The Master of Magic
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
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?