Genre: Action Sidescroller
With the announcement that a barcade will be opening right up the street from me in a few months, I thought it was time to start brushing up on some of my favorite arcade games from that sweet spot in the late 80’s and early 90’s. An arcade that I had played a few times online, but had never seen a cabinet in person until I went on a vacation a year and a half ago has quickly turned into one that ranks in my top five arcade games, easily.
Black Tiger, retitled from the original Japanese Black Dragon, is an arcade classic from Capcom. You star as a classic 80’s icon (of the Frank Frazetta variety!) – a musclebound nameless barbarian hero, willing to brave it all to slay a black dragon. While a relatively popular title in its heyday, this game was also recently referenced in Ernst Clines’ delightful nostalgia romp Ready Player One, featured as a main point of gameplay in the story. After breezing through the book, I had been reminded of a few arcade games that I liked which I just hadn’t played in a long time, Black Tiger included.
Like many arcades, the storyline of Black Tiger is as barebones as possible. A splash screen reads “Long Long ago, three dragons descended from skies above with a rolling thunder and destroyed a kingdom into darkness. From lengthy suffering and darkness of the kingdom came one brave fighter.” While also a delightful example of a translation that was half-assed, this really leaves the world open ended to whatever the player wants it to be. What it boils down to is you, as a big butt whupping barbarian, are going to take down a dragon. Arcades didn’t tend to get much more complex than that.
Gameplay is standard fare for an action platformer. It boils down to this: you can fire projectiles at enemies (in this case, three daggers) in a small burst area, while at the same time shooting out a morningstar on the end of a chain straight in front of you. You have to jump, climb and crawl over enemies and through the levels to get to the end and move on to the next area. Along the way, you rescue civilians and blast through copious amounts of enemies. All standard fare for a game of its type. The enemies are also what you’d expect: skeletons, demons, freaky looking animals… the whole works. While I keep saying standard fare, here’s the thing: it’s all well done. Sure, gameplay is smooth, but it’s challenging. You’re liable to blast through a lot of quarters to get to a point where you can easily win a level. I’ve found that Capcom did a good job of balancing the challenge vs. fun factor – but like arcades of the time, it was meant to eat quarters.
One of the aspects of the game that set it apart from others was the civilians you saved were shopkeepers. Oftentimes, they would just drop you unhelpful hints of things you could easily figure out on your own, other times they would gift you with money, discounts for your next purchase, or allow you to purchase from them right then and there. This was a game that really rewarded you if you explored the level to try and find everything, with hidden items and upgrades. That was another aspect of the game that gave it almost an early RPG-like element: you could acquire upgrades to your different weapons (the daggers or the morningstar), as well as your armor. All of these were extremely useful, and from what I’ve found, some of the only ways to actually make it to the end of the game. You could occasionally be debuffed in ways that would make life difficult, like a poison that stopped you from throwing your flurry of daggers (the only way to cure this, I found, was to purchase the antidote from the shop).
For the date of release, the graphics were awesome. Arcade emulation doesn’t do the graphics themselves justice – they are colorful, well rendered and befit the general theme of a gritty sort of dark fantasy. I was surprised by how much nicer they were on an actual machine when I got the chance to play it again after having gotten used to emulating it, that I hadn’t even registered the difference. The sounds for the game are fairly typical, and don’t stand out as overly interesting or catchy, which can be good or bad, depending on your tastes.
This is a game I would recommend in a heartbeat, if you like a challenge. It’s a classic arcade title that features solid gameplay and an addictive quality that will make you wreck that pile of quarters you’ve been saving up for laundry. It can be easily found in a few different recent arcade classics bundles on PSP, PS2 and Xbox, and can currently be found on the PSN, Wii store and XBox Live.