|The closest we get to a "title screen." My policy is to use the title screen for the official name, which is variously given as Dragonstomper, Dragon Stomper, and DragonStomper.|
In the little survey I posted recently, I asked readers to prioritize which games I should play from the 1980s that I missed on my first pass, thanks to my ill-advised "DOS/PC only" rule. The "winner," overwhelmingly, was Final Fantasy.
It was probably a mistake for me to include console games at all. Until the late 1990s, they offer such a fundamentally different approach and style as to be essentially a different genre. But in saying that, I speak partly in ignorance, as my own experience with console games is extremely limited. As a youth, I never played a single RPG on a console, nor did I even own a console between the Atari 2600 and the X-Box. I guess I played a few NES games at friends' houses, but none were RPGs. By the time I played my first RPG on a console (I think it was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), console and computer RPGs had essentially merged, with almost every title available for the former also available for the latter, and with most major titles released for both.
|It's going to be a little while before we get to Dragon stomper-specific screen shots, so here's a preview of the one enemy in the game that owes no legacy to D&D.|
Partly from ignorance, then, and partially from experience, I have a number of opinions and prejudices about console RPGs. Perhaps the most offensive, from the view of the console player, is that they are less sophisticated and less intellectual than computer RPGs, and primarily intended for younger players. The graphics are usually goofier and more cartoonish, the gameplay more action-oriented and less tactical. Unlike many computer RPGs, console RPG players aren't expected to take notes, make maps, or otherwise engage in activities not directly on the screen.
We'll return to these prejudices in a moment, but before I do, let's talk about the things that are more objectively provable. First, most console players play their games on their televisions, usually from couches or otherwise more comfortable settings than you would typically play a game on a computer. I bought Skyrim for the console particularly for this reason; I wanted to play it in total leisure, taking advantage of my large-screen television and surround sound.
Second, because the player is usually some distance from the television, console games require larger graphics and text. A couple of years ago, I took an old computer and connected it to my television through the HDMI port, downloaded the GOG version of Baldur's Gate, and tried to play it. I found it essentially unplayable. The graphics of the Infinity Engine were customized for up-close viewing, and not even the size of the television compensated for a reasonable distance from it. I had the same experience with Hero's Quest.
Third, consoles support a more limited user interface than computers. On the surface, my X-Box 360 controller seems baffling. There are two joysticks, both of which can be depressed for more actions, a directional pad, two forward buttons, two triggers, the four ABXY buttons, a start button, a back button, and probably others that I'm forgetting about without having it in front of me. But despite all this complexity, it has several magnitudes fewer options than a standard computer keyboard. A computer mouse also allows far more precise targeting and item-selection than a standard console controller.
For a long time, I had no opinion when interviewers asked me whether I thought the need to dual-develop for the computer and console was "dumbing down" RPGs. I had no opinion because the only console RPGs I'd played were the best of the best. But now, after some thought, I have to sympathize with the common view. Some of the best computer RPGs--NetHack, all the Infinity Engine games, the "Gold Box" games, the Ultima series--simply wouldn't work on a console because the complexity of controls is too much for even the most complicated controllers. Before you protest that some Ultima and "Gold Box" games did indeed appear on consoles, keep in mind that these were in extremely dumbed-down format--bastardizations, essentially, of their superior computer predecessors--which only goes to prove my point.
|There's plenty of stuff to argue with in this posting, but we're not going to argue about this. In the SNES version of Ultima VII, you couldn't even have multiple party members, for Lord British's sake!|
If all of these prejudices and opinions are unfounded, that's fine--I look forward to your comments--but they're certainly not unfounded in 1982, when Dragon Stomper was released for the Atari 2600. The Atari 2600, you may recall, featured a joystick with a single button, making the potential inputs horribly limiting--but not as limiting as the inability to save progress. (Discussion question: I think the NES was the first console to allow saving, through external devices, but what was the first console game to allow saving?) I don't want to give the impression that 1982 was absolutely exploding with sophisticated computer RPG titles either, but we already had two scenarios of Wizardry, on which the next seven years would improve significantly in terms of graphics and sound, but hardly at all in terms of interface and combat tactics. We already had Rogue, and Ultima, and other games that put the capabilities of consoles to shame.
Dragon Stomper is often given as the first console RPG. I don't know if this is true, since Crypts of Chaos for the Atari 2600 and Swords & Serpents for the Intellivision game out the same year. Either way, 1982 was clearly the first year of the console RPG, so Dragon Stomper seems as good as the other two games as a starting point for my investigation into the area.
Dragon Stomper is about as fun as any RPG for the Atari 2600 could be. Because there was no "save" ability and players would have to complete it in a single setting, it compensates for length with difficulty, requiring multiple trials to successfully finish. Until the final battle, combat is almost entirely bereft of any tactics, but it has hit points and dragons, so therefore it must be an RPG.
The framing story is fairly basic. There's a dragon. A long time ago, a druid sought to defeat him, but he accidentally made things worse by dropping a powerful amulet in the dragon's cave, making the dragon more powerful and cunning and allowing him to extend his influence out of his lair. The PC has been commissioned by the king to defeat the dragon and destroy the amulet.
There is no character creation. Every player starts the game as a nameless, faceless, gender-neutral, culturally-ambiguous adventure person with 400 gold pieces, 23 strength (which also serves as hit points), and 23 dexterity. Though the graphics for locations and enemies are discernible, the PC remains a small square throughout.
The game takes place on four successive screens, from which no return to previous screens is possible: a wilderness area, a town, a cave, and the dragon's lair. To successfully navigate the cave and dragon's lair, the player needs to buy the right equipment in the town, which in turn involves collecting enough valuables in the wilderness area.
|Chests can hold gold or special items. They can only be opened with keys, another special item to find.|
The wilderness area takes more than half the game, and it's here that success or failure is determined. The overland rectangular raster map takes about 36 seconds to traverse north to south and about 48 seconds east to west. The eastern edge culminates in a bridge that takes you to the town, for which you need identification papers (or a very tough fight with the guard) to cross. The rest of the map contains churches, castles, towers, huts, temples, trees, swamps, and other areas where you encounter various creatures and items. The specific goal for this area is to find the papers, but the general goal is to collect enough gold and items to buy the needed equipment in town.
Monsters encountered in the wilderness area include golems, knights, monkeys, slimes, bugs, spiders, ghouls, snakes, beetles, scorpions, and demons. Some of them are located in contextually-sensible areas. For instance, if you wander into a tree, you might encounter a succession of monkeys. Swamps usually contain slimes.
|This would be a good name for a rock band.|
Any creature can also approach you randomly, and they almost always do when you stand still for more than a few seconds.
Despite their names and relative difficulties in D&D-derived games, all of the monsters encountered here are pitched at about the same difficulty. When you engage with them, the game tells you how much damage you do and how much damage they do, and eventually one of you is dead. I imagine that dexterity and equipment have some influencing factor over the combat roles, but I can't honestly say that I noticed any differences in the damage rolls even as my characters increased in both attributes and gear.
|Fighting a giant beetle.. I can't honestly say what goes into the hit rolls.|
When you slay an enemy, there's a random chance of finding gold or a special item. Special items include hand axes (I don't know what you're supposed to be fighting with before you find one), shields, gold, potions, crosses, keys, charms, rings, staves, chests, and identification papers. The last object is the only one strictly necessary to progress, but in reality you need all of them. Crosses, charms, rings, and staves alternately increase or decrease strength and dexterity. The specific role assigned to each varies from game to game, but within a specific game, they all do the same thing. There's a maximum to both strength and dexterity of around 50.
|No matter what they do, all special objects "feel weird." In this case, the ring helped me see traps around the castle.|
Castles, keeps, huts, and churches either hold special items or encounters with creatures. At churches, you have the ability to pray (I don't know what it does) or donate money for healing.
As you might have seen from the screen shots, the game's interface does the best that it can given that its only inputs are four directions and a button. When you hit the button, you get a "menu" consisting of at least three options activated with the directional stick plus a "more" option that might bring you to three more. So "using" a potion involves hitting the button, pushing the stick to the left, scrolling to the potion, and pushing the stick to the right. This is not, to be fair, terribly dissimilar to what Champions of Krynn did in supporting a joystick control. You push the button to bring up the menu at the bottom, then scroll to your selection, then press the button again. It just takes a lot longer than when everything is activated from a single key.
I survived the wilderness mostly by hanging around a church and fighting random encounters. Whenever my hit points fell to less than 10, I spent $200 to get healed, and usually this was less than what I'd collected in the meantime.
|Moving to the next section.|
Once you've collected enough stuff--and the identification papers specifically--you can progress across the bridge to the town. The town features three shops, selling equipment, healing potions, and spell scrolls, and you need around $1,500 to buy the minimum necessary to survive in the caves. There are also three patrolling warriors that you can hire for between 200 and 250 gold pieces each to bring with you to the dragon's lair.
|The hired warriors appear in your inventory as equipment, so we're still not considering them "NPCs."|
Shops in the town will buy whatever you've hauled from the wilderness, including whatever rings, potions, staves, and crosses decrease your abilities (if you were paying attention, you didn't use more than one). The process of selling and buying items, given the limited interface, is both long and annoying. To buy items, you have to walk into them, then go walk into the shopkeeper and choose "Trade," then "Buy," then offer gold for the item.
|I never found any use for the gems, or for more than one of any of the other items.|
Once you're equipped, you enter the caves at the south end of the town. The caves are a linear level featuring numerous traps that shoot arrows. Fortunately, you can reveal them with the "Vision" spells that you can purchase in the magic shop.
|Noting--and avoiding--the locations of traps.|
You still have to bypass poison arrows shooting across the screen. They were too fast for me, and I took a bunch of hits, but "medicine" (also purchasable in town) counters their effects.
|This section reminds me of Frogger, which Starpath enhanced for the Starpath Supercharger.|
At last, you come to a pit, and if you bought a chain or rope in town, you can descend safely. Below, you face the dragon. If you've over-prepared by hiring all three warriors, buying several "Blast" and "Stun" scrolls, and purchasing a bow, he's a little easy. Still, the dragon is the only combat in the game in which tactics really matter. I won by "using" my three hired warriors one by one (though sometimes they refuse to engage him), which sends little icons out to pummel the dragon while you stay behind the front lines. I then used my "Stun" scrolls to put him out of commission for a few turns while I alternately "Blasted" him and shot at him with my bow.
|One of my three contracted warriors goes off to attack the dragon while my PC remains in the background at the bottom of the screen.|
Once the dragon is dead, you proceed past his carcass, touch the gem, and get the winning screen. I didn't try to hit the gem without killing the dragon first, but apparently it's possible, and an alternate way to "win."
|The winning screen flashes different colors a bunch of times. So that's...you know..."rewarding."|
Like a lot of early CRPGs, both console and computer, Dragon Stomper suffers from too little strategy and too much dependence on luck, especially in the "wilderness" section. In a GIMLET, I would give it:
- 1 point for the game world. You've given a basic framing story, but it serves little role in the game itself.
- 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation, and development is limited to increasing attributes through equipment that you find.
- 0 points for NPC interaction. There are none. [Later edit: Oh, I suppose the guards you can hire are worth at least 1.]
- 1 points for encounters and foes. There are no "encounters" that require any puzzle-solving or role-playing choices. There are numerous enemies, but barely distinguished form each other except by name and icon.
|The warrior almost looks like an NPC icon in a real RPG.|
- 2 points for magic and combat, with all points coming from the final battle--the only place where there are any tactics and the player can use magic.
- 2 points for equipment. You get scattered items, and it's up to you when to use them. It isn't very sophisticated, but better than most console offerings of the era.
- 2 points for economy. You do need gold for the town, but the economy in general doesn't play a continual role in the game.
- 2 points for quests. There's a main quest, with two potential outcomes.
- 2 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The graphics aren't horrible, with the exception of the little square representing the PC. Sound is acceptable for the era but not exciting. The joystick controls are very limiting and take too long. Yes, this will be a complaint of every console RPG for a while. If you don't want to hear it, don't ask me to play console RPGs.
- 3 points for gameplay. Though somewhat linear, the game is short, brisk, and challenging without being frustrating.
The final score is 16 [Edit: 17 with my addition of 1 for NPCs]. The lowest rating I gave to a computer RPG in 1982 was 21 for Ultima II, and I really didn't like Ultima II.
Dragon Stomper was the only RPG from the Starpath Corporation (also briefly called the Arcadia Corporation), which specialized in games for the Atari 2600, including Communist Mutants from Space (1982), Survival Island (1983), and Sword of Saros (1983), all notable for their multi-sectioned approach. At least one site claims that the original name was Excalibur, but changed to Dragon Stomper shortly before release. The site suggests it "may have had something to do with copyright issues" (the film Excalibur was released one year prior), but I rather think it may have had something to do with the fact that the game has nothing to do with Excalibur or the Arthurian legends.
The programmer is listed as Stephen Landrum, who went on to work for Epyx and Electronic Arts, but who also never produced another RPG. It's contemporary reviews are quite good, but of course written from the perspective of console game reviewers who must have been enchantec by this exotic idea of "hit points" as opposed to "lives."
Thus, console RPGs aren't off to a terrific start compared to computer RPGs. We'll see how I feel about the first Japanese RPG (published in English) and the first NES RPG before finding out how I feel about Final Fantasy. I hope those of you who voted for FF didn't think I was going to jump right to it. Here on the CRPG Addict, we do things right.