The late eighties and early nineties saw an explosion of AD&D licensed video games as computer game developer, SSI, reaped the benefits via its series of “Gold Box” RPGs. These were based on popular settings such as the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and even Ravenloft while its Eye of the Beholder series had also helped to propel a small studio by the name of Westwood into professional fame. But they weren’t the only ones to have a slice of TSR’s money cake. Capcom, always looking out for new ideas, decided to bring the same experience to arcades the way that only Capcom could.
Leveraging in their beat ’em up expertise into TSR’s fantasy world, the result was Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom hack ‘n slashing its way into arcades in 1993. The quest was simple – save the land from a terrible evil while leaving piles of dead kobolds in your wake. But instead of the AD&D system and worlds that SSI focused on, Capcom’s game looked to the older D&D setting of Mystara.
From the title screen, the setting seemed to be in or around the Republic of Darokin which was detailed in one of the many Gazetteers that added chunks to Mystara’s vast lands in the late eighties up to 1991. Despite that connection, it didn’t delve too deeply into Darokin or Mystara itself as a whole. Or the D&D system.
This was the unadulterated, diceless, bare bones D&D experience distilled down into bashing buttons and laying waste to legions of monsters that no tabletop party could ever hope to do in one evening unless they had multiple spheres of annihilation. Accuracy wasn’t as important as the action and the veneer of D&D it colored its pixels with, and to that end, Tower of Doom was particularly awesome at making its case.
The game would bark “Welcome to the D&D world!” every time a token passed down into its tribute box and players began their journey by picking from one of four archetypical “classes” that they would be locked into for the duration of the game – the Fighter, the Cleric, the Elf, and the Dwarf. Up to four players could form up as a party of monster crushers.
The Elf and the Dwarf weren’t really classes, but both had their own specialties. The Elf was great with magic, not so much with melee and had a lower starting health bar. The Dwarf had stronger resistances to things like magic attacks and was a decent fighter, though oddly, not quite as durable as the human Fighter. The Cleric was defined as a “Man of War” who could use magic, though not as effectively as the Elf. And you were stuck with your choice. Continuing the game started you off in the same boots you died in.
After picking their role, players could then give their chosen ‘toon an eight character name. After that, they were on their way with a little text describing what was going on. There were no rolls for stats here, just an arcade-fashioned get up and go attitude right into the 2D, side scrolling action!
The game sticks closely to its beat ’em up guns – regardless of who you pick, you’ll be button mashing your way through hordes of monsters. So where’s the D&D in all of that? It’s in the loot, experience points earned from battle (and the collection of loot), and familiar faces like kobolds, gnolls, and bosses like a nasty displacer beast and a black dragon who isn’t the talking, intelligent kind found in the monster manual. But even there, Capcom took liberties with the material in carefully weighing what the arcade crowd would like and what might not be as fun in the same setting.
Player characters “leveled up” after clearing an area regardless of how many experience points were earned while plowing through it, earning a tiny amount of hit points that only meant stretching the health bar a smidgen or two. Basic weapons and armor were fixed – there were no drops that changed the basic outfit the characters wore. And health potions could be bought at shops to instantly heal up wounds there on the field.
At the same time, the game also attempted to push beyond mere buttons mashing. Each character had a rolling “inventory” that you could switch through using one of the buttons, flipping between hammers that can be thrown, shooting an arrow with a bow, a magic ring that cast cure wounds, or using up a stored magic spell from a scroll you had picked up to burn a troll to its final death once you ‘killed’ it.
Traps also peppered the dungeons with spike walls, arrows launched from the ceiling, and chests that burped petrifying gas (wiggle the joystick to escape!). Optional rooms branched out from the main path, often keeping valuable treasures, while chests may be locked with keys found elsewhere. Treasures ranged from simple coins to a pair of gauntlets of ogre power.
But the game would also let give players the occasional choice on where they should go next. For example, you could cut off monsters running for the mountains, or rush instead to a town already under siege. Both had their own dangers and treasures, so no two playthroughs may be completely alike.
Dying and then continuing wiped out whatever experience points you earned – but it didn’t really matter when you leveled up anyway at the end of an area. It just counted towards your points on the leaderboard making it an incentive to try and live for as long as possible.
The epic climax pit you against arch-lich Deimos who gleefully threw classic D&D named spells into your face as he laughed, but upon finishing the game, a full ending complete with credits acted as a welcome denouement for all of your efforts – and quarters.
The game was packed with visual goodness thanks to Capcom’s stable of skilled artists and it was also using the pinnacle of Capcom’s engineering know-how at the time. The arcade CPS-2 hardware was cutting edge stuff for Capcom at the time and it also made use of Qsound for its ear candy environment. But it also used encryption to prevent pirates from making cheap copies of the game.
The flyers passed to arcade owners differed in their styles. The EU version at the top consisted of several, colorful pages with pixel and hand drawn art done by Capcom’s artists describing the game and its main characters in detail. You can catch the rest of the panels for that one over at the Arcade Flyer Archive. The first page for the United States version to the right was pretty blah in comparison.
Several years later, both Tower of Doom and its sequel, Shadow Over Mystara, would be packaged in a two disc collection for the Saturn though it was a Japan-only release. However, it’s literally a pixel perfect translation though only featured two-player co-op instead of a four way party. You can still snag a copy on sites like Ebay without killing your wallet.
Tower of Doom was an exciting hybrid of D&D arcade action that still holds up reasonably well today. I pop my copy in from time to time on the Saturn just to experience the action on a rainy day or whenever there’s a dry spell between games. Definitely one of Capcom’s more interesting collaborations, and one of the best beat ’em up ideas to come from the development house.