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Although there have been dozens and dozens of successful CRPG series over the decades, the most long-lived are Ultima, Wizardry, and New World Computing's Might and Magic. Indeed, each of these series received installments into the 2000's. Of the three, however, Might and Magic seems at times to lie too much in the shadow of its older brothers. Nevertheless, it's an interesting series that made several key developments to the genre.
The first Might and Magic, subtitled Book I: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum, was clearly a labor of love by developer Jon Van Caneghem and his wife Michaela. Caneghem did the bulk of the coding and design himself, and then co-founded New World Computing with Michaela and Mark Caldwell. The game debuted on the Apple II in 1986, followed by ports for the C-64, MS-DOS, and Mac platforms a year later. Contemporary reviewers praised it highly, comparing it very favorably to the competition (this was when The Bard's Tale was winning over huge audiences for the genre). The biggest draw seemed to be the immense size of the game world, Varn; there were over 4,000 locations and 55 areas to explore! Furthermore, the game was much more liberal than most in allowing players to explore the map however they wanted, rather than the fixed sequences of many games of the era. It offered first-person perspective and very nice graphics (though no animation).
Might and Magic pioneered several gameplay elements that would show up in later games like Bane of the Cosmic Forge, such as having the characters' race and gender play a strong role in the gameplay. For instance, one of the kingdoms in Might and Magic is stringently anti-male, and an all-male party will not be welcomed. Likewise, character alignment (i.e., good, neutral, or evil) plays a role in which locations the party can visit. Finally, the game's difficulty was considerably lower than most other games on the shelf, and was thus quite popular with gamers not yet ready to tackle Wizard's Crown or The Bard's Tale. (I should note that the early releases of the game started the characters off with no money and no weapons but clubs; new versions were quickly released that offered a much better prepared starting party). Combat is a simple text-driven affair, with the strengths of the monsters balanced so as not to overwhelm the player's party. Even if the party died, players could easily restore the game at the most recently visited inn.
"Much of the fun of any fantasy game, however, lies in the creation of the characters with whom you go adventuring." –from the Might and Magic instruction manual.
The plot focuses on six adventurers in a quest to discover the secret of the "Inner Sanctum," though little information is offered upfront about this quest or its object. Indeed, the ultimate quest is kept intentionally vague, and left for players to gradually piece together as they explore Varn. Like the early Ultima games, Might and Magic contains a mixture of fantasy and sci-fi elements. It also featured one of the best manuals of any of the early CRPGs, a spiral-bound affair with a fold-out map of Varn. In short, the first Might and Magic game made a great impression on critics and gamers.
New World Computing released the first sequel, Gates to Another World, in 1988. Although the engine was left mostly untouched, the graphics received a boost to EGA—and the already vast world was expanded. The biggest changes were auto-mapping, new character classes, more spells, and the ability to allow two non-player characters called "hirelings" into the party. Interestingly, the auto-mapping tool is a skill (Cartography) that must be learned by a character; it's not active by default. Like its predecessor, Gates to Another World is a loosely-knit game that offers players considerable freedom to move about the game world (this time, "Cron"). Eventually, though, players learn that Sheltem, the villain from the first game, is set to destroy Cron by forcing it into the sun. Beating the game requires not only thoroughly traversing Cron, but also traveling through four elemental planes and even in time. There are plenty of surprises in store for the player, including devices that change the characters' gender! Like SSI's earlier Phantasie games, the characters aged and would died soon after reaching 75.
Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra was released in 1991, and was the first game in the series to utilize the PC's new VGA graphic cards, as well as sound card for effects and digitized speech. It's also the first Might and Magic to offer support for the mouse. There are several nice features worth mentioning, such as on-screen character portraits that change to reflect the status and mood of each character (i.e., content, asleep, turned to stone), story-boosting cinematics, and "life stones." These "life stones" simplified the traditional hit point system with a color code system—green for good, yellow for not so good, and red for nearly dead (monster labels used the same system). Other enhancements include ranged combat, a more liberal save-game scheme, and a checklist of incomplete quests. A last nod to novices is a button that, when pressed, instantly transports the party back to an inn. However, this panic button has a cost—each character loses a level of experience.
With the fourth game, Clouds of Xeen (1992), New World quietly dropped support for other platforms and focused on MS-DOS (though a special 1994 combo called World of Xeen was ported to Macintosh). Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen (1993) are really one large quest broken into two chunks—the ultimate goal is the destruction of Sheltem. Indeed, both games can be combined into a single game called World of Xeen, which grants access to areas unavailable in either stand-alone game (adding up to about ¼ the size of the game). Both games offer only slight enhancements to the core engine used in Isles of Terra, but New World made good use of the new CD-ROM storage medium by adding quality soundtracks.
In 1996, New World Computing was bought by 3D0, and continued to publish new Might and Magic CRPGs (of varying quality) as late as 2002. However, in 2003 the rights passed to Ubisoft. The latest Might and Magic game, Dark Messiah (2006), is a first-person shooter style game developed by the French company Arkane Studios, and seems to have little in common with its famed predecessors.
Sierra On-Line is much better known for its graphical adventure games (GAGs) than its CRPGs, though it did publish at least two influential series: Quest for Glory and the Krondor games. Both of these games are noted for their blurring of the line between CRPG and GAGs, and are far more invested in story and puzzle elements than most CRPGs.
The first Quest for Glory game was originally titled Hero's Quest: So You Want to be a Hero, and released for MS-DOS in 1990 (ports for Amiga and Atari ST followed later that year). Sierra later got into a quandary over the name (Milton Bradley released a board game also named Hero's Quest) and decided to enhance and re-release it in 1992 as Quest for Glory. The game looks very much like a typical Sierra GAG (i.e., King's Quest, Space Quest), but offers CRPG elements like the ability to select a character class (fighter, mage, thief) and work gradually to improve his skills. There are several nice innovations worth mentioning—for instance, players solve puzzles differently depending on what type of character they are playing. For instance, fighters and thieves can climb a tree to fetch a ring in a bird's nest, but magic-users must cast a spell. Of course, combat is approached much differently as well. Mages and thieves should avoid close combat (melee), whereas fighters are encouraged to jump right in. In any case, combat is a timed, almost arcade-like affair that involves choosing appropriate moves and counter-moves (i.e., strike when the monster isn't blocking). Gameplay changes considerably depending on the character's class, so the replay value of this game is much higher than in most GAGs or CRPGs. The tone of the game is decidedly satirical and often downright silly. For instance, the town is named Spielburg, ruled by Baron Stefan Von Spielburg, and thieves can attempt to practice their pick-lock skill by typing "pick nose." It's definitely not a game that takes itself seriously or puts on literary airs.
Hero's Quest originally implemented a simple text-parser to carry on dialogues or perform actions—for instance, "ask about the brigands" and "climb tree." The re-release replaced the text parser with an icon-based, mouse-controlled interface. Of course, some fans of the original version were outraged by this "enhancement," arguing that it severely limits their ability to interact with the world. Sierra responded by releasing both versions in its Quest for Glory Anthology released in 1996. In any case, the game is appropriately described as a true "cult classic," and regularly shows up on many critics' top-ten lists of their favorite games.
Sierra released four other Quest for Glory games, beginning with Trial by Fire in 1990 and ending with Dragon Fire in 1998. Trial by Fire introduces the new paladin character class, and the third game, Wages of War (1992), is the first to make the transition into 256-color graphics, digitized sound effects, and the new, icon-based interface mentioned above. In addition, an "overworld" map was added that simulates travel across great distances, during which the character is subject to random encounters. Not surprisingly, all of these changes met with mixed reactions among fans, some calling it the best and others the worst of the series. The criticisms are many, but seem to mostly emphasize the rather banal puzzles and repetitious combat. The combat system was revamped in the fourth game, Shadows of Darkness, released in 1993. The perspective shifts to a side view during battles, making the experience even more arcade-like, though it's important to note that there is an option to let the computer fight the battles instead. As the title implies, this is a much darker game than the rest, and featured voice actors (most notably John Rhys-Davies). I'll discuss the final game, Dragon Fire, in the next installment.
"Dynamix didn't just license a game, hang character names on generic icons and call it a Riftwar game! They spent hours talking to me about all manner of things in a heartfelt attempt to 'get it right.' The object of the exercise was to be the first computer game that felt like it was part of a good adventure novel." –Raymond E. Feist in the Betrayal at Krondor instruction manual.
Sierra also published the Krondor series, beginning with Dynamix's Betrayal at Krondor in 1993. These games are perhaps most noteworthy for being based on Raymond E. Feist's world of Midkemia, made famous by Feist's celebrated Riftwar saga. Feist himself even wrote a novelization of the game. It features turn-based combat, a skill-based character system (no "levels"), clever riddles, and a good deal of Feist-inspired text and cut-scenes. Unfortunately, the graphics weren't up to many gamers' standards even in 1993, a sad fact that limited the game's success. Trees and mountains look jagged and "polygonal." The second game, Betrayal in Antara (1997), is not actually based on Feist's world at all—Sierra temporarily lost its license and had to create a new world called Ramar. This game is also plagued with substandard graphics for the time, and was roundly dismissed by critics, even though I found it quite enjoyable. Sierra released Betrayal at Krondor for free distribution in a valiant effort to promote the game, but it seemed almost doomed from the start. The third game, Return to Krondor, released in 1998, right most of the wrongs and is considered by many fans to be the best of the three. We'll discuss it next time as well, though, since it's clearly part of the Platinum rather than the Golden Age.
Other companies experimented with CRPG/adventure hybrids, including SSI. Realms of Darkness (1987) is an interesting mix of fantasy and sci-fi themes, with clever puzzles and a fairly sophisticated parser. Infocom also experimented with CRPG elements. Beyond Zork: The Coconut of Quendor (1987) is loaded with hilarious satire and comedy, but many adventure fans were turned off by the CRPG elements even though they did ostensibly add more replay value. Furthermore, players got discouraged when they discovered they had gotten the game into an "un-winnable" state and had to start over. While this possibility is common enough in older adventure games, it was unacceptable in a game that required hours and hours of dedicated gameplay to build up a character's experience.
Incidentally, there has never been a consensus among fans whether narratives and puzzles enhance or detract from the CRPG experience. Nevertheless, just about all CRPGs feature some kind of story, no matter how minimal and clichéd, and a great many involve challenges beyond the usual hack'n slash. It's a dispute that will probably never be settled, but who cares? I certainly appreciate variety and find myself preferring one type of game one moment and another the next!