Review: Might & Magic (PC)

No, Seriously, You Should Play Might And Magic

I know, I know–it’s like how you’ve always meant to watch Citizen Kane. Didn’t they do some kind of social science study about that, how people have these should watches on their Netflix queue but screw that, I’m’a watch Buffy again? Yeah, you say you want to play the old-school games, that you’re this Person Who’s Interested In Games And Gaming History And All Of That, but when it comes down to it, I mean, do you really want to be staring at this for the next several dozen hours of your gaming life? Fuck that, pass the Skyrim.


Well, look: The original Might And Magic is almost as old school as they come: It’s one of the Sacred Three RPG series of the 80s that we all kinda know, Wizardry and Ultima being its companions. Predecessors, really: Might and Magic came a few years after both Ultima and Wizardry were in full swing, and in its own way it refines and combines the best elements of both series–the challenge and tactical depth of Wizardry, the free-roaming explorations of Ultima.

Playing Wizardry 6 was one of the more notable experiences of my gaming life–it was the right game at the right time–but Might and Magic might be the better game, because let’s face it: Wizardry is kind of a dick. If the first Wizardrys actively wanted you dead, Wizardry 6 is at least grudgingly accepting of the fact that you might win–it just wants you to be very, very clear about the fact that it thinks you suck. Might and Magic, on the other hand, I mean it’s a tough game, do not get me wrong, but you know how you had that one teacher who was super tough on you and really made you work for your grades, but only demanded so much because she knew you could do it, and god dammit, you could? Yeah. Remember how Dark Souls was really hard, and everyone started saying “Such-and-such is the Dark Souls of whatever”, and then all of these Dark Souls fans were all “No, it’s not that it’s a hard game, it’s a fair game that demands a lot of you!” and all of that? Might and Magic is the Dark Souls of grid based RPGs. No.  Dark Souls is the Might and Magic of third-person action-adventure games.

Look, it’s a project, okay? You are going to spend time on this game, you are going to be living in this world for a while, you are going to be spending idle time at work thinking about the key combinations for the spells, I swear to you, as I’m typing this I’m going in my head 6-C-1-5-ENTER-6-C-2-5-ENTER-5-C-1-5 and I’ve just cast Leather Skin, Levitate, and Light and I’m ready to explore. You will dream of ugly dungeon walls. Once a day you will arrange the sheets of graph paper for your overworld map and you will stand up and you will admire the progress you’ve made and steel yourself for the areas you still have to explore and you’ll compare it to the full-color map that came with the game that you printed out.

You will need to become organized. Might and Magic consists of 55 separate but interconnected 16X16 areas. If you want to count squares, that’s 14,080 of ’em. You will be expected to map  all of them. This isn’t Skyrim, where you look at a map and decide you want to go to a location which is “vaguely therabouts” and an arrow pops up telling you that your destination is “in this general direction”, and you just kind of zone out until you bop someone on the head, a bunch of words appear on the screen, a Cheevo pops up, and the arrow changes direction.

There are no quest arrows: What, you didn’t learn to take notes in school? Besides my maps I have a to-do list, a sheet where I’m copying the parts of a secret message  threading through the game, the printed-out pages of my character’s spellbooks, a page I drew myself for both of my main casters where I’ve charted their available spells in a different and more-accessible way, and the entire equipment list printed out from the hint book that GoG thoughtfully enclosed: All in all, a good 80 or so pieces of paper.

It’s necessary: It’s the kind of game where you have no guidance whatsoever. You always like to complain about tutorials, right? Well finally–the game has no tutorial or intro. You figure out how to create your characters–even starting the game isn’t particularly intuitive–and then you’re dumped in front of the inn. Maybe you’ll think to check if your characters are equipped–the internet is littered with a thousand tales about people who didn’t realize they needed to equip the lame clubs the party starts with–but really and truly, you’re just dumped into this world without a single scrap of anything: Simply put, you’ve got to Figure This All Out On Your Own.

Look, I know, I’ve given you a panic attack. I’m sorry.

This is, like, a burden of freedom-type thing. You’re used to that arrow. You’re used to games having explicit goals, and you’re used to games which either very desperately want you to feel good about yourself and so present themselves as a series of very tiny, very trivial tasks; or you’re used to games which are just kinda assholes about themselves, which get some kind of joy in abusing you. Both are impatient. Might and Magic is one of the most relaxing games I’ve ever played, because it figures you’ll get there when you get there. The entire thing is really a giant cartography puzzle intertwined with some riddles. Just take notes.

Look, it’s like Dark Souls, okay, you’re going to die a lot, but you’re going to have more and more of this snazzy map filled in as you go, you’re going to have another clue or know that there’s another area that you’re not quite ready to explore, or whatever. I watched a little Jane McGonigal video where she said something like 80% of a game is spent in a failure state, which would be ludicrous in any other hobby but somehow, in gaming, it adds to the thrill and accomplishment of winning. Information gleaned from failed plays informs subsequent attempts. Gamers learn a lot from failure. People who regularly play videogames tend to have a more tolerant attitude towards setbacks in other aspects of life–they tend to cope better with frustrations, to consider them learning experiences.

Well, a journey of 55 16X16 maps begins with a single square. Worry about mapping the inn–it’s only four squares–and then worry about the area around the inn–nine squares–and you know, it’s okay if you want to rest and save after every fight–in fact, I recommend it. You’re going to die a lot. That’s just going to happen. There’s no rush. When you’re feeling brave, you can go out further in the town, find out the other major buildings, start to explore the alleyways–and then maybe you’ll be ready for the dungeon underneath the town. And then maybe you could poke your head into the woods outside. You’ll figure it out. Go slow.

There are so few games that I as a player feel I have ownership of, these days–there are so many times I’m just being pulled passively through someone else’s dream.  My experience of Might and Magic is a deeply personal one–that it’s such a sprawlingly nonlinear game is part of it, certainly, but everyone maps differently: At this point I know the town of Scorpigal like the back of my hand, I’ve explored it enough, but looking at other peoples’ maps online is a disconcerting experience: Those aren’t the colors I used. That isn’t my Scorpigal. The CRPG Addict, whose blog inspired me to give Might and Magic a proper try, uses Excel to map: His version of the game seems cold and clinical, just as mine is scruffy around the edges.

When I think of what games can do, what I want games to be, I realize I don’t want to be held by the collar by a shrill auteur; I also don’t want an amorphous experience that’s all things to all people. And the line that pops into my head is the line from the first screen of Adam Cadre’s Photopia, a line that Jimmy Maher appropriated for his history of interactive fiction: Let’s tell a story together. To a very real degree,what I think of as Might and Magic is not a piece of software but rather a construct created in collaboration with John van Caneghem over a 26-year gap. We talk about how we want intimacy in games, how we want games to be about forging human connections or something; I can think of little more intimate or more human than someone suggesting some of the products of his imagination and inviting you to participate in their completion.

And, you know, you finish the game, and you’re given your score, and you are literally given the address of New World Computing–which, I believe, Van Caneghem was running out of his apartment?–and told to report your win. You know, in this day of Thought Catalog articles about how irritating it is when people tweet at us. in this day of the didactic author force-feeding you their opinions and calling it the death of the player as if that’s a desired thing, in this day where we consider the comments field one of the greater evils that’s ever been unleashed, it’s almost shocking to see an author looking for contact like this. We have to remember that Might and Magic was a sincere product of a subculture. It takes a very specific type of person to design nearly five dozen maps and pepper them with puzzles and kobolds–and it takes another, similarly specific type of person to sort through the result.

And so there’s something sweet and innocent about Might and Magic. No matter what The Oatmeal tells you, the geeks have won, the geeks have taken over and have become the new jocks. That wasn’t the case in ’86. I think about how computer stores kind of served as social centers–a world I glimpsed, because I was playing games on my Apple IIe in the late 80s during the very tail end of the dedicated software store, but wasn’t quite old enough to actually participate in. And I think about how many of the letters sent must have rambled on about their favorite parts and speculated on the sequel and just playing talked about what a great time they had with the game–and I just find something beautiful in a game based around navigation and being lost and figuring out how to navigate through the world ends with this moment of an invitation to connect.

But, you know, really, it’s all about showing off how hardcore you are, right? So yeah, Might and Magic is hardcore as shit. Look. You beat Dark Souls. You can take it.


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Richard Goodness


  1. […] a positive note, here’s a thought-provoking interview with Peter Molyneux and an instructive review of the first Might and Magic game. I’d have a few comments here too, but I’m running out of time. See you next […]