Friday, February 19, 2010

East vs. West: Might and Magic

Younger videogame fans may not be aware that Japanese role-playing games were originally inspired by Western RPGs, which were in turn based on pencil-and-paper RPG systems like Dungeons & Dragons.  In the late 1980's and early 90's many American RPGs were translated and released for a Japanese audience hungry for further monster-slaying adventures.  These were not just localizations, but completely new development projects running on different hardware, and as some time had usually passed between the original's release and the Japanese conversion, the games were often significantly upgraded in the process.
In this post, we're going to take a look at Might and Magic, the classic 1987 New World Computing RPG:

As converted to the PC Engine CD-ROM format by NEC Avenue in 1991:

The game opens with some spoken narration in Japanese, but the bulk of the intro is presented by animated pantomime cut-scenes with epic, CD-based music.  Our hero arrives on a ship (a familiar starting scenario for Japanese RPGs - see Falcom's Ys), only to have his vessel and crew immediately decimated by a fireball-throwing centaur.

An old man with magical powers whisks our hero away from the scene of the carnage, and the adventure begins.

Normally my lack of Japanese-language skills keeps me from getting anywhere in an imported RPG, but I found Might and Magic more welcoming than the norm for a couple of reasons.

One, old-school dungeon crawlers tend to have similar designs... presented with an archway to the wilderness, there's a very good chance that the top option means "leave town," and the bottom one means "stay here for now."  And even though the text is mostly in Japanese, location names are in English, both within the game and on the map included in the double-wide CD case.

Second, the game seems to be a direct translation of the original Might & Magic with few variations in the maps or rules -- so by playing the IBM PC version alongside it, it's possible to figure out what's going on.  For example, we have this encounter with a (sadly unseen) shopkeeper in the original game:

And in the PC Engine edition, in the same location on the map, the enhanced illustrations present the very same situation:

Even without the original as a reference, the new graphics make it pretty clear who we're talking to when we visit key locations -- the priests provide the standard healing and resurrection services:

And the serious-looking elf trains our characters as experience allows them to gain levels (or in this case, tells us how much more experience a character still needs to acquire):


I do wish the game had come to the US in a fully-translated form, as the game is much more playable than the Apple II/PC original in several key respects.  For one thing, the Innkeeper in Sorpigal has a lot more personality than the original's sign-in screen:

More significantly, the dungeon-crawling action at the heart of the game is vastly improved (noting that this game predates widespread support of the computer mouse).  On the PC Engine, navigation with the control pad is intuitive and fast-paced.  And the maze automaps while we're in a given location, making graph paper unnecessary:

The monster encounters also work better -- more information about our party's health is provided onscreen, where the original game requires reference to subscreens, one character at a time, to see how they're holding up.  And the PC Engine illustrations are much more colorful:

The initial close-up views of the monsters are much more evocative as well:

Now, of course, there are limitations for non-Japanese speakers.  I couldn't tell you what my party's names are in this version, as I surmise that the Tolkien-inspired English names of the original have been replaced.  And the weapon and armor specifics are also beyond my knowledge, leaving me to comparison-shop on the basis of price alone (fortunately RPGs tend to follow money-for-value principles fairly well.)

This may be a good or bad thing, depending on one's point of view, but the Japanese version is also quite a bit easier than its Western counterpart.  While the original game starts the party off penniless, the PC Engine version stakes the player to 2000 gold pieces to faciliate equipping the party and keeping it alive during the tough early going.  On the PC, I rarely came across enough money to heal the team properly, so we had to make frequent returns to the inn to preserve our hard-fought experience gains.

But I enjoyed the game enough to spend quite a bit of time with it on both platforms -- it's a classic dungeon-crawl with a simple story, but it has enough depth to keep it interesting.  Someday I hope to pick up Might and Magic III - Isles of Terra, the 1993 sequel which made it to the US as a late release for the Turbo Duo.  But it's now a collectible on the rare, pricey end of the spectrum, so this version will have to satisfy my M&M cravings for the moment.

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