Well, last week’s review was a bit of a wash. Konami let me down for once with their dud of an RPG, Dragon Scroll. Fortunately, I can rely on another of my all-time favorite developers to deliver a dragon game worth playing. I’m talking about Natsume. Much of their early ’90s output flew under the radar initially, only to ascend to cult status years later within the classic gaming community. Most people with an abiding interest in the NES today hardly need to be told that Natsume greats like Power Blade and Shatterhand are worth seeking out. These gems are hidden no more.
Despite this, nobody ever seems to talk about my subject today, 1990’s Dragon Fighter. Why is that? It’s possible Dragon Fighter’s North American publisher, SOFEL, underproduced or undermarketed the game when they brought it out here in early 1992. Authentic copies command ridiculous prices at auction, which seems to lend credence to the notion that there just aren’t that many in circulation. Its cover art certainly didn’t do it any favors, either. The titular sword-swinging hero looks less like Conan and more like a musclebound version of David “Ross” Schwimmer from TV’s Friends. It’s pretty gross.
In all seriousness, I may never know for sure why Dragon Fighter appears destined to remain the forgotten Natsume NES title. I do know it’s a successful hybrid of two popular genres and a damn fine time overall, however. That’s good enough for me.
Your objective is to deliver the once peaceful land of Baljing from the oppression of the warlock Zabbaong. To this end, you assume the role of a warrior statue animated by the power of Baljing’s divine protector, the Dragon Spirit. Standard fantasy stuff, really. Kudos to Natsume for not trying to shoehorn a princess in there, though. There are a total of six stages the Fighter needs to survive before the final showdown with Zabbaong in the skies above Mount Gia. Each is wholly unique, with its own backgrounds, enemies, and music track. The designers resisted the obvious temptation to pad things out by recycling some of this content into “new” levels, leaving Dragon Fighter to stand as a fine example of a short game done right.
At first blush, Dragon Fighter presents as a typical hack-and-slash exercise. The first stage deposits you in an icy wasteland teeming with wolfmen and killer snowflakes. Naturally, you’ll start mowing them down with your primary weapon, a sword. As you do this, you’ll notice a gauge below your health bar gradually filling up. The manual dubs this the “metamorph meter” and once it’s at least 50% filled, it’ll start flashing. At any point thereafter, you can hold up on the directional pad while jumping to transform into a flying dragon. This not only powers you up, it instantly and seamlessly changes Dragon Fighter’s genre! Whereas before you were playing an action-platformer, you’re now operating in a Gradius style auto-scrolling shooter mode.
In addition to being unbound by gravity, your dragon will have one of three powerful breath attacks. These are a triple spread shot, a downward arcing fire bomb, and homing fireballs. The one you get depends on the current color of the Fighter’s armor. It starts out green (spread shot) and can be changed to red (bomb) or blue (homing) by picking up letter icons placed along your path. The Fighter’s human form can also fire off a charged projectile attack with a similar effect, although baddies defeated this way won’t count toward the metamorph meter. If you want my advice, stick to blue whenever possible. Your dragon’s one weakness is that it can only face (and shoot) to the right. Homing shots work wonders against anything that manages to get behind you.
Like all good things, your time as a dragon must end sooner or later. The metamorph meter steadily depletes with use and only kills with the sword can refill it. You’ll either be forced to revert to human form when you run out of meter or you’ll change back voluntarily before then (by pressing down and jump) in order to conserve it. The need to manage this precious resource adds a welcome degree of strategy to Dragon Fighter. Levels aren’t timed and they all feature endlessly respawning enemies. This means that if you want to progress slow and steady, always taking the time to keep your metamorph meter charged, you can. This is probably the best way for novices to approach the game, as you’re only given four lives with which to complete all six stages. More advanced players can skip the enemy farming and press ahead at a steadier pace. If you’re a real master, you can even try to tackle entire levels as a human. It’s always at least possible. This strategic cycling between the hero’s two forms allows Dragon Fighter to stand out some among the endless sea of 8-bit side-scrollers. The way each represents an entirely different play style without the game as a whole feeling disjointed is a testament to the quality design work Natsume was doing around this time.
Things are equally commendable on the audiovisual side. The starting area makes a great first impression with falling snow, glittering ice crystals, and a color-shifting aurora borealis in the background. Later ones showcase similarly impressive moving backdrops, such as waterfalls, massive machines, and the rushing clouds of Mount Gia. Sprites tend to be modest in size (in order to allow plenty of room for your dragon to fly around in), but make up for it by being quite well animated. Kouichi Yamanishi’s score utilizes the same superb in-house sound engine as his one for Shadow of the Ninja and the results are every bit as intense and memorable. Stage three’s theme, “Into the Depth,” ranks among the best ever composed for the hardware, in my opinion.
True to its pedigree, Dragon Fighter is a the epitome of a B-tier action game on the NES. It can’t quite match the intricate level design of a Castlevania, the blistering pace of a Ninja Gaiden, or the variety of a Mega Man, yet it commits no major design sins and has an identity and a charm all its own. While it hasn’t replaced Shatterhand as my personal favorite Natsume release, it’s very much on par with their Power Blade, Shadow of the Ninja, and S.C.A.T. for me. If you’re at all interested in exploring the system’s library beyond the realm of top ten lists, I encourage you to make time for Dragon Fighter. Provided you don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege, that is. I’d better be getting a real dragon for that kind of money.