Get off my screen!
You know that moment when you've only got one baddie left and you just keep pounding on him until only his lifeless, fading legs are visible at the edge of your screen? Old-school arcade beat-'em-ups always tested your ability to manage the hordes of enemies thrown your way, be they street thugs, gangsters, hoodlums, kids with bad attitudes, henchmen, or sexually ambiguous pink-haired goons. Despite my fondness for the genre, from The Simpsons to Spider-Man, I never got my hands on these Dungeons & Dragons-themed brawlers from Capcom.
D&D: Chronicles of Mystara combines Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara in one downloadable package, bringing the original arcade games to console with full four-player co-op, added visual filters, and a handful of modern additions to the formula. Still, I was reluctant to dive right in without a reality check. In modern gaming, quarter-sucking beat-'em-ups have become so niche and archaic that I'm reluctant to recommend a buy based on nostalgia alone.
Chronicles of Mystara is no threadbare port, though. As with Capcom's HD fighting game remasters, added challenges and objectives are tracked in leftover space on each side of the screen. Even playing with two or three friends, you can get live updates on your character progression with every monster punched in the nads and every treasure box opened. This is an undeniably cool update to the genre, bringing over-arching metagoals normally reserved for fierce online competition into the classic space with immediate effect. I went out of my way to use more of my special combos and secondary items, just for the sake of unlocking goodies in the main menu. Still, Chronicles has a dogged focus on bringing the original gameplay to you unimpeded by modern design tropes.
For better or for worse, enemies, bosses, and heroes are all balanced towards bleeding the arcade gamer of his or her silver, even if you're sitting at home in your favorite pair of D&D boxers. We know you roll d20s all day, son, but be prepared to die repeated and unnecessary deaths. Some might call this devotion to arcade play a "feature," but all I felt was frustrated.
Chronicles stumbles in this way for two primary reasons. First, Xbox 360s don't have slots for quarters and Capcom is charging gamers a flat rate. Throwing the gauntlet down and punishing you with over-powered bosses means nothing when you can jam on the start button and continue right where your corpse left off. It removes any semblance of tension and challenge, leaving us to meat-grind our way through with every new life.
Second, it is so fucking annoying. Back in the arcades, every game tried to bilk you for more milk money; it was an expected and natural evolution of the cabinet scene. At home, it's just bothersome. Bosses that swoop in and send you to the Game Over screen in seconds flat desperately need to be rebalanced for at-home play. A full couch of co-op partners helps alleviate the difficulty curve, though, and there is undeniably tons of classic, beloved content here. It doesn't hurt that these are some of the most advanced beat-'em-ups you'll ever play.
Each of four playable classes vary in speed, strength, and ability. While the Cleric might have brute force and the ability to wipe out scores of undead enemies with a single combo, he moves a lot slower than his cohorts. The Dwarf leaps and dives with more finesse, but lacks magical abilities. The Elf has magic and speed, but takes more damage. Each character also has special moves with Street Fighter-like combos. The Cleric, for example, has a powerful dashing slash attack that requires nothing more than a Hadouken.
Chronicles also engages you with a progression system that tracks your level, stats, loot, and gold throughout a level. Every so often you'll get the chance to shop and restock before continuing. Even better, branching pathways segment the campaign and add to the replayabillity offered by the different classes and progression. The further you push into Chronicles, the more rewards you'll find.
In fact, you can even unlock Elimination mode, which removes the unlimited quarter-continue and gives you a single bar of health to play with. This doesn't exactly solve the problems outlined above, but it does allow you to create a more definitive sense of challenge and hardcore difficulty.
Given the opportunity, I would have rather played these in the arcade, talking trash about which character my fellow gamer picked, lining up quarters for the next open slot, or learning the mechanics with dedicated, measured play and discussion. You can recapture that spirit playing with friends both online and on a single screen, but being so far removed from the beat-'em-up heyday has weakened the experience on offer here. Chronicles has loads of content, faithfully translates the arcade games to home console, and does it all with stylish, deep gameplay. I just wish those bosses didn't feel so soul-crushingly cheap today.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on Xbox 360 version. Also available on PS3, Wii U, and PC.