Retro reflections by Nick H.
When I think back to my early years of video gaming, I have a lot of really fond memories. Sometimes the titles were a little obscure, but I stumbled onto some future classics in there as well. And sometimes, we look back at a game and just shake our heads and regret that we ever picked up that controller. Dragon Power is one such title for me.
Now, in the heading I made a reference to Dragon Ball. At that time, I knew nothing about Dragon Ball. It would not be until years later when I was in college that I happened upon Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network, and found it to be a funny, action-packed good time that I would regularly watch after college classes. Then I saw the original Dragon Ball series, and a few things started to catch my eye and ear. Little hints of something that I recalled from years before. The dots did not fully connect until some time later, when I recalled my very first Nintendo Entertainment System video game.
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Good God that was a terrible game, and that was before I realised how badly the source material had been butchered. All I knew was that my parents had set up a pretty elaborate Christmas for me that year. My uncle was buying me an NES and he came over a few days before Christmas with it. I suppose technically, Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt were my first two games, but they came with the system on that hybrid cartridge. My uncle was going to give me a couple more games when he came over in a week or two, so my first non-package games were coming from my parents. It was actually a pretty big deal, with a few family members in on it and each one giving me a game on Christmas. But Christmas Eve my parents let me open up one present, and I had been asked what game I wanted more than any other: Double Dragon.
I loved Double Dragon in the arcade. The music, the combat - I sunk entirely too many quarters into that cabinet in the arcade, so the opportunity to play it at home had me beyond excited (never mind that Double Dragon also got a substantial degrade in transition to the NES, and while enjoyable, was not the same thing as the arcade game, I was still pumped for it). So, there I was, excited at the very thought that my parents had got me this game that I'd been looking forward to. I ripped in to the packaging and at that point realised that my parents, despite the best of intentions, did not know the difference between Double Dragon and Dragon Power.
I was a little bummed, but I held out hope that maybe someone else in the family was going to give me Double Dragon later (no such luck). In the meantime, though I rolled with it. I was still so very grateful for my new NES and hey, this was still a fighting game so I would enjoy it. Right? Right!?
I did not hate it right out of the gates. I was still adjusting to a post-Atari world where home consoles could do so much more with the introduction of 8-bit systems. That initial wow factor that home consoles were capable of THIS now wore off quickly, though. The music quickly began to get repetitive despite opening well. The sound effects were minimal and frankly uninteresting. The visuals turned out to be muddied and unattractive. To say I was a bit let down at the time would be an understatement. Thing is, I still have that cartridge out of sentimentality, so when I decided to write up one of my worst retro gaming experiences, I decided to play the game again for the first time in well over twenty years.
Everything I disliked about the game came flooding back to me. It was almost comical, seeing as I was much younger and far less experienced with gaming. I did not know how to fully explain why this game simply did not appeal to me. But now I do.
On the surface, this could have actually been somewhat decent. There is a sort of adventure vibe as the game asks you to explore its world and find things. Those basics worked wonders in a lot of other early NES games, but here the environments were so bland, map layouts so nonsensical and it had a story that just made absolutely no sense. This was a punishing game in terms of difficulty, and not in a fair way, either. Even though I wasn't having fun with it, it did take me over a year to persevere through because of that.
There were a handful of small things that made me realise that this was a Dragon Ball game years later, however. Whether it was Master Roshi sitting on a turtle, or our hero in the game having a tale and having an extending pole power-up, or the one boss who turns characters into a pig on contact - the parallels were there, but incredibly thin. Why so thin? Because Bandai back then purposely went out of its way to change the game from its origins. Originally released in Japan as Dragon Ball: Senlong no Nazo, when the game was ported over to the US, everything about it was scrubbed.
Yamcha was called Lancer, Oolong was renamed Pudgy, Dragon Balls were replaced with Crystalballs. The cover art just shows a generic dude in a martial arts gi. Apparently (and I didn't know this until years later), the US version was shortened as well, because there was supposed to be a section of the game that reflected the martial arts tournament from the show, but that was removed as well. There were also multiple smaller changes made to the game's theme. Anyone who has watched Dragon Ball knows what a perv Master Roshi is, but instead of wanting panties in the US version, it's all about the sandwiches. I suppose they'be both triangles (oh well played - ed.)? In retrospect the extent that the team went through to censor relatively harmless game elements was quite extreme, but then game development was a wild west back in the day.
Dragon Power is one of those games that managed to disappoint in multiple ways at various points in my life. Usually a stinker of a game gets put away and never revisited, for good reason. I had to play it because my NES was new and exciting, but Dragon Power has proven itself a loser for the ages.
- Nick H.