Adapt And Die

Dungeons & Dragons

Unfaithful Guide

Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons arcade games are a terrible version of their namesake, and that’s okay.

By Anthony John Agnello • May 14, 2013

Adapt And Die is an ongoing look at how works of film, television, and literature have been distorted in lousy games (except this time, the adaptation is lousy but the games are great).

Dungeons & Dragons: Tower Of Doom/Shadow Over Mystara (1993/1996)

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the dungeon master—also known as the all-knowing entity sitting behind the crinkled-up screen that reeks of Pall Mall smoke—is the lifeblood of the game. The dungeon master tells you where you’re wandering, what you’re doing there, and who the imaginary people surrounding your party on some dusty trail are. Mystara, the setting of many a D&D adventure written back in the 1980s, is only as real as the person running your game can make it. Their job is to put you in ridiculous situations where you punch things called Owlbears—bears with talons and owl faces, obviously—and also to force your imagination to be limber. Sometimes all an Owlbear really wants is to be scratched behind the ears or to share that bag of Twizzlers you’ve got in your pocket; you just need to roll the dice to find out.

Yet punching things and yelling are the only solutions to conflict in Capcom’s D&D campaigns, Dungeons & Dragons: Tower Of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara. These mid-’90s arcade games toss out the storytelling modes of tabletop role-playing and replace them with one of Capcom’s patented recipes of the era: The beat-’em-up. Much like Final Fight and Knights Of The Round, Capcom’s D&D games offer a standard experience to those players who drop a quarter in the slot: You select a colorful, animated elf or a sorcerer, and then walk from left to right punching colorful, animated monsters who have the temerity to walk in the opposite direction. Creative thinking and adaptation are not required here—just ample pocket change and the ability to press buttons.

Dungeons & Dragons

Capcom did keep plenty of the obligatory trimmings that a dungeon master would have peppered into a Mystara campaign. Many monsters familiar to D&D players—from goblins to the big bag of eyes and teeth known as Beholders—show up along the way. And unlike Final Fight and its ilk, Tower Of Doom and Shadow demand some degree of strategy. You pick up armor from treasure chests, and your crew of “adventurers” gains experience—the old role-playing rule of growing stronger as you kill monsters. The story even branches at points. Depending on whether or not you manage to kill some purple elf soldier or which way you direct a raft on a speeding river, you may end up in one of a few different levels.

But overall, careful strategy and resource management are about as useful as a broken thumb in Capcom’s vision of Dungeons & Dragons. Even if you keep each character’s limited supply of special skills and spells in reserve for big boss fights, the game is still built to kill you as quickly as possible. Sometimes you’ll die, get back up, and immediately die again. That’s how games worked when they were made to eat quarters.

Dungeons & Dragons

Given this wallet-lightening design, it might seem that Shadow Over Mystara and Tower Of Doom aren’t worth the investment of time or cash. But while these games fail as adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons, they are among the best brawlers Capcom ever made. Probably the biggest lesson learned from D&D creator Gary Gygax’s old fantasies is that it behooves players to build a diverse cast of heroes. Character customization wasn’t an option in Capcom’s arcade games, but Mystara and Doom do offer a wide selection of characters whose unique skills complement each other in combat.

Other punching-kicking games that were inspired in part by Dungeons & Dragons, like Golden Axe, had offered a somewhat similar range of characters before Capcom tried its hand at the material, but never to the same extent. Capcom’s green-skirted elf, for example, can shoot infinite arrows and has a selection of weak spells like magic missile. Even if her magic skills aren’t as strong or as numerous as the proper magic-user (who looks like Gandalf with a Hot Topic makeover), she’s a good complement to him, especially if you add in a burly warrior like the Dwarf. This is all basic stuff, and it doesn’t make for deep tactical nuance—that screen-filling dragon is still going to smoke the whole team no matter how many different skills they have—but it’s a sight more engaging than the red-meat logic of Final Fight. The D&D beat-’em-ups take a format that’s fun on a surface level and add a touch of depth.

Dungeons & Dragons

Both games are also beautiful, full of the primary-color cartoon art that was the trademark of Capcom’s old CPS-2 arcade machines. From the 1970s through to the 1990s, the bulk of Dungeon & Dragons pop culture tie-ins (notwithstanding the lame Saturday morning cartoon and the surreal Jeremy Irons movie) hewed close to a pulp fantasy look, as embodied in the work of artists like Jeff Easley. The promotional art for Shadow Over Mystara may have looked a hell of a lot like a regular D&D cover, but the game’s aesthetic has more in common with the clean, thick manga style of Shotaro Ishinomori.

And because Tower Of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara have such pretty faces, they manage to spark the imagination. By their very nature, video games are a closed path. No matter how open their worlds are, video games are beholden to their code; you’ll never have the unconditional freedom you do in a game of the mind like Dungeons & Dragons, where the dungeon master can improvise. Tower and Shadow imply a grand world around you, inviting the player to fill in the blanks. Capcom sets you down a single path but hides the boundaries beneath such vivid artistry that you don’t notice them. That’s an impressive task for even the best dungeon master.

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  • Spacemonkey Mafia

      Tower of Doom and Shadows over Mystara are awesome.  And more so, good for D&D video games. 
       Until these showed up in arcades, my main experience with D&D video games were SSI’s ‘Gold Box’ series of rpg’s and much to my perpetual sadness, whatever half-formed NES monstrosity that occasionally crawled out of the licensing swamp to feed on the tears of disappointed children.
       The Gold Box series was both accurate to the system and reliably fun to play.  Making characters was a satisfying enough process that it alone could be an afternoon’s entertainment.   But it was not a kinetic game.  It was visually pretty limited and the tile system relegated monsters to squashed angles and spell effects to a patterned overlay.
       To see the arcade game in comparison, with familiar character classes given heroic scale and detailed realizations, trips an intensely satisfying response.  And while combat is always a central part to any D&D campaign, it is long, fussy and requires a capacity for math.  An encounter may take six hours to resolve, that in-game lasts all of eight minutes.
       On screen, it became tactile and punishingly fast.  The games were not simply a cheap brawler cash-in.  The monsters, abilities and spells were layered and almost all originated from the books.  Fantasy is a common enough template for video games; it’s not like one would have to search long to find an axe-wielding orc in an arcade, but D&D is iconic enough that there was a lot of satisfaction in seeing all those recognizable spell names animated with such furious energy on screen.
       To use a recent comparison, I’d liken it to the Abram’s Star Trek compared to the series.  Flashier, dumber and quicker.  But also visceral and engaging.  A good compliment to the tabletop, not a replacement.
       It would be a few more years after Mystara that Baldur’s Gate would release and re-energize D&D rpg’s.  I’d argue it was a pretty great placeholder. 

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

      Video games always created an unrealistic expectation of what D&D combat was like for new players. A cleric can only heal once per day. Even a naked goblin can decimate you. You’re going to earn experience very slowly.
       
      My best D&D experiences were always in the role-playing. You couldn’t replicate that with a video game. As a DM, I tried to create scenarios where players could outwit or pacify a monster.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        Well, sure.  Same with translating a book to film; it works best if you emphasize the strengths of the medium you’re adapting to.
           And of course the strength of a table-top game is the free-form shared narrative that’s still impossible with video games.  A good DM will allow multiple ways to solve a problem, though it should be said, combat can still be the most satisfying option.
           Also, just never start a campaign below fourth level.  Even the narrative aspects of the game are difficult to weave when your characters can’t do anything of more heroic magnitude than clean out a woman’s root cellar of some belligerent sentient potatoes.
           Or burdock root if you’re running an eastern campaign.

      • Halloween_Jack

        I’ve always thought that veteran RPG players created an unrealistic expectation of what D&D combat was like for new players; at least, that was my experience, with the vets talking up the roleplaying but inadequately explaining the game rules beforehand. 

    • Boonehams

      I remember playing ‘Tower of Doom’ with a friend and we took some path where we had a boss fight with a troll.  After the fight was over, the troll got back up and some cutscene started where some person just drops some fire bombs on it and it drops down dead. The mysterious stranger then says that trolls regenerate and you can only kill them with fire. My friend and I both said, almost in unison, “They did their homework.”

    • madattorney

      This is definitely one of my absolute faves.  I usually reserved a $5 bill just for this game back in the day, to sit there as the magic user until I ran out of spells, die, then repeat.

  • The_Helmaroc_King

    I still say the 1994 arcade game Alien vs. Predator is my favorite of Capcom’s licensed beat-’em-ups, which should not be mistaken for Capcom’s licensed platformers. They’re small, but illustrious genres.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      I don’t even like the property, but it’s an impressive title.  That said, I think Battle Circuit is the greatest beat-’em-up, period.  http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/finalfightclones/finalfightclones4.htm MAYBE http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/nbbbm/nbbbm.htm or http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/kunio/kunio2.htm .  I think Konami had more solid ones, but Capcom innovated and still delivered high quality.

      Both Alien Versus Predator and Battle Circuit are wild and (unlike Dungeons And Dragons) are skill-based, so everyone should have at least watched a playthrough.  They’re legitimately fun to watch.

      • Destroy Him My Robots

        I am shocked at the lack of a The King of Dragons mention, if only because of Shimomura’s involvement.

        Can you tell me how long Riki Densetsu is, roughly speaking? I’ve got a lot on my plate, but if it’s not too long I could make time for a new Kunio-kun, I guess.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

          You know me too well!  You know, I’m looking at her credits, and that might actually be my least favorite except for Adventures In The Magic Kingdom.  It’s still good, but that’s because it’s Shimomura.

          Oh, gosh, it’s too short.  It actually has more packed in than I thought, which makes it less of an adventure game (like the Super Famicom versions) and more like a hardcore action game.  The length itself is probably no longer than similar handheld titles, as you’d expect.  So, it’s actually well-designed for your short-burst needs.  Let me know how you like it!  It got criminally low attention after the initial trailer release.

  • CNightwing

    I don’t think it used the D&D licence explicitly, but Capcom also made the excellent Quiz and Dragons. It’s aged like most quiz games, in that you’ll be asked about something about 1980s television or music, but it’s still perfectly playable.

    It basically played as a typical D&D campaign of the time, you journeyed through different geographically-themed regions and fought monsters, sometimes finding an Inn or a friendly elf, and then defeating the dragon at the end. Eventually you fought the evil Gordian, something something knot pun! Every monster, no matter how strong or deadly, would insist on challenging you to a game of questions, with an implicit agreement that if you were wrong it got to smack you in the face. The game did away with any pretence that the game had a story though, with each event being a random encounter on a linear(ish) board (something that would make certain D&D games I’ve played more tolerable to be honest).Your character class had an effect on the game, I remember the Ninja sometimes did double damage, the Amazon and Wizard could sometimes choose a topic for questions or only have three answers to choose from, but I forget which way around. The Warrior sometimes healed, I think? It’s been a while since I played it on a friend’s arcade machine. With infinite credits, an afternoon finding the Seed of Wisdom was well spent indeed!

    • Joel Araujo

      You can still play Quiz and Dragons. It’s included in Capcom Collection II for the PS2.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      Nice pull.  Plus, I think she showed up in Namco X Capcom, and a similar followup game is actually being released here, I think!

      • http://tmaiblog.wordpress.com/ Chalkdust

         It is!  Project X Zone.  Dat roster!

  • http://twitter.com/vowelsagogo Kilzor

    But how do these games rate on the universally recognized scale of Is It Better Than The X-Men Aracade Game?  On this scale “0″ is not at all better than the X-Men arcade game and “10″ is almost as good as the X-Men arcade game.  Hopefully we’ll use this scoring system for all future arcade discussions.

    • Shadow_play

      Personally I like it better than the X-Men arcade game, but that’s because my tastes have always skewed more to D&D Fantasy than Super-hero fantasy. But, I know the awesomeness of the X-Men game so I am not going to deny it. I’ll go with 10 and say they are about as good as each other.

    • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

      On a scale of Street Fighter 1 to The Simpsons, I give this a Mighty Final Fight.

      • Xyvir

        I know Gameological is against the number, but as a replacement I wouldn’t mind seeing more satirical ‘scores’ like this to cap off a game review. That way I can buy new games confidently knowing that Gameological endorsed? them.

    • boardgameguy

      i wholly agree with using the x-men arcade game as the scale, but it makes me wonder what the simpson’s arcade game scores. i’d say about an 8.

    • Juan_Carlo

      X-Men the Arcade game is one of the worst beat em ups ever made.  The enemies are incredibly repetitive, the game play is cheap (and often incredibly un-fair, like many boss attacks are impossible to avoid and on the last level you fight every single boss again, all in a row), and there’s minimal opportunity for strategy just because you have so few possible moves.  The only thing it had going for it was the novelty of playing with 4-6 people all at once.

      I used to love that game as a kid, too, but that’s only because I never had enough money to make it past the second level.  The rise of emulators kind of ruined the nostalgia for alot of those older arcade games entirely just because when money is no longer an option you kind of realize how shitty they actually were.  Some are solid games and stand the test of time (and most of Capcom’s beat em ups were really good. I’ve played through “Aliens vs Predator” several times on emulators just because it’s a really fun game).  But X-Men really didn’t have much going for it gameplay wise beyond its licence.

  • Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle

    The middle screenshot holds so many delights. The first ever depiction of the 3rd Street Saints, the guy on the far left getting a mouthful of cape, a blonde viking biker in sunglasses vomiting ball lightning, and what very well may be the first ever video game depiction of a monster in drag (with bonus purple toenails).

    Also, that transbeastite appears to be holding one mother of a fudgesicle.

    • Xyvir

      Gameological should hire your to write descriptive captions for the text-only, deaf-accessible version of the site. 

      • Stl_Bob

        Someone should really tap into that niche in the video game market.

  • duwease

    “Purple elf” is one cunningly designed nerd trap.  Kudos, Agnello.. kudos.

    • CNightwing

      I am Brutalitops.. the Magician!

  • The Archmage of the Aether

    Sigh….. it was a lame Saturday morning cartoon, wasn’t it. I was pretty high though the 80s, I wasn’t myself…. to be frank, i have NO idea where any of my red robes are anymore… did i burn them? Did i leave them on set? Was that a miscarriage i suffered, or was that my kidney? So many mysteries out of the former Yugoslavia.

    • Shadow_play

      It wasn’t lame when I was 8. But each year increased the lameness.

      • Grimbus

        It employed Willie Aames AND Donny Most for at least two years. 

        DONNY MOST, ladies and gentlemen.
        It can never be lame.

        • Effigy_Power

          I seem to remember his name as Donny Host.
          (Now let’s see if Arrested Development quotes are as much of a like-mine here as they are over at the AVC.)

        • Spacemonkey Mafia

          Here you go, @Effigy_Power:disqus .  I can’t just leave you hanging like that.

    • Baulderstone

      Huh. I’ve never heard being high through a particular era used as an excuse to NOT be aware of its cartoons. 

    • djsubversive

      Do you get notifications whenever dungeons and/or dragons are mentioned? :)

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        His Orb of Scrying pings.

    • Vonotar the Waiter

      It wasn’t lame. Have you seen the other cartoons that were on at the time? As far as plotting, characterization, art, and voice work were concerned, it still holds up pretty well, and it was a gem given the era it came out of.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      Are you also responsible for the toy branding from that same period?  Because Melf the Elf?  He could adventure alongside R. Crumb’s Schuman the Human.

      • CNightwing

        I cast Acid Arrow at the naysayer.

    • Effigy_Power

      You really have a nose for finding these articles, but nothing that can’t be cured with some chain lightning.

      • The Archmage of the Aether

         I miss your Chain Lightnings, @Effigy_Power:disqus; for a while, indirectly, they were keeping me grounded. You might be shocked to hear that, but ion gonna cover up no more.

        • Effigy_Power

          Back to puns in a flash, huh? That may keep AVC threads athunder, but in order to boom here, you require to strike the target a bit more directly.

          Something something zap.

  • http://www.facebook.com/justin.finkbeiner.7 Justin Finkbeiner

    It wasn’t mentioned in the article, but everyone who’s posting in this article does know that these two games are coming to XBLA/PSN/Steam in June right?

    • Boonehams

      I thought that’s why they posted this article.  Am I mistaken?

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

      Well, I do now!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-John-Agnello/1362601810 Anthony John Agnello

      And Wii U to boot! This article started gestating before that, though, as Mr. Drew Toal and I are unreasonably obsessed with these two games.

    • TaumpyTearrs

      And Dragon’s Crown comes out in August, which is a total throwback to this type of beat’em up-rpg complete with experience and branching pathways!

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        Other than the comically-breasted Sorceress, I’m quite looking forward to Dragon’s Crown.

        • George_Liquor

          Just Googled that sorceress and–wow, jeez! Comin’ at ya!

        • Citric

          Did the naked beard guys make it in? I’m asking for a friend…

  • Halloween_Jack

    No one’s mentioned Gauntlet? Because, back in the eighties, I used to play the everloving shit out of Gauntlet, not least of which because I could (and did) play for hours on a single quarter, which became a lot easier once you figured out that you could (at least on most machines–this may have been toggleable by the cabinet owner) wait for about three minutes and all the walls would turn into exits, after which you could either take out the monsters by shooting across the exit-walls or ditch the level if it had the fireball-spewing demons that could shoot back. Great for a starving college student whose entertainment budget was approximately zero.