Capcom in the 1990s was nothing if not a skilled practitioner of genre games and accordingly, their established reputation would seem less believable if their high-concept smashes didn’t come with some good also-rans. The case in point here is their Middle Ages brawler King of Dragons, a game that could easily be called Dungeons and Dragons or Gauntlets or Golden Axes and still maintain a slight enjoyment. Taken from their 1991 arcade cabinet, the game is another ye olde action romp where a group of heroes armed with sharp objects and blasts of magic fight armor-clad bad guys (and do so for a large amount of stages), and while as difficult as the rest of them, it’s also no less spirited. One of the good things about this gaming niche is that even a generic entry can have enough entertainment merit to make up for such a shortcoming.
Unlike Knights of the Round, which this game otherwise resembles in quite a few regards, the content isn’t any adaptation of a preexisting mythology. This melange of fantasy creatures and medieval hero archetypes uses these spare parts to tell a different story. The five fighters here – a warrior, a wizard, an archer, a cleric and a dwarf – battle their way through monster-infested territory to fight Gildiss, a big red dragon holing himself inside of a cave and sending monster minions out to bring ruin upon the land. The player can choose whoever he wants to control at the start of a new game, and each character brings their own set of unique factors to the action that affect gameplay. Some characters are faster than others, some have greater attack strength, some have farther attack range, and at least one is shorter than the rest. Once the player gets acquainted with his fighter’s particularities, something that shouldn’t take more than one stage to do, the game generally becomes a cinch to play. One thing all of the fighters do, though, is level up; after fighting enough enemies and collecting certain items, they receive increases to their health bars, attack strength and defense strength. Health increases are determined by the score, augmented by fighting enemies and collecting valuable stuff like gems and bags of gold. The bars themselves include hit points next to them for posterity’s sake, and use a color spectrum that goes from red to gradually brighter shades of orange to yellow. Attack and defense stats are increased by collecting upgraded weapons and shields, signified with neat black icons which for the most part are collected from golden treasure chests that appear after defeating a boss.
These upgrades are what the player mostly has to look forward to, apart from the sensation of hacking and slashing away at the various creatures that come their way. It isn’t a bad sensation, either; the combat has heft in how the heroes and beasties fight each other, and the action moves at an ideal clip. Jumping around and beating up bad guys has just the requisite physics to make the gameplay substantial. Those are reasonable qualities for a title like this, but the game’s smartest non-technical decision was to not make any pretenses about its abundance of cliches. Its interchangeable foes are fire-spewing dragons, living skeletons, minotaurs, orcs and walking lizards: nothing that hasn’t been featured in any fantasy story since the dawn of feudalism. That hugger-mugger about Gildiss, which is only fleetingly mentioned by a few NPCs anyway, is just a knowing excuse – a context for all of this violence. This game’s arcade roots are easy to spot, and they’re spotted easiest in the game’s surprising difficulty. It’s a good thing that the story here is so scant, because the player likely won’t be able to finish it. There are sixteen stages in total, and before even half of them are finished the challenge surges dramatically. Later enemies get harder to kill and deal serious amounts of damage, and the chest monsters will more often than not drain a character’s health until they lose a life. Floating orbs sometimes appear to aid the fighters, casting devastating spells of lightning or fire when struck, and they bring some relief into the mayhem. Otherwise, all they can rely on are the weapons in their hands. Surviving past stage nine and getting a resolution to the Gildiss business will likely only happen in the instance of co-op, and even then only if the players are lucky.
But beat-‘em-ups are hardly ever about the story. In their piles of levels, and their marathon sessions of the individual winning over the group, they’re one of the particular genres of video games where the whole is usually greater than the sum of its parts. All of these games start out as being created equal, full of energetic zip and resonant thwack, and the classics rise to the top when they transcend their conventional origins and seem to build themselves from the ground up. The Super Nintendo’s twin peaks of this genre, the smooth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV and the hearty Batman Returns, manage to transcend in this way by having their established universes and signature game styles define each other (It also helps that these games feature more than one style of gameplay). That’s what makes a truly great beat-‘em-up – when the zip and thwack isn’t just palatable, it’s organic and red-blooded.
All of this is to say that King of Dragons doesn’t have much thwack, or zip, and both only slightly reach palatability. In all regards, the game is product, a potboiler of a brawler with a standard production design going with it. But the game reaffirms that even Capcom’s standard production designs are pleasurable to watch; the stages are luminescent areas with warm spectrums, and the enemies are colored like a variety pack of popsicles. Except for a piece that imitates Spark Mandrill’s stage theme, the music is innocuously forgettable, although that doesn’t matter much when the rest of the game works in spite of its mildness. This title is stuck in its conventionality, but its derivative style is offset by the comfort of its archetypes, and the work as a whole is helped by the extra pinch Capcom usually puts into even their workaday efforts. It stings quite a bit to be the lesser of two medieval-themed Super Nintendo beat-‘em-ups released by Capcom in 1994, but that isn’t anything but a superlative.
Four out of five stars.
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