I never saw King of Dragons in the arcade back in 1991 but I’m sure if I had I would have loved it. When Capcom announced a home port in 1994 I looked forward to it for a number of reasons. I like beat em ups and combining it with the fantasy genre seemed like a winning formula. My excitement would turn to disappointment as the game ultimately doesn’t live up to its initial promise.
King of Dragons was ported to the SNES in 1994. You are one of 5 heroes summoned to the land of Malus to defeat……a dragon, come on it’s in the frigging title. Set in a fantasy kingdom the King of Dragons setting was not typical of the genre as well as its RPG elements. I never really stopped to think about it but there are some serious similarities to Magic Sword, from its graphics to many of the enemies you’ll face. However this is strictly a beat em up rather than an action game. Sadly these don’t make up for the fact that the game is overall boring and doesn’t give any of its features enough room to be fully explored.
The 5 characters present represent a wide spectrum of D & D tropes with the same strengths and weaknesses to match. They also fit neatly into established tropes such as the Elf and Wizard favoring ranged attacks, the dwarf functioning as a tank, and the knight and cleric being the most balanced. There are further differences between characters; the elf has the highest speed and range but lacks defense. The Wizard has the lowest speed and defense but the best magic; by the end of the game he is the most powerful when leveled up. The fighter is strong and gains hp faster but lacks magic and is the most balanced. etc. The Cleric is the most interesting. He is the strongest and has decent magic but is the slowest. He also gains levels the fastest. The Dwarf has the quickest melee attack and best defense but terrible magic skills. The fighter, dwarf, and cleric can block attacks although the timing is hard to pull off which does make it less overpowered and leaves all characters on equal footing. It all comes down to your preferred play style.
The RPG factor comes in the form of experience used to gain levels and boost your stats. Weapons and armor can also be collected to further upgrade your character. Although there are 16 levels they alternate, with some as short as 2 screens and longer traditional stages. It certainly gets points for attempting to add depth to an otherwise stale genre but fails in its execution.
Combat is incredibly simple with next to no variety in your attacks. The upgrade systems I imagine were supposed to make up for this but don’t due to how short the game is. When I mentioned there are short levels I wasn’t joking. Some only have as few as 6 or 7 enemies before fighting the boss. Because of this you don’t have many options to level up as much as you’d like, and item upgrades are few and far between. Even when you do level up the difference isn’t very tangible. I suppose the brevity could be seen as a blessing but it’s sad that there isn’t enough time overall to make the most of the RPG factor.
Although the gameplay is a bit of a letdown the graphics are not. King of Dragons wears its arcade heritage well with large impressive sprites and extremely colorful backgrounds. Capcom’s artists do an excellent job of creating medieval backdrops that do not resemble any other fantasy game on the market. The bosses especially are well designed and usually occupy large chunks of real estate, some are so huge only parts of their body are visible. The only negative is that some of the most beautiful levels last a scant few minutes before its on to the next one. They could have expanded the game for its home release at least.
This was released around the same time as Knights of the Round and that game actually shares many of the same elements but is executed better. I question why Capcom would release a port of such an old game (relatively) and at the same time as a superior product in the same genre but either way there’s no reason to play this. I suppose you could view it as a prototype for Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom but that doesn’t make it any better.