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Today in Japan Retro Gaming: Dragon Slayer IV (NES)

Dragon Slayer IV: DraSle Family is one of those lesser-known but still classic titles for the NES. Five playable characters, each with different abilities, must work in tandem to explore a dungeon, find essential equipment, and SPOILER ALERT!! slay the dragon. If that sounds somehow familiar, it’s probably because you’re a North American gamer who’s played Legacy of the Wizard, and this article is for you. If that doesn’t sound familiar, then this article is totally for you and you should keep reading right up until the end. Retro gaming is an all-inclusive hobby here at RGM, and we welcome both noob and hardcore alike.

If you’ve been reading us for a while, you saw Legacy of the Wizard/Dragon Slayer IV mentioned in my list of 15 Most Difficult NES Games, but space considerations prevented me from going into great detail about it. Since I don’t have fourteen other games competing for your attention now, let’s dive right in to a game which will tear you so many new buttholes, every subsequent dump you take will be multiple choice.

Dragon Slayer IV Title Screen

Dragon Slayer IV Title Screen

Dragon Slayer IV is epic in both size and scope, despite being confined to a single 8-bit cartridge. It manages this by eschewing standard RPG conventions like long conversations or dozens of side-quests. Instead it throws you to the wolves and expects you to either start kicking ass or die. It doesn’t really care which so long as you get to it, because the evil dragon Keela is stirring.

Hidden in four corners the dungeon are a quartet of magical crowns, each guarded by a nasty monster who thinks your family tastes good even without ketchup. Unfortunately there’s no way to acquire the Dragon Slayer sword without first finding all the crowns, and since slaying a dragon is your ultimate goal, finding the crowns and killing their guardians is job one. No introductory cut scenes, no ‘story so far’ bits. Start in your house, pick a family member, and go to work.

Dragon Slayer IV inventory system

Items with purple numbers can’t be used by your character.

The kick with Dragon Slayer IV is no two family members are alike. They all have different stats for strength, magic, jumping, and walking speed. Even the family pet is a viable choice, with his/her/its own benefits and drawbacks. It breaks down like this:

Dragon Slayer IV character selection

Character select!

Xemm is the big lumberjack daddy of the family. He’s got axes for days to hurl at enemies with deadly accuracy. Xemm kills all normal enemies in one or two shots, making him a powerhouse of a fighter. He’s also the only one strong enough to use the glove to push rocks out of the way, or wield a mining pick to smash them. With great muscles come diminished attributes elsewhere though–Xemm sports roughly a two-inch vertical and won’t set any land speed records.

Meyna is Xemm’s wife, and being that she’s a powerful sorceress we’re not going to make any jokes about her going back to the kitchen and making sandwiches. Like Xemm her jumping skill leaves much to be desired, but who needs physical ability when you can shoot balls of force from your fingertips and strap on a pair of magical wings to fly?

Lyll is Meyna and Xemm’s precocious little daughter who inherited some of mommy’s spellcasting ability. Her fireballs are the weakest projectile in the game, but she runs like a caffeinated toddler and jumps like gravity is a law only other people must obey. Naturally the magical Jumping Boots are only available in her size–why do you ask?

Dragon Slayer IV Lyll Jumping

Her parents made her cut down to quintuple espresso.

Roas, their son, is the runt of the litter. He walks averagely, does average damage with his twirly falchion, jumps an average height, and serves absolutely no purpose in the game except to be the Chosen One who can wield the only sword in the world capable of killing the dragon. He’s like that arrogant bunghole you work with who’s happy to take all the credit after you’ve done the hard work.

Pochi is the adorable little dog/dinosaur hybrid the family adopted as a pet. He’s fairly slow, not that great at jumping, and his ranged attack is short, but it packs a considerable punch. Pochi’s greatest asset is that he’s a monster, so the creatures in the dungeon ignore him as he wanders around, no matter how much he hops or crawls all over them, which makes him the perfect little scout.

Dragon Slayer IV Roas Spiked Pit

Roas in serious trouble.

Find the crowns, kill the boss monsters, slay the dragon. What makes Dragon Slayer IV so hard isn’t the steps you have to take, or the routine storyline, but the utterly massive dungeon which is deep, wide, and filled with dead-ends, spike traps, secret passages, and hordes of endlessly-respawning monsters. Navigating this nightmare without the aid of a FAQ is a long-running exercise in trial-and-error. While the main parts of the dungeon are open to all five characters, other areas are only accessible to certain ones, and most of your first several hours will be devoted to figuring out who is best-suited for what segment. Sometimes it’s obvious: nobody but Lyll can jump high enough to get into her area, or nobody but Xemm can break a block to get through an opening. Other times it’s not so obvious, you’ll get stuck in an area you can’t exit. Time to type in a long password to restore your game. The game punishes you so hard it’s been banned from every S&M club in the country.

Dragon Slayer IV is ultimately equal parts frustrating and rewarding. Every time you think you’ve seen it all, the game rewards you with a new place to explore, a new enemy to fight, or a new excellent tune to enjoy while delving. The soundtrack is phenomenal, changing depending on the area you’re in, and varying in tempo and theme to set the mood. Like The Guardian Legend, it manages to squeeze a mind-boggling range out of the system’s sound chip. It’ll bake your brain trying to navigate the world and understand how the labyrinth is put together even with a map, so here’s a video of speed runners Feasel and Dragondarch burning through the game in roughly half an hour back in 2012 to make you feel even less adequate:

You seriously cannot go wrong with adding this game to your collection, and the differences between the Japanese and North American versions of the game are so slight even non-Japanese speakers can play through Dragon Slayer IV given enough time and patience. Avid fans of Castlevania: Symphony of the NightSuper Metroid, or other ‘Metroid-vania’ games will love every brutal pounding this game dishes out while you explore. It all started today in retro gaming history.

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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