Retro Requisition would like to draw your attention to a classic video game of old that we shall be formally requisitioning to be reborn, revisited, rebooted, or remastered. We will explain what makes each game such a timeless classic still worthy of attention, pitch what it would be all about and get all realistic by discussing the possibilities of it actually ever happening.
“We, the most awesome and fabulous team at That Not Current, have decreed in all our wisdom and obsession with the wonders of retro gaming, that the following game should be brought back to life and hereby submit this formal request to make it so:”
Dragon Force (1996)
THE PLAYERS: Working Designs, J-Force, Sega
PLATFORM(S): Sega Saturn
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
Another absolute diamond exclusive from the much-maligned Sega Saturn, Dragon Force is an early example of a genre-hybrid that still radiates originality more than 23 years later! It is probably one of the greatest games you have never heard of (very similar of Panzer Dragoon Saga which has already had the Retro Requisition treatment).
From cult studio Working Designs, who specialised in bringing Japanese-style gaming to the Western World, Dragon Force is at its core a JPRG wargame. With a perfect balance of subtle RPG and charismatic RTS, the game is packed with an enriching story, multiple in-depth character narratives, and an enslaving and challenging gameplay — all presented in a mesmerising visual style and absorbing score; both above and beyond the norm for JPRGs of the time. It rightly received critical acclaim upon release, praised for its ambition and originality.
Set in the mythical world of Legendra, the player assumes control of one of eight vying monarchs, all with unique motivations for taking up arms (told through detailed cut-scenes). Recruiting and deploying generals with up to 100 units of a specific type, the goal is initially to defeat or align with all other kingdoms before turning your attention to the evil God Madruk, who has been manipulating the various kingdoms towards war from the shadows. The only way to defeat him is by forming the prophesied Dragon Force.
Legendra’s enchanting game-map is made up of a series of paths connecting castles, keeps and landmarks. Navigating takes place in real time; the player deploys his generals on various routes to conquer territories, being mindful of the actions of the other kingdoms and the need to react to said actions. When one of your generals encounters an enemy general or castle, a choice is presented to fight, retreat, or try and negotiate — with failed negotiations resulting in battle without your army! Battle itself pits two generals against each other with their choice of 10 possible troop types, up to 100 units max. With what is an advanced rock-paper-scissors type of conflict, every troop type has an Achilles Heel against at least one other unit. For example, Dragonmen are the strongest units in the game, but can be only be easily defeated by Samurai , who are in turn are vulnerable against Calvary, Zombie and Harpy units but strong against Beastman, Monk, Mage and Archer units, and level with soldier units. Managing the units deployed is key, with only one type selected per battle.
Variations in starting formation also present possible advantages within combat and ensure the strategic elements of battle really matter. Once a fight commences it can become chaotic, with the player only having control over their general who can deploy special abilities and issue commands to dictate the balance in real time. The object of any battle is to defeat the enemy general, and if troop numbers are reduced to zero on both sides, this is done with the two generals in a duel, mano a mano. Playing to each generals strengths and abilities is essential.
At the end of each in-game week, the upkeep phase happens. During this time generals can be bestowed with medals for their heroics, levelling them up and increasing the number of troops they can command, changing the type of troop they can command, or improving their abilities. Thanks to a sprinkling of sim management, you are required to keep generals happy, or they could desert you. Other tasks completed at weeks end are interrogations of captive generals (and possibly get them to fight for you); recruit more generals; fortify castles; search for powerful artefacts; and usually receive new quests and objectives from the story cut scenes.
WHY DOES IT NEEDS TO BE REBORN?
Dragon Force offered such an exclusive hybrid of wargaming and role-playing that it truly baffles to think it has never been replicated in the 23 years since its release. As a beacon of the Saturn console, it is still a blindingly unique gaming experience to this day.
And a rare one. Very rare.
You see, when Dragon Force was released in 1996, the Saturn was starting its much documented decline which dramatically limited its circulation.
Out-punched by Sony’s aggressive marketing campaign, the Saturn failed to deliver in the US market. Prior to the Saturn’s launch, Sega was king in North America, boasting an impressive 71% market share thanks to the Genesis (Mega Drive). However, by 1996 it was down to 38% (including Genesis & Saturn), with the PlayStation outselling the Saturn by 3 to 1 and the new N64 just on the market. In Europe, the numbers were even more grim by the time of the EU launch a year later in 1997, and as such, only 35,000 PAL copies of this game were ever printed. The Japanese market was the only safe zone for the Saturn and for Dragon Force, where it was given the attention and respect it was due.
Ultimately, this just about ensured that a game so damn brilliant was buried before it was even launched…and herein lies the crux of why it needs to be reborn.
The game received critical acclaim upon release (it would go on to win a host of gaming awards in 1996 and 1997), with particular focus on its original gameplay and enriching multi-string narrative. Over 20 years later it is widely regarded by those who have played it as one of the most under-rated tittles of its generation. That alone should be grounds to breathe new life into this title in some form or other.
Since its release, its blistering uniqueness has gone untapped, with very few games following its real-time approach to a strategic RPG. Few games have clearly been influenced by elements of Dragon Force but only the Generation of Chaos games for PSP (and laterally Android) replicate the gameplay and style of Dragon Force, albeit to a much lesser standard.
Like many of the iconic Saturn exclusives, a second-hand copy of this game can easily set you back upward of £100. With the well documented complexity of creating a Saturn emulator stifling access to the ROM in the past decade, it makes getting hands on with the game a tough task. Although it must be said, there has been massive strides forward in Saturn emulation over the past few years.
Despite the limited release in US and Europe, the game performance in Japan — where the Saturn reigned supreme over the other 32-bit consoles — prompted a sequel in 1998, exclusive to the Japanese market. A group of dedicated fans have only recently converted to Dragon Force II into English. There was much fanfare in 2005 when Sega announced Dragon Force would be part of the Sega Ages collection for the PS2 — but it ended up being a Japanese exclusive.
Here in the English-speaking world, Dragon Force has been consigned to the history books as a footnote, with its greatest legacy being that so many people have never even heard of this game, never mind played it.
And for a true gamers’ game like this, that is such a tragedy.
WHAT WOULD WE WANT TO SEE IN ANY REBIRTH?
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This game is a masterpiece as is.
We don’t need any HD upscaling, we don’t need any remakes. We just need it to be accessible. Give us a modern console port or a PC version; hell, we’d even settle for a mobile version! Just resurrect this absolute gem and let the world rejoice in its majesty.
Once that is ticked off the list, we can look at doing the same with the Japanese exclusive sequel.
And then…and only then…can we maybe look at building a behemoth of a franchise that it so rightfully deserves.
IS IT LIKELY?
You see, when a game reaches such a limited audience as Dragon Force did, it dramatically reduces the clamour for any rebirth.
And in the market where it did perform – Japan – the re-release as part of the Sega Ages Collection on PlayStation 2 failed to deliver, further dampening hope. Although, one could argue that judging a games potential based on its release as part of a collection on a different platform is ever so slightly unjust.
We must also factor in the fact that following on from their meteoric demise as a console developer, Sega are now a game developer with a massive focus on their “three pillars” – Total War, Football Manager and Sonic. That leaves their enormous back catalogue of outstanding game IPs somewhat of an afterthought, to say the least.
However, last year we did get Sega’s “Road to 2020 plan” that is going to focus on the “revival of major IP’s”. While that in itself is amazingly awesome news given the level of outrageously brilliant Sega titles from the 90s, I refer to the earlier point that Dragon Force, though one of Sega’s most critically acclaimed titles, reached such a limited audience that I have no doubt it will be way down Sega’s list of revivals. As much as it tears me apart to admit it, there is no doubt that this is not one of Sega’s “major” IPs.
And that is a damn shame considering how little effort Dragon Force would take to re-release. Given the fact it is so original, even after all these years, a simple port to modern consoles will still carry a freshness that other classic Sega franchises won’t. Dragon Force needs no work other than navigating the complexity of Saturn porting — which has come on leaps and bounds the past few years.
Something like Street of Rage (a 4th incarnation of which is being released in 2019) takes a hell of a lot of work as, despite the nostalgic love, the gameplay is badly dated (it’s true — you know it and you are only lying to yourself!) and it requires a massive from-the-ground-up overhaul.
So, there is a degree of hope that at some point, some time, we could potentially see Dragon Force reborn in some guise to mesmerise a new generation of gamers. Personally, I won’t be holding my breath…
Sure, I’m pumped for Street of Rage 4…but I’d gladly sacrifices its existence (and actually the existence of every single Streets of Rage game) to be able to play Dragon Force with ease on my current console or PC.
In an absolute heartbeat.
And I challenge you to find anyone on the planet that has experienced Dragon Force to disagree with that statement.
Because Dragon Force is perfection; a little-known one-of-a-kind phenomenal masterpiece that millions of gamers don’t even know exists.