The King of Dragons is an interesting game. It was released not long after Final Fight blew the doors off the genre and a legion of imitators followed. It tried to do more with its mechanics than most of those games and to an extent succeeds. I never got to play the original arcade release and unfortunately the SNES port came after I had played Dungeons& Dragons: Tower of Doom. That game did everything this game attempts even better which dulled the impact of its release. It’s a decent port that came a little too late to be impressive.
King of Dragons was released around the same time as Knights of the Round for the SNES. Both games share many similarities. They feature a system of leveling up, are both brawlers, and share the same fantasy theme. Yet in many ways King of Dragons is disappointing, not because it is an outright bad game but due to failed potential. All of the elements to create a unique beat em up were there but the game ultimately does not do enough with them.
The home port improves the controls by assigning the shield to its own button. In the arcade the Cleric, Fighter, and Dwarf could block attacks by pressing away from the attack before it hit. It required precise skill and timing to use consistently. By giving it its own button that nuance is lost but blocking becomes a more active part of the game. I’m sure for most blocking happened by accident rather than skill so I like the choice.
The five heroes present a wide range of strengths and weaknesses and don’t fit into the generic archetypes. The archer has the longest range but is physically the weakest, both offensively and defensively. The fighter is the second strongest with average jumping and speed. He gains hit points the fastest and has very quick attack speed. The wizard requires time to grow. Initially his attack power is weak but grows as he levels along with his defense as you collect upgrades. His attacks hit multiple times which is devastating later on. The dwarf is the strangest. He has the fastest attack speed and second best defense with his shield. His only weakness is lacking magic and range. The cleric is the crowd favorite. He has good attack and magic but his real strength comes in his defense, the best in the game. He also gains levels the quickest.
King of Dragons is unique in that it offers several ways of character progression. Your score counts as an experience system and at set intervals you level up. With each level your life bar extends and attributes such as strength and range increase. In nearly every level a new piece of equipment is earned, be it a weapon or armor. The light role playing element gives meaning to slaughtering hordes of monsters and collecting treasure although I wish it were more pronounced. Aside from more health you will hardly notice the difference in strength until the end. The new weapons and armor look cool but that’s about it.
Despite character advancement and upgradable weapons combat remains extremely basic. You can forget about any elaborate punching combos or different throws. Each character has one basic attack, a shield if equipped, and magic. The only differences come in the range and speed of attack. It is very boring and simpler than some of the earliest games in the genre. This is the single most disappointing aspect of the game. There are all these systems that hint at something deeper yet you would be hard pressed to notice the difference. It would have been cool if your attacks changed dramatically with every upgrade but outside of range you can’t tell.
Perhaps the game’s one saving grace is that it isn’t all that long. There are sixteen levels but outside two each is incredibly short. Some have only a few basic enemies before introducing the end level boss. The brevity helps to hide the game’s mechanical shortcomings although not completely. It could have done with greater enemy variety; you’ll tire of fighting the same skeletons and orcs in ever increasing numbers.
There is a lot to like about King of Dragons. The characters are varied in their abilities, leveling up is interesting, and you’ll rarely see the same area twice. But in the end it is just boring. It was almost there but almost doesn’t count. Capcom’s later Dungeons & Dragons titles would fulfill this game’s promise and is one of the greatest brawlers of all time. You are better off playing that instead.