Friday, June 26, 2009

Dragon Spirit


Considering that Dragon Spirit, tame as it may be, allows players to control a fire-breathing beast capable of growing two additional heads as opposed to the usual spacecraft or fighter jet, it’s easy to understand why some people found it appealing during an era in which the 1942 brand of vertical shooter was prominent. But when also considering what was right around the corner for the sub-genre, with Compile in particular just about ready to get its act together, it’s equally comprehensible why, to put it bluntly, few people give a damn about this game anymore.

To witness Dragon Spirit in action is to observe a number of neat concepts being spoiled by poor execution and lackluster presentation. Actually, "lackluster" is generous; the game is ugly as hell, with scenery so unsightly it ruins what otherwise might've been solid stage concepts. Take Area 5, which throws you into a narrow cavern containing razor-sharp crags that move in and out intermittently. Things can get pretty tight here, especially since there are some cunning creatures patrolling the dusky grounds. But when all is said and done, you probably won’t recall the claustrophobic feelings and close calls that you experienced--no, you’ll remember the boring brown interior placed atop a horrifyingly putrid green-brown canvas. To be certain, caves are supposed to be somewhat dreary and shadowy, but this "artwork" is revolting and disgracefully amateurish.

The game plays very slowly and, thanks to the stupidly large hitbox, is often annoying. Area 7 requires that you launch an assault on an enemy fortress. Again, there’s little room to maneuver within the narrow halls, especially with the resident bevies of bats, toads, and “living statues" attempting to eliminate you. It should make for a pretty intense scene--right? Unfortunately, with your dragon flying slowly and your enemies moving slowly (even the projectiles they shoot seem to struggle just to make it across the screen), the scene becomes more tedious than exciting. Imagine, if you will, an SNES shooter handicapped by the type of ludicrous slowdown that the system was notorious for. That’s the level of speed that Dragon Spirit trudges along at--but there is no slowdown at work here.

But amid all this criticism of the visuals and gameplay, let's not forget to give the audio its deserved shellacking. Strings of quiet notes form unassertive melodies that seem to have been included simply because some form of audio was required. I have no idea why people are so fond of this soundtrack, as most of it sounds very plain to me, and the high-pitched garbage in the seventh stage constitutes one of the most irritating chip tunes I've ever heard.

As horrid as it looks and sounds, Dragon Spirit could've been a genuinely memorable adventure had it featured some solid stretches of inspired action. But even its boss battles are plagued by problems that nullify their potential. Specifically, enemy leaders are way too easy to take down if combated with a powered-up dragon.

Outside of those forgettable fights, the gameplay largely consists of dropping “bombs” on ground-based foes. This routine of making precise drops while avoiding slow-moving shots becomes dull rather quickly. When Dragon Spirit does decide to place its focus on shooting and weaving, it becomes an easy affair, particularly if you happen to be in “mini-dragon” form.

Yes, Dragon Spirit does have its interesting elements, and your dragon’s ability to shrink when the appropriate icon is obtained is one of them. Of course, a tiny dragon makes it even easier to avoid the slow-moving projectiles and dim-witted enemies, though I will say that the very last stretch of Area 8 (a spear gauntlet followed by a scythe-tossing boss) is a good challenge.

Everything actually does come together for DS in Area 6, as a little emotion is injected into the aural experience, not to mention that the icy level is really rather pretty.

Surely, this shows that Dragon Spirit's superficial shortcomings can’t simply be attributed to its age. It achieves excellence when it wants to--it just doesn’t seem to want to very often.

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