Dungeons&Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara
Dungeons&Dragons was one of America's geekiest gifts to the world. Somehow, the hobby of hunkering in basements and rolling dice with more side than Vegas ever intended to see how many imaginary monsters they can kill secured footholds in countries all over the world. The rise of medieval fantasy-themed anime owed much to the pen and paper role playing system, and undoubtedly was inspirational to such long-running RPG series as Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. Ironically, the ur-game of the fantasy boom has produced some of the suckiest games in history. And don't get me started on the stupid, meandering, alliterative rip off titles spawned across systems (Might and Magic, Swords and Serpents, so on.)
So, I didn't fire up D&D: SoM expecting much. I mostly snagged it after liking the production art I'd seen in Capcom Design Works. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be pretty good.
You know why it's good? Because it's a Final Fight clone, of all things. I was expecting it to be a Gauntlet clone or something. It's reminiscent of the SNES game King of Dragons, or that one about King Arthur. Mystara also happens to be the SECOND Capcom D&D arcade game; the first was entitled Tower of Doom. Sure, they try to play it up as more of a role-playing experience. You get to name your character (which determines your starting equipment, incidentally) and gather gold/silver pieces while clobbering goblins and crap. As someone who'd played a few sessions of the tabletop version, I was pretty impressed/ashamed at how many semi-obscure creatures that Capcom had stuck in here, notably the Displacer Beast boss in the forest. According to some research, they even randomized damage slightly to simulate the rolling of dice. Thankfully they didn't take it to the extent of a certain popular online game by having you waltz up to an enemy and swing your weapon at point blank range only to have a "THOU HAST MISSED" message slapped in your face.
The playable characters represent a variety of stereotypical races and classes from fantasy proper: A (presumably courageous or some shit) human fighter; a magic-using elf girl; a brooding magician in dark robes with really cool hair; a dwarf; a cleric; and a thief. Each one has different properties; like the fighter's ability to wield any weapon you find, or the mage's ability to fold up like a lawn chair when something hits him. The controls are a little aggravating at first, especially the menu system which is so annoying in and of itself it merits a paragraph break.
I've yet to encounter a game that can make wading through a menu while a battle rages on in real time seem doable. Playing as a spellcaster without a fighter backing you up is annoyingly hard as once you open the menu, your jump button toggles between items/equipment/spells, and naturally you can't attack. Spells are a nice variety of devastating and useless spells. I mean that in the sense that they either blow everything up or do something stupid. Magic Missile launches homing orbs of death that are at least good for a knockdown; Invisibility does... nothing. Final Strike can kill bosses in one shot; Polymorph Other does jack shit unless you cast it on something wimpy at point blank range. And so on.
Another, more positive part of SoM lies in the story branches. There are dozens of ways to play though the game, varying on choices you make or who happens to be in the party at the time. The plot might not exactly be of Final Fantasy proportions, but it works, and hell- it's an arcade game. Who's going to stand in front of this game for more than forty hours? Anyone who said 'me,' congratulations; the men in white are en route to your basement right now, and neither your cardboard DM shield or your fencing club ribbons are going to help much where you're going.
It'd be good to see the D&D fighters re-released to Game Boy Advance or something since they have definite replay value and can eat up a good chunk of commuting time. I have my doubts about the original arcade incarnation; it seems risky enough socially to be playing a D&D game in an arcade two machines down from Tekken 4 without taking into account the game lasting at least an hour. Of course, the odds of a Capcom D&D revival are about as good as them bringing back Mega Man Legends or a new Guardian Legend title seeing release.
Many, many kobolds were harmed in the making of this review.