If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good side-scrolling beat ’em up – and Knights of Valour 2: Nine Dragons is exactly that. Released by Taiwanese publisher/developer IGS in 2001 for their cart-based “PGM” arcade hardware (also used for none other than Cave’s DoDonPachi DaiOuJou, Ketsui, and Espgaluda, albeit reworked into a single PCB rather than the standard cart/motherboard configuration), this fine example of the genre takes everything good about smacking a conveyor belt’s worth of evil underlings in their pixelled faces and then wraps it all up with a gorgeous Romance of the Three Kingdoms bow. For those not already familiar with this incredible story or if you perhaps had a brief glance at the screenshots shown here and reflexively thought “Oh, Dynasty Warriors” – look at this action-orientated retelling of a small section of Liu Bei’s tale the way English-speaking culture views the works of Shakespeare or the King Arthur myth; as a popular and recognisable set of ground rules viewers already know and still look forward to seeing anyway. In any case whether you’re already in love with the complex web of ever-changing loyalties and tales of extraordinary heroism found within Luo Guanzhong’s epic or simply thought the guy with the spear and the long ponytail looked cool, Nine Dragons is a game filled with endlessly brave larger-than-life characters pushing back entire armies with nothing more than the weapon in their hand, a little dash of magic, and up to three other friends by their side.
Unfortunately – although not unsurprisingly – the official English translation used here doesn’t make any allowances at all for the unfamiliarity foreign arcade users may have with the giant of classical Chinese literature it’s based on, resulting in many (from a localisation point of view) under-described events. Let’s use stage four, the Battle of Red Cliffs, as an example: It’s present (as it always should be), but the English introduction to the stage says “Kongming ruined Caocao’s scheme with witness.” and not a single disjointed word more, leaving players with no clue as to why there are so many boats around, why they’re set ablaze, or why Zhuge Liang’s name has changed into something completely different for one sentence. As bad as that may seem let’s return to King Arthur for a moment – if I say “The lady of the lake” there’s a very good chance you’ll know exactly what to expect from a scene involving her, and an arcade game that showed a scene where some guy called Arthur walked up to some water and then got a sword out of it wouldn’t seem at all out of place or in need of further description.
Sadly none of the above can excuse the overall quality of the writing, with even simple sentences containing basic grammatical errors and word choices that scream “The first example that comes up when you search for a term in a travel dictionary”. It’s worth remembering that English-speaking territories weren’t the first, second, or even third priority when it came to Nine Dragons’ sales but it really, really, shows and makes for a very poor first impression when played in the language (and makes Nine Dragons an easy target for bad-faith arguments as to the quality of Taiwanese and Chinese games).
But these are ultimately easily sidestepped disappointments in a game that has very little dialogue and even less of any consequence, to the point where if you decided to clear all four game types one after the other – Simple, Normal, Ranking, and Boss – Nine Dragons would at the most only take a couple of exciting hours to clear, just as a good arcade title should. “Simple” is the shortest of the lot, comprising the first three stages of the game (you are warned about this before making your selection) and a limited character roster. “Normal” is the full game, a run through six stages with your choice from fourteen playable characters – the titular nine “dragons” plus five slightly remixed versions of Zhao Yun, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Ma Chao, and Huang Zhong with alternative special moves. “Ranking” is very similar to “Normal” except the game now gives out a password designed to be entered on IGS’ website (twenty years ago) at the end. “Boss” sees you facing a gauntlet of eight mighty end of stage adversaries from a choice of twenty that can either be either randomly selected by the CPU or carefully picked by hand – it’s up to you. You can still continue as many times as you like, but as you only get one life per credit here coin-feeding your way through to the end is a potentially expensive proposition for unskilled hands.
Whatever the mode you choose the fluid combat used to get through them remains the same, expanding the usual range of punches, kicks, and lone specials found in the genre into dash attacks, screen-wide magical snowstorms, aerial barrages of flaming arrows, wildly swinging spears, well-timed blocks (executed by holding forward+C at any time rather than reaction or context-based), and enjoyable flurries of close-range combos. The inputs used to perform these actions are simple and universal (ex: down, up + A), but the moves that come out of them are always heavily tailored to the personality of the character in play. This is why the immensely gifted Pang Tong, adviser to Liu Bei, uses a lot of magical attacks and quick slashes and can even briefly blip out of existence for his A+B move (as opposed to some kind of area-clearing attack many of the others possess), whereas someone like Guan Yu and his peerless beard are all about creating grand arcing slashes with his legendary Green Dragon Crescent Blade. More nimble characters can double jump, and everyone can carry items to be used when necessary – restoratives, antidotes (poisonous snakes are thankfully rare), offensive items, even several “summons” – such as calling a band of soldiers to charge across the screen – are all on offer, as well as equipment to improve your attack or defence. You can even kick enemy bombs out of the air and back towards the enemy, although learning how to successfully pull that off is a frequently painful credit-draining experience.
At a few fixed points during these magnificent scrums Nine Dragons presents players with a choice of action which then has a direct impact on how the rest of the stage plays out: “Do we press on and attack the general, or do we support our troops?” “Do we stick to the mission or pursue an alternative objective, suddenly passed on to us by a harried messenger?”. Far from being timid palette swaps or brief diversions away from the main path, the differences between the selections of offer are immediate and significant. Sima Yi has a fantastically showy entrance guaranteed to catch someone’s eye even in the busiest arcade – but you’ll never see it unless you pick route B on the third stage. By the same token nobody who sees him will have the pleasure of watching Meng Huo, war elephant and all, bursting in mid boss battle with Zhang He on route A unless they play through the game at least twice. Choose to not pursue Cao Cao during the Battle of Red Cliffs and you’ll never see the chained-together boats on fire, but you’ll never have to weave your way through flaming arrows and face the intimidating Niu Jin either. The fifth stage you reach depends on your choices in the fourth, with Liu Bei either pursuing Cao Cao or going after the country of Wu instead – and both of these have further splits of their own as well. The final stage is always same however you get there, although it does still have one last clever trick up its sleeve: if you didn’t meet (and kill) Meng Huo in stage three and he’ll show up in stage six fighting alongside his equally tough younger brother Meng You, instead of Meng You taking you on alone (and yes, there’s still that war elephant to worry about as well).
Nine Dragons is littered with other wonderful small details that may be easily missed amongst the chaos: Fire bombs and similar thrown-to-the-floor incendiary items don’t work when you’re fighting in ankle-deep water, even though that particular situation only applies to one route of one stage. Pang Tong, powerful magic user, doesn’t pick items up off the floor like a regular person – he strikes a quick pose and magics them into his hand instead (not even Zhuge Liang does that). You’ll encounter enemies while they’re sleeping, firing crossbows from behind a barricade, leaping out of the water, or sliding down a rocky hillside and kicking up dust as they go – the game always going to great lengths to avoid having them walk on from the side of the screen. On a related note; enemies will leave the battlefield if they’re not defeated in a short period of time, removing the old genre irritation of having to “tidy up” that one guy hovering at the edge of the screen who refuses to come out and fight. Common soldiers may be unique to one part of one stage, or taunt or cheer before unleashing one of several attacks. The first two bosses can be devastated with environmental hazards: if you ignite all four sticks of dynamite laid out as a trap in the first stage (by accurately throwing the regular fire bomb items gained during the level), you’ll cause a huge burst of flame to move across the screen, damaging Xiahou Dun. If you pick the split that leads to the waterway in the second stage you’ll eventually run into Cao Ren and have to fight them… next to a suspiciously destructible dyke wall – destroying it unleashes a surge of water and causes a fair old bit of damage to Cao Cao’s general at the same time. The best part is these dramatic events do enough damage to make you feel good about pulling them off, but they don’t do so much damage they become the only right way to approach the battle.
Nine Dragons proves over and over again it’s a bold and beautifully animated game made with great care and attention to detail that easily stands head and shoulders above many of its more famous competitors, and is more than worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as – and played instead of – any of your favourite examples by Capcom or Sega.