Retro history teaches us that it must not be easy to create a fun and hugely replayable side-scrolling beat-'em-up. The genre is riddled with pitfalls, including repetitive gameplay, tedium and dull button-bashing controls. For every gem like Streets of Rage 2 there has been an abundance of mediocre games, such as Rival Turf!, Ninja Combat and Riot Zone. Few companies mastered the art of this troublesome genre in the 1990s — SEGA springs to mind, as well as Konami — but Capcom in particular became a prolific 2D brawler connoisseur, through dogged determination and impressive talent. Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara represents a video game developer at the top of its game and it has sliced its way into being amongst the very best hack-and-slash titles available today.
This has been achieved through tender loving care, firstly by the sterling work of Capcom's developers on the original two coin-ops and secondly from the respect lavished by Iron Galaxy Studios on this HD re-release. They are both technically accomplished 2D games for their time, the first game Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom was one of the earliest releases on the CP-System II hardware in 1993 — its genre brethren Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and The Punisher were only CP-System Dash games in the same year. The superior looking second game, Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara, was released in 1996 and the Japanese SEGA Saturn was lucky to receive a collection of the two cult classics.
Both games share fantastically drawn and well animated sprite design, with Shadow over Mystara having slightly smaller main characters, but a finer sense of detail. Wonderfully diverse locations in each title convey a range of colourful environments, following the quest through Dragon Swamps to soaring sky-ships. Your voyage takes you from set-piece juggernaut joyride moments, or river rapids riding a timber raft, to dank treasure-laden caves. The first game even reflects the background hues to alter the colour of your hero's armour and selected stages in the sequel have sunset draped day-to-night cycles. Boss battles demonstrate intricate character pixel design, with a number of these encounters, like the Red Dragon, filling most of the screen.
Shadow over Mystara in particular becomes more technically accomplished the further you travel, with CP-System II flexing its muscles as a spiral staircase background rotates during a Tel' Arin Shadow Elf boss fight, which runs up to the final gateway of Synn's air castle. Iron Galaxy has also treated retro gamers to a multitude of screen settings, including a crisp or smooth filter, wide screen, scan lines and an Arcade Cabinet view. It is indicative of the quality of the visuals that both games arguably look strongest in 4:3 aspect ratio without filters, showcasing their original pixel-flaunting finesse. The audio is similarly atmospheric, with rousing fantasy themes and crunching sound effects. Enemies emit pained yelps when struck, creatures like Manticore howl upon entrance and the voice of each hero shrieks their battle cries.
At their core both games have an accessible four button control method, covering attacks and jumps, as well as for selecting and using items in your inventory. However, such a deceptively simple control system hides a myriad of manoeuvres for the player to discover, with Shadow over Mystara expanding upon the template set in Tower of Doom by taking inspiration from Street Fighter II. Therefore, like in Final Fight 3, a "Hadoken" D-pad input sees the Thief unleash a crescent slash and the Dwarf has a slicing chopper attack using a similar command to Guile's Flash Kick. Also like in Final Fight, if you press attack and jump together simultaneously you release a desperate attack, which depletes a small portion of your health meter.
It is advisable to play Tower of Doom first as an introduction to the game mechanics, as both games share similar DNA, yet the earlier game still has fundamental moves to master. Tower of Doom has its share of control intricacies, including a crouch attack, shield block and a floor slide to dodge enemies, which also picks up treasure. However, double-tapping on the D-pad to dash feels stiffer in the first game, as does waggling the pad to break free of a 'hold' trap, as the sequel's faster controls feel more fluid and responsive.
Similarly, starting with Tower of Doom is an informative preface to the fundamental gameplay dynamics, especially as there are only four character classes to learn in the original. This allows you time to become accustomed to the Dwarf's powerful mêlée strikes, or the all-round dual wielding Fighter, as well as a short-range attacking nimble Elf and a Cleric who has the unique ability to instantly destroy skeletons and ghouls with a Turning Undead spell. Once you are proficient at the 1993 game you will feel ready to progress onto mastering Shadow over Mystara's extra two characters, with an acrobatic Thief who can pick treasure locks and detect traps, plus a weak Magic-User with low hit-points, who becomes massively powerful when levelled-up.
There is a great deal of depth to the gameplay, as it weaves a 'rock, paper, scissors' set of complexities into how your character's quirks and behaviours interact with inventory weapons, or spells. You must apply different tactics to break the defences of an enemy — for instance, a Gargoyle's thick skin is only weakened by magic and the sequel's flame salamander in stage 9-A's Land of Fire is naturally more vulnerable to a frost blade. You can receive tips by reading signposts, which highlight how you should only attack the Displacer Beast boss that is casting a shadow. An RPG levelling-up system makes grunt Gnolls, Kobolds and Hellhounds fall more easily, plus Forgotten Worlds-style shops allow you to stock up on daggers, hammers, arrows, oil and health potions.
Capcom dabbled in legend and portrayed fantasy settings in early 1990's arcade games like Magic Sword, The King of Dragons and Knights of the Round, but never with the sense of devotion poured into its Dungeons & Dragons games. There are parallels between the adventures in both titles, but they are equally successful at conveying a journey from a quiet town and village to the lair of malevolent evil, whether it is the Sable Tower housing Deimos, or Synn the sorceress in her air castle. Capcom's dedication to the table-top source material was described by Alex Jimenex in a Nintendo Life The Making of Dungeons & Dragons feature, where he explained the importance of authenticity when representing the rich world of this license, which was explored through character classes and the inventory system in the video games.
It takes just over an hour and thirty minutes to defeat Synn at the end of chapter seven in Shadow over Mystara, but Tower of Doom is slightly shorter, with nine chapters that include a final Deimos boss battle. Each chapter can be selected individually if you want to dip into a later stage and both games are not easy titles, but with unlimited continues the onus is on the player to take responsibility for creating their own personal challenge by selecting one of four difficulty preferences. However, each game is irresistibly replayable, with huge amounts of content hidden in branching paths through multi-part stages that range in difficulty, secret doorways concealing rare items and four different endings per character. Therefore, a repeated play often offers a route to a new treasure to discover, some of which have a valuable impact on gameplay, like discovering the Dragon Slayer sword to battle Synn.
The amount of depth in these titles is stunning for a 1990s arcade game. Tower of the Doom was one of the earliest coin-ops to allow gamers to earn XP in 1993, and although your levelled-up character resets when you start a new game, this maintains the RPG balance of the arcade original. However, Iron Galaxy has included an overall player levelling-up system that is persistent, with online ranking boards based on Silver Pieces (SP) and XP, plus tiered challenges that unlock trophies and encourage you to boost you overall level. These challenges are gameplay specific and earn you Vault Points (VP), which is a reward system where you purchase new gameplay modes. The most attractive modes are called House Rules and include a brilliant time attack session named Enemy Rush, where each strike on an enemy adds time to an ever-decreasing thirty second clock, and Elimination Mode, in which you see how long you can survive when confined to a single credit.
A well implemented four-player local and online multiplayer option will tempt you to repeat a number of completion attempts of each title, and a sturdy Good Game Peace Out (GGPO) drop-in/drop-out online infrastructure minimises lag, so any slowdown can be attributed to a rickety Internet connection. Capcom built these games around four-player co-operative teamwork, so protecting a player who is dizzy feels natural. However, just as in the arcade days, you can't dissuade a stranger from slowing the pace of the game by spamming spell attacks in the way that you would request for a friend to mix up magic with mêlée hits. Similarly, you can't stop gamers in a hurry from skipping story dialogue.
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara can stand proudly beside Capcom's Final Fight: Double Impact, plus Konami's The Simpsons Arcade Game and X-MEN Arcade, as one of the highest quality pure-retro brawlers on PlayStation Network. SEGA, if you are listening, Capcom and Konami are setting the standard for this genre; it is high time you converted Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder.
Regardless of whether you describe it as hack-and-slash, a 2D beat-'em-up, or a side-scrolling brawler, as a two game compilation Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is the retro crème de la crème of this arcade genre on PlayStation Network. Capcom established themselves as masters at style of game in the mid-1990s and by applying CP-System II technology they ensured that arcades excelled above consoles in the genre. Tower of Doom provides an accomplished template of Capcom's progress in 1993, but it is Shadow over Mystara from 1996 that feels like the pinnacle of their beat-'em-up virtuosity. It has taken until 2013 for these titles to reach a larger audience through online stores like PlayStation Network, so it is modern gamers who reap the benefits of a HD sheen and GGPO four-player online functionality. Iron Galaxy has polished both titles to a contemporary shine. In simple terms, Chronicles of Mystara is the best of the best.