COMPETITION ENTRY #58: DRAGON TALE (DEMO)
Outside the realm of Sinclair computing, I'm somewhat fond of Japanese RPGs, on consoles up to the 16-bit generation and their later hand-held equivalents - i.e. up to Final Fantasy VI, but no further. Anime and manga, though, that's just a bit too Japanese - even though, as Japanese Culture Greg would remind us ad nauseam, JAPANESE IS BETTERU (except when it comes to 8-bit computers; give me my Spectrum over an MSX any day).
That's why Dragon Ball Z has completely eluded me so far - but Enrique Pimpinela Santos has thrust me headlong into its world with his last-minute entry. By his own admission, it's a game he never finished due to running out of memory, and remains as a "mock-up" - I'll call it a playable demo - based on Dragon Ball Z: Kyōshū! Saiyajin, released on the Famicom (not the NES!), in Japan, in 1990. He pointed me at a 2½-hour playthrough, so that I could get some idea of the gameplay. The first eight minutes are introduction, and I watched until the first boss battle with Raditz. By this time I knew how the movement worked, but couldn't figure out the combat system. Gamefaqs made that clearer, at least.
Enrique has taken the essence of the gameplay and shrunk it to fit the Spectrum - and in BASIC, mostly. Yes, you heard me - there's about 22K of it. The graphics have been purloined from the Famicom original, which is why the houses and the pictures of the characters (Goku, Master Roshi, and... whoever else is involved) look like monochrome versions of their Japanese counterparts. It's a result of the Mojon Twins' Sqijer (yes, that name was deliberate) and Fourspriter, which have combined for an excellent job.
For an overview of the gameplay, everything you have to do is based on the five cards seen at the bottom of the screen. Unlike in the original, you have to use them all before being dealt another hand, so pick them wisely. They're nowhere near as decorated as the Japanese originals, and only read up to five rather than eight (the ones shown as a "Z" in the original). To move, select a card, and the number of squares you can move is shown in yellow at the top right. The magenta numbers don't mean anything at this stage. If you're lucky, pick another one and move again; if not, you'll be drawn into a combat sequence at the end of the move. You can have combat cards picked for you automatically, or manually pick them yourself; if it's anything like the original, the yellow numbers should represent attack strength and the magenta numbers defence. What I find is, I use automatic combat every time and eventually the opponent will die, and sometimes after a round I'll have more hit points than I used to. Depite its "dojo in the dark" background, the animation on the combat sequence is spectacular for a game written in BASIC...
...the first time you see it. Because - as is befitting a game that the author openly admits is unfinished - there are pitfalls. That combat sequence will take 30-60 seconds every time it occurs, it'll always be the same enemy as far as I can see (which makes sense with the limited memory) and soon you'll be screaming at the screen "NOT AGAIN!" Oh yes. Again, and again, and again, which is a problem with Japanese turn-based RPGs - a long journey can be a tedious grind with the continual ambushes which thou shalt not run away from lest those valuable experience points be wasted. And in this game, you might be dealt a hand full of one-move cards; are you ready for five minutes of hard slog to seemingly get nowhere?
There's also the small matter that the game is written entirely in Spanish, and anything I understand is only as a result of learning French between 1987 and 1995 and comparing words, although that's my problem. What will have everyone absolutely screaming is the controls - Q/A/O/P and SPACE as a generic select key sounds perfect... but don't press SPACE before you've finished your moves or you'll get a 9 STOP statement, and at the very least, that's the screen wrecked, if not your entire progress in the game. Looking at the listing, this was intentional; the STOP must be there as a placeholder, and would be removed if the game had been finished. Looking further through the listing - and there's a lot of it - it's full of VALs for larger numbers, up to about line 1000, which shows that Enrique was already concerned about running out of memory. I stopped the program, calculated RAMTOP-STKEND without CLEARing the variables and it showed 3,005 bytes free - presumably nowhere near enough to finish the game and tie up the loose ends. I can see some of the problem - lots of lines are repeated and could be better served by a subroutine or, in the case of 2420-2770, calculated carefully.
I know what you're all thinking. How this game looks, it should blow Zombie Dice out of the water and condemn Enrique to becoming next year's host at the eleventh hour - but how it plays is a different matter, and if you're not careful, suddenly you won't be playing. Overall, it's far from any threat of demerits, but I can only go as far as four voodoo-masks for attainment. Effort-wise, there are no Challenges met, but there is a loading screen, a separate introductory program (in Spanish), and considering the graphics, and the replication of the Famicom experience within the confines of the Spectrum +3, I'll go as far as eight Ricks.
A finished version is likely to need a complete rewrite in machine code, so that the full 128K can be used without repeated invocation of the RAM disc. The Spectrum can do tile-based RPGs very well - just look at Los Amores de Brunilda and Xelda 1: Quest for the Golden Apple for proof. They both needed the full 128K to do it. Enrique does have a recent finished game to compare with, the Pokémon-inspired POKE for ZX, made with Jason Railton's CharAde engine, which he's focusing on using now.
If Dragon Tale ever was finished, it wouldn't be hanging around a Crap games competition... but just like Edward Scissorhands, who also wasn't finished, at least I could give this playable demo a day in the sun.
EDIT (31 January 2022): While making the RZX for this game, I've also had to make a map. This can be seen below. It is also included in the RZX package, alongside a translation of all the text from Spanish to English that's not always perfect but I've done my best to tidy it up.