Don’t just fight a dragon, become one!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.