For many people, arcade brawlers are little more than repetitive stages with simplistic gameplay. Even agreed upon classics, like Double Dragon and Final Fight, are just lengthy exercises in button mashing. And between X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons, Xbox Live Arcade gamers have been inundated with these mind-numbingly basic brawlers. It's easy to understand why some people are put off by this old school genre.
But no matter how sick and tired you are of button mashing your way through linear stages, I'm here to tell you that Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is different. Released in the mid-1990s, the two games featured in Capcom's newest arcade compilation are on a whole other level than the brainless brawlers you're used to. And best of all, this is the first time either of these Dungeons & Dragons games have been released on a North American game console.
Both 1994's Tower of Doom and its sequel, Shadow Over Mystara from 1996, attempt to cram a full Dungeons & Dragons experience into an hour-long action/adventure game. Don't let the fact that it was an old arcade game fool you, what lies beneath is a deep and involving journey full of twists and turns. And instead of simply being along for the ride, the players actually have some input on how the story unfolds.
Right from the start, we're given a choice between a number of high fantasy stereotypes, such as a dwarf, thief, fighter, elf and magician. These characters not only look radically different, but they also have their own types of weapons, special moves and abilities. The fighter specializes in powerful sword-based combat, while the magician can stay back and cast spells at the enemy. These characters complement each other, allowing four players to come together and become an unstoppable fighting force.
Both games take you through the kinds of levels you expect to see in this type of fantasy brawler. Your fellowship will fight through deadly swamps, on an airship, in the forest, past giant castles, and yes, you'll even encounter a dungeon or two. Not only is there a giant boss to contend with in each of these stages, but there are also a number of secret rooms and extra paths to take along the way. Both Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara reward players to exploring every inch of world.
Choosing your own narrative is a big deal in both of Capcom's Dungeons & Dragons brawlers. Often times it's an obvious choice, allowing the player to customize the adventure they want to embark on. However, there are a few moments where you will make moral choices. Do you want to save the village under attack, or are you the heartless jerk who will ignore their cries and continue on your way to the Red Dragon? The choice is up to you, and whatever you choose will change the levels you play going forward.
By giving the player so many different paths to choose from, Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara requires multiple play-throughs in order to see and do everything. That's good news, considering that most arcade brawlers are exactly the same every time. And because the characters are so different, playing a different class makes the game feel fresh all over again. With so many different paths and characters, you'll definitely get your money's worth with Capcom's newest compilation.
While both games are similar in approach, there are some striking differences between Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara. The 1994 installment locks you to one character from start to finish, while the sequel allows swapping with each continue. You'll also discover that one game looks substantially better than the other. The 1996 sequel features level that are teaming with small details, while Tower of Doom looks flat and boring in comparison. Perhaps the biggest difference is how each game manages the inventory. It's clear that Capcom learned its lessons from the first game, giving players a much more user-friendly second chapter.
But while so much of these games is different, you'll also see a lot of similarities. Both games take place in the same universe, so expect to see the same sorts of landscapes and enemies. Even a couple bosses are repeated from one game to the next. Thankfully most of the repeated elements are masked with an impressive set-piece or some other eye-catching effect.
Much like Marvel vs. Capcom Origins and DarkStalkers Resurrection, this Dungeons & Dragons compilation features a bunch of challenges to complete. All across the left side of the screen are stats that are constantly being updated, including how many characters you kill and magic spells you use. You'll earn coins for every milestone you hit, which allows the player to open up a bunch of extras. You'll ultimately earn exclusive music tracks, early artwork and even a few modes that let you tweak with the game's difficulty. By now this is a common feature in Capcom's arcade collections, but even so, this is a good idea that adds yet more incentive to play through the games multiple times.
On top of the challenges to complete, Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara comes with a bunch of video options. The game defaults to an ugly filtered look, which tries to mask some of the arcade game's imperfections. But don't worry, that filter can be removed completely. And it doesn't stop there. You can add scan lines to better approximate the arcade cabinet as well as change how the camera is looking at the screen. A lot of the choices run from silly to novelty, but I like that Capcom continues to include these outlandish options.
Even beyond the added extras and online multiplayer mode, the real reason to be excited about these brawlers is because they are incredibly rare. Neither game saw much action in American arcades, and the only console ports were confined to the Japanese Sega Saturn. With the exception of MAME, there has been no way to play either of these classic brawlers in the United States.
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara took its time to hit the United States, but I'm happy to report that it was worth the wait. This is more than just another brawler full of mindless button mashing and linear stages, it's a deep role-playing experience that is complete with leveling up, equipping new items and perfecting magic spells. With multiple paths and plenty of unique characters to play, there's definitely a lot of reason to play these Dungeons & Dragons games multiple times. Chronicles of Mystara is everything the Golden Axe trilogy wished it could be.