Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dragons Reconsidered (Dragon Fighter, Dragon Power, Dragon Spirit)

Among the easiest ways in the world to be mildly unnerved in a vaguely mystical way is to contemplate why Chinese and European traditions and folklore independently developed the idea of the dragon. It is easy to overstate the cultural universalism of this, given that European dragons tend to be evil bastards who want to eat you, whereas Chinese dragons are basically elemental forces, and are basically good. Theories abound for why the same image - giant lizards - would occur at least somewhat independently in two cultures. Three, really, if you're inclined to treat feathered serpents as effectively cut from the same bolt. But most of the theories are kind of crappy, involving stone age people doing fairly tricky bits of zoology with dinosaur skeletons or something.

Creationists posit that dragons are simply the result of primitive man's fear of being eaten by dinosaurs, which fulfills one of the many criteria by which a scientific theory is judged, namely that it is absolutely awesome and allows you to have people riding around on dinosaur steeds. All it lacks is giant robots. Unfortunately, it fails all of the other criteria like "actually being supported by any available evidence."

The most credible explanation seems to me this. Dragons are fucking scary. Snakes are scary. Dragons are big snakes. Giant birds of prey - also scary. Dragons look like giant birds of prey. Then add a nice big-cat-style mouth - again, scary, and you have, in fact, a creature that is basically built out of scary bits.

So let's continue to develop our theme of dragons. I have already suggested that the United States should be considered the effective successor to the "here be dragons" marker on maps, in that the United States occupies the fringe position on said maps. But that fringe position exists as a second boundary point between Europe and Asia. We are a dragon nation. But are our dragons the seething monsters of Europe, or the noble spirits of China?

The answer, of course, is neither. We are not one to purely adopt the traditions of another culture when we can muck around with them ourselves. And so our dragons are a hodgepodge. And, perhaps more interestingly, our dragons have by and large conquered the classic, mythic dragons.

As with most things from the NES era, our dragons of the late 80s and early 90s were at least partially imported from Japan. Certainly all three games today are.

Dragon Fighter is an easy name to mis-parse. Reading it, you may come to conclude that it is a game where you fight dragons. Alas, it is actually a game where you can transform into a dragon. A side-scroller of the sort that is bread and butter for the NES, the game manages to be bad in a bold new way previously unexplored by the alphabet, along, unfortunately, with several normal ways. The difficulty setting is completely on crack - you have one life, three continues, and continue points are only at the ends of levels. Which is more of a problem because the game frequently quickly swarms you with enemies.

The good news is, when you kill enough enemies you can transform into a fire-breathing dragon.

The bad news is, the dragon cannot turn around. And you are repeatedly attacked from behind. Making this a somewhat significant liability. But what's interesting is that despite not being a good game, and in fact actively crossing the line into bad game at numerous key points, there is actually something entrancing about Dragon Fighter. I will confess that I have steadily found the half-hour commitment to these games to be more and more of a burden. But I actually wanted to keep playing Dragon Fighter, despite the fact that I'd come nowhere close to clearing the first level.


It's tempting to give the facetious answer that it's because the game lets me turn into a dragon. Or that it features neon-green bears that throw fireballs at me. And to be fair, these are both desirable features. But no. If I'm being honest, the answer is more ineffable than all of that. The fact of the matter is, the game is oddly playable because there is an ineffable allure to it. Something about a game that starts on mysterious snow-covered ridges where a man with a sword who can turn into a dragon fights evil bears is just something that makes you want to try to overlook the flaws.

Dragon Power had no such problems. An adaptation of a Dragon Ball game, I suppose I am legally obliged to make some joke about how I do not know how to quantify Dragon Power, but I am confident that it is over 9000.

So that's done now. The game is rubbish. Interesting because it is a 1988 Dragon Ball game, meaning it's a Dragon Ball game from seven years before Dragon Ball actually made it to the US. Rubbish because it's not a very good game - an awkward controlling top-down action game - and the Dragon Ball connection is completely buried by the localization, probably on the very sensible logic that nobody in America had heard of Dragon Ball in 1988.

Here it is worth pausing and considering the secret history. That of those who knew both sides of the Pacific, and could navigate the Japanese colonization of the 1980s. Those who knew of Dragon Ball from scratchy VHS tapes swapped in the basements of convention centers. The material trappings of this secret history still exist - go to any sci-fi con and you can peruse a wide variety of flagrantly pirated DVDs - I got my copy of the Star Wars Holiday Special and the Warner Bros Censored Eleven at one of those. Before the Internet made nippophilia trivial, these prescient geeks laid the groundwork, ready to tell us tales of tentacle rape when it came time for our culture to join them. A tip of the hat, oh socially maladjusted manchildren. You did your duty well.

Dragon Spirit, more properly Dragon Spirit: The New Legend, is a NES sequel to what is supposedly an arcade classic. On the surface, its name is similar to Dragon Power - similar enough, really, to be worth remarking on. The word "spirit," when in something that has been translated into English, is always a fascinating one, because the concept of the spiritual is so culturally dependent. One of the major issues in translating Hegel, for instance, is that his major book - The Phenomenology of... well, here we get the trouble. The German word, "geist," means both spirit and mind. There is no equivalent English word, and so translations of the book choose between Phenomenology of Mind and Phenomenology of Spirit. Just to confuse people, however, when talking about the concepts in the book, even English speakers now tend to use the word "geist" despite the fact that, in their translations, the word "geist" does not actually appear at all. I do not know Japanese well enough to know if a similar issue exists here, but it is worth remarking on.

Of course, that worth may be entirely because of the high probability of wonky translation. The game has a classic Engrish opening - not grammatically incoherent, but just... odd. "The hero AMRU disguised as a BLUE DRAGON is finally about to fight the MONSTER ZAWEL." I mean, there is just nothing wrong with that opening. It tells you absolutely everything you need to know while simultaneously telling you nothing you want to know. From there, you, and I hope I'm not spoiling anything, fight the monster Zawel as a blue dragon. Here there is one interesting bit of the game - after you die or defeat Zawel at the end of the extremely short first level, you return to the title screen. If you defeated Zawel, you must play the main game, in which you instead fight "the evil master GALDA" as a blue dragon. If you died a horrible death, however, you play the game (with a slightly different plot involving Galda) as a more powerful gold dragon - a relatively novel difficulty selection for its time.

The game is your basic Gradius shooter, but has a nice pace to it - satisfying clouds of enemies, a difficulty level that doesn't make you cry, and weapons upgrades that have that fundamental dragonny coolness like "extra heads." Simply put, there are not enough games that give you extra heads. For the second time in three games, I found myself enjoying it and going back to play again.

It is something about dragons, perhaps. I had a similar positive reaction way back when to Dragonstrike. There are at least two more dragon entries to write, so I should perhaps hold some thoughts on dragons back, but suffice it to say that there is odd power to the image. Flying beasts roaming below the ground, guarding their treasure. Or noble serpents holding dominion over the elements. Dragons, unavoidably, are a part of us.

But in the end, I closed Dragon Fighter. I usually do with the interesting NES games worthy of more attention. That's the thing about secret histories. Unearthed, they lose their allure. Perhaps it's the same reason I never got into anime - Dragon Ball or otherwise.

But on the other hand, every once in a while, a secret history sneaks past my defenses. Speaking of which, excuse me, I'm going to go play Dragon Spirit.


  1. You've gotten a shout at Joystiq, which has, in turn, gotten you one more reader. So far so good.

  2. I love the music in Dragon Spirit.

  3. You've got a reader via Dinosaur Comics as well. I'm about halfway caught up and still reading, so you haven't lost me yet.