Matt Barton, who wrote, Dungeons & Desktops (2008; I talked about the book in this posting) has some good things to say about Might and Magic. He describes the series as a lesser-known younger sibling of many of the more prominent series of the decade (e.g., Ultima, Wizardry). King and Borland don't mention it once in Dungeons & Dreamers (2003). But, as we've seen, the game did "refine several gameplay elements that would show up in later games, such as having the characters' race and gender exert a strong effect on gameplay" (p. 128). Barton calls the game "a labor of love by developer Jon Van Canegham and his wife Michaela" and he praises the size of the game world, the number of encounters, and the mystery of the main quest. It made, he says, "a great impression on critics and gamers" (p. 129)--an impression that still holds favorable 24 years later.
As usual, my ranking is based on the 100-point GIMLET scale that I described here.
1. Game world. This is a tough one. Might & Magic launches you in to the world of Varn (or VARN, as it turns out) with very little background and with no lore or history. You are left to explore the world and piece together its nature through quests--this is part of the game's fun. The world itself is large--around 50 15 x 15 maps--and varied in its terrain and encounters. Although graphics limitations make the dungeons and castles look mostly the same, each has a certain distinct character and purpose. The revelation at the end--that the game world is simply a biosphere/spaceship--makes Might & Magic unique among games, I'll give it that. But it also raises a lot of questions that the game doesn't begin to answer. How do fantasy conventions like magic and undeath fit within the sci-fi framework? Who thought it was a good idea to combine people and dragons in a spaceship? (Here's hoping Michael Bay never stumbles upon this site.) For that matter, don't the dragons bonk their heads against the "sky"? Except in a few cases, Might & Magic also has the drawback of most early CRPGs in which the game world doesn't react to your actions--nowhere is this more notable than the ending, in which you can "reveal" the false King Alamar over and over. Final score: 6.
2. Character creation and development. Character creation is fairly basic in Might & Magic: you choose from a list of six classes and roll a standard selection of attributes. You can choose name, sex, and alignment. Character development, while still fairly basic, is surprisingly satisfying. In a standard game, you might achieve around 20 levels, and each level-up makes you palpably more powerful and able to handle the game's difficult battles. This is true of spell progression, of course, but also in the way that your fighters get extra attacks and do extra damage, and your robber has a better chance of disarming traps. Because of this, the experience rewards you get from quests and combat are quite satisfying. The game does introduce some "role playing" based on alignments, although it is very light (whether to release, torment, or ignore prisoners) and doesn't have lasting consequences. There is one area in which sex matters. Most encounters play identically no matter what the class, sex, or alignment. Final score: 5.
3. NPC Interaction. The game is devoid of visible NPCs, but you come across them in certain squares, and your encounters with them are essential to advancing the game and learning about the game world. The game is one of the first to introduce choices in your NPC interactions--not dialog choices, unfortunately, but very basic ones such as whether to kiss, release, or ignore a maiden you find chained to a wall. A little better than The Bard's Tale (or, at least, more than The Bard's Tale) but not nearly as complex or satisfying as Ultima IV. Final score: 4
Oddly, option (A) is the only way to advance the game. More oddly, all of my characters were female at this point. Jayne will be in his bunk.
4. Encounters and foes. There are dozens of monsters in Might & Magic, almost all with a unique attack or two (sprites curse, centaurs put you to sleep, demon lords can eradicate your characters with a spell), almost all with special resistances, which makes encounters challenging as you try to figure out the best order in which to engage your enemies and the best weapons and spells to use. These foes are not well described, unfortunately, and most are standard fantasy game fare with the exception of some aliens. The game continues The Bard's Tale's tradition of throwing you up against wildly improbable groups of monsters in even more improbable settings: six green dragons and a herd of pegasuses in a cramped dungeon corridor, for instance. There are a few scripted encounters in which you have the option to do something other than fight, but it's almost always the poorer of the options and much of the game is hack & slash. I liked the way the game balanced fixed encounters with random ones. I also like how the game doesn't pull any punches. If you wander into the wrong map early in the game, your level 2 party gets fried by red dragons with no apologies. Areas re-spawn the moment you leave, allowing endless opportunities for experience-boosting. Final score: 6.
5. Magic and combat. Combat is fairly tactical, with a few nail-biting moments, especially at the beginning when opening every door is potentially deadly. The game is one of the first to include missile weapons, and the variety of items you can equip (see below) adds yet another layer to your options. The ability to immediately rest after most combat means that combats are individually tactical rather than tactical by accumulation as in Wizardry or The Bard's Tale. The first-person perspective doesn't offer a lot of opportunities for role-playing in combat. The magic system is well-balanced except at the end, when some of your spells become too powerful and you start to use them as crutches (by then, combat has become a bit boring anyway). Every level increase gives you something new to look forward to in combat, which is nice. Final score: 5.
6. Equipment. In this area, Might & Magic is one of the best of the early CRPGs. You can wield up to six items and carry up to six more, and there are a wide variety of weapons, armor, accessories, rings, boots, and other items to don and use. These have increasing levels of magic power, including some that boost your statistics or cast spells. This may be the first game to require magical weapons to strike certain monsters, but I'm not sure. Some equipment I didn't understand: I held on to a set of rope & hooks and a 10-foot pole all the way to the end of the game, thinking they'd eventually be required, but they never were. I felt that even after around 100 hours of game play, I only had encountered a fraction of the possible equipment. Treasure is generally randomized within the game world, but there are a few special items that you receive after fixed battles or encounters. Although the items have no descriptions, and it's tough to tell the relative worth of weapons and armor except by selling cost, this is one of the best CRPGs of this era when it comes to variety and utility of gear. Final score: 7.
7. Economy. Not complicated, but not bad for a 1980s CRPG. You start out with no gold, so you have to start making some fairly quickly. As you do, you're able to equip yourself slowly. As you progress through the towns, you find that more advanced equipment is available, so making money to buy things (and to train your characters) remains viable well in to the 12th hour of the game. After that, well, there are still things to do with your money. Donating at temples will temporarily bestow upon you every protective spell in the game, at much higher levels than your characters can cast, so it's worth it to pay before a big battle. Second, the magic fountain at Dragadune converts all your gold to experience--meaning that if you make use of it, you need to immediately start building your finances again if you ever want to level up. Third, there's a place in the game where you can exchange gold for gems, through the intermediary of trivia questions. Thus, cash rewards never stop being relevant. Final score: 7.
8. Quests. This is where Might & Magic really excels, particularly among its brethren of the Silver Age. As I remarked several times, the "main quest" reveals itself only in stages, which actually works well in a game that allows you open-ended exploration. The main quest is also unusual in its sci-fi theme and lack of a "big boss." More important, however, there are dozens of side quests--the first real side quests in any CRPG, I think. Some of them are unusual and reasonably complex: climbing all the trees in a grove, solving the magic square puzzle, the mystery of Portsmith, and the prisoner-Statue of Judgment quest among them. They even offer a little light role-playing. Some involve finding items, some visiting locations, some killing monsters, some answering riddles. This is all extremely advanced for a CRPG of the era, and they remain fun even today, even if they don't offer the narrative complexity or role-playing choices of, say, Neverwinter Nights or Oblivion. Very well done, JVC. Final score: 8.
9. Graphics, sound, inputs. The graphics of the era still have not advanced out of the "functional" stage. The game makes good use of sound, for the time, but to modern ears it's repetitive and ultimately annoying--I played most of the game with the sound off. Keyboard controls are easy enough to get used to. Final score: 4.
10. Gameplay. As I previously covered, game play in Might & Magic is very non-linear, which (as I also previously covered), I like a lot. Except for a handful of locked doors for which you have to find the keys, there's almost nowhere in the game world that you can't trek from the starting town--assuming you can survive the monsters (hint: you can't). I liked that the game essentially required me to explore to even figure out what the main quest was about. The difficultly of the game is well-balanced. Although you die a lot, particularly at the beginning, the pace of the gameplay is fast enough that you don't really mind (assuming you haven't been a complete idiot about saving). Just as it starts to drag a bit, you start to get a selection of spells--time warp, fly, teleport, town portal--that make traveling about the world a bit faster, and low-level monsters much easier to dispatch. It was over just when I was about ready for it to be over, which is always the mark of a good game. My only complaint: no replayability. But that's par for the course in the Silver Age. In the end, this game was exactly what it should be to earn a high score on my blog: addictive. Final score: 8.
The final tally of 60 is the highest of any CRPG so far, even higher than Ultima IV. This gives me a few pangs, but although I like Ultima IV better as a story, I admit that I probably like Might & Magic better as a game.
As you'll see in my next posting, my next steps are not all that clear. More soon.