From the late '80s to the mid '90s, the beat-'em-up genre was prolific in the arcade scene. Original fare, like Golden Axe and Double Dragon, as well as licensed stuff, like X-Men and The Simpsons, were well loved, and until the rise of the fighting game in the '90s, it was commonplace to constantly see a new beat-'em-up at the local arcade. As the genre started to lose its luster, Capcom set out with a final attempt at the genre using its then-revolutionary CPS2 technology, but sadly, few arcade gamers experienced Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows Over Mystara because the fighting game boom took over. Fewer still experienced the titles at home unless they had a Sega Saturn and imported the games from Japan. As we begin the twilight of this console cycle, we're finally getting the games as part of a compilation in Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara.
Both games are beat-'em-ups that use the Dungeons & Dragons license. You and up to three others pick a character and progress through levels where you walk a few feet, beat up on the small gang of enemies, walk a few more feet, and repeat the process until you reach a boss. The process repeats for several levels until you reach the final boss and watch the end credits roll. The core formula is mostly unchanged, so it'll feel familiar to genre fans.
Starting with Tower of Doom, the series introduces some RPG-like aspects. The cleric, dwarf, elf and fighter may be typical classes in the D&D universe, but they bring some real differences to the beat-'em-up genre. Clerics are slow with attacks but take on lots of damage while fighters are more balanced. The game uses an XP system instead of points and gives the illusion that XP matters, even though your levels are fixed. Though the game has items you can pick up, you store them in an inventory and can choose to select which one you want to use. The items are standard, including arrows, burning oil bombs, daggers and hammers, but there are also magic potions that let you unleash fireballs and lightning. There's even a store at the beginning of each level that lets you spend your acquired gold to equip these items, furthering the RPG feel in a space and genre that doesn't normally get this kind of stuff.
Two things really help separate this beat-'em-up from the rest in the arcade space. One aspect is the inclusion of multiple paths. At times, the paths are presented as moral choices, and other times, they're presented as opportunities to take in more treasure, but they all provide pathways to the same conclusion, with varying degrees of difficulty. With just about every stage offering several opportunities to take divergent paths, it adds some replayability by promising something different each time, making it ideal for multiple playthroughs beyond choosing a different character class.
The other element that makes this different from other beat-'em-ups is the depth of the combat system. Whereas most rely on a weak and strong attack combined with a super move that eats away at energy, Tower of Doom has a bevy of other moves that can be accomplished with motions similar to the Street Fighter games. Pulling off quarter-circle fireball motions rewards you with stronger moves. There are also more advanced combat techniques, such as blocking and parrying melee and projectile attacks. All of this is done with the attack button, and while it wasn't exactly new at the time, it wasn't widely implemented in the genre.
Tower of Doom was also significant in a few other ways. There was some persistence in the life bar, as it was only refilled if you healed yourself at the shop. Getting to the end of the level and winning with only a sliver of your health meant almost instant death if you skipped your turn buying potions. The quest is long, as using any set of paths can take you and your party over an hour to complete — quite lengthy in the arcade space. Also, you're only afforded one life in the game. Dying really meant dying. With even basic foes being formidable and bosses varying their patterns, it made death more impactful in the original arcade.
This leads to one of the complaints about the title, but it isn't poor design so much as it was the nature of game design at the time. Because this was an arcade title, the difficulty is designed to feel a bit cheap and favor enemies. Playing it in multiplayer helps even things out, but if you go solo, you'll die quite often and be forced to throw in another quarter. That's long been the arcade mantra, and due to the game's arcade roots, you'll find that mechanic in everything but the easiest difficulty level. Gamers who grew up in the arcades will be used to this, but those who've never seen an arcade or emulators will be confused at the high difficulty level and the incessant "Continue" prompts.
Like any good sequel, Shadows Over Mystara improves on Tower of Doom in more than just the graphics and sound. The original four characters are joined by a magic class and a thief class, and all of the characters come with alternate versions with different costumes. The arsenal of abilities and special weapons has been expanded. Experience is also kept constant after death, and players can change their character class when they continue. The game is also much longer than Tower of Doom; there are many more pathways to explore, making it a more desirable title if you need to decide which of the two is better.
Though it is a bigger sequel and better in most areas, Shadows of Mystara has a few missteps. Though the game is still quite difficult, spawning into the game now counts as a significant hit on all enemies on-screen instead of just a knockdown. When playing solo, it makes things easier, as all you really have to do is expend your magic and items, die, and repeat the process to get through any and every boss. While you can hold lots more in the inventory, the navigation is more cumbersome as it now employs directions with the cycle button. Since the game doesn't pause while you're doing this, you'll end up being the victim of cheap hits because you wanted to cycle between secondary weaponry. Finally, while the inventory wheel gives you the quantity of each weapon and ability, you never see that number when you select an item. At such, it's a complete guessing game as to how many of an item you have left — and Tower of Doom handled this quite well.
Both games remain largely unchanged from their original incarnations, but the changes are for the better. As alluded to earlier, both games have four different difficulty levels, so they're accessible to any player or any skill level. The separate pathways are selectable once you reach that point, so it's possible to pick up where you left off if you don't feel like finishing either game in one sitting. Multiplayer can be taken online, and it works rather well thanks to GGPO code, which is used in some recent fighting games. Sadly, there's no way to have a combination of both offline and online players in one match, dampening the enthusiasm of players who want to play with both types of friends for a few rounds.
Having the games would be good enough, especially since both titles have never seen a home console release in English. Like a number of Capcom's recent arcade compilations, though, the Chronicles of Mystara comes with its own metagame in the form of challenges. Each task has three tiers and mostly consists of grindable activities, such as killing X number of foes or hitting personnel with particular weapons or moves. Fulfilling each goal and tier awards the player with coins that can be spent on rewards and a character leveling system that, while a tad superficial, is an added incentive for some players.
Most rewards consist of artwork for just about every character featured in both games. There are also a few pieces of advertisements for both titles, though it is interesting how Shadows Over Mystara gets the Japanese ads while Tower of Doom gets English ads. What gamers will really appreciate, though, are the unlockable house rules that act like arcade dip switches in that they let you modify the rules for the game. Some are beneficial, such as preventing items from becoming breakable or no longer needing keys for treasure chests, while others change the game dramatically, like using cash in lieu of health or giving you a little health refill when you defeat an enemy. The inclusion of these elements is not only unusual for most arcade game compilations but also beneficial since it gives the games even more longevity.
From a technical standpoint, the games are quite faithful to the original source material, and despite their age, the games still look and sound quite good. Just like some of Capcom's more recent compilations, Chronicles of Mystara features the ability to display the game in either 4:3 or 16:9 as well as utilize a few filters, including one where you view the game off-center, as if you were looking over someone's shoulder while playing. Some of these combinations are gimmicky, but at least it shows that some more thought went into this than just leaving everything intact and calling it a day. One noticeable thing is that there didn't seem to be any difference between the crisp and smooth filters, making one wonder if that option works at all.
Beat-'em-up fans should pick up Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara based on obscurity alone. Unless you're big into importing, have easy access to arcade machines or acquired the game via emulation, there's no easy way to play this title. For those who thrive on the genre, there's no amount of convincing that can be done to prevent them from picking up this game. Thankfully, the titles are built well, and some of the modifications provide more depth for casual fans of the genre. Despite some of the flaws inherent in the original design, this game is worth checking out with friends.
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