Fantasy continued to be a popular subject for Japanese designers to build a beat ’em up around. You could plug elements from it right into the formula — monsters, heroes, loot, and a range of imaginative backdrops to batter beasties and bosses against. Taito jumped in with Light Bringer in Japan which would be called Dungeon Magic (no relation to the NES RPG) in the West when it arrived at arcades in 1993.
It was powered by Taito’s F3 arcade hardware, a 32-bit beast introduced in 1992 and following the same principles that Capcom’s CPS-1 and SNK’s Neo Geo did in trying to create a standard system to make it easier to manage costs for themselves and their arcade customers.
Taito seemed to leverage all of their extensive arcade know-how into this board. Games ran off of cartridges though the motherboards used a surprisingly simple form of region locking through plastic tabs inside the cartridge connector. Cartridges, in turn, had holes corresponding to the proper tabs depending on their region. European carts couldn’t simply be slotted into a Japanese F3 board and vice versa. Language was the other barrier.
The board itself used Motorola’s MC68EC020 which was part of the 68020 family of 32-bit CPUs introduced in 1984. Handling the sound was the old and incredibly reliable 68000 which made up the brains of many an arcade system. But unlike popular hardware setups from the likes of Capcom and SNK, Yamaha didn’t produce the system’s sound. Instead, sound was provided by an American competitor instead — Ensoniq — whose specialty was in electronic music devices. The F3 used the Ensoniq ES-5505 and ES-5505 which were compatible with the 68000. Sound card aficionados might remember Ensoniq as having been bought out by Creative, makers of the popular SoundBlaster series of PC cards, in 1998.
The F3 powered titles such as Elevator Action Returns, the shmup, RayForce, and three sequels to Puzzle Bobble along with Darius Gaiden – Silver Hawk, another shmup, adding more notches to Taito’s arcade presence. A blog called “Undamned’s Musings” has a post filled with a great gallery of F3 pictures with a lot more history in case you’re curious about what it looked like. There are also sites like Solvalou.com with instructions on just how to modify the F3 to accept carts from anywhere as well as flip the language from Japanese to English. And of course, the ever reliable System-16 has a gallery of screenshots and a bit of technical info on the F3, too.
Dungeon Magic was an isometric, 2D graphic beat ’em up, or a slash ’em up, depending on who players chose to be. It uses the old “kidnapped princess” excuse to threaten the world all over again as a wicked wizard takes her away to become a sacrifice in raising a terrible Demon Lord from slumber. Four friends at the local tavern are thrown into battle right from the start as they fight their way through the streets of a town, an ancient temple, ruined city, and finally, into the heart of evil itself.
Visually, the game is reminiscent of console titles such as Climax’s Landstalker for the Genesis in 1992, Software Creation’s Solstice in 1990, and a score of action adventure titles on computers in the 80s such as Get Dexter in ’86 on the Amstrad. In the arcade, it was also reminiscent of another fantasy action adventure called Gate of Doom by Data East back in 1990.
On Taito’s F3, Dungeon Magic was packed with special effects, voice samples, a great soundtrack, and tons of action riveted to story bits and a series of endings telling the fate of each of the four characters at the end.
The game had four-way co-op with each character having different strengths and weaknesses. Ash is your traditional “knight” character armed with a sword good at damage but with a desperation attack that is limited in range and offensive power. Vold’s the Wizard of the group, fantastic damage especially with an area-wide desperation attack. He’s not quite as thick skinned as the others, but he makes up for it in sheer offensive power. Cisty is the Elf with fast moves, solid combos, and decent magic along with a ranged attack. Last is Gren who uses his fists to smash through enemies. Though he’s limited in range, his damage, speed, and moves make him a solidly balanced character if you don’t mind taking things close and personal.
The game had a leveling system in place (score was XP based on loot and enemies defeated). It affected how much health the character had as well as how fast they could launch their special attack. Vold’s attack, as technically the most powerful one, was also accompanied by a voice sample and a grand chime making it the nicest sounding one as well.
Other drops included food for health, weapon drops upgrading a character’s default gear as long as they were the right character for it, and tons of breakables ranging from tables to boulders. One of the more intriguing things about the game was in allowing players to stack boxes and other containers to reach treasure chests placed on hard-to-reach spots. Traps, moving floors, and trick switches and statues also added to the adventure aesthetic that the game projected.
The game took place across five “scenarios”. Instead of a scenario acting as one seamless level, each one was made up of a large number of linked areas allowing players to choose which paths they wanted to explore in the hopes of finding more treasure, new weapons, or battle more foes. Pressure plates, switches, and breaking statues could open new doors to other areas hinted by the map tracking the player’s progress at the start of each area. It was a fantastic way of adding granularity to the game encouraging multiple playthroughs to see what missed rooms may have offered.
In a some ways, Taito’s Dungeon Magic was much closer to a traditional dungeon romp than a number of its peers. It was packed with villainous monsters like orcs, kobolds, harpies, and demonic knights all intertwined with semi-decent story presentation (at least as far as storytelling in the arcade went). It was also filled with loot, plenty of action, and a range of ruined spaces and dungeons ready to be explored. It could also be a long game to slog through, but continues allowed players to retain their experience and pick up right where they had died. No new game plus, however. Once the ending credits rolled, that was it.
Dungeon Magic found new life in the Taito Legends 2 collection released for the Ps2 in both Europe and North America in 2006 and 2007, respectively. The collection was also made available for Windows and even the Xbox.
As a fantasy beat ’em up, Dungeon Magic is plenty of weekend fun especially with friends if you can find it at an arcade or have a copy of Taito’s arcade compilation handy. Tons of action, treasure to grab, and an unusual amount of actual exploration, it’s definitely the kind of dungeon that no one expected to enter at the arcades.