Saturday, 9 March 2013

Lost Treasures: The Capcom Sword-and-Sorcery Beat 'em Ups

Capcom is a game company responsible for some of the best video game titles ever. Some, like their wildly popular "Street Fighter" series, have even been developed into movies and anime films. But back in the day, there was a group of games which got me hooked, then vanished into obscurity: their side-scrolling fantasy beat-em-up games.

Capcom, you've got something here. Source

It all started with a simple game called "Magic Sword". Magic Sword featured a shirtless, He-man wanna-be kind of character called The Brave One. The evil dark lord Drokmar has obtained an evil magical item called "The Black Orb". He lurks in a 50 story dungeon called "Dragon Keep". It's not particularly clear what this Black Orb is capable of doing, but it can't be good. As this was in 1990 and video games with plots were still fairly new, the plot never really developed beyond this. At the end, you get a single roleplaying option: destroy the orb, or take up the orb and become the new face of evil.

The Brave One is assisted by a bunch of imprisoned heroes hidden throughout the dungeon, including ninjas and wizards. There are hidden magic doors that will allow The Brave One to skip floors as well.

This game + lots of quarters = good times. Source
Well, the Magic Sword game must have gotten enough traction in arcades, because before you knew it, in 1991, Capcom released a game with similar sprites (but refined graphics) and a richer story: KING OF DRAGONS.

King of Dragons allowed multiple players to take on different characters. Being able to select between the Elf, the Wizard, The Fighter, the Cleric, and the Dwarf allowed for a richer experience as players could select based on play-style and gaming tastes.

A typical D&D party, now available to use in the arcade. Source

Now, this game really had me hooked. I remember specifically when I first played it, and I have not seen any arcade cabinets for it in almost two decades now. The story for the game was that the massive red dragon Gildiss had been preying on the kingdom for the better part of a century, and only creatures of darkness could live in the scorched ruins of what was left afterward. The people pleaded for someone to do something, and the king had his court wizard Guindon use his magic to put the dragon to sleep. However, something went wrong and the dragon woke up, beginning his reign of terror once more. Sounds pretty much like it has all the trappings of standard D&D game play. *SPOILER ALERT* Guindon had since become the Dark Wizard (one of the later bosses in the game), and was manipulating Gildiss to do his bidding. However, Gildiss threw off the wizard's enchantments and double crosses him, leaving him at the mercy of the heroes. Also, the dragon's forces captured Princess Mari, the military leader of the kingdom, so it really is just up to the heroes to fix it. 

The thing that really impressed me about this game beyond the story was the graphics and the scale of everything. The Hydra boss fight, for example, was HUGE. The dragon Gildiss was even bigger. The variety of monsters also struck a chord with me: there are gnolls, orcs, minotaurs, lizard-men, and a lot of others.

Dang, I'm huge! Gildiss, the King of Dragons. Source
1991 was a big year for this type of game. Knights of the Round, another Capcom beat 'em up game emerged in the same years as King of Dragons. The story was essentially the same as any story about King Arthur and his knights. Merlin sends Arthur (who pulls Excalibur from the stone in the opening credits), Lancelot, and Perceval to unite England and slay the evil king Garibaldi. 

So many college afternoons spent playing this game... Source
This game was a lot of fun. It moved away from the D&D creature types a little, but included an illusionist boss fight who also possessed an iron golem. There's also an inexplicably placed samurai who uses fire magic. I first found a cabinet for this game in the campus arcade at my university and spent a lot of time hacking away through this game. Playing as each of the three knights gave some variety to the gameplay, but not as rich a diversity as in King of Dragons. Arthur is the most balanced between offense, speed, and defensive power. Lancelot was fast, but weak and lightly armored. Perceval was the mighty tank, hugely strong and heavily armored, but he moved at snail pace. The three were not particularly diverse beyond these factors, there was no magical stuff for players to use to worry about, though, so it was much more like Final Fight than the other games in this particular vein.
Bottom to Top: Arthur, Lancelot, and Perceval... or Knight-in-shining-armor, Agile-for-a-guy-in-plate-armor, and Mighty Glacier. Source
These games finally culminated in the two best in the series, and my personal favorites: Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, and the sequel, Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara.

This guy's name is Deathwing. He's not even the Big Bad Evil Guy in this game. Source

These games were some of the best translation of the D&D rules to a game ever, and drew heavily upon D&D lore to make a good storyline. The first only allowed a party of four adventurers: The Fighter, The Cleric, The Dwarf, and the Elf. This party make up allowed for all the traditional fantasy roles to be filled, more or less. The sequel came packing two more characters: a full-on Magic-User (read: Wizard) and a thief. These games were loaded with hidden secret rooms, alternative paths based on player choices at key decision points, special treasures, and unique items. 

Choose from a full cast of heroes. Press start instead of attack when selecting your character to get a different version with different powers and clothes, too. Source
The storyline of the first was pretty well a straightforward D&D storyline: monsters are raiding towns, killing and enslaving people, and only a brave team of heroes can stop them. Eventually, it is learned that a black tower has appeared in the monster-haunted wilderness and the villain, a lich named Deimos, has been commanding the monstrous horde from there.

Deimos, the Arch-Lich. Toughest bad guy in Tower of Doom. He comes back in Shadow over Mystara, but he's a speed bump, because you're way higher level. Source

The sequel showed that the lich was only part of a grand scheme: a sorceress named Synn was manipulating the lich to do her will. The heroes hit higher levels in this game, with the "immortal" (read: God) speaking to them, revealing hidden mysteries, and hinting at powerful magics. 

Villainous monologuing. Source.

It is eventually revealed that Synn is not a hot blonde in red leather lingerie as she appears, but rather a massive red dragon hell-bent on bringing forth an even more powerful monster forth, simply referred to as "The Fiend". 

Synn, the big bad of Shadow Over Mystara. Toughest monster in the whole series. Use everything you've got, there's no fights after her. Source.
Casual gamers could have fun with these games because they were pretty easy to get the hang of. D&D players could get into it because of all the great D&D stuff in them. Owlbears, kobolds, gnolls, cursed swords, hidden treasures, lost magic, etc. It was all there. It is pretty much the closest thing arcade games ever had to properly replicating the D&D home game experience as it would be represented in real-time. I still like these games better than D&D Online, or even the Baldur's Gate series. Tower of Doom & Shadow over Mystara are both winners. I think that Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro and Capcom are sitting on a goldmine here - if they released the two as a downloadable content bundle for Playstation Network, I'd buy it. 

For whatever reason, Capcom kind of turned away from 2-D side-scrollers, and has since moved on to bigger, fancier fare. I still find these games more charming than 90% of anything I've seen from Capcom in years, though, and I find them incredibly re-playable. 

There is a glimmer of hope for this style of game in the future, however. A game called "Dragon's Crown" is currently being developed by Vanillaware/Atlus for the PS3, and it appears to capture the old-school side-scrolling beat-em-up fantasy vibe. Players can choose from six characters (Fighter, Wizard, Amazon, Sorceress, Elf, and Dwarf), each with their own strength. All are seeking a legendary MacGuffin, the Dragon's Crown, to keep it out of evil magic-wielder's hands. The art is beautiful and the style is bang on. See the trailer below:

Lots of gameplay previews and background for Dragon's Crown can be seen here.

Have you played any of these games? Are there any games you've seen that you recommend? Are you looking forward to Dragon's Crown as much as I am? What appeals to you in a game? Drop me a comment or tweet me on Twitter @colinjmarco. 


  1. I had no idea about all of this! I am not much of an arcade gamer, but I definitely enjoyed hearing about the really old stuff. It's kind of like looking at game biology...

  2. Glad to hear you liked this. I recently found out that King of Dragons was released for the PSP. I may actually get a PSVita just to get it.

    Also, I should mention that Capcom was not the only company to be in on the fantasy beat-em ups. SEGA had the "Golden Axe" series, which I got into late in the series ("Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder" was the only one I ever played until recently). I just found the Capcom ones a richer experience overall. I would like to point out, thought, that Revenge of Death Adder was awesome. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    However, Golden Axe recently tried to make a big-time 3-D platformer-style comeback with "Golden Axe: Beast Rider", which I've been told is absolutely wretched.