Remembering the Titans — Might & Magic (Part I)

Behold that fabulous world of roleplaying games! Rich 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 (or lies on the backs of three elephants, for the Pratchett fans here) — Ultima, Wizardry and Might & Magic. Each of them had an overwhelming influence on the shape, feel, and direction, which the genre of CRPG has taken, while forming itself.

Onto the youngest one of the elephants (or pillars, if you’ve never read Discworld, oh, poor soul) I’ve decided to turn my retro-gaze here. 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 franchise to come and sold nearly a hundred thousand copies by 1989.

Plotwise, 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 later story falls in line with many popular RPGs of that time, with mixing of sci-fi elements into the fantasy setting. So, Corak and Sheltem weren’t actually wizards, but cyborgs, build by higher race of Elders to serve as wardens of the colonised worlds. Sheltem had gone rogue and went into hiding, and 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 offered a fairly linear gameplay, The Secret of the Inner Sanctum delivers an open world for a player to roam free, only hinting to an end goal. Ambiguous directions are written on the statues, 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 by then were already used to draw their own maps — 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 free through a huge 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 did not tolerate the death of a whole party, 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 has been 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. 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, as I’ve figured, is to find the regular encounter with respawning monsters, that are possible to beat, and to grind it repeatedly until a sufficient amount of experience has been gathered. Most of the side-quests are also replayable, so the road to victory has been paved through loops and repeats, apparently.

The game has six character classes, two magic schools, and classical D&D-like stat system. There is no skill system, but there is an option to choose gender and alignment of the character — it has some minor consequences to a playthrough, mainly considering rewards to some quests. Oh, and boyhood does suffer here in the city of Portsmith: all the male characters are receiving damage while visiting the city, which is populated strictly by women. Just a fun fact.

It isn’t enough to beat a certain amount of baddies in turn-based combat, to earn yourself a level-up. Experience is getting earned, 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 a service, and this has been roughly the way leveling up in Might & Magic franchise has worked since.

Another one of a distinct features of the franchise, that had appeared in Book One, is a character’s age. Your heroes are getting old, and that was 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, the 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 got slightly better with each port and rerelease, with 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, 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 the 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 already had achieved much success there in his dark deeds and sent the nacelle (CRON — Central Research Observational Nacelle) straight on the course to the nearest star. It is a player’s prerogative, of course, to save the day.

While keeping the same gaming formula, like Book One, M&M II gave it a thorough polish. It offers a bigger, richer world to roam free, with game mechanics given a needed amount of fixes to not stand in the way of comfort.

There have been two new character classes added into the mix — ninja and barbarian, and more new spells presented. But aside from quantitative improvements, 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 more interesting, like an ability to travel through dense forests, or saving the player a certain amount of paper at home, by automapping the locations (hail to cartography!).

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 leveling 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. So the player has to keep in mind the skills of her characters and find suitable hirelings in order to achieve things in the game. Moreover, some quests even have certain limitations towards a character class, so it is sometimes necessary to leave some members of the crew back in the tavern.

Might & Magic II is much of a larger game in scale, so is the amount of time to invest in beating the game, then in case of Might & Magic I. Characters have a level cap of 255, but even after achieving it, there is still an option to upgrade one’s 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 serious stat inflation — it’s when numbers and bonuses go crazy and completely out of any bounds. There are skirmishes possible in the late game, that have god mighty heroes fighting enormous hordes of mighty enemies (up to 255 mobs at the time may participate in an attack), while using an equipment with truly epic stats (some ‘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. Final gaming challenge turns out to be a time-limited puzzle — 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 only had to dream of, while playing The Secret of the Inner Sanctum.

The second installation of Might & Magic franchise had reached some sort of a ceiling, or comfort spot, making optimal changes and needed fixes to its chosen formula. There was a need for a quality leap in order 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 the new decade brought with itself a new standard for games. With technological advancements, also grew aesthetic demands — without a decent look and sound, your game was doomed. So Might & Magic had to adapt.

Might & Magic III was released in 1991 straight to MS-DOS and shamelessly used the technological advancements of the time: beautiful and colorful VGA graphics, juicy sounds and music (some instances of recorded speech thrown for a good measure), and even the full mouse support!

Interface has made a huge step towards comfortability and informativity, and became the graphics galore — less plain text, more pixelated beauty and thoughtfulness. Character portraits not just look gorgeous, but also show conditions and effects the character enjoy or suffer from. Available spells are organized in a list, so there is no more need to memorize their numerical values, and the 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 now are roaming the landscapes along the player and can be seen from afar, so there is a possibility of physically run away from the dangerous combat, or shoot the baddies with a bow. Consequently, long-distance combat has become one of the tactical options, that is quite useful when dealing with low-level mobs, whom you can shoot without wasting time, as well as with high-level enemies, in order to weaken them before the clash. But don’t get too cocky, for some enemies may shoot you as well, so in some cases it would be better to jump into the swordfight as soon as possible.

In Might & Magic III you can save your progress anytime you want, but there is a limitation to just one slot. World state is being saved along with your characters (unlike previous games, that saved just the characters), so it is possible to sweep locations clean from the enemies and 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, and 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. Isles of Terra are as beautiful as dangerous. A one-way boat journey toward Swamp City, infested with tough enemies, caught my low-level party off guard and had cost me some sweat and tears. Drinking from a wrong well may turn out to be the last mistake your heroes will ever make, and the fight with a Phantom, albeit victorious, may come with a great cost of aging your party. Yes, your characters still may grow old, and still, there is a youth fountain, that can fix it. The quest to find a 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 would be deleveled for a service.

The game system has been taken through several critical changes. The third magic school has been added — the nature one, along with two new character classes: ranger and druid. Limitation on two secondary skills per character has been lifted, so everybody may study as many skills as they like and can afford. There is still an option to hire up to two hirelings to a party, but now you have to save them from a city dungeon first.

The weapon system has undergone a complete overhaul. Numeric values were dropped, so the stat inflation is no more the problem. In M&M III the value of an item is combined from its type and the material it has been made of. That way a bronze sword makes less damage than a steel one, and an iron chest plate is worse at fire protection than a flaming one. There are not so many types of items in the game, but quite a lot of types of materials. 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. So in travels you often don’t know, whether the found equipment is better than what you already have.

The lore of Might & Magic widened its horizons in the Isles of Terra. There are some tasty story chapters included in the game manual, so as a rather solid 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 were previously had been redistributed equally between three kings for the sake of keeping the balance of forces, but with the help of Sheltem were scattered all over the world. Without the Orbs, there was no more balance, so kings had declared war on each other.

Magical orbs, three warring kings — yep, that’s fantasy, it is. But Might & Magic III just couldn’t leave it at that. After you fix the political crisis, sci-fi elements return, for there are robots, secret terra-forming bases, and lasers here. So don’t worry — everything is at place considering the franchise setting and traditions. Sheltem’s escape at the end 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, and only this combined version allows the player to reach the real ending of the game. In 1995 a full monolithic version of the game was released on CD.

Graphics became more detailed and colorful, and thanks to a CD-ROM technology more quality sounds and music had been allowed to exist in the World of Xeen.

Lots of QoL improvements has been brought into the interface, that apart from that remained almost identical to that of M&M III. 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 a large 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 had been abandoned entirely, and its spells had been redistributed between the remaining two schools. Now both clerics and sorcerers may learn spell combinations, and save a player lots of time, being able to cast several spells at once. Rangers and druids remained without their nature magic, but have 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 up to six characters.

What has been added though, is a difficulty setting option. Starting a game, the player has to choose between Adventure mode and Warrior mode. The difference lays in the combat system only, with Adventure mode making your characters mighty as gods, quite drastically making the game easier. Personally, I never mined having an easy mode in games, so that’s fine, I guess. Whatever.

Plotwise, World of Xeen has achieved more attention from the developers. There are cutscenes, character development (albeit in its most basic form), and much better worldbuilding in the game.

So Sheltem and Corak 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: being flat it was divided into two sides — the Cloud Side and the Dark Side, which can be traveled between by using the portals in shape of magical pyramids. At the right hour, as had been planned, two artifacts, each from another side of the world, must be combined to unite both sides of Xeen, transforming the world into the sphere. If the combination of artifacts would not occur when needed, the world will be destroyed. The point of such an experiment lies beyond mine comprehension, but apparently, the Ancients had their reasons. Anyway, you may guess what Sheltem decided to do.

For the first time in the series, there is a boss battle at the end of the Might & Magic game, 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 certain sword in its 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. Oh, the sword is 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 reaching 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, where the triumphal transformation of Xeen into a sphere occurs.

With World of Xeen, the Might & Magic series had achieved the 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 huge world, full of discoveries, to roam, 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…

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