Let's get this out of the way right up front: Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is a pretty dated affair. Standing as, essentially, the ultimate evolution of Capcom's walk-and-punch brawler genre, the two games here offer far more depth and content than the likes of Final Fight... but in the end, you're still walking and punching, even if you do get to use swords, axes, and Magic Missile spells in the process. These games were designed to devour your quarters, and they dish out all kinds of cheap situations and unavoidable deaths, constantly overwhelming the player. They're nearly 20 years old, after all, and their age often shows.
And yet, I'm thrilled that Capcom went to the trouble of dredging up these titles from the back catalog. I never saw either of their D&D games in the arcades, and the one home port until now has existed only as an alarmingly expensive Saturn import. I had always assumed the cost and complications associated with the D&D license would prevent them from ever bobbing to the surface again. Thankfully, between this and DuckTales HD, Capcom seems to be on a re-licensing spree with some of its old classics, so at least for a little while (until the license evaporates again), this unique little slice of video game history is available for all to enjoy. And I do mean all: They've ported Chronicles of Mystara to an impressive array of platforms.
The timing couldn't be more apt. Despite their relative obscurity, Capcom's D&D games have had considerable influence over the years. Treasure borrowed the concept and Treasured it up (i.e., made it cooler while simultaneously adding crazily intricate control mechanics) for Guardian Heroes. Some of Guardian Heroes' designers in turned teamed up with the lead character designer for the Mystara games, Kinu Nishimura, to create last year's Code of Princess. And Vanillaware's George Kamitani (who provided art for the Mystara titles) has spent most of his career iterating on these concepts and mechanics, with the freshest (and most blatant) example due out in America soon as Dragon's Crown.
So what's the big deal with the Mystara duology? Brawlers are certainly nothing unique, and when people think of great D&D games they usually call to mind western-developed computer RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment. And it's true that neither of these components of the Mystara titles would deserve note in isolation; it's the combination that makes them special.
By 1994, when the first of these two games (Tower of Doom) made its debut, Capcom had been exploring and exploiting the brawler for half a decade. Final Fight set the stage, but as the company's arcade boards grew in power and gamers began to demand more nuance from melee combat thanks to the popularity of fighting games, Capcom began adding greater depth and prettier visuals to their brawlers. They also strived to maintain a high degree of authenticity to their licensed properties. Tower of Doom simply turned out to be the right game at the right time for Capcom to go hog-wild with its design.
So, yes, at their base level Tower of Doom and Shadows Over Mystara feature a player (or four) walking from left to right and beating the living thunder out of everything that shows up on screen. At the same time, though, Capcom made a genuine effort to add a proper sense of D&D to the whole affair. In lesser games that might have ended with letting players select from superficially distinct character classes; here, though, the character selection is only the beginning. And even then, each class has unique traits that go far beyond their appearance and the standard "fast-but-fragile female to slow-but-durable bruiser" range of most brawlers. Yes, the burly dwarf hammers foes hard, but the lithe elf excels at ranged spells, and the Cleric and Fighter provide shades of grey on the spectrum. The sequel adds even more classes (like a rogue who specializes in backstabbing) as well as alternate palette versions offering minute differences to their skills and play style.
Where the Mystara titles truly really excel is in their replay value. They're huge games considering their nature as arcade brawlers; each takes roughly an hour to complete, but even then you can't possibly see the entire game in a single playthrough. Not unlike Castlevania III, the road forward frequently branches. Your selections are presented in a quintessentially D&D fashion: A narrator outlines your options and the nature of your choices, and the party follows the most popular selection according to player vote. You can elect to travel along, for example, a short road full of monsters or a longer route with fewer hazards. You can choose to act benevolently and allow yourself to be distracted from your main quest, or you can ignore the pleas of endangered villagers. Help a friendly gnome and he'll give you a magic potion to let you visit his tiny village. Finish off a troll boss with fire and you get a bonus; fail and it revives with half-health, prompting other adventurers to save the day and chastise you.
Furthermore, the games incorporate a rudimentary experience system -- simplistic to be sure, and you won't be selecting any new feats, multiclassing, or any of the other fancy features you'd expect from a true D&D game. But you really can feel a difference in your character's power between the beginning of the game and the journey's end.
All of these features combine to create a brawler with about the maximum depth you can expect from this particular genre. And they look great; Capcom absolutely mastered sprite art in its '90s arcade titles, after all. Tower features Street Fighter Alpha-level sprite animation, and Mystara goes a step beyond that. You'll need to tweak the collection's settings to turn off the smeary visual filters, but there's some beautiful hand-drawn animation to be enjoyed here.
The collection itself does a great job of bringing everything together. You can safely ignore some of the more gimmicky features (like the ability to play the game on two side-by-side virtual arcade screens -- amusing, but ridiculously useless), but the basics like online coop play work reasonably well. Even better are the meta-features, such as live Achievement tracking and unlockable house rules (such as boosted money drops and even the ability to gain back life when you land an attack on a foe). The collection strikes just the right balance between authenticity, augmentation, and needless fluff to feel like a complete package.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that the games are pretty dated. And you will curse the absolute cheapness of bosses and even standard enemies like gargoyles, which inexplicably don't die once their life meters are depleted. And sometimes the designers' ambitions get the best of them, like the diagonally scrolling sequences in which you can still only attack left and right. Cool presentation, but it mainly serves to draw attention to the inherent limitation of the game mechanics.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Strong sprite work from Capcom; not quite on the level of Street Fighter III or Warzard, but that's be expected from such expansive adventures. Just turn off those nasty visual filters.
- Music: Driving and catchy. Tower of Doom tends to sound a bit flat, but Shadows of Mystara features quality chiptunes from start to finish.
- Interface: The collection's wrapper offers some great feedback, while the in-game menus vary from point to point; Shadow of Mystara's Secret of Mana-inspired ring menu is awful, for instance. Simple controls with lots of contextual actions.
- Lasting Appeal: For the genre, this is about as replayable as it gets. Every session can be different than the last, with tons of secrets and alternate paths to explore.
Chronicles of Mystara suffers from the usual shortcomings you'd expect from a beat-em-up sidescroller. At the same time, these games make bold strides in an attempt to evolve the format. They also do as good a job of integrating D&D concepts into a pure action game as you could possibly hope. Simple, playable, attractice, and even historically significant, there's a lot to like about Chronicles of Mystara. And the asking price is perfect -- I spent that much in virtual quarters to complete a single playthrough of both games. Can we get Alien Vs. Predator next, Capcom?