Today’s article is about Dragon Fighter, a 1990 NES adventure by Natsume starring a main character who can transform into a… what? We’re doing the other Dragon Fighter? Well, that seems like an extremely bad idea but okay, here we go – it’s Dragon Fighter, a mid-nineties NES / Famicom fighting game cobbled together from stolen parts and published by a company called Flying Star. If you’re upset because you thought you were going to be reading about Natsume’s Dragon Fighter, then all I can say is I’m definitely about to be punished for misleading you.
Disclaimer: you don’t fight any dragons in this game. Actually, I suppose that’s not technically true, but you certainly don’t get to clobber a giant fire-breathing lizard or anything like that. What you do get on the title screen is a picture of a dragon that’s probably been ripped from a different game, a logo that’s definitely ripped from Street Fighter II and a filthy lie in the phrase “Difficulty: Normal.” There ain’t nothing normal about this game’s difficulty level.
So the first thing you’re going to notice about Dragon Fighter is the character roster. There’s a lot of familiar faces here, to say the least. We’ll meet each of them in turn, but for now I need to pick a character. I’m going to go with the chap at the top-left, for two reasons. The main one is that he’s at the top-left of the character select screen, and the other is that his name is Dragon Lee and, well, this game is called Dragon Fighter. It seems appropriate.
With no other story or set-up it’s straight into the battle once you pick your character, and here’s the big reveal: Dragon Lee isn’t Dragon Lee, he’s Fei Long from Street Fighter. I have no idea why they bothered to change his name. Did they think Capcom were going to look at this game and say “well, we were going to sue for blatant copyright infringement but that guy’s actually called Dragon Lee, sorry about the mistake, please continue”? It’s especially strange because I’m fighting against Terry. Terry Bogard from SNK’s King of Fighters / Fatal Fury games, specifically, and they didn’t bother changing his name.
So yeah, this is one of those bootleg fighting game – a wonky combat engine packed with characters lifted from other games, their sprites crudely redrawn to accommodate the NES’s lower graphical power. At least they made some effort to keep the characters’ special moves intact: as you can see above, Terry can perform his Burn Knuckle dashing punch, as well as his Rising Tackle, although there are no super moves and he’s missing his Power Wave projectile. For Dragon Lee’s part, well, I think of all the characters he might have come out the worst when the special moves were being handed out. He’s got his rising dragon kick thing that he had in the Street Fighter games, except it’s much more vertical now and therefore much less useful, and it also doesn’t set his leg on fire when he performs it which makes it much less cool. As for his other special move, the developers took his forward-and-hard-kick attack, which makes Fei Long perform two kicks while stepping forward, and converted into a weird dashing kick thing where he prances across the screen waving his legs like a ballet dancer performing on a stage covered in upturned drawing pins. It’s kinda weird.
As for the gameplay, at a basic level it’s just your standard one-on-one fighter. Hit the other guy more times than they hit you, best of three rounds, special moves are performed with the usual quarter-circle-and-button type controller inputs, no win quotes, no bonus rounds and nothing else that might make the game a bit more interesting. I put the years I’ve spent playing this type of game to good use by repeatedly kicking Terry in the toes once I’d managed to get him in the corner. He didn’t seem to have much of a response to that, so I kept kicking him in the toes over and over. Eventually it began to feel like a scientific study into just how many times you have to kick someone’s foot before they’re knocked unconscious. It felt like the answer was “about fifty thousand times, good lord this is taking forever.”
On to the next fight, a gruelling battle against Missingno except the infamous glitched Pokemon now has a sword. No, of course not, this random agglomeration of pixels and graphical errors is supposed to be Haohmaru from SNK’s Samurai Spirits games. Dragon Fighter offers a valuable lesson about the folly of trying to compress SNK’s huge, detailed fighting game sprites into a NES game without completely redrawing them like they did with Terry. A result of Haohmaru looking like sentient computer virus from nineties kid’s cartoon is that it’s difficult to tell what he’s doing. Knowing what your opponent is doing is pretty important in a fighting game, right?
Fortunately, this is less of a problem than it could have been because Haohmaru only does one thing anyway. He uses his dash-across-the-screen special move over and over again, a move that’s incredibly fast, does a lot of damage and hits multiple time so even if you manage to block it you’re still going to take a considerable amount of chip damage. Once again, my only recourse was to trap my opponent in the corner. This time I used Fei Long’s – sorry, Dragon Lee’s – charging kick special move as often as I could get the damned game to recognise my controller inputs, so about one out of every ten attempts.
It’s Mortal Kombat’s Sonya Blade next, adding a third visual style to Dragon Fighter’s character roster; after the “realistic” Dragon Lee and the more cartoony Terry, Sonya has a look that’s sort of a midpoint of the two. Presumably this is a result of the original game sprites that Flying Star cannibalised for Dragon Fighter being of wildly different visual styles to start with, what with Mortal Kombat having digitised sprites and all. This results in an ugly mish-mash of styles, where the characters are recognisable as their “inspirations” but that’s the best you can say about them.
Also, there’s some intense sprite flickering in this game, it’s like trying to play Street Fighter with your head jammed inside a bucket full of strobe lights.
But is the gameplay any good? Well, here’s something that’s illustrated by the screenshot above. In almost every 2D fighting game, if your opponent fires a projectile at you and you jump over it quickly enough, that gives you the chance to land a free blow on your opponent while they’re recovering from throwing the projectile, right? That is a basic, iron-clad concept in fighting games. However, that is not how things work in Dragon Fighter, because the CPU characters don’t have to recover from their attacks. They can simply do whatever they want, whenever they want, and jumping over a fireball is a sure-fire way to get hit by some anti-air special move with a ridiculously large hitbox, like Sonya’s extremely weird-looking move where she climbs into the air by pedalling an imaginary bicycle with holding her lower back.
Now it’s time to face Super Woman. I had a bit of trouble placing her, but thanks to the Bootleg Games Wiki I now know that she’s supposed to be Wonder Woman, having been ripped from the Megadrive fighting game Justice League Task Force. If you want to get deeply nerdy about it – and I assume you do, if you’re reading about bootleg NES fighting games – then you could pretend that this is Wonder Woman’s alternate-reality evil duplicate and Crime Syndicate of America member Superwoman. Either way, she loves throwing boomerangs at you and performing flying punches. It was around this time that I realised you can press B for kick or A for punch, but if you hold the button you do a more powerful punch or kick. This meant I suddenly had access to Dragon Lee’s jumping hard kick, a wide, spinning affair that must be murder on his hips and against which Superwoman seemingly had no defence. Holding the button down for more powerful attacks might not be the most elegant solution to the NES controller’s lack of buttons, but it’s still better than only having one strength of attack.
Next up is Mortal Kombat’s Liu Kang, and what is it about Mortal Kombat characters and invisible bicycles? Liu Kang wants to ride his bicycle, he wants to ride his bike, and he will – all over your face, draining your health with a near-constant barrage of flying kicks.
Here’s the thing about Dragon Fighter: fighting against the AI is hard. Extremely hard. Painfully, spirit-sappingly, miserably hard, so hard that it makes playing the game in single player almost entirely pointless. The sheer cheapness of this game’s AI cannot be overstated. They spam their special moves over and over again and are entirely invincible while doing so. They completely ignore any recovery times on said special moves. Unlike the player, they don’t have to struggle with muddy, inaccurate controller inputs so if you do manage to avoid one of their special moves they’ll just do another one immediately afterwards with perfect accuracy. The hitboxes on their attacks are all over the place, stretching a ridiculous distance from their bodies. You could put this down to their aura of fighting spirit extending from their attacks, if you were a fan of creating bullshit excuses for god-awful fighting games. Aside from Superwoman, every battle I fought in this hellish arena of death consisted of me save-stating every time I landed a blow and then loading it a thousand times as I made a slight error in position or timing as was consequently beaten to death in one combo. Did I try playing the game on Easy mode? Of course I did, but as far as I can tell there is absolutely no difference between the difficulty levels. In short, you’d have more fun using your forehead to hammer red-hot steel into a large spike and then inserting said spike into the bodily orifice of your choosing than you would playing Dragon Fighter on your own.
Okay, what else have we got? Well, here’s a mirror-match against Dragon Lee. Thank god he doesn’t have a projectile, and he seemed much more inclined to walk into my crouching punch than all the other characters. That meant I spent this entire fight punching myself in the crotch, which is an excellent metaphor for playing Dragon Fighter.
It’s kinda weird that they went with Fei Long, though, isn’t it? There’s only one Street Fighter character in the game and they went with Fei Long, nobody’s favourite Street Fighter character? Don’t get me wrong, I like Fei Long because sometimes it’s fun to play as Bruce Lee, but including him over Ryu or Chun Li is a baffling decision. Perhaps Flying Star were based in Hong Kong and they picked Fei Long as a local pride thing.
Now I’m fighting Kitana, again from Mortal Kombat. She appears to be preparing to throw a rock at Dragon Lee’s head and frankly I would welcome such a straightforward method of attack, but I assume it’s supposed to be a fan. At least she's not riding an invisible pedalo at me. There’s not much else to say about Kitana, really. She’s got the same “projectile and flying attack” moveset as most of the other characters. At least the stage you fight her on doesn’t look too bad. It’s certainly a lot easier on the eye than whatever the hell was going on with Liu Kang’s stage and its enormous golden demon head.
Now I must face Flash Man, so I’ll use the Metal Blade or the Crash Bombs and this fight should be a piece of cake. Okay, so it’s actually DC Comic’s speed-based superhero The Flash, which is a goddamn shame because I would much rather be fighting a Mega Man villain. If you’re going to steal character from other games, you might as well go the whole hog and have Super Mario versus the Ghost of Richard Nixon or something.
Anyway, the most notable thing about The Flash is that he isn’t any faster than the other characters. If he doesn’t have super-speed, The Flash is just a bloke in a red spandex jumpsuit, so it’s hard to get excited about kicking him in the head. Also, Flash Man has a projectile attack where he throws a lump of… something at you. I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. A chunk of the Speed Force? Relatedly, if you want to learn about The Flash, don’t try to read a wiki article about the “Speed Force” that acts as the source of his powers. Trust me, I’m trying to protect you from headaches and a general feeling of confusion.
We’re getting towards the end of the game now, and your penultimate opponent is Mortal Kombat’s thunder god and inconsistent-name-speller Rayden (or Raiden, if you like). In the original games he was played by Carlos Pesina, in the Mortal Kombat movie he was played by Christopher Lambert and in this game Rayden is portrayed by the pure, unadulterated concept of malicious spite. You know all the problems with the game’s AI that I mentioned earlier? Rayden has all of those. However, on top of that he also has a move that lets him teleport across the screen, which he can perform at will and with no set-up, making simply getting close enough to Rayden to hit him an agonisingly frustrating ordeal. Sounds pretty bad, yeah? It is, it’s very, very bad, but it gets worse because you know Rayden’s famous human torpedo move? The one where he flies across the screen with his arms outstretched, sort of like M. Bison’s Psycho Crusher? He can do that move too, and he can block while he’s doing it. Even in the murky, quarter-arsed world of bootleg NES games I have rarely come across such complete and utter bullshit.
Your final opponent is the mighty Fire Devil, and it’s a bloody good job I already knew that some of this game’s character are taken from Justice League Task Force because otherwise I’d have had no idea who this was. Turns out it’s Despero, one of the Martian Manhunter’s foes. Yeah, me neither. Apparently he has a magic third eye that gives him a load of mind-powers, but none of that is included in this game. He fights the same way as all the other characters: relentlessly, with constant special moves and projectiles that you have no way of countering without cheating. Oh, and Despero can taunt the player with a couple of different animations, just in case you’d reached this point without developing a complete loathing for the game.
However, the golden light of hope unexpectedly pierced the gloom, and the fight against the Fire Devil ended up being the easiest in the game. What happened was that I managed to hit the Fire Devil for a little damage while he was in the corner. Then I stood there and tapped kick for the minute or two it took for the round timer to run out. Unable to figure out a way to escape from Dragon Lee’s repeated light kicks and resolutely unwilling to take any damage, the Fire Devil crouched in the corner and blocked until I won by a time out. That’s brains over brawn, that is.
To my considerable shock, Dragon Fighter has an ending beyond the misspelled “congratulations” message I was expecting. You get a brief scene of each character performing their special moves, complete with the button commands you use to perform those moves. You might think that this is pretty useless considering you’ve already finished the game, but you’d be wrong. Because you’re shown it for completing the single-player mode, it might as well not even exist, which is a step down from useless.
The thing is, I’ve played fighting games, both legit and bootleg, that were worse than Dragon Fighter. The basic mechanics aren’t great but neither are they too awful, falling somewhere in the middle of the pirate fighting game spectrum in terms of speed and the responsiveness of the controls. Sure, the graphics are an ugly sludge of mismatched elements and sprite errors, but you could have ten minutes of fun playing it in two-player mode and the weird roster of characters is good for another ten minutes of entertainment. But then there’s that single player mode, which is so hatefully unfair and completely un-fun to play that it ruins the entire game. I’m getting angry just thinking about it. So, if you’re going to play Dragon Fighter, for the love of god make sure you do it two-player, or alternatively play a good fighting game. I hear those can be fun.
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