Friday, May 13, 2016

Game 222: The Master of Magic (1985)

The Master of Magic
United Kingdom
Richard Darling (developer); Mastertronic Ltd. (publisher)
Released 1985 for Commodore 64 and 1986 for ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 12 May 2016
Date Ended: 13 May 2016
Total Hours: 8
Reload Count: 8 characters, probably about 20-30 reloads of save states as I explored with the first 7. Won with the 8th honestly.
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at Time of Posting: 42/218 (19%)

I remember this one. I had it as a kid. I could never beat it. I remember thinking that there must be some magic item that I had missed, and I spent hours searching walls for secret doors. It turns out that the game doesn't even have secret doors. I was kind of an idiot back then. 
The Master of Magic is a relatively small, brisk action game in which a character represented by a dot navigates a generic high fantasy maze, killing creatures and collecting items. It uses an innovative interface in which a limited-perspective automap is represented in the upper-left, messages appear in the upper right, graphics for monsters and items in the local environment appear at the bottom, and commands appear in the middle. A successful game takes no more than an hour, and as such, there is no save feature. The game isn't technically an RPG by my definitions--there's no character development or leveling--but I wanted to play it to satisfy a 30-year-old curiosity.
A typical Master of Magic screen. I'm in a room with two dead enemies--a skeleton and a wizard--as well as some scattered equipment. A very not-dead vampire is attacking me through the door I've just opened.
The back story is told in scrolling text on the main screen. One day, the unnamed main character is exploring a cavern (presumably but not explicitly in the real world) when a hand erupts from a pool, grabs him, and pulls him through the looking glass into a "strange mythical world of magic and mystery." The hand turns out to belong to Thelric, the titular Master of Magic, who will return the character to his own world if he can retrieve the lost Amulet of Immortality.
A static screen with scrolling text sets up the story.
There is no character creation. Each player begins with no equipment and the ability to cast four spells--"Magic Missile," "Fireball," "Energy Drain," and "Magical Shield." Status bars monitor mind (spell-casting ability) and body levels. As the player wanders the maze (control in the C64 version is entirely with the joystick), he fights creatures like bats, skeletons, spiders, orcs, and hellhounds, and he slowly assembles a set of weapons, armor, potions, and magic rings.
Starting out. The Master of Magic is kind of a jerk.
The game is quite difficult. Offensive spells deplete the "mind" meter extremely quickly; two or three castings of "Fireball" and it's entirely gone. Meanwhile, enemies pound away at your "body" meter if you engage them in melee combat. The bars do not restore on their own, and there are only two healing potions and one "restore magic" potion in the dungeon. This means that a character can swiftly get into a "walking dead" situation in which he's lost too much health or spent too much magic power to have any hope of surviving the rest of the dungeon. For this reason, even a modern player with save states faces a significant challenge.
The armor is welcome, but I don't have enough health and magic left to finish the game.
When I was a kid, I could never last long enough to make it to the end. I see now where I probably went wrong. I played it like a traditional RPG in which you try to kill every monster. That's a recipe for disaster. Since monsters don't deliver any kind of experience or leveling, and since the game's various items are always found in the same locations and guarded by the same creatures, there are quite a few areas that it simply doesn't pay to explore at all. The Master of Magic is thus, like Sword of Kadash, a game that is primarily about experience and note-taking. You have to field a host of unsuccessful characters before you understand the specific route you should take through the map, and what items you should acquire in what order, minimizing your combat engagements (and thus, loss of health and magic) along the way.
Fighting a spider.
Through trial and error, I discovered a couple of things that allowed me to win. First, you need to just avoid a slew of enemies in a small cave near the beginning--they have nothing useful and only serve to sap your naked character's strength. Second, you want to beeline for the suit of armor as soon as possible. Third, with the sole exception of spiders, who seem vulnerable to single castings of "Magic Missile," you really don't want to use any spell except "Magical Shield." This is a low-cost spell that makes combats much, much less deadly, thus preserving the "body" bar for as long as possible.
"Magical Shield" protected me throughout my combat with this orc and only reduced my magic by one unit.
The manual is proud of the "artificial intelligence techniques" attached to the various enemies, and I suppose it deserves a little credit. In an era when most games feature enemies who just rush the player, The Master of Magic has three enemy behaviors. The first is to largely ignore the character unless he's right on top of them--snakes fit this mold. You can largely bypass such creatures instead of risking combat against them. The second two behaviors have do to with what happens if the player can turn a corner and leave the enemy's view. Some foes go to where they last saw the character and hang out; others follow relentlessly around corners and through doors.
A scroll provides a hint.
Combat consists of nothing more than choosing "attack" from the menu and hoping you hit more than you miss and the enemy does the opposite. Better weapons increase the chances of hitting and the damage done; the order seems to go dagger, mace, axe, and sword. The helmet, a shield, and the suit of armor reduce the chances of the enemy hitting and reduce damage done. I think the Ring of Dexterity improves accuracy and the Ring of Protection from Evil reduces damage; there were a couple other rings that I couldn't tell what they did.
A late-game inventory.
As you explore, you find scrolls that provide hints. At least one of them lies--there is no wizard named Leggoless who heals your wounds; there is a wizard who attacks you and is best avoided. But one scroll talks about the importance of using a wooden dagger to kill vampires, and another says that the minotaur will fall to the Dagger of Death. Since one of the game's two vampires has the Dagger of Death, you have to heed both.
I remember this happening a lot when I was a kid.
Once you have the Dagger, enough protective equipment, and at least half a bar of health remaining, you win the game by taking on the minotaur, killing him, and retrieving the amulet from a cave beyond him. Returning the amulet to the first screen and dropping it on a pedestal produces the endgame message, which isn't very satisfying. The Master of Magic could have at least sent me home with a sack of gold.
The final boss battle.
The Master of Magic was released by famed UK publisher Mastertronic, whose catalog of more than 200 games (mostly budget titles) doesn't include a single RPG until they merged with Virgin Interactive in 1988. It was programmed by Richard Darling, who had already proven his chops on a series of action-adventure games, also published by Mastertronic, like Magic Carpet (1984), Mind Control (1984), and Spellbound (1985). In 1986, Richard would found Codemasters Ltd. with his father and brother, David Darling, cranking out action, racing, and simulation games all the way through the present day. In 2008, the brothers were knighted for their service to the video game industry, an honor that I still await but I'm sure is coming soon.
The winning screen. I'm going to assume that "crimsen" is how they spell it in the U.K.
Neither the Darlings nor Codemasters will be part of our world, alas, since their only exploration into RPG territory seems to be in the form of MMORPGs--although usually when I say something like that, it turns out I overlooked something.

A lot of people seem to like the music, an early credit for prolific composer Rob Hubbard. As usual, I found it repetitive and too upbeat, and since the game doesn't otherwise have sound effects, I played with the sound off. (If you want to hear the music and see some gameplay in action, I recommend this video.)

The developers seem to have had grander plans for Master of Magic. The manual boasts that it's "first of a series of programs bringing together mindchallenging book-adventure and the data processing ability of the computer." I don't even know what some of those words mean, but in any event, I took a look through both Mastertronic's and Darling's future catalog and didn't find anything that seemed to use the same engine or offer the same type of gameplay as Master of Magic.
As only a part-RPG, it doesn't do well in a GIMLET. I give it:
  • 1 point for the brief framing story that makes up the game world.
  • 0 points for character creation and development; it has neither.
  • 0 points for NPC interaction.
  • 3 point for encounters and foes, primarily for the AI, the need to use special items to defeat a couple of them, and the fun descriptions that the game gives you if you "examine" your enemies. There are unfortunately no puzzles or special encounters.
  • 2 points for a bare-bones magic and combat system.
  • 2 points for equipment, the only kind of development you get in the game.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 4 points for decent graphics and a clean, easy-to-use interface, though no sound effects.
  • 4 points for challenging, quick gameplay.
That gives us a final score of 18 for this minor, budget, pseudo-RPG, but the satisfaction of finally slaying this beast from my tween years is worth a little more.

Coming up, I'll have more to say about Fate: Gates of Dawn before trying again with a Mac emulator and 1991's Shadow Keep. I've also been exploring the idea of offering guest posts for the first time, as one of my readers is putting the final touches on a fun essay relating to the Gold Box series. With that spirit in mind, does anyone want to finish Mandragore for me?


  1. Thanks for reviewing this gem :) Iirc when i started using the wooden dagger for attacking the (only remember one) vampire I didn't get boned anymore and the game went from "well 'ard" to "easy" :) "A sharpened blade may not be the best, now you must find out the rest."

  2. Ah, this takes me back. Spent many a happy hour in my youth wandering the halls of this game and ever so slowly piecing together the components of a winning run. I still boot up the linked longplay today when I need to let my mind wander to the music.

  3. >I've also been exploring the idea of offering guest posts for the first time< I think that's a great idea, I'm all for it.

  4. If you do guest posts, please allow only "non-review" articles. I love when all the rankings are from one person and are consistent. I dont like blogs with bunch of people doing reviews because everyone has different tastes, experience, etc.

    1. Bah. But that means I have to finish Mandragore myself.

    2. Hmm, I wonder. Can it work if someone feeds you his/her experience with the game and you grade it according to your GIMLET (or you do it in unison)?

    3. At the risk of agreeing with Anonymous, I actually prefer blogs where you can follow the experiences of one reviewer over a long period of time and really come to appreciate their viewpoints, especially when the articles are well-written. I think group blogs frequently fail on both counts: it's impossible to provide that shared experience AND because you have multiple writers, it takes much longer to get into a groove with a good style. Try going back and reading Chet's first posts and you'll see how much better they are now, just imagine doing that with a fleet of reviewers.

      I think you may be surprised to hear me say this because I'm one of TAG's more frequent reviewers, but I agree with you and I miss when Trickster was the one writer. But having just had the pleasure of reading him play through MI2 in the "old style", I realize how much his old blog has changed now that we have more people with divergent interests contributing. We're doing more interviews. We're doing more history research and playing a ton of lower-impact games that shaped the development of the genre. We're different.

      I don't know if you were speaking about TAG or not in your comment, but if you did you were spot on. I hope that CRPGAddict never goes the way TAG did because I cherish the perspective that Chet brings. But once that decision was made for us on TAG, I think we ran with it and made the best of it. And while I am a biased observer, I think the site is coming into its own as something closely related, but quite different, from the site it was before.

    4. Totally agreed with it. Too many cooks may spoil the pot but variety is the spice of life.

    5. I vote No on guest posts. There are 5 million other incompetent video game bloggers and I don't want them on your site.

      If you insist on guest posts, please only allow occasional, well-written essays on video game history or themes. Please don't allow people to review games for you.

      In other news, "Back in my day monitors only had 1 color," says the crotchety, old gamer.

    6. I was indeed talking about The adventure gamer. You guys are doing good job, but its not appealing to me anymore. As I said, i like consistency and over the time, i get used to someone's style and I hate changes.

      It's like as if you have a favourite restaurant because there is a great chef and you love how he cooks. But someday, they change the chef and he cooks differently. It's still the same restaurant - the same location, the same interier - but the food is different and you realize it.

      I still think TAG is a good blog - if i were a new reader, i would be probably satisfied. But at the moment I read it only when there is a game i played.

      Chet, you should try to focus more. These thoughts about abandoning a game and giving it to someone else because you don't like it, are a sign of weakness. I thought you are an Addict and no CRPG can beat you. If you don't like it, just give it a few hours, write your opinion and skip it. No one says you have to finish everything. You can always come back later, when you are in good mood and more determined. But please, keep reviews for yourself.

    7. Anonymous, anyone who likes my blog should be grateful that I am not stronger and more focused. If I was, I certainly would play fewer games.

      You can all stop debating the guest post issue. I'm going to have one, as a trial, on some somatic material that flows well with things I've said before. But I won't have guests posts for regular reviews. Even if that means I have to slog through the rest of this ridiculous French game by myself.

  5. >If you do guest posts, please allow only "non-review"
    >articles. I love when all the rankings are from one person
    >and are consistent. I dont like blogs with bunch of people
    >doing reviews because everyone has different tastes,
    >experience, etc.

    +1 !

  6. The other Master of Magic is probably one of my favorite PC games of all time, but I enjoyed reading about its nominal predecessor. Codemasters was a staple of mine growing up, but they were all action games like Dizzy and Micro Machines. I suppose learning that Richard Darling made C64 RPGs before co-founding Codemasters is the UK game industry equivalent of finding out Carmack and Romero made coverdisk RPGs before creating id Software and Doom.

    1. Microprose's Master of Magic is a game I still play today.

      Codemasters published a very decent catalog of NES games as well, though I remember them mostly for purchasing Sierra Online's 'The Realm' MMO in the late nineties.

    2. I'm playing Eador at the moment, It captures quite a lot of what was cool about MoM yet lacks a bit of the charm.

      That said, MoM's AI was atrocious and the game's imbalances, while part of what was charming about the title, forced you to restrict yourself from certain strategies. eg A single unit of summoned shadow demons would defeat the entire map.

    3. Paradox's Warlock also alleviates some of the pining for a true-blue MoM successor. Though it actually felt more like playing a high-fantasy Civ5 mod.

      Anyway, Summons FTW!

    4. I think Warlock tried to fix Master of Magic's biggest fault - its overwhelming ambition leading to no end of technical problems at launch and issues like the underwhelming AI - and produced a game that despite being twenty years newer felt considerably less advanced because it took far fewer chances and features fewer spells, races, units, etc. to keep itself streamlined and avoid upsetting a well-considered balance. It was a fine strategy game, but it made Master of Magic look like a Paradox game in comparison. I love MoM's crazy depth, warts and all.

      Eador might have gone too far the other way. There's a lot of complexity and it has a very steep difficulty curve - it's super easy to faff around too long and let your opponents grow strong enough to steamroll you, I discovered, or get wiped out by an innocuous encounter - whereas Master of Magic is fairly easy on beginners (especially Civ fans) even if it takes a while to get a handle on all the strategic options it has to offer.

      It feels like a great number of fantasy empire sim developers have their own ideas about how to build an improved MoM, but no-one's quite managed it yet. Subjectively speaking, of course.

      (Boy, this got off-topic, huh? I hope the Addict decides to review the game when he gets to 1994, since it has a few RPG elements. I know he has the Warlords games on his list.)

    5. SSI's Stronghold (1993) first! If there is any game that ought to be emulated nowadays, it should be this! Majesty came close but it still lacked a little something. Oh, and Birthright as well.

    6. On the topic of Simtex's Master of Magic, still one of the best 4X games ever made in my opinion, there is a fan mod called Caster of Magic that tightens up all the game mechanics significantly.

      As for the C64 game here, for me it is mostly notable for Rob Hubbard's incredible SID programming. The man was a bona fide genius and I don't say such things lightly!

  7. I think an occasional guest post may be okay, but one of the things that we love most about your blog is the consistent narrative voice. It's your experience playing these games that we are interested in, not just playing games in the abstract. I wouldn't mind more frequent linking to other similar blogs (of which I keep discovering more and more), but not so much featuring other blogger here. (And I say this knowing full well that I would love to do a guest post here...)

    Completely unrelated, you have "Spectre of Castle Doomrock" in upcoming games list twice...

    1. Spectre of Castle Doomrock wins the contest for the game name that most sounds like an intentional mishmash parody of half a dozen other games. (Retroactively, of course.) Spectre, Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, Legend of Grimrock, all rolled up into one.

    2. I've played "The Spectre of Castle Doomrock". It doesn't seem to be an RPG as there are no items. It's just a top-down view of a bunch of rooms connected by doors. You visit each room, defeat the asterisk/monster inside by repeatedly pressing the attack button. Defeating the monster improves your attack or defence stat. Repeat until you are strong enough to take on the spectre. Once you kill it, you get a message saying the spectre isn't dead and it has used its magic to reanimate all of the monsters and make them (and itself) stronger. Then you have to repeat the process, because you aren't strong enough to defeat the resurrected spectre. I don't know if the game can be won. If it does, it takes more than two resurrections.

  8. I don't normally ask about box art but I got to ask, you think that's suppose to be Thelric? and why is the woman in a bikini? is there enemies like her?

    1. There's something very, very wrong with that woman.

  9. Regarding spell usage, there's something particularly frustrating that they exist, but other than the two you mentioned it sounds like all of the others (not sure if there are many, or just fireball) are basically just a trap. In a try-until-you-get-it-right game I can accept that some rooms or some monsters are better avoided or ignored, but it bothers me much more strongly that there's spells that practically put you in a walking dead situation by using them even once. It would be much better design, in my mind, if there was at least one place where you could/should use the other spells. For example, one foe that is best defeated by a fireball, but which guards a treasure that includes a mana recharge along with something else. I think I'm drifting into what's really more adventure game philosophy than RPG philosophy here, but that's what this is closer to. But in a real RPG it would be even more inexcusable to have a roster of spells you're not allowed to touch. One of the points of good RPGs is usually to have lots of options and figure out which one is preferable to use.

    1. A GREAT RPG should have a few spells that should never be used. Like the Discworld's Eight Great Spells and Ultima's Armageddon. It adds a lot of flavor to the world and underscores the danger and trappings of bending reality with mystical will.

    2. The purpose of Fireball is to hit multiple enemies at once. In a nutshell, Magic Missile delivers a strong hit to one enemy; Fireball delivers a weaker hit to multiple enemies around you; Energy Drain delivers a weaker hit to one enemy but also restores your life somewhat; and Magical Shield protects you in combat.

      There's really only one area that Fireball is potentially handy - one of the floors (the third one down, I believe) is a huge open area with monsters scattered about, all of which start moving towards you as soon as you set foot in the level. Depending on where you go it's possible for a horde of them to come bearing down on you all at the same time. Theoretically Fireball could be handy there.

      But I agree with the Addict that the best spell bar none is Magical Shield, simply because it's so cost-efficient. I recall on my winning runs I used Magic Missile exactly once (to kill an Orc to get a weapon early on, as you start with just your fists) and then Magical Shield was the only other spell I used for the rest of the game. Although if you find the spell-point-restoring potion there is a little room for "error" in spellcasting.

      I remember there's also a "Potion of Orcish Intellect" that you can find in the dungeon. What happens when you drink it? You LOSE spell points. Makes sense to me!

    3. It's a little more fiendish than that. I think it's something like a potion of "Orkanian" intellect. Still enough to suss it out, but not enough to be blatantly obvious what's going to happen.

      Your point is taken about "Fireball," but whether you cast it once or zero times is a pretty small distinction. The point is that a regular CRPG player would probably go into this game not realizing that spell points are extremely precious and on restorable by a single potion, and even then not by much. You have to treat that meter as a precious resource and not like the "mana bar" of a typical RPG.

  10. > Richard would found Codemasters Ltd. with his father and brother, David Darling.

    Boy, talk about an obliging mum!

  11. Once again we have a powerful figure, in this case the master of magic, who just grabs some jerk to recover an artifact. What's the likelihood of a favorable outcome here? Are we sure we want this guy to live forever?

  12. I also had this game as a youngster but could never work it out and so died very early and very often.

    As for the music, Rob Hubbard is a bit of a legend in computer game music, but this one isn't one of his best moments as the entire thing is an "unoffical" cover of Synergy's "Shibolet". Hubbard borrows another Synergy track for the music in Zoids; composers in the UK computer games scene were not always respectful of copyright. ;)

  13. some body actually made madter of magic inspired game fir c64, recently. and its really good


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