There are plenty of fun video games – vintage and contemporary – that allow the player to ride a horse; among them Sunset Riders, Knights of the Round, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, Lone Ranger, Gun.Smoke, and The Heroic Legend of Arslan. Tiertex’s conversion of the coin-op hack ‘n’ slash ’em up, Dynasty Wars by Capcom, isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s considered one of the worst arcade ports in the history of 16-bit arcade portery. If the fighting fantasy coin-op original was held in higher esteem itself there would certainly, without a shadow of a doubt be an uprising, leading to a brutal disembowelling of the reigning monarchy.
It would seem that the majority of gamers just aren’t that enthused with horse-mounted scrolling beat ’em ups. Otherwise, it might be a genre in itself, and at least one of them would be as fondly remembered as, say, Double Dragon, Final Fight or Streets of Rage.
Capcom’s contribution – released in 1989 – is a simultaneous two-player co-op affair played entirely on horseback, and set during China’s Three Kingdoms period of history (220 – 280 AD… ah those were the days!). An era during which Western Shu, Northern Wei and Eastern Wu were at each others’ throats, squabbling over control of ancient China, resulting in millions of deaths; one census reports a drop from 56,486,856 individuals (during the Han Dynasty) to 16,163,863 (in 280 AD).
Inspired by the 1983 Japanese manga comic, Tenchi wo Kurau (the Japanese title of the game incidentally, which translates as ‘The Devouring of Heaven and Earth’), and the battle between the Kingdom of Shu and the Yellow Turban rebels it’s all a bit muddled. I think I’m supposed to refer to manga comics and cartoons as just ‘a manga’, but that can’t be grammatically correct surely? It’s like ‘a rogue-like’, it doesn’t make any sense. ‘A rogue-like’ what? Would it be so difficult to stick a ‘game’ on the end of that? We’re getting off-topic.
“When power centralizes for too long, it always splits. However, disrupted power is doomed to be reunited. It has been 400 years since Liu Ho, the founder of the Han Dynasty, established the country. The Han Dynasty was about to face a troubled time. We swear, we will die together. Even though we were born separately”.
Playing solo or as a duo, we can choose from up to four Chinese generals equipped with various diverse aptitudes (Hit Points/Power Points and Magic Points) and unique blade/spear weapons. Zhang Fei fights with a halberd (a spear/battle-axe combined), Liu Bei wields a broadsword, Guan Yu is armed with a guan dao (a Chinese pole weapon), and Zhao Yun is tooled up with a pike (not the fish, a thrusting spear). Once you’ve made your decision there’s no option to switch characters later without starting afresh.
According to the manual, “a player with a high mental ability will be weak in the earlier levels but becomes stronger later on”, proving as always that nerds are “winning at life”. I hate that phrase and promise never to use it again, sorry. In-game we’re also helpfully informed that Kuan Yu is a “great warrior who defeated many famous”, yet is “educated and well-mannered”. Famous what? Sudoku puzzles? Why does it end there? Similarly Shang Fei “put thousands of enemies to rout” brandishing his snake halberd. He did what now? It turns out this one isn’t a typo or Engrish. It means to force someone to retreat or utterly defeat them.
Speaking of which, our mission is to crush the rebellion against the Han Dynasty lead by the Huang Ching organisation, and ultimately vanquish their despotic warlord leader, Dong Zhuo. Except in-game our adventure terminates when we slay ‘Thung Chok’, apparently a fictitious alias for the same real-world, erstwhile tyrant. US Gold’s manual for the Amiga port corroborates this, only the publishers spell it ‘Thung Chock’ as in chock-full of evil-naughty-badness.
Whatever we choose to call the Big Cheese, on route to the finale we must wade through a marauding throng of his loyal toadies. Mostly a mixture of infantry waving a variety of stabby devices, archers, ninja wannabes and horse-riding foes. Some even fight you while standing on the saddle rather than sitting in it. I always appreciate a bit of imaginative acrobatics from the opposition when I go to war. It shows they’re willing to go the extra mile to make it spectacular.
Concluding each of the eight levels (or rounds) we face a rebel army general boss or swarm of identical thugs, some on horseback, others on foot. Most of the generals are unique in the arcade incarnation (one is even a mirage), while in the Amiga port they’re carbon copies of one another; always the same charming chappy on horseback threatening to give you a headache with his mace.
In the latter their demise is celebrated with a single line of vague text referring only to ‘the general’, whereas the CPS1 arcade game names the particular general and then also announces it via a voice sample.
Our port is likewise missing sound effects, and the same music repeats throughout. It’s a decent, energetic arcade tune, though inevitably soon wears thin.
A very lightweight RPG element has been appended to add a sprinkle of depth, and sense of progression to the proceedings. This centres around the collection of coloured orbs. Yellow ones boost our experience points, in turn enhancing our vitality following their calculation at the end of each stage. Blue ones instead are the basis for intensifying the strength of our weapon. An upgrade is triggered each time we gather three.
Alternatively, weapon icons can be found strewn about the landscape. They’re nearly as big as our horse so we’re unlikely to miss them. Weapon force increases the more we collect, though is also determined by the duration we hold down the fire button. As we do so our power bar fills up, culminating in an attack upon release. It’s a careful balancing act between keeping the individual adversaries at bay and investing in the time required to charge our weapon to maximise more widespread damage. Screw it up and we lose one of our three lives, governed by a role-playing style hit point system rather than a traditional energy bar. Being caught under a rockfall or avalanche will achieve the same end, only instantly.
Special weapons known simply as ‘tactics’ in the finest Engrish tradition are also an option. These can be activated with the space bar (or coin-op cabinet’s C button) once the power metre is full and the special move is showing as available in the HUD.
Available tactics encompass flames, waves of explosions, fireballs, invoking rock-slides or falling log traps, and summoning accomplices to ambush the enemy by launching bomb attacks or shooting blue-flamed arrows. Unfortunately, use of these is also couched with a couple of caveats; engaging them depletes our strength (or HP if you prefer), consequently reducing our weapon’s potency, and they can only be deployed once per level.
Having three fire buttons at our disposal as in the arcade game would have made a significant difference to our effectiveness as a feudal combatant, allowing us to strike left and right without first having to turn to face in the opposite direction. Of course, the option to utilise two fire buttons was often a pipe-dream where Amiga games are concerned. You can forget three.
We traverse a variety of themed scenarios revolving around campsites, mountainous terrain, wooden cargo barges, villages and so on, though they’re far more intricate and lengthy in the arcade rendition. These extend to seasonal segueways, and in the arcade original, inclining stages that must be ascended at a 45-degree angle whilst dodging rolling boulders or barrels brimming with molten lava, and floating barges that manoeuvre automatically both vertically and horizontally to interconnect, allowing safe passage between them. Regrettably, this is just one long, dumbed-down, continuous vessel in the Amiga port.
I didn’t actually recognise what it was supposed to be until I’d played the arcade game.
Further nuance is offered by the need to cross a rickety, twisting bridge constructed from individual logs. Full marks for evoking memories of Temple of Doom.
Even when the levels are more standard, flat, left to right scrolling arrangements they’re often augmented by impressive animated backgrounds featuring distant battles, shrouded with churned up dust clouds or licking flames. Expect to find the same care and attention lavished on the Amiga port and you’ll be sorely disappointed.
In the arcade game, we have the freedom to roam throughout the full playfield from foreground to background, while in the Commodore 64 port players are limited to occupying one of three planes. I suppose at least it means there’s a better chance of connecting with adversaries by latching neatly onto these ‘rails’.
An easier ride no doubt, yet not really something to aspire to when we’re dealing with an already repetitive, monotonous exercise in mindless button-mashing. One not remotely alleviated by the juddery scrolling in effect, making Dynasty Wars a chore to plod through. Held up next to the coin-op’s silky smooth motion it’s a bit of an embarrassment.
Even US Gold had already moved on before the game was on the shelves – half the manual is dedicated to plugging other Capcom conversions… Tiger Road, UN Squadron, Strider I and II, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, Forgotten Worlds, Black Tiger, and Last Duel.
Smooth, convincing animation might have helped to distract us from the drawbacks except we’re out of luck there too. Our horse trots without moving, giving the impression of gliding over the terrain as though on ice, or moonwalking across a dance floor. Walking backwards without turning, the same trotting animation is employed, which looks patently ridiculous.
Thung Chock, the dastardly feudal overlord, is so ‘big-boned’ he has to ride on two horses side by side. Genius! He could have just found a massive stallion and made that the designated battle horse, but no, that would be too simple. You know what’s coming next, don’t you? This only applies to the arcade original. Naturally in the Amiga port, itself merely a quick, cheap Atari ST bodge, he’s just another Xerox of the usual general boss.
“A great victory, shout for our victory, oh oh oh! Oh oh oh…” believe it or not is how the Amiga incarnation wraps up. As usual just a few lines of basic text. Once again the coin-op iteration ups the ante by voicing the parting remarks, accompanied by a belly-laughing Kuan Yu.
Cue the rolling credits including the promise of a sequel, assuming you’re playing the arcade title. Tiertex clearly weren’t counting on the success of the first game to bankroll a second seeing as they opted not to echo Capcom’s claims. A follow-up was in fact released in 1992 demonstrating that there was much room for improvement and Capcom were on the right track, though sadly ‘Warriors of Fate’ didn’t make its way to the Amiga. Capcom’s innovation led to the evolution of a succession of revered Dynasty Warriors games, as the Amiga fell by the wayside.
Meanwhile, you’ll notice that the first contributor in the game design section of the credits for the inaugural title in the Three Kingdoms series is ‘Poo’. I kid you not! I couldn’t tell you if this is a confession, a joke or the genuine name of a Japanese game designer.
Wild horses couldn’t drag me to play,
Wild, wild horses, we’ll ride them astray.*
*Over the edge of a cliff preferably.