Behold that fabulous world of roleplaying games! Vibrant and beautiful, it floats through the vast space of escapist entertainment, enchanting the hearts and empowering the minds. There are three pillars this world is based upon—Ultima, Wizardry, and Might & Magic. Each of them had an overwhelming influence on the shape, feel, and direction that the genre of CRPG has taken while forming itself.
I’ve decided to turn my retro-gaze onto the youngest one of the three. Join me in remembering the wonderful worlds of Might & Magic and reminding once again the pure joy of virtual roleplaying escapism.
Oh, some major spoilers ahead, so be warned.
Might & Magic Book One: Secret of the Inner Sanctum
It all began in 1986 when Jon Van Caneghem released the Might & Magic Book One after working on the game singlehandedly for almost three years. After the original release on Apple II, the game had achieved such a success, that ports on nearly a dozen different platforms followed shortly (IBM PC and PC Engine included). The Secret of the Inner Sanctum was even released on NES at the beginning of the ’90s, manifesting and celebrating the undoubted popularity of the game.
Though Book One was not nearly the first RPG for home computers (with Ultima, Wizardry, and SSI’s series of Gold Box games holding the vast majority of the market), it still managed to take a foothold for a new franchise and had sold nearly a hundred thousand copies by 1989.
Plot-wise the game didn’t invent the wheel. From the start, there are hints to some rivalry between two mighty wizards named Corak and Sheltem (the good one and the bad one respectively). The following story falls in line with many popular RPGs of that time, mixing of sci-fi elements into the fantasy setting. So, Corak and Sheltem weren’t actually wizards, but cyborgs built by a higher race of Elders to serve as wardens of the colonized worlds. Sheltem had gone rogue and went into hiding, while Corak had been sent to deal with him. It is upon the player and his party of six characters to travel the world of Varn (that actually is not a world per se, but a ‘Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle’), find the main baddie, and follow him to another world. There are also lots of sidequests on the way to grind through.
While the rest of RPGs back then have had a pretty linear gameplay, The Secret of the Inner Sanctum delivered an open world for a player to roam free, only hinting to an end goal. Ambiguous directions are written on the statues that scattered through the first city of the game, but a player may choose to go anywhere in the world he wants. There are plenty of places to go: five cities, dungeons, caves, castles, and vast open spaces, like deserts, mountains, woods, and glaciers.
All this beauty is divided into locations (16×16 squares each), which the player has to map on her own. No built-in minimap included. Just mapping the huge world filled with secret passages, invisible barriers, traps, and teleports can take dozens of playtime hours. Experienced players were already used to draw their own maps by then: Wizardry, for example, despised the concept of automapping from the get-go. But there is a difference, whether you conquer a linear dungeon level by level, or roam a vast and deceitful open world.
Although it is easier to get lost in the world of Might & Magic, the gameplay itself has a slightly more forgiving attitude towards the player. While Wizardry doesn’t tolerate party wipes, making the player start the game all over again, The Secret of the Inner Sanctum allows returning to the last save in case of an epic failure. Saving the game is allowed only while visiting an inn, and the smartest thing to do is to save quite often: Might & Magic Book One turns out to be a pretty tough game nevertheless. Random unscaled encounters may catch even the high leveled party off guard, but they are especially exhausting at the beginning, giving the starting equipment of playable characters sucks badly.
The only way to get through the rough start is to find any regular encounter with beatable monsters and grind it repeatedly until a sufficient amount of experience has been gathered. Most of the sidequests are also replayable, so the road to victory has been paved through loops and repeats.
The game has six character classes, two magic schools, and a classical D&D-like stat system. There is no skill system, but there is an option to choose gender and alignment of the character—they have some minor consequences to a playthrough, mainly considering rewards to some quests. For example, all the male characters are receiving damage while visiting the city of Portsmith, which is populated strictly by women. Just a fun fact.
It’s not enough beating a certain amount of baddies in turn-based combat to earn yourself a level-up. Experience is gained, and that’s fine. But in order to achieve meaningful progress and raise your stats, there is a cost in gold to be paid first. Training centers offer such service, and that’s how leveling up in the Might & Magic franchise has been working ever since.
Another one of the distinct features of the franchise that had appeared in Book One is a character’s age. Your heroes are getting old, and that is quite a problem in the vast open world. It may be quite annoying to grind through hundreds of difficult battles, redraw thousands of maps, invest dozens of gaming hours into leveling up, and get a bunch of sixty-year-old elder party in the end. Yes, age does have an effect on the character stats. The only salvation to this is a fountain of youth, of all of the things. You just have to find it first…
All in all, Might & Magic Book One was a solid, strong, and perspective game back then on the day of its release. It had gotten slightly better with each port and rerelease, with the NES version being the prettiest and the best sounding one. But nowadays, as far as I am concerned, this game is mostly unplayable. It’s hard and unfair in its random battles, it’s time-consuming and confusing with all of the self-mapping, and moreover, it’s just uncomfortable to play. Maybe I am spoiled, though, and you can beat it in no time, being the hardcore RPG enthusiast as you are. Try it yourself. I dare you.
The next Might & Magic game, luckily, took the formula of its predecessor and made it much much better.
Might & Magic II: Gates to Another World
Might & Magic II saw the light of day in 1988. The game continued the story of its predecessor. Heroes of Varn, while chasing Sheltem, jumped into the portal and found themselves in the world of Cron. Sheltem had already achieved some success in his dark deeds there. He has sent the nacelle (CRON—Central Research Observational Nacelle) on the course to the nearest star. It is the player’s prerogative, of course, to save the day.
Keeping the same gaming formula as in Book One, M&M II gave it a thorough polish. It offers a bigger, richer world to roam free, and its game mechanics had been gone through a needed amount of fixes to not stand in the way of comfort.
Two new character classes and more new spells have been added into the mix. But aside from quantitative improvements, the gameplay system has been enriched with a couple of important quality ones. First of all, M&M II presents the secondary skill system: each character may choose two out of a pool of twenty. Most of the skills give bonuses to the main stats of a character, but some of them are a bit more interesting. An ability to travel through dense forests, for example, or saving the player a certain amount of paper at home by automapping the locations.
Secondly, there is an option to hire mercenaries (up to two of them), making a party of eight characters. Mercenaries have to be paid daily, though, and they demand a raise with each level-up.
These new mechanics have enriched the gameplay with a new layer of decision making. The vast world of Cron contains a lot of secrets within, and most of them demand certain skills to uncover. If the player wants to achieve something in that game, she needs to mind each and every ability of her characters, and find suitable hirelings when needed. Moreover, some quests even have certain limitations towards a character class, so leaving certain members of the crew back in the tavern is sometimes necessary.
Might & Magic II is much of a larger game in scale, so is the amount of time to invest in beating the game than in the case with Might & Magic I. Characters have a level cap of 255, but even after achieving it they still may improve their stats. Random encounters have become scaled to the level of player’s party, and any weapon can be upgraded infinitely with magic enchantments.
All that combined leads to some severe stat inflation: it’s when numbers and bonuses go crazy and completely out of any bounds. There are skirmishes possible in the late game when your god mighty heroes face enormous hordes of powerful enemies (up to 255 mobs at the time may participate in an attack), using equipment with truly epic stats (‘Flaming Sword +73’ may give you a dozen of sleepless nights, filled with horrors).
The funny thing is, (SPOILER) that there is no final boss-battle of closely the same epic proportions. The final gaming challenge turns out to be a time-limited puzzle when the player have fifteen minutes to solve an anagram. And if this doesn’t make you fall in love with this game, nothing will.
Oh, and of course, Might & Magic II turned out to be a much better-looking game than its predecessor. EGA graphics step was graciously conquered, the world received more colors, details, and even animations—the thing you’ve only had to dream of while playing The Secret of the Inner Sanctum.
The second game in the Might & Magic franchise had reached some sort of a ceiling, making optimal changes and needed fixes to its chosen formula. There was a need for a quality leap to break that ceiling and reach new highs. Fortunately, Van Caneghem and his team just had the right amount of aptitude and talent to do this.
Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra
The dawn of a new decade brought new standards for games. With technological advancements also grew aesthetic demands: without some decent looks and sounds, your game would be doomed. So Might & Magic had to adapt.
Might & Magic III was released in 1991 straight to MS-DOS and shamelessly used several technological advancements of that time: beautiful and colorful VGA graphics, juicy sounds and music (some instances of recorded speech thrown for good measure), and even a full mouse support!
The interface has made a massive step towards comfortability and informativity: less plain text, more pixelated beauty, and thoughtfulness. Character portraits not just look gorgeous, but also show conditions and effects characters enjoy or suffer from. Available spells are organized in a list, so there is no more need to memorize their numerical values, and quests get logged in a tidy journal, which is always nice to have in an RPG.
Gameplay mechanics also became less painful and frustrating. The combat has remained turn-based, but the encounters are no more random: enemies are roaming the landscapes along with the player and can be seen from afar, so it is possible to physically run away from the dangerous combat or shoot the baddies with a bow. Consequently, long-distance combat is quite useful when dealing with low-level mobs, whom you can shoot without wasting time on battles, as well as with high-level enemies, weakening them before the clash. But don’t get too cocky, for some enemies may shoot you as well.
In Might & Magic III, you can save your progress anytime you want. You’ll have to use the only slot, though. Mobs don’t respawn each time you load your game, so sweeping locations clean is possible if you wish to enjoy peaceful, pleasant strolls in the future.
Oh, and strolling the world of Terra is a real pleasure. Beautiful colored landscapes are no more limited to locations of 16×16 squares: the outside world is monolithic and vast, while the dungeons are more complicated and grim. Cities, though, look still a bit samey with not much of a difference in between, aside from enemy types and one or two decorative objects.
The fact that the game became much more playable than its predecessors doesn’t mean that it has gotten easier. Landscapes of Terra are as beautiful as dangerous. A one-way boat journey toward Swamp City infested with fierce enemies caught my low-level party off guard and cost me lots of sweat and tears. Drinking from a wrong well may turn out to be the last mistake your heroes will ever make. A Fight with a Phantom, albeit victorious, may come with a high cost of aging your party. Yes, your characters still may grow old, and again there is a youth fountain that can fix it. The quest to find that fountain is quite complicated, though.
But if you find yourself in a really hopeless state, there is an option to ask Mr. Wizard for help. Just click the button in the main menu, and your party will be teleported to safety at once. It comes at a cost, of course: each of the characters shall be deleveled for this service.
The game system lived through several critical changes. The third magic school has been added along with two new character classes: ranger and druid. The Limitation on two secondary skills per character has been lifted, so everybody may acquire as many skills as they like and can afford. Hirelings are still present, but they have to be rescued each from his own dungeon before becoming available for hire.
The weapon system has undergone a complete overhaul. Numeric values were dropped, so the stat inflation is no more the problem. The value of an item is combined from its type and the material it has been made of. That way, a bronze sword does less damage than a steel one, while an iron chest plate is worse at fire protection than a flaming one. There are not so many item types in the game, but quite a lot of material types. There is no way to know what effect each material has on an item in-game other than paying some coins to a trader for a consultation. Therefore, in your travels, you often don’t know whether the found equipment is better than the one you already have.
Might & Magic lore widens its horizons in the Isles of Terra. There are several tasty story chapters included in the game manual, and a rather substantial portion of in-game writing has been given to the lore enrichment. The game’s ending even explains some things from the previous games, which is quite a generous gift, thank you.
So, plotwise, Might & Magic III just continues the Corak’s chase after Sheltem. But this time, a whole new party of heroes is coming to help the good cyborg, for heroes of M&M I and II decided to stay and guard the worlds they had saved. New heroes must travel the world of Terra in search of Ultimate Power Orbs, which previously have been redistributed equally between three kings for the sake of keeping the balance of forces, but with Sheltem’s help were stolen and scattered all over the world. Without the Orbs, there was no balance. Consequently, kings have declared war on each other.
Magical orbs, three warring kings… Yep, that’s fantasy, it surely is. But Might & Magic III just couldn’t leave it at that. After you fix the political crisis, sci-fi elements return. Get ready for robots, secret terra-forming bases, and lasers. Don’t worry: everything is at place considering the franchise setting and traditions (Sheltem’s last-minute escape included).
Fun fact: fates of the heroes will be revealed only in the Might & Magic VII, by the time that Sheltem would have been completely forgotten. But for now, he has fled to the world of Xeen. And we, along with Corak, are going after him!
Might & Magic IV\V: World of Xeen
Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen were released in 1992 and 1993 respectively and shared the same engine between them. The idea was to allow players to combine both games into one monster of a world. Only this combined version allows the player to reach the real ending of the game. The full monolithic version of the game was released on CD a year later, in 1995.
Graphics became more detailed and colorful, Thanks to CD-ROM technology, more quality sounds and music had been allowed to exist in the World of Xeen.
The interface remained almost identical to the one on M&M III but went through several quality-of-life improvements. Spells are ordered alphabetically now, instead of chronologically, which makes the search of the needed spell slightly faster. Journal has been upgraded with more details and considering an extensive collection of sidequests, it just had to be done. Quest items have found themselves a separate category in an inventory, so it is now much harder to lose something important in your travels.
Nature magic school, added in Isles of Terra, have been abandoned entirely. Its spells have been redistributed between the remaining two schools. Now both clerics and sorcerers may learn spell combinations and save the player lots of time, being able to cast several spells at once. Rangers and druids remained without their nature magic but learned to use both clerical and sorcerer spells, though with limited expertise.
Strangely enough, hirelings have been cut from the game, so now your party is limited strictly to the maximum of six characters.
A difficulty setting option has been added. Starting a game, the player has to choose between Adventure mode and Warrior mode. The difference between them is in the combat system only: Adventure mode turns your characters into the mighty demigods, drastically making the game easier. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with having an easy mode in games, so that’s fine, I guess. Whatever.
Plot-wise, World of Xeen got more attention from the developers. There are cutscenes, character development (however basic), and much better worldbuilding in the game.
So, Sheltem and Corak have arrived in the world of Xeen. Unfortunately, Corak had landed in lava pond, remaining in anabiosis, so Sheltem was completely free to begin his evil-doing straight away. Xeen (Xylonite Experimental Expansion Nacelle) has been planned by the Ancients to be an experimental world: flat as a flounder, it has two sides—the Cloud Side and the Dark Side—which can be traveled between through magical pyramids, serving as portals. At the right hour, two artifacts, each from a different side of the world, must be combined. Only this way, Xeen would be transformed into a sphere. If the combination of artifacts would not occur when needed, the world shall be destroyed. The point of such an experiment lies beyond mine comprehension, but apparently, the Ancients had their reasons. Anyway, you may guess what have Sheltem decided to do.
For the first time in the series, there is a boss battle at the end of the Might & Magic game (that is if you take M&M IV: Clouds of Xeen separately). It is a boss battle just technically, though, because all that matters here is whether your party has a special sword in the inventory. If you don’t possess the sword, you wouldn’t be able to harm the boss; if you have the sword, one blow would be sufficient to kill the baddie. The sword itself can be found in the basement of your own castle, which you’ve been upgrading and rebuilding through the game. The idea of the player being a landlord will be discovered more widely in the Might & Magic VII.
The end of the conflict between Corak and Sheltem comes in Might & Magic V: Darkside of Xeen. Heroes save Corak from his lava pond, help him reach Sheltem and watch, as the two cyborgs confront each other both dying in the process. But only the combined version of the World of Xeen allows the player to reach the true ending when the triumphal transformation of Xeen into a sphere finally occurs.
With World of Xeen, the Might & Magic series had achieved a new quality high by reaching the full potential of the ideas born in the Isles of Terra. Thanks to a comfortable gameplay mechanics and a really vast world full of discoveries, the game may easily devour dozens of majestic and enjoyable hours of your spare time. I still think that this is the best game in the series, with all my love for M&M VI considered.
After the World of Xeen, developers decided to shift their attention to the strategic spin-off to the series, so Heroes of Might & Magic had been born. Only several years later, the New World Computing would return to their RPG series. And what a return that will be…