Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

dragon

DEC
05
2017
0

#59 – Ninja Gaiden

“I will get my revenge!”

A very unassuming title screen.

To Beat: Reach the ending
My Goal: Beat the game without continuing
What I Did: Beat the game using three continues
Played: 9/24/17
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 3/10
Video: Ninja Gaiden Longplay

Traditionally, ninjas were ancient Japanese fighters trained in martial arts who focused on stealth, espionage, and assassination. With the rise in popularity of the idea of ninjas, and many Japanese game development studios looking for game ideas, it makes sense that ninjas would be well represented in video games. One of the most well-known games on the NES, and perhaps one of the more well-known ninja games altogether, is Ninja Gaiden.

Ninja Gaiden began as two separate games by two different teams from the developer Tecmo. The arcade game is a beat-em-up game in the vein of Double Dragon, while the NES game is a side-scrolling action platformer influenced by Castlevania. While the arcade game fared well, the NES Ninja Gaiden was a huge success, earning high praise and numerous honors. The Famicom version was released first in December 1988 under the name Ninja Ryukenden, meaning Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword. The NES version was released in March 1989. The word gaiden in Japanese means side story, but Ninja Gaiden is not a side story in any way. The developers just like how the name sounded. Ninjas were considered taboo in Europe, and so their version of the game was named Shadow Warriors and was released in August 1991. It was also ported to the PC Engine in Japan in January 1992. Tecmo is both the developer and publisher for all versions.

He will, indeed!

Since the NES game, Ninja Gaiden has become a long running series. The NES got two more installments, and all three games appeared on the SNES compliation cart Ninja Gaiden Trilogy. Ninja Gaiden later had unique games on the Game Boy, Sega Master System, and Game Gear, as well as a cancelled version on the Mega Drive. The series went dormant until 2004 when the mobile game Ninja Gaiden X was released. That year also saw the beginning of the modern series with the 3D action game on Xbox simply titled Ninja Gaiden. That series would spawn two sequels in 2008 and 2012 respectively. There was also a Nintendo DS game called Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword.

Ninja Gaiden is a side-scrolling action platformer where you play the role of Ryu Hayabusa. The Hayabusa family has guarded the legendary Dragon sword for many generations. Ryu’s father, Ken Hayabusa, engaged in battle with another ninja and was defeated. After Ryu learned of his father’s demise, he finds a letter from his father. Ken writes that Ryu must go to America with the Dragon sword if he does not return. Respecting his father’s wishes, Ryu heads for America to take on the danger he surely knows is laid out ahead.

Ninja Gaiden is heavily laden with story and this is the main feature of the game. This was one of the first games to feature cinematic cutscenes to advance the story. The game plays out over six acts, and before each act there are these extended segments detailing Ryu’s adventure. Sometimes there are cutscenes in the middle of acts, but this doesn’t happen often. It was very novel to see this story play out as you go through the game, for the first time through at least. On subsequent playthroughs they might become more of an annoyance. Fortunately, they can all be skipped quickly so you can focus solely on just the action.

Ryu hangs off walls a lot.

You control Ryu with the D-Pad. You can walk with Left or Right and duck by holding Down. Press A to jump. You have full control of Ryu from side to side while airborne. You can cling to walls by jumping onto them and Ryu will hang on indefinitely. Press the directional button away from the wall and jump to kick off the wall. You can jump back and forth between two walls close together to climb. If the wall contains a ladder, you can freely climb up the wall with Up or Down, otherwise you must jump off. The B button slashes your sword. You can attack with the sword while ducking or while in the air. If you slash while standing on the ground, you can’t move until the animation finishes. Attacks go quicker than the whip in Castlevania but it’s a noticeable delay. Hold Up and press B to use special attacks if able. The Start button pauses the game.

The status bar at the top of the screen gives you all the information you need. The top left is your score indicator, and below that is the level timer. Underneath that is P which indicates how many lives you have remaining. The counter next to lives represents your spiritual strength, according to the game manual. This represents your subweapon ammo, and next to it on the status bar is an icon for which special weapon you currently hold. On the right side of the status bar, you see the stage number, your health meter, and the health meter of the boss.

These blue lanterns hold all kinds of stuff for you.

In yet another similarity to Castlevania, each level features a candle or some other stationary object that you can slash with your sword to earn powerups. Enemies don’t drop anything in Ninja Gaiden so this is the only way to power up, but you see them all the time. The most common of these is a square icon that increases your spiritual strength. The common blue item gives you five points of strength, and the red one gives you ten. There is an item that looks like a pot with feet that just gives you points. The blue one is worth 500 points and the red one awards you 1000 points. An hourglass freezes time briefly, causing all enemies and projectiles to stop moving and keeping new enemies from spawning. A potion will restore six points of health. The Ryu emblem gives you an extra life but only appears a few times in the whole game. The icon with the ring of fireballs is called the invincible fire-wheel. As its name suggests, it makes you invincible for a short time while destroying any enemy you touch.

The other item drops you get are your special weapons. You can only hold one at a time and can’t switch back if you collect a new one. These cost spiritual strength points which may vary for each weapon. The weakest weapon is the small blue throwing star. You throw a tiny straight projectile and it costs three points. The windmill throwing star is a large orange shuriken that costs five points. You throw it ahead and it comes back at you like a boomerang. If you jump over or dodge it, it will go behind you and come back. If you keep avoiding it, you can keep it on the screen circling you for a while for maximum effectiveness. The powerup with a single flame on it is the art of the fire wheel. This weapon costs five points and throws large rings of fire up and away from Ryu. Lastly, the blue swirl weapon gives you the jump and slash technique. This deploys by pressing B in the air with no need to hold Up on the D-Pad. It causes you to ball up while slashing constantly, ripping you right through enemies and bosses. It is incredibly powerful. The major downside to this technique is that it replaces your sword attack while jumping, so it burns through your spiritual strength very quickly. But here’s a tip: If you hold Down and press B while in the air, you will always swing your sword, saving you precious strength points.

Poor enemy soldier!

You will travel through many interesting locales and fight different types of enemies throughout the game. You visit the city streets, a mine, snowy mountains, a cliffside, and various temples just to name a few. Enemies often consist of other people who punch, swing swords, fire guns, throw knives, etc. There are also animals that are out to get you like tigers and bats. Anyone who has played this game know that the birds are the worst. They fly at you and turn around to make another pass if they miss, and you need good timing with your sword to defeat them. They often show up near pits and they can easily knock you down to your death, and they drain your health quickly to boot.

There is a boss battle at the end of each act. Each boss gets a full health bar and your sword does one point of damage, so you must keep at it to take them out. The game manual explains that most of the bosses are members of The Malice Four and were hired by the main villain. Defeating the boss awards you points for both time and spiritual strength remaining, and you get to watch the bad guys explode as score is added up for a pleasant bonus!

Ninja Gaiden is a challenging game, no doubt, but there are a few ways the game gives you breathing room. Each act is split up into several levels, and sometimes the levels have checkpoints within them at screen transitions. Ninja Gaiden only scrolls horizontally, but sometimes you need to go up or down a screen and that counts as a checkpoint. Losing a life within a level sets you back to the checkpoint. If you lose all your lives, you can continue from the start of the current level. You get infinite continues which is a great help in beating the game. Dying on the boss, however, sends you back to the start of the previous level. This is a more severe punishment than dying prior to the boss, but it’s bearable.

Action-packed boss fights are always a plus.

The reason why a game with infinite continues like this gets a 9/10 difficulty rating is what happens at the end of the game. I’ll say this is a spoiler, but if you’re reading this you probably already know what happens. The final act in Ninja Gaiden is quite challenging, featuring large sections of bottomless pits with plenty of enemies to knock you into them. The end of the act contains not one, but three final bosses. Contrary to the rest of the game, taking a death at any one of these bosses sends you back to the beginning of the act. This makes the first time through the game very difficult because you have to slog through all these tough levels per each attempt at this final set of bosses. The only solace is that once a boss is defeated, he stays dead and you don’t have to refight him. I know one of you readers has already turned your nose at my rating here, and to you I say that it’s easier for me too because I’ve beaten the game so many times. Undeniably, it’s a steep challenge the first time through!

Ninja Gaiden is one of the games from my childhood collection and I have beaten it countless times. I didn’t read many gaming magazines, but it was all over the ones I had and so I had to own this game. We bought it used somewhere, and that led me and my family to track down the other two games individually. Today it isn’t a hard game to find and it consistently costs around $10 for a copy. I’ve had several copies pass through my hands that I’ve sold, and I still have a few extra copies as of this writing.

I don’t remember the first time I beat Ninja Gaiden. I was probably 9 or 10 years old when I first beat it, and it has been one of those staple NES titles that I replay at least every couple of years. I beat the game this time with little trouble. I had in mind to beat the game without continuing but I wasn’t sure if I would. After all, that final level still trips me up after all these years, and I have only done it once before a few years ago. Lately, I have been playing these NES games through a couple of times just to have a decent enough run for YouTube. I don’t recall the last time I beat a game once and then moved on. The only deal breaker here was that I wouldn’t accept a run where I died on any of the final bosses. On this run, I needed three continues to clear the final area but I did beat the final bosses without dying. That’s good enough for me, and besides, I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that have beaten the game without continues or without dying on YouTube. If you need to witness something closer to perfection, then you can watch someone else do it. I have so many more games to play!

Clearly, I have no chance here!

I have a few streamers on Twitch that I watch regularly. One of my favorites is Arcus87, the current world record holder for speedrunning Ninja Gaiden. He has beaten the game in 11:39.93 as of this writing. In the beginning of this year, I watched him put in hundreds of attempts just to improve upon his own record by a tiny margin. I missed watching him set the record live, but I saw a couple of near misses and some other incredible moments. I learned a lot about this game just by watching, but I can’t say it translated into making me a better player.

Ninja Gaiden is one of those classic, essential NES games that should be considered for any NES collection. It has nice graphics and music, good boss fights and enemies, good control with versatile weapons, and a story that ties it all together. It is also the very definition of Nintendo Hard, with constantly respawning enemies capable of knocking you into pits at any time, especially those birds. The endgame cruelty is quite extreme as well. The difficulty may be a turn off, but the game is relatively kind in the early going and the story might grip you enough to want to grind through it. Ninja Gaiden is fun to play, and if somehow you haven’t given it a chance, I give it my recommendation.

#59 – Ninja Gaiden

 
OCT
23
2017
0

#56 – Mendel Palace

Shuffling panels has never been this much fun!

The baddies look far less menacing in the actual game.

To Beat: Reach the Ending
To Complete: Beat both the game and the Extra mode
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 8/7/17 – 8/18/17
Difficulty: 7/10
My Difficulty: 7/10
Videos: Mendel Palace Longplay and Mendel Palace Extra Mode Longplay

There are a lot of weird video games out there, especially today when the barriers to development and distribution are much lower. The NES was around in a time when some gaming conventions were being defined, so developers had the liberty to make some weird games too. Ghoul School is one that comes to mind that I’ve already played. I classify Mendel Palace as a weird game, and in this case I mean it in a good way. Mendel Palace is a frenetic action game that is dripping with character.

Mendel Palace was released in North America in October 1990. The game was developed by Game Freak, who are best known as the developers behind Pokémon. This was the first game they developed. The NES version was published by Hudson Soft. This game debuted first on the Famicom under the name Quinty. There it was released in June 1989, over a year earlier. Quinty was published in Japan by Namco. Mendel Palace has not been re-released, nor are there any sequels.

Mendel Palace is a single-screen action game. You play the role of Bon-Bon. The princess Candy has become trapped in a dream that she cannot escape, and so you might fight all her dolls that have come to life and free Candy. It’s the typical save the princess trope. The object of the game is to defeat all the enemies in each stage. There are 100 total levels spanning several different worlds. If you clear all the stages, then you save Candy and win the game. You can go at it alone or play with a friend in the two-player mode.

It’s a block party!

The main gimmick to Mendel Palace is how you attack enemies. Each stage is in a top down perspective consisting of a 7×5 grid of large panels on the floor. You can walk around in the four cardinal directions using the D-pad. When you press the A or B button, you will shuffle the floor panel in front of you. It is a little tricky at first to determine which panel you will move. If you stand on the edge of the panel facing the middle of it, you will shuffle the one you are standing on. Otherwise, you will shuffle the next tile over in the direction you are facing. The idea is to shuffle tiles when enemies are standing on them, which causes the baddies to get pushed away a short distance. Enemies are defeated when they get shoved into the side of the screen or against a solid object. Sometimes enemies can push you into the wall as well, but if an enemy touches you then you can also die that way.

The other side effect with shuffling panels is that you can reveal other panels underneath. This is not merely a binary flip. Sometimes there are three or more different layers underneath each panel that continuously cycle as long as you keep shuffling. There are many kinds of tiles that can appear in Mendel Palace, including several different item tiles. The most common item tile is the star. You must stand exactly on the center of an item tile to collect it. Stars are accumulated through play and you can see how many you have in a counter at the bottom of the screen next to the amount of lives remaining. The final star tile in a level will blink and you get 10 stars if you grab that one. Collecting 100 stars awards you an extra life, and it also makes you walk faster.

There are two more item tiles that are not as abundant as the star tiles. The first of these is the roulette tile. This cycles between four different items and you get whichever one is face up when you collect it. You can get either a puny 10 point bonus or a generous 10,000 point bonus. You can get a 10 star item for more precious stars. The best award is the 1up! Aside from star collection, this is the only other way to gain lives. The other item panel is the time panel. This is labeled FIVE SEC when you see it in the game. Each level has an invisible timer that causes the enemies to become very aggressive when it runs out. Grabbing these panels extends that timer.

The smile on the sun panel is quite appropriate!

There are a few panels that can affect nearby panels. The most common of these is the cross panel. When you step on it, the tiles in all four cardinal directions will shuffle chain reaction style. If you can get an enemy caught up in the shuffle wave it almost always sends them all the way to the wall. There is a similar panel that does not show up often called the clock and time panel. This one looks like the cross panel but with only one direction lit up at a time. Like a clock, the lit direction changes rhythmically. Stepping on this panel causes a wave in only the direction it is pointing. The sun panel is the most powerful of these in that it shuffles all tiles on the screen radiating outward from the sun panel. Most of the time this wipes out all the enemies in one shot, so it can be very nice to find.

There are a couple of bonus panels that transform the game board in ways that can be helpful. The more common of these two is the moon panel. This one dims the lights in the level and replaces all walkable tiles with stars. There is a tradeoff with this one however. Solid panels remain solid but you cannot see them in the dark. If you are being pursued by enemies in a level with now invisible solid panels, it may not be worth the extra stars. The better bonus panel is called the special bonus panel. It has a swirl design on it and flashes colors. Run into this panel and you will be whisked off into a bonus screen filled with stars and no enemies. There will be an additional counter at the bottom of the screen indicating how many stars are available in the bonus area. Sometimes you need to shuffle panels to reveal stars, but most of them are visible from the start. There is a time limit indicated by faint color changes in the small tiles around the border of the level. If you collect all the stars before time runs out, then you get bonus stars. Play proceeds to the next level, so using the special bonus panel is an easy way to clear a stage for free.

Special bonus panels flip you right into star paradise.

Here are the remaining panels in Mendel Palace. The metal panels are solid panels that appear raised on the screen. You cannot pass through them, but you can shove enemies into the metal panels to defeat them. Some enemies can smash through the metal panels leaving behind a broken panel, which acts like the standard blank panel. The lock panel has screws in the corners indicating that this square can no longer be shuffled. The attack panel is an orange panel with the same swirl design as the special bonus panel. This launches you forward in the direction you enter the panel. It’s called the attack panel because you can defeat enemies if you collide with them after this panel pushes you. It spins for a little while so you can run back into the panel to do more damage. The final panel is the game is the enemy panel. It looks like a warp portal, and it acts like one too. New enemies will spawn from the enemy panel if there is room for them in the level, and then the panel transforms into a blank panel. Revealing these panels can keep the level going even if all other enemies have been defeated.

At the start of the game, you are shown a map screen with nine different houses. You can choose any of the houses except for the one in the center which is saved for last. Each house is based around a specific enemy type and consists of ten levels. The enemies themselves may have multiple variants, and the more difficult versions appear in the later levels of the house. The final level in each house is a boss fight that somehow incorporates the base enemy for that house. Let’s talk about each one!

This is the best choice for the new player.

The upper left area is the house of Moko-Moko, and this is the recommend level to begin the game. Moko-Moko is a rather plain enemy that doesn’t do anything other than walk around. The second form of Moko-Moko has light blue coloring, and he splits into two smaller enemies whenever you push him.

C’mon get hoppy!

The upper area is the house of Dragon. This enemy moves by making small jumps across the board. You can only push Dragon whenever he lands on the ground, so you have to time your shuffles to fight them. There are three different versions of Dragon. The normal one wears pink pants. The second version wears green pants and they don’t start hoping around until you approach them. The third version wears red and makes longer jumps.

Their drawings are so life-like!

The upper right area is the house of Vinci. These are often referred to as doodlers. They move slowly around the level and will occasionally stop on a panel to draw on them. This leaves them vulnerable to attack. If the finish their drawing, that panel becomes locked. The normal doodlers wear pink, and the green ones can also generate a ghost enemy upon completing a drawing. One interesting tactic is that is it possible to leave every tile in the level locked by either doodles or lock panels. If this happens, you win the level automatically and get a large point bonus to boot.

They can take your frustration to new heights.

The right area is the house of Toby. These enemies take a long jump straight up if you try and shuffle the panel beneath them, but they are vulnerable when they land. While waiting for one to land, you can easily get surrounded by other ones. The ones with red hair jump higher than the ones with brown hair.

Taking Follow the Leader too seriously.

The lower right area is the house of Mira. They attempt to imitate your movements. They take a step forward when you do, and they shuffle panels when you do. They will even move if you simply turn your body in another direction. If you stand still they don’t move at all and the music even stops. They can shove each other so you can get them to defeat themselves sometimes. The red versions move faster than the yellow ones.

Just keep swimming.

The lower area is the house of Wasser. They are swimmers and are often referred to as such. They will walk around the perimeter of the level and then swim straight across the stage when they line up with you. As they swim across, they shuffle the panels behind them with their feet. Wasser is a clever enemy type in my opinion. The regular version of Wasser is colored green and they swim in straight lines, while the harder blue version swims at angles and can also turn toward you mid-swim.

I like the flowing stage music here.

The lower left area is the house of Tako. These enemies are dancers and resemble ballerinas. Most enemies cannot move diagonally, but Tako can. They glide around the level homing in on you, but they take time to turn around if they pass you. Eventually they wear out and stop for a break before moving again. The normal Tako is orange, and the red ones move much faster and can break through metal panels.

These heavy enemies may take several pushes to defeat.

The left area is the house of Sumo. These are large, slow enemies that only get pushed a short distance, so the idea is to keep pushing them several times consecutively. After a Sumo is shoved, he will attempt a sumo stomp that shuffles a wave of panels away from him. The white Sumo is the regular type, and the purple one is heavier and takes more shuffles to move.

One final enemy type for good measure.

Once all eight houses are finished, Mendel Palace in the center opens. This stage features ten more levels that use all the enemy types so far. After that, there are ten final levels that feature one last enemy type.

Mendel Palace is a difficult game to take on all at once. The enemies swarm constantly and it takes either good technique or luck to get the breathing room to start defeating them. The difficulty is mitigated heavily by unlimited continues. After Game Over, the title screen displays the word Continue and all you have to do is press Start to resume play at the same level you lost. As long as you keep the NES powered on, you can brute force the entire game one level at a time. Holding the A button causes the Continue text to disappear, so if you want to start all over you have to press Start with A held down. It’s very kind of the developers that they made it simple to continue and you have to go out of your way to start completely over.

I have played some Mendel Palace before for the NintendoAge contest. I got a taste of each of the houses as I tried to figure out the best way to score the most points. The later part of the game was all new to me. Mendel Palace is not exactly common, but it is not hard to find online. I picked up my copy at a local store during a buy two, get one free promotion. I believe I bought Mendel Palace, TaleSpin, and Whomp ‘Em together for $16 total. That is a little more than what Mendel Palace is worth alone at the time of this writing, and I did particularly good on Whomp ‘Em given its current price.

I intended to play Mendel Palace for about an hour, but like most good intentions of mine that turned into me beating the game over about two hours. Some of the later levels are very challenging and it made me want to keep playing until I could surpass them. However, not only was I not recording my playthrough, but I also forgot to take a picture of the TV when I finished. It took me about a week before I got the time to play through the game with everything set up. I think I played the second time a little better but I still died plenty.

This level still gives me nightmares.

Mendel Palace has a secret Extra mode containing 100 new levels. Nothing in the manual or the game mentioned this mode. To play Extra mode, first make sure the NES is powered off. Then hold down Start and Select and turn on the NES. If successful, you will see the word Extra on top of the title as well as a different color on the title text. This mode has a few differences over the normal game. The biggest change is that there is no map or level selection. Instead you play all 100 rounds in the same order. There are stars but there is no counter displayed like in the normal mode. The number of extra lives caps out at five and even the lives display is different. You will get different enemies from level to level instead of grouped together. This mode is significantly harder than the normal game. It took me almost three hours to finish all the levels and I stayed up way too late to get it done. The ending you get is the same as the normal game, so this is purely an optional mode. I beat it anyway because I really like Mendel Palace and I’m not going to leave new levels on the table.

Mendel Palace is a very fun game and one that I give my full recommendation. There’s not another game quite like it, and all the different enemy types, stage layouts, and the action all bundle together nicely. The music is upbeat and catchy, and the graphics have a pastel and almost cell shaded look to them. There’s a lot of stuff going on at one time, from the multiple panel shuffling animations to the marble spray when an enemy bites the dust. Mendel Palace manages to run fast despite all the action on screen. There is a lot of sprite flicker, and that’s a negative you have to accept for a game like this on the limited NES hardware. A few stages and bosses are very frustrating in their difficulty too. Aside from those complaints, Mendel Palace is this weird game that’s a blast to play.

#56 – Mendel Palace

 
SEP
11
2017
0

#51 – Dragon Fighter

Don’t just fight a dragon, become one!

You can’t start until you see this title screen twice. Lame!

To Beat: Reach the ending
To Complete: Beat the game in the secret hard mode
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 5/19/17 – 5/22/17
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 6/10
Video: Dragon Fighter Hard Mode

It’s funny. I just finished playing through Dragon Warrior, and then the next game to come up on the list is Dragon Fighter. Don’t let the names fool you, for these two games are really quite different. Dragon Fighter is a side scrolling action game, not an RPG. Dragon Warrior is an early NES game, while Dragon Fighter is a later release. While Nintendo Power gave away Dragon Warrior, Dragon Fighter is a hard to find game that is very expensive now. Finally, Dragon Warrior is really well known, and Dragon Fighter is still pretty obscure. While I can’t get the price down on a cartridge, I can help make this fun game a little more well known.

Dragon Fighter was first released on Famicom in August 1990. The game was developed by Natsume and published by Towa Chika. Natsume developed a few action games on the NES, including S.C.A.T. which I have already completed. Towa Chika did not publish any games outside the US. Perhaps the most infamous game they published is the Famicom platformer A Week of Garfield. Dragon Fighter was brought over to the NES in January 1992. The NES version was published by Sofel, who brought only five games to the NES.

Dragon Fighter is a side-scrolling action game. An evil warlock named Zabbaong attacks the land of Baljing, who are known as a peaceful people with a dragon statue as a symbol of their good nature. The Dragon Spirit had given the people the dragon statue, and now under the enemy attack he brings the statue to life as a fierce warrior. You play as this warrior as you strike back again Zabbaong.

Don’t run away! The green guys aren’t that scary.

This is a relatively straightforward game. In fact, this is a pure horizontal scroller with the playfield only scrolling to the right, just like Super Mario Bros. As the fighter, you wield a sword and can perform basic techniques. Use the D-pad to walk around. You can crouch by holding Down. Press A to jump, and B to swing your sword forward. You can swing your weapon when standing, jumping, or crouching. If you hold down the B button, you will start to flash. Hold it for long enough, and then release the button to perform a charge attack.

The main feature of Dragon Fighter is that you can become a flying dragon. At the top of the screen there are two meters. The top one is your health meter and the bottom one is called the metamorph meter. For each enemy that you defeat with the sword, you will add to the metamorph meter. Enemies beaten by charge attacks do not fill the meter. Once this meter is at least halfway full, then it will start flashing indicating you can morph into a dragon. Hold Up and jump with A, and at the top of your jump you switch over to a flying dragon.

In dragon form, you can fly around in all eight directions and you can fire with B. You always face to the right in this form. Also, the screen begins to scroll forward automatically as your metamorph meter dwindles away. You get more firepower and can avoid attacks much easier as a dragon, so this form is very useful. You can switch back to the fighter at any time by holding Down and pressing A. Keep in mind that you may need to fight more enemies in fighter form to build the metamorph meter back up before you can switch back to a dragon again. If the meter runs out, then you will automatically shift back into the fighter.

Sometimes a defeated enemy will drop a helpful item. There are only a few item drops. The power pearl will restore a couple points of health, while the larger pearl pot will restore eight health units. The power ring wipes out all enemies on the screen. Finally, the dragonweed, shaped like a dragon’s head, will fill up eight points in the metamorph meter.

With the dragon, you can fly over enemies.

In some of the stages, you will find powerups labelled G, R, and B. These are always found in the same location and are not dropped by enemies. Picking up one of these icons will change your fighter into the Green fighter, Red fighter, or Blue fighter. Each color fighter has both a distinct charge attack and dragon attack. The default fighter at the start of the game is the Green fighter. Your charge shot is a green ball that travels to the right, and the dragon form gets a three-way spread fire. The Red fighter’s charge shot is a set of three fireballs that arc in the air and fall down. The Red dragon’s attack is a fireball that spreads out when it hits the ground similar to the holy water in Castlevania. The Blue fighter gets a homing charge shot and the Blue dragon can fire two homing shots.

At the end of each stage is a boss battle. These include a fight with a werewolf, a giant centipede, and a large skeleton with floating hands. The metamorph meter is emptied upon starting the next stage, so don’t be afraid to use the dragon form for the fight. When you defeat the boss, it will drop a staff that you acquire to end the level. Collecting the staff increases the size of your health meter and also restores some health for the next stage. A little spoiler here: The sixth and final stage plays entirely as a horizontal scrolling shooter and you are forced into dragon mode for the whole thing. It culminates in a final boss battle with Zabbaong.

There are no extra lives in Dragon Fighter, so when all your health is depleted it is Game Over. You do have three continues. However, using one sends you back all the way to the start of the stage. Even if you reach the boss and die, you have to replay the entire level. This is the kind of game that you learn over multiple plays.

This was my first time playing through Dragon Fighter. It was among the final 30 games or so I bought for my NES licensed collection, mostly because the game is hard to find and expensive. I bought it in February 2015, and at the time the game was selling for around $100 for a loose cart. I explored many avenues looking for these final games, and for this one I ended up taking a chance on an Amazon listing with no pictures. The cart was only $50, but the game was badly cracked. It was punctured right over the label causing attached shards of plastic to be pushed into the cart shell. I opened the cart up and pushed the damaged part outward to make it flatter. It’s a shame because the cart is in really nice shape otherwise. It does look great on the shelf at least! As of August 2017, a Dragon Fighter loose cart sells in the $250-$300 range, so I’m happy with my choice.

Deploy the dragon strategically during boss battles.

Beating the game wasn’t too much of a challenge for me. I ended up beating the game the first night in over two hours with a few practice runs. A lot of it was figuring out when to deploy the dragon and which color fighter to use. There is a little bit of platforming, but most of the game centers around enemy combat. I think I’m pretty good at seeing the enemy patterns and figuring out how to react. Some fortuitous item drops also came in handy! I gave the game a difficulty rating of 6/10 because of the limited continues and no checkpoints when you use one. I maybe should have rated it higher because I think many players are going to have more of a struggle with it, but I’ll stick with my choice because I figured it out so quickly.

This is not all Dragon Fighter has to offer. The game has an unlockable hard mode. When you beat the game and leave it on the ending screen for a little while, a cheat code is displayed. Correctly inputting it at the title screen changes the copyright text from blue to red, indicating hard mode is activated. There are two major differences in hard mode. First, there are no item drops. This makes health preservation critical as you can only heal once per level after defeating a boss and grabbing the staff. The other difference is that for each enemy you kill in dragon form, a homing bullet fires as the enemy’s death explosion finishes. As far as I recall there were no further changes to the game. It’s a good mode that tweaks how you approach levels. I spent a separate night beating hard mode. For some reason, I was determined to beat the game on hard mode without dying, and I’m happy to report that I accomplished it. It’s one of my better achievements captured on video.

I know the term is overblown to NES fans, but Dragon Fighter is indeed a hidden gem. It’s a straightforward but competent hack and slash action game with the ability to morph into a dragon, so there’s already a lot going for it. The graphics are well done, the music is good, the gameplay is solid, the bosses are fun to fight, the challenge is appropriate, and the optional hard mode is well thought out. Dragon Fighter checks most of the boxes from what you would expect out of one of the most expensive NES games. The price is obviously a major barrier if you want the authentic experience, but if you have a Powerpak or play on an emulator, Dragon Fighter is a game that is worth checking out.

#51 – Dragon Fighter

 
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