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 shmups 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 Sword Master.
Many developers clamored to release games on the ailing NES when they knew that the next generation was coming in the form of the Genesis and the SNES. Athena, obscure though they were, also partook in releasing an 8-bit title in the nineties with Sword. This game appears somewhat akin to Castlevania and its contemporaries at first glance but turns out to put fighting over jumping as the chief modicum of action. It is also a spiritual successor to Castle of Dragon (moreso the NES port than the arcade original), as it features a similar setting, protagonist, enemies, and general gameplay. Though whereas Castle of Dragon was not very good, Sword Master is a more respectable product and is quite fun, if not rough around the edges.
Sword Master's plot is about as standard as you can get, and can actually be summed up in one sentence: A princess is kidnapped while a nefarious mage resurrects Vishok, the evil serpent god, and you are sent in to rescue her and foil the dastardly wizard. This is the sort of plot that's been around since whenever mankind learned how to write stories, but that's obviously what this game is not about. It also has a pretty stereotypical fantasy setting, albeit a dark one with some considerably well-done visuals. Right as you open up the game, the logo blazes with a neat fire effect within the back layer of the letters, and if you wait long enough, it launches into a neat textless intro that depicts all of the scary crap happening across the land.
In action, the game looks pretty dang good. Your protagonist, a knight in shining golden armor, is reasonably well-animated as he saunters along at a decent clip, almost with a Belmont-esque sort of gait. The sprites are of a decent size and are quite detailed, often toned in one or two colors that are often dark and subtle. In fact, the backgrounds are all quite dark to boot, but not in the "I can't see anything" sort of way. It's more the "gritty and gloomy" sort of dark that makes the backgrounds feel clad in a perpetual darkness, and it lends to Sword Master a unique feel that looks badass without belaboring it. It's nothing you haven't seen in any other Middle Ages tale, what with forests and run-down towns and castles and so forth, but it gets style points for keeping the vibe grim with colors on the opposite polar end of other fantasy fare like Dragon Quest and characters not as cartoony as Wizards and Warriors. It also features some good music that sounds as if it were composed for a lost Castlevania game, with the tracks for the first, fourth, and seventh levels serving as high-energy standouts which really get you geared for slaying some monster butt. The third level track is kind of middling, and not much of the music is insanely catchy, but it makes fine use of the NES's later sound capabilities.
As you may expect from the title, you are a Sword Master whose blade is your best friend and your shield as your second-best. Your goal is to hack and slash your way through any and all adversaries that may stand in your path. You're able to deliver standing and crouching stabs, as well as a useful overhead slash by holding up while attacking. You're also able to defend against frontward attacks by crouching and aerial attacks by holding up, though jumping away is sometimes preferable to defending against attacks. Your jump moves quick and drops fast, as opposed to most 2D jumps which come off as a bit floaty, but there is not too much platforming in SM for the most part.
Nope, the focal point of Sword Master is the incredibly high amount of boss fights, of which most stages have about three major fights on average. Only a few steps into the first area, you are accosted by a skeleton with a sword of his own, and he knows how to swing AND block. Just right past him is a tall blue ogre whose club swings hurt, even though he's arguably easier than the skeleton due to being slow and unable to block. Too bad there's another skeleton right after him, and right past him is a blue wizard who can rain down dark fire and warp around a la Dracula. They only get more malevolent from then on outward, like the black knight at the end of the second level who's a terribly smart fighter and can really only be beaten by jumping in with overhead strikes and jumping back out before he can hit you.
With other such neat fights as jump-kicking lizardmen, flying gargoyles that bombard you with blue fireballs, and the obligatory battles against bipedal fire-spouting dragons, one may wonder why they didn't just cut out all the fodder and pitfalls and just get to the duels. It does indeed have other enemies like bats and zombie torsos, but they're often extinguished in a single strike. One of the very few games to which Sword Master can be compared is Taito's Gladiator, which is essentially the same premise by tossing filler enemies at you before bringing you to a boss battle in about thirty seconds' time. Gladiator did not allow jumping and had your hero walk along at an automatic pace, and if you were struck on a body part where your armor was sheared off, that's a life lost there. Sword Master at least gives you a proper lifebar and motivation to slay the enemies by giving you an experience bar, and if you fill it up with enough minion blood, your lifebar is extended for the rest of the game. They might also drop jars full of red stuff that boosts your life by a point, so it's in your best interest to cut down as much as you can.
Despite being called Sword Master, you actually get an alternate form of attack that is considerably un-swordlike. After you beat the second stage endboss, you get a magical cane which then allows you to completely change form. With a push of the select button, you morph from your conventional gold armored knight into a white-robed mage, somewhat akin in appearance to Sypha from Castlevania III. At first, you can only fire a short-range projectile that is weaker and slower than your default sword swings, but beating other levels gives you the ability to shoot fireballs, exploding arc shots, and electric bolts that do considerable damage to adversaries. Considering how you don't have to get close with these extra powers, it sounds like magic would be the way to go for the rest of the game. Sadly, using any other magic attack besides the default drains a bit from your experience bar each time you cast them, so you really have to consider the risk of better attack power weighed against a lesser lifebar.
So why isn't Sword Master a better remembered game than the relative obscurity into which it is cast? It's a fast-paced action game that offers much variety in its boss battles, and it looks and sounds good enough to stand alongside most other nineties NES games. No one knows just why it was ignored at release and beyond, but it might have to do with the fact that it's really freaking difficult, and admittedly a bit unfair at times. It's not always easy to evade or block enemy attacks, some of which do quite a bit of damage if they strike. That being said, the fights can be won with enough practice and a bit of luck, but on one of the stages, some strange designer thought it would be ideal to focus on platforming for a change and put in an abnormally high amount of instant death falls. Level four is arguably the worst part of the game, as it is rife with horrid pitfalls with indestructible eyeballs floating up and down above them, just waiting to knock you over with just the slightest graze. This game is clearly not designed for platforming considering how much gravity your jumps contain, and at several points, you have to exploit a bizarre glitch where you can double-jump if you fall onto the edge of a platform, and for a few such jumps, there is literally no other way to climb onto platforms.
If only double-jumps were something you could do normally, or at least if your jump had a bit more height to it, stage four wouldn't be so horrible. Perhaps it would have been preferable if the level didn't even have any pits in it at all, but aside from the sixth stage, nearly every other level is simply a straight line from left to right. The sixth level tosses a bunch of spears, spiked balls, and falling blocks at you along with a few pits, with the only enemies being slimes and the giant axe-guy at the end. That part feels a bit less aggravating compared to the fourth level, if only just because they don't do too much damage despite being hard to avoid. Stage four is the worst it gets for unfairness, but the last stage, despite being a straight-up brawlfest, is ruthless with about half-a-dozen bosses back-to-back, expecting you to beat most of them on one lifebar. The bloody wizard at the end of this gauntlet has a lightning attack which is basically impossible to avoid and forces you to kill him ASAP, but your life is likely low at this point and getting slain sends you back to the beginning of the level. The game mercifully gives you a checkpoint before the (surprisingly easy) penultimate boss and the finale against Vishok, the latter of which comes down to a frustrating fight of attrition that essentially requires you to just be faster than you are skilled.
The challenge is hence a bit steep to say the least. The topper to all this is that you're only given five continues to last you for the entire run of it. Somewhat counterbalancing this meager ration is the compounded length, wherein you can actually beat the game in less than half an hour if you're diligent enough. Sword Master is thus the sort of game that relies on the three P's of practice, patience, and perseverance. It may not exactly be a ringing classic, mostly due to its considerable shortness weighed against its punishing difficulty and the lack of any sort of passwords to maintain your progress hence. It is as "old-school" as an action game can get, and considering that it was released late during the NES's lifespan, it went under most everyone's radar.
Activision published the U.S. version, curiously enough, and they had long since fallen out of favor after their heyday during the Atari years, having been relegated to publishers for notorious crap like Ghostbusters, Super Pitfall, and Predator. Sword Master just may be the finest game they released for the gray box, yet it got no advertising budget save for a fairly detailed expose in volume #23 of Nintendo Power. It could have used more attention than it deserved, as despite its difficulty and the horrid programming of stage four, it's actually a fine and fast action game for those willing to put up with its viciousness. Sword Master is one of many later-NES games that have been lost to the archival mists of time, but while it may not be for everyone, it certainly deserves a play for retro action junkies who want to play something primarily focused on medieval combat and are willing to deal with the occasional fiddly bit of rocky platform jumping.