I don’t believe I really grew up during the heyday of the arcade, which has always seemed to me to be more in the 1980’s, but arcades did still have a presence when I was young. Still though, arcade culture was something I completely missed out on. Growing up in a fairly rural area, the only nearby machines were the OutRun and MK2 cabinets in the local Pizza Hut. Otherwise, I got most of my experience in this area when I occasionally might happen to visit an arcade during a stop-off on a family trip.
To be honest, I’ve never really gotten arcades. I mean, there are a few arcade staples that I like (I am a huge Sega fan), but overall they’ve never felt as well designed as their home or handheld counterparts. Take beat’em ups for instance. Streets of Rage 2 is one of my favorite Genesis games, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a contender for my favorite XBLA game. But on the arcade side, I’ve always been completely baffled by the popularity of the best arcade beat’em ups (or at least what others hold up as the top-tier). The TMNT and Simpsons brawlers are particularly offensive to me. They sort of crystallize what I feel is wrong with a lot of arcade games: these games aren’t meant to be well-designed challenges, rather, they are meant to push the player’s tolerance limit with cheap and unfair level design just enough so that they can maximize the amount of money extracted from their customers. They are meant to require more luck than skill to avoid having to feed the machine hard earned money to sustain the adventure. This is super frustrating to me, as I enjoy a game that provides a challenge that, while perhaps high in difficulty, is completely conquerable with the right amount of skill and practice. These arcade brawlers make death feel unavoidable, regardless of practice, and ultimately only a test of the depth of one’s pockets.
Enter Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons arcade brawlers, Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara, which were rereleased last year on digital storefronts in the Chronicles of Mystara collection. I’ve seen many arcade experts express admiration for these games, even though they were perhaps not the most widely accessible arcade cabs back in the day. Considering my aversion to these sorts of games, I completely avoided the collection until recently, when a dirt cheap sale online provoked me to give them a shot. Having spent a few hours with the collection, I’m rather happy to report that I don’t find them nearly as bad as the loathsome TMNT and Simpsons games; instead I find they succeed at creating exciting, replayable adventures that don’t feel like hollow cash grabs. I’m not sure I would recommend this collection at full price, seeing as how (for obvious reasons) they can be beaten pretty quickly, but it does feel like a good game for a Steam sale purchase if you can find it for a few bucks.
The Chronicles of Mystara games take place in the somewhat obscure Mystara D&D setting. I don’t have much experience with this setting (or really D&D) but it seems to be a rather straightforward fantasy setting filled with the standard bestiary (e.g., trolls, kobolds, goblins, ogres, etc.) and a simplistic “stop the evil wizard” plot that requires no prior knowledge to follow. Your characters area actually sort of the standard D&D classes: fighter, cleric, elven ranger, etc. For the most part it’s your pretty standard brawler, although it does have a few nice features that stand out. There are a lot of useable items, throwing weapons, and spells that are dropped by enemies, so you have a fair bit of freedom to mix up the gameplay. In addition, as Mystara is a fantasy setting, the enemies tend to be fairly diverse, contrasting with most games of this genre which limit their adversaries to slightly varied street thugs. The monsters, characters, and landscapes are fairly well illustrated. A production of Capcom, the game’s Japanese artists did a good job capturing the feel of western fantasy, deftly avoiding the typical big eyes/small mouth anime-style visual template. The resulting aesthetic is enhanced by the major use of pastel colors to generate an artistic style that is somewhat unique, although not entirely unfamiliar for this type of setting.
What I like most of all about these games is that there is a fairly heavy focus on branching paths and side areas. This gives rise to a fair bit of replayability and, in the context of the arcade, is a much more excellent way of driving repeat business into a machine than just making frequent death unavoidable. The classes are also decently different and likeable enough that you’ll want to experiment with all of them, instead of just lazily sticking to the one you like the looks of the most. Furthermore, the games also seem to be very balanced challenges. Even on the highest difficulty level, I almost never found myself trapped in a situation where I was overwhelmed. If I took damage, then it was because I was not reactive enough and let it happen. And, although it originally took me a fairly large number of credits to get through the games, with repeat playthroughs my credit count started to diminish, and I found myself becoming more adept at battling through enemy hordes.
Chronicles of Mystara has resulted in me lightening my attitudes toward arcade beat’em ups. A good arcade game is definitely fundamentally very different from a good home game. For obvious reasons, arcades just couldn’t deliver the long-form adventures that are found on home gaming machines. Although neither of the Mystara games are especially long, the differing paths you can choose to take with each playthrough give these quests an epic quality that is competitive with the best home adventure games of that era.