Thursday, February 13, 2014

"DragonStrike", 1990.

Here's an ad I know I saw numerous times, but which somehow slipped the reach of my scanning campaign. So thanks to Benj Edwards for providing scans with little commentary -- I borrowed your scan, and provide extensive commentary!

I owned this one and played the heck out of it. Finally, at the threshold of the age of DooM and Quake, SSI sheds the dowdy tile-based graphics they've been falling back on as though it was still the early '80s, instead providing some filled-wireframe 3D with scaled sprites atop... all within a credit-card-sized play window on your screen! Of course, SSI weren't entirely innovators, and didn't have much to do with it -- this is Westwood trying another tack after Hillsfar, an intermediary foray before they get on their Eye of the Beholder kick.

The FIRST-EVER dragon combat simulator!

The air screams with the fury of enemy dragons and creatures -- even flying citadels!

This is DRAGONSTRIKE where the deadly skies above the AD&D DRAGONLANCE game world of Krynn explode before your very eyes. For the first time ever, experience the excitement of flying your very own dragon into fiery combat!

  • The first AD&D computer game to use AD&D 2nd Edition game rules.
  • Incredible animated graphics viewed from a realistic first-person perspective!
  • Dragons attack with talons, fangs and deadly breath weapons. Riders engage the enemy with dragonlances and magical items earned during successful missions.
  • Progress through three different orders of Solamnic Knighthood, gaining bigger, more powerful dragon mounts.
  • Master over 20 different missions.
So maybe it is the first dragon combat simulator. Is it the best? Your enemies don't just include dragons and flying citadels, but also "creatures" -- not just Draconians, but also manticores, if memory serves correct. (They didn't play a very large role in the Dragonlance books, did they? They passed up the excellent name "Manticorelance" for a reason, I suppose.) This really overstates the excitement of coping with flight sim mechanics (I remember wrestling with early versions of the MS flight sim, triumphantly taking off from the runway without crashing for the first time after weeks of dabbling), with the air screaming with fury, the skies being deadly and the game world exploding with the combat that is fiery. The reality is more along the lines of turning in circles a hundred times trying to shake an interceptor from your tail and line them up in your sights. (The combat is only fiery against red dragons; white dragons of course breathe frost, blue electricity, green acid and so forth. I don't remember what black dragons breathe - stinking cloud? For that matter, why does this art depict two different breeds of evil dragon fighting each other? Is this the discipline of Takhisis' renowned evil army? Could they just not find a good dragon to team up on? Is this a drill exercise? Are dragons more like the lawfully organized legions of evil devils or the chaotic evil demon ranks?)

Let's look at these bulleted items: Is the use of 2nd Edition rules such a selling point when the gameplay is so action-oriented? (This opens the wider can of worms: was 2nd edition worthwhile. I leave this debate as an exercise for the reader.) Are the animated graphics so incredible? Wireframe 3D was really more tolerated than celebrated. Westwood had excellent production values for a North American house, but it's not like they were French. Is the first-person perspective realistic? (This game didn't even have the player's throbbing muscled arm pulsing in the middle of the screen, DooM-like, wielding its weapon. The lance's tip was visible, and maneuvering it was painful and tedious in a manner reminiscent of jousting with the Black Knight in Conquetss of Camelot. Typically it was easier to keep the lance constant and just move the dragon.) The different kinds of attacks were interesting, giving an excuse for taking different kinds of damage depending on what end of the opponent you were approaching. I have a memory of actually landing my dragon in the battlefield and being divebombed by enemies -- they raked me with their talons, but I cleaved them with my sword, and in time, they all fell to my brilliant new strategy: beat the flight sim by sitting on the ground. When I took flight, I constantly found myself reaching the flight ceiling and "stalling". Guess dragons need oxygen to breathe!

Like Wing Commander, this game had different mission ladders, depending on whether you opted to ascend to more prestigious orders of knighthood (and commensurately more capable dragon mounts) when offered the opportunity. This means that it was impossible to play through all missions in a single campaign. Eventually I hit missions in all three campaigns that stymied me.

My earlier "credit-card-sized play window" remark isn't entirely fair when you consider that this game was designed to straddle the vast range of horsepower from an MS-DOS PC with VGA graphics all the way to a C64. 3D game graphics on a C64 (3D demo graphics is a different question) are like Samuel Johnson's metaphor of a dog walking on its hind legs, not noteworthy because it is done well, but rather because it is done at all.

TSR liked the name DragonStrike: it was not only used for Westwood's thematically related 2D shmup on the NES (with shared assets), but also for a video-assisted boardgame.

Closing thoughts: is bursting through paper a recurring Dragonlance game ad motif? Yes: this magazine is made of paper. No, paper won't stop dragons.

I contend that this game was an excellent idea, but the technology wasn't quite there yet.