When arcades were fixtures at the local mall, fighting dragons and saving a kingdom from destruction was only a brass token away. Those were truly magical times.
Black Tiger, or Black Dragon in Japan, was a fun arcade game from Capcom’s dream foundry pitting players against brutal creatures, underground dangers, battles on castle ramparts, and three maliciously evil boss dragons. Despite the Romstar name on the marquee for the stand-up (they were the distributors for a number of Capcom’s arcade games), the game was all Capcom and ran on two of the famously versatile Z80 chips with one handling the sound and the other as the actual processing unit.
It came out in 1987, two years after their iconic Ghosts ‘n Goblins arrived at arcades in 1985, and is something of an evolution of the 2D, side-scrolling action the game frustrated would-be heroes with thanks to its nightmarish difficulty.
The difficulty is still there, but Black Tiger brushed off the relatively linear progression of its levels for vertical paths, a hero with a health, and a means to upgrade weapons and armor by collecting Zenny coins while scoring points at the same time.
The curious are rewarded by discovering NPCs sharing less-than-useful advice or dumping Zenny coin bonuses into their virtual pockets, more enemies to attack, and pots to break open whose contents can be anything from Zenny coins, monsters, to vicious traps. There are even treasure chests that require keys to open along with poison attacks that can only be quelled with a potion.
Your character’s a beefy, barbarian-looking fighter armed with a chained weapon that acts like a steel whip. He also tosses an arcing stream of three daggers out and never runs out of those.
As for the goal, that’s simply to get to the end of each stage and fight the waiting boss which could be anything from bouncing stone heads, dual wielding terrors, or a Ghosts ‘n Goblins favorite, the Red Demon, who is now armed with a spear that explodes in lingering flame, all of which have health bars to whittle down. If you survive those fights, you might be good enough to make it to a climactic battle with of one of the three dragons, repeating the circle afterward until they are all dead.
There’s a lot of dying in this game, but the good news is that your weapon upgrades, Zenny coins, or keys found don’t get reset along with your score and armor levels. The bad news is that only by scoring well and hitting certain milestones does your health bar actually improve beyond the puny one block that it starts off with.
Black Dragon also featured stores — something of a novelty at the time found in a small number of other arcade classics. The tricky part was that these stores were “one use” only meaning that if you didn’t want to buy anything and left it, it closed. To make things even trickier, those frozen NPCs that you can free? One of them might actually be a store which can easily turn into a lost opportunity if you didn’t have enough Zenny coins to buy what you need by accidentally tripping over one.
There were also differences between the Japanese version of Black Tiger and the one released in the West, namely that many of the monsters were a lot tougher to beat down and the cost of buying things in the store was often higher. There was also a crouching technique where you could kneel down and not get damaged by enemies like the samurai dragons if they didn’t hit you with a projectile.
Black Tiger would go on to be ported to a wide number of platforms with varying degrees of visual candy, though the gameplay would survive more or less intact. In Europe, U.S. Gold handled the distribution for the ports to the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, Amiga, and the Atari ST. Even the Commodore 64 would get a nice looking port of the game. A version for the NES supposedly in the works before being canceled, too.
Today, you can snag it as part of the Capcom Classics Collection for the PSP or Volume 2 of the collection for the PS2 and the Xbox. It’s also a part of the Wii catalog of Virtual Console games and it was also made available via the Capcom Arcade Cabinet on PSN and Xbox Live Arcade. Unlike a massive number of arcade classics, this one managed to find its way into a commercial channel today for a new generation to experience.
Black Tiger was also rife with small Capcom signatures such as the Yashichi symbol to Zenny coins which had also cropped up in prior titles such as Forgotten Worlds, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and 1942. It would also become a part of Capcom’s fantasy-driven catalog of continuing awesome in the arcades which would go on to include Magic Sword in 1990 and Dungeons and Dragons arcade beat ’em ups, Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara a few years afterwards. These later games were not quite as unforgiving as Black Tiger, but they still bore a lot of the same Capcom charm in many other ways to pry a few more brass tokens from your pockets.