The surprising accessibility of older RPGs

This is a weekly column focusing on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
One major problem with loving role-playing games is that old titles can be hard to accept due to difficulty. RPGs are particularly vulnerable to this because their focus on plot and core mechanics over technology mean that they age well. Fans and critics view games in the genre over a historical continuum of relative equality, instead of simply making the assumption that better technology makes for better games.

While mechanics and storylines may be roughly comparable, interfaces have definitely improved, and this is the problem. It's one thing to say that Wizardry VI has the best and most complex class system in gaming, but quite another to try to play it without knowing that you need to draw or find maps of its dungeon. Alternately, I can't count the number of people who I convince to try the original Fallout, only to see them getting frustrated at its difficulty spikes, lack of effective auto-save, and occasionally obtuse item manipulations. It happens to me to sometimes, especially with games that I didn't play when I was younger, which is why I was surprised recently to fall in love with Might & Magic III: Isles Of Terra.

I never got into the Might & Magic series in the same way that I did Ultima or Wizardry. Part of it was what I saw of critical consensus, which seemed to indicate that the Might & Magic games were fun, but not genre-defining masterpieces. So it took me until 1998, when Might & Magic VI was released, to be introduced to the Might & Magic series. I didn't fall for it – it had the odd effect of making me desperately want to play other RPGs – and that was that. At least, until I started doing some research into old RPGs I'd never played, started playing Might & Magic III: Isles Of Terra, and instantly fell in love.

Isles Of Terra is like a child's dream role-playing game. It's deliriously and joyfully dumb, a colorful stroll through everything RPGs are supposed to look like and aren't supposed to play like. It's also immediately accessible from the interface perspective. Sure, it's a little bit clunky, but it's inviting.

That inviting feeling comes from the game's presentation, first of all. It has bright, clear, cartoonish graphics, which is the best possible way to make a game age well visually. The first town is a glorious bright blue color, fitting in with the "Isles" subtitle and immediately making Might & Magic III look like it's a vacation spot, not a grimy, too-serious slog. The music pairs well with the visuals. Isles Of Terra looks and sounds like a childhood adventure, and sometimes, that's what you want.

You also need to know what you're doing in the game's world, and why. Isles Of Terra does this shockingly well. It includes a quest journal, something that was relatively new in that era. But, better than that, Might & Magic III includes a guidebook "written by" the wizard Corak. These tell you, in a single paragraph of text, what's important in each area of the game world. In the first outdoor area, it says that the local Goblins have headquarters in the area, and finding and burning those headquarters is the best thing for your party to do initially. There are even clues on some of the walls of towns to help you learn the world's secrets. Might & Magic III's manual might be even more helpful, but I found the game entirely playable without it – a rarity for a title of that era.

This is, in part, because it's simple. Dumb, even, but I say that lovingly, in the same way that the original Diablo was a bit dumb. If you see an enemy, you press 'S' to shoot your bows at them. If they get close enough, you press 'F' for each of your characters to attack the enemy. There are no tactics, other than choosing the order of the enemy to attack, and casting spells is really the only decision of any complexity. It's fast, responsive, unobtrusive, and faintly ridiculous.

Most everything about Might & Magic III is at least faintly ridiculous. The default player party is a fantasy Bennetton ad of fantasy diversity: "Evil Gnome Robbers! Neutral Dwarf Barbarians!" It's not connected to the game world – your Orc character's picture looks nothing at all like the Orcs you fight against. That was relatively common for older games, though going slightly out of style by 1991. Might & Magic III also uses a random item generator, somewhat similar to Diablo's, which meant that finding items like "Wooden Plate Of Fireballs" is entirely plausible. It's a similar feel to the Heroes Of Might & Magic spinoff strategy games, where armies of Dwarves and Unicorns took on Wolf Riders and Cyclopes. It's "Hey, that sounds cool!" as a world design philosophy.

But Might & Magic III is also ridiculous in its mechanics. In most RPGs, the process of leveling up and fighting properly difficult enemies is balanced. In Might & Magic III, you'll get 100 experience points for killing several Goblins right off the bat, but 2,500 and three levels for burning the hut that's a few steps away. It's less balance than it is dream-like power fantasy. With that in mind, enemies don't really scale in difficulty. It's an open-world game where sometimes you'll be massively overpowered and sometimes dead almost instantly. But with combat so simple and quick, what would be a negative turns into a positive. Anything goes on the Isles Of Terra!

That combination of accessible information, overwhelming charm, anything goes philosophy (that's rare in modern games), and eminent playability pushed me to fall in love with a game I had no expectations for. I look forward to discovering more pleasant surprises.

The easiest place to find Might & Magic III is at, in a package with the first six games in that series.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.