Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara Review
Children of the 80's remember when the arcade was a thing. We would crowd around six foot tall boxes in the mall or the back corner of the bowling alley and feed quarter after quarter into (now) classic titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons and X-Men. Good times. Arcades have all but disappeared, and so too has the retro 2D four-player brawler. We've seen tons of games try and recapture the magic, but whether a new release or a port, the genre just isn't what it used to be. Which brings us to Dungeons and Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara, a collection of two arcade brawlers (Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara) from days past. If your nostalgia factor is greater than or equal to your acceptance of classics taking chances with a formula that no longer holds much water, then Chronicles of Mystara is right up your alley.
Seeing and hearing Chronicles of Mystara will be like a warm hug for some, and an ugly turn off for others; it really depends on when you were born. The graphics are sprite-based and pixelly (is that a word), with stiff character animations and somewhat static backgrounds. In other words, it looks exactly like the games of yore. The HD cleanup thankfully leaves alone the original design and polishes up what they had to work with, rather than rebuilding from the ground up. The sound is equally faithful to the original. Excellent chiptune music and scratchy spoken lines - if the phrase "Welcome to your doom!" means anything to you, you know what I'm getting at - remain untouched which really drives the nostalgia home. Basically, playing Chronicles of Mystara is like having the arcade cabinet in your television set.
Remember when I said the developers took some chances with the formula? Those chances are what elevate this title above "just another port" status. When playing the game, you see the action in the original 4:3 aspect ratio; the rest of the screen real estate is made to look like the sides of the arcade cabinet. This extends beyond just novelty, though; these bars on either side of the action are where the new ideas are best represented. Let's be honest: walking to the right and mashing attack isn't as much fun as it was 20-30 years ago. To keep things interesting, the developers added a kind of achievement-based reward system. The game tracks everything you do, from items collected to enemies killed. Kill enough of a certain enemy - goal fulfilled. Pick up treasure - another one down. Use a special move three times - another bonus. You get the idea. This seems so simple, so common sense that I can't believe it took this long to see this implemented in retro re-releases.
Though it was found in the original as well, Chronicles of Mystara features a character leveling system that grants new powers and bonuses as you progress. I'm not sure how much sense this made in the old days (if you ran out of quarters, all those levels - gone), but in a home release it is brilliant. It makes the game much more replayable for three reasons. First, playing through a second time with a stronger character is always fun. Second, with the game keeping slavish records of your collected treasure, it is natural to try and pick it all up in a second or third playthrough. And finally, you've got a nice little roster of characters to play through the game with, and maxing them all out is fun enough to keep players coming back.
If it isn't already pretty clear, I really enjoyed playing through Chronicles of Mystara. It mixes old school charm with new school mechanics, making a game that expertly straddles the line between current and classic. The 2D brawling may have lost a little luster over the past few decades, but new ideas like the ones found here prove that with a little push, the genre could again grow to something more than just a nostalgic set of experiences. Whether you played the game back in the day or not, if you were around in the 80's and early 90's, do yourself a favor and check this one out.
Final Rating: 90%. An arcade classic made more than classic.