Developer: Iguana Entertainment
Publisher: Elite Systems
Early Western RPGs were created with the expressed purpose of acting out people’s Dungeons and Dragons fever dreams without the imposition of people. The computer supersedes the gamemaster, and the first-person graphics replace the total reliance on imagination. Although there were ideas bandied back-and-forth across the sea, Japanese RPGs were distinguished by their relatively streamlined nature and more focused direction while keeping the systems and free-roaming gameplay, in comparison to the Western offerings that allowed players the complete freedom to figure it all out for themselves. So it goes with the medieval, first-person role-player Might and Magic II, a cryptic, arcane and obscenely difficult behemoth of a game that handsomely rewards only the patient.
Preceded by Ultima, The Bard’s Tale and Wizardry, the Might and Magic series started on the Apple II computer courtesy of Jon Van Caneghem, who developed Might and Magic: Secret of the Inner Sanctum over three years from 1983 to 1986, when it was released by New World Computing, a company then run solely by himself. The game’s popularity facilitated a number of home computer ports, and in 1992 the NES received a conversion from G-Amusements and American Sammy, containing some fantastic Masaharu Iwata music. I’ve played almost every NES game but, until this review, Secret of the Inner Sanctum was one of only around thirty games I’d never tried. I could easily have missed the series entirely.
The sequel, Gates to Another World, arrived two years later, playing similarly to its predecessor albeit with a heavier emphasis on combat. In North America, Nintendo console owners could obtain the first and third Might and Magic games, with Isles of Terra appearing on the SNES in 1994, but not the second, which was released in two separate ports in Japan and Europe. In 1993, Gates to Another World was released in Europe by Elite Systems, a major British home computer developer/publisher who made some forays into the European Nintendo market with the NES and Super Nintendo versions of Dragon’s Lair and Joe and Mac. The port in question, which was cancelled in North America, was handled by Iguana Entertainment, a reliable if unexceptional developer who made the fantastic Pirates of Dark Water and NBA Jam on the Genesis as well as Acclaim’s N64 semi-classic Turok.
Might and Magic II is played from a first-person perspective, as is common among the early WRPGs, and movement by tile is handled with the Up button to move forward and the Down button to step backward. Turning at 90-degree angles is performed by Left and Right, and the menus are controlled by the D-pad to select, B to confirm and Y to cancel. The A button can be used to dismiss some prompts, but for the most part the game only uses two buttons. It’s simple and effective, which is a mercy since all of the menus are dense and complex. The game has six standard playable characters plus the option to create your own characters, randomly generating statistics until you’re satisfied and then giving you the option to select class, gender, moral alignment and species. The deep character creation mode is a defining feature of the early computer RPG genre that was rarely used by Japanese console developers. Once you’ve chosen six for the party, it’s off to the Middlegate Inn.
The five towns, which can be travelled between using paid transport or braving the outside, all consist of a series of buildings and pathways in which the characters can talk to people to buy weapons, armour, skills, food, spells and more, as well as listen to rumours in the tavern, take on quests, fight monsters and encounter characters offering helpful advice. Each town has an inn for registering save points and choosing party members, a magic guild (that requires an admission fee) that extra spells can be bought from, a house where characters can heal themselves, and a training centre to level up party members when they have enough experience points. That’s right: the game doesn’t automatically level up.
Monsters lurk in unexpected places initially, but they’re in the same place every time, which makes it a great relief, considering the overall difficulty, that you can navigate around them and not encounter a sudden battle. They turn up in clusters of at least five and the highest I saw was 37 in one encounter. Monsters are fought in turn-based combat, like most old RPGs, and the battle system is one of the smoothest and most responsive I can think of in one of these games, reducing lag to split seconds. Fake walls are all around, and with the fountain of clairvoyance or the Wizard’s Eye spell, a map can be displayed in the top-right of the screen that shows where an open gap is. There are certain areas only accessible this way, many of which lead to enemy encounters, and it’s an important skill to get accustomed to as Tundara, for example, hides most of its buildings on a path behind a fake wall.
If you’re in a tactical battle situation determined to get the best out of all your party’s abilities, taking a patient approach through all of the menus and carefully choosing each action, you can. If you’re guaranteed to win or lose the battle or just want to fight a war of attrition, just mash the B button and your party will attack, attack, attack. In a lot of cases, I could defeat the most nuanced of the enemies by diligently using the best moves and be left with a swarm of red-shirts, so then it was time for the speedy-thumbs approach. The actions on the battle menu screen allow players to attack with hand weapons, cast spells, shoot projectiles, use items, block, run from the battle, and change the party order. Before the battle begins, you can choose to face the baddies, hide, run away or attempt to bribe them to leave you alone. Learning which of these options is the best for each situation can only really be done through trial and error, and error, and error, and controller-smashing error, until you figure out how to finally get the better of the damned things.
There are some enemies that can only be destroyed by male or female characters without using spells, and the further one gets the more common they are: creatures such as Sludge Beast, Dancing Bones, Ranger and Cat Corpse need a woman’s touch of the dagger to be put down, and the macho men of the group are required to finish off other evildoers like Dancing Dead, Super Sprite and Gnome Elder. The only way to find out which is which is to just go for it and remember for next time. Whenever a group of enemies are defeated, pressing Search will check the ground to see if they left anything behind. The experience points are automatic, but gold, gems and items have to be taken from chests found in this manner. Gold is used for currency in towns to buy items, skills and abilities, gems are required for some magic spells and pretty much anything your party can hold can come from the chest, sometimes even being weapons and armour far above what you can afford at the time.
Might and Magic II, in particular, seems designed to suck up huge wads of hours for the faintest hint of progression. The experience points at the very start of the game come in hundreds, but any RPG which deals in numbers of millions of said points is enough to make my head spin. Only the very weakest of enemies can be defeated by spending all of the gold one starts with on armour and food and waling away at whichever bastardly creations are in the near vicinity. Needless to say, like any good RPG, it’s brutal at first, and gets easier the more time spent with it; not necessarily because there are fewer mishaps or unfair moments, but more because dealing with situations and their likelihood of success based on the party’s current ability becomes second nature. There’s never a point in Gates to Another World where a doomed scenario can’t be right around the corner.
The nature of early Western RPGs such as this is to be unbalanced. The player is tasked with digging their own gold, defeating strong enemies to get it, and assisted little along the way, resulting in plentiful frustration. There’s something of a charm to that as well. The game punishes players, but pockets of unexpected generosity pop up from time to time. After slogging my way through hundreds of battles and countless deaths, I was able to upgrade my arsenal to something approaching respectability, and then after travelling to the town of Tundara I happened upon a horde of gnomes in the monster freezing rooms that gave me obscene amounts of gold every time I defeated them, which made for some easy farming in order to travel to Atlantium and buy some much better weaponry that made enemy battles far less gruelling.
The game cartridge has a built-in battery save, which is great news since any RPG this long and nuanced going without one would be nothing short of criminal. Saving is performed by walking into inns, which preserves all of the characters exactly as they are. This is a boon for finding new weapons, levelling up and generally making progress, but there’s one downside: anytime you save characters that died, they will stay dead. Unconscious, diseased and cursed characters can be easily cured, but death is irreversible until very far into the game when the resurrection spell is usable. So you’ve been warned – don’t do this.
Once you’ve been through enough rough and tumble to turn the party into real men and women, there’s a whole world to conquer. Leave the towns behind and go to the castles, caves and the enormous overworld. The overworld is full of unpredictable encounters, fake walls of forest and mountain, and important locations signposted and obscure. It’s here where the game’s test of the player hits its stride in the navigation department, rather than just the combat. Nothing is certain without the map, and there are coded messaged strewn around in hard-to-find places. The castles of Woodhaven, Hillstone and Pinehurst await, bringing with them innumerable quests and chances to succeed at whatever the end goal of the game is. I played this game for a long time, and never really got a sense of where it was all leading to thanks to the copious amount of cryptic clues laid about, but I did at least manage to navigate the enemy-laden, relentless, magic-stopping corridors and fake walls of the Snowbeast’s lair in Tundara and bribe it with 111 food in order to rescue some characters who fought as extra members of my party.
In terms of presentation, the game is fair. The first-person 3D engine is done pretty well, especially considering how much of an upgrade the graphics are from the blotchy MS Paint look of the original, but the game sometimes has a problem with failing to render distant walls. This isn’t much of a hindrance, thankfully. The enemy sprites are nicely designed and well-animated, and its medieval setting is nicely conveyed. The music, with it in mind that the Apple II version is mostly silent, is charming, consisting of some stylistically diverse little tunes often led by harpsichord and strings and the sound effects are pretty good, except for one thing: any time a party member or enemy casts a spell, or when discovering and opening a chest, a loud jingle plays over the top which is out of tune with the music and sounds completely awful. Best to turn off the music or sound effects if it gets grating.
I’ve tried out the NES version of Might and Magic as well as the less-than-impressive third game on Super Nintendo, which was also converted by Iguana Entertainment, and as far as I’m concerned the crisp responsiveness of this port makes it the best of the three. Both of the other games have gorgeous graphics – including an impressive turning animation on the NES version which neither Super Nintendo game has, but Gates To Another World is the easiest to get stuck into.
Games like this have a die-hard cult following who have learned to smell the roses between the hardships, but they’re not everyone’s cup of tea and are notoriously inaccessible to casual players. Despite my general aversion to games with this much happenstance and confusion, I have to admit I’m impressed with what New World Computing put together, and Iguana Entertainment’s spot-on conversion. Anyone able to cope with the heavyweight difficulty, the time investment and the trappings of the genre will find a lot to love in Might and Magic II. Or, failing that, destroying a bunch of gnomes and knights while aimlessly wandering around a medieval town in search of treasure and weapons can still be really fun. Whether it’s a magical experience or a mighty burden depends on the taste of the player.