Might and Magic: UI

So, let’s talk user interface a bit. Might and Magic is essentially menu-driven, in a pre-GUI way. Nearly all interaction takes the form of single keystrokes, and all the applicable commands in the current context are displayed on the screen. In navigation mode, a big chunk of the screen is devoted to displaying an unvarying list of everything you can do. If the action you select requires you to make further choices, such as which object to use or which monster to attack, further lists will be presented (along with the option to back out and choose a different action by pressing Esc).

The one big exception to this is spellcasting. You choose spells by pressing two numbers, one indicating the level and one indicating the spell within the level, but the game doesn’t tell you what numbers correspond to what spells. In fact, the spell names and descriptions are found nowhere in the game itself, only in the documentation. More than a third of the manual is devoted to spell lists. This is something of a drag on combat at first, because you have to keep breaking your attention away to look up the number for the spell you want to cast, but it doesn’t take long to internalize the more frequently-useful ones. In Wizardry, you learn to associate the word DIOS with a basic level-1 healing spell; in Might and Magic, you develop the same association with the key sequence C-1-4.

The problem with this is that C-1-4 doesn’t always mean “cast the basic level-1 healing spell”. If the character who you wish to cast is is out of mana, the “C” option isn’t even part of the menu, and pressing it has no effect whatsoever. But you’ll press it anyway, because, having internalized that key sequence, you’re not looking at the menu any more; you’re typing it more as a gesture. The stranded keystrokes after the C are still meaningful, though: they make you switch to character 1 in your party roster and then immediately to character 4. This surprises the player, and therefore is not ideal behavior for a UI. And it could be avoided simply by accepting the full gesture and issuing a “Not enough MP” message afterward, like it does when you’re not completely out of mana but don’t have enough for the spell you’ve chosen.

My other major complaint is with menus that seem unnecessarily hierarchical. From the start menu, for example, you have to choose a town to start at, and from there you get a party-selection menu showing the player characters currently in that town. I’m only playing with one set of characters, and sometimes I forget which town they’re in, so I have to search through them all. This means going back to the main menu repeatedly. Switching from one town roster directly to another is not an unreasonable thing to expect — the game manages to switch directly between character details just fine. Similarly, entering a shop gives you a menu that lets you choose who’s shopping and what they’re shopping for (weapons, armor, miscellaneous items), but once you’re in one of the sub-menus for buying items, you can only change the character who’s buying by backing out. If I’m buying new armor, I’m probably buying new armor for multiple people.

It’s not all bad, though. That same shop menu also has an option for giving all the party’s gold to the current character, which is really useful (and simpler than doing it through the character menus). But it’s only useful because the game keeps a separate inventory for each character, which is an unnecessary complication, as Final Fantasy proved.

In fact, I’d say that Final Fantasy — which is also highly menu-driven, and came out around the same time as Might and Magic — generally provided a better UI. It was created for a digital gamepad, which is essentially the same thing as a keyboard, but shaped differently and with fewer keys — much fewer in the original NES version. But that limitation spurred innovation: without enough keys to give every menu option a unique keystroke, they had to come up with a simpler and more general menu-selection UI based on highlighting choices with the D-pad. It’s not a perfect system — in particular, it’s unwieldy for long menus — but it has the advantage of being easily improvable without changing the core interaction, as later ports proved.

1 Comment so far

  1. paul on 27 Jan 2010

    Wizardry also has that handy Pool Gold feature and has annoying separate inventories for each player, which is a pain at the end of the adventure when everyone gathers around the bishop to get their stuff identified. Also the lack of stacking is a little sad: I’m not going to devote 4 of a character’s 8 inventory slots to scrolls of LORTO, but I might devote 1 slot to 4 such scrolls.

    I think I prefer C-1-4 to DIOS: although I have successfully internalized most of the useful spells, MAPORFIC, DIOS, MADI, DIALKO, I have some weird mental block that prevents me from learning the name of the depoison spell. I’ve looked it up like 50 times.

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