A good beat ’em up is hard to find these days. It’s a dying genre–one that struggles to remain relevant the increasingly competitive world of FPSs and fighting games.
Enter Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara, a port of a side-scrolling beat ’em up circa 1993. A cheesy-as-all-hell relic of a bygone age that retains a hefty helping of its original charm, even if it fails to remain viable in the modern day.
The game follows the traiditonal beat ’em up structure: run from left to right and murder just about any damned thing in sight. Where Mystara shines in this regard is in the sheer variety of combat elements available to the player. Basic combos, sliding strikes, holds, blocks, desperation attacks, launchers, backflips, jump dodges, power attacks, advancing strikes and counters are all available to each of the six available classes, which run the gamut from the thief (speed and evasion), the fighter (mobile melee), magic user (obvious, really), cleric (specialty melee), dwarf (strength) and elf (ranged, etc.). The classes feel surprisingly diverse, the thief (which I played exclusively as a child) has a floaty jump and the ability to steal rare items from enemies, giving more possibility from various pieces of equipment, while the dwarf keeps a shield up, dishing out multiple hits per swing to decimate enemies. The game was tough as hell in the arcades, when limited funds kept players on edge. The advent of unlimited play severely reduces this (I saw the end of the game for the first time yesterday. It was just as awful and awesome as I expected), removing a lot of what made the game so tantalizing in the past.
The visuals, while harsh by modern standards, are noticeably colorful, and the environments are perfectly suited to the fantastic elements of the game: each feels right at home in a D&D session: gnome villages, dark castles, frozen stone bridges–all host to a number of creatures familiar to any tabletop player. Expect to see kobolds, goblins, gnolls, owlbears, displacer beasts and gargoyles, to name a few. Everything in the game is a well-constructed beast, never taking itself too seriously and full of enough oddities to prevent the niggling story bits and bad translations from detracting from the overall experience too much.
Where the game starts to fall apart is in the replays. There are more than few branching pathways to encourage replays, but many of the levels are required, and possess little deviance. This isn’t too much of a problem until you’re on your 5th playthrough, but does start to wear on the nerves. There are a lot of items to grab, but many serve similar purposes, though on the plus side there are a lot of powerful hidden items (that I have yet to find more than a few of).
The counter to all this is a fairly extensive list of challenges for players to achieve which give vault points to exchange for concept art and extra game modes.
All in all this is a game that lives in a very nostalgic place. People that played Final Fight or Streets of Rage (or this game, natch) will feel right at home here. This is the paradigm of early 90s pre-fighting arcade goodness, a pristine example of what gaming used to be about: challenge (sort of), focus and, most of all, life. The game retains an odd charm that cannot be denied. Mechanically it won’t appeal to everyone-maybe not even many-but any person who wants a taste of one of the key examples of gaming in the 90s should give a real look.