When I was a little kid, I hated seaweed. Growing up in Florida, I spent a lot of time at the beach and it felt like the ugly, smelly pieces of oceanic plant life were always where I wanted to sit or swim. Then, one day, I discovered a tiny seahorse camouflaged in a clump I was brushing aside. Fascinated, I decided to search the seaweed further and discovered it was filled with surprises – tiny shrimp, squirmy sea slugs and even fish. Suddenly, seaweed was awesome.
I had pretty much the same experience with Dragon’s Crown. I have fond memories of emptying my pockets feeding tokens into the Gauntlet arcade game. Dragon’s Crown harkens back to that era, delivering a side-scrolling adventure where your party of heroes is devoted to beating up monsters, collecting treasure, and keeping their health up by eating plenty of food.
Nostalgia alone wasn’t enough to obscure the annoyances of Crown’s routine. Too much time is spent walking around in town, past people you can’t interact with, just to complete quests that get you into straightforward dungeons. Kill bad guys, get treasure, kill boss, leave, repeat. The oversexed fantasy art is also regrettable, and the Amazon character is particularly egregious. Drawn like a bodybuilder with a steroid problem, she wears a thong and a bikini top that can barely hold her enormous bouncing breasts.
But like the seahorse in the seaweed, I found some beautiful pieces of game design lurking within Dragon’s Crown. The dungeons are straightforward, but they’re also filled with hidden areas to explore. Burning down a patch of overgrown mushrooms or hacking through a weak part of a wall can take you through rooms with fresh threats and treasure that includes some amazing prizes, like a fire-breathing dragon you can ride around. There are dark nooks where someone in your party will have to hold a torch, both to light the way and to ward off ghosts that are immune to your physical attacks. Clicking on little sparkles in the terrain reveals extra treasures. Magic runes hidden in the background can be used for a sort of sorcerous Scrabble: You combine the hidden runes with runes that your character carries to form spells that will help you out by conjuring weapons or a place to heal.
The game also quickly breaks from the standard formula of “kill the boss before it kills you” to offer more complicated climactic fights. In one battle, the key is to maintain control of a magic lamp that summons a genie to slay your enemies—the lamp can be turned on you if an enemy wrests it from your hands. In another fight, you have to protect some rescued townsfolk from vampires, or they’ll get bitten, become undead, and turn on you too.
You can add even more complexity to the experience based on the choices you make with your character. Play as a knight, and you can largely button-mash your way through dungeons. The wizard offers an entirely different experience since you’re constantly looking for little safe zones where you can pause mid-fight to regain mana, but when you’re at full strength, you’re capable of awesome tricks, such as casting a protective ring of fire or turning a wooden crate into a little tree-like creature that fights for you. The skill system also allows you to keep things simple. You can invest your energy in improving passive effects like higher health, or you can unlock new moves and power-ups that offer some of the complexity of a fighting game.
Dragon’s Crown supports up to four players; any extra slots can be filled by computer-controlled companions, who will join you if you gather the skeletons of failed adventurers and pay to resurrect them. It’s easy to see why these adventurers had such misfortune since they’re really prone to stumbling into obvious traps and just standing there while the boss unleashes its special move. They’re great at using offensive powers, but I wish they could just follow my lead when it comes to avoiding trouble.
The plot is pretty thin here—some boilerplate stuff about a power struggle in a generic fantasy kingdom and a need to track down the titular magic crown. That’s to be expected given the genre, but it’s annoying how much the narrator reminds you of what you’ve done and what you’re supposed to do next. I can put up with the droning and the ridiculous imagery, though, to see what’s hidden in the next dungeon.