Dragon Slayer, despite being called one by several sources, isn't really an action RPG, but rather a turn-based game on a timer, like Caverns of Freitag. Unlike its contemporaries Tower of Druaga and Hydlide, you could easily turn this game into something purely turn-based simply by removing the timer aspect, and nothing in its space of gameplay possibilities would be lost except for the possibility of failure to keep up with its frenetic pace. Dragon Slayer even provides the means to do this - unlike Freitag, you can pause any time with the Esc key, giving you unlimited time to think over your next move anyway. This is not, contrary to Wikipedia's description, remotely how arcade-style action mechanics work, and I can't really see it as a foundational to the eventual incorporation of action mechanics into RPG-like games either.
For that matter, it's also not much of an RPG. Even though it does feature stat-based character development, this serves more as an absolute gate on progress than a factor in combat success, and along with some rather obtuse gameplay mechanics, including Sokoban-like block pushing, lends more of a puzzle game feel.
Dragon Slayer is, nevertheless, an important proto-JRPG. Yoshio Kiya's first game as a fulltime employee, it helped solidify Falcom's identity (and its hit sequel Xanadu even more so).
There are four PC-8801 versions cataloged by Neo Kobe:
- Level 1.1
- Level 2.0
- LOGiN version
- Unlabeled "Dragon Slayer" file
I played the unlabeled one, assuming that this was a "Level 1.0" release, but in retrospect, this was the wrong choice. From what I can gather, "Level 2.0" version makes the monsters tougher and doubles the number of maps. LOGiN, a version distributed with a computing magazine, is an entirely new level set and replaces most of the sprites. The unlabeled version seems to be a hack which uses the "Level 2.0" maps and difficulty balance, but with the LOGiN sprites, and also dummies out the title screen logo and, as I realized far too late, the controls screen. The true "Level 1.0" release is buried deeper in the collection, hidden inside a disk image called "[Compilation] 88 Game.88."
You start outside what I'm going to assume is some kind of portable camping cabin that you set up in a dungeon, which serves as a free healing station as well as a drop-off point for stat-enhancing treasure. Without a sword, though, you can't even take on the weakest denizens, let alone slay any dragons. And although a sword is plainly visible to the east, there's a wall in the way.
Due south, you'll find a bunch of loose gold, some locked chests, a ring, which lets you push walls (and the house), and a cross, which makes you invulnerable! Annoyingly, the gold can't be collected while holding either item. The cross is great if you want to explore the dungeon and not die but be completely unable to meaningfully interact with any part of it while monsters keep spawning. You can't have both at once, so get the gold, then the ring, and go back home.
Drop the ring before cashing in your gold for HP, get it again, and then head west for a Sokoban-like puzzle where the monsters will leave you alone.
There's the sword! Collect it, and a ghost spawns and steals the chest-unlocking key, which is just as well because there's no way you can get it yourself, even with the ring. How do you know where the key goes? Here's the neat part - you don't.
With the sword equipped, now you can fight skeletons, and that's about it. And every time you kill a skeleton, a tougher vampire bat spawns somewhere nearby. Avoid the skeletons and eventually vampire bats and even swarms of bees will spawn anyway. And the XP gained from killing skeletons isn't going to help very much. You can outrun the enemies for the most part, but eventually the map will be so flooded with them that this is impossible, and narrow corridors with enemies blocking the way will be troublesome well before that.
What you need is a strength crystal. Unfortunately, they're all either inside chests or on the extreme far south of the map. Fortunately, the ghost loves randomly stealing them and dropping them off in random parts. Unfortunately, this can't be controlled or predicted. If you're lucky, you might find one before getting overwhelmed.
At this point, after repeatedly getting lost and/or overwhelmed and killed, I decided to use the cross to map out as much of the dungeon as I could, and it's huge; 80 columns wide (wrapping) and 100 tall (not wrapping).
After restarting and following a map to plan an efficient route to the gem cache, I happened to find the key stashed near a teleporter. So I grabbed it and made a mad dash back home, unlocking as many chests as I could along the way without engaging enemies.
|No time to open these
Next, I dropped off the key and began the tedious process of fetching treasure, especially strength crystals, which must be brought back to the house to confer their benefits, and can only be carried one at a time. Even one crystal vastly improves your fighting ability, bringing your strength up from 500 to 3000 points, making the skeletons die in one shot and giving you a fair shot at the vampire bats. But experience quickly taught me not to fight too aggressively, as every monster you kill causes a stronger one to spawn.
Eventually, I found my key again - the ghost had moved it while I was retrieving treasure - and began opening the level's chests more thoroughly, now that the monster population wasn't quite the threat it was the first time.
|Opening - but not yet collecting - tons of treasures in relative peace.
I kept combing the level for quite some time, going back to gathering strength crystals whenever I couldn't find more chests to open (or when the ghost stole my key), eventually getting bold enough to attack much more aggressively to earn experience, even chasing down fleeing opponents. In combat, two stats matter - strength and experience. Strength means raw damage, experience subtracts from it, and if your strength isn't greater than your opponent's experience, your damage is virtually nullified. That goes both ways too, but the monsters' experience curve is pretty chaotic, spiking seemingly at random. For instance, a moth enemy has 109,000 experience, while a caterpillar that comes immediately after has 270,000, so you may be able to easily kill the former, even able to make it run from you, and not even be close to being able to damage the latter, needing another 60+ crystals before you've got enough strength to land a scratch. Which, again have to be gathered one at a time.
With the ring, you can push the house into crystal-rich areas, but I found that with so many loose crystals in the level, the hyperactive ghost was quite busy juggling them around, and I could barely take a few steps in any direction without finding a couple.
I also noticed that, when I got about 30,000 experience, I could suddenly walk in diagonals. This let me gain access to even more treasure chests.
The farming continued for some time.
|Several tough baddies
Eventually I discovered that, with a certain amount of XP, you can turn into a bird with magic and fly over walls, and found the dragon in an otherwise inaccessible spot of the map. With an attack power of 600,000, I knew I'd want close to that much XP before fighting it in earnest, so I continued farming the map for enemies until I gained a bit over 550,000 and returned.
One head went down easily, but the others had so much XP that even with 356,500 strength I couldn't scratch them. The tougher of the two had 400,000, though not enough strength to hurt me at this point, and besides, I could hit it diagonally without retaliation, if only I could hurt it. The body had 655,350 experience, which astute gamers and programmers will know is the upper value of a 16-bit integer with an extra 0 sharpied onto the end. The tail just thwacks you away if you try to attack it.
Strength crystals were getting scarce, too, and the ghosts constantly moving stuff was going back from a blessing in disguise to being a nuisance again.
Ultimately, through exhaustively searching the level with my bird spell, and using the return spell to rapidly retreat back to the house, I was able to amass 394,000 strength. Not enough - I'd need more than that just to start doing damage to the last head, and after that, I simply couldn't find even a single one more.
|Trading blows with the second head. I do 14,000 damage per hit, it does 10.
|Monsters surround my home after I return, but most can't hurt me. Except the one to the southwest.
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do, or supposed to have done. Some monsters drain your strength, and I had been careful to avoid that, but sometimes it happens. Does the game really expect you to find every single crystal in this enormous level, tediously getting them and returning them to the house one at a time, while dealing with endlessly respawning monsters and not getting hit by a strength drainer even once? While ghosts are constantly moving them and other stuff around, including the key, which I'm pretty sure there's only one of, that you need to get most of them?
Reading CRPG Addict's account, which is based on the 1.1 release with easier monsters (including a dragon I could have beaten with my current stats), what comes next in store is a search through the entire level for four crowns, which can't possibly be more horrid to deal with than searching for every strength crystal. He also notes that you can break blocks at a certain point, which I really wish I had known. Once you get all the crowns, you go to the next map with your stats reset and do it all over again. Or in his case, and would certainly be mine had I also made it, you don't.
Initially, I was content to move on, but I decided to try again, using the "Level 1.0" version. And this was indeed a much easier experience. I spent a lot less time being outclassed by monsters, even reaching the point where nearly everything on the board would flee and I had to even chase them down in order to gain the XP needed to unlock new abilities. Knowing about the break block ability, attained fairly early on, made a world of difference, allowing me to clear my own paths to push the house through to reach crystal-rich areas.
The early version is more difficult in one aspect. Sometimes, when opening treasure chests, a chest may be cursed, disabling your ability to cast spells (including brick breaking) and causing a skeleton to follow you around everywhere you go. This happens in later versions too, but I hadn't mentioned it as the curse can be broken by touching a cross, and clusters of treasure chests are all but guaranteed to leave a few, so it's no big deal. Not so in this version, where the only way to break a curse is to go back home, and even then, this causes the skeleton to hang around in the area, ready to re-curse you should you get too close to him a second time.
Ultimately, beating the dragon merely required me to attain 350,000 strength - experience doesn't matter, as you can hit the dragon heads from angles by breaking or pushing blocks out of the way - and if your strength exceeds that by any amount, then each dragon head goes down in one hit. There were plenty of crystals still scattered through the level even after I had gotten enough of them.
The final challenge, getting the crowns, isn't especially hard, but made annoying by a few things; they can be hidden anywhere, the ghosts keep moving them around, you can't use magic while holding a crown, and your house becomes surrounded by high level monster spawners, making the return almost as annoying as the search. And I just loved it when a ghost snatched a crown right out of my hands just as I was about to stash it.
GAB rating: Bad. Dragon Slayer is not challenging. It's obtuse, repetitive, frustrating, overengineered, unrewarding, and really boring. Version 1.x's easier difficulty balance eases the pain, but it isn't any more interesting.
Some notes on magic abilities:
- (J)ump - Unlocked at 1,000XP, randomly teleports you.
- (R)eturn - Unlocked at 2,000XP, teleports you to the house.
- (M)ap - Unlocked at 3,000XP, shows a zoomed-out map view (not the whole map though)
- (Shift+dir) - Unlocked at 5,000XP, breaks a wall at no MP cost.
- (Space+dir) - Unlocked at 10,000XP. Kick a block at no MP cost. Useless when you can just break them instead, but also kind of amusing to see just how far they can slide.
- Free(Z)e - Unlocked at 15,000XP. Stop an enemy in place for a few turns.
- F(L)ash - Unlocked at 20,000XP, freezes enemies in place for a short duration.
- (Diagonals) - Unlocked at 30,000XP, lets you move diagonally.
- (F)ly - Unlocked at 60,000XP, turn into a bird for a time and fly over walls.