Usually when you think of Dungeons and Dragons in video game form, titles like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, or more contemporary titles like Dragon Age or Dragon’s Dogma come to mind. Role-playing games with focuses on building characters or entire parties and managing inventories while micro-managing attacks and abilities. These games all do a great job of portraying what its like to play DnD, but so rarely portray what it feels like to play DnD, the part where your imagination takes over and paints as a mental picture.
That’s what Capcom attempted to do with two arcade titles back in the 90’s, create the feeling of slicing through throngs of enemies and slinging spells. These were DnD games all about the action, no character sheets or stat balancing. There’s an inventory, but there’s only a handful of items and they all serve to further the joyous slaughter. There’s treasure to collect, but you’ll never need to sell it since its all instantly added to your pool of silver to be spent at shops between levels. No these titles were only about two things: exploring dungeons and killings dragons.
The first game was Tower of Doom, released in 1993. There’s four classes to choose from including the bulked up Warrior, damage dealing Dwarf, spell-casting Elf, and a Cleric to heal. Each class has their own set of special abilities and plays slightly different. The warrior is probably the easiest to play, with a decent amount of health and attack speed, while the dwarf moves slower but his axe has a better reach. The cleric is only good in co-op since his spells are for helping others, but his mace can smash goblin skulls just as good as anyone. Finally the elf offers the most interesting play-style with a bevy of offensive spells, which actually follow DnD rules for how often you can cast them.
The plot sees you arriving in the Republic of Darokin just as its coming under attack by the evil necromancer Deimos. You’re tasked with clearing out Deimos’ forces from various areas until you finally ascend the titular tower to face him down one on one. As an interesting break from arcade norms there’s actually a lot of choices you can make that will drastically change your progression through the story, and the game is worth playing over and over to see all the different areas, never mind all the secrets to discover.
The graphics are fantastic, with smooth sprite work and amazing looking backgrounds. Character and monster models all look like they were pulled from the DnD player guide and the various areas you visit are unique and memorable. The whole thing really does feel like a living, breathing version of the artwork often seen in DnD companion books, and it draws you in instantly. Animation is similarly impressive, with each character model having its own set of moves which helps to make every enemy and player character feel different from one another. The real treat are the bosses, which are as impressive as they are terrifying, with the game pitting you against the likes of Trolls, Ogres, Dark Elves, Lich Kings, and of course Dragons.
The audio work is similarly praise-worthy, with great music that perfectly fits the mood. Its largely your standard fare of strings and woodwind instruments, not unlike what you’d hear in fantasy titles even today, but it works well and sets the tone nicely. Sound effects are punchy and robust, with every sword swing having some real impact to it and the spells shaking up the entire arena as they boom. Voice work isn’t fantastic, but there’s so little of it in the game that its hardly worth mentioning.
Overall Tower of Doom is a great beat-em-up and incredibly faithful to the source material. It still felt like you were slaying monsters and playing the hero, but you weren’t bogged down with any of the stat-tracking or boring dialogue of an adventure game. What could be better then that?
The sequel, Shadow over Mystara, that’s what. This was a monster of a sequel, the type that completely blows the original away, and probably one of the best DnD games ever made. More items, more characters, more enemies, more stages, more bosses, more everything. SoM is such a massive update that most people would agree it completely outdoes the original in nearly every aspect.
The story of SoM takes place a year after the defeat of the necromancer Deimos. Now Deimos’ boss Synn is trying to take over the Kingdom of Glantri and once again rule the Republic of Darokin. Plus she’s mad as hell at whoever killed her right-hand man, which just happens to be you. The four original heroes, plus a lightning fast Thief and an incredibly powerful Mage, have to go around battling hordes of monsters to ruin Synn’s evil plots. Mostly standard fantasy fluff, but it all kind of works like an 80s cartoon and is enjoyable enough to see through to the end.
Controls are once again mostly standard brawler stuff, but where SoM really sets itself apart are the new special moves and its inventory system. First are the special moves, which players can trigger using the joystick and button combos, an idea straight out of Street Fighter. These include throws, dash attacks, flip kicks, and a variety of other death-dealing dances that look as good as they hurt. The big change was how the player accesses the inventory, which is now handled through radial menus that you can flip between using the jump button. This is a far better way to examine what items, spells, and special abilities you have, and given how much new content the game adds you’ll be in and out of these menus a lot.
As in the first game there’s a loot system where fallen enemies drop precious items that add to your gold pile, which can then be spent on items at the inns. This too was overhauled, and slowly but surely new items or upgrades to existing items are phased in, giving you more options for spending your hard earned gold. There’s also now pieces of armor the player can pick up to add to their defense, as well as a special items slot for truly rare trinkets. The result is that SoM feels even more like a DnD game and offers a lot of reasons to replay it just to see what loot the game throws at you.
Both games are fondly remembered as some of Capcom’s best arcade brawlers, and rightly so. They’re a great combination of RPG style story telling and world building, but with the fast-paced action of a beat-em-up. Shadows of Mystara is clearly the better game though, standing high over its predecessor in nearly every regard. Still, both games are easily available thanks to a re-release in the form of Chronicles of Mystara for PC or last-gen consoles. This pack includes both games, as well as a ton of unlocks you can earn through completing challenges. Capcom might not always be the first name that comes up when talking great DnD games, but these two certified arcade classics are proof of when they got nearly everything perfect. An absolute must for both fans of beat-em-ups, and fans of Dungeons and Dragons, and well worth a play even 20 years later.