When TSR and SSI combined their powers, the AD&D world on PCs would never be the same again. The Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, and even Buck Rogers would usher in a wave of exciting titles thanks to the talented developers that SSI worked with and published for. Not only did TSR provide the source materials from which fantastic worlds would draw their environments from, but they would also open their art vaults to dress up the ads and box illustrations adorning the superb packaging each game would come with.
As diverse as the worlds that SSI had at its fingertips, the vision involved in making them had also explored a number of different ways to immerse players. One of the more remarkable ideas belonged to DragonStrike, a dragon combat sim developed by Westwood Associates (who were also behind the first two Eye of the Beholder games). It also had nothing to do with DragonStrike, the board game with the VHS intro, released in 1994, other than the name.
Where the books, modules, pen-and-paper sessions, and other titles in SSI’s lineup based on the Dragonlance settings such as Champions of Krynn hinted at in their own ways, DragonStrike brought the legendary aerial combat between brave knights, their partnered steeds, and the evil hordes of the Dark Goddess, Takhisis, to stunning life. Westwood put together DragonStrike with the same kind of polish they brought to their Eye of the Beholder work — lavish intro, atmospheric music, great VGA graphics, and easy-to-learn controls. Mastering the actual gameplay, however, took a little more practice, but it was also at the core of what made it fun.
The packaging came with the disks (two 3.5″ disks or four 5.25″ disks for the IBM PC version), manual packed with information, a handy keyboard reference guide, and sheets illustrated with more art from TSR’s vaults showing off a few of the enemies in the game from the evil dragons the player will face to flying citadels. The back of the box boasted the “fractally-generated, 3-D world” and in being the “first AD&D computer game to use AD&D 2nd Edition game rules”, though whether the last part was true or not might have been a matter of marketing. The game was certainly the first first-person, AD&D dragon combat simulator.
A heavy dose of fiction in the detailed manual set the mood. It’s the eve of turning the tide against the dragon armies of Takhisis as the good dragons return to Ansalon in the nick of time. Aided by the Solamnic Knights who ride them into battle, it’s up to them to try and head off the overwhelming power of darkness spreading across the continent. The story describes the first mission that the player will be taking as a young Solamnic Knight paired with a bronze dragon named Sirdar as they go after two white dragon scouts.
Finishing that, more missions become available out of a possible 20 spread across the continent and varying terrain from lush green to icy blue. As your successes continue to pile up, invitations to join the other orders of the Solamnic Knights will also ask you to join them, opening the door on tougher quests, greater rewards, and more powerful mounts.
Cruncy bits like experience, loot, or statistics aren’t tracked as they would be in a traditional AD&D game. Instead, it’s more of an action flight sim on dragonback controlled from the keyboard, joystick, or even your mouse, in first person. The landscape is fractally generated with juicy polys while bitmapped dragons, wyverns, and other beasts prowl the skies. Little things such as your dragon turning its head left or right as you banked, specific endings encapsulating the fate of the land depending on the mission if you died, screens depicting special missions, and a sense of pushing the forces of Takhisis back across the continent helped embellish the overall experience.
Combat is pretty straightforward stuff. A breath weapon allows your dragon to fire a ranged attack that can often kill enemies with a single well-placed blast while your lance can also do the same with the right aim. The breath weapon has to cool down before it can be used again and an altitude gauge on the side shows the dragon’s height in relation to the ground. Your dragon can also tire, reducing its speed, unless you can use its ability to ascend and dive to rest it in flight and avoid incoming fire. Jabbing enemies with the dragonlance was tough stuff, especially with the somewhat choppy performance of the engine, but absolutely possible as one of your combat options.
The fiction in the manual also describes the other items in fantasy terms, such as the crystal ball that acts as your radar or the magic arrow that shows the player which direction the enemy they seek is at. As the player finishes certain missions, such as those that might be offered as incentives to graduate to other Solamnic orders, magic items and other goodies may be added along the bottom of the screen as icons providing a variety of beneficial effects such as protecting you from damage. There were no stores or experience to earn, only missions and the option to save your progress in between each one.
DragonStrike arrived on a number of platforms such as the Amiga, C64, and the IBM PC running MS-DOS. It also made its way over to Japan’s PC-98 and Sharp X68000.
It had also made its way to the NES which was ported by FCI’s subsidiary, Pony Canyon, as a top down, free-range shooter. In many ways, and which was something to be expected back then, it was a wholly different game from the original, technically sophisticated, PC version. Major differences included a choice of dragon at the start – bronze, silver, or gold — far less text to read story-wise, lesser graphic quality, and the top-down take to the action. Players could fly around the relatively open areas of each mission using the d-pad, shift altitude by tapping up and down, and fire two types of breath attacks. They could also attack ground targets, such as catapults. There were also far fewer missions to pursue on the map of Ansalon. A password feature kept track of your progress.
Unfortunately, DragonStrike was the first, and only, dragon simulator created using the AD&D license. It never had a sequel and today, exists largely as abandonware like most of SSI’s extensive catalog. However, the idea of flying on dragonback in a game never died. Team Andromeda’s rail shooter, Panzer Dragoon, would visit the idea in 1995 for the Sega Saturn and expound on it in dramatic fashion with an action RPG take with Panzer Dragoon Saga in 1998. Surreal Software’s Drakan: Order of the Flame in 1999 was a superb mix of action-packed dragon combat and on-foot adventure. Cavia’s Drakengard series which began in 2003 on the PS2 would also explore dragon combat and on-foot exploration as an action RPG.
DragonStrike remains one of those rare titles from yesteryear that may have been extremely niche at the time yet stood out as a remarkably creative example of what a developer could do with a popular property. It also fulfilled a fantasy of those who may have wondered what it would have been like to fly high on the back of a living weapon and turn the tide of a war against evil with a single breath. And as others have shown since then, it’s still something that gamers look forward to doing regardless of generation.