Rural England, 1994. I was seven years old when my aunt gave me an unexpected present. “I got this free game with my computer,” she said. “See if you can make any sense of it.” The cover had the words Magic Carpet emblazoned in swirling calligraphy, under a burning town and a snarling dragon.
I was in love.
My dad spent all day installing the game, following three pages of arcane instructions in the manual. Eventually, boot disk inserted, the game loaded up and the introduction cinematic played.
The developers of Magic Carpet were presumably proud of this introduction, as they made it unskippable on the first playthrough; it was just too important to miss (they hadn’t, however, accounted for my aunt, who admitted she’d left the room 30 seconds in).
It opens on a book, rendered in 3D by Chris Hill, using line-drawings by Eoin Rogan. The combined effect is beautiful, but it was the voiceover by Molenubar the Chronicler (Knightmare’s Hugo Myatt) that left the greatest impression on me:
In its infancy, the whole of creation glimmered against the dark void – but one place in the universe outshone all others, for it glowed brilliantly with a magical energy known as “mana.”
The world was eventually discovered, and the first pioneers settled the land. The people dedicated their lives to separating mana from nature, in order to command its powers.
However, after centuries of fruitfulness, the land was rendered barren by man’s insatiable greed. Fierce competition between wizards degenerated into war, great creatures being summoned to do their creators’ bidding in the ensuing struggle. But the life breathed into these creatures was charged with evil, and the beasts turned against their masters.
Fearing for his life, a foolish wizard and his young apprentice prepared a spell, hoping to scatter his opponents to oblivion. But the power of the spell was greater than even he could have foreseen. The whole world shook with a mighty earthquake, in which the wizard himself perished, leaving his apprentice with the arduous task of restoring the world to equilibrium.
I still think this is a great piece of writing: archaic without being obscure, and descriptive without drowning the audience in exposition. And as a seven-year-old, it blew my mind. The words “arduous,” “oblivion,” and “equilibrium” were a mysterious, powerful magic, unlike anything I’d heard before. The manual – a 31-page glossy booklet – contained other exciting words, including “bestiary,” “kraken,” and “wyvern.” I had no idea what these words meant, but I loved how they sounded. My dad told me that “equilibrium” meant that everything was the same. We had to look up “wyvern” in The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (“a fabulous creature of heraldry”). Mana, grandpa told me, was – Biblically speaking – bread from heaven.
Then the level began. You saw blue sky and a dark, jagged, megalith. Veiled men and women walked over the rolling landscape. A red urn lay on the ground. You flew towards it and acquired your first spell: Possession. There were tents nearby, where the people lived. You could use Possession to claim them. Then you saw another red urn. This time it was a castle spell. You cast it and created a single white tower, with a hot air balloon perched at the top.
Placing the Possession spell in front of you, and the castle spell nearby, is about as much help as the game ever gave you. If you wanted Fireball, you had to find it yourself, in the middle of a stone circle to the north-east.
To complete the level, you had to fly around the map, launching fireballs at vultures and giant worms until they disintegrated into golden balls of mana. If you used Possession on these balls, your balloon would float over and suck them up, before transporting them back to your castle (yes, you did just read a sentence about sucking balls). After repeating this process a few times, your castle would be full of mana, and you’d have to cast the castle spell again to make it bigger. Once you hit the mana target for the level, you could move onto the next map.
Restoring the world to equilibrium
All simple, if a little bizarre. But at seven years old, I didn’t know I had to collect mana to complete a level in Magic Carpet; the manual only explained the game mechanics in unconnected segments. Even the promisingly-titled “Completing the Level” section was vague: “When you’ve completed your task and restored a world’s equilibrium, the on-screen message ‘world restored’ appears.”
Great, but how was I supposed to “restore the world’s equilibrium”? It must be a grand process, to match the gravitas of such a phrase. Surely, more impressive than collecting golden balls in my castle.
Luckily there was a boy at my school, in the year above, who had access to the World Wide Web: the repository for all video game walkthroughs and cheat codes.
“I can tell you how to complete level one,” he told me. “But it’ll cost you £5.”
That was ten weeks’ pocket money for me, and all my life-savings, but I didn’t care – all that mattered was equilibrium. I paid him the next day and received a printed set of instructions. The first was to fly through a gateway. The second was to talk to a wise old sage in the village. There were about four other stages after that.
It didn’t occur to me that following such elaborate instructions would be beyond the scope of a video game. Magic Carpet pushed the boundaries of games in so many ways, and it was possible they’d push the limitations of gameplay mechanics as well. The mana balls toppled down hills to rest in valleys or splash into the sea; villagers acted differently depending on their job (townies, traders, and builders) and over time will erect new buildings, and employ guards to protect themselves; when you cast a fireball onto the ground, it formed a crater, and you could literally blast the terrain into smithereens; the arabesque soundtrack – by Fable composer Russell Shaw – shifted seamlessly from slow and haunting to fast and urgent, when entering combat.
The game had an anaglyph 3D mode, and included a pair of red and cyan 3D glasses in the box, as well as offering support for VR headsets, LCD shutter glasses, and vomit-inducing stereogram. Executive producer Peter Molyneux would later became infamous for overhyping planned features he couldn’t deliver, but in Magic Carpet, he and his team of 26 coders, artists, and designers pulled off ambitious plans.
The game even featured on the BBC television programme Tomorrow’s World as a glimpse of the future, and Karl Kennedy from Australian soap opera Neighbours became medically addicted to playing it. In short, Magic Carpet was a game that made you feel that anything was possible. And don’t forget, I was only seven. I still believed in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy.
I tried to follow the steps. I thought the doorway might be the megalith from the beginning. Flying through the gap in the stones didn’t appear to do anything, but maybe I wouldn’t be given a sign; maybe I had to follow the steps on faith. I couldn’t find a way to talk to any of the villagers, let alone find a sage. I defended myself from monsters as I searched the island for clues, and my balloon diligently hoovered up the mana as I quested. Eventually a message appeared on my screen: “You have restored the world to equilibrium.” I had done it! Somehow, the instructions had worked.
I went back to the boy for another walkthrough, but this time he gave me a hint for free: level two was something to do with a key. This time I wasn’t convinced he knew what he was talking about, and I managed to complete the level the same way I accidentally finished the first one.
Restore the world to equilibrium… again
In fact, every level required you to do exactly the same thing: store enough mana in your castle until the game allowed you to move forward.
Despite this repetition, each of the game’s 46 levels – the manual has summaries for 50, but four were cut before the game shipped – feels distinctive. This is partly because each map and monster vary significantly from each other, with maps spanning from islands and bustling towns to mazes and deserts, and the monsters requiring a range of different responses from the player. Chuckling genies stole your mana so you couldn’t cast spells, and teleported away when they were wounded. Krakens paralysed and then electrocuted you with crackling bolts of lightning. Bees waggled erratically, making them hard to hit, and dived behind your field of view to sting you. Of all the monsters, the bees were the most terrifying, making me scream “No, not the bees!” like Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man whenever a swarm appeared.
The other reason every level felt distinct was because each told a different story. In one level, I watched as a horde of skeleton warriors marched across the land and besieged a town, bravely defended by a regiment of archers; in another, a portal teleported me to a lonely keep in the middle of the ocean; in another, I saved a village from being incinerated by an evil wyvern. The game was designed to let the player create a narrative. There were no objectives (except to reach your mana quota), and no cutscenes. The only information was provided by single sentence summaries in the manual, written by copywriter Neil Cook, fresh from a literature degree, and with aspirations to become a writer.
Some of these summaries were intentionally vague, such as the one for level 14 (“follow the endless path of Nazzajahn to unleash great power”), or 27 (“seek the sacred forest of Shebbahn to recover spells stolen from you – but beware the consequences”). Others made the monsters in the levels seem grander and more impressive (“evil trollish tribes have returned to Gillah for the first time in a thousand years”), or hinted at mysteries that must be unravelled (“the key lies in unlocking the four ways of the fortress,” and “to restore order to this realm, one must first find an order to restore.”) Perhaps the best introduction was for the realm of Meebir, level 48: “See Meebir and die.” The scene was set, but the details were left to the player.
Although the boy in my school lied about level one, his fake instructions fitted perfectly with the game’s narrative experience. I didn’t fly through a doorway or speak to a sage, but I did survive Meebir, defeat the genie guarding the sacred city of Shaai Yulim, and rescue the citizens of Rannaxior from its plague of griffins.
I was so inspired by the video game that I developed a Magic Carpet game for the playground. One or two people would be wizards, and the rest, monsters. The wizards had to hunt down the monsters, using their spells to kill them. Fireballs were unlimited and had a range of ten paces, but only took away 5% of a monster’s life at a time. Meteors had a range of five paces and took way 50% of the monster’s life, but could only be cast twice per game. Global Death could only be cast once, and you had to actually touch the monster, but it killed them instantly. We cast spells by shouting their names, sometimes exuberantly, with an accompanying hand gesture as imaginary flames leapt from our fingers.
Magic Carpet 2 was released a year later. It introduced me to more new, exciting words – “eldritch,” “troglodyte,” “leviathan,” and “cymmerian” – and it is in many ways a better game than its predecessor. Spells could be upgraded, giving a stronger sense of progression as you played through the levels. The objectives varied, so you weren’t always chasing an arbitrary mana quota. Night time and underground maps were added, the models were more refined, and the AI was more sophisticated. Even the bees were better: you could hurl swarms of bees at enemies, and turned into a bee yourself. But the game led you from one objective to another, and each level was given a voiceover introduction, telling you what you needed to do. The mystery, and some of the magic, was gone.
Magic Carpet didn’t hold your hand. It taught you how to deal with krakens by trapping you in a cage with six of them and letting you work out how to escape their paralysis the hard way; the only way you learned what the spells did was by casting them; and, so long as you hit your mana quota, you were free to do whatever you liked. It also didn’t waste time explaining what was happening; after the introduction cinematic, and a line in the manual, you were on your own.
And left on my own, the game I imagined, and the game I played, were the same thing.
- A beautiful, sophisticated game world with fully morphable terrain
- Gives you just enough information to get you going
- Unique gameplay
- One of the best introductions and manuals ever made
- Enemy wizards are too fixated on stealing your mana
- Core gameplay is repetitive
- Some spells are redundant
- May give you melissophobia
An astonishing technical achievement for its time, but it’s the mysterious, magical narrative that makes this game a classic.