Dragon Buster (ドラゴンバスター) - Arcade, Famicom, MSX2, X68000, PC-8801, PlayStation, PSP, Xbox 360, Wii Virtual Console (1985)
Dragon Buster is a bit of an obscure "classic". Much like another similarly themed Namco title from the era, Tower of Druaga, it's remembered fondly by retro geeks everywhere in Japan, but everyone else will be left scratching their head, wondering what the big deal was.
While Tower of Druaga is an immensely obtuse dungeon adventure, Dragon Buster is, at least, more immediately accessible. It's a sidescrolling action-adventure where you navigate a hero through a series of caves, collecting items and killing bad guys. At the end of each series of levels, you kill (bust?) a dragon, and then move on. This might not sound like a lot, but it was impressive for an arcade game circa 1984, and introduced plenty of mechanics that have become essential to the genre, including map screens, double jumping, and dashing.
Arcade games in 1984 generally didn't have stories worth much of anything, outside of any intro screens or whatever was written on the cabinet. Dragon Buster is much the same way. All you know is that you're Clovis, a chivalrous knight who must rescue Princess Celia from a dragon, or maybe a bunch of dragons, because there are numerous found throughout the game. Every few stages, you'll find Celia after defeating a dragon, but then she'll be swept away again, and your quest resumes. After defeating the dragon several times, Celia will finally be safe, and you'll get a proper ending.
Dragon Buster is one of the first games of its kind to utilize a world map to choose levels. When you first start the game, there's only a single path to take, but then they branch off, allowing you to take different routes in the end of the map. While you usually only get two choices, it's lot more impressive than the linear paths in most other games at the arcade.
Each map is divided into several levels. There are five different level themes: Cave, Tower, Graveyard, Mountain and Ruins. Although each level is unique, each type has a different style of layout and contains different kinds of enemies. Caves, for instance, are usually pretty straightforward, while Graveyards are more maze-like. When you pick a stage, you're thrown into a labyrinth filled with bloodthirsty enemies, and need to hack through the maze to find your enemy. In the beginning, your only method of attack is a dumpy sword that's about as impressive as two liter bottle of soda. Clovis swings his sword in an overhead motion, which is somewhat awkward, because it has almost no range. As a result, it's hard to hit enemies without taking some damage your self. Furthermore, Clovis flips in the air after getting hit, allowing him to be juggled helplessly by further enemy attacks. Dragon Buster is one of the first games to use a life gauge, so at least you can sustain multiple hits, but you only have a single life per credit.
There are a couple of other manuevers too. You can also perform a downward thrust with your sword (similar to The Legend of Zelda II), which is handy for certain enemies. Dragon Buster also marks the first appearance of the double jump, which later became a staple in the Ghosts 'n Goblins and Castlevania franchises. Unfortunately, there's no jump button - you need to hold Up on the joystick instead. Even jumping forward tends to be difficult, because most of the time, the game doesn't register that you're pushing in a direction while you jump. You can also run by double tapping in a direction.
Every few hallways, you'll come across a dark room. Upon entering, the walls will drop down and the music will change, signifying an encounter with a miniboss. There are usually at least three in a stage, and drop useful powerup items. Of course, these fiends aren't very easy to defeat, because they have a much larger range than you do. There are only a handful of different bosses that are repeated over and over, however, so once you formulate a strategy, you can take them down easier.
The powerups that you get are random, and they can help out quite a bit. You have your typical health refills, health expansions, and single use magic spells. Magic comes in two varieties: a single shot fireball and an extremely powerful triple shot fireball that engulfs the screen with flames, killing everything on it. You can also get equipment, such as a shield that boosts defense, and a sword upgrade that increases attack power. You'll also find two other items, a scepter and a crown, which will change Celia's actions when you save her. If you have the scepter, Celia will give you a kiss. If you have the crown, she'll change outfits, from a miniskirt to a bikini. If you have both, she'll turn into a bunny girl. The catch is, you can't wield the sword upgrade if you're carrying the scepter, and can't use the shield if you have the crown. This requires you to give up offensive or defensive power (or both) to get the best ending.
At the end of a map, you'll fight a dragon. The dragons can be extremely annoying due to the massive amount of damage they can deal, as well as their long range. The easiest way to kill them is with the magic spells you get from the minibosses - especially the triple fireball - but if you don't have any, you'll have a helluva time defeating them.
In terms of audio, Dragon Buster has more music than a lot of arcade games at the time, but the soundtrack itself is very lackluster and monotonous. The music feels a bit too chipper, considering the dragon slaying theme. The miniboss music makes you really want to pull out your hair, considering it loops every three seconds, while the dragon fight music feels too upbeat.
Dragon slaying isn't normally associated with bright pastel colors, but apparently Namco thought that it would be suiting. Maybe it was a limitation of the hardware, as Dragon Buster runs on a modified version of the Pac-Land hardware, but you know there's something odd going on when you're being attacked by a brightly colored skeleton in a pink vest.
Perhaps the key reason that Dragon Buster is ignored in the West is because it was never ported to any home system outside of Japan. As a result, its innovations were not taken in the context of the time, and the game seems extremely dated now. But back in its home country, it saw ports on the NEC PC-8801, Sharp MSX2, and Nintendo Famicom. Its first official US console release was part of the Namco Museum Volume 2 for the PSOne, but it also shows up the Namco Battle Collection for the PSP, and Namco Museum Virtual Arcade for the Xbox 360. These are all straight ports/emulations of the arcade version. There's also a Japanese Plug-in-Play game.
The Famicom version, released in 1987, is a great port of the game. They made improvements in the controls by mapping the jump button to A instead of Up, which is a blessing. However, it's still rather difficult to control, and double jumping is a pain. The graphics have been changed a bit too - while Clovis looks a bit less dorky, the tiles and backgrounds look worse. The music, however, is a tiny bit better, for all that's worth. The action is also confined to the top two-thirds of the screen, with the bottom acting as a status bar.
There are several other improvements too. In addition to a couple new enemies, like spiders and thieves, there are also substantially more secondary weapons. These include canes, which shoot lightning bolts; lamps, which causes columns of fire to erupt from the ground; and amulets, which turn all enemies on the screen to stone. You can save up and use any of these items any time you want by pausing the game. Items are actually used by pressing Down and A. There's also a couple of other handy items, like a compass, which points you towards the exit, and a diary, which allows you to continue. The maps are also larger, and occasionally have obstacles in their path, which can be cleared with the correct items. For example, keys will open doors, and axes will chop down trees, Finding these items can potentially allow you to bypass certain levels. You no longer obtain health expansion items, but instead, your score has turned into an experience gauge, and reaching certain points will cause you to level up, granting more hit points.
The MSX2 version is available as a floppy disk or cartridge, and is very similar to the Famicom version, except it has art of a dragon at the title screen, and a longer ending. The screen also cannot scroll, so each room is displayed one at a time. The NEC PC-8801 was done by Enix, which has a unique intro that shows the biography of Clovis and Celia, and is the only version to mention who the characters are in game. Otherwise, this port is extremely terrible, featuring unresponsive controls and slowdown. Arcade perfect ports were also released later in Japan for the X68000 and Windows PC home computers. The arcade version of Dragon Buster also shows up on the Namco Museum Virtual Arcade for the Xbox 360.
The Japanese Plug-in-Play system is fairly obscure and is titled "Dragon Buster 100". It's a much harder game, but thankfully, you can cycle through your magic, which means you can save your powerful fire magic for later. Namco took out the map and opted for linearity instead. It has horizontal levels that contain only four enemies, with a dragon at the end of the level. After clearing twenty levels and killing 100 foes, you find Celia in a bunny girl costume, telling you how great you are, and that you must play more. Then, the game begins from scratch.
Comparison Screenshots - Stage
Comparison Screenshots - Map
Dragon Buster II: Yami no Fūin, which roughly translates to "Seal of Darkness", is a Famicom exclusive title that's also nothing like the first game. If anything, it's closer to the old computer game Hunt the Wumpus.
This time around, you play as Carl, a dragon slayer who wields a bow and arrow. You start out on a map just like in the first title. except you're presented with a screen that shows you which stages have useful items. Some of the maps are huge as well, some being as large as four screens. The stages themes are like the previous game, and include themes like cemetaries, caves, towers, and dragon nests.
When you enter a stage, the view changes to an overhead camera. The labyrinth is covered in fog, so you can't see areas in the cave until you actually move in that direction. A similar technique was used in the graphical version of Hunt the Wumpus. The goal is to hunt monsters, one of whom carries the key to the stage. The enemies usually die with two arrows, but you only have a limited amount of arrows you can use. If you fire your arrows at a wall, they ricochet back at you and deal damage, which is pretty funny, but can be annoying when you're trying to kill a monster in close quarters. When you get the key, you have to find the exit door in order to leave. Some levels are huge, especially the dragon nest stages, and you'll probably feel pretty lost most of the time.
When Carl is damaged, his shirt gradually changes from blue to red, indicating his health points. Thankfully, there are item pickups to find to aid your dragon busting. You can collect fairies that replenish your health, quivers that give you more arrows, tomahawks that increase your attack power, and a shield that makes you temporarily invincible. There are also Mimics, enemies that take shape of items and bite you if you get close.
The music is practically nonexistant. The only time you hear music is on the map, the title screen, during invincibility mode, and when you kill a dragon. There is absolutely no music in stages, which increases the feeling of being lost and lonely. However, it feels rather strange for a Famicom game, which usually feature constant background music with unique tracks for each area. The sound effects, on the other hand, are quite important to the game. Whenever you're near the monster, you can hear it, but you can't see it. This is a precursor to the same effect used in Silent Hill, released ten years later, where you have a broken radio that blurted out white noise whenever you are close to an enemy. This is an awesome effect because you know something is out to get you, even though you can't see it.
Graphically, it's slightly better than the Famicom version of Dragon Buster. Some stages have details such as coffins and crumbling pillars that fill some parts of the stage. One down point about the graphics is that a lot of places look the same, which makes it very easy to get lost, so expect to sometimes spend twenty minutes on some levels.
While Dragon Buster II is a unique game, it gets boring rather quickly. Thankfully, the game uses passwords, and they're only five digits long, as opposed to the twenty-digit-long games of the day.
In 1999, Namco decided that the Dragon Buster series needed to be revived, so they gussied it up a bit, and released Dragon Valor for the Sony PlayStation. Incidentally, early ads tried to laud this game as a "Zelda-killer," but then again, they did that for a lot of other 3D fantasy games like Hype: The Time Quest. (I wonder how much hype that game actually generated...) Anyway, Dragon Valor isn't really a sequel, but a kind of spinoff that retells the story of the first Dragon Buster, which adds a revenge and love story all in one!
Despite its marketing, Dragon Valor isn't really an RPG - in fact, it's closer to a Golden Axe-style beat-em-up with some vague RPG elements. This worked out well for other titles like Treasure's Guardian Heroes, but it's not quite as well implemented as it was in that game.
The game starts when you play as Clovis, the hero of the original Dragon Buster, although he looks markedly different. Upon beating the prologue and first chapter, you can choose which of the female characters to marry. Similar to Phantasy Star III, your bride will determine your offspring, whom you control in the next chapter. This is a great concept, but it's never fully exploited. There are only really three paths through the game, with some characters simply running through the same levels. They all control the same, too, with the only difference being their magic abilities. This is somewhat limited, considering you can easily beat the game under nine hours. The levels are also extremely linear, even though some of them are huge.
The hero from the first title returns to action after his sister is killed by the hand of a dragon. Clovis becomes king of the nation of Raxis after avenging his sister's death.
One of the sons who Clovis bears. His kingdom is captured by Volef, and he spends the rest of the chapter reclaiming his throne and killing a dragon as well.
One of the sons who Clovis bears. He just wants to be a rogue instead of a dragon slayer.
Arlen's only son. Felippe is sort of a loser, and acts like he's all tough.
One of Kodel's sons, who is an expert at navigating the sea.
One of Kodel's sons, who wanted to be a thief just like his daddy.
Anna is the daughter of Felippe, or Gerome, depending on how you play the game (so much for genetics). She has two quests depending on how you play the game. She either searches for her twin brother, Miheal, or avenges the death of a comrade.
Miheal is the son of Felippe or Gerome. He has two different quests are the same as his sister Anna, and you'll play the other quest you didn't play as with Anna.
Anita is the daughter of Gerome. She is an exorcist who is hired to purge castle Raxis of demons and dare it be mentioned, dragons.
The controls are quite simple. You can swing your sword, jump, double jump, cast magic, run with the L1 trigger and duck with the R1 trigger. You can also block by simply not pressing any buttons. There are also upward and downward slash moves, so in many ways, it's very similar to the moveset from Dragon Buster. However, it plays much differently. Everything is in 3D, but the camera is usually positioned for a side viewpoint. This means it's much easier to control than most 3D action games, since you never need to worry about the camera.
The leveling system is unique as well. You can get powerups from enemies, which can increase any of your stats, though these powerups are somewhat rare. The magic system works the same way, except bosses drop magic spell upgrades. Another similarity to Dragon Buster is the map screen, though Dragon Valor tends to be more linear in the later chapters because you have only one path to take. However, in the earlier chapters, you have a choice between more than one level.
There's also a shop screen. Each shop is run by the same creepy guy, who's really fat and has a really big, frightening grin on his face. After some levels, you can go to the shopkeeper and either trade items, or buy some overpriced (and fairly crappy) equipment. One annoying aspect of the shop is that you can only buy in certain shops or trade in certain other ones. This isn't really a problem, because the shop is virtually worthless.
Generally speaking, the soundtrack in Dragon Valor sounds like it could fit in with the "Tales Of" RPG series, especially the prevalent use of synthesized electric guitars. Some of the songs are catchy, especially the Main Theme, but generally, it's extremely repetitive and rather bland.
Like most PlayStation games of the day, Dragon Valor looks rather blocky and pixellated, but it's really not all that terrible. It uses a lot of blur effects, especially in certain magic attacks, cut scenes, and when transitioning between screens. While it may look cool at first, it gets really old the billionth time you've seen it.
On the other hand, the art for this game is fantastic. The character portraits are a refreshing change from the usual anime inspired artwork found in Japanese RPGs, and seems to reflect the care that was taken in recording each character's genealogy. Thankfully, Dragon Valor also has an unlockable art gallery that shows all of these illustrations for those who are interested.
While Dragon Valor is cool in concept, it definitely overstays its welcome. As an RPG, the story is barely existant, and the customization elements are limited. As a beat-em-up, it's pretty fun for a short period of time, but then gets old quickly, due to lack of variation in your arsenal. It's not a terrible game, but it's not particularly outstanding either.
Namco loves to stick in references to classic games in the RPGs they publish. The early Tales games feature Rally-X minigames and cameos by other characters like Valkyrie. Even Monolith Soft's Baten Kaitos features a dungeon based on Tower of Druaga, complete with 8-bit style graphics. The PlayStation 2 title Tales of the Abyss holds another minigame, commonly dubbed "Tales of Dragon Buster". It's more than just a homage to their long lost series - despite being just a minigame, this is what Dragon Buster would have looked like it it had an arrangement mode like some of the PSP games. In order to unlock it, you need to discover Nam Cobanda Island, a secret location late in the game. This cave is filled with references to Namco games, including Pac-Man and Klonoa. If you manage to complete some irritating subquests, which involve revisiting several towns all over the game world, you're allowed to (finally) play Tales of Dragon Buster.
The actual game is still 2D, although it utilizes 3D graphics. Luke takes on the role of the main character, with all of the enemies replaced by common foes from random encounters. The healing items are also replaced with gels/gummies, the curative items of the Tales series, and there are still different types of spells to find. The action controls similarly to the arcade game, although it's much smoother, offers an extra button to jump like the Famicom version, and adds quick dodging abilities too. The songs are remixed versions of the classic Dragon Buster tunes, but if you put in a code, it'll enable retro-style music and sound effects similar to the original game. Luke will also wear Clovis' costume in this mode, which is unlocked for use in regular play when you beat the game.
The goal of the game is to get to the end, of course, but there are no longer any mini-maps. Instead, each stage has several exits, which in turn leads to different stages. The dragon is on the eighth level, but there are many branching paths through the game. Each stage is littered with items, some of which strengthen your attack or defense, some increase your maximum hit vitality, and others simply unlock costumes for characters in the main game. The goal is to explore the caves to try to find the best equipment, so you're properly prepared to fight the dragon at the end. Much like the original game, you need to find the scepter and the crown, and wear those to the final battle, to get the best ending.
Even though it's fairly short - you can play through the whole game in ten minutes - you'll probably need to play it a few times, just to get a handle on the best routes to take through the game, and the best places to dig up items without dealing with too many bad guys. Still, there's a surprising amount of depth to it. And since it controls much better than the arcade game, it's arguably better than the game it's based on.
Released in 2002 for the Wonderswan, Namco Super Wars basically takes Banpresto's famed Super Robot Wars series, and replaces the different mecha with characters from different Namco games. You play as a character named Chronos who travels to different Namco games and seeks out their heroes to do battle. Some characters include Ki and Gil from Tower of Druaga, Amul from Dragon Spirit / Saber, Valkyrie and Xandra from Legend of Valkyrie, Apollon and Artemis from Phelios, Mappy and Dig Dug from their respective games, and several others. Clovis and Princess Celia, along with Arlen and Carolona, all appear as their Dragon Valor incarnations. One of the worlds is also the country of Raxis. The game is essentially a predecessor to the PlayStation 2 game Namco × Capcom.