Dragon Breed is a 1989 shoot-em-up by Irem. What separates Dragon Breed from others of its genre is the indestructible dragon that the protagonist rides. It is the human mounted on his head that you need to protect; the dragon itself is a weapon and a defense. You must maneuver the dragon through strange agoraphobic canyons and organic caves to protect the soft weak human on top. There is a strange biomechanical look to most of the enemies and structures in the game, one that shows a clear influence from Irem’s earlier success, R-Type. You fight flying monsters with chunks of jagged flesh sticking out of holes in their thick carapaces like some variety of bizarre alien insect.
Controlling the pokey and asymmetrical dragon is a unique, difficult, and sometimes frustrating experience. Most attacks from below bounce harmlessly off the dragon’s shell, but enemies and shots from above, behind, or from the front (except the ones that touch the dragon’s nose) are dangerous. The pilot’s hitbox is larger than you would think, especially compared to the smaller-than-they-look ships of most other shmups. I suppose this is to make up for the dragon’s defense and utility. I found myself trying to maneuver around the bottom of the screen (Or vice versa) to make the dragon’s tail swirl around the top half, but this was an ineffective tactic against enemies that take more than one hit to kill. Getting the red fire breath powerup and poking the enemy with the dragon’s nose while simultaneously burning it was usually a better move.
There is one particularly irritating Dragon Breed enemy—a gray mass of writhing tentacles that moves right for you to attach itself to the dragon and slow it down—that I think didn’t fit the others either in theme or in mechanics. This tentacle thing only appears in the difficult fifth and sixth levels, which have tons of crap flying around, so I thought at first that touching one was essentially instant death, but I learned to shake them off by moving up and down rapidly. The same stage features the gray tentacle things and other enemies that move right through the dragon to strike at the juicy human rider. The big segmented yellow creatures in the third level are particularly fascinating as well with their giant jaws spitting bluish-gray globs and their green underparts shooting lasers. I was sometimes able to make enemies and their shots disappear simply by moving a little bit off screen, which makes the game a bit easier, though this is rarely practical.
Also in the fifth stage are enemy egg pods which either turn into solid (and deadly) blocks when defeated or release irritating swarms of enemies. Naturally, with your dragon attacking everything it touches, you will necessarily break open some of these pods even if you’re not firing. I found this to be much more clever use of the game’s mechanics than the irritating tentacles. It’s the one time in the game when you wish you didn’t have the dragon.
Powerups are unusual. There is one that shoots devastating blue lightning directly below every segment of the dragon’s length; one that fires weak yellow shots in every direction (with the added benefit of enabling the dragon to wrap around itself and the rider for protection for a second or two); one that increases the length of the dragon’s fire breath; and the least creative, the grey powerup that launches miniature homing dragons.
The five stages are rather short and the bosses offer few surprises (Except for the third level boss’s dirty sneak attack when you break its body). The bosses are disappointingly easily, even if you don’t have whatever powerup works best against them.
The game has checkpoints at the beginning and middle of each of the six levels. Unfortunately, this means that if you’re having difficulty against a boss, you have to trudge through the second (usually harder) part of the level before getting the chance again. Since I know you’re playing this on MAME, you won’t have to waste any quarters, but you may get frustrated. Dragon Breed The final boss in particular is a robust challenge. Not only does it have a massively difficult level before it but when you get to the boss proper it takes up the right half of the screen and attacks from multiple directions at once: A ball that bounces around the miniscule space, bursts of immensely quick chevron beams, and homing missiles from above. You must use all the dodging techniques you learned during the game or you will be quickly slaughtered, though it’s not a tenth as brutal as the tyrannically difficult Touhou series.
Another cool thing that I wish the game explored more is the ability to jump off the dragon onto platforms and fire your crossbow at enemies. While you do this, the screen stops automatically scrolling forward and the dragon flies around above you. This would normally give you the chance to clear a wave of otherwise overwhelming hordes, but the opportunities to do so are very few, appearing mostly in the first and final levels. It would have made for a more fascinating game if these segments were longer, though I am grateful they are optional. I wish there was a rapid-fire button, too, but that would be too much to ask for a shmup from 1989.
The music is the tinny and mechanized grinding of late 80s sound processors. It would have been perfectly suited to the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive had it ever been ported to that system. The sounds are competent but none are particularly noteworthy except for the noise the player makes upon being struck. It sounds like a wretched creature’s dying soul escaping. And you’ll be hearing it frequently unless you have a lot of experience with shmups. The sound made by the some of the enemies when they die is similarly horrifying. I swear I heard the Legend of Zelda sword-striking noise somewhere in there as well.
Dragon Breed is an entertaining and unique game with a lot to offer. Shmup fans will find it over quickly, but it can pose a sturdy challenge for those not accustomed to the genre, especially the final level.