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Dragon Spirit

Released: 1990
Company: Bandai
Genre: Shooter

Sometimes, all it takes is a few revisions here and there to drastically change the look of something. Some may interpret this as my explanation that Dragon Spirit was a game that took the standard paradigm of the space shooter, took it out of its indigenous setting, and thrust into a world that it had never been before1, and I guess that such a view is valid. That is, after all, exactly what the makers of this game did. However, I like to view that thought more as what else could have been changed to make this a better game, namely the people who designed it. Don't get me wrong, Dragon Spirit is an excellent game, and that's exactly my point. If it had a name like Konami or Capcom behind it, there might have been enough to promote enough interest in this game to develop a sequel, because it truly deserves one. With only a few minor flaws here and there, DS looks to have had the potential to become a hit.

What really stands out about this game is the untraditional plot that is given to it. In fact, that it has a plot is remarkable; the shoot-em-up genre is filled with games whose storyline can be readily summarized into eight words: Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire.2 The distance that the plot puts between this game and the others is not solely the reason for the above-average score, nor is the fact that the main hero turns into the dragon you control at the outset (although I will admit, it is a factor), it's that the plot actually incorporates the elements of a medieval setting as if it had done it all along.

I cannot give the plot rating a 6, however, because there are also several flaws within the game. First of all, I do not own the instruction manual, and yet the story plays out as if we already know who everybody is. I also hate it when the PROGRAMMERS think they have to put the NAMES of each CHARACTER in all CAPS. The scenes after each stage could have been fleshed out a little bit more; the people you rescue seem little more than Mushroom Retainers. At least they don't just say "Our Princess is in another castle" (Or is that, "Our PRINCESS is in another CASTLE"?) but they do little to forward the plot. Also, the opening scenes before you start and after the first battle use the exact same pictures. Still, even with these problems present, it deserves a 5 for the reasons explained above.

The sensory aspects of the game is where I think a bigger name could've helped out. The graphics seem a bit busy for my tastes. This is especially true in the first level; there are so many different things on the screen it can get pretty difficult to figure what stuff you need to shoot at. Since there are two planes of attack (which I'll describe further in the next paragraph), you need to know where everything is coming from. The bosses, big as they are, are well animated, although they lack some detail. As for the music, the people behind this game had probably had it up to their clavicles with the techno-pop that is prevalent among most shooters, and went for something more mellow and fluid. It's as if they traded their rock band for a string quartet. It's oddly soothing3, and it can be difficult to work up a lot of frustration when the music puts you at such an ease. The boss theme, however, is just as rocking as any other music on the console, if a bit short.

As mentioned above, you're facing enemies and projectiles from both the ground and the air. So, in order for you to take everything out, you're armed with dragon breath for the flying foes and bombs to take care of the goons on the ground. Depending on which dragon you control, you can start with rapid fire or pick it up later with the correct powerup. This is pulled off spectacularly in my view: It gives the game a more multi-dimensional feel than standard shooters. Some bosses, too, have elements on the ground that must be taken out along with those in the air, and occasionally you'll find eggs on the ground which house powerups.

The way the game decides on your difficulty rating is also quite interesting. You play through a short level, and your success or failure dictates if you play as a Blue or Gold Dragon, respectively. As a Blue Dragon, you can only take three hits, and must play through all nine stages. If you're the Gold Dragon, you have six hits to work with, and your agenda consists of levels 1, 3, 4, 7, and 9.4 Once again, this nonstandard feature is a terrific addition to the game. Also, there are so many different powerups at your disposal, it's very easy to find one combination that you like the most. The claim I made previously that one hit takes away all your powerups was incorrect as well: Many abilities (such as the number of heads you have or the strength of your breath) come in levels; a hit reduces the power, but doesn't negate it.

Still, there are a few kinks to work out in the challenge department. Your dragon lacks the obligatory invincibility after taking a hit. This is one cliché I could live with, especially since when you're controlling the Blue Dragon, all it takes is a couple hits in rapid succession to bring your dragon tumbling back down to Earth. I also seem irked at how the score seems to be there simply for the sake of having a numerical score. By my account, it has no role in offering extra lives or continues; it's just there to be there. However, at the end of some stages, the characters you meet are in silhouette; perhaps accruing a high enough score would bring them out of the shadow.

I will say this: I am not particularly a fan of shooters. I have been more inclined towards the games where the use of strategy and guile is more important than androidesque reflexes. However, Dragon Spirit is the exception that proves the rule. Not because of the setting, or the challenge, or the mellow music. It's the combination of these parts that makes this game so much fun to play. For a game like this, the whole is truly more than just the sum of its parts. The games are relatively quick, but that's fine and dandy with me. I'd probably get blisters if I played a twitch shooter for more than 45 minutes at a time.

In short, if Dragon Spirit had been devised by a more well-known company, it might have become a franchise rather than just one game. Any minor errors in the technical field would have been corrected, and this game would be breaching the 85% barrier. Still, it's a terrific game and proof that sometimes, the road less traveled works just as well as the standard fare.

1. At least, by my recollection. If any hardcore shmup fan can confirm or correct this, be my guest.

2. OK, so the Bydo Empire is not the chief villain of all shooters, but it may as well be.

3. Which is exactly what my old capsule said. Hey, what can I say, the classification fits.

4. I'm assuming the latter two stages are dumbed down in easy mode. I cannot speak for 7, but I know approximately the first half of stage 9 is taken out.

Overall Ratings:

Play Control:
Technical Score: 15
Challenge: (Hard)
Thrill: (Frustrating)
Aesthetic Score: 19
Overall Score: 81%