginnings in the industry and the creation of Akalabeth, the precursor to Ultima.

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