Graveyard: Dragon Slayer I

Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.

If you were a kid during the pre-internet days then you can probably relate to the idea of blind video game purchases. The kind of purchase you make because the box art looked cool or the store clerk tells you it’s the hottest thing, only to find out that it’s anything but. That’s okay though, because you live and learn from your own mistakes. However, blind game purchases made by parents? Those almost never turn out well. You can beg your parents for the latest Triple A release, but they’ll end up buying something else entirely from some flea market.

As I was going through some of my old stuff recently, I stumbled upon one such accidental purchase that my dad made back in the day: Dragon Slayer I for the Game Boy. Back then, I played the game for all of five minutes and immediately was turned off by the sluggish controls, the bland visuals, and the repetitive looped music which was murder to my ears. Above all, my character died within moments of starting the game and that was enough to make me give up on it.

Fast forward to 2014, I held that dusty loose cartridge in my hand after well over a decade, and popped it into my trusty old Game Boy Color. Within moments I got clobbered by skeleton minions, but this time I kept playing because I sensed that this game had something cool going on. Mind you, it’s not a superb timeless classic that you should immediately hop on Ebay for (not that it’s expensive), but at this point in my life with all my years of gaming, I was finally able to appreciate Dragon Slayer I for what it was.

Released for the Game Boy in Japan back in 1990, Dragon Slayer I was an import friendly release as its text was pretty much entirely English — not that the language barrier would have been much of an issue, as it’s purely an action role-playing game with virtually no story or extensive use of menus. Without any introduction whatsoever, you assume the role of the nameless dragon slayer standing right outside his humble little home and you just… start playing.

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Dragon Slayer I is a real-time adventure RPG with a combat system that feels very, well, weird. In the first instance it feels like you’re engaged in some real-time variation of turn based combat, but really all you’re doing is bumping into enemies to inflict damage. Movement feels sluggish, but as you’re playing it you realize that it’s a deliberate part of the chess-like approach to the game’s progression.

My initial assumption was that this game was a rogue-like RPG. As I charged into enemies without a plan, I sensed a chaotic randomness to their patterns. Thus, my attempts at battling the monsters were futile, so I explored the map and studied the areas. Rule XVI: A hero is only as good as his weapon, and so stumbling upon a sword certainly made combat a more doable affair.

There are other items you can pick up, too, such as a ring which gives you the strength to push blocks around. It even allows you to push your house around for some reason! And the importance of having a mobile home becomes clear because that’s where all the RPG stat boosting takes place. The coins you find scattered all over the game world can be exchanged for a much needed HP boost, and there are orbs that can be exchanged for attack power boosts as well. You constantly need to work on said stats by collecting these coins and orbs, and like any RPG experience, points come into play when it comes to learning new spells and other abilities. Apart from the sword, you can only pick up and equip one item at any given time, so choices need to be made and that’s part of the challenge and appeal.

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It’s not immediately apparent, but as you’re taking on the smaller monster minions the game immediately replaces them with bigger and stronger monsters, not even giving you the satisfaction of enjoying your well earned stat boosts. The game is constantly trying to make your life difficult: the enemies get stronger with each passing moment, and to top things off you have random ghosts stealing your items, grim reapers that prevent you from accessing your spells, and monsters that can damage your experience levels and attack power. You die a lot in this game, but thankfully there’s no real game over, so you can keep coming back for more.

The whole point of the game is to slay the powerful Dragon that is guarding the crown, and your goal is to retrieve it and bring it home. It’s not a very long game in terms of the scope and size of the game world, but you’re going to spend a lot of time building stats, losing those stats, and rebuilding them over, and over again. The maze-like world design also has a strong puzzle element to it with clever block puzzles and warp pads which, more often than not, take you to a place of certain death.

Simply put, Dragon Slater I is a brutally challenging and unfair game where the real reward is overcoming stupidly imposed restrictions, obstacles, and adversaries. Reminds you of Dark Souls, doesn’t it? That’s the reason why I was drawn to Dragon Slayer I this time around. Whether it’s the inventory restrictions, the ever evolving and tough enemies, or the trial and error approach to the progression, a lot of it will remind you of Dark Souls. It may purely be a coincidence, but who knows, Dragon Slayer may very well have spiritually influenced Dark Souls.

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Dragon Slayer I comes from Falcom, the very same company that would go on to make the Ys series. That’s really what Dragon Slayer feels like in the end, a tougher bare bones blue print for what would eventually end up being one of the more respected Japanese RPG franchises in recent times. Earlier Ys games have that exact combat system too, where you literally just bump into enemies in order to inflict damage.

When you consider the fact that Dragon Slayer I on the Game Boy was simply a version of a game that originally came out back in 1984 for earlier home computers, you can’t help but appreciate how it laid the foundation for a lot of great games that would emerge much later. For one thing, it’s perhaps one of the earlier overhead-perspective adventure games before The Legend of Zelda made the concept cool and hip, and the convoluted RPG elements and punishing design can be found in an assortment of games today.

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Dragon Slayer I is an acquired taste, and the Game Boy version certainly looks and sounds really ugly (especially the awful looped music). However, at the end of the day, I found myself drawn to its finer intangibles. A game like Dragon Slayer I appears to be vague, bland, and pointless at a cursory glance, but the more you play it the more you discover its strategic depth and intricacies. As crazy and frustrating as the game design and mechanics seem at first, the fact that you can objectively overcome everything thrown at you with the right game plan is, essentially, what makes Dragon Slayer I a game that is quite sound and intuitive in design.