Saint Dragon (or Tenseiryuu: Saint Dragon to give its full name) is a side scrolling shooter, very much in the R-Type mode. The key difference here is that, unlike R-Type and many of its peers, you don’t control a ship but rather a mechanised dragon, helping to differentiate the game from others in its field.
Gameplay wise however, we are in pretty well worn territory. Your dragon spits out death in the form of plasma bolts, which can be upgraded via pick ups to add greater range and potency. This standard attack can be supplemented by further pick ups, adding lasers, fire and bouncing bombs amongst other enhancements, whilst specific pick ups also grant you a short burst of invulnerability and heavy duty fire, which can come as a blessed relief from the heat of combat.
Whilst then Saint Dragon shares similarities with its peers, the use of the dragon provides the opportunity for some variety. As you move around the screen you tail snakes around you, its armour deflecting any incoming fire, the head of your dragon the only vulnerable part. This allows you to use your beast as both a means of attack and defence. Enemies come at you from all sides in relentless attack patterns and whilst you will naturally concentrate your fire on what is ahead of you, your tail can be used to take out enemies that fall out of reach of your death breath. Similarly if you find yourself under attack and without the range to strike back, you can manoeuvre your tail to protect your head from incoming fire, or swat it around the screen in a desperate attempt at preservation.
I remember Saint Dragon fondly from the time I first borrowed a mate’s copy on the Amiga, but it is one of those games that seems to have fallen off the radar. Which is both a shame, given its quality, and a surprise given its unique spin on the genre. Undoubtedly though it is brutally hard. If it isn’t enough that enemies come at you in from the side of the screen, they soon start dropping in from above or emerging from below, waves of attacks soon turning into a flood. Most enemies take a blast or two to dislodge but occasional enemies turn into bullet sponges and with some chunky sprites getting chucked around the screen, avoiding impact death is as much a concern as avoiding incoming fire. That said it is oftentimes not the hulking great mechanic dog or bull that takes you down, rather the grubby little floor crawler, taking harmless little pot shots at you, one of which you lazily drift into whilst avoiding a more obvious threat. And if the enemies don’t kill you then the scenery will, especially as you take your dragon on a tour of the screen in a forlorn attempt at avoiding destruction, smartly skipping past some incoming fire, narrowly missing an emerging wave of mechano-bugs, only to splat right into the side of a cliff face.
It still looks terrific. Long time readers will know of my fondness for Final Fight-era, screen filling, chunky graphics and Saint Dragon definitely fits the mould. But as interesting as it was to play the arcade original, my main memories of this are of the Amiga conversion. Handled by Random Access, who also took development duty on the phenomenal SWIV, the Amiga version is a pretty faithful reproduction. Graphical it obviously loses a little sheen but it retains the bold visual approach. Gameplay is every so slightly slower and it seems a little easier to get your tail into a protective position, both of which serve to make it a slightly easier proposition that its arcade parent. Still, ‘slightly easier’ just means ‘ a little less impossible’ and of course as hard as the arcade version may be, you always had the option to bung another 10p into the slot to keep going, the depth of your pockets the major barrier to progression.
Sadly overlooked in the conversation around great arcade blasters, Saint Dragon brings something slightly different to the genre. It remains a satisfying blaster to play but comes with a definite sting in its mechanised tail, with a difficulty level that would make Dark Souls wince.