The shoot ’em up genre is, it’s fair to say, fairly dominated by spaceships. It makes sense — a sci-fi tale allows for pretty much unbridled creativity, taking the player on a journey through the stars into the great unknown, battling off hordes of unimaginable horrors from many light years away.
But the fantasy genre is ripe for exploiting in this way, too; much like the more outlandish side of sci-fi, a lot of fantasy has never seemed too concerned with respecting the usual laws of physics, time and space. And as such there’s no good reason why we couldn’t have just as satisfying a time blasting our way through a fantasy tale as we could if we were behind the controls of some sort of comically overpowered spaceship.
Namco evidently felt this way back in 1987 when they released the fantasy-themed vertically scrolling shoot ’em up Dragon Spirit to the arcades. And then they remembered it was still a very good idea a couple of years later when they released quasi-sequel Dragon Spirit: The New Legend for Famicom in 1989, with a North American NES version following in 1990. And this 8-bit home console version can now be enjoyed by a whole new audience today, thanks to its inclusion on the Namco Museum Collection 2 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming system. So let’s take a closer look!
The original Dragon Spirit followed the story of the great hero Amru as he attempted to dispatch the great evil of the hour, Zawel. Clearly wishing to be discreet about this assault mission, Amru opted to “disguise” himself as a honking great blue dragon and then proceed to set fire to absolutely everything in his path on the way to comprehensively immolate everything between Zawel’s face and genitals. And perhaps rescue the obligatory princess along the way, too.
Dragon Spirit: The New Legend kicks off with an adaptation of the original game’s final stage, in which you take on the role of Amru in flame-spewing blue dragon form as he approaches his final confrontation with Zawel. Interestingly, how well you perform in this initial mini-stage determines how the rest of the game unfolds; if you successfully defeat Zawel (which is not super-difficult) you play the “real” game; if, however, you die during what is essentially the game’s tutorial stage, you are railroaded down the “Gold Dragon” path, in which the narrative setup is slightly different, you don’t play all the levels in the game, you have a considerably more powerful dragon and better powerups, and in which the ending unfolds completely differently. Even the Game Over message is different!
Yes, Dragon Spirit: The New Legend is kind enough to present you with an “easy mode” should you fail to prove yourself within the first 30 seconds of the game. This is actually a really nice way of doing things; for one thing, it gives the game replay value besides simply chasing high scores, and for another it allows those a little less experienced with shoot ’em ups to refine their skills in a somewhat more forgiving variant of the game before taking on the “real” challenge.
Regardless of whether you’re playing the “Blue” or “Gold” route, Dragon Spirit: The New Legend’s mechanics are pretty similar to its predecessor. You control Amru’s son Lace as he takes up his father’s sword in order to transform into a dragon and set fire to everything in his path on his way to take down the great evil of the hour, who this time around is known as Galda. This quest unfolds from a top-down, vertically scrolling perspective, and takes in elements of Namco’s classic shooters Xevious and Galaga along the way.
The Xevious connection comes from the fact that you’re able to shoot fireballs ahead of you for aerial enemies and drop “bombs” to hit ground targets. At lower levels of power, you can actually hold one fire button down and press the other one, but if you’ve powered up a bit you’ll have to choose between one or the other to fire at once. One would assume this stems from sprite limitations on the Famicom/NES rather than an attempt to deliberately make things inconsistent or awkward for the player, but it’s still something you’ll need to take into account.
The Galaga connection, meanwhile, is a little more subtle, but it’s definitely there; many of the enemies perform kamikaze “swooping” motions down the screen in an attempt to cut your quest short, and either taking them out on the way down or avoiding their deadly charge becomes essential to success before very long.
As you fly along, flashing flying enemies or coloured eggs on the ground will spit out power-ups when shot, and these take a variety of forms. Some will simply increase the power of the dragon’s shots; others will allow it to sprout extra heads for additional firepower, or perhaps change colour for different firing arrangements. The white dragon, for example, has a much wider spread of shots, while the green dragon shoots powerful streams of fire that can plough right through enemies rather than disappearing when they hit something.
You’ll need to be a little careful in the later stages, though; power-ups that show a skull will drop your dragon’s power down to its basic level, requiring you to buff yourself up again. Inevitably, this will happen right before a difficult bit or even a boss, but these icons tend to show up at the same time on every run, so you can learn when you need to avoid them.
On the whole, Dragon: Spirit: The New Legend is a fairly forgiving game. Even on the Blue route, you can take several hits before losing a life, and you can take even more on the Gold route. Taking damage does cause you to lose power, though and actually losing a life sets you back to a checkpoint rather than simply respawning you where you fell. This strikes a good balance between accessibility and challenge and means that you can’t “credit feed” your way through the game; you’ll actually need to get past the parts that are giving you difficulty if you want to see one of the endings.
And it’s a journey worth taking. Dragon Spirit: The New Legend’s biggest highlight is its interesting, varied stage design. Beginning in the Palaeozoic era, the game’s complete run takes you on a journey through time and space, with each level offering not only unique enemies to deal with, but also its own navigational hazards to contend with. The undersea level, for example, features molluscs with spiked shells that can continue to hurt you even after you’ve defeated their “living” component; the jungle stage, meanwhile, features a tricky sequence where you have to blast your way through sharp vines and sticky insect webs while continuing to fend off or avoid the aforementioned Galaga-esque enemy attacks from various bugs and beasties.
Each level concludes with a boss battle; sadly, most of these are pretty simple once you know the trick behind each of them, and on the Gold route in particular they’re often over in a matter of seconds if you’ve stayed on top of your power-ups. This can feel a little anticlimactic, but the challenge factor of the levels themselves can more than make up for these underwhelming confrontations — and if you’re playing on the Blue route, there are a few surprises waiting for you towards the end of the game, too.
Dragon Spirit: The New Legend is a blaster that is worthy of your time. Veteran shoot ’em up fans probably won’t find it the most challenging game in the world, even on the Blue route, but it’s sometimes nice to have a more accessible game that newcomers can latch on to and feel like that elusive one-credit clear is actually within reach rather than a far-off fantasy. The varied level design keeps the game interesting while you’re learning it and makes replaying for high scores much less of a chore; the solid mechanics mean this is an 8-bit shooter that still plays well today; and the imaginative way in which difficulty is handled is something I’d love to see more of.
If you’ve picked up the Namco Museum Collection 2 cart for Evercade, you already know it’s bursting at the seams with all-time classics. But don’t sleep on Dragon Spirit: The New Legend, even if it’s not quite as well-known as some of the others; this is a game that sees regular play on my own Evercade, and one that I see myself coming back to on a very regular basis!
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