[2 July 2013]
Capcom and Iron Galaxy have certainly found a rhythm when it comes to re-releasing Capcom’s classic (and even some of their not-so-classic), retro properties. If you played last month’s Darkstalkers Resurrection, the presentation of Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara will be immediately familiar. A perfect representation of the original game exists in the center of the screen. A constant stream of sub-tasks floats to the left. On the right? An appropriate and unobtrusive border texture. The game keeps track of any stat you could ever want. How many treasures you picked up, how many credits it took you to win, and which of the selectable fighters you used the most are among the most interesting. It has online multiplayer for up to four cooperative combatants.
It has a visual display that offers up a virtual arcade cabinet, complete with angled screen and scanlines. It allows you to set up “house rules”, in case you have any complaints about the original game. You don’t like that equipment breaks so easily? Set it up so that your favorite snazzy little helmet pick-up never breaks!
What’s so effective about this approach to retro games is that it offers bells and whistles to a gaming populace with shiny-thing syndrome. Retro brawler/hack ‘n slashers are a hard sell. It’s a genre that hasn’t aged well. Constant and unflagging repetition is a part of the genre’s very nature, thanks to the limited skill-sets of the player avatars, and while a smart player will learn tricks and secrets that help on the way to playing better, actual honest-to-goodness technique tends to be sacrificed in favor of eye-pleasingly large sprites and limited special attacks. Playing a retro game removes the wow-factor of the visuals, so all you’re left with the gameplay.
And really, while the bells and whistles that Iron Galaxy has added are nice (and I can’t imagine what else they could have thrown in here to make the experience better), the truth is that there’s very little in a game like this to draw in a player who is coming to it from a place of never having played it before. When the softening touch of nostalgia is absent, when you have none of the pleasant memories of chaotic arcades or experiences with friends, the game needs to speak for itself. Both of the games included in this collection have a very difficult time doing so.
Tower of Doom, the 20-year-old elder of the two, understandably has the rougher edges.
Tower of Doom is essentially the prototypical brawler with a few nifty tweaks to set it apart from its contemporaries. The player gets to choose from four characters—essentially, the set of fantasy tropes that Gauntlet had established years before—each of whom have their own strengths and weaknesses. The Fighter and the Dwarf are variations on the dumb jock (big and strong, but not smart enough to have figured out how to cast a single spell), while the Elf is your typical magic user, weak with the sword but with the ability to cast nifty spells to mitigate her lack of physical punch. The Cleric is the most interesting of the characters, if the toughest to get used to. Most of the magic that the Cleric has access to is in the form of buffs, and while his attack isn’t much more impressive than that of the Elf, he knows how to use a shield.
The player is given lots of potential moves and attacks, and most players will develop a rhythm with one of the character types and stick with that character. There are a few branching paths to traverse as well, the most humorous of which leads to a giant red dragon—but only after you assure an NPC that you’re really, really sure that fighting that dragon is what you want to do.
Despite the credits required, a player back in ‘93 might have gone ahead with offing that dragon. The mere sight of it, all huge head and hand sprites, may have been enough to lure players into what is essentially a deathtrap.
Really, Tower of Doom makes the most sense as a jumping off point for Shadows Over Mystara, which has enough bells and whistles to make you forget that you’re playing a brawler at all. There are six characters to choose from here: the four from Tower of Doom, plus a second magic user (yay!), and a remarkably agile thief, whose specialty is the jump-on-their-back-and-stab-‘em-to-death move. That one never gets old.
In addition to the new characters, though, there are more divergent paths. There is a level-based magic system, there are character variants that actually change the abilities of the characters involved, and there are variant endings based on how well you played the earlier levels. There are more special attacks, there are secrets and treasures to find, and there’s a signature Capcom quarter-circle move that allows for quick pickup of all the goodies that are bound to be strewn along the ground. The Dwarf can open treasure chests twice—wrap your head around the possibilities inherent in that little trick alone. Magic users can equip staffs to make them more effective in combat. The cleric remains underpowered but can heal and strengthen himself at key times. There are “desperation” attacks, special moves that clear the area, but that cost a little bit of health. There is so much variance in the gameplay, that it actually pulls off the trick of making the player feel like it is a role-playing experience despite the constant brawling action.
Far moreso than Tower of Doom, it’s easy to see why there’s an audience with some very fond memories of this game. Shadows Over Mystara was ahead of its time, an innovator in a time before “role-playing elements” was something publishers put on boxes.
Still—even with bells and whistles, even with the constant satisfaction of the task feed crawling up the left side of the screen and the oh-so-familiar achievement “ding” making its occasional appearance and even with the clarity to see what made a game like this great, it’s easy to wonder: why would I play this instead of, say, Dragon Age, which offers a shockingly similar, yet far, far deeper experience, which I can get for a pretty comparable price at this point? Why would I subject myself to the limitations of the past when I can dive into the splendor of the present?
The only answer is, yes, nostalgia. For those who have it for these games, Capcom and Iron Galaxy have done a splendid job of re-releasing them for the modern consoles. For those who don’t, all the bells and whistles in the world might not be enough.