The Might and Magic series is probably most famous for the Heroes of Might and Magic spin-off series of tactical fantasy warfare and conquest. But the original games were old-school, party based RPGs. I played and enjoyed games 4-6 of the series back in the day, so I was excited when a giant pack containing games 1-6 was (re-)released on GOG.com. True to my methodical nature, I decided to start with the very first game, which I was surprised to learn was released way back in 1986. Now THAT’S old-school. While I am no stranger to ye olden days of DOS, still I braced myself for a very limited and trying experience, for how deep could a game so old be? Just by virtue of the tiny file size limits, I was expecting a much smaller experience than the sprawling, epic games that came later.
I was wrong. Might and Magic Book One is very, very impressive, and definitely worth a look as a History Lesson.
Don’t misunderstand me… the game is certainly old-school in design, which to a modern audience will translate to “annoying”. But it’s not nearly as annoying as I was expecting, and was far more immersive and and enjoyable than I had dared to hope.
First, some quick basics. The Might and Magic games are party-based RPGs that are played from a first-person perspective. The early games (games 1-5) are fully turn-based and are also grid-based. This means that your party can move around the map one square at a time, and can turn in 90-degree increments; such a style was used in many famous RPGs of yesteryear including Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder and the Wizardry series, and is even being implemented in the upcoming indie RPG Legend of Grimrock. In Might and Magic Book One, you form a party of up to six adventurers, either by choosing from the pre-made characters or by making your own. Once you’ve got a party, you’re ready to start exploring the world.
Now, for those old-school annoyances. The first one you’ll notice is that character creation is inspired by Dungeons and Dragons and requires you to “roll” your character’s stats using virtual dice. This means you sometimes must sift through roll after roll before getting a decent set of starting stats, but fortunately starting stats aren’t too critical, so unless you’re very picky it won’t take too long. There are six character classes in the game, which is convenient because it means you can take one of each. This is recommended in the manual and I concur. You can also pick your characters’ race, which offers some minor strengths and weaknesses, and gender, which surprisingly does matter at certain points in the game. Once you’ve got your party and you’re ready to go, you’ll run into the next bit of old school design: there’s no introduction, or explanation of what you’re supposed to do. You just start, standing outside the inn in the first town, and that’s it. No guidance, just a world to explore.
This was jarring to me at first, but soon I came to rather appreciate it. The game really is about exploring, first and foremost. It has a main plot, but you have to explore to find out what it is. There are several hints pertaining to certain quests and places of interest scattered around the first town, and more snippets of what’s going on are revealed as you travel farther afield and explore more of the world. And the main plot fits this design perfectly because it’s something of a mystery, involving secret schemes and such that are taking place behind the scenes. By the time you’ve truly figured out what you must do, you’re probably halfway through the game already. From our modern standpoint this seems like very strange design, but I was impressed with how well it worked, and fit with the mood of the game and its world.
Of course, it helps that exploring the game world is so fun. As mentioned before, everything is mapped out on a grid; specifically, each game area is a 16×16 grid (numbered 0 through 15), with the outdoor areas connected to each other at the edges. Just how interesting can a game be with such limited maps? Very interesting, it turns out. The maps are littered with secret doors, special locations, traps, teleporters and the like, and the map design is really superb. Each area feels distinct and completely fits with the theme, whether it be a confounding maze in the basement of a wizard’s lair, or a thick, overgrown haunted forest, or a string of islands dotted with shipwrecks, or a mountain peak that has you climbing (an illusion, since there is no vertical component to the maps) around the edges before finally reaching the summit and being treated to a (text description of the) impressive view.
Complementing the excellent map design is the fact that you will have to chart these areas yourself. There’s no automapping feature in the game, so if you want to know where you’re going you’ll have to draw your own maps. I used a pencil and graph paper, but others have had success using spreadsheet programs. To many, the need to make these maps will seem a horrible inconvenience, but it really should be viewed as part of the game, as it actually enriches the experience. The game was designed with mapmaking in mind, and even included grid paper for the player to use. Indeed, many of the areas in the game have nefarious designs to confound your attempts at cartography. One particularly memorable instance found my party marching down a long corridor. Just when I had traveled far enough that I could not see the end of the corridor in either direction, there was a trap which pushed me back one square every time I tried to advance. Cleverly, I was unable to tell that this was happening, so it seemed that I was walking forever down an endless corridor. Eventually, I had my Sorcerer cast the Location spell, which yields my current coordinates on the map, and I realized that I hadn’t advanced at all. The Jump spell then let my party leap over the magical trap and continue onwards, only to face another long corridor around the bend. This time, I was teleported back to the original trap (again, imperceptibly). I had to use magic once more to figure out what had happened and was able to circumvent the second trap as well. The traps in the game offer plenty more variety too; other locations will dump your party into a pit, damaging everyone before loosing a horde of monsters, or spin you around and disorient you, or slide you along chutes into pits of acid.
When was the last time you played an RPG with really good traps in it? These days it seems the focus is always on combat, with maybe a minor environmental hazard thrown in for variety. In Might and Magic Book I, exploring an area can be a tense, completely absorbing experience without having to fight a single monster.
But don’t worry, there are monsters. There are plenty of monsters. Combat in the game is handled on a separate screen, and offers some tasty tactical options without being too complex. Both your characters and the enemies can either be within hand-to-hand range or not, meaning you will want to keep your weaker spellcasters in back to keep them out of harm’s way. Characters in hand-to-hand range cannot use bows, except for the archer class who can fire a bow at any time. This means the archer can choose to attack any enemy with his or her bow, even if the enemy is out of hand-to-hand range. Add in certain spells that can only affect enemies that are in hand-to-hand range and others that only affect enemies out of hand-to-hand range, and you’ve got a lot of interesting decisions to make in a given combat round. Another nice feature is that if one of your characters is reduced to 0 HP (or below) they do not immediately die, but are instead rendered unconscious. A simple healing spell will wake the character up, but if they take any further damage while unconscious they will die. This gives your Cleric plenty of work to do during combat, making sure everyone gets back on their feet before taking another hit. There’s also plenty of variety in the enemies you will face, with vastly different behaviors and abilities. Overall, combat is good fun, which is fortunate because you’ll be doing it a lot.
Nevertheless, these combats can be quite difficult, especially early in the game. You might think that a town would be a safe area, right? Not so in this game. When you start off outside the inn in Sorpigal, with nothing so much as a club for each of your characters (that isn’t even equipped to start with!) you will soon find yourself running into fights in the streets, some of which are quite deadly. The low-level Sleep spell is virtually essential for these early encounters, as is getting some better equipment. Also, defensive spells are extremely useful. Such spells often seem like afterthoughts in modern RPGs, but in Might and Magic Book I, activating every defensive spell I had was my first order of business. Fortunately, they last until the next time your party rests, so they don’t need to be reactivated too often. While these spells help, the single most important thing for surviving is gaining levels.
To gain a level in the game, you must first gain experience through combat, but then you must also visit a training ground in one of the towns and pay for training. This means you don’t end up overflowing with gold as in many other RPGs, since you’re constantly spending it on gaining levels. The benefits of leveling are great, however, boosting everyone’s ability to hit enemies and damage dealt, reducing the enemies’ chance to resist your spells, and perhaps most importantly, unlocking new spells for your spellcasters. Your spellcasters start out fairly weak, but at higher levels they are very powerful and completely indispensable. It’s a great feeling when a horde of monsters that would have completely wiped you out earlier in the game is annihilated by a single fireball from your high-level sorcerer. Fortunately, the need to gain levels rarely feels like a grind. There are plenty of places to explore, so if you have trouble in one area you can simply travel somewhere else. Plus, there are various ways you can discover to gain experience quickly if you’re close to a level-up and you really want a new spell or two.
There are a few more bits of old-school design I should warn you about. For one, you can only save the game by visiting an inn in one of the towns. While this can be a bit harsh at times, you will never lose your hand-drawn maps, and there are several spells that can allow for a quick escape back to town in order to save. What actually is very annoying, however, is the loot system. There are some shops in the game, but the vast majority of loot is found in randomized treasure chests left after combat. The problem is that the game gives no indication of which items are better than others. You can try to gauge this by looking at how much they sell for in the shops, but this quickly becomes very tedious, and it won’t tell you about various bonuses that magical items can grant when equipped. Fortuantely, the GOG version of the game comes with the cluebook, which lists all the item stats. This is technically cheating, but I found it increased my enjoyment immensely. Just be careful of the other spoilers in the cluebook. I recommend searching the PDF for the item in question to avoid accidentally seeing too much else.
All things considered, Might and Magic Book One really is quite amazing, especially for a game made in 1986. It manages to express so much with so little, and is worth a play just to witness that accomplishment. I must warn players that the real treats come after a little bit of play — early on you will be stuck in the first town until you gain a few levels, and won’t get to see many of the fascinating locations until you’ve played for a little while — but it’s worth it. I remember the locations in Might and Magic Book One more vividly than any of the places in most modern RPGs, simply by virtue of their excellent design. These places were adversaries in their own right, and mapping them out was a triumph as fulfilling as any boss encounter. They aren’t notable because of how they look, but because of how they feel. In these days of fancy graphics and art design, the feel of a game can often be placed second, but fortunately Might and Magic Book One is still here to show us how much of a difference it makes.
The Might and Magic 6-Pack is available from GOG.com for $9.99. To those with no prior Might and Magic experience, it might be easier to start off with a later game in the series, such as number 3 or 4-5 (the fourth and fifth games combine into one giant game). While I think that Book I is the most interesting from a History Lesson standpoint, the later games are more accessible and for the most part they improved with each installment, and once you’ve gotten used to the games you can try the first one. The games are mostly separate from one another so you don’t need to worry about not knowing the story. **Warning: If you are considering playing Might and Magic Book I, know that today’s super-fast processors will cause the text in the game to fly by far too quickly. Fortunately, there is a fan-made fix for this. I consider this fix essential. The later games in the series should run at normal speed without any additional fixes.**