Magic Carpet (1996, Bullfrog and Krisalis Software for Sega Saturn)

When I was a child, our family would receive stacks of computer floppy discs from the local Atari 8-bit users group containing new games that came without any instructions whatsoever. We had to learn how to play the games entirely on our own, often by just pressing buttons on the keyboard to see what would happen. This made for a serious challenge, and some games remained completely inscrutable to me (Quest For the Space Beagle and Alternate Reality are two excellent examples). Whenever we learned and mastered any computer games, there was a great sense of satisfaction at our patience and perseverance.

Bullfrog’s Magic Carpet reminds me very much of these experiences. I will not lie to you, this is not an easy game to learn. You cannot just pick up a controller and start mashing buttons and expect to get anywhere. There is a very steep learning curve and this world will not help you or provide any easy clues. Of course, you could just sit down and read the instruction manual, but who in the history of videogames has ever done that? Nobody, that’s who. A number of reviewers on websites and YouTube channels have walked away in complete frustration and confusion. Sorry, Timmy, you’re not at the video arcades this time. You can’t bluff your way through this.

Magic Carpet may seem overwhelming at first, but it is actually one of the best videogames of its era, a brilliant fusion of shoot-em-up and real-time strategy, Doom-Meets-Populous in an Arabian settting. It requires patience and practice to understand its play mechanics and control system, but once you have mastered the first couple stages, you’ll be running at full steam and ready for the real action that lies ahead.

Let me explain how the game plays. You play an Ali Baba type who flies a magic carpet and utilizes a number of magic spells. You begin with only two spells, “fireball” and “possess.” Your goal is to collect mana or magic energy. The more mana you collect, the more abilities you can use. You use the fireballs to attack monsters that roam the world, such as birds, bees, flying dragons, skeleton armies, archers, water genies and giant sand worms. When you destroy these enemies, they leave behind orange spheres. You use the “possess” spell to convert them into mana. Now you will need a place to store these mana, and if you fly around you will find a red urn which contains a “castle” spell. Use this spell to create and upgrade your home castle, and hot air balloons will appear to collect those blue mana spheres. If you are killed, you will respawn at your castle instead of beginning all over again. Once you have collected a set amount of mana, you will “bring balance to the world” and clear the stage. There are 70 stages in total, based on the original PC release and expansion pack, each becoming increasingly diverse and challenging.

In addition, you will notice towns and tent villages with people walking about. You use the possess spell to plant your flag onto their buildings, turning them into allies. This will also result in increased mana, and these tribes will either build new buildings, explore the world or join your side in the battle against the monsters. The people will also defend your castle from attack. Conversely, if you decide to attack the villagers, they will become hostile and attack you on sight. You also have the freedom to just wipe them out completely (reminds me a lot of Ozark Software’s classic Seven Cities of Gold), which can be good for a cheap laugh, but it’s a dumb strategy. You’re going to need allies in this increasingly hostile world.

The first couple stages are fairly simple, as you only have to deal with the birds and giant Ohmu worms, and the mana requirements are fairly low. You can upgrade your castle fairly easily, with a very impressive morphing effect at the turrets and walls grow out of the earth. There are also a number of locations and stone structures that may contain surprises, such as red urns (which contain new power-up spells), mana spheres or monsters. Your main map (L+R buttons) will show you these locations to explore, and you’ll learn to rely on that map for your overall strategy. On one stage, a red urn lies in the middle of a small forest in the mountains. When you fly to grab that urn, a swarm of killer bees pop out and proceed to beat you senseless. I think my solution was just to burn down the forest and try to take those bastards out, then lure the survivors over the ocean where I could pick them off one by one. In another stage, flying through a forest caused a volcano to suddenly explode out of the ground and erupt fireballs, killing me instantly.

Finally, if that isn’t enough, you will also have to face rival Ali Baba wizards who also fly magic carpets, build castles, battle monsters and “collect” mana. And by “collect,” I mean that they steal your stash, turning the mana spheres to their team color. They might also attack your castle or attack you, while you can do likewise. The first couple times you meet these rival players, you can dispose of them fairly easily, but once they have enough power to build a level-four castle and wield more powerful attacks, you’ll have to be choosier. As the game progresses, you will encounter as many as eight players, and you will need their help in fighting back swarms of dragons, bees and that army of the undead that has completely overwhelmed the beach. Strategy requires knowing when to leave them alone to fight the war, and when to kill them and steal their spells and castles.

Again, as a recap, the goal of Magic Carpet is: 1) destroy monsters, 2) convert the red mana spheres to your team color, 3) build and upgrade your home castle, 4) discover new power-ups via the red urns, and 5) don’t let the other Ali Babas steal your stash. It sounds easy but requires real practice and planning to defeat enemies, much like Goldeneye 007 (which shares the same control system). Stealth and strategy is much more effective than barreling everywhere at full speed. You have to pick and choose your targets and goals.

The tempo in Magic Carpet begins slowly, but by stages five and six is blasting at a furious pace, as you are facing swarms of enemies from all directions at once. It’s as intense as anything in Doom and highly challenging, as you have to manage your mana resources, protect your castle from attacks, keep an eye on those other Ali Babas (those jerks), and try not to get killed by all the monsters. And don’t forget to search for those red urns; I can’t imagine getting anywhere without the machine gun fireballs, shields or lightning bolts.

Visually, this videogame has dated in many respects, particularly with the relatively short draw distance and heavy reliance on fog as well as the Goldeneye controls, which is never as good as KBM (keyboard and mouse) or modern dual-analog controls. You can tell that you’re playing a PC game from 1993. Look closer, however, and you will notice impressive visual touches that were highly ambitious for 1994-96 and still hold up today: real-time landscape morphing effects; a wide variety of trees, structures, villagers and monsters; earth that takes damage from fireballs and worms; trees that can be set on fire; rolling ocean waves. All of this is accomplished while maintaining a respectable frame rate that competes with any similar title of the era.

Magic Carpet was ported to Saturn and Playstation and are both nearly identical to one another, while also offering an extra layer of polish and color over its PC cousin. Sony’s version has some nice gouraud shading on the buildings but some really tacky polygon shading on the clouds. The water effects are very impressive and smooth. Sega’s version lacks the gouraud shading and the water is less impressive, but its 2D bitmaps and textures appear slightly more colorful and detailed. Best of all, the Japanese Saturn version, released six months after its Western counterparts, adds analog controller support, which is nothing short of awesome.

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