“I Doubt I’ll Ever Be Done Feeding the Undying Dragon.”
Dreams really do come true. Yes, as the President [and still sole member] of the “Drake of the 99 Dragons Fan Club,” I just about fell out of my chair when I heard the news that my favorite guilty pleasure game would be making its way onto Steam in 2018 — a surprise announcement which came just a day after the surprise release of Chrono Trigger on the platform. But while the version of Chrono Trigger currently on Steam would seem to serve as a hugely disappointing conversion of a beloved game, Drake of the 99 Dragons has no such high expectations to meet: It was a game critically reviled on its release, and whose legacy has remained one of infamy for the better part of fifteen years.
It’s been an uphill battle trying to convince people that Drake of the 99 Dragons has gotten a bum rap. Without it being readily accessible anymore on Xbox or PC, it was all that more difficult to convince folk to actually give the game a shot for themselves. But now seeing it land on the largest games digital distribution platform in existence, I know the time has finally come. The story of Drake’s revenge and redemption begins now, and I stand beside him as a devoted member of the 99 Dragons Clan. I may not have the firepower to back him up, but I like to think that the pen can be mightier than the sword.
Today on the Bad Game Hall of Fame, I will legitimately attempt to defend what some have referred to as one of the worst games of all time; a title which has earned itself a permanent home on Wikipedia’s “List of video games notable for negative reception.” And before we get started, I feel compelled to state that my love for this game is in no way ironic: I genuinely love this flawed little game for what it is, and my hope here in writing this article is to convince you, dear reader, to consider giving Drake of the 99 Dragons a chance for yourself… with a major caveat. But more on that later. For now, it’s time to rock the dragon.
UPDATE (3-11-18): We also have an interview with a QA tester for the game available here on the site! It corrects a handful of details / guesses I made in this article, as well as providing fascinating insight into the development.
“Are You Ready to Turn Dreams into Nightmares?”
Meet Idol FX. A Swedish developer founded in 1999, their first game release would come in 2002: A forgotten PC adventure game by the name Gast. Now, I’m not really an adventure game fan on the best of days (unless they so happen to feature a pair of anthropomorphic freelance police officers), so I’m not really in position to judge this release. What I am a bit more qualified to judge is 2003’s Nosferatu: The Wrath of Malachi, which served as an awesome bit of randomly-generated horror FPS goodness. Seriously, it’s maybe one of the most criminally underrated first-person shooters of the 2000s; a game which absolutely nails its atmosphere, was completely unique for it’s time, and is honestly just a blast to play even to this day. If I can’t convince you to give Drake of the 99 Dragons a shot by the end of this article, I urge you to at least look into Nosferatu.
But while their spooktacular FPS was still in development, Idol had another game in the oven as well. In March of 2003, publisher Majesco began showing a game to journalists which was then referred to simply as “Drake.” GameSpot seems to be the first outlet to have reported on the news of the game’s existence, and their first impressions were based on an early demo of the PC version of the title. Early compliments were paid to the visuals, which the developers credited to their “rim-light shading” system — a method which helps create additional contrast between an object and the surrounding environment. Combined with a cel-shaded, comic book aesthetic, Drake seemed to bank a great deal on its visual style.
As a matter of fact, that comic book style was more than just a graphic design decision: The game was planned from the start to tie into an actual comic series of the same name, and intended to launch a whole multimedia franchise. By June, a press release sent to games news outlets announced the launch of a website dedicated to the promising new franchise. The DrakeGame.com website (long since defunct, though still available through archive.org) was loaded to the brim with lore dumps, preview media, and even a free PDF issue of the proposed comic book. It’s also an example of vintage early-00s web design: Created entirely in Macromedia Flash, and even going so far as to use Comic Sans for practically all its text elements. They don’t make ‘em now like they used to.
During this pre-release period, the developers took to describing the game as something like “a Batman-style comic book adventure influenced by the John Woo oeuvre and married to elements of The Matrix.” If I might explain what these reference points all amount to; our protagonist can dual-wield pistols, slow down time, and run around in a “dark and gritty” graphic novel setting. Truth be told, a far better comparison here would simply be 2001’s Max Payne. I mean, between the similarities in the core gameplay and the comic book aesthetic, that was probably the actual biggest source of inspiration here on Drake. Which hey, don’t get me wrong: I’m not here complaining about games taking cues from Max Payne. As far as ripping off design ideas from other games, the Max Payne series is just about one of the best wells you could possibly draw from.
Majesco seemed confident in their new IP becoming something like “the next big thing.” This was in addition to a couple of other projects they also intended to spin into major multimedia franchises: Most notably, Advent Rising. You see, Advent Rising in particular was planned to become a trilogy of games, inspire a run of comic books, and spawn a series of novels written by none other than Orson Scott Card.*** As such, a great deal of money was to be invested in this project, and it could not be allowed to fail. This in turn meant that Majesco needed to put some cash in their pockets, pronto. Hence, the want (dare I say need?) to launch another fresh franchise in the meantime, with the potential for comic books and action figures and other such profitable collectibles. That’s where Drake came in.****
Idol FX found themselves in an unenviable position: The expectations being placed on them were incredibly high despite their lack of long-term industry experience, they still had another title in active development to balance with this new project — oh, and they also had to finish Drake in just six month’s time, as per their contract with Majesco… or so goes the widely-circulated rumor. This seems to be one of those myths that’s never had anything resembling any sort of attribution or source, but which has been passed around as fact because someone wrote it into the Wikipedia article at some point. In recent years though, an ex-Majesco employee under the username “darkfalzx” on YouTube came forward to dispute the claim, leaving this comment on a Stop Skeletons From Fighting video covering the game in brief:
“The information about the game being made in 6 months is false. I started at Majesco in June 2003 – 5 months before the game’s release, and it was already in beta, so I’d estimate the total dev time to be about 18 month, which was standard for a AAA title back then. It seems like there might’ve been a language barrier between the Swedish IdolFX dev team and the Majesco QA in New Jersey, because no matter how many times we’d submit a bug report, nothing ever got fixed. I bet I can still get Drake to glitch outside level geometry on every stage in the final release version.” ~ Andrew Bado
Doing a little bit of digging on our darkfalzx brought up the name Andrew Bado, who I was able to confirm was employed at Majesco between 2002 and 2005 as a games tester. His YouTube channel also provides previously unseen footage of an unreleased title to have been published by Majesco, Fist Firehead. In other words, I have it in good faith that this guy is the real deal. That being said, a latter commenter in that same YouTube comments thread (“OvertheRoad Racer”) claims to have corresponded with Idol FX designed Martin Eklund by e-mail some years prior, where he seemed to reinforce the “six month contract” narrative. Unfortunately, this is a decidedly harder claim to verify, and so I have to give the benefit of my belief to the source that seems to be better able at backing their claims.
No matter what the contract situation may have been, it was clear that however much time was given to Idol FX wasn’t enough for them to polish their project. At some point, the blame here has to shift at least partially from the publisher and onto Idol themselves; for biting off far more than even a more established developer might be able to chew. Maybe they were in dire straits, and had no choice but to take the chance on a six month contract? Maybe they really were just that confident in themselves to get it done in that timeframe? Or maybe they squandered a far longer length of time just to turn out what they did. In either case, the ball was in their court, and they had no choice but to make their shot come November 3rd of 2003.
** The PDF that was made available on the DrakeGame.com website (which is also packaged with the Steam release) is pretty low-res, unfortunately. Luckily though, ChorpSaway provides much higher-resolution scans as part of their Let’s Play of Drake of the 99 Dragons, which comes recommended!
*** In case you need a quick impression of the content of his character, might I recommend his seminal essay “The Hypocrites of Homosexuality?” Or maybe track down his so-called “thought experiment” on how Obama might have planned to indoctrinate “urban gangs” into serving his agenda and “channeling their violence against Obama’s enemies.” In case it’s not clear, I think Orson Scott Card is a racist-ass, homophobic, hack-fraud dipshit.
**** There’s also a story to be told here about the cancelled title Black9: A promising cyberpunk adventure which was produced to somewhere around 85% completion, before mismanagement lead to its demise. The total loss of this project meant a major loss of investment for the publisher in Majesco. For the full, fascinating story behind this failed project, I recommend The Escapist’s post mortem on the game titled “Cyberpunked: the fall of Black9.”
“Nothing Can Stop Me Now!”
Come release, Drake had added the “of the 99 Dragons” subtitle to its name. The 99 Dragons refer to a clan that our titular hero belongs to — one which has existed for thousands of years. 3,000 years before the events of the game, the clan came into possession of the “Soul Portal Artifact,” which is said to act as a gateway to the Spirit Realm. It is the duty of the 99 Dragons to protect this artifact from those who would use its power for nefarious means, and they do whatever is necessary in order to do so; even if it means keeping assassins in employ.
Drake is one such assassin, and one who thinks very highly of himself to boot. In a ridiculously corny monologue in the game’s first cutscene, he sums himself up succinctly (presumably to himself, as it is presented as an inner monologue): “Those who know my name whisper it in fear. Most people I meet, I only meet once. I am Drake, the assassin. To me, life is all about death.” This is certainly… less “nuanced” than in the promotional comic book, where at least some attempt is made to humanize Drake as he reflects on his recent assassination of an eminent crime boss. Here, he weighs his lack of remorse for the kill against his compassion for the countless victims of his target, seeming to almost see his empathy as a flaw. It’s a cliché little thing to be sure, and neither the comic or the game get to develop Drake’s character any further, but it at least demonstrates some foresight on the part of the writers in wanting to flesh out Drake in the future.
Shortly after a training session where he spars against a Tang Industries™ cyborg – remarking that he senses the presence of a soul within it – he hears the sound of intruders breaking into the clan’s penthouse. Investigating the source of the sounds, he makes his way to the hall where the Soul Portal Artifact is held, just in time to see his fellow clan members slain and the artifact being taken away by a ghost-like entity. Only his master (referred to simply as “The Master”) remains to inform Drake that the intruders are under the employ of Tang, and tells Drake that he must move to recover the artifact before it is taken away. As the next level begins, you’re placed back in the hallway and pointed towards the door where your ghostly adversary has exited. But a curious thing happens if you turn around to try and get another word from Master: You may notice the fading visage of his corpse… as well as your own. This is actually an incredibly subtle detail that I imagine 99% of players probably miss completely their first time playing, and is done so clearly by design.
It’s here in this mission (technically the third, but arguably the first “real” mission) that you begin to get a sense of the core of the game. It plays out in a third-person behind-the-back perspective, with Drake constantly centered toward the bottom of screen. Indicating a bit of that aforementioned “John Woo” influence, Drake constantly carries his firearms akimbo; one gun per hand, fired individually. As you kill enemies and pick up their weapons, you can mix and match which pair of weapons you’ll be wielding, giving you options like being able to fire full auto with one hand while doling out shotgun blasts with the other. Granted, most of the firearms you’ll find throughout the game are only conditionally useful, as pistols are far and away the best all-around guns. While this is honestly a bit of flawed design and indicates a lack of proper weapon balancing, I’m personally okay with it, as I’m just a huge sucker for Chow Yun Fat-style double handgun hijinks.
After failing to catch up to the thief, Drake makes his way back to Master in order to ask him how they should proceed. It is only then that he sees the pair of corpses on the floor, and comes to the realization that he has somehow transcended the confines of his own body. He flashes back to a session with the Master where he was given his large chest tattoo — the mark of the Undying Dragon. As he etches the symbol into Drake’s chest, the Master tells his student that the mark is its own sentient being, and one which will infuse him with supernatural powers. “Powers that will make you last beyond death.” It is here that Drake recognizes his transcendence from mere man to immortal, as well as the condition of his reincarnation: He must collect the souls of his fallen foes in order to feed the Undying Dragon, in order to maintain control of his newfound powers. From here, your quest unfolds to avenge your Master’s death, recover the artifact, and stop Tang’s plans dead in their tracks.
A curious thing worth noting here are some early inconsistencies in Drake’s model between the full-motion video cutscenes, his in-game model, and his appearance in the comic. You see, in the first part of the comic (before Drake “dies”), Drake is depicted as having a decidedly “non-grey” skin tone and having defined pupils in his eyes. While the skin tone for his in-game and cutscene models is always greyish, the model you’re given control over in the first two tutorial missions of the game actually has visible pupils as well. However, his cutscene model never has pupils, leaving him with the vacant white eyes that signify that he is now of the undead. My hypothesis here is that the FMV cutscenes were probably one of the last things completed in development, and afforded the least time and attention. On the one hand, this is a shame, as they are arguably one the weaker elements of the game’s presentation. On the other hand, they are often times comically bad, which you can look at as something of a positive.
In example: After hunting for souls to feed the Undying Dragon in the fourth mission (which has you exploring the same level from the previous mission), a cutscene plays wherein Drake loudly shouts “Have I become INVINCIBLE?!”, before immediately jumping through a window and plummeting to his death. I don’t think the intent here was for this to be played for comedy, but the comic timing and delivery is such that it comes across as absolutely hilarious. Like, there’s a dramatic way to play this sort of “testing your limits” scene out, where the character in question has their doubts about their newfound power and hesitantly tests them by subjecting themselves to an extremely risky situation. But nope; Drake just proclaims “Nothing can stop me now!” as he flings himself off the top of a skyscraper and goes splat. It’s kind of hard to get too mad about.
Anyhow, shortly after dying [again], Drake finds his spirit in the Serene Garden; a realm existing between reality and the afterworld. Here he is mocked and accosted by four floating statues, presumably meant to represent the deities that govern his powers and watch over his actions. In the words of one of the talking idols, “Better get used to it. You’ll keep coming back until you’ve mastered the Way of the Dragon.” As a matter of fact, this Serene Garden zone is actually the basis for another one of the game’s major complaints: Every time you fail a mission, you’re taken back to the Serene Garden and berated by one of the monuments as the game makes you wait ten unskippable seconds before it loads back into the mission. It’s one of those “add insult to injury” sort of design decisions that makes you feel as if the developers are deliberately trying to antagonize you.
This issue can be exacerbated by the fact that missions don’t feature checkpoints.** Given that most missions take less than three or four minutes to complete, this really isn’t much of a problem most of the time. However, in the handful of longer missions that can actually take upwards of ten minutes to complete – especially if you’re the sort who prefers to tread cautiously – it can be downright agonizing to die in the final stretch of a level to some cheap, unforeseeable hazard that catches you off guard. One mission in particular (“Mission 13: Waking the Dead”) begins by making you stand in an elevator for thirty seconds that seem to stretch into an eternity, and has a pair of enemies towards the end that somehow give me a world of trouble. So by the tenth time I find myself riding that elevator again, I start to wonder if maybe folk are right about this game being terrible.
But, there’s just something about the action that speaks to me. Once you’re running on that dragon power, you gain some new traversal skills, including the ability to run and jump off of walls. Now, right off the bat, I will fully admit the animations associated with these actions are incredibly janky, leading to Drake flipping around and contorting into all sorts of awkward positions. But for as comically awkward as it may look, there is a system to be mastered here, and doing so leaves you feeling like you can turn any given level into a personal playground. I’m not joking here when I say that Drake of the 99 Dragons would make for an excellent speed game — something that should honestly feature at those speedrunning marathons that folk seem to enjoy so much. Put it in “the Awful Block” for all I care, but recognize that there’s a potential here for runners to optimize routes and discover cool exploits and all that other associated experimentation.
As you gain these superhuman parkour abilities, you also gain power over the flow of time itself. What any of this has to do with the magic of the Spirit Realm or dominion over lost souls, I do not know. Look, the important thing here is, you can slow down and freeze time at will if you have the sufficient soul power to do so. Slowing down time makes dodging bullets and targeting particularly squirrely enemies a possibility, as well as helping you to not get jumped by sneakier baddies and plotting your course through a room. Personally, I never got much use out of freezing time outright: Ideally you’re meant to use it to get a good look at your surroundings before picking a direction or dodging an attack, but the slowed-down time is sufficient enough for me to react according. Also, you can’t necessarily queue up an entire magazines worth of bullets to fire all at once for massive damage, which feels like a wasted opportunity if you ask me. I wanna feel like Dio, damn it!
Later down the line, you’ll also gain a handful of other soul-related powers. First, you’ll gain the psychic strength to “draw in souls” like metal to a magnet. This is handy as collecting the [green] souls will restore health as well as recharge your meter, though you must also be careful of red souls which actually do damage and briefly stun you if you absorb them. You’ll also gain the power to “detonate” souls on killing enemies, forfeiting the precious restorative properties in order to do some proximity damage. Truth be told, I almost never used that detonate ability, as the conditions for where it might actually be useful are so incredibly limited. Actually, full disclosure here; I didn’t end up using the draw in souls power all that much either, as the control over both functions is implemented in a strangely frustrating way.
In order to either draw in or detonate a soul, you must be holding down the assigned buttons for either action as you kill an enemy / release their soul. In other words, you can’t just absorb souls that are scattered floating around if you weren’t already holding down the key for it when they first materialized. This means something like having to constantly hold down the button at all times if you’re wanting to actually have a shot at controlling the souls, which isn’t always ideal for your fingers. On top of that, the game doesn’t really do a very good job at explaining these mechanics to you, leading many players to erroneously assert that the powers straight-up do not work. If you could have simply pointed at and pressed a button to detonate distant souls, or could toggle the magnetism ability to motivate souls towards you, it’d actually make for a pair of interesting mechanics.
You do get one more ability later down the line, and it’s one where the implementation again confounds me. If you manage to accumulate more than one hundred points of health, it’ll begin to tick down back to
99 98 similar to the megahealth tick mechanic in Quake. But in these brief, rare windows of time where you have an overabundance of health, you can choose to “Unleash the Dragon”[♬] and deal massive amounts of damage to enemies in close proximity. I reckon it’s probably the most powerful attack in the game, an absolute beast when used against bosses, and you will almost never get a chance to actually use it.
The problem is, you will so rarely be able to overcharge your health to where you can even access the ability, seeing as you’ll constantly be taking damage from all angles even at the most expert level of play. What would’ve made more sense is to grant you the option to use it if you can fill out your soul power meter, by conserving your time manipulation and stockpiling souls over the course of a level. But tying it to having beyond maximum health – as well as having a decay factor come into play when you manage to do – almost ensures you’ll never be able to use it against end-of-level bosses or in the middle of mobs. Another sadly ill-advised implementation of what could have been a very cool feature.
… I realize I’m still not making the best case here for this game, huh? Yes, much of this game deals in “wasted potential” and “half-baked design,” and there’s certainly no denying that it’s rougher than guts. But these powers are all extraneous to the core of the gunplay and movement, which I swear can become a sort of second-nature if you put the time in. There’s something immensely satisfying about running along the side of a wall, firing a submachine gun and a handgun independently of one another, and watching Drake toss them to the side as he runs out of ammo only to pull out another pair from underneath his coat. Does all of this end up looking stilted and ridiculous? You bet it does. But when I hit my stride, I really do feel as if I have complete control over it and the character. When given the choice, I choose to take janky free-form movement over canned animations and committed control.
There’s also something to be said about the variety of mission objectives at play here. Of course, if you wanna boil the game down to bare essentials, every level is effectively just asking you to make it “from Point A to Point B” and changing up the set-dressing along the way. But it’s about the different ways this can be presented — as chases through city streets and fireworks factories, sneaking past security systems into fortified facilities, hunting down keycards in order to unlock secured zones, et cetera. If you read this as me grasping for compliments to pay the game, please to remember that many mid-tier developers in the early 2000s (hell, even some of the AAA developers of the era) didn’t so much as bother with these sort of pretenses. By including variations on the formula – however slight they may be – you can give a player the sense that they’re putting some sort of plan into action, rather than just going through the repetitive motions.
I would also say the game does a good job of varying up its locations, and giving them all a unique feel / aesthetic. Aside from a pair of missions that do re-use existing maps with minor variation, and a sort of shared motif / tileset in some of the final levels of the game, you really do get the impression that each stage was designed to look as drastically different as possible from the last. Of course, this makes sense given the comic book feel the game is going for, and demonstrated as well by the striking use of color in the pages of that Drake promotional comic: In addition to individually-tailored tilesets, each stage also seems to work within an almost monochrome palette, which makes you feel as if every asset and bit of scenery is designed with a specific color or tone in mind. There are some games based on comics and anime that simply cel-shade everything and call it a day, without seeming to fully understand the underlying visual language that these mediums use in their story-telling. Drake, whether “knowingly” or not, manages to convey this same sense of language.
I’ve seen folk go pretty hard on the game’s graphics, calling them everything from “uninteresting” to “ugly,” and I honestly don’t understand it? Like, aside from Drake’s own animations not being particularly great and some occasional wonkiness with scenery physics (individual glass ceiling panels floating in mid-air and such), what are the other complaints supposed to be? I’ve already gushed about the strong use of color, and how well everything’s made to visually contrast with one another. I think all the environments are pretty decently realized and decorated, including some particularly slick city streets and industrial zones. There are lots of small details sprinkled throughout which give a genuine sense of the developers’ care for their craft and interest in world-building. There’s even a large variety of enemy designs to keep you from feeling like you’re wailing on the same three or four types of baddies over and over again, as well as some neat boss designs where each of them are made to feel distinct.
Oh, on that note, we may as well talk about the bosses a little bit more. This is another aspect where we’re left with sort of a mixed bag in terms of quality. Some fights are unfortunately as basic as “running around in a circle and spamming bullets,” while one battle is outright broken with an opponent who seems technically incapable of actually damaging you. On the other hand, there are at least a couple of boss fights that demonstrate some unique mechanics and require some amount of puzzle-solving on the player’s part. A battle against an opponent who seems to be powered by electricity, for example, relies on you to realize that he’s drawing power from some surrounding power outlets, and requiring you to destroy them before you can actually do damage. Another fight features a burly biker who wields and constantly spins around a spiked ball on a chain, who seems to be able to deflect your bullets with the sheer speed of his weapon. To hurt him, you need to find ways to get his weapon stuck on the surroundings of a gas station, opening him up to attack.
All that being said, Drake might also feature one of the most infuriating final bosses in a video game I’ve possibly ever played. It’s not fair to call it a “tough challenge” so much as an “outright unfair” encounter, where you face a three-headed demon whose attacks often seem undodgeable. Not only that, but because of what I presume to be some bugged animations / poorly-implemented hitboxes, any one attack can drag you in and lock you into a position where all of your health is drained in the matter of a second, forcing a restart from the top of the fight. It’s a shame too, because this fight is meant to have two unique mechanics; in the form of destroying a piece of scenery in order to cast a light on the boss and reveal their weak point, and each of the individual heads having their own individual attack patterns and health… Not that you can really tell how much health any of them have at a moment in time, as all the bosses lack visible health bars or obvious damage indicators.
Look, I’m obviously trying to praise this game as much as I can, but I can’t shy away from all of the questionable design decisions. Why does every level have to require a timer when only a few levels are really made to feel like a race against the clock? What’s with all the “destruction setpieces,” where parts of the level are torn down in such ways as to be completely unpredictable, while also making them highly damaging if you’re unfortunate enough to be unknowingly standing near them? Why design so many parts of levels where you need to make long vertical descents when the fall damage is so severe? How is every last enemy in the game able to withstand at least five or six bullets minimum, including folks not wearing any sort of armor? And how the hell did the sound design get away with being so laughably bad?
It’s not often I have to make such a big deal out of a game’s audio, but Drake of the 99 Dragons certainly warrants the distinction. It’s not just that all the voice acting is beyond cheesy, or that the music is pretty uninspired: It feels like the entire bank of sound effects consists of stock assets, all of varying degrees of recording quality and almost none befitting of their accompanying in-game actions. Gunfire sounds are pathetically limp across the board, where the over-the-top comic book style of the action really calls for heavy-hitting blasts and impacts. The sounds of doors opening and closing are almost identical (if not outright so) to the “Sign on / Sign off” notification noises from AOL Instant Messenger, which was still the most ubiquitous / recognizable online communication service of the times. At some point during Tang’s big monologue scene, he goes from soundbooth recording to a completely different-sounding stock sound effect of a cartoonish “evil laugh.” It all just sticks out in the most laughable ways.
While there’s at least some amusement to be found in comically bad audio, there’s less to be derived from the fact that the game takes only roughly about three hours to complete. With the box boasting that the title spans “twenty-five intense missions,” you’d expect them to all be a bit more substantial. But seeing as two of those missions are just tutorializing / can be skipped entirely from an option on the menu, and that some of others can be completed in less than a minute’s time with little effort, it’s almost unfair to classify them as being individual missions if you ask me. The developers could have gotten away with stretching their assets a bit, by designing more missions with existing tilemaps and props — something like a few more city street levels or time spent busting casinos. It’s almost like they were so committed to the idea of each stage looking and feeling unique, they were afraid to recycle stuff across multiple missions.
There’s also the fact that there’s really not much else to do with the game after finishing the story just once. Needless to say, there’s no multiplayer mode to test your gunfighting skills against other players, and there are no minigames or secret levels to unlock and discover. But would including something as simple as a time attack mode that tracks your fastest level times have been that much of a challenge? Maybe a boss rush or wave survival mode? Even something as little as having your pick of Drake’s handful of different skins on replaying the game (à la the 2000 Neversoft Spider-Man title) could have at least provided some impetus to play the game so much as one more time. Hell, this is one of the few games I wouldn’t have minded discovering and looking at the concept art for! You can’t even so much as select your difficulty level and possibly try replaying the game on a harder one. I sometimes sarcastically compliment games for “not overstaying their welcome,” but Drake of the 99 Dragons leaves too early.
For as much as I may genuinely enjoy what little there is of Drake of the 99 Dragons, I’m under no illusion that it’s a particularly stellar product. Like, I can’t pretend that I’d pick Drake over Max Payne if I had to choose just one. Honestly, it might not even rise to the level of Enter the Matrix; another attempt to iterate on the Max Payne formula, and which also shipped in a seemingly unfinished state. But hey, as it turns out, most folk’ll never actually have to survive the dreaded “take one game with you to a deserted island” scenario, and many of us are fortunate enough to be able to afford more than one video game in our libraries. In that sense, I think there’s certainly a place for Drake on a shelf of games sitting next to Max and Niobe, and that its a unique enough game in its approach and aesthetic to warrant standing alongside them, especially for fans of the “slow-motion shootdodging” subgenre of shooters.
Honestly, there’s so much more I wanna say about Drake of the 99 Dragons, both good and bad: I originally wanted to pick apart the plot, highlighting some of the more novel aspects as well as mocking how many times Drake ends up throwing away his reincarnated bodies in stupid ways. There are a ton of small details I would love to shine a spotlight on, like how you get to play a level as one of Drake’s old corpses, complete with see-through bullet holes in the player model. I didn’t even get to address how much of a brooding try-hard Drake is and how laughable his one-liners are! But what my reasons for “cutting it short” come down to that I want you readers to give the game a shot for yourselves, and experience all the highs and lows on your own.
Whether you personally determine the game to be good or bad, I think it’s important for folk to determine their own opinions when it comes to all manner of “the worst” games. In all the talk surrounding how bad a title like Drake of the 99 Dragons is, it’s not often you find folk willing to pay it even the slightest of compliments, or acknowledge the ambitions of the developers (whether they managed to achieve them or not). Most people don’t discuss bad video games in the same way they do bad movies: Why is it that films get to be revered as being “so bad they’re good” in a way that flawed-but-ambitious games don’t often get the benefit of?***
Yes, Drake of the 99 Dragons is deeply flawed in some pretty major ways. But it’s also a game its fair share of genuine merits, and whose missteps and mistakes can be sort of charming in their own right. It lays the foundation for what could have potentially been a compelling series, and I want to believe that if Idol FX had been given the opportunity develop a sequel, they probably would’ve been able to iterate on their past work in some impressive ways. So, if you think you’re able to overlook a fair share of rough edges, I contend that there’s both “ironic” and legitimate entertainment to be had for yourself in playing through this much-maligned title. I recommend tracking down a copy for yourself… under one critical condition. Hey, remember that “major caveat” I mentioned earlier?
That caveat is the Xbox version of the game.
** This is save for a scant couple near the end, where the game will respawn you if you happen to fall into the void over the course of some overly-long vertical platforming sections. A welcome reprieve, but it makes you wish that some of the longer missions would have implemented some sort of checkpointing system as well.
*** Maybe something to do with the $60 price tags on new games releases versus something like $12 for a theater ticket? Yeah, that’s probably it, innit?
“Are You Sure This Is the One I Chose?”
Yes, here’s the big reveal; the part where I tell you that I’ve been writing about the PC release of the game this whole time, and that the Xbox version actually does earn it’s risible reputation. I mean, it’s definitely still not quite as bad as folk make it out to be — certainly not a “worst game of all time” contender if we’re putting aside the hyperbole here. But seeing as this console version is the one that most people have actually experienced, it goes a way in explaining why so many folk who have actually played Drake of the 99 Dragons are as frustrated and fiercely negative as they are.
At its core, it’s still the same game that charmed me on the computer: All the same levels, weapons, cutscenes and other content are present and accounted for. The differences here are in execution, and they are always “for the worse” on the console end of the comparisons. The one that most folk will point to first are the controls, which many contend render the game completely unplayable. You see, rather than compensate for the imprecision of analog stick aiming by increasing the size of enemy hitboxes or what have you, the game instead ditches the aiming reticule entirely in favor of an incredibly “generous” auto-aim system — which is to say, Drake’s arms are constantly tracking the nearest targets, causing them to flail about almost uncontrollably and rarely targeting what you actually want to be shooting at a given moment in time. His arms even attempt to target nearby enemies when you’re lying dead on the ground, waiting for the screen to fade to black!
You still control the camera / move your point of focus using the right analog stick, but your actual aim just seems to have a mind of its own. There’s a white ring that moves from target to target to indicate what you’re currently focused on, but it flies from side-to-side of the screen so wildly it’s honestly kind of hard to keep track of in the heat of a firefight. I think ideally, you’d want to have something like a larger ring that stays in the center of the screen to indicate how wide your auto-aim’s range is, and try to constrain it to something more reasonable? At the very least, they should have had some form of static reticle to indicate center-screen, so you can better target some of the objects that aren’t registered as a part of the game’s auto-aim list (the eyeball traps in the Soul Realm, for example). But that’s not what the developers went with, and so the game suffers for it.
In addition, the game commits what I feel to be a cardinal sin of mapping actions to clicking in the left analog stick (L3, as some say). I’m sorry, but I just can’t behind games using thumbstick presses for anything other than maybe resetting a camera. I know most folk these days are used to pressing L3 to start sprinting, and more power to ‘em I guess, but I am a very “aggressive” controller user in the sense that I apply a lot of pressure to all my inputs / accidentally trigger L3 / R3 on something like a constant basis. In Drake of the 99 Dragons, this can be particularly frustrating, as L3 is the button used for slowing down / freezing time — bringing the action to a grinding halt and draining my meter when I’m not intending to. Granted, even I admit this sounds more like a “me” problem, but I’ve also got Adam Sessler on my side on this one:
“The capper of this mélange of mind-bogglingly bad decision-making is that depressing the left control stick slows time. You will slow time a lot by accident as you frantically attempt to make the controls work. Though it is useful for gunning down small Chinese girls.” ~ Adam Sessler, X-Play
Another global issue with the console version is a plethora of bugs not present in the PC release. There are major problems with pathfinding for NPCs, who have the tendency to get stuck in doors or wind up outside of their scripted routes and unable to recover. A notable example that seems to be sadly consistent in the Xbox copy of the game comes in the fifth mission (“Dead, but Full of Life”), as you chase a courier carrying the Soul Portal Artifact: At a certain point in the level, he gets caught on a door preceding a long hallway filled with explosives, which he is supposed to shoot and detonate as he reaches the other end of the hall. As he’s not intended to be caught up to, you can fire at him as much as you want, but you’ll never be able to kill him. If you blow up the explosives and give way to the pool of acid beneath, the courier may eventually dislodge himself… long enough to jump directly down the hole, getting stuck again as he runs in place.
Luckily in this scenario, you can still finish the mission by making it to the trigger at the end of the level (where his scripted route is meant to conclude), though this definitely has the potential to confuse players not familiar with the intended sequence. Other bugs do not leave players so lucky: Issues with Drake’s own collision can lead to getting stuck / clipped inside of the floor, and sometimes mission-critical objects may fail to spawn. Considering that these game-breakers don’t seem to occur on PC, there are two explanations as to why the Xbox version is so comparatively broken: Either the console version was “finished” first and bought the PC version additional time for bug-fixing, or the PC version was always the baseline and the process of porting it to Xbox introduced this slew of unforeseen errors. I tend to lean toward the latter, as so many of the press demos for the game ran on computers and demonstrated the superior mouse control.
Further adding to this theory are the matter of the graphics, which face some downgrades on the console end. For starters, the Xbox version runs at a 640×480 resolution, which is about par for the course and forgivable on its own. The problem is, the UI elements don’t seem particularly interested in accommodating for this smaller screen space, leading to oversized HUD elements that fill far more of the screen than they do in the minimum 800×600 resolution on PC. Beyond that, the environments seem to lose something of their lustre, textures certainly seem to be of lower resolutions, and the filtering method employed seems to render the game as particularly blurry. I’d still argue that it’s a decent-looking title on console, and that the striking visual style does largely manage to translate even in this potentially compromised form.
Given all these additional downgrades and bugs, it’s certainly harder to mount a defense for the Xbox version of the game. And on top of it being the more mainstream release, it’s also far and away more readily-available: The PC release only came some months after copies of the Xbox release hit shelves, and seems to have only been produced in an exceedingly-limited quantity. That certainly makes trying to convince someone to track down a copy of the Windows-compatible disc a tougher sell, especially when cheap copies of the Xbox pressing are so easily accessible. But even with all that being said… I’d still argue that even the Xbox version deserves a chance. It’s more liable to break down on you, and it’s probably tougher to complete, but there are still aspects of its design that are worth experiencing and admiring. But hey, I guess it’s not really the only option anymore now, is it?
“Is It Our Destiny to Fail?”
Drake of the 99 Dragons was thrown to the wolves almost immediately upon being released for Xbox. Given the timing of it’s November release, the critics quickly took to savaging it as one of the worst games of the year; if not a new “worst of all time” contender. TeamXbox’s Rob Semsey seemed downright shocked by how poorly he perceived the title: “I never thought that Kabuki Warriors and its 1.6 score would be eclipsed, but live and learn they say. There is so many bad aspects found in Drake that it is difficult to present them all in one review.” Aaron Boulding on behalf of IGN at least admits the game’s potential, but contends that it is entirely squandered: “Drake is a good idea that went horribly astray and ended up disastrous. There’s no need to rent, purchase or entertain the thought of playing this one.”
GameSpot in particular made sure to give the game plenty of coverage in the context of it being among 2003’s worst titles, with Alex Navarro leading the charge. First in his written review, he closes his condemnations with a passionate plea: “There’s nothing stylish or interesting about Drake, and, to be quite frank, any time spent playing this game is an absolute waste. If it isn’t clear up to this point, let us sum it up with one simple statement: Don’t play this game.” Awarding the game a 1.6, it placed among the lowest-scoring games in the site’s history — somewhere in the bottom 25, by my estimation. In a later video feature come November of 2004 (titled “Frightfully Bad Games”), in which Alex counted down the worst games of the past twelve months, it rated as high as 2nd place on his list. What could have been so bad as to surpass it, you may wonder? None other than Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing; the game which secured the very first 1.0 score in GameSpot’s history, and the video review for which is something of legend. And to top it all off, it was released just a couple weeks after Drake, almost instantly stealing the spotlight away from the 99 Dragons.
Yes, Drake of the 99 Dragons was overshadowed by Big Rigs, and as such went on to nearly be forgotten about. According to VGChartz, it would go on to move only a measly 70K units in its retail life, almost certainly spelling the doom for any of Idol or Majesco’s future plans for a franchise. Drake was dead in the water; written off as a loss, and fated to be forgotten as a worse game had stolen away even its due dubious distinction. Without even having the draw of being the most notorious bad game of the year, any interest in seeing “how bad it really is” was quickly overwritten by a new collective fascination with old-fashioned over the road racing. Truly, the only thing worse than being “the worst” is being the second-most worst.
The reason most folk may still be able to remember Drake of the 99 Dragons is thanks to an episode of TechTV’s run of X-Play: A video game review show hosted by the charismatic duo of Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb. In an episode which also featured a preview of Resident Evil: Outbreak and review for Drakengard, Adam gave Drake of the 99 Dragons a thorough lashing in television format. After broadcasting shots of Sessler watching paint dry and showcasing a collection of embarrassing bugs, the post-review included the hosts further deriding the release, with Adam making something of a bold statement: “Eyup, this game is so bad that it has actually eclipsed Aquaman [Battle for Atlantis] as the standard by which all bad games are measured.” This was quite the comment from the host, as Aquaman served as the namesake for the show’s year-end “Golden Mullet Award” celebrating the worst game of the year. Thanks to G4’s acquiring of the TechTV network and heavy reruns for the series, it was ensured that Drake of the 99 Dragons’ legacy would live on in at least some degree.
Still, being rated as an all-time exceptionally bad game isn’t exactly a mark of success. The financial failure of the title and the cancellation of plans surrounding it would have its negative impact on the companies involved in its production. Idol FX would only release one more title under their short-lived banner: 2004’s FBI Hostage Rescue, published under Activision’s “Value Publishing” branding. At some point between Drake and this title, Idol was acquired by fellow Swedish developers Hidden Entertainment, whose output after that point seemed to amount to a pair of adventure games and a horse-riding series entitled Springdale. They seemed to fall off the face of the earth at some point in 2008, though their closure has never been formally announced to my knowledge. Perhaps Hidden are still just in hiding?
Majesco would seem to suffer a cruel fate of their own. Already likely to be hurting in the wake of Drake of the 99 Dragons, Advent Rising’s release in 2005 would also fail to live up to its massive hype or meet sales expectations. This helped motivate the company to move in something of a different direction: Focusing their efforts almost squarely on Nintendo’s DS and Wii platforms for the better part of the next seven years, largely publishing “family friendly” casual games / licensed titles based on kids cartoons, and shifting their priorities from IPs such as BloodRayne over to Cooking Mama. Aside from the odd publishing of a PC-to-console port here and there (such as bringing Serious Sam HD to the 360 and Gone Home to the PS4 / Xbox One), this sort of output would come to describe the bulk of their business during the seventh generation of consoles.
But as the bottom fell out from beneath the sort of interchangeable minigame collections that the Wii had fostered, Majesco found themselves unable to transition back into “games with meaning.” With the failure to build their Midnight City indie label into something sustainable and a slew of financial perils dogging them for years, the company finally had no choice but to give up their place in the games industry come December of 2016. Merging with a biotech company called PolarityTE, they no longer seem to have any remaining financial interests in their old business of software publishing. As eulogized in Destructoid’s coverage of the news story, “After 20 years publishing video games, Majesco has officially bowed out of the industry.”
Which brings us back to 2018, and the surprise announcement of the March 6th release date for Drake of the 99 Dragons on Steam. Will it just be a simple repackaging of the original PC version? Will it boast any new or updated features? Only time will tell… by which I mean, like, just a few hours time. It’s been a wild ride in getting here, but I couldn’t be more excited as we near the finish line! Even though I had to replay the game just recently in order to speak authoritatively on it for this review (and to capture all the animated GIFs and whatnot), I’m still eager to play it again in whatever incarnation this mysterious Steam release happens to be. And now, when I try to tell people about the bum rap I feel this game has received, I can finally point them to an accessible version of it.
It’s hard to gather who necessarily is profiting from this re-release or who approved of it to begin with. All I can say is, I thank them for their helping preserve what I see as an underrated game from days gone by, and that I’m happy to do my part in trying to convince people to try it for themselves. In the immortal words of none other than the immortal man himself: “Nothing can stop you now.”