23 September 2012

Review: King of Dragons (SNES)



King of Dragons is a 2D sidescrolling beat 'em up with Gygaxian fantasy overtones for 1-4 players released in arcades 1991 and ported to the Super Nintendo in 1994. For this review, I will be focusing on the SNES release. From what I have played of the arcade version, the gameplay is basically identical-- the difficulty is just toned down since a console doesn't need to bleed you of your quarters.

From the character selection screen, it's pretty obvious the game seeks to emulate classic Dungeons & Dragons. The types of characters you can choose break down exactly along the class lines available in the original D&D1, with the exception of excluding halflings and calling one class a “wizard” instead of the tackier, but more technical label “magic user.” Also a notable similarity to classic rather than future forms of D&D, the demi-human races represent their own classes-- the elf and the dwarf. To further hit home the point that what you're playing is kinda like D&D, every character you can choose has “LV 1” written above his name, even though this is basically redundant information since nobody starts at a different level. It is worth noting, though, that Capcom would later produce two more fantasy-themed beat 'em ups with the TSR license: Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara. At their core, these games are basically all clones of Golden Axe-- if you didn't like Golden Axe, you probably won't like these games. If what you wanted was a better version of Golden Axe, all of these games are for you.

Each character type has their own advantages and disadvantages. The elf and wizard are both ranged fighters, while the fighter, cleric, and dwarf use a melee attack. While ranged characters can keep their distance from a fight, they don't have shields, so they can't block attacks. On the other hand, blocking is only useful if it is timed correctly with an opponent's attack. The fighter has the most powerful attacks, the cleric has the most health, and the dwarf has the special advantage of being able to attack low-lying slimes that creep along the floor without having to wait for them to jump up.

Personally, I don't really see a reason to play as anyone other than the elf. Having a ranged attack is a major advantage in this game. Most enemies in King of Dragons have some kind of shield they can use to block attacks and then counter-attack briefly after blocking. Players are expected to trade blows back-and-forth to some extent, timing blocks and probably taking damage in the process. If you're fighting more than one enemy at a time-- which you almost always are if you're on single player-- blocking has such a short window that a staggered enemy attack, where one is just a split-second away from the other, will always hit you. I guess you could choose one of the melee characters if you're a masochist and want more of a challenge, but-- especially in single player-- it seems to me like more hassle than it's worth.

With a ranged attack, there's no need for this song and dance. Enemies that block will take your next arrow when they lash out, since attacking means they drop their guard. Ideally their attack will miss because you'll be on the other side of the screen. I generally choose the elf over the wizard, too, since the wizard's weapon at a couple points in the game may change into a shorter-range burst of flame or lightning. It's powerful, true, but sadly robs him of his range advantage. The elf's attacks never go through this hiccup-- he just gets fancier bows (for better range) and bigger, more bad ass arrows (for more damage).

So, those are the characters you can play as. What about all the ones you'll be fighting?

The game starts off rather underwhelmingly with some standard orcs. Yawn. There's a wolfman in there that shoots a crossbow, at least (and players will see more of his palette swaps as the game progresses), but when the level boss is just “The Orc King,” it doesn't look too promising. Does every level 1 adventurer have to make his way killing orcs? Is this a law or something? Aren't there other low level creatures a designer could throw out there or-- shock of shocks!-- are there any new ones they could invent?

Luckily, this is just the game easing the player in. I guess once the Orc King is dead we can go past the issue and get on with more interesting villains. The orcs don't ever go away entirely-- they're back in blue and red forms, each stronger than the last-- but for the most part, this cliché is gotten over with quickly.

The rest of the common foes the player will face do feel a bit generic, too, but they at least demonstrate good variety. These include (but are not limited to) skeletons that jump around, slime that grabs the player's feet, merfolk with big polearms, kamikaze lizardmen, harpies, and mummies that will lift player characters off the ground to choke them. Many of the oncoming waves of enemies are designed to look as though they are assaults planned out by an enemy commander rather than just a game designer. For example, goons will capture players in pincer formations, fire at them with a row of archers, or bombard them with homunculi. Generally, these are just a result of the material constraints on the screen, however, including number of enemies, allowable frame rates, and having two sides from which to attack. Clearly the enemies don't subscribe to the school of military thought that says one should strike with overwhelming force, but goons fighting heroes rarely do. This is part of what makes them goons and our allows heroes to be heroes. Overall, though there are moments where their strategic placement and unique attack patterns make the game challenging, the enemies in King of Dragons are a blend of fairly standard, high fantasy monsters and nothing too much to write home about.

There's one particular enemy I had trouble classifying. I would hesitate to call them dragons. Now, the game does refer to them as dragons2, but while they are fire-breathing reptiles, they are bipedal with shortened forelimbs, flightless (wingless, even!), and not too much taller than a man. On the other hand, dragons can have a variety of breath weapons, it's true, but as a rule they are quadripedal reptiles that fly with wings and are freaking ginormous. These other monsters are clearly inspired by what the credits of Golden Axe refer to as “dragons,” but those weren't actually dragons either, for the same reasons. They're a little more like big, fire-breathing velociraptors than dragons. Not that those aren't awesome in their own way, let's be clear here, they're just not dragons. What should these things be called? They must have a technical name somewhere, but I haven't yet found it.

Regardless of its mostly generic goons, the boss enemies are where King of Dragons really gets to shine. The game really lives up to the “Dragons” in its title. It showcases several dragon-type enemies aside from the dragon rider. There's an accurate wyvern3, a non-regenerating hydra whose three heads shoot different elemental attacks, “The Great Dragonian” who's a sort of bad ass, magic-wielding man-dragon in armor4, and of course an ancient, red dragon named Gildiss-- the titular King of Dragons and seemingly a tip of the hat to Smaug-- for the finish.

Even aside from the dragon-type bosses, the game plumbs mythology and high fantasy for a few more unique fights. There's a fight with a minotaur where the floor breaks, and the player can for a few seconds battle the minotaur in mid-air before landing on the next level of the palace. I wish this mid-air fight was longer, because it changes the physics of the game for that while, too, which is an interesting concept. Then there's a cyclops that throws rocks like Polyphemus in Homer's Odyssey and tries to chomp on people's heads. Combat with a swarm of giant spiders in a dark forest clearly aims to reference Bilbo's fight to rescue his dwarven companions in Mirkwood.

One of my favorite non-dragon boss fights is the Dark Wizard. What I love about this fight is the way the level sets the player up for it. The level is called “Dark Wizard's Tower,” so you know what you're getting into from the get-go. Then at the end of the first section, the players battle a puny-looking wizard in a funny hat with some kinda weak, but kinda cheap spells.

That guy can take a bit to defeat, but he leaves you thinking, “Was that it? Some wizard, pshaw!” And then your characters step inside the tower to loot some treasure and this foreboding music starts up. Then you get a dialog box from someone speaking invisibly and this big, super mean, and ultra tough wizard comes flying at you, spewing fire and lightning. It's a tough boss fight, no doubt, but it's the way that it's played for surprise that makes the Dark Wizard one of the most memorable bosses in the game.

The stages in the game5 pretty much mirror its goons: generic, but diverse. The heroes travel through a couple forests, caves, castles, catacombs, and even a boat. For the most part, they're all just window dressing for a series of 2D sidescrolling bits of land. The graphics aren't what I would call bad by any stretch, but they're not awe-inspiring, either. Only a few of the stages have many unique affordances, like the way that the limits of being on a boat prevent players from fighting enemies off-screen, or the way players can move and fight mid-air while the floor falls out from under them in the minotaur's stage.

I think that the primary intention of the stages in King of Dragons is, in combination with particular choices of enemies, to evoke in the player the sense of other adventures. When we land a ship on a beach to fight skeletons and harpies, leading us up to a minotaur and cyclops, we should be reminded of Jason and the Argonauts fighting Ray Harryhausen's monsters. When we defeat giant spiders in the Trent Woods, we should be recalling Bilbo in Mirkwood. When we fight a bunch of orcs in the woods, we should be reminded of just about any time we've had a first level character in D&D. And so on. This sort of structure makes the game less about the heroes' main quest-- killing Gildiss-- and more about acting as a fantasy pastiche where everybody can get a piece of the pie that pleases them.

Speaking of the game's stages and enemies, every now and then there are little, floating one-use-only orbs that come up. If a player hits them, they'll trigger a magic attack that will clear all the enemies from a screen (except for bosses, naturally). There's even an especially pleasing variety of magical effects that come from these orbs, from fairly standard spouts of fire or lightning to calling down meteors or even turning all on-screen enemies into frogs. Can't say I know too many other games where you turn your enemies into frogs! Normally polymorphing into toads is an evil spell that gets used against heroes, like in Quest For Glory, so it's kind of cathartic to turn the tables, especially when the spell is so powerful that it affects all enemies on the screen. Take that!

Besides being one-use-only, a few things set these orbs apart from their near-analogue in Golden Axe-- collecting the magic pots. The first is that they avoid the morally questionable abuse of and theft from little people. The second is their unique, floaty-bobbly physics and the way that players can move them around by running into them. And lastly, while their time sensitivity doesn't distinguish them from the magic pots of Golden Axe, their positioning is often meted out in a very exact and predictable way that make their time sensitivity into a challenge to get the best use out of them.

Generally, a magic orb will appear during a fight with a wave of weak enemies, followed by a slightly stronger wave, and then the strongest. The implicit challenge of these orbs, then, is to fight through the first wave or two of enemies quickly without hitting the orb (which can be done accidentally), then moving it along fast enough to hit the entirety of the tougher group of enemies with it before it disappears. Giving players this limited window of opportunity offers a more interesting strategic challenge, in my opinion, than seeing how many pots they can kick out of a dwarf and letting them use that magic whenever they feel like it.

One last thing I'd like to mention is the leveling system for King of Dragons. As I mentioned, players all start at level one. In this game, the player's score acts as an analogy to the experience points of Dungeons & Dragons. Your score goes up when you defeat a monster or collect treasure, and you level at predictable benchmarks, which refills your health and boosts your maximum hit points. This means that the treasure in the game is actually worth something in-game, which is a bit of a relief. It always annoys me when a game features a scoring system, but just as a vestigial growth of the arcade high score board without in any way relating it to in-game performance or using it to guide players or... anything useful really. Building levels this way also gives less skilled players a way to boost their character periodically and keep paced with a more skilled player. When I play with my brother, sometimes I just let him get all the treasure because I know he'll need the eventual extra health more than I will.

Now, aside from leveling by score and increasing a player's maximum health, the boss of most stages will also drop a golden treasure chest that contains upgrades for players. These vary by player class, but generally increase weapon power or range (for the elf and wizard) or else power or defense (for melee characters). I could see this being improved a little if the player to have a choice of upgrades. At the end of every stage, for example, a wizard might have been given a choice to upgrade attack range or power. A system like this could be potentially gamebreaking if used without limits (“More damage, more damage, more damage, more damage... oh, bosses only take three hits now? Well, that's... interesting.”), but if players could upgrade by choice to a set maximum, I don't think it would be a problem, so long as enemy reach and endurance continued to offer the players a threat.

The set weapon progression is, however, nicely balanced, so I can't complain too much about it. The designers even provoke players a bit, faking them out a couple times by not awarding new upgrades at the end of a stage. So you reach the end of a stage and go, “Wait, what about my weapons!? Noooo...!” But then you'll find new ones somewhere in the next stage. It's a nice variation in pacing that subverts players' expectations for affect. A one-time gag, yes, but it adds some variety to the game's progression, and makes for a couple interesting combat scenarios, like where you have to grab your new weapons while fighting off skeletons or slimes that can prevent you from moving.

My one complaint about Capcom's execution of this leveling technique is that after the weapon upgrades appear, they're on a timer and either the item will start blinking and disappear (if you found it before the stage boss), or else the stage will end completely without warning if you take too long, which can be really frustrating. Falling behind in power seems like a little harsh of a penalty for not escaping from a slime fast enough or dropping your controller or running to answer the phone and expecting your friend to pause or any other conceivable scenario that might make you miss an upgrade. The upgrades are static, though, so you can always catch up. For example, The Cave of Hydra will always have a Level 3 Elf Bow if you're playing as an elf. Because weapon upgrades tend to alternate, however, missing one will leave a player one upgrade behind the curve in their shield, sword, bow, staff, or whatever for two stages. Still, if you can tough it out a couple stages, it's a pretty forgiving penalty.

In summary, King of Dragons is a fun way to pass the time as a fantasy hero, an improvement over playing early Gauntlet games or Golden Axe, marred mostly by its generic presentation. This was the sort of game I used to play when nobody else was around to play D&D or if I just wanted to get my mind into a fantasy mode in a brief period of time with no planning-- just pick up the controller and play. It's even better with a friend. If you're looking for a good hack 'n slash game on the SNES, definitely check this one out.

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1Fighter, cleric, dwarf, elf, or magic user.
2As evident in the name of the first enemy using one as a steed, the boss known as, “Dragon Rider.”
3Distinguishable by having wings on its forelimbs with no arms and a stinger on its tail. Sadly, in King of Dragons, the wyvern never uses its stinger.
4The Great Dragonian also has the most spectacular death in the game, it should be noted.
5The game doesn't seem to present a preferred term for its stages, but I use the term rather than “levels” to avoid confusion with talking about character levels.

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