Sword-and-sorcery fantasy is perhaps the basest you can get for video game inspiration. You know, games with dragons, wizards, barbarians, elves, dwarves, skeletons, princesses, jabberwockies and the like. Take Jaleco’s Astyanax, which had entirely different versions released for the arcade and NES, Taito’s Cadash, which was a rare arcade action game to incorporate RPG elements, and Data East’s Dark Seal, an isometric medieval game which somehow has a ninja as a playable character. Then there’s Athena, who… wait, who indeed?
Athena is a fairly obscure Japanese developer which never really found much success outside of its native Japan, but it built a modest reputation with the Dezaemon series of “make-your-own-shoot-em-ups” construction games. They also released a pretty neat arcade shooter by the name of Daioh revered by space shooter fans, but while shoot-em-ups may be what gave them their recognition, they did release games of other genres. Take Castle of Dragon (or its Japanese title Dragon Unit), a straightforward hack-and-slash actioner that’s all about slicing and dying.
Published by Seta, another game company approximately as obscure as Athena, Castle of Dragon naturally involves a dragon, Zuriv, who invades the kingdom of Wenlary and captures its princess. The kings Duke and Narda take up their sword, shield, and armor to slay Zuriv and rescue the princess. That’s as grade-school of a plot as you can get, but almost no arcade-made games have enough of a story to fill a fifty-page novella. The important thing is that you can take up to two knights on your six-stage journey. By default, you’re decked out in an impressive set of blue (red if player two) armor which makes you resemble a prototypical form of Soul Calibur‘s Nightmare. However, if you take about a third of damage, part of your armor gets knocked off to reveal a somewhat dorky head beneath. Lose about two-thirds health and you’re stripped down to nearly nothing, and you in fact resemble a poor man’s Conan the Barbarian.
Appropriately enough for your hero’s unmasked appearance, your expanded arsenal actually bears a lot of parity to the weapons you could grab in Taito’s Conan-inspired action-platformer Rastan: Mace, axe, and fire sword. In Castle of Dragon, you have a sword by default that has very little attack range. You also get a shield by which you can block enemy projectiles, though for some reason, you press a separate button to crouch and block instead of just holding down. For better weapons, you get a mace which extends your range exactly in the same way as Rastan, and you can grab an axe as well, although you toss axes instead of swinging them. You can also pick up a red orb which shoots out flaming crescent projectiles, and a green crystal endows your blade with powerful semi-ranged lightning blasts.
There’s also an armor pick-up to entirely restore your life, if you survive long enough to see one while nigh-naked. Hourglasses refill your time, red gauntlets make you temporary invincible, and the coveted blue boots increase your heroes’ walking speed. You can stack three boots’ worth of speed upon each other until you lose a life, but if only you could have that for longer, as your default trudging speed is painfully sluggish. It would be more of a problem if each level wasn’t so short, but it’s pathetic when Simon Belmont could beat Duke and Narda in a marathon. At least each stage only takes about anywhere between one to three minutes to beat, though with cheap bosses like tall Medusas and agile bug-beasts, you’ll likely be plunking in a few credits to beat a whole game.
Two of the levels (2 and 5) don’t have end-bosses and merely require you to pick up a key. These stages tend to focus more on platforming than on combat, though the fifth level (and the penultimate one in the game) is surprisingly easy to most other levels, even compared to the second one. Stage two throws out more than enough spike crushers and pitfalls to make Castlevania green as lime jello, but all level five offers is a vertical climb filled with somewhat annoying demon trees. While it feels kind of limp, it’s also nice to have a breather level before the final stage eats a quarter buffet with your wallet as the table. It’s as short as any level, but it also has the gall to bring back the bug jerks at the end of stage 4, following with a brutal fight against a pair of large purple dragons who have multiple types of breath and can easily crush you by leaping into the air.The absolute final boss, a gigantic green dragon who nearly takes up half the screen, is no slouch but somehow sucks less than the duo of smaller dragons you fought prior.
Castle of Dragon is kind of a shoddy game and something about it only feels semi-complete, and it perhaps feels this way due to its length, where in can be beaten in under ten minutes. There’s also something a bit sketchy about its overall design, like they decided to compensate the infinitesimal length by hiking the difficulty up to insane degrees. You’re much slower than most other enemies and your default attack range is terrible, making for a rocky playthrough unless you can somehow hold onto your power-ups.
Furthermore, the music is some of the oddest mishmash ever encoded onto an arcade board, full of digitized guitar riffs that would be awesome if they weren’t so repetitive and with horrible sound quality. It’s like everything was recorded underwater and only played for about ten seconds on average, and the particularly grating boss theme only plays for about four seconds before looping over. At least the graphics are competent, though there’s some jerky animations with the enemies in spite of your main hero’s trudging sprite actually looking decent.
There is also a neat little gimmick where you get to fight against your rival if you’re on a two-player game, and the winner gets the girl at the end a la Double Dragon; there’s even a bad ending if nobody wins before time runs out. There are far better action games out there on arcade and consoles than Castle of Dragon, but it’s at least playable and is worth trying just to see what the obscure Athena could do outside of their shmup comfort zone.
For as relatively unknown as it was, Castle of Dragon somehow managed to receive an NES port. It’s barely the same game as the original, as its level structure is entirely different, the way power-ups work are totally changed, and there are several new bosses. It’s also a complete mess, arguably sloppier than the arcade version and that’s saying something. It is considerably longer than the arcade version (though still only about half an hour in length), but more length does not always equate to more good. The movement is just a tad choppy and suffers massive slowdown if too many sprites clog the screen. Your sword does mediocre damage, and you cannot regularly obtain powerups. You can only get new weapons by beating certain bosses, and though you get throwing knives which are permanent until you pick up the mace (also permanent), the really cool fire and thunder swords are only temporary. You can also only get armor from killing bosses, though you can boost your health meter by killing enemies and maxing out the experience bar to the right of your lifebar.
Regardless of what enhancements you earn, combat is a chore. Most mid-bosses can only be reliably beaten by hitting them once, taking a clumsy jump over them, attempting to distance yourself from them before they can hit you, turn around, hit them again, and repeat the process until you win or lose. And if you die, that’s it. One life, no continues, game over. It’s even worse than the arcade original in terms of cheapness, and it really is just an overall bad game. The only thing that can be said is that it laid the foundations for an even better game. Basically, envision Castle of Dragon without most of the suck, and that gives us its follow-up, Sword Master.