Everything’s better with dragons

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All early signs point to this 1987 Konami title being at best yet another The Legend of Zelda clone made with good intentions and inevitably poor execution: The lone hero, the overworld littered with some suspiciously deliberate rock formations, the black holes in south facing walls leading to monster-filled dungeons or new areas entirely – it’s all been done before, and we have been trained to believe that no matter what the original is always the superior product.

But what if this action RPG turned out to be more than the sum of someone else’s parts? What if it took Zelda’s solid foundations and added some Eighties Konami magic on top?

The truth is Dragon Scroll diverges from Link’s adventure within seconds of beginning a new game; our hero, the human form of the legendary Gold Dragon, doesn’t use swords, bows, bombs, shields or any other traditionally tunic’d hero paraphernalia to defeat the local skeletons, hawkmen, and other troublemaking monsters roaming the land at all but projectiles of varying range, power, and speed fired from one of three magical staves instead – a small change that makes a big difference to every single fight, breaking away from the expected quick-fire slashing of similar games while also neatly dodging many of the common issues associated with older titles and their often more “relaxed” attitudes to close-range collision detection. During his adventure he’ll also need to acquire a range of magical bells, necklaces, and more unusual items to weaken bosses, reveal hidden treasure, safely cross otherwise damaging fiery floors, unlock doors (just one infinitely reusable key needed for the entire kingdom, thank goodness), and generally help him out. Where you find these mystical trinkets is set in stone, but a lot of the when is up to you: Dragon Scroll is genuinely freeform in a very special old-fashioned kind of way, so much so that on my first attempt I blindly found myself in the final dungeon, wondering why the heck this game was so hard and why every enemy was taking so long to kill. It’s worth mentioning here that you can’t reach the final boss’ lair without collecting all the necessary magical books the plot demands you recover first, so while you are genuinely free to tackle most things in any order you like (key items willing, of course), these doodad collecting detours aren’t a time-wasting exercise designed to do nothing more than eventually point you in the direction of some place you could already go but a genuine chance to explore as you please and tackle a series of required tasks according to your own preferences, judgement, and puzzle solving skills.

Two maps printed in the manual help you navigate this readily roamable land – one a painterly and artistic view of the overworld, the other a more straightforward and readable line drawing of the same. They’re light on the finer details but over time you realise they both accurately depict the location of many key places and landmarks, so when one of Dragon Scroll’s surprisingly chatty enemies dishes out a cryptic hint as to the state of another kingdom or some mysterious rumour you’ll have some idea of where to head even if it’s only “Somewhere around the top-left bit”. Further assistance can be found on the map screen, a simple blank grid accessed through the item menu showing your rough location within the game’s 10 by 10 screen world – it doesn’t sound like much but knowing for a fact you are definitely heading the way you wanted to go makes exploration so much easier than trying to constantly keep in mind where you are in relation to everywhere else, and it also saves a lot of time worrying the impassable wall ahead might not be quite so impassable after all.

With all this lightly-guided wandering to do it’s a good thing so much of the scenery you’ll be bravely stomping through is worth looking at: The landscape appears to be vast but every screen’s interesting and hand-crafted, and the sprites used to decorate it are as large and unique as anyone could reasonably expect from a 1987 Famicom cart. Every area has a distinct look, from parched deserts to lush lakeside temples, and the climb up the final mountain really does feel like a trek up to an elevated area, and a lot of that’s thanks to the one-off background filled with bright blue skies and fluffy white clouds glimpsed along the way. Just as much graphical love has been poured into Dragon Scroll’s five boss battles; all of them looking and attacking in their own unique ways, epic clashes taking place in their own never to be seen again arenas, the thrilling climax of many riddles solved and a dangerous area successfully navigated.

As forward thinking and impressive as a lot of this is it’s all inescapably tied to thirty-four year old puzzle “logic”, and so it’ll come as no surprise to learn you’ll spend a lot of time standing between certain rock formations to warp somewhere else or that certain items won’t appear unless you’ve used a specific spell in a specific spot – but as cryptic as it can be, the simplicity of everything else gives the game a certain sense of balance. Areas are reliably compact and easy to navigate, with your starting location acting as a convenient hub enabling quick and easy access to everywhere else. Dungeons are equally straightforward and short: there’s no map for them because honestly you don’t need one (and I say this as someone who could get lost in her own kitchen), they’re simple puzzle (and mostly hazard) free environments where the trickiest part is usually finding what you need and then getting out alive, with enough (single use) chests containing magic/life refills to make any damage taken along the way feel like a fair (and only occasionally fatal) trade. In keeping with the loose nature of your quest there’s not even any pressure or expectation to clear a labyrinth the first time you find them – heck, you might not even be able to – the idea being you loot whatever special item you find near(ish) the entrance for use elsewhere and then return to tackle whatever may be lurking deeper inside later when you’re able/ready, assuming there’s even anything waiting within in the first place.

The one thing that stands out is how reasonable Dragon Scroll is. Yes you’ll roll your eyes when you have to find a special magical branch to create a bridge over one segment of water or try to work out exactly where to stand to trigger an invisible warp, but because these difficulties are more or less the only real problems you face and the game’s so keen on dropping hints, happily restores all of your health when you level up (grinding honestly not necessary here), and tends to leave things you need in places you’re likely to actually find them it always feels as though you’ve been given the space to concentrate on solving these problems rather than them being one more miserable issue keeping you from making any progress. The final battle is a genuinely exciting spectacle that I couldn’t quite believe was actually happening, and the game leading up to that highest high was varied, engaging, and posed an enjoyable challenge – if there’s one thing for sure, The Legend of Zelda had some stiff competition.

An English language translation patch can be found here: https://www.romhacking.net/translations/1267/

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4 thoughts on “Everything’s better with dragons

  1. This one is completely new to me but it sounds like a lot of fun. I’ll try and remember to check it out (in English patched form) when I have a suitable window.

    Also, the first thing I noticed when you brought up the inevitable Zelda comparison is that it’s so much prettier than that first Zelda game!

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  2. Ah, I bought this mostly because of the pretty cover art (a year or so ago). I had never heard of it and was pretty surprised it’s by Konami. I haven’t yet played it, so it’s nice to see I didn’t pick up a complete stinker. This for when I finally set aside a month or so to play all those Famicom games I picked up over time.

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