The Magic Candle – Party Swappin’ & Orc Stabbin’

2011 January 5
by JJ Sonick

The Magic Candle, published in 1989, was programmer Ali N. Atabek’s second computer role playing game creation. His first was Rings of Zilfin (1986), about which the consensus seems to be: nifty but somewhat slight compared the likes of the Ultima and Wizardry CRPGs of the era (let me know if you’ve played it and feel otherwise). The Magic Candle feels like Atabek’s attempt to make a sprawling game equal to the 8-bit Ultimas in size, complexity and perhaps even richness.

Things start off well with a charming title screen, of which I’ve made a YouTube video:

In the 8-bit era as today, a good title screen does not guarantee a good game, but I like it nonetheless. The Magic Candle is sometimes written off as an Ultima clone, and it does bear many resemblances to Ultima IV/V – it’s set in a high fantasy medieval world, the graphics are tiles shown in a top-down view, you have a multi-character party, you travel in large steps on an overland map of the world – then have more fine-grained movement when you enter a town or dungeon, combat is a turn-based tactical affair on a battlefield the size of a single screen, and there are *many* NPCs you need to talk to.

But it has unique elements as well. Like Wasteland (1988), you can split your usual 6-character party into multiple smaller parties, and switch between them for independent exploration (it’s pretty useful to split off your highest-charisma character to run around towns/castles alone talking to people — some NPCs won’t talk to you unless the current lead character’s charisma is above a certain level). But going even further than Wasteland, MC (I’ll use that abbreviation from now on) allows characters that have been split off to take up odds jobs or training while the rest of the party adventures about. When the party picks up that individual later, the re-joining character will bring hard-earned gold or a boosted skill or stat to the mix.

MC also does some clever things with its tile set. Not only are things seen in the Ultima-standard top-down view, but they are also used for crude isometric feels and some side views — you can see this in the following video, which shows my party bumbling around Port Avur, asking the librarian monk some questions (based on keyword clues given by previous NPCs), and also demonstrating party-splitting and leaving-a-character-to-do-training and leaving-a-character-to-do-wage-slavery.

Note: One can navigate the menus quicker than is seen here – my slowness was caused from bouncing between the Apple IIc and the laptop I was capturing the video on.

Another note, on the manual transferring of gold to an individual character seen in the video – you can also Pool or Divide items & gold, which is much handier than the way I did it above.

There are tons of NPCs to talk to in each locale, and almost all of them have something useful to say. This is a game requiring copious note-taking.

What I like about the game is that the lore is not just “in the manual” – all the NPC conversations do a good job of revealing world details within the game and spinning a pretty good web of things to pursue right from the get-go. Also, a la Ultima V, NPCs will appear at different places at different times of the day – a member of the King’s court asks you to meet him in his chambers at midnight to tell you a secret (no, not a naughty secret), bards and ship captains only appear in the tavern at night (this might just be a night/day switch, though, in which case I think it’s less complicated than Ultima V’s NPC schedules). What I don’t like about conversation is that after you choose one of the main conversational options (Advice, Rumors, or Other (Other is for entering specific keywords)), you are dumped out of the conversation, and if you want to try a different option you have to choose Ask and then the direction the NPC is in all over again to continue the conversation. Other aspects of the UI are relatively smooth for an 8-bit game, so it’s odd there’s no loop back to all the conversation options after you’ve chosen one – seems like it would have been very simple to implement.

Now an example video of combat. You’ll see how you’re first allowed to place your characters on one side of the battlefield screen, draw weapons, Recall spells (basically readying a spell you’ve memorized at a time of rest) and then Begin the fray when you’re set up. One of my magic users has an analyze-type spell already recalled, so you’ll see the casting of that pull up the stats of the stinky Orc enemies (and again when I accidentally re-cast it). You’ll also notice one of my magic users not having enough energy to cast a spell (energy is important for all characters – you must rest regularly or they become tired and pass out, refusing to move). To solve this he pops a Sermin mushroom to boost his energy back up (there’s also other mushrooms for combat bonuses, defense, etc). I think all the characters will be Sermin addicts before this game is through, energy is so central to gameplay.

You might also have noticed how when an attack misses, the defending character/enemy is actually shown dodging to a different location and then returning to their initial one, which is cute and an departure from Ultima IV – V combat. The game’s default speed for displaying these combat animations, however, reduced combat to a painfully slow 8-bit ballet that made me dispair of getting very far in the game. Fortunately the game allows you to change the combat result speed, and you’re seeing a much more reasonable pace in the above video.

Overall, Magic Candle seems worth digging into further at this point. I noticed when making these videos that Min has a higher charisma stat than Lukas, and I’d been using Lukas to talk to everyone. Time to make Min talk to those stuck-up townpeople and knights who wouldn’t talk to me yet!….

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