A seminal action RPG comes to Game Boy, despite some original design choices making it terribly ill-suited for the platform.
Japanese Title: ドラゴンスレイヤーI
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Release date: 8.12.1990 [JP]
Genre: RPG (Action)
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: None
Next in series: Dragon Slayer: Nemuri no Oukan Gaiden [Agenda/Epoch, 1992]
Similar titles: Rolan’s Curse [NMK/Sammy, 1990], Ultima: Runes of Virtue [Origin/Pony Canyon/FCI, 1991]
So here’s a strange one: A Game Boy port of a vintage PC game.
OK, so that’s hardly novel — we’ve seen probably a dozen at this point. Even so, this latest Game Boy title doesn’t really fit the profile of your typical vintage Japanese PC game to handheld conversion. Dragon Slayer I is, as the name suggests, an adaptation of the original Dragon Slayer, the first game in Nihon Falcom’s long-running Dragon Slayer franchise, which originally debuted for PC-88 in 1984. Although it’s been a while since the company has produced a new game bearing the actual Dragon Slayer name, the series lives on to this day through its convoluted family tree. The most recent member of the Dragon Slayer family was released in Japan just a year ago, in fact, in the form of the PlayStation Vita and PS4 action RPG Tokyo Xanadu.
So, clearly, there is historic import to Dragon Slayer I, and it fits the criterion of “incredibly old PC game” to qualify it for Game Boy conversion. But this isn’t really the kind of PC original we typically see on Game Boy. Aside from the occasional oddity, e.g. Master Karateka, Game Boy’s vintage PC adaptations have all been puzzle games. Box-pushing puzzlers like Boxxle and Flappy Special, mainly. Dragon Slayer, however, is an action RPG. You walk around, you kill stuff, you find stuff, you gain levels. Oh, yeah, and one of the central gameplay mechanics involves using a magical ring to push blocks. So it’s basically Soukoban: The RPG.
More accurately, it’s Soukoban meets Atari’s Adventure. Developer Nihon Falcom definitely took some heavy guidance from Warren Robinette’s seminal Atari 2600 classic here; it basically plays like Adventure on steroids. As in that game, you roam a top-down maze in search of treasures, and carrying items to various locations plays a major role in your quest. There’s only one dragon, though, and the whole point of the journey is to become powerful enough to destroy the dragon.
If your only exposure to the core Dragon Slayer comes from the fourth chapter, Legacy of the Wizard — which is likely the case if you’re American — you will recognize elements of this game in its NES sequel. Just as papa Xemn had to use a special glove tool in order to shift blocks around and reach new areas in that game, here you need to acquire and hold a magical ring in order to push blocks. Likewise, to find and defeat the dragon, you need to use a special warp. Also, you’re stuck in a huge maze full of endlessly regenerating monsters and zero sense of mercy.
Your experience with Boxxle and its ilk will definitely come in handy here thanks to that ring, but it isn’t the only tool you need to deal with. Dragon Slayer is the tale of an unfortunate adventurer who builds a house in a maze where a dragon lives. The house plays an important role here: You can return to it at any time to restore your health. Your house also serves as the medium for gaining stats. You’ll find jewels throughout the dungeon which, when deposited in your home, boost your attack strength considerably. You can also push your house around, because why not?
As it turns out, playing Boxxle with your humble domicile can greatly reduce the tedium of Dragon Slayer, because the central gameplay loop involves venturing out, acquiring a jewel, and returning it to you home. It’s much faster to shove your home toward a cache of jewels than it is to trudge each jewel laboriously back to your home one by one.
Of course, you have other factors to take into consideration whatever you elect to do. For one, you can only carry a single tool at a time. There’s the ring, but you can also pick up crosses, which serve as barriers when placed in narrow openings and repel enemies to allow you to travel safely when carried. This means that in order to move blocks, you need to drop your cross, rendering you vulnerable to bad guys. That juggling act mostly causes issues in the early going of the game, when you have no strength and no weapon — the process of acquiring a sword with which to defend yourself is a massive, arduous chore, one leading to terrible frustration. Once you manage to pick up the sword, though, the game becomes a lot less annoying… which isn’t to say it ever stops being entirely annoying.
The combat system, such as it is, will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever played early action RPGs like Hydlide or, oh yes, Ys: You run into things, and the game performs a simple calculation to determine how much damage you inflict with your attack. If the bad guy survives, it gets a similarly calculated attack against you. It’s pretty basic and manageable… right up until the point that you become swarmed by bad guys and the game refuses to give you a chance to attack.
Each jewel you deposit increases your attack power considerably, so before long the basic foes like skeletons and spiders no longer pose a threat. But, each time you destroy an enemy, another one is generated by a grave marker somewhere in the world… and that enemy is always one tier above the one you’ve destroyed. It’s often best to let bad guys be, lest you populate the world with powerful monsters. At a certain point, the monsters that begin to spawn stop draining health and instead sap your hard-earned strength, permanently… which is the point at which I gave up on the game.
To further frustrate players, ghost-like enemies roam the world. These are clearly inspired by the Thief from Zork and the bats from Colossal Cave Adventure and, again, Atari’s Adventure. If a ghost passes over an item, it will gather up this item and carry it away to a faraway portion of the maze. This can be no big deal at all if the ghost carries away something like a coin (which provides a one-time health boost), or it can essentially ruin a playthrough if it absconds with your ring or the all-important Key that you need to unlock the hundreds of chests scattered throughout the game. Now, you’ll find more than one of all these items scattered throughout the maze, though often you’ll need to warp to find replacements, which can lead you into the equivalent of a Mystery Dungeon monster lair and a more or less unavoidable game over. So the ghost’s pilfering probably can’t put your game into an unwinnable state.
But it’s nevertheless annoying, especially when it plucks items directly out of your hands, because you have no way of knowing where, exactly, your prized items have been relocated. It simply adds to the tedium of a game whose basic concept already drags.
In fact, Dragon Slayer I plays so slowly that many people consider it impossible to beat. According to Hardcore Gaming 101, the movement speed in this version is much slower than that of any other version. Given the amount of backtracking and level-grinding involved, HG101 and several other sources claim you can’t actually complete the game within a single battery charge of the Game Boy — and since there’s no save, and the password feature only appears if you complete an entire chapter without dying, that means you can’t finish the game. Unless you use an AC adapter… right? Well, no. I’ve found remarks by several YouTube commenters who claim to have attempted this very endeavor only to have the game overheat their system; one even says it destroyed his Game Boy. Granted, anonymous YouTubers aren’t precisely word of God, but their supposed experiences certainly seem to line up with the generally misbegotten nature of this entire product.
A sluggish, ancient, RPG port with no save system and no apparent effort made toward rebalancing or playability — it’s not hard to believe that no one actually took the time to play test the thing through the end and confirm that, oh yes, a human could conceivably complete the quest.
And yet, despite this enormous flaw, despite the repetitive play, despite the fact that this game desperately cries out for a password or save feature… I can’t bring myself to hate it. Dragon Slayer really does feel like a midpoint between Atari’s Adventure and more fully developed action RPGs yet to come. And, more than that, its repetitive central gameplay loop is weirdly addictive in a Minecraft kind of way. It’s tedious, yes, but it offers a clear and simple upgrade methodology that nudges the hind brain like Cookie Clicker. Take a jewel, leave a jewel, get stronger, kill more bad guys.
It’s deeply flawed and next to impossible to beat except through emulation, but there’s something eminently likable about Dragon Slayer. Not that this should be a surprise — Dragon Slayer was the rock upon which Nihon Falcom built its existence, after all. Well, the PC version was, anyway. This version, you can definitely live without.
Note: You can download a high-resolution PDF of the Dragon Slayer manual here.