[Dragon Spirit logo]

[Stage 1]


System: NES
Publisher: Bandai
Designer: Namco
Release Date: June 1990
Genre: Shoot 'em Up
Players: 1
Save Feature? No

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend is truly a diamond in the rough with its outstanding, atmospheric soundtrack, surprisingly deep story, and silky-smooth gameplay. Without a doubt, Dragon Spirit is one of the best shoot 'em games to ever grace the NES! The only disappointing aspect of this otherwise gem of a game is the mind-blowing lack of a two-player co-op mode. What gives Namco?!

Overview: As far back as I can remember, I have had a natural affinity for video games involving shooting/blowing stuff up all while gracefully dodging incoming enemy attacks. The action-packed and adrenaline-pumping nature of shooters (or shoot 'em ups if you prefer) despite their deceptive simplicity just has a way of really drawing me in from a gameplay standpoint. These games are terrific stress-relievers as well.

And while the NES is virtually overflowing with titles that fit into the shoot 'em up category, only a handful of said games are truly worth playing. One of the finest examples of a quality NES shoot 'em up is undoubtedly Namco's Dragon Spirit. Originally released in arcades back in 1987, Dragon Spirit quickly became a hit with its fun weapon system and simplistic gameplay. Although it would never reach the height of Namco's Pac-Man or Galaga franchises, Dragon Spirit is still a hidden gem in the minds of many retro gamers.

The NES version of Dragon Spirit is quite impressive as well. Although the graphics and sounds aren't quite arcade perfect, Namco did a nice job converting the smooth gameplay over to the 8-bit console seamlessly. The vertically-scrolling nature of Dragon Spirit reminded me a lot of Stinger since in both games, you can press the B button to fire at enemies above and the A button to bomb enemies and/or obstacles below. Dragon Spirit takes itself much more seriously than the more whimsical Stinger, however, and has a feel/atmosphere all to its own.

[The Legend begins!]
[Flying deep into the jungle]

Graphics: For a 1990 release, the graphics in Dragon Spirit are actually quite good. I wasn't necessarily awe-struck or anything like that but there is a nice quality about this game's visuals. As is the case in any shoot 'em up game, variety is very important. I can't even begin to tell you how many games of this genre I have played where the visuals barely change (or don't even change at all!) over the course of the game. I never could understand why Xevious was such a popular game for this very reason. Well...that and the bloody annoying music! You've got to mix things up visually. Otherwise, it is inevitable that the game will quickly become a snooze-fest with you never wanting to play it again.

Thankfully, Dragon Spirit doesn't have this issue at all. Every area of the game (there are 9 of them) is quite different from the last. There are jungle stages, fiery volcanic levels, and dark, mysterious caves present in Dragon Spirit. The overall presentation is very smooth and some of the animated effects, such as lights flickering on and off, help to give Dragon Spirit its unique mystique. As far as NES shoot 'em ups go, Dragon Spirit is definitely above average in the visual department.

Music: Although the graphics and smooth gameplay are both positive aspects of Dragon Spirit, this game's music might very well be the game's greatest strength. I was very impressed indeed when I first heard the music in this game and considering that I didn't play Dragon Spirit until the late 90s when the game was technically an antique, that is saying something! The music fits the mysterious nature of this game like a glove and each and every area of the game contains a fitting, appropriate melody to match said surroundings. The initial grasslands-like stage features a very catchy, pleasant tune that will simply whisk you away with its majesty. But then, in the volcanic second stage of Dragon Spirit, the music suddenly becomes somewhat dark and menacing (for an NES game anyway). The Cave Road (Stage 5) theme, with its quiet, mysterious tune, creates the perfect atmosphere for that locale. Another very "hummable" tune carries Stage 6's icey, frigid domain. This track, along with several others in the game, definitely carries a pleasant Japanese influence with it.

Pretty much all of the other musical tracks in Dragon Spirit are nicely composed as well. The jungle and underwater tracks, while not necessarily my favorites, complement their surroundings perfectly. And the various boss themes are upbeat and adrenaline-pumping...just as they should be. Lastly, the game's ending theme is simply fantastical! It is a very appropriate bookend to one of the more underrated NES soundtracks out there.

While the sound effects in Dragon Spirit can't quite match the grandeur of the game's music, they are more of an afterthought anyway (mainly due to the great music) so it doesn't really affect the gameplay all that much. Some sounds almost seem too quiet if that makes any sense and some actions don't seem to have any respective sounds at all. This is a minor complaint in an otherwise sparkling department though.

Play Control: Dragon Spirit does exactly what any decent shoot 'em up game should do. It gives you a fairly simple control scheme and leaves the rest of it to the game player. Manuevering your dragon, shooting fire/spread shots, and bombing enemies below is pretty much your usual fanfare. Naturally, the controls become more enjoyable as you pick up powerups that give you additional speed and firepower or enhance your dragon altogether. If you are able to survive for long periods of time all while snatching the same powerups over and over, you'll be controlling one fierce dragon before too long!

Along with the aforementioned Stinger, Dragon Spirit was one of the first shoot 'em ups that I can recall playing which allowed you to not only shoot enemies but to bomb the areas below where your main firepower couldn't reach. And in addition to defeating enemies on the lower-levels, bombing conspicuous-looking balls and orbs will release juicy powerups which in turn will enhance your powers! You'll definitely want to remember that little tidbit of information.

[Amru vs. Zawel]
[Under the sea!]

Challenge: Like any great shoot 'em up, Dragon Spirit: The New Legend achieves a nice balance in difficulty. To be fair, the NES version is not nearly as tough as the original arcade cabinet (which makes sense considering arcade games are naturally designed to be super hard in order to extract additional quarters from unsuspecting gamers) but it is still no cakewalk either. This is probably a moderately challenging game overall and, while it comes nowhere close to Life Force's sometimes sadistic difficulty, Dragon Spirit will push you enough to make you sweat a little. You can only continue three times and since extra lives are few and far between, plenty of skill will be needed to conquer this game.

Unfortunately, despite Dragon Spirit being a genuinely enjoyable game, the lack of a two-player option results in less replay value than say, Life Force or Stinger. This is truly unfortunate because, had Dragon Spirit featured a two-player multi-player option, it would have been one heck of a co-op game. You have to wonder what Namco was thinking in not including this simple-yet-essential option!

Storyline: Of all the aspects and qualities that Dragon Spirit possesses, the game's story was among the biggest surprises. Believe it or not, this game proved that a shoot 'em up could actually have a decent, well thought-out story! Dragon Spirit already had a unique feel/atmosphere/mystique about it but the story actually enhances the overall experience which is pretty impressive.

Basically, the game starts off in the past with you controlling Amru and having a final showdown with the menacing Zawel (My friend Josh Zawel loves the fact that his last name is actually in a video game...way to go Josh!) Depending on whether or not you win this showdown, you will begin the game as a Blue Dragon or Gold Dragon. Lace, Amru's son, is the hero that you will control is this game. Lace's twin sister Iris, having been captured by the up-and-coming villain Galda, is unfortunately nothing more than a damsel in distress in this one. And since Amru is still ill from his age-old battle with Zawel, Lace has to take on the hordes of enemies alone. I suppose that partially explains why Dragon Spirit is only a one-player game despite my pleas for a two-player co-op mode. In any case, for an old-school NES game, Dragon Spirit really came through with quite the legendary background story!

Funfactor: Like I have said time and time again throughout this review, Dragon Spirit was a real pleasant surprise. I honestly didn't expect much more than your typical, average shooter when I fired up Dragon Spirit for the first time. However, the silky-smooth gameplay and the catchy, varied music/atmosphere really made an impact and I consider myself lucky for having come across this underrated gem. Although the lack of a two-player option did keep Dragon Spirit from reaching its full potential, it is still one heck of a shoot 'em up. I would honestly put this game just below Life Force and right beside Stinger on the NES shoot 'em up totem pole. And considering that there were probably 8-10 high-quality shoot 'em up games released for the NES, that's quite the compliment! And along with the quirky Monster Party cult classic, I would say that Dragon Spirit was one of Bandai/Namco's finest NES performances.

Negatives: The lack of a two-player mode!! Despite Dragon Spirit being such an enjoyable game, Namco made the cardinal sin of only allowing one player to play this game. Shoot 'em ups, particularly ones involving controlling some airbourne object/creature simply must include some sort of a co-op mode. It is an absolute must for games of this genre. As a direct result of Dragon Spirit's lack of a two-player co-op mode, this game, while amazing in so many respects, loses a lot of its luster thanks to Namco's gaffe.

On a lesser note, the sound effects could have been much better in Dragon Spirit. It's not a huge knock on the game but some of the sounds are noticeably quiet or even nonexistant. A few sounds such as massive explosions and additional effects could have slightly enhanced the overall experience. I'm just being nit-picky I know...

[Meet your destiny!]

Ratings: Graphics: 3.8 Music: 4.5 Play Control: 4.2 Challenge: 3.8 Storyline: 4.3 Funfactor: 4.0 Overall Score: 24.6 out of 30.0 Overall Rating: Bronze Bravo

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Last Updated: March 23, 2012
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