NES Review #1: Dragon Spirit: The New Legend

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts that review ancient 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) video games, 20 or so years after publication, and about 10 years since I have played them (with some exceptions). The format will be as follows: first, I will provide a review after spending a full half hour (at least) playing the game under examination. Second, my sister Meghan (who spent many childhood hours watching me play NES) will provide her viewpoint on the game, based entirely on memory. So without further ado…

Title: Dragon Spirit: The New Legend
Publisher: Namco
Year: 1990

Watch where you're swinging that sword, buddy....

Nice hat!

SHAUN:

In this, our first entry into the NES review series, we will cover the mighty Dragon Spirit: The New Legend. The title invites the question, “the new legend? What was the old one?” Well, apparently, Dragon Spirit was a popular arcade game back in the day when arcades were viable businesses, supplying entertainment to today’s video-game-addicts-and-shut-ins. Interestingly, the port to the NES results in almost entirely the same game, just with a different story put in place to try and make it seem like a sequel. The disguise is not terribly effective; anyone familiar with the arcade game will find the game play entirely recognizable – it’s the same game with a different story. For the uninitiated, the original story had a dude with the improbable name of Amru taking up the Dragon Sword to fight a Big Bad named Zawel. The game opens with a very simple one-minute boss fight, which apparently is this battle. Future game play is dependent on whether you win or lose this fight – and the game makes it easy to win. If you win, it is assumed that Amru delivered a beat-down to Zawel. If not..well, it was just a bad dream, but you still have to play more, only in easy mode as the Gold Dragon instead of the Blue one. Let’s examine the expository story that comes up if you win against Zawel – it’s an amusing set of declarative sentences that read like they were written by a 5-year old (much like Axe Cop):

“Amru and Arisha married and had twins.”

Okay, so Amru had a girlfriend and they got married. Guess they were old-school, since the twins arrived after the marriage. I wonder if they are named Luke and Leia?

“Amru became ill from his battle with Zawel.”

Oh, this is sad. I wonder how? I guess if I had fought through tons of levels to deliver a stomping to a boss that was as easy as Zawel, I’d feel a little sick as well.”

“The twins were named Lace and Iris.”

Okay, so, back to the twins? NOT Luke and Leia, it seems. What about Amru? Is he okay? I think not; a healthy father-to-be wouldn’t have chosen two girly names unless the twins were both girls. Lace and Iris? Which is the boy?

“Meanwhile, Galda started conquering the Earth.”

Crap! This is no “meanwhile, back at the ranch…” – while you were off getting married and having pansy twins, Amru, apparently the EARTH WAS BEING CONQUERED. Some hero. Maybe he’s always been “sick”.

“Galda took Iris away as his victim.”

Okay, so many questions. Maybe Amru is so ill he didn’t notice Zawel’s big brother coming to visit? What does “victim” actually mean in this sentence? Is Iris the girl or the boy? This is slightly disturbing. Also, who announces that someone will be their “victim”? Galda is clearly somewhat of a pompous monster.

“Lace took the sword, which his father left him, to slay Galda.”

Okay, lots of answers finally. Lace is the boy (not sure whether Lace or Iris is a better boy’s name). Apparently, Amru was so ill that he either had a living will, or he died – in either case, the sword he used to fight Zawel is now in Lace’s possession. The fact of Amru’s death is so sudden – I don’t know how to handle it! At least Lace is going to go slay Galda. Galda seems like he deserves it, with all this talk of unspecific “victims”.

Okay, enough on the story. What about the game itself?

I have to admit, this being the first game I pick up and play in the series, I was afraid I’d have lost all skill with the NES and be terrible. However, it looks like muscle memory is still in place – he’s still got it, folks! The game play is very smooth. The controller works well, and the fun meter is still high on this one. Basically, you are a dragon, flying over a landscape (the scenery moves; you have 360 degree control within the screen on display). There are two offensive systems; you can either shoot directly in the air with fire from your dragon mouth, or bomb the ground from unspecified dragon parts. Either you are spitting bombs, or pooping them out somehow. I appreciate the irony of pooping the enemy into submission, as it is a strategy that has worked for babies for millennia.

That being said, having these two fire control concepts means that the game has a concept of ground vs. air, which makes for some interesting enemies (they start on the ground, then leap into the air to come get you). So kudos on that particular architectural design piece. While we are on the subject, this game can handle a ridiculous number of sprites on-screen at the same time. Also, the main character dragon sprite is LARGE, meaning you are a huge target that can be taken down by a weapon shot of just a few pixels. So that adds to the strategy of the game. Finally, depending on if you throw the first “boss” fight, you can play all 9 levels as the blue dragon (which is harder; the fire control isn’t automatic until you level up, and you have fewer lives) or as the gold dragon. As the gold dragon, in addition to the action itself being easier to handle, you do skip many/most of the levels. So the gold dragon is a good way to get used to the game, then, when your confidence is supreme, start out as the blue dragon. Either way though, the bosses are ridiculously easy (often able to be taken down in less than 5 seconds once you know their weakness), at least until the last couple of bosses. Bosses include giant things, like giant spiders, or giant sea serpents, or giant plants, or giant horseshoe crabs…..not the most creative, but at least they are, you know, BIG.

I was pleasantly surprised by the music, which held up nicely. Each of the 9 worlds has its own catchy tune, which seems to match the ambiance of the landscape appropriately.

Two heads are better than one

Flying under the ocean...

If you shoot a flashing enemy, or bomb/turd on a red or blue rock, you can get power ups. These include:

– More firepower: Your shots are more effective, and if you power up all the way, you can just hold down the fire button instead of mashing it.
– More heads: Two is better than one, three is better than two. Basically you are doubling/tripling your effective firepower.
– Invincible: Self explanatory. It wears off (surprised?).
– Extra life: Self explanatory. It wears off (when you die).
– More speed: This is key, since you spend most of your time darting around the rectangle of play.
– More points: Useless. The points, they don’t matter.
– Angled shooting: This is nice – instead of a single shot straight ahead, it’s three dispersion shots.
– Small: The icon is “S”, which, again, betrays a lack of creativity. The result: you are small. (easier to dodge around the field of play)
– Small fake friends: Okay, so this one is a little hard to name. Basically, you become small, and develop two holographic friends on either side, slaved to your controls. But these holograms shoot real fire and poop real turds! And they can’t be hurt. Not bad.
– Super fire: Shoot long streams of super-powered flame, instead of discrete spats of fire.
– Earthquake: Everything on the ground dies, since the ground is shaking.

The 9 worlds are:

– Paleozoic era: No time travel involved, but you have to shoot dinosaurs and stuff. Kind of like the Land that Time Forgot.
– Volcano: Apparently our path to the source of evil now goes through a volcano. Why not just go around? I mean, you can fly, dude.
– Jungle: Now you are in a swarm of plant life. Fun only because you get to shoot through the overgrowth. Why doesn’t my fire breath burn all the plants? They must be inflammable or something.
– Graveyard: Okay, now our road is in a graveyard. Someone’s GPS must be on the flux.
– Cave Road: Flying your dragon in a cave sound difficult? Yep, it is.
– Glacier Road: All the fun of the Cave Road, except the scroll rate goes crazy fast at one point.
– Deep Sea: This is where it gets tough, and also, underwater. Apparently dragons swim just as well as they fly.
– Dark Road: All the fun of the Glacier Road, but now you have to do it in the dark.
– Evil Place: This is a nice callback to the first boss battle – flying through some sort of lame castle. All the fun of the past few levels, and it TAKES FOREVER to get through. Multiple boss battles ensue, so the challenge is all squashed at the end of the game.

Overall, though, I would say that this game is still a winner. I wouldn’t play it every day, but it certainly was not terrible, despite the incredibly declarative story and the bizarre route to the final boss. Definitely worth the replay.

MEGHAN:

Dragon Spirit was always one of my favorite NES games, possibly even my top favorite. I think that was because it was one of the few games I could play from start to finish on my own without having to either A.) quit in frustration or B.) ask Shaun to come beat the “big guy” for me. I’m not sure if this means the game was really easy or if it means I have some special affinity for flying around strange landscapes and shooting/pooping on enemies as a dragon.

As I recall, I always purposely lost the initial battle with Zawel because I wanted to be the Gold Dragon. It was MUCH easier with the Gold Dragon, and I didn’t derive some special sense of accomplishment from beating the game in the harder mode as the Blue Dragon. (Game being easy = 1. Me being good at it = 0).

On occasion, I would feel like tackling the challenge of playing as the Blue Dragon, especially since you got to play through more levels in that particular mode. These unfortunate sessions would usually end with my getting stuck on maybe the 3rd or 4th level and after using up all my lives in quick succession, I believe I would be treated with some kind of animation of Galda reveling in my defeat and a phrase like “Evil has triumphed” or some such nonsense, after which I would be returned to the title screen and be forced to start all over. It was extremely frustrating and not worth picking that stupid Blue Dragon.

One of my fondest memories of Dragon Spirit is this one day where I was playing on the 7th level as the Gold Dragon, which was an underwater level. It was pretty difficult, especially at the boss fight at the end of the level. However, I was kicking butt. I was doing so good that Shaun and our dad even paused to watch me beat up the underwater boss and express amazement that I was playing so well. I recall the phrase “How can you do that?!” I didn’t get hit even once! My heart swelled with pride! I was the unstoppable Gold Dragon that even my big brother noticed! (Game being easy = 1. Me being good at it = 1).

I also remember that after I beat the game as the Gold Dragon, the screen would go to a picture of Lace as a toddler capering about in a nightgown wearing a ghoulish grin as he clutches one end of a leash, the other end of which is affixed around a small blue dragon’s throat. The dragon looks like it is being yanked around by this child and it’s about to die or something, as its expression is one of pure terror, complete with bulging eyes and a protruding tongue. This horrible depiction is accompanied by Lace saying something along the lines of “Oh! Thank goodness! It was all a dream! Monsters are scary…but my sister Iris is scarier!” Ummm, this kid is running around in his nightgown gleefully choking a baby dragon. I don’t want to meet his sister if she is scarier. I also like that this clear case of animal abuse is set to a really peaceful piano-like song.

Overall, Dragon Spirit was a fun game that I enjoyed playing repeatedly. I may not have been up to Blue Dragon standards but darn it, I was really good as that Gold Dragon. I guess it doesn’t really matter that I could only beat the game on easy, after all I was only a little kid – although I hope I was never a kid like the twisted Lace or ultra-scary Iris.

Death comes to all dragons

Death comes to all dragons...

4 comments on “NES Review #1: Dragon Spirit: The New Legend”

  1. sander Reply

    HOLY COW!!!
    This was always my favorite game, though it gets ridiculously tough without the joystick controller.
    Although admittedly I was never super-great at video games, and repeatedly get shown up by 7 year olds at just about everything I’ve tried.

    Great review!

  2. Ian Reply

    seriously such a good game. The only downside was that when you’re 7 levels in and die, you come back with no powers whatsoever and can’t beat shit.

    But man what a good game!!

  3. Robert Paymer Reply

    “…as the Gold Dragon, the screen would go to a picture of Lace as a toddler capering about in a nightgown wearing a ghoulish grin as he clutches one end of a leash, the other end of which is affixed around a small blue dragon’s throat. ” – This is actually a funny “bad” ending, with the blue dragon being Lace, and the child being his sister walking him like a pet.

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