Arcade Stories – Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara

(This article was originally published in 2013, but has been updated and edited for clarity, and because I have to start somewhere. Since then, Sengoku 3 was published in the Wii Virtual Console.)

Recently, I received the good news that Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara, which is probably my favourite arcade game if we’re not counting fighting games, is finally getting an affordable port to a system worth owning. Just waiting for that Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder port and I can finally move on with my life.

Both of those were part of a lost generation of video games, sitting alongside many other beat ’em ups, the biggest of which were also CPS2-based like Shadow over Mystara. They come from that long period in the 90s where arcade hardware was still firmly ahead of console hardware, and arcades themselves were still considered viable forms of mid-afternoon entertainment in every mall and shopping district in North America and Asia (and probably Euroland as well). This meant that many developers still made games exclusively for arcades. And, like platforming games were on consoles, the beat ’em up (and the fighting game, I suppose) was the default dumping ground for many licensed properties (There were still plenty of terrible cash-in beat ’em ups on consoles, but they’re not nearly as interesting). For example, while Bart Simpson got a series of middling platforming games on home and portable consoles, the Simpsons made a much more successful and fondly remembered appearance in the imaginatively-titled The Simpsons Arcade Game.

Why did this dichotomy exist? (And I’m not dancing around the Ninja Turtles subject, I know all about that, and even consider the SNES port of Turtles in Time to be the superior version, but they’re the exception that proves the rule.) I have no real idea, but thinking back I see some rather obvious contributing factors, besides the already mentioned console hardware limitations. Next highest on the list would probably be price. You may think things are bad now, but console game prices really seemed to peak around the time of the SNES, where new games routinely retailed for $70-80USD. It’s harder to justify such a lump sum when a player could mash through a beat ’em up a couple of bucks and a spare half hour in the local arcade. There was also the other primary difference between the two genres, that platforming games were generally singleplayer affairs, while beat ’em ups were increasingly tailored for extravagant–for the time–multiplayer experiences, starting with such games as the original Ninja Turtles 4-player co-op, and quickly reaching a zenith with the X-men arcade game and its dual-screen 6-player cabinets (And I knew a guy who could solo that game with one hand, and not through bravado, but because he was born with only one hand, but that’s a story for another time.), both of which were unfeasible or just impossible to replicate on home consoles. There are subtleties to the multiplayer-centred format, not the least of which was the well-advertised need for defeated players to drop another quarter into the machine to not abandon their friends who were still fighting on.

There are a myriad of different topics related to this once vital genre, like the odd place of console-exclusive beat ’em ups like Streets of Rage and the Final Fight sequels, the even odder role of singleplayer focused beat ’em ups like Maximum Carnage, or late-late entries in the genre like Sengoku 3. But for now I’m interested in the naturally combative nature between arcade developers and arcade customers, and how that dovetails into the real topic that Shadow of Mystara always brings to my mind, which is the role of glitches, and the codified routines and rules that frequently formed around popular games, and in particular the ones I enjoyed most. I think the duel between arcade owners and their customers heavily informs the subject.

The premise was simple in the beginning. Arcades made money from people pumping quarters into their games, while many players got enjoyment from getting as far as they could in a game without having to continue. This is where the concept of a 1cc (one credit clear) came from, which is still the standard in shmups, the Contra and Metal Slug-styled action-platforming games, and the few beat ’em ups that still get regular play. A canny player will always be trying to optimize their play through any means available, which always meant at least exploiting AI behaviour or attack patterns, and sometimes extended into finding and exploiting actual glitches. In turn, the developer tries to make failure a certainty, but also to make continuing as attractive as possible, often by dropping a juicy power-up that would certainly give the player the edge they needed to take down that boss if they’d just commit to another credit. The arcade’s owners had their own say in the matter, both through manipulative currency exchanges ($1 = 3 tokens, while most games cost 2 tokens to play, and a token is as worthless as pocket lint once the customer walks out of the arcade.) and through changing various DIP switches and system settings, altering things like how many lives a player had, or making continues cheaper than restarting, or upping the game’s overall difficulty–arcade machines almost all had difficulty settings ranging from easy to very hard, just like console games.

And lets not forget that game developers were selling machines to arcade owners as much as they were selling to the players. The games had to suck quarters to justify its spot on the floor.

(As an aside, the same things existed for fighting games. It wasn’t uncommon for our arcade owners to screw with damage settings in their games to have faster matches and more people playing. We used the term “downtown damage,” referring to huge attacks in fighting games, which was drawn from the often glaring contrast between how much damage moves and combos did at home and gatherings compared to the arcades downtown, where the owners upped damage or lowered health bars to get the lineups moving faster. There was also the occasional reversal, like the time someone at the biggest arcade downtown left damage at its lowest setting on the X-men vs Street Fighter machine, leading to almost every match ending with a time over. To further demonstrate the lengths people will go to win, there was a player who realized what was happening and started running nothing but Zangief and Juggernaut teams, which were basically impossible to knock out. This sort of thing happened less and less as people got access to internet movelists and combos, as well as better console ports.)

While Midway was doing their best to make quarter sucking a science (Concepts that were most prominently embodied in their sports games and Mortal Kombat, with AI assistance and fluctuating boss difficulties designed to make players feel quite certain that they were this close to beating the game, thanks to bosses programmed to throw out mercy rounds.), most other developers stumbled around, trying to build on past successes. At the same time, there seemed to be a counter-intuitive relationship developing between exploits and the popularity of some games. Remember, for most players the primary goal was to beat a game as efficiently as possible. When they discovered the means to do so, they weren’t always turned off because that game was suddenly too easy–and they usually weren’t, as many exploits required careful timing, positioning, and reactions, and were only useful in specific situations–but used their new tricks as a means to become more and more efficient. I remember that the Raiden machine in one arcade was always in use, long after most other shmups had come and gone, because there was a group of dedicated players who had the game down to a science, could always 1cc it, and competed only for the top spot on the high score board. And Raiden really was one of the easier shmups around. It was cathartic to mechanically put the boots to an entire game’s worth of enemy and bullet patterns during a lunch break, or after a tough day at school or work.

My first real experience with arcade exploits was with my first beat ’em up crush, Revenge of Death Adder. Besides the obvious plan of always giving Trix all the magic potions, since his magic gave every player health, while every other magic was a simple screen-wide attack, there was the eureka moment where I realized that the real thing that set Revenge of Death Adder (and the Golden Axe series in general) apart from its contemporaries was the contoured and non-uniform stage layouts. Other beat ’em ups presented stages as backgrounds with a large slab of flat ground in front on which the players and enemies fight. The playing area was empty of everything except the occasional power-up or breakable object. Death Adder offered nooks and crannies, and most importantly, walls and corners, all over the place. Because what is the most dangerous situation a beat ’em up player can be placed in? Enemies on both sides. The player’s most costly attacks, ones that drain their health or use special resources (which would be magic in Golden Axe games) are there to combat the one thing the rest of their attacks can’t: the surround. It’s acknowledged by both the developers and the player that in this situation you’re going to take damage, so you may as well preempt things by blowing a special attack that will at least hurt your opponents as well. The great thing about Death Adder was that walls allowed the player to avoid having to deal with the surround.

Where standard beat ’em up doctrine was slow, steady progress through a stage, making sure to not move forward until all the current enemies were dead, because forward progress was what triggered more enemy spawns, a wall changed things. With a wall available, we could pull all the enemies out, then simply back into a corner and let them come. They could never get behind us, so there was little danger. Which was ideal for kids who were spending their allowance at the arcade and would rather get to the last boss in a game they knew how to play than to the first boss in a game they knew nothing about.

There were other things I learned as well, like using the invulnerability granted from casting magic to avoid devastating boss attacks (a skill that translated directly to Shadow over Mystara, where it was standard practice to use almost all magic to either avoid or prevent boss attacks), how to correctly predict and manipulate boss attack patterns so that they became even less dangerous than normal enemies, and how to eject from riding monsters before taking a hit (useful because after a riding monster takes 3 hits, it runs away). After a while, the predictability became routine, and the routine became comfortable. A 1cc meant a guaranteed 45 minutes or hour of entertainment at a bargain price.

My next love was more enduring, and it was for Shadow over Mystara. I’d been playing Tower of Doom off and on at a remote 7-Eleven, which also had some other games that I had not seen anywhere else, like the beautiful Last Blade 2 (Yes, I will link to that every time. Where’s Last Blade 3, SNK? At least give us a time travelling Last Blade team in the next King of Fighters Dream Match), and WindJammers, when I stumbled upon the Shadow over Mystara machine in the back of the worst arcade in the city.

Getting into the place involved pushing through the crowd of assholes smoking in front of the door, and very back of the arcade smelled of urine on the best days, and other things on the worst days. I’m not saying anything, but that’s where they kept the Puzznic and Gals Panic! machines. This was already a time when most adults considered arcades places of ill repute one step removed from a poorly-lit dive bar, and those were the ones that had the decency to turn their porn games to face the wall, so that younger customers couldn’t see them. But not this toilet. And I can still remember the looks I got when I tried to get quarters from the front counter. Its a testament to the pull that game had on me that I kept coming back.

I was initially drawn in by the variety available in the Shadow over Mystara. Six unique playable characters, each with an alternate version that could have different abilities; special moves and inputs like a fighting game; magical buffs and attacks governed by a more complex resource system than any other game in the genre; an inventory with usable items and different weapons and armour; and alternate routes with secrets and optional boss fights. It was a breath of fresh air. And then I started to play it with experienced players and realized there was an additional level of exploits and glitches in the game that made it even more interesting.

While there’s something to be said for the random chaos of a standard mashfest beat ’em up boss fight, there was a different level of pleasure in getting together with strangers and executing the perfect Large Burning Oil combo to instantly kill a boss, or just knowing all the timings to beat Tel’Arin without letting him make an attack. I was eager to learn everything I could, waiting till the day I had the confidence to steer the raft on its optimal route without help. (Others were not as willing. I remember an incident where a guy was playing by himself when another man walked in with his young kid, who saw the game and demanded to play it as well. The kid got up on a milk crate and starts mashing away, all while getting the stink-eye from this player. When the kid started steering the raft in the wrong direction, the other guy actually knocked his hands away from the controls and told him to stop. He and the kid’s father almost came to blows over that, which was a little surreal. But not even that abnormal for that place. Like I said, it was the worst arcade in town.)

In retrospect it’s also amusing that the same arcade had both Knights of the Round and The King of Dragons, both situated near the Shadow over Mystara machine. Both were also Capcom developed beat ’em ups, and both were also pale predecessors of the future king, Shadow over Mystara. Everything from the setting to the characters that levelled-up between stages, and the equipment, weapons, and magical attacks showed, along with Tower of Doom, the evolution that took place. It’s a bit of a shame, too, because Knights of the Round in particular was a good game, and fun enough, but there was no way most people were going to play it when Shadow over Mystara was right there.

As often happened in arcades, where it was too noisy to properly communicate with strangers without yelling at them–always an awkward way to start a relationship–there emerged a sort of unspoken set of rules for the machine, like people avoiding joining parties if they’d already done the introduction level and chosen names. Which of course caused problems for the guy working the counter, who once called the police when there were about 6 of us crowded around the machine while only 2 were playing and the rest waited patiently for their game to end. Luckily for him, there was a police station almost on the other side of the street, so, about 20 minutes into the game, a pair of burly cops walked in, moseyed on up to us, and declared, “Video games are not a spectator sport,” and demanded that we either joined the game or left the premises. Everyone there traded a look, because, as I’ve already said, there were  at least a dozen loiterers on the sidewalk that the cops had to pass just to get to us, but since the counter guys working the counter regularly joined them for smoke breaks (Always when you needed quarters, and do I seem bitter?), they must have been fine. I hope they didn’t wonder why they never had any customers besides the Shadow over Mystara players, and we only bothered because that was the only machine around.

A less controversial, and far more solid, idea was that some routes through the game were more optimal than others–to this day, there are a couple of boss fights and stages, mostly Dwarf related, that I’ve only played once or never played at all, even though I’ve beaten the game dozens of times–and as we learned more glitches and AI routines, partying almost became a process of weeding out the uninitiated. Does this guy know how to fight the Goblin War Machine? Will he choose the land route over the raft when most players preferred the raft for being safer and having more gold? (I know that in particular is not standard for Shadow over Mystara players in other areas, but it was how we rolled.) Is he going to rush right into the Harpy without waiting for the Shadow Elves to leave? Does he know what to buy at the shops, and how to get to the secret gnome shop? More than any other beat ’em up around, Shadow over Mystara was a game of group decisions, from choosing routes, down to opening chests with specific characters because they had a chance of getting better, or more useful, drops. This will seem harsh, but the idea of wasting money because some mook kept fucking boss fights up even affected me, and I usually played the Cleric. If not getting a heal out in time made the game easier for the rest of us, well, sometimes I happened to be facing the wrong direction and someone died. Pretty sure the Hippocratic Oath wasn’t 2nd Edition canon.

Things became dicier when the game presented optional content that also came with large risks. About halfway through, there are a few especially crucial choices: getting the cursed Sword of Legend (One of the greatest trap items ever imagined for an arcade game. When swung, the cursed sword had a very high chance of directly damaging the player with every attack, but it was common knowledge that if the player could make about 30 successful attack the sword would transform into the Sword of Legend, the most powerful weapon in the game. Almost every player I knew had their own crazy scheme for trying to avoid the damage, from timing the swing as a deep jump-in, so that the attack would happen without the animation coming out, to only attacking in the brief time after a boss had died, or simply hoping that I would blow all my heals on them. I’m tempted to say that this was one of the more common reasons for dying at that point in the game.); fighting the optional Red Dragon boss (Already a pain to access since the players get three dialogue choices in a row asking them if they’re really really  sure that they want to fight the dragon, and if any player chooses the wrong answer then all players have to skip the fight.),who came fully loaded for bear, deploying multiple attacks that instantly killed players caught in the blast; and choosing to help the Gnome Village in hopes of gaining favour and access to their special shop full of unique and powerful items. And of course gaining access to the special shop involved another optional event, getting the gnomes to brew the players up a shrinking potion, which only lasted for a few seconds, and new players could waste the entire potion time talking to useless gnome NPCs while everyone else yelled at them to hurry up and leave the pub so they could buy some godamn Cure Serious Wounds and Lighting Bolt rings already. Any of those decisions, and many others, had the chance to either end the game for all players involved, or force them to miss out on major, game-altering content, and any one player out of a possible party of four could had a chance to make that decision for everyone else.  A few players had developed especially nasty sideways looks for those who made a decision that was wrong in their eyes.

There were, however, some glitches that everyone frowned upon, and they involved manipulating the game’s strange character naming system, which would equip new characters with different items depending on the characters and combinations in their names. For the most part, players used this to give characters an early game boost with an easily destroyed item, or a more permanent defence or magic casting boost by equipping them with various class-specific helms or accessories. It was innocent enough, and many players payed little attention–though they often employed character specific names to get specific items, and nobody cared about the high scores because many players would simply reset the machine with the top-mounted power switch when the game ended so they could skip that last party’s long credit sequence and start a new game. But it was also known that by using specific, arcane combinations of letters and spaces it was possible to have some characters spawn with all sorts of messed up item combinations that would break the game, making the character almost invincible, and also starting them with nearly unlimited amounts of gold. This was most commonly done with the Thief, and when it happened nobody would play with the cheater, and not simply because there was some moral outrage over an arbitrary line drawn in the vast sand of Exploit Beach, but because such glitching had a strong chance of forcing the game to reset itself, or sometimes just freeze, and there was no getting quarters back after that. Worse, sometimes it would freeze and the offending player would leave it like that. Not everyone knew where the game’s power switch was, so it sometimes stayed frozen for hours, and the counter guy wouldn’t always bother to turn it back on. Few people used these glitches regularly, but there is one in particular that I’ll never forget (And I don’t need to since he later became a regular at some of the net cafes I spent time in, and proved to be much, much weirder than his time in the arcades had indicated, but that’s also a story for another day.). The beautiful part of his situation was that he would only play with glitched Thief characters, and always by himself since nobody would play with him, but in all the times I saw him play, I never saw him get even close to beating the game. Understand that glitching the game like this made the character completely immune to 99% of all damage sources, with the only exceptions being certain bite attacks that only a couple of enemies possessed, some obscure magic damage, and heavily telegraphed instant death dragon breath attacks. You could almost feel sorry for the guy, always alone, always ahead in the odds, and always failing miserably, dying to the most obvious and easily avoided attacks while he softly talked to himself (a habit he never grew out of). Almost sorry, until he inevitably caused the game to freeze and half the waiting players would just walk away.

In the end, though, probably my favourite and most emblematic memory of Shadow over Mystara has to do with the game’s ultimate secret spell, Final Strike. These were the days before widespread internet usage, and the game itself drops only the barest hints that such an attack even exists, and never how to do it. I started to hear stories about the Magic User having a secret spell that they could only use on the last boss. If performed correctly, the boss would die, but if done incorrectly, everyone in the party would die instead. A risky proposition for a group of players who had just spent the best part of an hour trying to get to that boss. Doing this required first fighting the optional Red Dragon, and then finding a specific chest later in the game and getting the Staff of Wizardry for the Magic User, and keep in mind that many chests are coded to drop different items for different characters, so if someone other than the Magic User opened that chest, the entire plan went down the drain. Actually getting the attack out was supposed to involved everything from one player holding start while everyone else mashed all 4 of their buttons, to everyone holding 3 buttons while the Magic User pressed all of his. About half of the stuff I learned was about half right, and the first time I ever attempted it with a full party we ended up jumping the gun, using the Final Strike as soon as the last boss popped her huge head out, which certainly didn’t kill it, and left us all with 1hp each. The boss then dropped a bunch of flaming rocks on us and we all stood there with dumb looks on our faces. I shrugged and left to find a Burger King, because they were still selling Whopper Jrs. for $.99, and I sure as well wasn’t trying Final Strike again on an empty stomach.

Ultimately, we did get it right, and for the brief period between killing Synn and the next group of players stepping up to reset the machine and have their turn, I felt like I’d finally conquered Shadow over Mystara. I’d plumbed all the depths that were worth plumbing, or at least extended as much line as I had available, so I didn’t feel as bad as I might have when that terrible arcade finally closed its doors and the Shadow over Mystara machine disappeared for a little while. It eventually resurfaced, and in the meantime I’d found a different machine across town in a mall. That one was always being pounded on by kids who had no clue what was going on, and while I would sometimes take a few minutes to watch them and judge their ignorance, I rarely played there. By then I’d made a firm transition to fighting games, having finally determined that I’d gotten just about all I could out of the challenge 90s arcade AI could muster. Taking trips back to that well offered increasingly diminishing returns, especially without that comradery that I’d grown used to, so I stopped making the trips altogether. The arcade in that mall closed down, and that machine disappeared as well. The original machine made a trip to the bigger arcade downtown, and then disappeared again in turn, but I never put much effort into finding another Shadow over Mystara machine after that. Even if I did find one, the players would be different, and that unique time and space where Shadow over Mystara was the zenith of my arcade experience had come and gone. The time spent playing that game eventually crystallized and become impossible to hold onto, which always happens. It’s happened for me many times, but I don’t think I’ve ever been at peace with change like I was with Shadow over Mystara. Maybe it’s because I don’t know any of those people anymore, and there aren’t any places left to remind me, with all the arcades gone now, but sometimes I feel arrogant enough to believe that I somehow intuitively realized, if only in this case, the same conclusion that everyone comes to at some point in their lives. You can never go home again.

My eventual return to Mystara will not be one of longing nostalgia. There will be no effort to recapture the past. Instead, I can look forward to simply playing a beautiful arcade masterpiece along with others who remember it and many, many more that will be hearing for the first time the game’s siren call.

“Welcome to the D&D World.”

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