The art actually came from the box set of the “Classic” Dungeons & Dragons boardgame version released in 1994. An earlier version, with a different dragon but similar arrangement (sans guy on horseback and all those rocks), appeared on the box cover of the first version out in 1991. Both were done by the remarkably talented Jeff Easley whose signature fantasy style defined the face of TSR on everything from player’s guides to adventure supplements in the eighties and the nineties.
Japan would also get something called a “Secret File” dossier that actually had sketches of the characters and went into some detail on the game itself. Why arcade owners here never received the same treatment is a mystery, but it only proves that Capcom was really excited about this game. And for good reason, because Shadow Over Mystara is a brilliant beat ’em up well worthy of a tribute in silver faced quarters.
Shadow Over Mystara in 1996 was Capcom’s sequel to their Dungeons and Dragons flavored beat ’em up, Tower of Doom, which was released three years earlier in 1993. Like its predecessor, this also paid lip service to the world and the rules that it was derived from in favor for its hack ‘n slashy action that burned through pages of TSR’s Monster Manuals. It also expanded on nearly everything that Capcom delivered the first time around by cramming in multiple paths, tougher enemies, and even different endings.
The story takes place two years after the battle at Sable Tower, the Tower of Doom in the first game, where the party put down the arch-lich, Deimos. Now that they’re leaving Darokin, the heroes are making their way through the Broken Lands of Glantri when they run into trouble again, not yet realizing that this is only the tip of the spear wielded by someone much worse who stood as a shadow behind Deimos’ evil.
Players can still pick from the four tried-and-true roles from the first game – the tough as nails Fighter, the magic and mace wielding Cleric, the melee-challenged but magically adept Elf, and the rough and tumble Dwarf warrior. This time around, they’re joined by two new companions – the agile and quick Thief and the even more magically inclined Magician. They could even name them, though it was now restricted to six letters instead of eight. And like the original companions, they also have their fair share of weaknesses and strengths.
The Magician is pretty fragile, but he can actually dish out melee damage to a decent degree in case enemies get too close. But he’s also absolutely devastating when it comes to spells ranging from D&D favorites like Magic Missile to Petrification and Wall of Flame. The Thief also can’t take too much damage, but they can perform many of their favorite tricks in combat such as backstabbing foes. Locked chests can also be “picked” and the Thief is also agile enough to double jump out of danger. All of the characters also had combo moves used in conjunction with the ‘stick, to lend even more variety.
The game also made it possible for two players to play the same character thanks to pixel changes allowing for a variety of four-way party mixes. Other changes included an actual inventory system where rare items picked up as loot may be equpped to fill in slots ranging from a helmet to an accessory. These weren’t indestructible, however, as they wear out after getting slammed a few times with claws, spells, rocks, or whatever else the game might throw at you making these some of the most fragile pieces of equipment anywhere.
But the multi-path choices are also back allowing players to choose where they want to head next. Exceptionally powerful “special” weapons are also hidden in the game as extras and can be found by resourceful explorers, or entirely missed as I found out only much later. And the game is really stacked with plenty of loot in the form of silver pieces, gold coins, and spell books.
Like before, Shadow Over Mystara takes elements of D&D and works the pieces into the all-action formula. Experience points are earned along with levels. Spell casters can stack up spells along the way for use later, taking the whole “limited use” idea of item-based beat ’em ups pass as a reference to the Vancian magic system used in D&D. Familiar beasts from TSR’s Monster Manuals roam each area spanning the gamut of kobolds and goblins to even deadlier fare such as hellhounds and dragons. And there’s even worse just waiting further on.
Capcom’s artists went all out with the updates to this game as it looks sharper and more detailed than Tower with its character designs, spell effects, and backdrops pushing the CPS-2 hardware. Some sprites were obviously recycled like our friend the black dragon from the first game, but overall, Shadow punches things up with a strong opening cinematic, dramatic character attract screens, and a solid production feel that wraps up the action. Capcom being Capcom, their own stylish flair weaves its way through everything like it did before. The Magician, in particular, is no Gandalf-wannabe – he looks like an anime hero complete with wild hair, crazy poses, and dramatically bombastic spell effects to go along with his suit.
All of this has gone into making Shadow Over Mystara one of the best arcade beat ’em ups found anywhere. The breadth of play options that its selectable menu ring filled with spells or usable items around every character shake up the button mashing with some tactical flair, especially if you opt to play someone that isn’t as durable such as the Elf, Magician, or the Thief. Equipment found in the field matters more spurring players to explore every possible path through the game. Rumors from NPCs of potential legendary pieces, stores filled with just enough wares to empty your pockets, and a decent story that scales right up to an exciting climax and grand finish made this worth every quarter spent with friends in breaching its secrets.
Earlier in 1996, the same year that Shadow Over Mystara eked its way into a select number of arcades, a little game called Guardian Heroes from Treasure also made its way to the Saturn featuring some of the same gameplay that Tower and its sequel reveled in. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be joined by its D&D flavored cousins for another three years.
Shadow Over Mystara would also be among the last 2D beat ’em ups that Capcom would release to arcades which had long been on the decline over the past few years while under attack from both consoles and PC gaming. It, along with Tower of Doom, would eventually find its way to the Saturn in 1999 as part of a dual compilation with the kind of accuracy that only made arcades seem more obsolete than they already seemed. But like Tower, only two players could party on in this adventure instead of four.
The sad part for everyone else? The compilation was only sold in Japan, although you can still snag a copy for a fairly decent price without entirely breaking the bank today if you have a Saturn that can run it. It’s really an amazing game in many respects and one that, along with Tower, I still pop into once in awhile on the ol’ Saturn. Being a beat ’em up crammed with beautiful sprite work and blistering action that pads the formula with loads of options and multi-path areas, it’s also got that kind of special magic that Capcom had brought to arcades the only way they knew how. And that was always a lot of fun.