Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be exposing the ancient aliens at the heart of sword-and-sorcery epic Might and Magic. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Where two dates are presented, the first indicates a Japanese release and the second indicates a North American release unless otherwise noted.
Primary sources, especially interviews with the developers and contemporary reviews, will be cited below. I referred to the following secondary sources for an overview:
- Alexander Case for Hardcore Gaming 101 – History of Might and Magic
- Chris Chapman – The Rise and Fall of Might and Magic
- Boris Bezdar – Remembering the Titans: Might and Magic (Parts 1, 2, and 3)
Jon Van Caneghem grew up in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, graduating from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) with a degree in Computer Science. He founded New World Computing in 1983 with wife Michaela and Mark Caldwell. The studio’s first title was a role-playing game (RPG) inspired, like earlier PC RPGs Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981) and Ultima: First Age of Darkness (1981), by TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons (1974).
Might and Magic Book One: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum (1986)
The first entry in New World Computing’s Might and Magic franchise was programmed for the Apple II more or less single-handedly by studio founder Jon Van Caneghem between 1983 and 1986. Influences naturally included the aforementioned Wizardry and Ultima, but the game’s distinctive science fiction elements were inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke quote (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) and an episode of Star Trek (“For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” 1968). Character and location names were drawn directly from Dungeons and Dragons sessions run for friends by Van Caneghem. As with most contemporary RPGs, controls for the game are fully keyboard-based and require the player to review a 40+ page packed-in manual before setting out.
The player’s first step upon booting up the game is creating a party of adventurers. Options for each of the player’s six characters include name, sex, race (Human, Elf, Half-Orc, Gnome, or Dwarf), moral alignment, and class. Sex and race have an impact on statistics while moral alignment determines what locations the party can visit and class determines the character’s combat abilities: Knights are melee fighters, Clerics cast defensive spells, Sorcerers cast offensive spells, Robbers can steal and disarm locks, and Paladins and Archers are respectively Knight/Cleric and Knight/Sorcerer hybrids.
The game is played entirely from a first-person perspective, as had been the case for Wizardry, but features a variety of overworld areas rather than confining the player to subterranean dungeons. Van Caneghem had wanted to create the most open-ended world that players had encountered in a computer RPG so far and succeeded, though this has a negative impact on the ability to clearly understand where the party’s next intended destination is. Players must map out the overworld and dungeons’ labyrinthine corridors using a sheet of graph paper, lest they become hopelessly lost. Each area in the game is comprised of a set of tiles and movement through each tile constitutes a turn. Unlike Wizardry, a comparatively forgiving continue system allows the player to reload their game – saved at inns in each of the game’s five cities – if their party falls in battle.
Battles are randomly encountered while traveling through the overworld and dungeons. Combat sees the party exchange blows with a group of enemies turn-by-turn and is conveyed entirely through text in the Apple II version of the game, though later ports would embellish battles with more animated visuals. The party gains experience points from defeating enemies and levels up, gaining new abilities and improving their stats over time. A brutally high difficulty level ensures that players who fail to purposefully fight low-level enemies to raise their party members’ levels will eventually encounter enemies too strong to defeat. Strangely, the party ages over time as the game progresses and, if the player fails to complete their quest in a short enough period of time, the party will age into stat-reduced infirmity.
One of Might and Magic‘s most memorable aspects is its setting of VARN. Though this gives the impression of a bog-standard Tolkienesque fantasy world in the early hours, as the party hunts a mythical location known as the Inner Sanctum, players discover that the world’s name is an acronym for Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle. Two mysterious non-player characters (NPCs) who will frame the conflict of Might and Magic‘s first five titles, a good wizard named Corak and an evil wizard named Sheltem revealed to be androids created by a precursor alien race known as Ancients, are introduced as the player characters’ quest develops. The presence of spaceships and other science-fiction elements recalls the surprising twist of Ultima, though it offers its own unique approach to the concept.
Might and Magic Book One was highly successful for its era, selling over 100,000 copies by 1989. Critics praised its high degree of non-linearity, in which it compared favorably to its already-ambitious RPG contemporaries. Ports for a host of consoles and computer platforms over the following six years, including the IBM-PC and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), would dramatically enhance the game’s visual design but leave its fundamental mechanics largely unchanged.
Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World (1988)
A second Might and Magic game arrived on the Apple II in North America in December 1988 and, surprisingly, on the PC-88 and PC-98 platforms in Japan the same month. This likely reflects the meteoric rise in RPG popularity among Japanese developers after the localization of Wizardry in 1985 and the genre’s mainstream success in that country following the release of Enix’s Dragon Quest (1986/1989). Whatever the cause, Might and Magic II’s rapid localization and popularity abroad reflect a broader level of polish and commercial consciousness in the franchise beginning with its second entry.
Gameplay is similar to the first game with several key differences. Two new character classes, Ninja and Barbarian, are present to select during the character creation process. Characters can acquire new secondary skills as they level up, including combat specialization and passive abilities utilized during exploration. Among the latter category is an especially user-friendly update: auto-mapping explored areas through the use of the cartographer skill. Enemy parties, while still random in their composition, now appear at set locations throughout dungeons and the overworld rather than at random. Up to two NPCs called hirelings can also be hired to augment the player’s party when they encounter an especially challenging area.
Visuals are likewise improved, thanks to the introduction of Enhanced Graphics Adaptor (EGA) support. This had become popular across the IBM-PC platform following 1984 – and was itself being largely superseded on advanced computers by IBM’s Video Graphics Array (VGA) standard as early as 1987 – but had become available on Apple II models in the years between the release of Might and Magic Book One and its sequel. EGA allows more colors and even lightly animated sprites during battle sequences.
The plot carries on directly from where Might and Magic Book One had left off, with the player’s party arriving in CRON (Central Research Observational Nacelle) following their leap through a portal during the preceding game’s final confrontation. No end boss greets the party at the conclusion of Might and Magic II, though, as New World Computing has replaced that tired trope with a bizarre twist: the party must solve an anagram within a set period of real-world time as a clock ticks down. This is a fitting coda to Might and Magic II’s more richly detailed, peculiar game world.
Sadly, its unique final puzzle would come under criticism by the 1980s’ most significant reviewer: Computer Gaming World’s Scorpia. Other reviews of the game were generally positive, though, drawing attention to its expanded scope and refined mechanics. Numerous ports followed, including home console iterations on the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Most ports were relatively similar, aside from small gameplay and cosmetic tweaks, with one notable exception: the 1993 Super Famicom version produced by Starcraft in Japan and localized for Europe but not North America eschews its Western origins to bring the game into much closer visual and mechanical conformity with popular Japanese RPG series Shin Megami Tensei (1992-2016).
Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra (1991)
Staff working on the Might and Magic franchise more than doubled between its second and third entries. This is likely due to Jon Van Caneghem’s decision to heavily innovate following his realization that the series might otherwise be constrained by past successes. Augmenting the core six-person team that had developed Might and Magic II would pay dividends, of course, and Might and Magic III would be New World Computing’s most mechanically and visually advanced title so far.
Its core design remained untouched, as players still create a party and guide the characters as a unit around gridded maps from a first-person point of view. Battles no longer play out as surprises, though, since enemies can now be seen wandering the environment and engaged or avoided at the player’s will; since combat and exploration both articulate as turn-based decision-making, the omission of a barrier between combat and exploration sequences is not jarring. Map-making is now an automatic part of exploration, too, so the player no longer needs to invest in an associated in-game skill or real-world paper and pen. Saving one’s game can also now be done from any point outside of a couple unique areas.
The audio-visual design is likewise thoroughly enhanced, as Might and Magic III is the first series entry developed from the ground up for the MS-DOS platform. VGA graphics and the integration of sound cards in most PCs by the early 1990s meant that full-color worlds and digitized speech could be included in a new Might and Magic title for the first time. Other embellishments made possible by moving away from the Apple II have direct benefits on the game’s user-friendliness: a mouse can now be used to navigate menus, on-screen character portraits change to reflect character health, and spells can now be selected from a list rather than requiring the player to memorize and input numerical combinations.
Might and Magic III‘s world of Terra, where the player’s party arrives after once again chasing evil wizard Sheltem through a portal, is the most expansive one in the franchise so far. The party is drawn into a conflict between two Guardians and are once again pitted against Sheltem as he seeks to hurl the titular inhabited Isles of Terra into space using magic. The quest takes the party deep beneath the surface of the planet, where they uncover its mysterious history and finally pursue Sheltem off-world when he escapes to an as-yet unseen land of Xeen.
In an unpleasant twist, New World Computing included a mean-spirited caricature of outspoken Might and Magic II critic Scorpia in the series third entry; this did not keep Computer Gaming World‘s most famous reviewer from heaping praise on Van Caneghem’s newest title alongside her contemporaries. Might and Magic III proved to be less polarizing than its direct predecessor, as it featured fewer surprising changes to the formula and instead focused on dramatic improvements to preceding entries’ fundamental gameplay and presentation. Ports to other hardware configurations – including a home console version for the SNES – followed over the next few years, though these were not the major audio/visual upgrades that earlier Might and Magic ports had been. The franchise had finally caught up with modern computing on the MS-DOS.
Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen (1992)
Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen (1993)
Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen is less of a major step forward for the Might and Magic series after the highly successful jump from Apple II to MS-DOS between its second and third entries. Originally produced as a set of floppy disks for the MS-DOS, Clouds of Xeen utilizes the same game engine as its direct predecessor and does not offer any immediately noticeable visual upgrade. Its integration with its immediate successor, however, offers a highly experimental approach to early 1990s game design. Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen includes a distinctive story set on the opposite side of the flat world explored by the player’s party and owning both Xeen releases opens up a distinctive set of areas and an ending not included in either standalone title. A compilation of both, with improved graphics and audio, was published on CD-ROM as Might and Magic: Worlds of Xeen in 1994.
The games together represent the conclusion of the Corak/Sheltem conflict introduced in the series’ debut. Though the player’s party from Might and Magic III goes missing in space following Sheltem’s escape from Terra, Corak tracks the evil wizard to the flat world of Xeen. His unfortunate landing and imprisonment in a lava field sees his quest taken up by a new band of six player-created heroes during Clouds of Xeen. Once he is freed from this predicament in Darkside of Xeen, Corak takes the fight to Sheltem for one final confrontation.
Gameplay is roughly identical to Might and Magic III, though a handful of updates are included. Directional buttons make overworld and dungeon navigation simpler than in earlier series entries. A third school of magic – Nature – which had been introduced in Might and Magic III has been eliminated in favor of redistributing its spells among the light and dark magic schools respectively utilized by Clerics and Sorcerers (along with the hybrid classes Paladin, Archer, and Ranger). The party’s journal now features better quest tracking, too, making it easier to remember tasks left unfinished across the expansive world of Xeen.
No home console ports were produced for either of the individual Xeen games or their 1994 compilation. A localization featuring cosmetic updates was again released for Japanese PCs like the FM-Towns and PC-98, suggesting the continued viability of those platforms for RPG enthusiasts in spite of the Japanese market having largely moved on to Nintendo and SEGA’s home consoles. Big changes were ahead for Might and Magic, however, as the computer RPG market reoriented itself during the next great wave of hardware advancement in the mid-1990s.
Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven (1998)
The 3DO Company was founded by former Electronic Arts CEO Trip Hawkins in 1991. This California studio launched its own home console, the 3DO, in 1993 as an attempt to disrupt the market dominance of SEGA and Nintendo. When this hardware flopped badly and was discontinued following the release of the Sony PlayStation, The 3DO Company pivoted to acquisition of popular intellectual properties (IPs) for it to publish on the PC platform. New World Computing and the license to all future entries in Jon Van Caneghem’s long-running Might and Magic franchise were purchased by The 3DO Company in 1996 as part of this effort.
Internally, New World Computing had begun experimenting with the turn-based strategy genre. Jon Van Caneghem’s first attempt to create a game of this type – 1990’s King’s Bounty – was successful enough to merit further forays using its most popular IP. This led to the release of strategic spinoff Heroes of Might and Magic on PC in 1995. The game was a marked commercial and critical success, selling over 100,000 copies within months of its publication. A sequel followed in 1996, confirming that New World Computing would now be dividing its creative efforts between two variations on the Might and Magic template.
Five years after the release of Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen, a sixth entry in the core Might and Magic franchise finally emerged on Windows PC. Might and Magic VI: Mandate of Heaven takes its narrative cues from Heroes of Might and Magic II (1996) rather than its own direct predecessor. Gameplay, on the other hand, remains resolutely inspired by the traditions of the 1980s while integrating aspects of 1990s dungeon crawler RPGs like Ultima Underworld (1992) and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996).
Players create a party of four adventurers as they explore the world of Enroth and deal with the fallout of a cataclysmic meteor shower called the Night of Shooting Stars. These meteors delivered to Enroth’s eponymous main continent an army of Kreegan, one of two alien races locked in a millennia-long struggle with one another; they are opposed by the Ancients, the very same precursor empire that had created Corak and Sheltem. Enroth’s king is captured by the Kreegan, prompting instability and the rise of a Kreegan doomsday cult. The only thing that can stop the Kreegan from establishing total dominance over Enroth is the player’s party.
Gameplay is instantly recognizable as a significant evolution on Darkside of Xeen, as its world is now presented in three dimensions rather than two; NPCs yet remain 2D sprites. The grid-based landscapes of prior Might and Magic games are eliminated in favor of free real-time movement throughout the overworld, towns, and dungeons. Combat proceeds in real-time as well, though it can be switched to a turn-based mode which allows the player to assign commands to their party members but not move around the field. No discrete combat sequence is present, and enemies are instead engaged as players explore the environment.
Skills and magic systems have undergone a similarly massive revision. The former are now almost entirely focused on combat, as real-time movement around 3D environments obviates the need to use skills for traversal of special features like hills and water. Magic is now divided into nine schools, rather than two, based on the type of spell being cast. These are broadly grouped into three categories: elemental magic, clerical magic, and special magic. In addition to skills and magic, party members can also engage in alchemy through a rudimentary mixing mechanic. Potions can now be crafted rather than exclusively being bought from shops or discovered during exploration.
While Might and Magic VI is the franchise’s most ambitious entry so far, some aspects of the series have been scaled back following the transition. The player’s party can only be comprised of human characters rather than allowing the variety of races present in earlier titles. Classes are likewise reduced to six, as had been the case in the original Might and Magic, though Druid replaces Robber. Even so, each class can be improved and customized by placing points into skills as the associated character levels up through combat.
Might and Magic VI was a critical hit, emerging as one of the standard-bearers of 1998’s re-popularization of the computer RPG genre alongside Baldur’s Gate and Fallout 2. Rivals may have surpassed it in either gameplay depth or storytelling, but Might and Magic VI revealed that an acquisition by The 3DO Company had not compromised New World Computing’s ability to deliver a highly flexible open-world RPG. Still, the rise of a new generation of competitors with radically different approaches to design did not bode well for Jon Van Caneghem’s comparatively retro property in the years ahead.
Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor (1999)
After its predecessor’s innovative approach, Might and Magic VII is a minor iteration. Might and Magic VI had seemingly assured The 3DO Company that the franchise could thrive in a rapidly changing marketplace without making any more large-scale changes. At the same time, financial pressure necessitated an increasingly tight release schedule. This would bear less successful fruit a year later, but the popularity of Might and Magic VI made a quick sequel an appealing prospect for New World Computing and its parent company in late 1998.
The resulting Windows game offers roughly identical presentation to its predecessor, as its engine is repurposed directly from Might and Magic VI. Underlying systems are tweaked, however, especially with regard to character creation. Elves and Dwarves return after their absence during Might and Magic VI, while players can also create Goblin characters for the first time. Three new classes are introduced, while prestige classes allow players to upgrade their characters into specialized roles later in the game. These specialized classes increase the cap on skills, allowing characters to become increasingly proficient with certain abilities based on their class.
Might and Magic VII also features the series’ first minigame: Arcomage. This card game sees players competing against AI opponents in taverns throughout the game world. The objective is to increase the size of a tower, amass enough of a particular resource card, or destroy an opponent’s tower by playing defensive or offensive cards.
The game’s story, set on Enroth’s continent of Antagarich, occurs after the events of Heroes of Might and Magic III (1999). Players form a party of four adventurers and navigate a conflict between Antagarich’s warring Human and Elf factions. In contrast with earlier series entries, the player’s party members gain access to a home castle through a competition at the game’s outset and become major political power brokers through their newfound status as the Lords of Harmondale. Two major choices are made by the player at key points in the plot, altering the game’s ending. The eight heroes of Might and Magic III, who had gone missing while pursuing villain Sheltem after that game’s conclusion, also make a surprising reappearance as key elements of Might and Magic VII‘s plot.
Reception for Might and Magic VII was mixed. The game had only slightly refined the ideas of its direct predecessor, emphasizing New World Computing’s lack of experimentation in an era when other RPG studios like Black Isle and Square were producing increasingly complex stories. The lesson was not learned, however, and Might and Magic VIII would again return to the same well with less successful results.
Might and Magic VIII: Day of the Destroyer (2000)
The financial decline of 3DO at the turn of the century caused the beleaguered publisher to place increasing amounts of pressure on its subsidiaries. What had begun as a positive relationship several years earlier, according to Jon Van Caneghem in an interview with website RPG Codex, became a source of tension as 3DO demanded annual releases to stave off collapse. Might and Magic VIII suffered as a result, since its development team had no time to replace Might and Magic VI‘s noticeably aged game engine.
Consequently, Might and Magic VIII does not look or sound appreciably different from its two predecessors. In an era when PC games were advancing by leaps and bounds – highly complex systems-based immersive sims System Shock 2 and Deus Ex having respectively established new milestones for ambitious first-person quasi-RPGs in 1999 and 2000 – New World Computing continued to repurpose a design ethic that had already been considered old-fashioned two years earlier. At least one contemporary reviewer even observed that its unresponsive interface represents a step back from Might and Magic VII.
Still, Might and Magic VIII is not without its own distinctive charms. The game is set on a newly introduced Enroth continent, Jadame, populated by characteristically evil fantasy races: minotaurs, dark elves, vampires, dragons, trolls, and more. For the first time, the player can create a character or hire a party member drawn from among these factions; each functions as a class with unique abilities. Might and Magic VIII‘s plot concerns the player characters attempting to avert a catastrophe brought about by an autonomous Ancient security system erroneously activated to deal with the already-eradicated Kreegan threat. Unlike earlier Might and Magic titles, the player only creates a single character and must otherwise recruit party members while exploring Jadame.
Platforming elements return from Might and Magic VII but are emphasized more heavily here. This further enhances the dynamism associated with the franchise’s move away from grid-based map design, but is as clumsy as first-person platforming tends to be. Decision-making junctures likewise make a reappearance, though these are scaled back in terms of their impact on the overall narrative. Combat and exploration mechanics are otherwise unchanged from Might and Magic VII.
Poor reviews would not halt publication of the series’ first home console port since Might and Magic III‘s Super Famicom release in 1995, as Imagineer ported the game to PlayStation 2 in Japan in 2001. It is a faithful adaptation, featuring only slight revisions to the user interface, but its performance and load times are a noticeable step down from the PC original. No North American localization of the PlayStation 2 version was ever released.
Might and Magic IX (2002)
The 3DO Company’s star fell still further in 2001 amid the release of multiple critically-panned titles, including a slate of uninspired Army Men (1998-2013) games and the discontinuation of its pioneering massively multiplayer online role-playing game Meridian 59 (1996) in the face of more polished competitors Ultima Online (1997) and Everquest (1999). The studio shed 20 percent of its staff by February 2001 and leaned heavily on New World Computing to speed up production on its next Might and Magic entry. As could be expected, 3DO’s haste would have gravely negative consequences on the franchise.
Might and Magic IX was the series’ first entry developed without the input of creator Jon Van Caneghem. Timothy Lang took over as lead designer, while Keith Francart served as director and L. Dean Gibson III led the programming team. New World Computing finally abandoned its Might and Magic VI engine in favor of LithTech, a piece of software developed by Monolith Productions and famously used to power cult classic first-person shooter No One Lives Forever (2000). Unfortunately, the 1.5 version used by Might and Magic IX was already outdated by the time of the game’s Windows PC release in 2002.
Similarly outdated is Might and Magic IX’s relatively threadbare plot. Open-ended adventures with freedom to explore a game world comparatively unimpeded by narrative bottlenecks were de rigueur in 1980s RPGs but had gone out of fashion as computer RPGs of the late 1990s and early 2000s demonstrated that player agency was not inherently compromised by narrative complexity. Facing insufficient time to develop a script that could compete with rivals like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001) or The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002), New World Computing opted instead to produce a simple follow-up to spinoff Heroes of Might and Magic IV (2002). Character development is minimal and even the franchise’s unique setting of Enroth is abandoned in favor of a simplistic high fantasy conflict within the Tolkienesque fantasy world of Chedian, as the player’s party must unite six clans against a marauding warlord named Tamur Leng.
The introduction of fully 3D graphics – textured polygonal models finally replacing the sprite-based characters of Might and Magic VI to VIII – is a mixed improvement at best. Enemies and NPCs are more animated than ever, but environments are drab even in comparison to the muted color palettes of Might and Magic VII and VIII. Monsters types are less numerous than they had in earlier series entries, too, and the game’s limited development time is reflected in the conspicuous use of recolored enemies to suggest variety.
Might and Magic IX’s systems are an intriguing evolution on what had come before. Players can once again create a party of four adventures after being limited to a single hero in Might and Magic VIII, though their class options are restricted to just two: Fighter and Initiate. While this lack of initial customization was criticized by contemporary reviewers, players are offered the ability to promote each character two times through the completion of sidequests as the game progresses. A Fighter can become a Mercenary or Crusader, a Mercenary can become a Gladiator or Assassin, and a Crusader can become a Ranger or Paladin; alternately, an Initiate can become a Scholar or Healer, a Scholar can become a Mage or Lich, and a Healer can become a Priest or Druid. These two overall paths are characterized respectively by a focus on “might” or “magic.”
Interface updates in the new engine are less successful. A view of the party’s expansive surroundings is displayed in full-screen, intruded upon only by a small menu present at the bottom of the screen and a text window identifying recent actions that occurred during battle. This is cleaner than the heads-up displays (HUDs) of yesteryear, but impedes interaction with the game world. Minigame Arcomage and features like map annotation are eliminated entirely.
Finally, the most egregious problem facing players of Might and Magic IX was – perhaps unsurprisingly – a lack of technical polish. Glitches are rife, and at least one (the “Promotion Quest Lockout”) would force players to restart after dozens of in-game hours. Many of these were resolved in a patch, but the damage to the game and series’ reputation had been done. Universally poor reviews cast the future of the venerable institution into doubt. Jon Van Caneghem conceded to Computer Gaming World magazine in 2004 that, were it up to him, the game never would have shipped.
Might and Magic X: Legacy (2014)
2003 was a bad year for The 3DO Company and New World Computing. The former went bankrupt in May, terminating all employees without prior notice. The latter, following unsuccessful attempts at piecemeal acquisitions by other studios, was dissolved. The Might and Magic IP was subsequently purchased by Ubisoft, which had been making overtures for the license throughout the development of Heroes of Might and Magic IV and Might and Magic IX. Ubisoft continued to produce spinoffs throughout the 2000s.
In 2014, at last, a sequel to the core Might and Magic franchise would finally make its way out of the juggernaut French publisher and onto the Windows platform. It was developed by Limbic Entertainment, a German studio which was heretofore best known for its work on Might and Magic Heroes VI (2011). Much of its art was created by Chinese subsidiary Ubisoft Chengdu. As New World Computing creative staff had entirely moved on to other ventures by this time, including Jon Van Caneghem founding studio VC Mobile Entertainment and Timothy Lang apparently retiring from the industry following his work on Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (2004), none were involved in the creation of Might and Magic X.
Though its development team sought to capture the identity of Might and Magic by emphasizing overworld exploration and turn-based combat, Might and Magic X is a significant departure from its predecessors. Use of the Unity 3D engine renders its presentation the most heavily detailed of any Might and Magic title. Its user interface also has more in common with RPGs of the 2010s, including a bestiary and hotbar designed to facilitate quick access to items and skills from the exploration screen without browsing menus.
The de-emphasizing of science fiction elements which had begun in Might and Magic IX is pushed still further in Might and Magic X. Players create a party and explore Thallan’s Agyn Peninsula in the medieval world of Ashan; this features continuity with Might and Magic Heroes VI but no preceding core series game. Might and Magic X’s slight narrative concerns pirates, dark elves, and the forestalling of a regional conflict, but no androids or spaceships.
Gameplay bears more in common with Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen than any subsequent entry in the franchise, as the party moves around a grid instead of exploring environments freely. Combat and exploration are both turn-based. Parties are comprised of four player-created characters that can be promoted from their starting classes to more advanced roles, though this is scaled back dramatically from the branching promotion system of Might and Magic IX. Hirelings can be added to the party, though these only offer stat benefits rather than being controllable during combat.
Reviews were generally positive, citing its successful recreation of classic dungeon crawler mechanics. Some critics, though, raised concerns about its poor puzzle design and the presence of intrusive Ubisoft digital rights management software. Impressions seem to vary based on how forgiving players are with regard to nostalgia for long-abandoned design tropes of the 1980s. With a series as rooted in history as Might and Magic, how could this not be so?
Might and Magic’s most well-known spinoff, Heroes of Might and Magic, is a long-running series in its own right and deserves an entire article. Likewise, I will not cover spinoffs of Heroes of Might and Magic here. These include games like Heroes of Might and Magic Online (2008), Might and Magic: Heroes Kingdoms (2009), and Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (2009). This section will instead focus on games which were directly spun off of the core Might and Magic series or otherwise unaffiliated with Heroes of Might and Magic.
The first non-traditional Might and Magic title produced was, strangely, a fan-made modification for Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen. Swords of Xeen, a sequel to Darkside of Xeen set in the dystopian world of Haven and focused on a previously unknown force which had been manipulating series antagonist Sheltem, was developed by a small studio called Catware rather than New World Computing. The latter eventually embraced the former, collaborating on the later phases of the project and publishing the game alongside Might and Magic III, Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen, and Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen in 1995’s Might and Magic Trilogy package.
Might and Magic’s second planned spinoff, Might and Magic Online, was actually a key part of Jon Van Caneghem’s unfortunate decision to partner with The 3DO Company. Trip Hawkins’ publisher had experience developing and promoting the still-nascent massively multiplayer online role-playing game genre with its own Meridian 59. Unfortunately, the online resume of developer Rob Ellis II suggests that Might and Magic Online was canceled in 1998.
A standalone PC version of Might and Magic VII’s Arcomage card game debuted in 1999, and was followed by the series most peculiar departure so far: an action-RPG called Crusaders of Might and Magic (1999). The Windows and PlayStation 2 versions of this third-person hack-and-slash adventure differ noticeably from one another, particularly in the latter’s scaled-back weapon enhancement system and level design. Both versions were poorly reviewed due to their derivative plot and repetitive gameplay. Neither featured the involvement of any New World Computing developers.
The PlayStation 2 version of Warriors of Might and Magic (2001), a more polished action-RPG, was designed by many of the same team members who worked on the PC version of Crusaders of Might and Magic. Gameplay again involves casting spells and engaging in real-time swordplay with enemies throughout a fully 3D polygonal world. Though the PlayStation 2 version has more advanced graphics, a PlayStation port produced by another team was received more positively by the games press. A 2D Game Boy Color version outsourced to Climax Studios debuted a year before its home console cousins, while a planned PC version was canceled prior to release. The PlayStation 2 development team, led by executive producer Bill Hindorff and lead designer Erik Robson, would later release a poorly-reviewed sequel called Shifters (2002) on the same platform.
The franchise’s next spinoff, Legends of Might and Magic (2001), went through a particularly challenging development cycle. It was originally promoted as a first-person procedurally-generated online dungeon crawler featuring cooperative and competitive modes at E3 2000. The end result, developed internally by New World Computing and published by The 3DO Company in 2001, is little more than a fantasy-skinned version of Valve’s popular squad-based online first-person shooter Counter-Strike (1999). The division of New World Computing’s staff into teams working simultaneously on this title and core series entry Might and Magic IX is believed to have been partially responsible for the shoddy quality of the latter.
Following the collapse of The 3DO Company and New World Computing in 2003, two sprite-based action-RPGs were developed by Gameloft Beijing for Java-based phones and released under the names Might and Magic Mobile (2004) and Might and Magic Mobile II (2007). The first of the two titles received a relatively positive critical reception, while the second received comparatively negative reviews upon its re-release on the Nintendo DSi digital distribution platform as Legends of Exidia in 2010. Neither game shares narrative continuity or mechanics with other Might and Magic titles.
The final spinoff, at the time of writing in November 2019, is hardly connected to the Might and Magic franchise at all; sources suggest that it was related in name only for brand recognition by publisher Ubisoft. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic was produced by France’s Arkane Studios and released on the Windows platform in 2006; its developers had formerly been responsible for Ultima Underworld’s spiritual successor Arx Fatalis (2001). Though Arx Fatalis had been a critical darling, its poor critical reception saw its name removed from Arkane’s planned sequel when the project was backed by Ubisoft in the early 2000s.
In keeping with their house style, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is a first-person action-adventure game that heavily emphasizes stealth, storytelling, and emergent gameplay brought about by intersecting systems. RPG elements are still present, as the player can improve protagonist Sareth’s abilities through acquiring experience points by completing objectives and then using those experience points to enhance skills in one of three disciplines: Combat, Magic, and Miscellaneous. Enhancing skills opens up new ways to explore and fight enemies throughout the game’s dense environments. An Xbox 360 port was released two years after the PC original, though the latter remains the more critically successful of the two versions.
Might and Magic was born of very specific conditions in the 1980s. Computer RPGs had become viable thanks to the complex programming capabilities and relatively user-friendly interfaces of the Apple II, with Wizardry (1981) and Ultima (1981) paving the way for others to follow. A flourishing of the genre in Japan further bolstered sales even when they began to flag in the United States following the rise of home consoles in the late 1980s.
Though the IBM and MS-DOS platforms allowed Jon Van Caneghem and his team at New World Computing to expand the series’ horizons in the early 1990s, it began a slow descent after its 1996 acquisition by The 3DO Company. A popular revival in 1998 gave way to less successful series entries as The 3DO Company became mired in financial difficulties and pushed New World Computing to produce increasingly derivative yearly instalments. 2002’s spectacularly undercooked Might and Magic IX heralded the death knell for the original incarnation of the property, though it seems to have gone into hibernation rather than becoming extinct.
A 2014 reappearance under new ownership by Ubisoft suggests that the series might live on as a self-conscious throwback. Two decades of quirky, poorly received spinoffs have revealed that Might and Magic is at its best when its developers find what worked about its seemingly antiquated design and find a way to effectively convey that lost art to a new audience. Perhaps Ubisoft will yet again find a new way to reintroduce it to fans in the 2020s.
What do you think about Might and Magic? Which is your favorite series entry? Do you think the franchise could have been modernized more successfully in the 1990s or 2000s? How would you compare it to contemporaries Wizardry and Ultima? What’s better: might or magic? Let’s discuss below.
Here is tentative preview of upcoming Franchise Festival columns:
- #78: Yoshi – December 6
- #79: SSX – December 13
- #80: Dark Souls – December 20