I’ll get back to my PC Platformers list soon, but I had to do this review first…
- Platform: PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16)
- Year: Released 9/27/1991
- Developer/Publisher: NCS Masaya
- Title: Dragon Egg!
Introduction & Story
Dragon Egg! is a cartoony platformer NCS Masaya published in ’91. This game is a tough one to review, because on the one hand it’s a pretty good, fun game, but on the other hand it’s also flawed, has an unbalanced difficulty level which is harder in the first half of this six-level game and easier in the second, is absurdly short, and feels unfinished. When this game released in Japan in fall ’91 the PC Engine was still popular, but the smash-hit success of the Super Famicom (SNES) was taking over the market and NEC was moving towards a stronger focus on CD games over HuCard titles. NCS Masaya may have been a third party, but they noticed this, as Dragon Egg! was their last HuCard release. This all might be an explanation for why this game was rushed, but whatever the reason, it’s unfortunate. Regardless, the game makes a great first impression with its good graphics and nice cartoony artwork, and it controls well as well, but the serious issues add up to some huge drawbacks. The story is that you play as a young girl, off to save the world from evil with a dragon’s egg. The text is all in Japanese, but the basics of what’s going on is clear enough: there is a demon troubling the land, and a young girl is the only hope to save the land from decay. An old man, maybe her grandfather or something, gives her some goggles which are apparently dragon-rider gear, and off you go to save the day! The intro cutscene is fairly long and looks great. Unfortunately, it’s the only real cutscene in the game; the ending is extremely short. There is a nice credits sequence, but still, as with many things in this game, the ending feels unfinished.
Graphics and Sound
Visually, the game is one of the better looking platformers on the system. The PC Engine or TurboGrafx, on both HuCard and CD, does not have the wealth of platformers that the Super Nintendo and Genesis do. Its platformer library is smaller, and many of the games are more NES-like in design than most of the games you see on those other two systems. The system had an earlier peak, and that shows. This game, though, is clearly 4th-gen in style. The background and character art is colorful and quite well-drawn. It shows off the consoles’ ability to put lots of colors on screen nicely, and the art design would look good anywhere. Buildings do look a bit flat, I guess, but I don’t mind. The sprite art is particularly nice, and well animated too. The heroine in her pink overalls puts those goggles on once you power up enough to ride on the dragon, for example, which is a nice touch once you notice it. Enemies raise their weapon as they approach you too, and do a ‘swing’ animation if you touch them. Nice stuff. There are not a huge number of different types of foes, but it’s enough for a game as short as this. Those enemies are varied, and while the game has a cartoony anime look to it, there is some variety here, from the cute to the threatening. Your dragon is somewhat adorably cute, but monsters vary from the big-headed and not too scary skeletons to the creepier flying bug-men . Other enemies include giants, slimes, and later on several kinds of gun and laser turrets. Bosses similarly vary, from the barely threatening-looking first boss to the more serious later ones. They all look great. On an odd but then-common note though, the main character wears blue overalls and a yellow shirt in the manual art, but pink overalls with a white shirt in the game. It’s odd how some older games have very different art between the manuals and games even in Japan… or sometimes, within the game itself; see Alisia Dragoon on the Genesis for an example of that.
I do need to say though, as in many anime fantasy settings, this world is historically incoherent. It appears medieval at first and enemies have armor, swords, and bows, but there is electricity in places, there are enemy laser turrets, and the heroine wears modern clothing. The setting makes little sense. Is this fantasy or modern? It’s both, apparently. But beyond that all-too-common frustration, the game looks great. The visuals here have a more polished look to them than most platformers on the system do. Hudson’s platformers often match or beat this, visually, but I do think the game is in the upper tier visually, at least for this system. The developers even pull off a limited parallax effect. The whole background does not have multiple layers in it, but there are clouds which quickly move across the sky in many stages, to give some of that feeling of parallax movement. It’s a great effect and definitely helps. The music, however, is unfortunately strictly average stuff. It’s mostly okay, but isn’t exciting or too memorable. Some songs are too short, too, such as the five-second-loop that plays during the first half of the last boss fight. Still, the audio is alright, and after playing it for a while I guess a few tracks are somewhat catchy.
Controls and Game Design
One thing making Dragon Egg! game good are the great controls. The controls are precise and accurate. You do move a little fast, so you do need to look out or you’ll bump into enemies, but it controls very well. This is a simple game, and all you’ll is move around, jump, and attack. You start with two hearts for health, though each health heart can take two hits, and you can upgrade this to a maximum of four hearts during the game. Though you can’t save your progress you do have infinite continues, but your goal should be to beat the game without dying, or without getting hit much at all if you’re in Hard mode, so the continues aren’t always needed. Levels are all straightforward as well. There is some depth in the upgrade system, however, though it’s badly unbalanced, particularly in Normal difficulty. Whenever you kill an enemy they drop one of two different types of powerups: dragon eggs to upgrade your dragon’s form, or coins you use to buy other powerups. Which one an enemy drops is entirely random, it is important to note; I kind of wish the powerups were predetermined, but which you get is purely a matter of chance.
Of the two upgrade systems, I will first cover the dragon mentioned in the title. Collecting dragon eggs upgrade your dragon between four forms. You start out carrying an egg in a backpack, and can attack only at melee range. You want to get out of this mode as soon as possible, because this attack is too close-range to avoid taking damage sometimes. All four forms do exactly the same amount of damage per hit, varying on whether you have weapon powerups of course, I should say; it is the range that varies, but those range expansions are vital! It is funny how hitting a badguy with an egg does the same amount of damage as shooting them with a fireball, though. Heh. 🙂 So, the first upgrade requires two dragon eggs. Here, the dragon has poked its head out of the egg and breathes fire ahead of you. This short-range fire attack is pretty good and actually will collect items, something the later upgrades’ attacks will not do. The third level takes three more eggs. Now you ride on the hatched dragon’s back, and attack with fireballs that go across the screen. The last powerup takes four eggs, and makes the dragon larger and better. Now it’s got a higher jump that has some float to it for slower descents, and it upgrades your weapon potential as well — while the basic un-upgraded attack is the same as the level 3 dragon, with upgrades you will see the difference. The top-level dragon is pretty awesome, and overpowered, so long as you have it. It is a big target, though only your character is actually vulnerable and not the dragon. This is important to know for getting through the laser gates without taking a hit.
The money system similarly rewards staying alive, and is one more element making the first half of the game harder than the second — if you can get fully powered up and avoid losing those powerups, you’ll be nearly unstoppable. You use collected money to buy powerups from shops scattered around the game. There are six different items you can buy. For 3 coins, you can buy cure items which you can use in the select menu. These heal half a heart each, and you can carry up to four. There are three items that cost 10 coins. First there is a firepower upgrade which doubles the damage you do per hit. You can buy this again, for the same cost, to almost double damage again — this reduces an 8-hit giant down to 3 hits, for example. Next, there is a range / multi-hit upgrade. This gives the level 1 or 2 dragon a slightly longer range attack, the level 3 dragon two fireballs for an attack, or the level 4 dragon three fireballs. You can also can purchase this a second time as well, to add homing to your level 3 or 4 dragon’s shots or a little more range to a level 1 or 2 dragon. And last at 10 coins, you can buy additional health hearts, which, yes, you can buy up to two of, though you don’t need to as unlike the attack upgrades you can also get these other ways. And last, two items are available for for 30 coins each: a barrier which gives you an extra hit which you don’t lose anything for losing if you are hit, or a skull which is a bomb you can use by double-tapping attack, or something like that. You can only have one skull at a time in your inventory. It is important to note that five of these six powerups can be lost, but you won’t lose the healthbar-expanding hearts. I wonder why they decided that health upgrades are permanent, while attack upgrades can be lost. It’s kind of odd. As for the other upgrades, in Easy or Normal you won’t lose any dragon or store-bought powerups unless you die, but if you do die you reset to the level-one egg-swing attack, and you lose all money and purchased items except for health expansions as well. It’s painful stuff, if you were upgraded; the easiest way to beat the game is to not die. In Hard mode the game is significantly more punishing: you lose store-bought attack powerups, then dragon eggs, each time you are hit. More on this later.
There is no scoring system in this game, so the only pickups in levels are those items enemies drop, and a few scattered health bar-expansion heart, cure, and skull items. There is also a roulette after each level which spins between a health expansion heart, a cure, a skull, or a 1-up. Try to time your jump for the one you want the most. Oddly, while they look identical, the cure items you get from the end-level roulette or that are placed in levels are entirely different from the ones you can buy in the stores, as quite unlike the ones you buy, the cure pickups are instant-use only and cannot be stored, and heal a full heart instead of only a half like the ones you buy do. The two types probably should have used different graphics to signify that they are not the same. Still, I like that the full-heart heals exist, they are quite useful because there is no health recovery between levels; you’ll start the next stage with the exact amount of health you finished the last one with. When you add those hearts to your health they start out empty, too, so even if you don’t take damage you will need health at least to fill those. It all works fairly well.
Level Design and Layouts
The level designs are the core of any platformer, and thankfully stages in Dragon Egg! are nicely varied. There are horizontal, vertical, and maze-like levels, and you need to approach each enemy type differently. Enemy AI is extremely basic, as enemies mostly just move or shoot straight at you once they’re on screen, but it works as other things differentiate them, such as size, whether they fly or not, and whether they can shoot at you. The six bosses are each entirely unique as well, so no two of those fights will be the same. All six boss fights have the exact same stage background as well, with the same platform layout on it. I don’t mind this, but it does lack variety. More importantly, one of the major issues with Dragon Egg! is that the game is badly unbalanced and sort of backwards — the second half of the game is significantly shorter and easier than the first half is. The first two levels each are broken up into three stages and then a boss. The difficulty ramps up just right here, as the game starts out quite easy but slowly gets trickier. Level three only has two stages before the boss, but the second is the games’ one and only maze stage, so it may take a little while to get through. Level 3 feels as long as either before it, and it might be the hardest level in the game. But then you get to level four, and it all falls apart; while levels four through six are quite fun, they all have only ONE stage per level each! One linear stage and a boss each, that’s it. There are also level design elements that only appear once, which can be fine for some original challenge, but why does is stage 1-2 the only one in the whole game with instant-death pits in it, for example? It’s bizarre. The only explanation I can think of is that the game must have been badly rushed, shipped before it was really done because NCS needed it out NOW or something. These and other cutbacks are quite unfortunate, because a more complete and polished version of this game could have been great.
Now, I’d like to go into a little more detail about each of the stages. Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid any spoilers about the game. Level one has you traveling across some mountains. As mentioned previously, stage 1-2 is the only one in the game with bottomless pits. It’s hard to avoid that enemy on the last jump, but you CAN do it without taking a hit if you jump at the last second. I mentioned the first boss earlier. Level two is harder, as you travel through giant-infested caverns. It’s a fun level, though it can be tricky at points in Hard mode. The boss is a spawning creature which can be a pain to not take any damage against. Level three is the maze in an electric castle. It’s a good, well-designed level, though it is quite challenging to get through in Hard mode without taking hits thanks to the flying bug enemies, the laser gates, and maybe worst of all the invincible gun turrets shooting at you. The boss is this cubic thing with tendrils you need to destroy before you take out the core; it’s easy powered up, but a bit trickier if not. Level four is a river-rafting trip over water. You have to stay on the raft in the middle of the screen and enemies are only a minor threat, so the level is very easy. The graphics here are great though, as the level has some really nice-looking rippling water effects. The stage ending is a setup for another stage that doesn’t exist though; again, this game must have been rushed. The boss is interesting, but again is easy at full power once you learn its pattern. The fifth level goes through an Egyptian desert. It’s a fun level, though again it’s too short and badly needs multiple areas. The level 5 boss is one of the easier ones regardless of your power level. And last, you go through the bosses’ fortress. The level is only moderately challenging, though the boss is really hard if you aren’t powered up. This boss has two forms, and without powerups it takes a lot of hits to kill and attacks with curving fireballs that are hard to avoid. It’s hard to do even a few hits in a row against the guy without taking damage, so you want to be powerful enough to take him out as quickly as possible.
There is a big elephant in the room that I have been sort of dodging around up to this point, however: the difference between the difficulty levels. Dragon Egg! has the usual three settings, Easy, Normal, and Hard. On Easy, the game is a complete and total cakewalk. Don’t bother with it. On Normal, the game is still really easy. I beat the game on normal, without dying even one single time, the day after I got this game. So it may have been easy, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted. But to get a bit more out of this not-cheap game, I decided to try Hard mode… and it’s a huge difference from the lower ones! Hard makes two major changes to the game: first, all enemies and bosses take twice as many hits to kill as they do on the lower difficulties. This makes everything a lot longer and slows down the game. And second, and even more importantly, you now are punished not only for dying, but for getting hit at all. If you have bought powerups from the store, you lose one level from BOTH of those powerups each time you take a hit. You also take damage, of course. And if you don’t have powerups, each hit takes away one dragon egg. If there are no eggs in the meter at the moment you’ll be downgraded to the next level down, down to the minimum of just having the egg with its way-too-close melee attack. And you REALLY need powerups, because the final boss is brutally, near-impossibly difficult without a significantly powered up dragon; I tried to beat him in Hard with no powerups once, but eventually had to give up, it’s just crazy-hard.
Overall, Hard mode’s changes make the game a LOT harder and much, much more frustrating. The main reason why this review isn’t happening until now, instead of a week and a half ago when I first meant to write one, is because I just can’t stop trying and failing to beat this game on Hard! I know I need to no-hit-clear it to win, and I keep messing up and dying somewhere in level three. It’s really the “taking away powerups when you get hit” thing that makes it so hard; if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re losing eggs, it’s already over. You cannot grind to get more money in this game, there is a preset number of enemies and each one only drops one coin or egg. So if you take a hit and it steals 10 or 20 coins worth of powerups from you, that’s a hard to impossible thing to recover from. It’s frustrating, because if I could get past the first half of the game with full power I think I could beat the second half with a lot less difficulty, but that’s easier said than done… argh. So yeah, I keep trying, and putting off this review that I was initially going to “write quickly because the game is easy and fun.” Heh. But hey, as frustrating as that is, it also shows how addictive the game is; I’m still playing it, after all. Had the game only had the Normal difficulty setting and no others it’d have been another one of those fun but very short game, but thanks to Hard mode the game has some lasting play value.
In conclusion, Dragon Egg! is a good game I definitely like playing, but it is also a flawed title that could have been a lot better. This game has great graphics that are among the best on the platform in this genre, variety to the gameplay due to the different enemies and obstacles you run across, and something for everyone difficulty-wise as the normal mode is short and fun, if somewhat insubstantial because of how quickly you should beat it, while the hard mode is a serious challenge. On the other hand though, the game is far too short and was obviously shipped in a partially-finished state, as the mostly missing second half of the game and very short ending show. The unbalanced difficulty and too-easy gameplay if you get fully powered up are also issues; though Hard mode does alleviate that second one somewhat, it is still easier powered up. The decision to have you lose a full level of BOTH attack-enhancer powerups every time you get hit one single time in Hard mode is also perhaps inordinately cruel for a game like this; it’d have been better if you lost only one attack powerup each time, if that mechanic had to exist. These issues are significant, but still I do like Dragon Egg! overall. I give this game a B- score. This is the kind of game this system needed more of and I recommend it to platformer fans, it’s good despite its issues.
http://www.thebrothersduomazov.com/2009/03/dragon-egg.html – The Brothers Duomazov’s review has some nice screenshots from later in the game, read it!
http://www.videogameden.com/hucard/reviews/deg.htm – VGDen also has a a review, and a translation of the backstory — the girl’s name is Eran, and she is the descendant of the legendary Dragon Warriors and is the only one who can defeat the demon who has taken over the land. Also, more nice screenshots.