Might and Magic: Book One - The Secret of the Inner Sanctum (1986) and Might and Magic II: Gates to the Another World (1988)

Might and Magic: Book One - The Secret of the Inner Sanctum (1986), designed and created by Jon Van Caneghem, Michaela Van Caneghem, published and developed by New World Computing, Inc. 

I have no nostalgic connection to any other Might and Magic game other than Might and Magic III: The Isles of Terra, as that was the only one I played as a kid, so this is me taking a look at it from a fully modern perspective. That said, some time ago I bought the whole series from GOG sale, only to come to a conclusion that I would never play through either of the first two games, on the grounds of that I'm not a fan of mapping my own way through the game world. Mapping, in general, is something I think the game should take care of itself.

I decided to forget about trying to play the first two games. Despite they were very similar to Might and Magic III, the interface and the lack of the automap was just too much for me. And then I found out about Where Are We?, an automap solution running alongside the games, providing as accurate automap you yourself choose. It also allows you to cheat, which I ended up doing, as the game itself requires quite a bit of grinding and with the interface it has, it the combat felt a bit too cumbersome and slow task. So armed with an external help and cheating, I ploughed through two technically very, very outdated games.

From the get-go the land of Varn, where the game takes place, seems and feels like your typical fantasy mash-up most RPG's are. The setting seems medieval, the monsters are demons, gnomes, dragons and what have you. There are swords, magic, quests from the lords of the lands, as well as the main quest of fabled Inner Sanctum, where you need to get to in order to see the game through. The story itself is thin and sparsely told, even the game manual, at least in the digital version of the game, doesn't really dwell deeply upon the lore nor the story. You just are a band of 6 adventurers, who are looking to get into the Inner Sanctum, because of reasons.

After you finally do get to that Inner Sanctum, the setting makes a twist: it's not actually a fantasy setting: in the Inner Sanctum  you meet an observer from a highly technologically advanced alien race, who says that you've passed their test and are ready for another adventure in another setting, that is Might and Magic II. Of course, the observer can also be seen as a metagame element, where the developer cheekily has just inserted himself there in the end in order to tell that the game is done and you can transfer your party to another game if you want more. But in either case, that's the game. It takes, obviously, some grinding quests and a couple of mandatory "story related" quests to get there, but that's the game in a nutshell. There's actually a pretty snazzy walkthrough out there that gives all the main tasks in 18 sentences.

It's actually pretty interesting how more playable I found Might and Magic I with the help of "Where Are We?". A lot of the design in the game hasn't really aged very well, big issues being the lack of an in-game automap, especially because of the maze-like level structures, but also because of the magic system that is greatly based on an actual manual. The magic is pretty important for the game, as you even need one specific spell in order to get to the Inner Sanctum. but the spells are only found from the manual, so every time you cast a spell, and there's a lot of them, the game just asks what level and what number of a spell you want. You could brute force it, obviously, but given that some spells work only on the wilderness and some only on combat, that wouldn't be a fun task at all.

Without the help of modern enhancements, the game is far too archaic for my tastes. It can be fun on some level, especially if you really get into the grinding mode what comes to levelling up and finding the best gear in the game. But as the levelling up to the levels where you can actually head on the big baddies of the game, that becomes a chore sooner rather than later.

To put it simply, Might and Magic I is a game best approached with caution and with historical curiosity towards old RPG's. And even then I do recommend the Where Are We? automation, as it makes the old game a bit smoother. Other than that, it might be a tad difficult to enjoy it.

Might and Magic II: Gates to the Another World (1988),  designed and created by Jon Van Caneghem, Michaela Van Caneghem, published and developed by New World Computing, Inc. 

As a game, Might and Magic II is pretty similar to what the first game is, but with a bit better-looking graphics. The user interface and playability remain pretty much the same, so an external auto-mapper like "Where Are We?" is highly recommended for enhancing the game. Another big change is, that the there's more in-game story this time around, provided by actual characters in the game world, when they give you things to do, like rescuing people that are trapped by goblins. The focus still remains in exploring a vast, maze-like world and there's a lot of combat in it, but it still is nice to see a bit more narrative in it than the first game had. It makes it feel like something more than a glorified combat simulator.

Don't get me wrong though, Might and Magic II is still a far cry from a narrative-driven RPG, but it was definitely trying to be a bit more than grinding fest the first entry was. Even the game manual drops a couple of pages worth of lore for the setting and fleshes more of the world of Might and Magic, which is actually several different worlds connected by devices created by advanced aliens. But this all is mostly in the manuals and the game itself throws out only some relatively short bursts of a story now and then.

The world you need to save this time around is called Cron. As luck has it, the main baddie from the previous game is apparently at it again, so your party of six, either created newly from scratch or imported from the previous game, have to gear up again and put a stop to it before it's too late. Like in the later games, there's also a hireling system, which allows you to add two additional members to your party, which raises the headcount to eight.

All said though, Might and Magic II is just more of the same that the first game offered. Just like it was then and it's now, the developers took the winning formula of the previous title and beefed it up, altering things they thought needed altering, upped the ante what comes to graphical fidelity and called it for the day. And that in itself is fully fine and if that's what you're looking for as a player, then the sequel should be smooth sailing doing what you enjoyed doing previously. Why change something that isn't really broken?

For me though, just like the first game, Might and Magic II is technically too archaic to fully enjoy it. Combat, in general, is more like a tedious chore rather than something fun thanks to it being mostly just a view of watching slowly changing combat messages with very little actual tactics to it. All you really do is level up and try to find better and better gear so that you can defeat bigger and badder enemies. And that in itself is just a bit too laborious for me to be actually fun. Sure, some people might get a real kick out of it, but not me.

The thing where both of the games really do excel at is the exploration aspect of the game, as the maps are relatively large and filled with stuff to encounter. Sadly enough the exploration also means that you need to be mapping out the game unless you use an alternative auto-mapper. And in the end, the large world feels mostly wasted on the grounds of what you can actually do, which is to grind in order to become the biggest badass out there.

In many ways, MMI and MMII were valiant steps in creating an epic scale RPG worlds, but as the tech of the era was what it was, they still feel a tad shallow in contrast to what they could have been if the time and resources had been just a tad more mature. Now they are relics, which are interesting, but in the end not really fun enough to immerse in for the tens of hours they'd really take in order to play them through as they were meant to be played. And as I can't really see myself doing that, there's a very little chance that I'd actually go and ever finish the game. I already fully cheated myself through the first one, but I just don't feel interested enough to do even that with part 2.

If you want to give these ones a try, GOG is your friend. The collection has the first 6 games and is worth it if you ask me, as from the 3rd game the series turns far more playable even from a modern perspective.