Dragon Buster II: Yami no Fuuin
Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
There's an interesting transition that takes place in the history of the exploration adventure game (which, when discussing side-scrolling adventures, is usually give the Metroidvania moniker). After the release of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link a number of games sprang up to explore the side-scrolling adventure genre. You had games like Rambo and The Battle of Olympus, games that seemed to clone aspects of the Zelda sequel in different ways.
But then, after a couple of years, the genre switched back to the overhead perspective. These games seemed to take more cues from the first The Legend of Zelda title. Sure, there were still side-scrolling games coming out, but the blend of exploration, adventure, and upgrading that was key to Metroidvania titles went for the top-down approach. The Magic of Scheherazade, Willow, even Nintendo's own follow-ups to Zelda all opted for that top-down look. It was familiar to fans of RPGs, and it became familiar to the adventure genre as well.
You can even see it with games that were original pioneers of the side-scrolling adventure formula. Dragon Buster can be viewed as the precursor to Zelda II, even the granddaddy of the side-scrolling adventure proper. It took elements of side-scrolling games from before, like Pitfall II, and added in just enough RPG elements (with the RPG genre still nascent in many ways itself) to make something new enough to be interesting. But when it came time to make a sequel (which, if you play through it you realize is actually a prequel), the perspective was shifted. No longer was it a side-scrolling game; instead we had another top-down adventure like many others that were becoming popular at the time.
Dragon Buster II: Yami no Fuuin (loosely translated as Dragon Buster II: Seal of Darkness) is a top-down adventure game that puts you in command of Carl, a young hero looking to save the world from dragons. Armed only with a bow and arrow, and tasked with defeating the six great dragons on the world, Carl has to go from zone to zone, clearing dungeons and defeating monsters, all until he finds the dragon at the end of the maze and saves the day... then he gets to go do it again. Six times, to be exact.
In basic construction, Dragon Buster II isn't that different from Dragon Buster. You're still a hero going out to defeat dragons. You're still going into various dungeons, forests, and other locales, defeating monsters as you look for the exits. You're still the only guy that can do the job. It's just that this time you do it from the top-down perspective instead of in a side-scrolling realm. So, why was the change made?
Well, without great documentation on development of the game, we can only guess at the specific reasoning. Likely it was a combination of seeing the winds of change in the industry at the time as well as what was easiest to program on the Famicom (which, in Japan, had been out for over five years by the time of this game's release). Zelda II was hugely successful upon release, getting snatched up by gamers on both sides of the pond. But in the months and years that followed, there were many gamers that said the original was better, that they preferred the top-down design of Zelda 1.
Plus, you do have to couple that with the shifts in the RPG world. The first Dragon Quest came out in 1986 and was a critical and culture smash that was very quickly followed by two more games in the series over the next two years, right up until Dragon Buster II came out. A game with RPG elements and "dragon" in the name? That obviously should be a top-down game to carry on the good will of Enix's popular RPG series. That's an easy marketing decision to make.
With that said, the sequel does lose come of its joy switching from side-scrolling to top down. The dungeons feel more cramped, with smaller rooms showing less creativity and design. There's rarely more than a single enemy on screen, and most of the time fighting the enemies isn't even required since the doors out of the dungeons usually just hang out in one of the many rooms. Most of your time is spent just walking and looking, trying to figure out where to go as quickly as possible.
The game also switches from having its hero use a sword in the first game to a bow and arrow here. The strategy is different, which I can appreciated, as now you have ranged attacks and you have to contemplate angles of attack and what to do. But the inclusion of the bow seems to have come at the cost of the magic system from the first game. Now you just use the bow and that's it, so the variety of attacks are lacking.
One thing I do like is that the game includes banked shot mechanics. You can aim at a wall and hit enemies around corners if you do it right. That is interesting, to a point. However, you can also hit yourself with your own arrows, taking damage, an issue that never cropped up with the sword in the first game. Plus, you can only ever have one arrow on screen, so if you miss you have to wait for it to disappear before you can shoot again. That's a real bummer when you have an enemy chasing you down, draining your health.
I can see what Namco was going for with this version of the formula, but there's something really lacking in this Famicom sequel. It feels too different from the first game, and too empty to sustain a long adventure. More enemies, more attacks, and more variety were needed to make this sequel worthwhile, which may be a big part of the reason the title never made it over to the States (and beyond): it just wasn't good enough to port anywhere else.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
We are far from the Castlevania series with this title. Frankly there's little shared DNA between this adventure and anything Konami was doing before, or since. This game is more of a marker point, a transitional game that says, "hey, the exploration genre is going this way, so you're going to have to wait for it to swing back around to the side-scrolling genre." It does happen, thanks in no small part to the sublime Super Metroid, but it would take time to get there, and fans would have to wade through a bunch of top-down adventures before it finally happened.