by Jed Pressgrove
Note: This review is based on the emulation of Dragon Spirit in Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary on Xbox. This emulation represents the newer version of the 1987 arcade game that allows you to bypass levels when you start a new game.
In theory, Dragon Spirit is a cool improvement on its predecessor, Xevious. But the more I play Dragon Spirit, the more I dislike how it stacks the deck against you, and the more I see a lack of expression, a lack of technical focus, compared to Xevious.
As in Xevious, you use two buttons to shoot enemies in the air and enemies on the ground, but this time you’re a dragon, and you can upgrade your dragon by collecting flying orbs, which appear when you destroy an egg on the ground or kill a flashing enemy. When fully upgraded, you are a three-headed dragon that can shoot long swaths of fire. This idea is interesting, but what separates Dragon Spirit from Xevious is a better illusion of flight (which, as I argue, is a hallmark of vertical shooters compared to horizontal shooters). Unlike the ship in Xevious, the dragon in Dragon Spirit isn’t a static avatar. The flapping wings complement the feeling that you’re flying.
More significantly, the greater movement in Dragon Spirit creates a high that Xevious never achieved. In Xevious, you can fly on about 60 percent of the screen. In Dragon Spirit, you can fly anywhere on the screen. Accentuating this freedom is limited horizontal screen movement. While the screen always scrolls vertically in Dragon Spirit, you can see different parts of the level by flying to the extreme right or left. In other words, the screen can move just outside of its horizontal boundaries before your dragon hits an invisible wall. An interesting dynamic occurs: don’t like dealing with a particular enemy on the extreme right? Then move as far as you can to the left, though the extreme left might present a greater threat depending on your timing.
Given its freer movement and reptilian charm, Dragon Spirit has joyful moments. Unfortunately, the game nullifies its potential with an unfocused structure. While Xevious is the more challenging, grueling game, Dragon Spirit begs more frustration. The biggest issue comes with the power-ups, that is, the different colored flying orbs you collect for upgrades. Different orbs have different effects (three purple orbs give you an extra life), but besides avoiding the rare orb that downgrades your firepower, the only relevant strategy is actually touching the orbs. Many of the orbs appear after you destroy a red or blue egg on the ground, but you can’t rush toward the destroyed egg with the expectation of nabbing the flying orb — if you rush it, the orb will fly away from you and off the screen, useless. You have to stay back and allow the orb to home in on you. This twist means you have to make sure that you can move to a lower spot of the screen without taking a hit from an enemy. Such effort doesn’t necessarily translate to success: sometimes the orb doesn’t home in on you that well. It’s not out of the question for the orb to fly right by your dragon’s wing.
The other major hindrance is the size of your dragon. You are bigger than most enemies, so you’re more likely to take a hit. One might want to chalk this up as a “design decision” (an overly apologetic phrase — most things in video games are the result of decisions), and Dragon Spirit does allow you to take two hits rather than one for each life. Even so, it can be hard to tell when you’re going to take a hit because of the dragon’s wings. Dragon Spirit gives you some leeway while finding a path through enemy fire, but some deaths seem like the fault of wishy-washy design. In contrast, I don’t have questions about whether I deserve a game over after playing Xevious.
The enemy cues and patterns in Dragon Spirit require basic memorization — the unpredictability of Xevious is gone. Once you learn how to allow the flying orbs to come to you without taking a hit from enemies, none of the nine stages stand much of a chance against your dragon. Granted, it can take dozens of attempts to master one level in Dragon Spirit, and once you lose your lives, it’s game over. But the “new” version of Dragon Spirit lets you start at the beginning of any level when you start a new game. I can understand why this version of the game was created: the majority of the challenge in Dragon Spirit is due to the bizarre flying orbs and the size of the dragon. The concession of a level select suggests a mistake in the original development of the game.
Dragon Spirit essentially trades drama for quirkiness. Xevious shows more articulate thought and urgency in its one level than any of Dragon Spirit’s nine levels. If the lack of a reticle for ground attacks doesn’t illustrate Dragon Spirit’s disregard for precision, the clash of its dorky music against prehistoric environments does. Besides irritation and goofiness, what are you supposed to feel while playing Dragon Spirit? There’s a strange absence of conviction that doesn’t deserve your tolerance.