Sunday, May 15, 2016

No Treasure for Old Dragons

Back in the day I used to own a couple of those boxed sets for the table-top RPG Dungeons and Dragons.  One in particular was a spin-off of sorts called Council of Wyrms.  Players were expected to take the roll of dragons and to help stimulate their imaginations several foldout posters were included in the box showing a variety of subspecies grouped into three distinct categories (chromatic, metallic and crystalline).  On top of this players could choose from physical, magical or psionic based classes.  It all looked very interesting, but sadly I never managed to scrape together a group of friends to try it out.  Perhaps because of that I've always had an as-of-yet-unsatisfied craving for video games that let the player be a dragon.

Obviously titles like Dragon's Dogma or the Souls series don't really fit the bill because even though dragons are integral to those stories players never actually get the chance to control one directly.  Similarly Skyrim or Breath of Fire don't exactly work either due to the player character being human for the most part.  On the other hand games where (technically speaking) the player is the dude riding on the dragon's back usually satisfy my criteria because functionally it's the same as long as the player controls the dragon directly.  So, now that we've narrowed things down a bit lets look at some examples.

The Spyro series is probably one of the most famous games that matches the sub-genre I've just outlined.  Unfortunately, I could never really get into this franchise.  Maybe it's the Saturday-morning cartoon vibe that turned me off to it.  Regardless, I can confidently say cute purple dragons aren't my thing.

Moving from 3D to 2D, there's an old top-down, bullet-hell arcade shooter called Dragon Spirit that ate a lot my quarters growing up.  It was kind of cool in that players could get power-ups that granted their dragon two or even three heads, thus doubling or tripling the firepower.  However, I always felt like the dragon was way too fragile.  Dragons are supposed to be well-nigh forces of nature yet in Dragon Spirit a few hits from anything is all it takes to crash and burn.

Another 2D game, this one from the side perspective, is Thanatos.  It's an old Commodore 64  game that played like a mix of Choplifter and Wings of Fury, except instead of piloting a helicopter or Grumman F6F Hellcat you're a dragon.  For better or worse, I never owned a C64 so my exposure to this game was pretty limited.  Another exclusive to that home computer I did get to play over at a friends house was Dragon Riders of Pern.  Based on a long running series of novels, this particular game was broken in to two distinct parts, a text-based strategy section and...well...let me explain the background for this setting a bit.  Dragon Riders of Pern is actually sci-fi in that the "dragons" are genetically engineered by a bunch of space Amish.  Every so often the orbit of Pern brings it near a bunch of gigantic filaments drifting in the void of space.  This "thread" (as it's called) is extremely toxic to carbon based life and can fall to the ground with devastating effect.  An entire country could be laid to waste unless the thread is destroyed as it descends through the atmosphere.  How can it be destroyed?  With fire!  Hmmm...what flies and breaths fire?  You guessed it!  So getting back to the gameplay, it's basically a poor-man's version of Missile Command except the player is tasked with torching squiggly white lines with a dragon rather than intercepting ballistic nuclear warheads with an anti-missile system.

Speaking of copycats Dragon Seeds is basically Monster Rancher except with a variety of different dragons instead of...well...other kinds of monsters.  Then there's Dragon Strike, essentially a clunky flight-sim wherein dragons take the place of conventional aircraft.  Although in some cases the opposition can be other flying creatures such as wyverns or manticores.  The player has a recharging breath weapon at their disposal, as well as a trusty lance for aerial jousting.  Despite the obvious parallels it doesn't feel at all similar Joust.  There is a game called Atomic Battle Dragons that does, but since it's a mobile game I don't think it merits discussion.

The PS3 near-launch title Lair attempted to do some experimental things with the Sixaxis controller that sounded good in theory, but didn't work in practice.  Maneuvering dragons through tilt controls made the game essentially unplayable and even when the developers patched in analog controls the camera and story still stunk.  It's a real shame because Lair had some nice looking dragons, as well as smooth transitions between air and ground combat.

There's all kinds of weird outliers I could mention.  Take the Panzer Dragoon series for example.  It has dragons but drops any semblance of fantasy in lieu of a futuristic atheistic.  Another example is Drakan which might have been interesting if the visuals weren't so bland and generic.  The list of be-the-dragon video games goes on, but there has never been one that really nails the feel of being the alpha predator of mythical beasts.  That said, I would recommend one game without hesitation, the pseudo-arcade title TROGDOR!  It's not good, but it is silly...and better still completely free.  So even if you don't like it no loss...except maybe a few minutes of your time.

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