By Greg Newbegin
In the mid-90s, while the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo were battling it out to win the battle of the living room, loud and sparkly arcade machines still sucked coins from my wallet. Home consoles hadn't quite caught up in terms of power, so there were certain experiences that could ONLY be had at the local arcade, and Capcom provided some of the best examples.
Pushing Street Fighter 2 to the side, it could be said that the side-scrolling beat-'em-up was the genre that Capcom had all tied up -- Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and Aliens vs Predator being two immediate examples that I put a lot of money into. However, there were a couple of other Capcom beat-'em-ups that are often overlooked -- perhaps given the huge popularity of Golden Axe, which preceded these titles by several years. However, the Capcom games were different - they had a similar look and feel to Golden Axe, but there was an element of depth that was missing from the Sega title.
Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, released in 1993, and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows over Mystara, released in 1996, were based on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game (clearly) - particularly the Mystara campaign. As such, they included locations and enemies based on the D&D mythology, as well as deeper magic capabilities and some basic RPG elements - players could actually level up their characters as they played. Beyond these relatively novel inclusions, they were just well crafted titles that were as much fun to play as other notable beat-'em-ups of the time.
Part of this came from Capcom's competencies in the fighter genre - sure, you could select characters, each with their own style and stats, but more than this, each character had their own move set. At first glance, the three buttons required for play belies the reality that lies beneath - quick swipes with the joystick prior to a button smash would result in a different move, some of which provided strategic maneuverability. In this way, the basic hand-to-hand combat provided depth beyond Golden Axe (and anything since, if you ask me), and is still - 20 years later - a joy to play. More than this, each character can carry multiple projectile weapons, from arrows and throwing knives, through fire bombs and magic; there are stores to replenish these stocks between levels, multiple rooms to loot from, and so much more -- for an arcade 2D side-scroller, it was ambitious.
Tower of Doom provides four playable characters to choose from -- the fighter, dwarf, cleric and elf - each with their own abilities and stats (the fighter being an all rounder, for example, while the cleric is able to heal the party). This was further expanded in Shadows over Mystara, which added the Thief and Magic User characters. While this does allow for different variations during gameplay, it also allows for deeper multiplayer, with players able to choose party members that suit them best, and this is where these titles shine.
I played both with my wife -- she prefers characters more predisposed to magical abilities, while I prefer small tanks that carry sharp axes -- and we had a blast. The game also allows for drop-in, drop-out online multiplayer, which of course is much the same. After completing a certain requirement (based on character level), "House Rules" also unlocks, allowing players to create their own games with minor gameplay amendments, such as Enemy Rush, whereby each level starts with only 30 seconds on the clock, and each kill extends the time limit. In addition, there are challenges to be unlocked and played through, adding further playtime to the core experience. While this extends replay value to a certain degree, I didn't find it a compelling enough reason to get me back for too much more.
Herein lies the point -- both titles are wonderful to play, and are faithful recreations of highly regarded arcades, but both still feel like they did at the arcade (of course, this may not be an issue for some). There are unlimited continues, for example (a counter keeps track of how many are used), and no target in sight -- this means that completing the game on 100 continues seems to be akin to completing the game on 5. Of course, each continue resets experience points to zero, but that's beside the point -- there is no challenge to unlimited continues, apart from the personal challenge of beating a previous score.
That's not to say the game isn't difficult -- it is. Multiple story branches allow players to select from difficult or easy paths, providing additional playthrough potential, but also allowing for greater challenge -- and believe me, you will go through a large number of lives on some bosses (that damned red dragon in Tower of Doom immediately springs to mind). The issue isn't the difficulty, but more the ability to continue, regardless of success. In some ways, this could be considered to be offered in honour of the original arcade style of play - each death could be overcome by putting in some more coins. I understand that, but it did feel a little cheap as a result, and a mechanic to combat this would have added to the overall charm of the home release.
Further, faithful to the arcade is one thing, but an HD upgrade to the artwork would have been very much appreciated. Given the original artwork has been scaled up to HD, the graphics don't benefit from the re-release. Some effort has been made into providing filters to smooth things out, but this results in cartoony images with an overall reduction in detail. I must admit that while I do appreciate the original artwork, there was something about these titles that just didn't sit well with me.
Still, minor gripes aside, Chronicles of Mystara is a must buy for any retro fans, and fans of beat-'em-ups in general. Not only is it extremely faithful to the brilliant source material, but it's just as fun as it was 20 years ago - many newer titles could learn a great deal from what is on display. I do feel we have an upcoming contender in Dragon's Crown (said to be a spiritual successor to these very titles, based on the pedigree of one of its developers), but that remains to be seen. Until then -- this bundle of titles comes highly recommended.