In the early ‘90s if you were a kid wandering the floors of a musty arcade, pocket money jangling in your jeans and Pearl Jam blasting in your ears, you’d almost certainly have come across at least one of the Dungeons & Dragons coin-ops. Unique amongst their brethren for their multiple story paths, technical gameplay and faithful adherence to the source material, Tower of Doom and its sequel Shadow over Mystara were never as popular as more linear fare such as Turtles in Time, but they had a rich, inviting charm of their own. Until now, Capcom’s cult side-scrolling beat-’em-ups have never been ported over to consoles in Europe. Thankfully, this oversight has been addressed with the release of Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara which bundles both coin-op ports into a shiny, downloadable treat. Pull on your coif, strap on your quiver and keep your twenty-pence pieces tucked safely away.
In Tower of Doom, you take on the role of either Fighter, Dwarf, Cleric or Elf as you battle your way through an assortment of fantasy tropes such as hellhounds, manticores, kobolds and trolls. True to the tabletop game, each character has individual strengths and weaknesses. The Dwarf is a close-combat specialist with fast combos, the comparatively weaker Elf has a range of offensive spells that best suit long-range attacks, the Fighter is an all-round tank and the Cleric mixes up defensive melee strikes with some nifty spells.
For a side-scroller the combat is surprisingly involved, with a range of attack options available to each character which can be reviewed from the in-game menu. Rolling, dash and aerial attacks are all possible, as well as the ability to crouch and block. The less said about the cumbersome blocking the better, but it isn’t a major issue; in this sort of game you’re more likely to be focused on smashing your axe into the face of a goblin than working out how to defend yourself from enemy strikes.
In addition to standard melee options, Tower of Doom also throws in something unique to the genre: an inventory system. As enemies fall to your bow, blade and bolts of lightning, you’ll be rewarded with loot drops ranging from coins to weapons. Additionally, treasure chests found along the way offer up rarer booty such as Boots of Speed and Gauntlets of Ogre Power which are automatically equipped and last for a limited length of time. Consumables such as oil, arrows and hammers are stored and can be accessed through the Y button menu in the same way as magic-users’ spells, and are executed with the X button. The aforementioned gold is used to restock them at the numerous shops you’ll encounter, as well as for purchasing health potions which replenish a measly amount of energy. Furthermore, the different single-use weapons have markedly unique effects. Oil will set enemies alight, whilst a well-aimed hammer strike will daze them for a few seconds. Throw in a few magic rings which grant spell-casting abilities to all characters, and the end result is a varied and entertaining arsenal to play with.
Being a Dungeons & Dragons game, there’s also a level of choice involved. At various stages your path will split and you’ll be offered the opportunity to take one of two routes. Do you go and save a village, or leave them to suffer whilst you plod on through the forest? Do you ignore the warning of the locals and choose to fight the ridiculously tough red dragon boss, or take the easier path up the mountain? The number of different choices available in Tower of Doom is impressive and adds significantly to the replay value. You don’t play this kind of game for the plot, which is just as well as there really isn’t one. Rising evil, a land in need of heroes, yada yada yada – you know the drill. What the game does offer is a richly varied sequence of landscapes, fantastical enemies and tough bosses.
Shadow over Mystara was released three years later and offers more of the same. Adding two new characters – Magic User and Thief – as well as an expanded inventory, the sequel re-skins a number of the enemy units from the first game including the final boss. It offers fewer path choices but more optional rooms to visit, and replaces some annoying joystick-waggling with some annoying enemies (gargoyles are impervious to anything other than magic, which means if you’re a fighter your choices are either “run”, or “use up all your magic items and then run”). Each character now has a special attack mapped to the attack + jump combo and unlike the first game when you die you have the option of changing your character. This leads to an unwelcome prompt for you to re-enter your name at the end of each mini-stage every time you switch and soon becomes frustrating if you want to try out as many of the characters as possible in a single playthrough. All told, we preferred the original game as we didn’t feel the sequel really added enough to justify a whole new game. That said, it’s certainly an enjoyable romp and assuming you’re happy ignoring the Continue counter constantly shaming you as it tallies up the amount of times you die, you can blast through each game in around two hours.
The best way to enjoy Chronicles of Mystara is with others, and Iron Galaxy have included couch play for four people as well as an impressive drop in/drop out multiplayer co-op. Inexplicably, there’s no option to combine both. You’re either online with strangers or at home with your buddies - it’s a missed opportunity. Online play is acceptable and smooth when you’re logged in, but several disconnections were experienced. These start you back at the last level you unlocked so a drop out isn’t as drastic as it could be, but a more robust server connection wouldn’t have gone amiss. Hopefully this is being addressed.
For games that are seventeen to twenty years old the graphics and sound have dated as much as you’d expect but still hold up. Enemies and character models are well-drawn, especially in the sequel, and the frame-rate zips along with no noticeable slowdown – even when you have nine or ten characters on-screen at once. Typical of coin-ops of the time (especially beat-‘em-ups) the music is the normal arcade-style electronica, and voice samples are often unintentionally hilarious, with your characters screaming something barely intelligible. “Is that your best?” ends up sounding like “Is that your bed?”, which is less a taunt and more a query about kobold upholstery. However, given the heavily abbreviated item names (Ice Storm scrolls are labelled as “I.S.” for instance), having characters literally shout out what they’re casting can be handy. “Lightning Bolt!”, “Magic Missile!” and “Sticks to Snakes!” all make an appearance here. Unlimited lives means that you’ll get to see the whole thing in one go, which is both a blessing and a curse. The difficulty level is essentially negated, since you’ll just keep pounding away and racking up the continues for as long as you like, but doing so will shorten the game’s lifespan, even with the different paths and characters available to play.
As with other Capcom digital releases though, the developers have gone to town on extras for the console port in order to increase its longevity. Like their fantasy brawler Darkstalkers Resurrection, a variety of views are available (including over the shoulder) and as you rack up achievements and Vault Points in the game, you’ll be able to unlock artwork, copies of original promotional flyers aimed at selling the cabinet to arcades (complete with typos!) and, more importantly, House Rules. These allow you to toggle different settings before playing such as Vampirism which grants health for each hit you land, Hedgehog which substitutes health for gold, and Lockpick which renders any metal boxes accessible without a key. Extra modes include Elimination (one life per character, whoever lasts the longest wins) and a time attack variation. Like Darkstalkers, there is also a standard set of challenges for completing specific moves and certain levels, collecting various items and killing a set number of foes in various ways.
1200 points may seem a little steep for a relatively short pair of games, but there’s still plenty to do once the credits roll. Chronicles of Mystara will appeal to D&D enthusiasts, beat-‘em-up fans, and anyone feeling misty-eyed about the disappearance of arcades from our towns. It’s the definitive port of a very good series and with some friends round, an excellent way to spend time over a few tankards of mead whilst screaming “Sticks to Snakes!”
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is a great, if brief, nostalgia trip. Offering a dual pack of '90s beat-'em-ups, Iron Galaxy Studios have given the same level of polish and love provided to their previous offering Darkstalkers, and has increased its longevity through clever unlockables and extra modes.