Thursday, June 9, 2022

Zinn Plays - Might & Magic Book One: Secret of the Inner Sanctum (MS-DOS)

The only thing more depressing than my huge backlog of books I want to read (I've got literal piles of books around my apartment) is my huge backlog of games I want to play (fortunately mostly digital copies). I've already come to terms with the fact that I can't reasonably get through the hundreds of games in my catalogue during my lifetime, unless I focus on nothing but gaming when I retire. Not an altogether horrible prospect in all fairness.

Whenever I feel ready to give a new game a go I usually try to select it by some random means, so that I will be surprised and unbiased to my choice. This time the RNG-powers landed me on Might & Magic Book One: Secret of the Inner Sanctum (or MM1 as I will call it henceforth, don't get it confused with MegaMan).

MM1 was released for computer-devices back in 1986, making it just about as old as I am. It's definitely not the kind of game I grew up playing or have had much experience with at any point in my life. I've played a couple of retro computer games though (late 80's through the 90's) and my general assessment is that they haven't aged too well, especially in the accessibility-department. Unlike video games from the same time, computer games seem marred in confusing and obscure control schemes, some so outdated as to make games almost unplayable. By control schemes I don't just mean the literal means of controlling your character/s, but all aspects of the game in which you try to control it - menus, navigating, combat etc. 

Let's just say it was with some trepidation I started up MM1. 

You're instantly greeted with that seems to be the only little bit of music the game is going to offer, it's sweet and short. The constant sweep-effect of the start screen is confusing and a bit nauseating, but fortunately doesn't last longer than you allow it to.

I've got to say I love the way the game asks me if I am ready. Games don't do this anymore, why?

The game allows you to create your own characters from the start, and originally I had no idea that there was any option to this. I randomly roll a few and the game suggests classes based on the stats I get. I know that in these older D&D based games some classes can be basically useless, some get really strong eventually and some are essential to have. But I have no idea if MM1 is going to be one of those games, nor which classes I need to bring, nor really what any of the classes do (though some are fairly self-explanatory, like the Cleric). It takes me a little while to figure out how to launch my party from the Inn at the starting city of Sorpigal, but then off we go.

Everything in MM1 looks like a labyrinth and I realize very soon that without some sort of map I am going to be hopelessly lost. The GoG version I am running has maps as a downloadable extra, but for some reason they don't work for me. Fortunately I live in the time of the friendly internet and finding a map of Sorpigal doesn't take long. Running around the corridors I come across enemies and battle ensues.

The combat system of MM1 turns out to be quite straightforward and I am grateful. You press different commands not unlike something from a Final Fantasy game, minus the animations since combat in MM1 is purely text based. At this point however I have no idea how to cast spells with my casters making them essentially useless. It doesn't help that my self-crafted characters are naked and wielding nothing but their hairy hands to fight with. Needless to say I don't last long even against the weakest enemies.

The sprites are well annoying.

After a few failed runs I try to figure out what I can do to survive. To regain health you can either cast healing spells or you can choose to rest. You can rest wherever, but it requires food and if you rest in an unsafe area you can be attacked by enemies while sleeping. Buying more food costs money, of course. I don't seem to have any money and the few mobs I have managed to kill don't seem to reward any. How can I continue? 

Restarting from the Inn yet again I notice that I can choose premade characters over my own one. Thinking that they hardly can suck more than the ones I have already tried, I start out with the "OG"-team of MM1; Crag, Sir Galand, Zenon, Swifty, Serena and Wizz. It's a nice mix of classes and I also notice that for some unfair reason this bunch gets to start with a pretty nice sum of money, with which I immediately set off to buy myself some gear.

It all makes perfect sense.

Now I also go and do something I should've done from the start - I read the manual. The main reason is to learn how to cast spells, which I still haven't been able to figure out. While the casters have the command "cast" to do, then I get prompted for "level" and "what number". I don't know? At first I interpret "what number" as meaning "how many". I keep typing "one" because I only want to cast one of whatever it is I am casting. That is not how casting works at all, it turns out. Clerics and Sorcerers have levels of spells, depending on character level. At first you only know level 1 spells, of which there are 8 and range from putting people to sleep, throwing fire arrows at them or blessing accuracy on your party. Once you know it it's very simple to grasp and easy to use.

Now that I have characters with gear and kind of know how to use all my skills, nothing should be able to stand in my way. I make my way into Sorpigal once again.

If these walls could talk...

Sorpigal is a pretty hellish city. You can force yourself through locked doors, which is really nice. Less nice are the horrible traps that always spring in your face and there is somehow always some sort of enemy hiding behind the doors. I understand why they keep them locked now. 

Even worse are the pitch black areas, where all you can see on your screen are the words "darkness" or "solid!" if you happen to be bashing your head into a wall. I figure that I should be able to solve it with a torch or two so I run back to the shop to buy some. Fortunately they are very cheap. Unfortunately they are absolutely useless. Using a torch lights up one frame, and the next step you take everything goes dark again. Same thing if you use your spells to illuminate the area. Going into dark areas are currently not really a viable option to me and I wonder if there is some button I need to activate somewhere to turn on the lights?

Feeling like I had hit a dead end in Sorpigal I try to go out into the woods. Without a map. I get lost faster than anyone can say "blathering blatherskite" and even though I hold out well against the snakes and orcs of the forest I finally succumb right at the doorstep of Sorpigal which I had just rediscovered...

That's the world of MM1, unforgiving. But also oddly more-ish. Moving around, doing combat and gaining experience is so easy that I always feel that if I only take it a bit more carefully I could definitely make it around the next corner. You run out, fight some enemies, run back, restock and recuperate. Rinse and repeat. 

If there is some deep narrative hidden somewhere in this game I have yet to come across it. Other than shop-keepers I have spoken to no one and the most mysterious thing I've found were curiously inscribed statues with messages so obscure as to be pointless to me at this point in the game. But I don't mind. I am perfectly happy with just seeing if I can make it around the next corner.


  1. Games like this (I cut my teeth on Wizardry!) had yet to come in touch with the notion that you could get a prize just for playing - if you didn't read up, maybe buy a guide or three, and have a handle on the rules, they'd cook you!

    Wizardry! 2 on the C64 actually cooked me, but for a far different reason - after a power spike on my ship (I had it onboard the ship I was crew on) it's RNG got stuck and I'd always hit the same beastie. Every. Single. Step. It was time. I moved on to an Amiga. But Wizardy! 2 was gone.

    1. Ouch, that sounds like a particularly hellish bug ^^

  2. Boy, MM1 looks like a better graphical version of the old Texas Instruments' TI-99 4/A game, Tunnels of Doom. Boy, I loved those sorts of dungeon crawls.

    1. Wow that does look similar. It looks amazing. I really wish MM1 had retained ideas like auto-map and dungeon difficulty, maybe I should try and see if I can find a copy of Tunnels of Doom instead ^^

    2. You'll have to look for an emulator, I'm afraid. Tunnels of Doom was via cartridge, because the TI home computer used cartridges a lot for games instead of just using cassettes or floppy disks.

    3. But apparently there was a remake/reboot done! It doesn't look nearly as fun though.