Akalabeth Playthrough, Part 1: RPGish?

Akalabeth is a game developed by Richard Garriott (of Ultima fame) in 1979 while he was in high school and released in 1980.  The standard narrative goes that Akalabeth was essentially a demo, an early stepping stone to Ultima that doesn't fully work as a standalone game and exists mainly as a historical curiosity.  Given my experience with how dismissive people can be of early video games, I didn't want to take it for granted that this was an accurate description of Akalabeth, so I decided to try it out for myself.  The game was originally developed for the Apple ][ computer, so I played that version rather than the later port to MS-DOS.

When I load the game, I request instructions and am greeted with the title art (credited to Keith Zabalaoui):

It's clear something was lost in the translation from paper to Apple ][ display, because these graphics look absolutely dreadful and it's hard to believe that the originals were this hard on the eyes. To be fair, the Apple ][ computer's famously idiosynchratic display is probably very difficult to design for, but I think a more minimal approach was called for here.

After the title art, you're greeted with the game's backstory, which consists of a grand total of 67 words.

The terseness of the introductory material may have been motivated, at least in part, by disk space limitations, but I still think this is a perfectly reasonable approach to game design.  Give some simple background information and then let the gameplay, combined with the player's imagination, fill in the rest.

Notice the end of the introduction, "Tis thy duty to help rid Akalabeth of the foul beasts that infest it, while trying to stay alive!".  By this telling, the protagonist in Akalabeth is not an adventurer or treasure-seeker, nor are they a knight on a noble quest of honor.  They are, to put it bluntly, a hapless subject of the king duty-bound to do his dirty work. This vision of Akalabeth is reinforced by the first graphic of the title art, where the hero is limply holding his sword at his side and gazing forlornly into the cave, a cave that looks like a fanged monster on the verge of swallowing him.  Unfortunately, the game will later contradict itself in the player's dialog with the King, in which he will say that the "adventurer" can "...choose to dare battle with the evil creatures of the depths, for great reward."  It's likely that Garriott's vision for Akalabeth, as well as the Ultima franchise in general, was rapidly evolving at this early stage, so it's not surprising to see some inconsistencies.  Such basic contradictions in tone seem to reinforce the view that Akalabeth is more of a demo than a fully realized game, but let's push on and see how the actual game goes.

After choosing a difficulty level and a seed for the random number generator, I can set up my character.

Okay, I didn't really do anything, it just selected a random set of attributes and asked me if they were acceptable.  At this point, the Dungeons & Dragons influence is already pretty obvious, as we see a standard breakdown of character attributes similar to those of D&D:  Strength, Dexterity, Stamina, and Wisdom.  The two other D&D character attributes, charisma and intelligence, are not included here, most likely because the gameplay is too limited to make use of them.  I won't go into the details of how the four attributes are incorporated into the game, but if you're interested, I suggest this article by Data Driven Gamer.

The initial setup also lets you choose between two classes, the fighter and the mage.  I pick the mage, knowing from reading other sources that there are a slew of interesting game features that are only accessible to a spellcaster.  As you might expect, there are weapons that only a fighter can use, but that turns out to be only marginally useful compared to having magical capabilities.

Finally, before leaping out into the world face-first, we must use our gold to purchase food, weapons, and equipment.  The first time I played the game, I failed to purchase enough food and died of starvation wandering around the overworld.  In Akalabeth, food is like a ticking clock that you constantly have to be watching.  If it's close to running out, you must rush to the nearest town and purchase more food, else you will starve to death.  Most modern RPGs have done away with food scarcity as a gameplay mechanic, likely because it hinders exploration and isn't all that much fun or exciting to fantasize about.  "You have starved to death" has to be about the most anticlimactic final screen I can imagine in an RPG.  Resource scarcity has become a crucial feature in another video game genre, but I'll have more on that later in the playthrough.

Once my character is set up and equipped, I start my adventure as a little plus sign on the overworld map:

Obviously, graphics are not a major point of emphasis for this game.  Aside from the plus symbol, the only other graphics in the overworld are shown below. 

So, try to use your imagination here. The nested boxes on the left turn out to be the castle with the king, the "X" is a dungeon, and the five squares in a hatch pattern are where you go to buy stuff, so they're probably meant to be a town.  The other two symbols are purely geographic features -- the jagged lines on the far right block your path, so they're probably mountains, and the square is, um... a tree? (Yes, the manual confirms this.)

As I said, I don't want to wander around too much in the overworld, lest I run out of food.  I do, however, manage to locate the castle pretty easily because the "lucky number" I picked in an earlier screen resulted in a map that put the castle right below my starting point.  Yay!  Let's meet the king.

His majesty is a jovial sort, even when on the subject of carrion crawlers.  He is apparently also a stickler for grammar, as he made sure to add a parenthetical "n" to the indefinite article on the off-chance that he might want me to kill something whose name started with a vowel.

Anyway, I accept his majesty's quest and venture off into the unknown.  In the next exciting installment of this playthrough, I will talk trash to giant rats, walk into doorways instead of through them, and curse very loudly at gremlins.  Stay tuned!


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