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.
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.
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.
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.