Saturday, October 19, 2013

Video Game Review: The King of Dragons (Super Nintendo Entertainment System)

Sorry, arcade purists, I've only played the SNES version of this title (although I'll be ordering Capcom Classics Collection, Vol. 2 soon enough, because the arcade copy looks ballin'). Arcade or not, though, The King of Dragons is one of the finest video games crafted in digital history. Not surprising, as it came out of classic Capcom... y'know, before they were Cashcom. This spiritual successor to Knights of the Round blends the common elements of an RPG with those of the popular Beat 'Em Up genre, and it succeeds beautifully.

To arcade veterans, King of Dragons might feel something like a "My First BUP", and that's true in a way, but coming from someone who doesn't really enjoy "hardcore" play, most BUP games need to chill the fuck out. King of Dragons is plenty difficult for most players, and it comes in three flavors of Easy through Hard. It also features customizable controls and the ability to designate the shield to a button as opposed to being automatic (which is a misleading label). I've had this game for about fifteen years now, it was one of the first games that I actually owned (as opposed to other childhood favorites, most of which belonged to my uncle), and I'm not quite sure where it came from. Despite having it for so long, and never passing on the opportunity to clap it down and give it a go, I never beat it the whole way through. Not until the other night. Oh glory!

The game opens by informing you that Gildiss, a fearsome dragon lord, has taken over the kingdom and now it's up to you and your fellowship to defeat him. It supports up to two players, unlike the arcade original, and does seem to be more difficult when items are split between them. Players may pick from one of five characters (none of which are females, all of which are rugged fantasy archetypes): the Wizard, who the intro assures us is only 28 despite quite clearly having arthritis and a beard to rival Gandalf, the Elf, the Dwarf, the Fighter, and the Cleric. Each character has different stats, and it really allows players to find who suits them best. When I was young it was the Wizard, whose spells can cause devastating damage to foes in later stages. Most recently the Fighter and I have become pals.

A variety of statistics (most of which go unseen) influence your player character: health, regeneration, speed, defense, strength, magic, and even height are all factors which vary from character to character. This doesn't even include non-statistical differences, such as attack range. The health, defense, and strength stats are all upgraded by level up--which occurs after defeating so many enemies or collecting so many items--or by finding equipment--which is usually handed to you at the beginning or end of a stage. By the end-game, most early-game enemies are defeated in one hit and do negligible damage to your character. Unless you're the Elf. But don't worry, you won't be the Elf.

Enemies come in multiple species and each have a number of races as well. Most commonly are the orcs, who are the first in a long line of melee-combatants which share the same programming with slightly varied stats and attacks. Their AI-brothers are the skeletons and the lizardmen, both of whom can be a legitimate threat if not handled with care. There are also wolven archers, brain-eating mummies, whispering wraiths, and a variety of other beautiful and terrifying mythological beasts, which will definitely inspire any player. This world is really interesting, and it's a shame it came to an end with only one title.

Each stage (of which there are sixteen) ends with a boss, most of which are the Big Bads of Greek mythology. You'll battle Cyclopes, Minotaurs, giant spiders, and Hydras alongside more Nordic and Tolkien-type creatures, like enormous orcs, mystical knights, wyverns, and (one of my personal favorites) a dragon knight. These bosses are quite distinctive in personality--even when a couple of them are repeated (usually as sub-bosses in later levels, but sometimes as end-stage antagonists), they leave a unique impression. Combat styles vary from the slow and staggering brutes to knights which act more like misplaced samurai (which is really flippin' cool). Of note is the dragon knight, who seems to have been the originally intended end-game character but instead serves as a sort of half-way marker, combining the attacks of most of previous bosses into one talented dynamo.

The ultimate villain responsible for the conquest of an entire nation is Gildiss, the red dragon. He doesn't seem like much of a king, though, because he just kind of sits in his treasure room being a typical mythological dragon. Really, you don't see him do anything antagonistic. Supposedly he kidnapped a princess (who I assume is the woman you rescue from the dragon knight, but none of the NPCs have visible names), but he really doesn't seem to care too much about doing anything but minding his own business. At some point the story explains that it's because of him that monsters can roam freely about the kingdom, but I don't know if I really buy that. There are no minions guarding his cave, and it just seems like he's all alone in the world, and these guys with pointy things decided to interrupt his nap with some inane nonsense about orcs and moose-men.

What I'm saying is that he has no apparent involvement with the game whatsoever. It's kind of like the Lord of the Rings situation where you know Sauron is bad because you're told he's bad, except Gildiss has even less of a hand in the events than Sauron did, because at least the eyeball created some baddies to menace our heroes. Gildiss is the typical end-plot big bad, because the story needed him.

He's also a cheap bastard with some creative game design to show off how gigantic he is. I'm really torn on the Gildiss fight. It's actually a rehash of the Hydra battle, but with only one head, which is kind of a shitty thing to do with your final boss. On the other hand, he is a truly formidable foe whose presence literally cannot be ignored, which leaves memories lingering on for days. That's kind of the hallmark of a successful villain, isn't it? You remember him, you fear him, you remember fearing him? In that regard, Gildiss is actually a pretty good bad guy. Maybe if there were more of him, he would have seemed less dangerous. I mean, the more we see of Bowser, the less scary he becomes. Gildiss should never be like that.

Despite the difficulty level this game presents even on its easiest setting (which will be moderate to high for most gamers who do not specialize in this genre), the game never feels enraging like a lot of other games do. Sure, the controls are a little slow and the choppy animations lead to some unfortunate happenings, but the game is generally fair. You're also going to get a lot better at it the more you try, so game overs aren't really a punishment. I mean, you learn something each time you turn it on. Some games without saves, ones that send you back to square one when you die, they can get annoying. I don't think I've ever perished at the final boss of a game like this and not get pissed off until King of Dragons. It's an overall positive experience which can excite and relax at the same time.

I think this is due in part to the mellow (but not bland) color palette and physical style, which is beautiful, mystifying, and subdued all at once. It is due also to the music and sounds, which have similarly incredible and yet subdued qualities. Every sound effect seems muffled, let's not mince words here. The sound is not Super Nintendo standard, which is weird because from what I've seen, the arcade version isn't like that. Despite it, and maybe even because of it, the sounds are all memorable and they will stick with you. You will be minding your business one day when your brain will randomly shout "Hoh!" into your ears, and you will be drawn back for the annual attempt. The music is also really outstanding, and should probably get a CD release or something. Now. Capcom. Cashcom. YOU WANT MY MONEY, DON'T YOU?!

Anyways, The King of Dragons joins the ranks of my elite video game crew with a perfect ten out of ten. I can't wait to play it again.