Saturday, December 9, 2023

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (Atari Jaguar, 1994)

A movie licensed game that's actually pretty decent. It's a fighting game from the era of very stiff fighting games, but you can crank up the speed in Options (and I definitely recommend that). It also got versions on the SNES (which I had as a kid) and Genesis. Though the Jaguar version is a lot prettier.

This game meant a lot to me as a kid. I loved the movie (which contrary to what you may read on the internet, still holds up, IMO) and how Bruce triumphed over adversity while standing up to tradition and racism, both against him and against other people. Guy brought martial arts to the US and was willing to teach people he "wasn't allowed to" regardless of the rules. It's an inspiring movie to say the least.

Kinda rustles my jimmies that a lot of young people might only know Bruce Lee as "that joke guy who got destroyed in a fight by Brad Pitt in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" while being unaware of his vast real-world contributions to things like making martial arts mainstream and helping Chinese actors actually be portrayed in a non-insulting way in film.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is just a bunch of bullshit in that sense. Man, that movie can f**** off. Does Brad Pitt have a clause in his movie contracts that say he can never look remotely bad in a fight? Because he never does. What an asshole.

A few things before starting this, if one is going to play it:

-As mentioned, crank the speed up to Turbo.

-Leave the difficulty on Normal, even if you're terrible at fighting games like me. Why? Because Normal is only sliiiightly harder than Easy or Very Easy, and those modes just end after several fights. Normal is the only way to actually play the whole game.

I was hoping Bruce would leap onto the screen and double-stomp the logo, but nope.

This game loosely follows the movie, which itself takes some pretty big liberties with real life. So our first fight is with this drunken sailor buffoon who is mainly there to make Americans look terrible. Maybe Brad Pitt was just getting revenge for this scene.

Gotta say, the Jaguar has some pretty impressive 2D visuals. Check out the light and shadow here. For comparison, the SNES version:

This is what I had as a kid, and while I loved the game, visually it's pretty flat. The music is the same in both versions, and the game has a terrific soundtrack.

Next, Bruce gets a job in a restaurant, where some hot waitress flirts with him. Finally something good happens!

So of course immediately some guy starts freaking out and trying to kill him with a meat cleaver.

Time to actually talk about the gameplay a bit here. It's a pretty typical fighting game of the era. You've got weak punch, strong punch, weak kick, strong kick. There are no Hadokens here, but you can do a couple of special moves like his deadly flying stomp. He uses his well-known Mantis fighting style from Jeet Kune Do, and they did a great job capturing the moves from it.

Most interestingly, there's a meter that fills up as you fight. Landing attacks adds to it, missing or having attacks blocked subtracts from it. It carries over between fights, so that helps. What does this meter do, you ask?

Fighter: Well, get it filled about halfway and Bruce can enter "Fighter" stance. This is considerably different from his normal Mantis style and has him moving around and attacking much quicker. It also loses some striking power, though. The best thing about it is that it can do a super-fast dive-kick.

As a kid, I swore by Fighter stance and used it all the time. Now? I'm not so sure. Mantis seems to have way more stopping power, and Fighter slowly drains the meter (back down to 50%) while active. I think it's better to just stay in normal form and keep filling the meter, because at 75% you get access to...

Nunchaku: This is literally Bruce whipping out his nunchaku and obliterating his foe with them. You can launch fast, super-damaging strikes with this, though each swing depletes the meter and if you go back below 75% you revert to Mantis. Yeah, I would say the best course of action is to just fight normally until the meter is near-full and then switch to Nunchaku as able to launch some damaging strikes.

The big issue is that if you die, the meter resets to empty. So if you progress steadily and don't die (or use modern save states between fights), you basically have a huge advantage over the game. Lose a fight, and that advantage drops, making it even harder to continue. Not really the best design but it is what it is. Basically, just don't lose. Once Nunchaku is available it's kind of hard to lose anyway.

I found a few moves to be good cheese-tactics against the CPU. It has issues defending against the ducking slide-kick...if it doesn't go into turtle mode and block all of them. Unlike most fighting games, blocking prevents 100% of the damage. It'll also reduce your powerup meter if a foe blocks you. So the CPU turtling up is a real problem.

Another good cheese move, and one the CPU has more issues blocking, is the flip kick. Pressing down-towards or down-away will make Bruce do a dive roll in those directions. He's invincible while doing that, but more importantly, pressing kick makes him pop out of the dive roll with this potent attack. It pretty much always hits, while also putting Bruce safely beyond his foe's reach.

In any case, when the chef is at half-HP, the fight moves to the alleyway, and you have about ten seconds before another chef joins the fight. You really don't want to fight both these guys at once, so it's imperative to finish off the first chef as quick as possible once the fight moves. Which isn't hard to do. Neither of these guys are nearly as tough as the sailor.

Sometimes between levels you get to fight with Pete, the training pad dummy Bruce set up to practice on. This gets you points (which the game is super-focused on even though they don't do anything or save between play sessions...) but it also gives you the opportunity to practice weaving in and out of your foe's high and low attacks.

Next up is the university gym brawl. No word on if he went out with that waitress, though Bruce was known for having a lot of, let's say experience, with women. So probably.

Weird thing is, the game doesn't have you fight a collegiate wrestler and his jock cronies like in the movie. Instead you fight this karate guy named Scott who wants to prove his style is better. As a kid I was always confused about this and thought maybe he was supposed to be Bruce's first student who walked into his dojo. He isn't though, he's just a new character the game completely made up.

This is the first particular challenge of the game (unless you let the chefs gang up on you). I unleash flip kicks to win. Sploit those i-frames!

Bruce's deadliest move (in normal form, anyway) is the iconic stomp. Leap over a knocked-down foe and press down on the D-Pad and Bruce unleashes it, complete with celery snapping SFX and insane facial expressions.

Next, Bruce has to face the wrath of... the High Council of Martial Arts Senseis I guess. Did they get elected to those positions? I'm gonna need to see some credentials. In any case, they're angry that Bruce is teaching martial arts to white people and black people, who are, and I quote, "the enemy". Of course, nobody is Bruce's enemy, so he doesn't know what they're on.

He does let himself be goaded into facing their chosen champion, the fearsome Johnny Sun. The guy may be like four feet tall, but he's probably the most memorable foe from this game. The fact that he's able to go punch for punch with Bruce Lee is notable. I guess if Bruce lost, he would have had to close his school or something.

This fight is tough because Sun's low profile makes him difficult to land hits on compared to most of the other foes. It's also the final battle of Very Easy mode, so a lot of people probably remember this well.

The game totally skips over Bruce being near-paralyzed and having to recover after Sun kicks him squarely in the spine after the fight. Which is good because I don't know how well laying in a traction machine and screaming at your wife would translate to a game level.

Next is Stage 5 (of 10) which happens to be the hardest fight in the entire game. It's Bruce getting attacked by two... stripper-assassins? on the set of a film. This...was not in the movie. Or in real life.

Maybe it's a fever-dream he's having while he's incapacitated? That's what I would have scripted it as.

It's the hardest fight in the game because they have all kinds of nearly-unblockable moves. Their stripper poles also have a really long reach. Plus there are two of them, and the second joins the fight very quickly. When I was a kid, this was the fight that Game Overed me. Over and over.

Note: Blocking in this game uses the Street Fighter II methodology of pressing back, rather than having a dedicated button. Good choice.

SNES version... looks waaaaaaaaaaaaay less nice than the Jaguar version for this fight. Funny thing is, the far-superior Jaguar look is how I remember the SNES looking. The mind does that.

Fight 6 is a rematch with... Scott. Whoever that is. Before, he just wanted to spar Bruce in the college gym. Now, he's OUT FOR BLOOD. A few years have gone by and Bruce is stealing his pupils.

"Steve McQueen was mine! He was MINE, DAMMIT!" says Scott before getting trounced.

Next is the final battle of Easy mode, a Johnny Sun rematch. Except Bruce has a self-imposed 60 second time limit!

I like when the game sticks to the fights from the movie...even though the movie itself definitely took huge liberties with everything. This fight is the same as the first one, except with a time limit. None of the fights in this game take anywhere near 60 seconds for me now, but as a kid I remember this being pretty intense.

Next up is Luke Sun, Johnny's little brother. Who is gigantic. He's so displeased about Bruce's wins over his brother that he gets a job as a random minion on the set of The Big Boss just so he can ambush Bruce during filming.

Jesus Christ!

No one calls the police or anything, thinking this is part of the movie, and Luke tries to kill Bruce with giant ice blocks. They actually did a fantastic job translating this fight into the game.

I make sure to finish the fight with the flying stomp, like he did in the movie. This was hands-down the toughest opponent he fought in the movie.

At this point the game goes off-script again with another fight that wasn't in the movie or real life. On the set of Enter the Dragon, Bruce gets confronted by the Claw Man actor.

...who is apparently ALSO really mad at Bruce (man, can this guy get a break?) and has a claw weapon for real.

This fight might be the most challenging besides the staff-wielding dominatrixes. He fights like he does in the movie, and also has this poison-spit range attack. Combine that with a low profile and he's hard to hit. Luckily by this point Bruce should have lots of Nunchaku ready to go.

The final fight is with the Phantom that haunted his father and haunted him. This is basically a Sekiro boss with a huge kwondo, and the fight takes place in a dream. There are a few ways to get this fight down, but you have to use the nunchaku to finish him.

In my case I went full nunchaku from the start and just wailed on him. A close-in throw attack is the only way to finish him, because Bruce has to choke him out like in the movie.

Note: If you game over at any point, you can actually get your lives back by winning a fight with this guy (you don't have to use Nunchaku). I never could reliably pull that off as a kid, but it's nice that they give you the opportunity. Apparently he's weak to the dive kicks in Fighter style, so that's the way to go on a game over.

We get some great credits with Bruce practicing martial arts in front of the sun.

"Ken Love" sounds like a real dream-boat.

Besides the story mode, which is fun to go through a few times if you really like Bruce / the movie, we also have a couple multiplayer modes. You can do one-on-one fights with a second player, though the only playable character is Bruce. Would have been really interesting if multiplayer let you play as some of the other fighters. Claw Man in particular had everything he needed to be a playable fighter.

There's also a THREE player mode where you get to all be Bruces and fight it out. This is just total chaos from the looks of it.

...and that's pretty much it. Oh yeah, there's also a "2P versus CPU" mode where two players can team up to go through the story mode. Having two Bruces seems like a huge advantage, except that their attacks can also damage each other. So it just turns every fight into a triple-threat match. The weird thing is that when the CPU foe is defeated, the two players then have to fight each other until someone wins. On every fight. So basically it just makes story mode take way longer. I could see people having fun with it to an extent though.

Great movie, decent game, definitely benefitted from the rose-colored glasses and nostalgia of being a 90's kid.

Now prepare your loins, because this game has a pretty darn good soundtrack. It's pretty much the same across all versions.

Theme for the first fight with Johnny Sun, AKA the "final boss" on very easy. Unfortunately once you get good at the game, the fight usually ends before it kicks in.

Theme for the 60-second fight with Johnny Sun. This one's definitely gonna trigger flashbacks for anyone who played this as a kid.

Claw Man battle theme. Probably the best fight tune in the game.


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