Game 336: The Dragon & Princess (1982)

From The CRPG Addict


Many thanks to Laszlo and NLeseul for making this possible!

            

The Dragon & Princess
Japan
Koei (developer and publisher)
Released in 1982 for PC-88, 1983 for FM-7
Date Started: 10 July 2019
Date Finished: 11 July 2019
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
The Dragon & Princess is often given as the first JRPG. There are other contenders from the same year, including Spy Daisakusen, Underground Exploration, Seduction of the Condominium Wives, and the recently-rediscovered Dragon Lair from Crystalware, but I haven’t personally vetted those, and most of their descriptions suggest to me that they lack at least one of the core RPG elements that I (at least) require. The Dragon & Princess, on the other hand, has them all–if just barely.
I’ve wanted to play it for years. A long time ago, I downloaded a PC-88 emulator and found a copy of the game, but I couldn’t get past the Japanese text.  Earlier this year, reader Laszlo Benyi tried to assist me by creating a chart that I could use to translate the Katakana characters into Latin syllables and then plug them into Google Translate. I did my best, but it was very slow going, particularly in this game, which has a hundred different ways just to tell you that you’ve wandered off the main path. I was feeding in dozens of phrases only to get back “it’s too dark!,” “a branch blocks your way,” “you are lost,” and “too dangerous!” 
Finally, Laszlo and reader NLeseul did what I needed them to do but didn’t dare ask: they translated the text and created a patch. It worked beautifully. I should mention that much of the game is in English anyway, including the title screen, the commands, and the character status screens. This means that the game’s official name is The Dragon & Princess, not the Japanese equivalent.
           

The game commands. Most of this was in English in the first place.

         
The game begins by having you name the five characters of your party. “You” are considered the first character, and you travel with four companions. (If the lead character dies, the game ends.) Each character has statistics for power, speed, and hit point attributes that fixed at the start of the game. Characters 1-3 are relatively balanced; Character 4 is very weak but fast; and Character 5 is strong but slow. A “hits” statistic, represented as a percentage, seems to be a type of THAC0–the chance of hitting a certain base enemy.
           

Character creation is just about assigning names to existing character slots. If you just hit ENTER here, the game assigns its own names.

        
If there was any backstory presented in accompanying documentation, it appears to have been lost. The game begins with the party in a king’s throne room. “Bandits have appeared recently,” the king explains, “and have stolen much of our treasure. Recover treasure worth 3 million gold and exterminate the bandits! Return here when you have done so.” Unless you want a hopeless battle against the king’s guards, you have no choice but to leave and start finding your way through the world.
        

The initial quest.

        
Said world encompasses about 70 text screens, with enough one-way and twisty passages to confound the most dedicated mapper. Only a few squares–mostly in the city–are kind enough to tell you which directions you can go to leave them, meaning you have to test all directions. About one-third of the time, when you test an invalid direction, you simply get a message indicating (vaguely) that you can’t go that way. Sometimes, these messages are a bit opaque; if the game says “dark . . . so dark . . .” it means the way is dark and thus you didn’t move.

The other two-thirds of the time, when you move an invalid direction, you get “lost.” Being lost means that any move is futile until the game tells you that you’ve returned to a known square.

Various enemies will come along and attack at random intervals as you explore, including giant bugs, snakes, and bandits. Combat transitions from the text screens to a graphical interface–a tiled map of 10 x 20, with both man-made and natural obstacles depending on the terrain in which you were attacked. The party always goes first, and always in order of the characters’ numbers; “Speed” seems to have more to do with natural armor class than any kind of initiative. Each turn, each character can attack once, move up to three rounds, search, check the party’s condition, or skip his turn. You can only attack from directly adjacent to an enemy–no diagonals.

Combat with a random bear (from the original, not the translated version).

            
Combat takes a lot longer than it needs to. Both characters and enemies almost always miss their attacks. Despite whatever high percentage is found in the character’s “hits” score, you only actually hit about once every 8 or 10 attempts. Enemies are even more unlucky. The result is that a combat that should take 3 minutes takes 15. Since you have no magic, no objects, and no choice of attacks, there aren’t many “tactics” except to try to achieve favorable terrain when fighting multiple foes or when ganging up on a single enemy.

Characters get experience for both hitting and getting hit in combat, one for one with damage inflicted or taken. As your experience goes up, so does your speed, hit percentage, and maximum hit points. (Strength increases only from the type of weapon you wield.) Developing the characters against random battles is important for success in the fixed battles, particularly the last one. There are only three fixed battles in the game, unless you’re dumb enough to hit A)ttack while in the presence of the king or the monk. I’m not sure either combat is winnable, but I’d be interesting in hearing from anyone who could prove me wrong, and what the consequences were.
          

Character stats after a few battles.

               
I’ve seen the game described as having “adventure game elements,” which must refer to the text part of the game, but the nature of exploration is the only thing that feels vaguely like an adventure game. You don’t find any puzzles or objects in any of the areas, and commands are very limited. Only a few squares offer anything useful in response to L)ook, S)earch, G)et, or R)ead, and I never found any use at all for the enigmatic H)urry. The only reason to explore and map the various game locations is to find your way to a couple of key places. Once you know how to get there, a winning game takes less than an hour, and most of that is spent in combat.
            

Arriving at the Tea House–one of two places in the game where you can R)ead something to get directions.

      
The northwest part of the game map has a town called “Ross-Blue” in both the English and Japanese versions. Among its streets, you can find a weapon store to upgrade your initial short swords to long swords. With one exception, such swords are the only equipment in the game. You also have to visit this location to purchase swords if a pickpocket relieves you of one; they appear on the streets of Ross-Blue about once every 20 moves.
              

The twisty streets of Ross-Blue.

          
The city also has a food store. The party starts with 20 food units and eats one every few moves. Purchasing another 10 is enough to get you through a full game. The game’s economy seems rather inflated, as two long swords and 10 food units burns through your starting 300,000 gold pieces.
            

The only “equipment” in the game.
Essentially the same screen as above, in the original Katakana.

             
In the southeast, a relatively linear map has you pass something called the Lake of Joker (this location is rendered in English in the original) to enter a variety of forest squares (Oak Forest, Beech Forest, Apple Forest, etc.) Characters can get mysteriously “trapped” in these areas to the loss of dozens of hit points. Occasionally, a girl with medicine comes along and the party can G)et half a dozen doses from her. Eventually, the forest leads west to the desert and a plateau, where moving north wraps the party back around to the Castle and Ross-Blue.
              

The overall game world.

           
Continuing to move west from the plateau puts the party at a mountain, and in particular a hut occupied by a monk who gives some small advice as to the next step of the quest. Near the monk’s hut, the party finds its way to the bandits’ hideout, where the first fixed combat takes place against a party of 10 bandits.
            

The attack fails . . . like it almost always does.

       
One wrinkle in this combat is that riches are to be found in the houses and wells, and from the moment combat begins, the bandits start burning them. Thus, you generally want to fan your characters around the map, searching the various locations for treasure, before you start fighting in earnest.
       

Grabbing treasure before the bandits can burn it.

       
After you defeat the bandit lair, the king still tells you to get lost, and the monk says there are more bandits hidden in the city. Finding them means tripping a series of unintuitive encounters. First, you have to make your way to the pub. Entering the pub causes you to fall into a trap, where someone extorts $300,000 in treasure for you to get out. (If you don’t have enough, the game is over.) You can avoid this by hitting S)earch before you enter the pub.
          

Inflation in this country has run rampant.

          
Once there, you have to take note of a shady character leaving and then lurking behind a door outside. Hitting A)ttack causes the man to surrender and mumble “Eastside-Shape,” the street corner on which the bandit hideout sits.
         

Shaking down essentially the only NPC. (No you cannot get drunk in the game. I tried.)

       
In that square, another A)ttack causes you to batter down the hideout door, at which point you can E)nter and mop the floor with the bandits, including their leader. This time, there’s no treasure to find during combat. Instead, you have to search all four cardinal directions of the hideout (the only time in the game that this is necessary) after combat; the treasure hoard is to the south. The game lets you keep all this treasure even though there’s nothing to do with it.
           

Four of my characters surrounded and killed the bandit leader.

           

Searching the hideout post-combat.

       
Returning to the king has him say: “Well done! I want you to marry my daughter.” Here, you have to unintuitively hit G)et to take him up on his offer and become a prince. “You were happy,” the game says, “but then . . . a dragon kidnapped the princess! Please kill the dragon and save the princess.”
            

Until I figured out that the game wanted me to use “G)et,” I thought it was over and there was no dragon.

         
At this point, the game drops characters 2-4 and leaves you just with the character occupying the #1 spot. The dragon is found on Mount Lu-Fey in the map’s southwestern terminus, and if you stop by the monk along the way, he’ll give you a magic sword that increases power to 60 (from the short sword’s 15 and the long sword’s 30). From there, S)earching for the dragon on the mountain square causes it to appear and combat to commence.
            

I tried killing the monk with his magic sword to get more experience, but he slaughtered me in two rounds.

          
(There’s an amusing encounter along the way in which a young woman tries to entice you into her house. If you accept, the game chides you for dallying with another woman while your wife is in danger, and you lose two hit points.)
 
The first time I faced the dragon, I couldn’t even hit him let alone kill him. I reloaded a dozen times, and not one of over 50 strikes, with my hit percentage at 65%, landed on the target. The dragon, meanwhile, hit me about half the time and soon killed me.
          

Ouch.

       
The issue was that my lead character hadn’t fought enough battles or done enough damage, in comparison to the other characters. I had to fight random combats to build him to a level where he could take on the dragon effectively. In my case, that meant reloading a save from before the end of the bandit quest because a single character doesn’t survive well in the wild; I needed the other four as meat shields while trying to get the main character to strike most of hte killing blows.

Grinding is hard in this game because there’s no reliable way to heal. You mostly have to hope that the girl with the medicine bottle wanders along as a random encounter, then give as many doses as she’ll allow to the weakest party members. She wanders away after half a dozen.

Anyway, through grinding I eventually got my lead character’s attack percentage into the 90s, wihch was enough to hit the dragon. I still had to reload a couple of times, but I ultimately defeated him.
            

Nah, I’m good.

          
The winning screen came up at this point and enticed me to try again for a higher score.
          
In a GIMLET, the game earns:
         

  • 1 point for the game world, not described in any backstory, but evoked slightly through exploration.
  • 2 points for fairly limited character creation and development.
  • 1 point for minimal NPC interaction
  • 2 points for encounters and foes, the foes nothing special, the encounters a bit unintuitive and weird.
  • 2 points for a limited (if original) combat system with no magic.
  • 1 point for an equally limited equipment system.

           

Checking inventory mid-game. A couple of my characters have broken their weapons or had them stolen.

      

  • 1 point for having an economy that doesn’t matter beyond your initial purchases.
  • 2 points for a main quest line.

            

The “game over” screen. I don’t know what “entranced by a witch” means. I was killed by the dragon!

         

  • 1 point for minimal graphics and sound and an interface that uses commands in an unintuitive way.
  • 3 points for gameplay that offers a reasonable challenge and at least doesn’t linger.

         
With no category getting 0, and the sum of the bunch receiving 16 points, I am at least satisfied that The Dragon & Princess is an RPG. If it isn’t literally the first (which it very well might be), it is perhaps the first that owes no allegiance to anything coming out of the west. It seems highly unlikely that the developers could have been exposed to Tunnels of Doom for the TI-99, released the same year, which means that they independently developed the type of turn-based graphical combat that Ultima and SSI would soon make famous. While several western RPG and adventure games had a similar approach to text exploration, none of them are quite like this one.
         

Attacking the bandit safehouse.

       
The title was one of the first issued by Koei, then calling itself “KOEI MICOM.” The company would soon be famed for its strategy games, many of which have some RPG qualities, including Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1985), Nobunaga’s Ambition (1986), and Bandit Kings of Ancient China (1989). Role-playing became a bigger part of the developer’s portfolio in the 1990s, and it seems impossible that I won’t encounter them again, although most of their games are either Japanese-only or for consoles.

The game is credited to “Y. Hayase” and “Locke,” owners (respectively) of the in-game weapon shop and food shop. I haven’t been able to turn up any information as to the full identities of these developers. MobyGames doesn’t have them credited on any other titles, but then the database is missing credits for a lot of Japanese titles of this period. Several other releases from Koei in the coming years, including Dungeon (1983), Ken to Mahō (1983), and Khufu-Ō no Himitsu (1983), have similar enough elements that these two developers could easily have been involved. I’m particularly curious about “Locke,” particularly whether it’s a pseudonym or whether it’s evidence of another westerner responsible for an early JRPG, as with Henk Rogers and Black Onyx and John and Patty Bell and Dragon Lair.

The edition of The Dragon & Princess that I played was packed on a disk with several other games. In a 2013 article on Hardcore Gaming 101, the author turned up some screen shots of a more primitive version of the game, which suggests that the graphics may have been upgraded at some point. Later that year, Sam Derboo wrote a longer article on the game on the site, managing to finish it in the original Japanese, although he had no more luck than I did on the identities of Hayase or Locke.

Given Sam’s existing coverage, it wasn’t imperative that I write about this one, and yet some part of me didn’t feel comfortable continuing our exploration of JRPGs without playing the first one. That’s one dragon I’m glad to have slain.

****

On the upcoming list, I rejected Paladin 2 as a non-RPG. The first one really wasn’t, either. The only character development that comes in either game is in the form of a single statistic being possibly increased a minor amount upon completion of a mission. And while there’s an “inventory” of sorts, it’s not really a classic RPG inventory.

I’m toying with rejecting Spellcraft: Aspects of Valor. It’s a tough call. I can’t quite tell from the documentation whether I should expect any character development, and aside from what you need for spells, there doesn’t seem to be much of an inventory. On the other hand, it does have a certain RPG-like je ne sai quoi that goes beyond my definitions. I guess I’ll see how I feel after a couple of hours. But I really need to start being more relentless in applying my definitions if I’m ever going to make serious progress.



Original URL: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2019/07/game-336-dragon-princess-1982.html