The 1990’s were a somewhat golden era for PC gaming and strategy games in particular were really finding their feet after being labelled a fairly niche genre during the 1980’s. Groundbreaking and popular series such as Command & Conquer, Warcraft and Age of Empires were all released during this exciting time for gamers. Many of the bigger releases were also finding their way onto video game consoles as developers and publishers were seeing the benefits of moving their, once PC-only, releases to platforms that had a wider audience. It was at this time that some of the staple mechanics of the genre were being formalised and strategy sub-genres were redefining themselves in an effort to stand out from the competition.
I had always been a console gamer, loving my Mega Drive action and platform titles in particular. There were a few times that I had loaded strategy games into our families Amstrad 48K but these never really did excite me much, except Football Manager which was amazing for the time. I had little experience of games that relied purely on strategy over hand-eye coordination and it was not until the later years of the 1990’s that I really started to take note.
With advancements in processing power and developers being able to make games bigger, due to CD-ROM media, it seemed at the time that every publisher wanted their piece of the strategy pie. The market did become a little saturated by the end of the decade as new strategy titles were being released at a phenomenal rate to keep up with demand for the latest iteration, especially for the real-time strategy (RTS) genre. But there were a few that stuck out due to their high quality and this article is looking back on one these series in particular – Heroes of Might and Magic. This series introduced me to a whole new way to play video games, it would lead me on a journey to go back and discover other classic strategy games as well as create a lasting impression on my life.
Before we explore the first release in the series, it would help to go back a little further to where the series has its roots. New World Computing, the series original developers, had been successful during the 1980’s with the first-person RPG series Might and Magic. The early Heroes games were set in the same fictional world of the original Might and Magic games and the two series would cross over at times as the plots for each game played out. However, there was another game released by New World Computing that would prove to be a spiritual precursor to the Heroes series and cement some of the basic fundamentals of its gameplay.
King’s Bounty, released on multiple platforms in 1990, is a turn-based strategy game where players leads an army while exploring an over-world map in a quest to find the Sceptre of Order. The game plays out over a set time period and the player must finish the game before the timer runs out. Time decreases with the ending of each day, or a turn. There are villains spread out across the map that must be defeated in order to increase troop counts and acquire much needed funds to manage the army. The player is represented as a Hero on the map that can be one of four classes, Knight, Barbarian, Warlock or Sorceress. As the player gets further exploring the four different continents they will increase their army strength and discover new spells and artifacts that affect the players stats or abilities, similar to how role-playing games (RPG) see characters attributes increased via a level up system. Battles are started when attacking a castle or wandering troop stack on the map. The game moves to a new screen that will display both armies and troops can be moved around the battlefield in a turn-based fashion as well spells being cast. The winner is determined after one army is defeated.
I first experienced King’s Bounty on the Mega Drive and thought it was awful as I was just not used to this kind of game at the time and preferred to play more action orientated games. It was not until some years later that I had the chance to revisit this little gem, this time on the PC. The two versions are slightly different and by this time my gaming tastes had matured to appreciate slower paced games that were less about reflexes. As a child, I would never of had the patience to master a game like this but as an adult I have fallen for its charms and still enjoy firing it up every so often to experience a ‘simpler’ Heroes game. The mixture of RPG, strategy and exploration was certainly unique at the time and set up the developer to grow the ideas into a bigger experience some years later. King’s Bounty set the foundations for the Heroes series and confirm New World Computing’s credentials for producing quality strategy games.
Our story skips to August 1995 with the release of the inaugural game in the series, Heroes of Might a Magic: A Strategic Quest. The game is centred around four factions vying for control of the newly discovered land of Enroth. The land was discovered after a family feud, that led to murder, caused Lord Morglin Ironfist to travel through a magical portal. Now with the word out that there are new lands to be conquered several warlords start building their armies.
Released to critical acclaim and bestowed with various awards from several PC gaming magazines, the first Heroes took everything that made King’s Bounty a good game and built upon these concepts. The premise of the game was still the same in that you would need to explore each map and lead an army to conquer the enemy. The player can choose to control one of four factions, Knight, Sorceress, Barbarian and Warlock, just as they did in King’s Bounty. These Heroes are vital for success as players armies cannot travel the map without a Hero to guide them. The game was broken down to smaller maps, or scenarios, and campaigns instead of a single over-world with different continents. Players would need to work their way through each scenario to reach the next part of the story or could play single scenarios that had differing winning conditions such as accumulating a certain amount of gold. Players still used their Hero to travel the map area and their armies are represented by stacks on the battlefield as opposed to one sprite per troop, similar to King’s Bounty.
The main change to the format is the players ability to build their castle, or base, up and manage resources in much more detail. In King’s Bounty the players castle are simply used as a rally point to visit the King and purchase some new troops if needed, but in Heroes players can purchase buildings after they collect the required resources. Resources come in several types, gold, wood, ore, sulphur, crystal, gem and mercury and they are acquired from conquering mines or picking up loose resource bundles on the map. Each building grants either a new troop type to be purchased or new spells to learn. There are several other building types that allow things such as building of ships or improving morale for defending troops. This new building system adds a lot to the excitement as it will take many turns before access to the best troops becomes available. It adds a depth to the gameplay that creates an arms race of sorts between the player and any other enemy Heroes that are present on the map.
The fact that there are now other computer controlled Heroes exploring the map helps the strategy develop from its King’s Bounty roots. If you are slow in building creature dwellings you would find the enemy has strengthened and you were playing catch up so as not to lose the scenario. The pitched battles are now much more strategic and Heroes abilities play a much more important role due to the increased amount of spells to cast and artifacts to carry. There is also more empathises placed on unit speed as this dictates the order of turn each troop stack takes in battle and how far your Hero can move on the map each turn. Having an army of faster troops will enable the player to move further and attack first while having slower troops will have the opposite effect. These choices can see the fortunes of a scenario sway between each faction involved and finding the balance between resource management, troop mix and exploration can be difficult at times.
The presentation for Heroes is a mix of colourful, almost cartoon like, sprites that may not be breathtaking but have a real charm that relates well to the fantasy setting of the game. I personally enjoy the visual presentation and seeing your castle build up day by day adds to feeling of being the overlord for a region. Recruiting new troops and watching your ranks swell as the weeks go by create the tension before a battle. You always know it will not be long before an opposing Hero and their army come into play and you have to be ready. The tough choices of running back to collect troops or continuing to uncover the map with a small dedicated force are always with you during each turn.
Looking back on this title feels me with nostalgia, a time when graphics and sounds were still simple enough that it did not matter if sprites were realistic or to scale. A time when there were genuinely new features in games that had never been implemented before. Games were growing out from their simple mechanics and into a world of depth and change. Strategy games were one of the genres leading this charge of growth and the original Heroes game was right at the front. It was a shame there was no expansion pack developed to expand the campaigns or to add some new maps or creature types. However, this is a solid title and although eclipsed by its sequels, should not be overlooked when considering the overall series.
After the success of the first Heroes game it would not take New World Computing long to develop and release the next game in the fledgling series. In the next chapter in this series of articles we will explore the next release in the Heroes series.
Heroes of Might and Magic – the early years – part 2
I have to admit my only exposure to Heroes of Might and Magic is through the Game Boy Color port. Even then, I could tell it was a terrible conversion, to say the least. Then again, I wasn’t really versed in strategy games then either. With the series available on GOG, I may end up giving it a shot somewhere down the line because, as you say, the nineties was a stellar decade for the PC scene.
Oh yes the gbc port is very scaled down. Great for game boy though. If you enjoy turn based strategy they are some of the best ones going. Thanks for reading.