sunnuntai 13. marraskuuta 2011

REVIEW - Dragon Fighter (1990)

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: August 1990
PUBLISHER(S): Towachiki, Sofel

The Software Engineering Laboratory, a.k.a. Sofel, is a Tokyo based IT company specialized in systems development for businesses. Like many IT companies, especially Japanese ones, Sofel wanted to try their luck with video games once upon a time. So, how did they do? Well... have you ever heard of 'em? Exactly. Among the approximately twenty games Sofel ever made was Dragon Fighter, an 8-bit side scroller that was totally devoid of distinguishing characteristics on the outside - such as a memorable name. Yet, on the inside, was a surprisingly good game!

Do not provoke me, man - I'm a dragon

Snowflakes, those evil creations of Satan.
An evil wizard by the name of Zabbaong dispatches an army of monsters to invade and destroy the peaceful land of Baljing, ignoring the citizens' strong belief and trust in a powerful deity that watches over them. This deity - the spirit of a dragon - possesses a statue of a legendary warrior, and embarks on a journey towards the wizard's keep on the mountains to avenge his people.

If I had any expectations at all, I was damn sure I would lynch and eat this game alive by reviewing it. I betted on atrocious gameplay, and if that wasn't enough, I could've always pulled the "ActRaiser already did this better" card on it. Well, the gameplay's in moderately good order, and Dragon Fighter actually came out a while before ActRaiser did. How do I like them apples? Hey, I'm all for surprises. Even though I would've loved to slaughter yet another innocent 8-bit game, it's refreshing to see a positive surprise, just as well.

Was this 1986? No, this was 1990, and taking the year of release into account, the game isn't much of a looker, at first. The level design improves on the go, as well as the backgrounds. The frame rate is also good, and the final level is probably the fastest side scroller ever seen on the NES; graphically impressive, utterly frustrating when it comes to gameplay. The music is amazing at its best, I would almost go as far as to place the soundtrack into the same grade of 8-bit awesomeness as Journey to Silius, which came out around the same time as Dragon Fighter did in Japan. Can't help hearing some bits ripped off something else, though. This was the only game that composer Ukkari Yumanishi worked on - a pity, really.

Dragon Fighter has all the ingredients of a frustrating 8-bit action platformer almost impossible to play, let alone enjoy; inescapable gauntlets of enemies and their projectiles taking good care that you enter each boss fight with one foot in the grave (and losing the fight, of course, takes you to the beginning of the level, and eventually the beginning of the whole game), EXTREMELY rare power-ups, lacking physics and random collision detection. Also, your health does not replenish to the maximum between levels, only between deaths. If you enter the final level with less than maximum health and no continues left, you can pretty much get comfortable with starting the game over. It's that unforgiving.

Let's put it this way. You're a flytrap, I'm a dragon.
I'd stop pestering me right now.
There are six levels with one boss fight each. Your character is a nameless warrior, or a magically animated statue of one. (He certainly moves like a statue.) The first level's some snowy field (where you'll be doing battle with demonic snowflakes...?!), then there's a cave filled with plants (from every game ever made), an aqueduct (with water currents strong enough to carry the weight of your character, as always), some sort of robot factory (ooh, the fine sense of context kills me), a haunted castle (what did I say about every game ever made just now?), and finally, the sky, which you'll be flying across at an incredible speed while fending off swarms of annoying enemies, as the game suddenly takes the form of a shoot 'em up. If you can somehow survive some thick skinned flying mermen shooting lasers from their eyes, you'll have to deal with dozens of birds (or insects, or whatever) flying at you from ALL directions at once. If you're lucky enough to get past them, the final boss will most likely be glad to hand you your ass. Don't expect no power-ups in this level.

Dragon Fighter is a very frustrating game, but it's surprisingly playable, considering it's such an obscure 8-bit game. It doesn't really have any more real flaws than your average NES title, and at the very least it offers the player a few chances to continue; a lot of games, not to mention a lot of longer games, don't have this feature. The boss design is quite damn good, the boss fights are all different, and a lot more complex than they were in a whole lot of other games of the era. Way to go, Sofel!

I saved the best for last, a very impressive gameplay feature, once again considering the times and the relatively small amount of money invested in the development of this game. By killing enough enemies, or collecting the rarest power-up there is, you gain metamorphosis power; once the meter is full, you can temporarily morph into a dragon. Unlike in standard form, you don't have to jump and crouch in an excessive, rhythmic and rapid pace, or charge projectiles, you just fly across the screen and shoot shit up. In both forms, you can pick up bottles which change your colour, as well as the type of your projectiles. In the final level, you play exclusively as the dragon, and as I said before, that's where the fun ends. The most important thing is that Dragon Fighter is fun for much longer than many games that shared its most annoying technical flaws back in the day. Strategizing will not save you, but it will help you, for a surprisingly long time.

Looks like my ex-mother-in-law's house.
In a gamer's utopia, beating Dragon Fighter takes less than 30 minutes. In the grim reality, it takes hours, 'cause you're going to see several definitive Game Over screens once you seriously start hacking through this forgotten piece of retro. The bosses' patterns - most of which change after they have suffered enough damage - are quite easy to figure out, but it's the paths that lead to the bosses that will force you to make a decision between fighting the enemies or just running away until you reach the final screen, hoping you'll have even a little health left when you face off with the big cheese of the level. Beating a boss increases your maximum health a bit, which is good, since it's a totally pathetic sum in the beginning of the game. You might even say the game gets easier after the first level, right up until the final one which is just blue hell.

Dragon Fighter is a strangely addictive curiosity from the NES vaults. Since it has only six levels, you're going to find yourself thinking that it can't be that difficult and retrying it from scratch, time and time again. You're wrong, it is difficult, but good luck and good spirits be with you anyway. You'll also probably like the music, if you're a sucker for 8-bit jingles in the style of Silius and hell, maybe even Castlevania. To put it simply, it is a surprisingly good and hearty video game effort by such a serious company not usually affiliated with the game industry.

SOUND : 8.7


The game was never released in Europe. Even the North American release was pushed as far as early 1992.

There was an European, totally unrelated fantasy game of the same name released on the Commodore Amiga in 1991.

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