Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was the 1993 biopic of the life of martial arts superstar Bruce Lee. It was an enjoyable look at the spirit of the man’s life, but disappointingly took some extensive Hollywood liberties with the facts (Movie: Bruce Lee is put in traction by a cheap shot to the spine after winning a traditional fight for his honor. He must learn to strengthen his mind, spirit, and resolve while his broken body heals. Real Life: Bruce Lee pulled his back while weightlifting.)
Dragon the game has you battling through 10 levels based on the film in simple Street Fighter-style versus matches. Like the film, it takes the opportunity to recreate some of Lee’s most famous pictures and sets, hoping to make itself a big draw by being the only game where you can officially relive Lee’s famous filmic battles. It’s not as great an idea as it sounds. Story, versus, and co-op options all exist, but you can only play as Bruce Lee versus another Bruce Lee. Bruce has a comparable variety of moves for a single character in a large tournament game like Mortal Kombat, but not for the sole star of the show. And the Jaguar controller makes a weak game even worse.
First, the good. I like the idea of the story mode enough that I can appreciate what they were going for. Your fights will make no sense if you haven’t seen the film, and are too “gamey” to feel like you’re playing through the movie, but you at least understand the intent and the importance of the fight. It also hits most of the fan service highlights – if you’re looking for a battle against the claw boss from Enter the Dragon, you’ll get it. Second, the Jaguar benefits from greatly improved backgrounds over its 16-bit cousins.
The first level gives a nice comparison. The Genesis and SNES have mostly single colors for the walls, a few lights, a row of poorly-drawn bystanders and a handful of hanging fish. The Jaguar has upgraded this to a textured wall with decorations, lights hanging from the ceiling, a centerpiece buffet table with a number of detailed onlookers, and obvious increases in the colors. The fish glow, a central spotlight fills the floor, and lights fade gently down walls and doorframes. The characters don’t appear to have been changed, but the improvements to the locations continue throughout all the levels and make for more impressive and enjoyable sets for your showdowns. I would have liked more interactivity, like throwing people through tables and such, but that’s a wish and not a criticism.
That said, it’s all bad from here out.
Dragon has a strange fighting system featuring elements of all the usual fighting engines, but that doesn’t fully complete any one of them. Your basic punches and kicks are surprisingly weak, I assume to prevent you from mashing buttons. You have a very limited number of special moves – none of which are long-range, none of which are particularly powerful – I assume to keep you from relying on them. You can sometimes string a few basic attacks together, but there are no lengthy or powerful combos, I assume to keep you from learning one unbreakable string and reusing it.
So I’m left at a loss on how to play the game. The manual talks about the need to play defensively and wait for an opening, but you’re not given the tools to do this. Blocking is simply accomplished by holding “back.” There’s no elaborate defensive system where you can push punches out of the way or nail perfectly-timed counterattacks. There’s no “openings” in the traditional sense, like a moment after an attack where the opponent is off-balance and vulnerable. Furthermore, there’s nothing in your arsenal to exploit such moments. If you could anticipate attacks and use buttons to deflect them, then turn the tables and unleash strong combos on your weakened opponent, then I’d feel like I was playing a Bruce Lee title.
Even stranger, supernatural moves and power attacks are the choice weapons of your foes. You fight sailors who can fly through the air and throw uppercuts like Ryu. You fight guys (and gals) with knives, staffs, claws, and magic. You even fight Death himself in a vision. Not one of these enemies has a weak attack, while poor Brucie tries his best to speed-punch them to no avail. Worse, as you start to defeat your AI opponent, or in the harder difficulties, the AI becomes better at “predicting” your attacks and cheating. Every character has at least one “I’m About To Die!” move that is unblockable and becomes their main attack after you whittle their life down past half. The sailor in the first level starts choke-throwing you with a chain. The kitchen chefs start pinwheeling around with their blades. Your martial arts student suddenly busts out mid-air scissor kicks.
You can dodge these attacks by staying way the hell away, but their frequent spamming makes it difficult to get close to your opponent. And as I said earlier, its not a case of figuring out patterns and laying into them like a typical boss. They don’t have the openings, they don’t get stunned easily, and you don’t have the moves to parry or attack effectively. Watching that fucking sailor dodge every single attack you throw by endlessly rolling along on the ground is enough to make anyone rethink why they’re bothering to play.
As you fight, you build up Chi, which appears to be the key to winning the game. Think of it as a bar measuring how much like Bruce Lee you’re currently fighting. If you throw a lot of missed punches or take hits, the bar goes down. If you land first strikes, hit an enemy enough successive times that they fall to the floor, or generally be a badass, the bar goes up. At marked points on the bar, you unlock different styles far more powerful than your basic attacks.
The “fighter” style unlocks superhuman moves like speed punches and kicks. The “nunchaku” style gives Bruce his ridiculously powerful chainsticks to flail around. The trick is that the meter builds slowly and maintains itself between fights. So you’ll need a few fights under your belt before you can access the new styles. They also don’t make you invincible, and you can lose them if the bar drops back again, but they start to give you the kind of power you’re expecting in these sorts of fighting games. It’s just annoying you have to deliver a few thousand feather punches before you can “unlock” them.
The major criticism that Jag Drag gets hit with is how the controls suck on the Jaguar. They do. You only have three buttons to work with, so your strongest punch and your strongest kick get mapped to the same button and switched with Option. You’re not going to be switching these effectively in the middle of a fight, and I used them mostly to swap tactics while I had an enemy down. Strong kicks are surprisingly slow and underpowered anyway, and belting someone with a strong punch proved much more effective in dropping them to their ass so I could stomp on their ribs.
Dragon looks the best on the Jaguar, but not by much, and plays the worst on the Jaguar, but not by much. I’m not a fan of the fighting engine, and that’s not going to change no matter what system it’s on. Having to pick one of the two strongest attacks because the Jag pad was missing that extra button is a pain indeed, but most of the fault lies with a strange fighting system that favors little except your opponent. The pitiful damage you deal is like playing with a handicap on, even at the easiest level, while you’re never given the controls to defend yourself or open up attacks effectively. Not much fun for those expecting to play as and fight like the martial arts icon.
Redrawn backgrounds take advantage of the Jag’s capabilities. Decent story mode if you can master the controls.
Not enough buttons on the Jag pad for precise control. Awkward fighting system. Not enough moves. Bruce Lee is the only playable characters, making the other modes mostly pointless.