Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara brings an arcade classic home
Back in the mid 90s, there was genuine concern among gamers that 2D games were going to die out forever, replaced permanently by 3D games like Mario 64, Tekken, and Crash Bandicoot. Today that notion is a bit absurd, as 2D games peacefully coexist among the most graphically impressive 3D experiences ever made. Between digital marketplaces, mobile games, and a surge of indie developers, 2D gaming is here to stay. But in 1996, the death of 2D was a genuine concern.
Playing Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara, a collection of Capcom’s 2D D&D brawlers Tower of Doom (1993) and Shadow over Mystara (1996), I can’t help but transport myself back to that time. 2D beat ‘em up games like Final Fight and Streets of Rage had run their course by then, and the genre had been stagnating like so many 2D genres at the time. Looking back, these games feel like a genuine last effort to revitalize the genre, Shadow over Mystara especially.
While Tower of Doom is a solid game, there’s a good reason Shadow over Mystara takes top billing in this collection. Simply put, you’d be hard pressed to find an arcade brawler with more depth. Relegated to arcades and a Japan-only collection on Sega Saturn, Shadow over Mystara is a game that deserves a new audience. It’s ahead of its time in many ways. In fact, the only game I’d consider its peer is Guardian Heroes, another classic of the genre.
By mixing a simple, quarter-munching genre with a fighting game pedigree and the RPG aspects of D&D, Capcom crafted some uncharacteristically deep arcade games. It’s only in recent years, with games like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Legend of Dungeon that we’ve seen the brawler genre infused with so much depth.
Players begin by choosing from one of six different classes -- Fighter, Dwarf, Elf, Cleric, Thief, and Magic User. Each class comes with their own unique movesets. The Fighter, for example, may have the framework of the traditional 2D brawler character, but he has everything from lunging attacks to aerial launchers and the ability to parry and counterattack. The Magic User, conversely, doesn’t have much in way of attack strength, but has access to a repertoire of powerful spells. When you get four players together that D&D feel shines through, as each class’s strengths and weaknesses play off of each other.
Both games take players through typical fantasy adventures, where an evil force is looking to harm the realm and it’s up to you to stop them. It’s cliché fare -- the story isn’t good at all (and even contains a couple silly grammatical errors), but it’s brief and harmless. More interesting are the moments where the games ask you to make choices on where you’ll go next. Both Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara are packed with branching paths and hidden areas. There are several entire levels you’ll only experience by completing multiple adventures, lending these games a ton of replay value, even if each one only takes an hour or so to complete.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a classic arcade game with as many small touches and secrets as Shadow over Mystara. Genuine puzzles, some light exploration and backtracking, and tons of unique items display the care that went into this game. Even the name you give your character has an effect of what items you receive.
While Tower of Doom is a fine game, Shadow over Mystara is a true arcade classic. Still, it hasn’t aged perfectly. The game features many flashy spells that only certain characters can cast, unleashing screen-filling effects that pause the action for a few seconds. In this time, other players can catch their breath, and if they weren’t mid-attack when the spell was cast, they can even navigate their inventory. That said, it’s rather easy for a player to select the Magic User and spam magic attacks to the point where other players can’t enjoy the game. Nostalgic fans will say those players are being jerks, but by today’s game design standards, it's a flaw that makes this game less than timeless. Especially when you can play online, where it’s hard to keep people in check.
That brings us to the collection itself, and where my main criticisms of Chronicles of Mystara lie. Don’t get me wrong, Iron Galaxy has, as always, done a fine job of porting these games to modern consoles. They’ve added graphical filters, several viewing modes, and online play using GGPO for a lag-free experience. They’ve also included several extras. As you play, simple challenges are tracked on the sidebar, and completing these challenges nets you points you can use to unlock a pile of concept art and some extra gameplay modes. Those extra gameplay modes, labeled House Rules, are interesting, but they reveal a huge oversight in bringing these games to home consoles.
House Rules are basically a series of cheats you can switch on or off. Some make the game easier, like Vampirism, which regenerates your health when you attack. Some make the game much harder, like Elimination, where every player only has one life. The problem here is that beyond these few gimmicks, the game lacks basic options for players to create a fair and challenging experience for themselves. You start the game with infinite continues and no options to change that beyond the few House Rules.
In arcades you’re limited by the amount of money you’re willing to spend. Players who made regular trips to the arcade surely made a point to learn the ins and outs of D&D so they could make every quarter count. Here, with infinite quarters, there’s little incentive to learn. When a particularly hard boss kills you over and over and you simply keep pressing start, brute-forcing your way to victory, the game can feel really empty.
Home console brawlers have always had options for limited lives. Everything from Streets of Rage 2 on the Genesis to Scott Pilgrim had some way of presenting a real challenge to players, so it’s a bit sad that Iron Galaxy didn’t include anything as an option. As someone who has to review the game, I had no choice but to learn the ins and outs, but I worry that newcomers will simply power their way through a single session and miss out on what made these games so fun in the arcades.
That lack of even basic life-limiting options hurts Chronicles of Mystara as a home adaptation. That said, it more than gets the job done in all other respects, and anyone with nostalgia for these games will surely have a blast with them regardless. Newcomers may want to set some limits for themselves, infinite lives be damned. Shadow over Mystara isn’t a game to blast through in a single mindless session, but a co-op classic that can be savored again and again.
[Reviewed on XBLA]
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