I wasn’t planning to cover any of Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer games for this series. The first Dragon Slayer appeared way back in 1984 for the Japanese PC-88 home computer (and, later, other home computers like the PC-98 and FM-7), where it pioneered an action role-playing design in which players explore top-down screens in real time, bumping into enemies to fight them. This design was hugely influential, inspiring the Hydlide series (I covered the third game as part of this blog series) as well Nihon Falcom’s own Ys series (I covered the first two games) and Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda, which added innovations that arguably spawned a whole new genre. But Dragon Slayer itself sounded quite simple in comparison to these later titles, as well as potentially frustrating due to high difficulty or unclear objectives. And, of course, most of the Dragon Slayer games were never translated into English. So, early on in my planning sessions I decided to exclude them.
Then I read more about some of the later Dragon Slayer games that were eventually localized in English, which sounded much more interesting than I expected. So, I’m breaking from my timeline once again to go back and play a couple of them. The first is Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family (that stands for DRAgon SLEyer Family, of course), originally released in July 1987 for the MSX and MSX2 home computer systems, and later ported to Nintendo’s Famicom (for this blog series, it comes after Wonder Boy In Monster Land and before Cleopatra no Mahou in the timeline). Since American players had never seen any of the Dragon Slayer games before, it was renamed Legacy of the Wizard for its official US release on the NES about two years later. It keeps the single-square-sized characters and blocks from the original Dragon Slayer, but reimagines the labyrinthine dungeon as a huge side-scrolling platformer world, in which ledges, pits, ladders, and doors intertwine to create different paths. Players then choose from (and switch between) five playable family members, each with different abilities and usable items, so the entire game becomes a puzzle the family must solve together. Following on from Metroid, which had released about a year earlier, Dragon Slayer IV helped define what would become known as the Metroidvania genre. It sounded fascinating, and I decided I had to try it.
I don’t know how much the story was changed for the US version, but it’s pretty simple. Long ago, a wizard captured the evil dragon and imprisoned it underground. Presumably, that happened in the earlier Dragon Slayer games. Now, the dragon is waking, so the wizard’s children and grandchildren must retrieve the dragon slayer sword and defeat it again. To do so, they must enter the huge underground dungeon and find the four magical crowns which unlock the path to the sword. The five playable family members can be swapped between whenever they resurface and return to the house. The father, Xemn, can’t jump very high but has the strongest attack, and he’s the only one who can wear the gloves that let him move certain blocks in the dungeon. The mother, Meyna, has a medium jump and attack strength, but can equip items that (once found) let her fly and open locked doors through magic instead of using up valuable keys. The daughter, Lyll, has the highest jump of them all, and can eventually jump even higher by wearing some special boots. She’s also the only one who can use the mattock to destroy blocks and open up new passages. The son, Roas, isn’t particularly strong or agile, but he’s the only one who can use the crowns to find the dragon slayer sword, and the only one who can wield the sword against the dragon in the final battle. Lastly, there’s the family pet, Pochi. Pochi looks like a dog at first, but is actually a monster, which means the monsters in the dungeon won’t attack him. That makes him very useful for scouting out the dungeon, even though he can’t use most items.
That dungeon is massive. This is a game where drawing a map is an absolute necessity. The dungeon is made up of rooms that are only one screen tall but several screens long, scrolling smoothly. I’ve read that the original MSX versions did not have scrolling, so these rooms were made up of discrete screens as well, but the wider-than-they-are-tall design of the locations was the same. The color scheme for the rooms changes often, which can help players recognize where they are, but the sheer size of the dungeon means players will soon be lost if they don’t start drawing a map. There are no clear transition points between rooms like there are in The Legend of Zelda’s dungeons. Here, rooms are interconnected in all sorts of ways, ladders or pits leading up or down as well as passages leading left and right. Often, these are walled off from each other, so one room might contain multiple paths that may have originated in distant locations. There’s lots of weaving back and forth through familiar areas.
This can feel overwhelming at first. As I started playing and coming to grips with the game, I picked family members at random and started exploring. Early areas are simple and can be traversed by anyone, so I at least got a gentle introduction. Soon, however, I found myself deep in the dungeon and fairly certain that I was using the wrong family member to navigate it. You see, since there are four crowns hidden in the dungeon, that effectively means there are four major areas within the dungeon, each designed for a specific family member. One area might need Lyll’s high jumps to navigate, for example, while another needs Xemn to carefully move blocks in order to proceed. I wasn’t sure whose area I was in, but it was pretty clear it wasn’t Meyna’s, since she routinely needed to use tricks like jumping off of the backs of enemies (which hurts her!) to pass obstacles. But I couldn’t find the way back out, so I pressed on anyway. I should have realized that I’d found a crystal, which I could use to teleport back to the house, but I’d mistaken it for a different item, so I kept going until I eventually succumbed to the monsters. This wasn’t as frustrating as it could have been, though, since I still had the map I’d made.
In retrospect, I should have been able to figure out which family member would be best to start with. Still, Dragon Slayer IV is the kind of game that is very difficult to figure out without help. If I’d played this as a kid I would have been at a loss almost immediately, but it’s likely that the developers wanted players to collaborate and share stories of secret passages and the like with each other. I do wish the manual had more detail though. There are several items in the game that aren’t listed in the manual at all, making their use a complete mystery. Since each character can only carry three items at a time, and can only change them at the house or one of the inns scattered throughout the dungeon, it’s difficult to test them out. I turned to an online guide to see what these items did, and ended up consulting the guide many more times as I tried to unravel the crazy dungeon. On two occasions I was doing OK exploring on my own until I failed to find a secret door that was required to proceed. Other times, I just needed some guidance about which family members to use in which places, or how to pass some particular area. Figuring it all out myself would have been quite the ordeal.
Yet I am awed by the dungeon design. It’s so intricate. Each family member embarks on their own extended expedition deep into this place, full of twisting passages, secret paths, puzzles and mazes. Sometimes there are invisible blocks that pop into existence when touched, revealing walls that did not seem to be there before. Sometimes visible walls and floors turn out to be illusions, crumbling into nothing. Often, those illusionary blocks hide cunning traps, dropping unfortunate explorers into pits that they must then climb out of. Heck, sometimes a perfectly innocent ladder leading to the room below turns out to be a trap, unceremoniously dumping the climber into a pit of spikes. That’s what happened to Meyna when she delved a little too deep, and couldn’t find the way back out.
These traps are much less annoying than they could have been, however, because the family members have a lot of health. When Meyna fell into the spike pit, it took me a while to figure out how to get out, and she was taking constant damage from the spikes (and several enemies) as I flailed about. But I had enough time to experiment and eventually escape, because Meyna could absorb all that and more before dying. The high health means that enemies are rarely too dangerous either, although they are ever-present. There’s a huge array of them, including armored knights, tentacled creatures, giant scorpions, robed figures, and hulking beast-men, but they often behave unpredictably. Some fly around seeking out their prey, some wander meekly back and forth, others move quickly and leap around, and some change between these behaviors seemingly at random. I like the colorful menagerie, but rarely had to change tactics much when battling foes.
Instead, battles become a matter of managing resources. Each family member’s attack, which can be fired in eight directions, consumes magic, so getting into too many fights is dangerous. Fortunately, every defeated enemy drops an item, most of which help the player by restoring some health or magic, or providing more keys (used to open locked doors and treasure chests) or money. Frustratingly, monsters sometimes drop poison vials instead, which cause damage when picked up. I often had to stand and wait for these to eventually disappear before I could proceed safely. New enemies respawn from eggs pretty quickly, so there are always more to fight, and running out of magic is a bigger danger than running out of health. Fortunately, inns appear frequently throughout the dungeon that let characters fully restore their health and magic for a small fee, and a certain item found early in the game helps defeat enemies without wasting magic.
Even so, each expedition is a major — and exciting — undertaking. The family members aren’t just trying to locate the crowns, they are also trying to retrieve specific items for each other. Sometimes, it’s not even possible for someone to find their crown on the first try. Instead, they can retrieve a specific item for someone else, allowing that person to pass certain obstacles elsewhere in the dungeon, so they can find another item which in turn lets the original family member finally reach their crown. These are long trips, leading through many different rooms, each with its own navigational challenges, each painstakingly mapped as I built understanding of the environment. For the most part I was utterly absorbed by them, making progress slowly and steadily. This is why I’m awed by the dungeon design: conquering it is like unpicking some clockwork contraption, each part opening up a new path somewhere else.
Xemn’s area of the dungeon deserves special mention. He is the only one who can use the gloves, which he needs to navigate the block puzzles in his path. These are like little Sokoban-style challenges, grafted on to the platforming environment of the dungeon. These aren’t just tricky to figure out, but tricky to control too, since block pushing is tied to the same button as jumping. I didn’t feel like I’d really gotten the hang of it until I was already halfway through, but once it clicked it was pretty cool. Xemn can push blocks in different directions with directional inputs, not just based on which direction he approached from. He could, for example, leap up at a block from below, but (with careful player control) push it to one side instead of straight up. He can even push blocks diagonally, although it’s tricky to pull off. This leads to a series of puzzles that are tricky but satisfying both to figure out and to execute. Thankfully, there are usually ladders nearby that let Xemn reset the puzzle by leaving and then re-entering the room, if he pushes a block into the wrong place by mistake. Even after mastering a bunch of these puzzles, I still had to guide Xemn through a series of traps, tricky passages that looped back on themselves, and past several red herrings before I was able to find his crown. It was incredibly satisfying, even though I looked up the occasional hint along the way.
The other areas of the dungeon are similarly satisfying to conquer, but they don’t always work as well. As shown by my anecdote about Meyna above, it’s often possible to get pretty far into a specific branch of the dungeon with the wrong family member, which can be frustrating. And sometimes it’s frustrating even with the right one. When I went after my first crown, I found myself stuck in a looping path because I’d failed to find a secret passage. After I looked up how to pass that, I was able to find my way to the crown on my own… except I’d run out of keys, and I needed several to open the locked doors along the way. So I had to fight a bunch of enemies over and over until they dropped enough keys. It was annoying, but luckily not a problem I ran into again.
One of the reasons the dungeon is so fascinating to explore is that there are no obvious treasure vaults where the crowns reside, no big rooms with boss monsters standing guard. The crowns could be in any of the treasure chests scattered throughout the dungeon, and while sometimes I could guess at their whereabouts, other times stumbling upon them came as a surprise. This kept me searching every nook and cranny of every room, knowing my goal could be hiding anywhere. But that doesn’t mean players will get to claim their prize without a fight. Finding a crown whisks the family member off to another place through magic, forcing them to fight a boss before they can return to the dungeon and resume their quest. The bosses are a bit odd. The first few I encountered were pushovers, falling almost before I could register how they moved and attacked. Later, my experience was often the reverse, as bosses dealt a ton of damage and took me out before I knew what was happening. Given the long trek just to reach each crown, that felt particularly punishing. When I checked the online guide, I learned that I could have done things differently to make the fights against these bosses easier, but it was too late for that. Instead, I resorted to using save states rather than repeat the long path to the boss over and over. Getting to restart right before the battle made these easier to tackle, and I learned how to defeat them after a few tries.
I lacked the patience to play all the way through Dragon Slayer IV without aids, then, but if I were playing it on release in 1987 — as an adult, not as the kid I was then — I probably would have relished the challenge. It was a time with far fewer games, so having one that could last a good while was valuable. I probably still would have needed some hints, especially for those secret doors which block progress, but picking this huge dungeon apart bit by bit would have been so satisfying. It doesn’t take too long to get through the game once one knows the way, but figuring it out would slow the pace significantly, creating a truly epic adventure. I bet much of the dungeon map would have been burned into my memory by the end, as I’d learned every nook and cranny, internalized every trap and how to pass it. What an amazing challenge it must have been at the time. It’s still impressive today, of course, but these days we’re short on time and long on games to play, so the temptation to check a guide is strong.
The best parts of Dragon Slayer IV were those I figured out myself, though. I haven’t even mentioned the final challenge, tackled by the son Roas. He’s the only family member who doesn’t have a dedicated section of the dungeon to solve. Instead, he takes the crowns the others have retrieved and goes in search of the dragon slayer sword, and his path could lead anywhere in the entire dungeon. After a few false starts, I feared an impossible tangle of pathways and dead ends everywhere, but then I remembered a small hint given in the manual. Since I’d drawn a careful map, I was able to correctly guess where to go, and solve Roas’ challenge almost entirely by myself. I did need one more tiny hint, which I kicked myself for not figuring out on my own. Still, it was awesome, taking me through familiar places in a new way, and the final battle at the end felt the most balanced and fair of all the boss fights so far. It was a great ending to an impressive game.
I’m glad I went back to play this. It’s not without its frustrations, but Dragon Slayer IV is a really impressive design, and it deserves its place as one of the founding Metroidvanias. Circling back through the dungeon as one finds new items for specific family members creates an unorthodox, zig-zagging path through the huge interconnected world that will be familiar to any Metroidvania fan. Yet Dragon Slayer IV feels more layered and tangled than most, making it a particularly fascinating thing to explore. I wondered why I’d never heard more about its US release (as Legacy of the Wizard), but this may have been due to its high complexity. Nintendo marketed its games as childrens’ toys in the US, and this game would have gone over most kids’ heads. It’s a shame it didn’t get more exposure, however, because it could have easily earned accolades alongside Metroid and The Legend of Zelda as a formative classic.
If you want to try it yourself, you’ll probably need to use emulation as I did. Dragon Slayer IV never got any re-releases, except for a 2008 release on mobile phones in Japan. I used the Retroarch frontend and Mesen core, as I have for other Famicom/NES games in this series, which worked perfectly. Bring some graph paper and a pencil too, though, you’ll need them.