Although Ultima I is the first game in the series proper, the Ultima series doesn’t really start until Ultima IV. Only later games even start tying together the hero(es) of Ultima I-III with the Avatar at all. The earlier games are similar in engine and design to the later series, but contain a number of elements that would seem terribly out of place in say, Ultima VII. Like space combat against TIE fighters.
The original 1981 version of Ultima (without the “I” or subtitle) is very hard to come by. The version I’m discussing is the 1987 16-color PC remake, which runs quite a bit more nicely than the original BASIC version. Like later games in the series, the box comes with a lot of neat extra stuff. The game manual is basically a fantasied-up description of various things in the game (monsters, races, equipment, and so on), and the game came with four cardboard maps of the four continents.
Ultima I’s world is incredibly vast compared to that of Akalabeth, the precursor to the Ultima series, and unlike that game is not randomly generated. There are four land masses to explore, each with a similar collection of towns, castles, and other notable landmarks. Because each land mass is separated by water, Ultima I introduces the most frustrating early-Ultima mechanic: having to wait for transportation. It’s not as bad as Ultima II, since you can actually buy a hovercar pretty easily, but the game seems quite limited until you do so.
Ultima I introduces a number of gameplay elements the series would become known for. For instance, the actual plot progression in the game does not involve killing anything (save the aforementioned TIE fighters), nor ever entering a dungeon. Dungeon crawling is a great source of treasure and food, however, and is necessary for sidequests to increase your Strength score. Your other stats are increased only through exploration.
Unfortunately, though Ultima I paints a vast tapestry with its world, its mechanics are simple enough that you will very quickly discover how to abuse them, and to do otherwise becomes boring quickly. With the same monsters popping up on the overworld or any dungeon in the game, there just isn’t much depth of combat. The game does end with a satisfying final battle with Mondain the dark wizard, a less straightforward fight than one would expect from such an old game.
Ultima I is a relic of history, and can be fun to play around with, though there’s not much reason to beat it other than “it’s really short.” Dialogue in the game, or even text, is almost nonexistant, and the combat lacks any depth, but despite that the plot is relevant to the Ultima universe: one of the four land masses even makes a fairly accurate reappearance in Ultima VII Part 2.