Note 1: Like Beat ‘Em Ups? Check out my reviews of D & D: Shadow over Mystara, Double Dragon II, Bare Knuckle III, Crows: The Battle Action, Nekketsu Oyako, Sengoku 3, Warriors of Fate, Final Fight Guy, Final Fight 2, and Mighty Final Fight!
Note 2: This game was played on a U.S. Sega Saturn. Since U.S. Sega Saturns cannot play Japanese Sega Saturn games, a 4M Action Replay Cartridge was inserted into the Saturn’s cartridge slot – this allows Saturn games from any region to be played on U.S. Saturns. The Saturn was hooked up to a 32-inch HD tv with S-Video cables.
Quick History: Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom is a side-scrolling Beat ‘Em Up game with Role-Playing Game (RPG) elements mixed in. It was released for the Sega Saturn in 1999. Tower of Doom was originally an arcade game released in 1993, and the Saturn version is an arcade-perfect port. The only difference is the number of players – the arcade version was for up to 4 players, and the Saturn version only allows 2 players. Tower of Doom was only released for the Saturn in Japan, unfortunately, and many U.S. Saturn owners never even knew about it, causing it, for me, to fall into the ‘obscure’ category. It was released along with its sequel, Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara, on the Sega Saturn 2 disc-release Dungeons & Dragons Collection. Shadow over Mystara is not reviewed here. If you are in any way familiar with the world of D & D, you’ll recognize familiar characters and settings, I’m sure. However, if, like me, you know nothing about D & D, well, that is no reason to stay away from this game – this game requires no pre-requisite knowledge. It is a wonderful medieval Beat ‘Em Up, maybe the best in all of the genre. Read on.
Gameplay: In Tower of Doom, you choose from one of four characters from the Dungeons & Dragons world: Elf, Dwarf, Fighter, or Cleric. You battle through 10 levels of medieval settings, from mountains, to ships, to towers. Along the way, you’ll battle skeletons, ghouls, ogres, trolls, and all other sorts of fantastical creatures. The bosses are huge – most far larger than the characters you’ll choose to play as. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, of course. The Fighter has a long reach with his sword; the Dwarf strikes quickly and a has a great defense; the Elf can use powerful magic attacks; the Cleric has a spell, usable at any time, that kills undead enemies.
Tower of Doom uses 4 buttons: A, B, C, and X on the Sega Saturn controller. A attacks with your main weapon. B jumps. C scrolls through a list of weapons or spells your character possesses (ex: knives, a bow and arrows, fireball spell, healing spell, etc.). X uses the weapon/spell. Tapping toward, toward causes your character to run, after which you can press A for a dash attack. Jumping, followed by holding down + A allows for a ‘downward thrust’ move on enemies. Holding down + B allows your character to crouch. When in a crouching position, quickly pressing down, toward + A makes your character do a super attack. You can also hit enemies who are knocked to the ground by standing over them and pressing A repeatedly. While standing, holding back + A makes your character hold up his or her shield to block most attacks.
As you progress through the game’s 10 levels, you pick up experience points (XP) by defeating enemies and opening treasure chests that contain jewels and coins that increase your XP. *Note: chests can also be booby-trapped, and, in addition to coins and jewels, can contain magic rings that allow you to use healing or attack spells. Your character starts with a green life bar, and every time you take a hit, a portion of it turns red. Once it’s all red, you’re dead. However, after every level you complete, your character will level up, causing your HP (Hit Points) to go up slightly, making your life bar longer for the next level. Your life bar will get longer after every level because of this method. In between levels, you stop in shops, where merchants will sell you health potions and weapons to replenish your alternate weapons (arrows, knives, hammers).
This Sega Saturn version of Tower of Doom is set to ‘Free Play,’ meaning you can continue anytime you lose a life. While this means you can complete the game easily, it would have been nice had there been an option to include a set number of continues for a greater challenge. With the Free Play option, you simply have to challenge yourself to try and see if you can beat the game without losing a life, or three lives, or whatever you think you’re capable of.
Sound & Music: Everything’s perfect. The music is very…medieval, I guess you could say. Very sweeping and appropriate for gameplay. The sound is excellent. The ping of an arrow shattered on an upraised shield, the fwooosh of a fireball sent flying at an enemy, the Battle Cry of your character – all are awesome.
Graphics: Characters, enemies, background, attacks, spells – all come together cleanly to create a fantastic game experience. If you are playing this game on your Saturn, make sure you are using S-Video cables and not regular composite AV (red, yellow, white) cables. Everything is sharper with S-Video, especially on games like Tower of Doom.
Loading Times: Tower of Doom does have loading times between levels, and in-level as well. In-level loading can occur when you walk through a door or a hidden passage – the next screen sometimes has to be pulled up that way. You’ll see a ‘Now Loading’ screen with a pointing fairy when the game has to load a new screen. Some loading screens are quick, some are a little longer. While it would be great had no loading times been included, they do not ruin the game.
Language Barrier: No and Yes. No, if it comes down to the true answer. This is a Beat ‘Em Up first and foremost – walk right, bash the enemies, fight a boss, repeat. However, despite the fact that the Options screen, the character classes (Fighter, Dwarf, etc.) and other parts of the game are in English, the story is in Japanese, and at some points in the game, your character must make a choice about what to do next. This gives the game great replay value, but unless you read Japanese, you won’t know the difference between Path 1 and Path 2. All you need to do is find a translation guide online (google Tower of Doom FAQ), print it out, and you’ll know if you’re picking to go to the Limestone Caverns or the Abandoned Mine. Also, as mentioned above, each character has ‘alternate’ weapons and some characters (Cleric, Elf) have spells. You scroll through these items by pressing C, and use them with X. Unfortunately, these items are written in Japanese, so it will take you a complete playthrough before you start to remember which Japanese symbols represent knives, hammers, arrows, or fire bombs. Luckily, for many spells, there are English letters along with Japanese ones that will let you know what spell you have selected. For example, FB means fireball, MM means magic missile, CW means Cure Serious Wounds, and so on.
Saving your high score: If you choose not to continue after you’re killed, if your score is high enough, you have the option to save your score to the high score screen (after the Continue? clock has ticked to zero). If you beat the game, after the credits, the game will ask you, in Japanese, if you want to save your score. Select ‘Yes.’ The game will save to the Saturn’s built-in lithium battery. You can always copy your save files to the 4M Action Replay cartridge, too, since the lithium battery needs to be replaced every 5 years or so. If you beat the game having beaten the extremely tough Red Dragon (optional boss), then a graphic of the dragon will appear over your character’s name on the high score screen.
Options: You can set the difficulty from 1 (easiest) to 8 (hardest) stars. You an also change the control scheme on your Saturn controller, assigning the 4 button commands to any button you wish on your controller.
Where can I find this game? If you want to play a hard copy of Tower of Doom on an actual game console, this is one of your only choices. You can buy it on eBay, but you’ll probably have to order it from Japan. You can always buy the arcade cabinet, which is available in English and can accommodate 4 players. That’s tough to do unless you have a ton of money, however. As of 2013, the game is available for download on the Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and Nintendo eShop. For the Playstation 3 in Japan, a hard copy disc was released in August 2013. Because the PS3 is region-free, you can import it for play on a U.S. PS3 (I’m unsure whether or not there is an English language option for that disc, however). Both the download versions and the Japan-exclusive disc contain HD graphics, 4 player online support, trophies, etc.
Conclusion: Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom for the Sega Saturn is an OUTSTANDING game. I must admit, as a retro-game fan, I love playing an actual game disc on the actual console it was made for. Are the loading times annoying at times? Sure. Is the language barrier irritating? No – never irritating, but sure, English would have been great. However, there’s something about having this game with all of its idiosyncrasies that is just special. Is it cheaper and easier to download the game from one of the modern gaming system’s online shops? Of course! And I encourage you to do so if that’s how you prefer to play. But nothing beats the real thing. Plus, the 2 player ‘couch’ co-op with a real friend, as opposed to online co-op, will always be the best way to go, in my opinion, at least. Tower of Doom’s co-op is superb. If there’s one retro-game you should have, for one system, it’s Tower of Doom for the Sega Saturn.
The Southern Gentleman’s Opinion and Letter Grade: A sophisticated Beat ‘Em Up that needs to be discovered by you. A++