February 1985 (ARC, Japan)
Dragon Buster represents Namco’s second foray into developing a strange quasi-roleplaying fantasy game for the arcade. Its first attempt, The Tower of Druaga, was initially conceived as a sort of fantastical Pac-Man maze game. Pac-Man itself had recently been spun into the interesting prototypical platformer Pac-Land, and Dragon Buster is in some sense bound to that game as it was developed on the same arcade hardware. A combination of Pac-Land and The Tower of Druaga, you say? Sounds like a recipe for a very dated feeling game, and there you’d be spot on. Nevertheless, the game does not fall completely flat on its face, and we do have a few NamCompendium firsts here to sweeten the pot.
Conceived of by Eiji Satou, whose previous work includes designing the platformer-sans-actual-jumping Mappy, Dragon Buster is a 2D action platformer game whose simplest point of reference for a normal human being audience is probably Zelda II: The Adventures of Link. Like that later title, Dragon Buster is built around managing resources while exploring side-on dungeon mazes with real time combat against a mix of small trash mobs, mini bosses, and the occasional real bastard final boss. These dungeons are even broken up by navigating a top down world map with optional paths, but it is at this point I should probably reign in this comparison. Even if you are not inclined to like Zelda II, at its heart the game is a robust Disk System/NES adventure designed to ensnarl the player into its world full of puzzles and strange leveling up mechanics. Dragon Buster is more about keeping that all important next coin dropping every three minutes or so. However, I can’t imagine Miyamoto hadn’t spent a little time with the game as he pieced together the second Legend of Zelda game.
In any case, the player is tasked with rescuing a princess. Hey, maybe Miyamoto stole that idea as well? This does predate Super Mario Bros. by about half a year in Japan. Holy crap, what a hack!
Right, the princess. She is in the clutches of, what else, a dragon. An endless succession of them at that. The player is tasked with freeing Princess Celia by way of Clovis, a dope with a really horrible sword. In early 1985, Clovis was the most detailed and most closely realized anthropomorphic sprite object ever committed to a Namco game. He has a dreadful case of Potato Face and I am going to complain about this sword problem a lot in this article, spoilers, but he is a decently animated lad with a few surprising flashes of animation. Consider for instance, his downward sword thrust. The same sort of sick move that Link himself would be pulling off years later, and it’s right here in this early 1985 arcade title.
This thrust has some added utility when it is coupled with a goddamn double jump! Yes, beating Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins (which itself has some similarities to Dragon Buster) to Japanese arcades by a little over half a year, Dragon Buster is certainly the first Namco game with an inherent double jump ability. A NamCompendium First. Now, I can already hear a subset of the readership (all five of you!) grousing over this designation. Yes, Pac-Land has those damn boots every fourth level which allow Pac-Man to jump ad infinitum. However! I’d make the highly pedantic case that those boots allow something more akin to flight than jumping. Furthermore, you’ve got to play three levels of Pac-Land to get them. Dragon Buster lets you double jump upon entry into the first dungeon. The major drawback here us, unlike in the aforementioned Pac-Land, we’ve lost the jump button. Clovis is made to jump by pressing up on the joystick. This is not great.
You enter these aforementioned dungeons by means of a simple overworld map with branching paths, allowing the player to select from a small variety of levels at any given time: graveyards, towers, mountains, ruins, and caves. Each of these environments has a few bespoke traits in terms of layouts and local monstrous fauna, but after several plays I personally think they don’t do enough to feel meaningfully different. Hardcore Gaming 101 notes that the caves tend to be straightforward compared to the more maze-like graveyards, but its not like the core gameplay changes in either.
Said core gameplay is moving through these mazes and engaging in 2D hack and slash combat with an absolutely abysmal sword. The range on this thing is such that you will struggle to avoid taking damage from even the mookiest of mooks that spawn and amble around in the passageways of these levels. These random rats, lizards, skeletons, and the like are not difficult to kill but the odds are pretty good they’ll put a little damage on Clovis.
I say a little damage because, in yet another NamCompendium First, we’ve got ourselves a genuine health bar! The later Game Boy conversion of Tower of Druaga had a pool of health, sure, but this predates that conversion by half a decade. Clovis starts with a pile of hit points that gets slowly whittled away, and slightly recovers upon exiting each level. If nothing else, it is this health bar that really adds to the feeling of a rich RPG-esque experience from what is in reality a game designed to kill you every three minutes or so. One of those “greatest trick the Devil ever pulled” sort of design choices.
The dungeons are assembled out of corridors and vertical shafts (navigated by climbing ropes and clumsily jumping off of them, which is done by using the same joystick you use to climb and yeah this feels horrible), punctuated by miniboss rooms. Upon entering these rooms, the entry way and exit are sealed and you are locked into combat with a somewhat more impressive sprite. Wizards, club swinging giants and more await you here, and in enough time mooks will enter the room to complicate the scrum. The game’s combat mechanics are explored to their limits in these rooms, even more so than in the proper boss encounters. Enemies have a mix of close quarters and ranged attacks, forcing the player to think about maneuvering to avoid damage and get a one over on their foe. The Zelda II-esque downward strike is particularly satisfying to pull off in these rooms.
At the end of each dungeon is a sort of pitboss fight against one of the aforementioned minibosses, at which point a door opens back to the overworld. Fight through levels until you reach the final map, a mountainous dungeon wherein resides a massive dragon to bust. These fights can be trucked with the judicious use of magic you’ve hopefully been saving up through the prior maps, otherwise requiring some deft swordplay with your puny little Bowie knife. Pull this off and you are rewarded with a brief cutscene wherein the princess rushes to your side, only to be kidnapped by yet another dragon. Rinse and repeat, game starts to loop after the twelfth cycle.
I think the demerits really weigh this one down, unfortunately. I dreaded any time I was tasked with getting myself off of a rope onto another floor of a dungeon. Your sword is one of the most useless I’ve seen in a game, doubtless a mechanism for extracting my coinage in arcades but in the present epoch it just feels horrible to fight. There’s also the juggling that can happen; yes, Clovis can double jump around with some agility but under the right circumstances he’ll be bounced into the air by enemy attacks and you’ll be made to watch him get ping ponged around for a while as his life is whittled away. There’s challenge, and then there’s punitively stacking the deck against the player from the jump out of sheer malice. This falls towards the latter. It’s a shame, too, because Dragon Buster has some of the best promotional art I’ve ever seen for a game. It looks like Yes album art!
There is a little cheesecake here if you’re into that sort of thing. There are equipment upgrades to be found in the dungeons which will increase your attack and defense, but there are also two optional pickups: a scepter and a crown. I’ll note right now that the one time I did have a scepter drop I avoided it, reason being you cannot simultaneously hold it and the sword upgrade; likewise you cannot hold a crown, which you would presumably wear on your head, and a shield, which you would presumably not wear on your head. Video game logic, friends. If you happen to be holding a scepter upon rescue, Clovis will earn himself a smooch. Carrying a crown instead of a shield, however, “rewards” the player with a princess in a bikini instead of her floor length dress. The notion of “rewarding” a largely male player base with even the suggestion of some sort of female figure (which really dates back to Pac-Man if you think about it) has always been a little offputting and I should be better about pointing it out when I see it.
Speaking of unfortunate elements, the soundscape of this game is a hellscape. Once again, Keino Yuriko provides music and while the composition is ho-hum, the Pac-Land hardware which underlies the game produces some truly garish sound. Things are best when the music sticks to more subdued organ-esque sounds, which are broken up by miniboss fight tunes built out of jarring synthetic horns and punctuated by very tinny sound effects. I was personally happy to mute my Vita for this one.
The Famicom conversion of Dragon Buster is an interesting little game. The core of the arcade original is in tact, but there are a few clever changes put in place that make it the go to version of the game. Jumping is now mercifully mapped to a face button, removing the worst part of the original’s control scheme right from the get go. There’s also a discrete inventory screen, brought up by pausing the game, and said inventory may be filled out by a more robust list of items added to this version of the game. There are new magical attack widgets which can turn enemies to stone or pepper them with lightning bolts, compasses which will indicate the direction of the dungeon exit, and a whole new class of items specifically made to deal with obstacles on the overworld maps (axes for trees, keys for doors, et cetera). There are also journals, which function as extra lives that allow the player to continue from where they died.
That’s pretty nifty, as the game remains a bastard. Your sword is still laughable, and getting juggled by enemies into a death cycle in the bottom of a cavernous maze remains about as fun as getting beaten with yard tools. But when you roll together the improvements to controls and friendlier console adaptations, this is basically the version of record. I even enjoy the renditions of the music more here. Same tracks, just swap the Pac-Land sound font with familiar NES. And hey, after defeating the twelve levels of the game (wherein you are rewarded with an image of a woman) you can play a new harder set of twelve levels to test your mettle and win massive gamer cred (plus earn the reward of an image of a woman in a swimsuit).
It is probably worth briefly noting here that this appears to be the second Namco-published game on the Famicom that received development support from TOSE. The helpful folks at The Cutting Room Floor have found the signatures of two Namco employees, Haruhisa Udagawa and Kumi Hanaoka, embedded in game code. These two individuals are enumerated in the code of a grip of Namco Famicom games. And yet, in a 2001 TOSE corporate report thankfully examined by the Game Developer Research Institute, Dragon Buster is depicted as having been some manner of TOSE product. The extent of their involvement is impossible for myself to measure, and even the GDRI states that due to the legendary secrecy around their work that knowing just what sort of work they did on each of the alleged 2,200 or so titles under their belt amounts to augury. But the tie is such that a few online sources flatly state that Dragon Buster was a third party developed game outright, despite there being literal signatures in the game’s code to suggest otherwise. So, here’s TOSE.
Despite being a decent enough game and an improvement over the arcade original by some measure, Dragon Buster was not picked up for distribution in North America. The game itself would not see any sort of export release until its inclusion in Namco Museum Volume 2, available for what is (as of writing) a perilously short time at the reasonable asking price of $6USD on the PlayStation Store on PS3, PSP and the PS Vita. Have I mentioned that Sony is basically begging you to never buy a digital product from them again in doing this? It was subsequently included in Namco Museum Battle Collection, a PSP release cobbled together from two other PSP compilations which I am frankly sick of explaining to go ahead and check out any NamCompendium entry prior to this and you’ll get the full scoop.
Namco then decided to get a little wild and more or less recreate Dragon Buster from the ground up in Tales of the Abyss, the PlayStation 2 role playing game from December 2005. Called “Tales of Dragon Buster”, the mode is unlocked after a series f out of the way in-game tasks. Protagonist Luke is stuffed into Clovis gear and thrown into dungeons filled with references to other Namco franchises, with remixed Dragon Buster tunes to accompany the action. Along the way the player can find unlockable gear for the rest of your Tales of the Abyss crew, and beating this roughly half hour long mode unlocks the Clovis outfit for regular play. It controls well enough and even adds a little dodge maneuver. As chum for the sorts of people that go buck wild for Tales of games, this is honestly pretty cool. It was also included in the 2011 3DS version of Tales of the Abyss, in case you were concerned.
Dragon Buster was bundled into Namco Museum Virtual Arcade for the Xbox 360 in 2008, being one of those pesky on-disk games which were not given any achievements. This compilation is of use for those who own an Xbox One or Series X/S as a selection of the games on here are simply the Xbox Live releases, which will install to the hard disk upon inserting the disk. There are certainly things than having a physical copy of Pac-Man CE.
The most recent appearance of Dragon Buster was its inclusion in Namco Museum Archive Volume 1, released across all existing platforms in June of last year. This package includes the superior Famicom version of the game, and when you roll in the other goodies in the package (Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti and a 8-bit demake of Pac-Man CE specifically) it is hard to argue against the package. There are very good odds you have access to most of these games already if you have a personal computer and have used a search engine, but the inclusion of unique demakes in each volume make them worth a look.
We’ve seen quite a few series so far that have spawned numerous sequels, some of which had some real legs. Dragon Buster wouldn’t develop into as fruitful a franchise though it wasn’t entirely fallow. Its first sequel was the Famicom exclusive Dragon Buster II: Yami no Fuuin, released four years after the arcade original. Then after a ten year break came Dragon Valor for the PlayStation, which includes a sort of reimagining of Dragon Buster which continues on to tell the story of the descendants of Clovis and Celia.