There was this arcade/mini-golf/go-cart establishment I used to live by in South Florida named Boomers. I don’t know if they’re still around, but whether or not they’re flourishing or languishing is neither here nor there for the purposes of this story. What is important is a little something they called “Ten Buck Tuesday.” For 10 dollars, you could get into the arcade on Tuesdays and they would have everything switched to free play.
So for my friends and I, the month that we spent hitting Boomers every Tuesday led to the demolishing of every game on their floor. And every Tuesday, because we were huge DnD nerds, started with Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara. Being able to choose your class meant we could basically emulate our standard gaming party, and it’s random loot meant that it wasn’t the same experience every time.
Iron Galaxy Studios scratched a serious nostalgia itch like it was a Nu’s secret scratch point when they announced they would giving their arcade port treatment to Shadows as well as it’s older, slighty uglier brother Tower of Doom. Combined into one pack called the Chronicles of Mystara, it stays faithful to the things that made these arcade games classics, both the good and the bad, all while delivering goodies like online play, concept art, and some game changing “house rules.”
Originally released in 1993 (Tower) and 1996 (Shadows), the two games were quite a bit more technical then your average arcade beat’em up, requiring team work and a smart use of spells, ranged, and melee attacks to be successful in fights against some classic DnD Monsters. Some, like the Displacer Beast, had some very specific attack patterns that could be easily countered, while others, like the multi-eyed Beholder, was almost a brute-force crap shoot, as the variety and deadliness of his eye beams could strike at a moments notice, rendering you asleep, hurt, or even petrified.
What I would call the true draw of these games, though, even beyond the epic battles with some classic enemies, was the random loot and hidden secrets. Random magic weapon drops would completely change the battle field, and collected gold could be spent on projectiles and healing potions in shops in between certain levels. Certain items would come to bear the name of your character if you beat the game with them (I’ll save you all the story of the most epic Sword of BAT), and if you had enough people, with enough collective experience, and a special magic staff, you could perform Final Strike in the last battle, Shadow‘s version of the “ultimate” magic spell.
In fact, using GGPO netcode, the online experience is almost easier then playing locally with friends. While I find the latter, especially with nostalgia games like this, to be the best experience, joining a game in progress or creating one of your own is painless and lag free.
That’s not to say that everything was without flaw though. This is a quite faithful port, and not a re-imagining, so various annoyances carry over from the arcade version in full form. Battles stop on a dime the moment any magic spell is cast, and fighting while loot is on the ground can be a deadly back and forth, since the same button to pick up loot is also your melee attack. This is especially annoying in fights where striking on the move is key, and more then once I was left to choose the continue option when I became corner locked between a few pieces of copper and sword wielding shadow elf.
In addition to the two arcade games, Iron Galaxy provides what has become standard accoutrements in their arcade releases. A character screen tracks numbers like monsters killed and which classes you have spent the most time playing, and a separate treasure screen for each game helps completionists keep on eye on what loot they’ve collected. Challenges have been added to the game, popping up progress markers in the margins while you play. In reward to completing challenge tiers, vault points are awarded, which lead to unlocks like concept art and the aforementioned house rules.
As one of the non-core additions to the pack, the concept art is great for people who appreciate fantasy-style art and line drawings, as well as those with an interest in the early box/cabinet art and advertisements. It’s not all period appropriate, as a lot of the art, especially anything labeled Drow or Dragon, comes from DnD 3rd edition and later. It’s not a huge sticking point, especially for those that don’t have the kind of history for it that I do, but the detail differences between the style presented in game and the drawings in the vault is significant.
The house rules prove to be a game changing edition, both in the literal and figurative sense. Costing the most vault points all around, things like getting health when you melee attack, or increasing the amount of gold and treasure dropping make repeated play-throughs incredible fun and allow for a experimentation with all the different weapons and magic items you might not have gotten a lot of use from your first time through.
I really couldn’t be any happier with this release. While the purist in me would like to have seen some concept art closer to what was used in game, simply having something so steeped in the lore and history of a game so close to my heart quickly quiets those objections. It’s great fun, a hell of a time, and an excellent way to hold on to a true classic of the arcade circuit.