"Dragon Spirit is not a pretty game. An early Namco shooter ported to the NES, this game is consistently plagued by small, indistinct sprites posing as enemies. One level, involving your draconic protagonist zipping through a cave, is so ugly that I was wondering if my Nintendo had magically transformed into an Atari 2600. With no background and a horribly-designed rendition of jagged cavern walls, that level might be one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen since Nintendo and Sega threw their ha..."
Dragon Spirit is not a pretty game. An early Namco shooter ported to the NES, this game is consistently plagued by small, indistinct sprites posing as enemies. One level, involving your draconic protagonist zipping through a cave, is so ugly that I was wondering if my Nintendo had magically transformed into an Atari 2600. With no background and a horribly-designed rendition of jagged cavern walls, that level might be one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen since Nintendo and Sega threw their hats into the gaming industry.
Dragon Spirit doesn’t have a musical score worthy of acclaim. To be honest, only hours after putting the game down, I can tell you very little about the sounds emitted by the game. A couple levels sound fairly nice, with the creepy music of one of the final stages being particularly appropriate for a level in which the lights constantly are flickering on and off -- but other than that, the sound is quite non-descript.
Dragon Spirit doesn’t have classic boss fights. Maybe it was because I fought most of these foes with a fully powered-up dragon, but it just seemed like they went down a bit too quickly. Most have simple attack patterns that can be dodged with ease and so little life that you won’t have to dodge for long. After going through a number of challenging stages, the ease of these supposedly “climactic” battles was a bit disconcerting.
Dragon Spirit still is one awesome game. Aesthetically, it ranges from bland to atrocious, but this is one innovative and cool shooter -- one of the greatest seen on this system. While Namco drops the ball on some important components, the company does so many little things right with this game that I couldn’t help but love it.
Upon starting the game, you’re immediately thrust into a short introductory level. Fly through a castle to defeat the evil Zawel -- an easy task as you can take three hits before dying and nothing here is that imposing. Succeed in this mission and the real game begins. Fail and you’ll get to play Dragon Spirit’s version of the classic Atari 2600’s “teddy bear” difficulty level. Instead of taking on the lengthy nine-stage main quest, you’ll get a shorter game with a stronger dragon as a consolation prize.
But hopefully, Zawel doesn’t prove to be a challenge, as having trouble with him will not bode well for you over the remainder of the game. Your initial character, thinking his land is free of danger, reverts back to human form, settles down and has a pair of children. Of course, the evil is not vanquished, as a new villain by the name of Galda starts sowing the seeds of chaos. Since the original hero never physically recovered from his fight with Zawel, it’s up to his son to take over, so the young fellow takes hold of a magic sword and transforms into a blue dragon in order to combat the forces of Galda.
A bit more plot than the average shooter, isn’t there? Fortunately, the story isn’t the only cool thing about Dragon Spirit. As you progress through each level of this game, you’ll find more and more little tricks and traps cooked up by Namco designed to catch you off guard.
After a pair of fairly simple stages to make sure you’re comfortable with the Xevious-inspired gameplay (one button is used to attack airborne foes, the other is used against ground-bound enemies), the game picks up in the “Jungle”. Towards the end of that stage, you’ll be accosted by small enemies that emerge from hives and fly around the screen leaving a lethal (but destructible) trail in their wake. This tense, claustrophobic area seems to last for ages, as you frantically try to get them in your sights before they literally paint you into a corner.
A couple of stages later, the ugly “Cave Road” level and its moving walls beckon -- challenging you to maneuver your dragon through a number of tight fits while blasting enemies and dodging their attacks. Another cave section is in the next level, but this is a speed zone where you simply must avoid the gigantic icicles that threaten to end your quest.
Two of the best surprises happen in the final stages of the game. The eighth level, titled “Dark Quarters” would be a very simple stage -- except the lighting periodically disappears, forcing you to be very aware of your surroundings. When the lights are out, you can’t see anything except your dragon, which means that if you don’t know EXACTLY where enemies or obstacles are, you’ll need some luck to avoid getting pulverized just steps away from Galda.
Speaking of our archenemy, his “Dark Castle” level is a prime example of how a few of the aforementioned “little things” can make a game great. As you seek out the demon overlord, you’ll fly through a series of chambers connected by teleporters. All things considered, this level is as linear as every other stage in this game and in most shooters -- you’re simply going from Point A to Point B. However, by making this stage a series of huge rooms and corridors connected by teleportation devices, it gives the illusion that you’re aimlessly meandering through a vast castle, just hoping to get lucky and run into Galda before his henchmen overwhelm you by sheer force of numbers.
And it’s things such as that which allow Dragon Spirit to rise above the mediocrity that a mere glance would condemn it to. Sure, this is just another ugly NES shooter, but by adding some sort of plot (which gets advanced by brief cutscenes after most levels) and tossing in a few tricks and illusions here and there, Namco is able to make this game feel more epic and grand than one might expect from the genre.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that your dragon is far cooler than the average spaceship seen in shooters of that day and age. Not only can you power him up (or lose power if you grab the wrong icons), but you can watch your hero evolve (or devolve) as you grab power-ups. As you get more powerful, your dragon will grow extra heads and change both its size and color to reflect its new abilities. Little things like that may have no tangible affect on the gameplay, but they do serve to help make Dragon Spirit more of a true gaming experience than simply something to play to pass a few minutes.
No, the NES adaptation of Dragon Spirit isn’t a perfect game. Many of this game’s levels made me wish I was playing either the arcade original or Turbografx-16 port, so I could see what the levels and enemies SHOULD look like. And, as I mentioned before, when your dragon gets more powerful attacks, the bosses become pathetically easy. But for the most part, those things didn’t really bother me. When I played Dragon Spirit, I didn’t notice an ugly game with weak bosses. I noticed a shooter with more depth and intriguing gameplay elements than I’d seen in a game of this sort for quite some time -- a shooter that definitely must be considered one of the better for the NES.
Community review by overdrive (October 14, 2004)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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