Athena was a little company in Japan founded in 1987. Their webpage today points to a missing page hosted by Sakura Internet, but this obscure developer used to pump out everything from mahjong games to action adventures for a variety of platforms ranging from the NES all the way up to the iPhone. They had a web presence all the way towards the end of 2013 before apparently disappearing from view in early 2014. They weren’t huge developers on the scale of a Capcom or a Konami and it wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve never heard of them or of the games they had made most of which were Japan-only releases.
But more than twenty years earlier, they had also dabbled a bit, like a few other of their peers had, with the arcade scene and one of the games that made it over from Japan was Dragon Unit in 1989. In the West, it would be called Castle of Dragon.
The plot was nothing too dramatic, just another play on ye olde “kidnapped princess” theme, but Athena wanted their presentation to stand out among the giants that dominated the beat ’em up scene during that time and in some ways, they put their best sprites forward to do exactly that.
Scrolling purple text against a background featuring the eponymous castle and the face of our fair princess told the story of how an evil dragon named Zuriv raids the Kingdom of Wenlary, kidnapping the princess and drawing in two kings, Duke and Narda, to rescue her by fighting through six stages on their way to the final confrontation.
This was a side-scrolling hack ‘n slash beat ’em up with two player co-op that may remind players a bit of Capcom’s Trojan from ’86. Like Trojan, it featured a swordsman bent on fighting their way through hordes of enemies to make their way to the final confrontation, only with armor that degraded as part of their health indicator. The more damage our hero took, the less armor they wore until all they had were their skivvies, a weapon, and a shield.
Co-op was also featured allowing two players to share the same screen and fight bad guys on either of two side-scrolling planes (foreground and background), shifting between them at will. Not every stage was set up like this, though, with a few sticking to the usual linear side-scrolling movement employed by many arcade classics like the aforementioned Trojan. Other stages were also vertical sequences with the player making their way downwards to a boss confrontation between two bare breasted medusae to climbing floor by floor upwards back to the surface later on.
Monster-wise, the game leapt into the grab bag of typical fantasy baddies — zombies, skeletons, warrior thugs, giant insects, mad animals, and dragons. It also worked in tricks into several levels such as insta-death traps like steel, spiked balls coming down from the ceiling. There were also spiked pits and disintegrating floors, platforming on moving platforms, and destructible props like braziers and tombstones.
Extras included items like boots to temporarily speed the player up, armor (health), and an hourglass for extra time. There were also weapons like a ball and chain and a throwing axe (with infinite axes) to replace the starting sword the player heads into danger with — or continues the game with after tossing in a few more quarters or tokens to pick up right where they left off.
Castle of Dragon threw a lot of action at the player and the sprite art reflected the crazy level of chaos that it brought out — things didn’t die, they burst into a pixelated cloud of black smoke and fire. Human enemies briefly erupted into a frozen frame of bursting blood spurts. Creatures like the duo of dragons facing players at the end of Stage 6 fell apart into gory pieces. And it didn’t look terrible, though the level design, overall look of each area, and animations left a bit to be desired in comparison to competitors like Konami’s TMNT adaptation and Capcom’s Final Fight, both of which also came out in ’89.
Story-wise, however, Athena boldly pushed ahead with a story teaser in the attract mode along with a complete ending which literally ends the game even if you have a few extra lives left. That kind of reward also follows the trends towards the same being made by others such as Capcom and Konami.
As an arcade game, Castle of Dragon probably flew beneath the radar of players for a number of additional reasons. It wasn’t a great looking beat ’em up, the action was pretty repetitive, the moveset for the hero was extremely limited, and the looping music wasn’t that great, either. By ’89, things were getting brutally competitive with heavyweights making waves with their own games featuring seamless action, great visuals, and plenty of wow factor in other ways.
An NES port arrived in 1990 which sacrificed the double plane movement which, unfortunately, made it an even worse game on the console. If you weren’t impressed by the action in the arcade version, the awful home version would only prove you right again. For one thing, dying in the game now meant that it was really game over — no continues. It burned the eyes with flat looking sprites, poor detail, and generally bland effects. Even the box art was sad, ignoring the fine illustration used by the flyer for something that might have fallen out of an uninspired grade schooler’s coloring book. Simon Belmont would’ve been embarrassed to be in this game.
Castle of Dragon wasn’t that great a game but it did do its best to incorporate features to expand what story there was in the same way that its peers did, finding ways to reward players having fun while saving the world. On that note, the anime influenced teaser and ending punched up the presentation. The rest of the game didn’t stand out as well, but even in the shadow of giants like Capcom and Konami, Athena wasn’t afraid to try whatever they could to make Castle of Dragon stand alongside them.