RTM Magazine

The Dragon That Faintly Roared - E-mail Me!

I could say this is a tie-in to the Movie of the Moment, much like sellers of everything from adult sippy cups to slot machines are doing. I'd be lying.

If not for the phrase "absurd flaw," the connection might never have occurred to me. But one of the lesser moments in Tolkein's breakthrough novel is a fitting metaphor for the kludge of plastic and silicon that's my latest exploration into the world of obscure and failed computers: The Dragon 32/64.

Dragon 32 Computer
Remember Smaug boasting about his invincibility, only to expose a chink in his scaly armor at a conveniently vulnerable spot (a plot stumble as lame as Bond supervillains laying out their grand schemes right before failing to kill 007 with something a hundred times more complex than a bullet through the brain)? That's the Dragon: Looks good, has some legit creds, but, eeesh, what an anti-climatically easy creature to slay.

The Dragon is probably best described as the quirky British cousin of Tandy's Color Computer, itself an oddball in the eight-bit CPU family. The Brit, as the stereotype might suggest, possesses an extra degree of suave refinement, but blows any chance of being perceived as such by acting with a bumbling daftness.

The spods reviewing the Dragon had reasonably kind words when it was introduced in 1982 (when things like a spacebar and on-off switch were luxuries in the U.K.). Compared to the market-dominating Sinclair Spectrum, the Dragon looked like a solid computer with a real keyboard and non-glitchy display. It didn't feel like it might crash or break if you so much as nudged it a bit hard. It also had a bunch of ports for extras like a real monitor instead of a TV, joysticks and third-party printers. The 32/64 moniker refers to two models of the Dragon, the first with 32K of RAM and a subsequent model with 64K.

But the more time one spends with the Dragon (a luxury reviewers on deadline didn't have), the more some major flaws are evident. Perhaps the biggest one for gamers is the graphics are abysmal compared to anything beyond the black-and-white text display of a Sinclair ZX81. The highest color resolution was 128 horizontal by 192 vertical pixels, with a choice of two four-colors pallets – both of them absurdly garish. Those familiar with the Color Computer know it also has a 256X192 pixel resolution that can "fake" the four of the most useful colors (black, white, red, blue), but on the Dragon that display is only black-and-white due to the inability of European TV sets to display the fake (a.k.a. artifact) colors. The Dragon also shared the Color Computer's relatively slow speed, lack of ability to produce multi-tone or background sound, and a 6809 CPU at odds with what most commercial programmers were using.

That meant another type of longevity trouble since software never came close to the quantity and quality of the Spectrum, or later and much more powerful British computers such as the BBC Micro and Amstrad CPC. The Dragon also tried blazing a path in the U.S., but flamed out even more spectacularly against better machines, including its Color Computer blood relative (due to its far larger software library and distribution channel). The U.S. model of the Dragon can handle artifacting, by the way, but it had such a tiny market presence you'd almost certainly have to get your software from the U.K. – and this was before there was the internet (or even a selection of imported computer magazines in bookstores) to make you aware of what was out there and where to order from.

The Color Computer managed to survive for a decade as a second-tier U.S. machine, but the Dragon was slain after a mere two years. Still, it's an interesting creature to study, especially for CoCo fans, since the Dragon plays a number of classic games originating in the U.K. like Manic Miner and Chuckie Egg that never got translated to its U.S. cousin despite nearly identical hardware. Emulators are easy to find and it's also easy to buy an unopened U.S. version of the Dragon for $45 at www.cadigital.com/computer.htm (rumor on the chats boards is the company can be bargained down to $35, but I won't vouch for that).

I'm planning to spend the next few months writing about the worthwhile discoveries in the Dragon's obscureness, but this month I'm just offering a few quick impressions of titles I was most inclined to look at first. For impatient types, a few good websites are The Dragon Archive at http://archive.worldofdragon.org (the best one-stop portal for pretty much everything), Dragon 32 Universe at www.dragon32universe.info (a new, in-progress game database with nice screenshot previews and some reviews), and the Dragon User magazine archive at http://archive.org/details/dragon-user-magazine (only five issues, but in multiple formats).

Two types of games interested me most: The landmark U.K. titles, since I suspect many would have ranked highly among CoCo fans, and comparing how some of the most notable CoCo titles fared in translation to the Dragon (spoiler: very unattractively, although they still play pretty much the same). I'm taking a bit of a guess with the grades, which are a bit higher than they'd be in the larger CoCo market, since I haven't yet played enough Dragon titles to know if there was a society of bedroom British geeks who created a secret wealth of games.

Starting with the (comparatively) positive, the U.K.-only titles include:

Manic Miner
Manic Miner (B-)
This is the Spectrum-born platformer that begat 10,000 clones, virtually all known to U.S. gamers who followed the parallel lineage of Donkey Kong instead. I've always appreciated, if not entirely enjoyed, the game due to a numerous-for-the-time 20 levels that are creatively designed. The objective is simple enough: grab all the flashing objects on the screen and then reach the exit portal that lights up before your oxygen runs out. A wide variety of bad guys, unstable terrain and mechanical hazards such as threshers make the miner's life almost as hazardous as working for Murray Energy (Google if you're clueless as your edutainment for the day). The Dragon version is competent, but probably ranks near the bottom of the 15 or so machines the game has been ported to due to: 1) the black-and-white graphics, which rob it of charm and ability to identify objects as easily, and 2) a lack of pixel-perfect control (vital for this game, since memorizing patterns and timing is everything) due to the Dragon's non-centering analogue joysticks. Manic Miner's sequel, Jet Set Willy, raises the bar a bit (future review to come), and both were probably enough to satisfy Dragon owners wanting to play them back then – if they didn't have a friend with a Speccy willing to share the experience.
Chuckie Egg

Chuckie Egg (B)
This platformer is rated the 13th best Speccy game by Your Sinclair magazine, but even back then the love wasn't universal, as some found its control scheme infuriating. The game features a cutesy theme as the protagonist, Hen-House Harry, must collect 12 eggs on each level before time runs out while avoiding being pecked to death by hens on patrol. Scattered piles of seeds will freeze the timer if Harry eats them, or the hens briefly if they get to the seeds first. There are only eight levels, but they cycle through five increasingly difficult challenges. The second cycle features a lone giant duck with far greater pursuit capabilities instead of the hens, the third features the hens and the duck, and so on. Like Manic Miner, the Dragon version of Chuckie Egg plays much the same as on competing machines, but is hampered by hardware defects. This time the graphics are in one of the 128X192 modes, and the red-blue-green-yellow pallet is merely ugly and functional. The controls are also a nuisance again, but I don't dock that as much here since I hated the Speccy's controls as well. The main problem is to climb or descend ladders you have to be exactly (to the pixel) centered at a ladder. The secret, as any gamer completing more than one level discovered, is to push the joystick up/down while you're moving left/right toward a ladder. It's also possible to jump onto a ladder while doing this, which made the game far easier once mastered. In the CoCo world this would probably be a C+ title; the Dragon benefits from grade inflation, at least until I'm better informed.

Finally, on a more harsh note, a look at how some U.S. CoCo hits fare with a British accent:

Donkey King
Donkey King (B+)
Sigh...This one hurts because this unauthorized Donkey Kong clone is one of maybe two games CoCo owners can gloat about with superiority to their peers with more successful computers (the other is Dungeons of Daggorath, which was never translated to the Dragon – a true travesty since it's meant to be played in hi-res black-and-white). Donkey King on the CoCo features all four levels of the arcade game (plus the intro and between-screen animations), doesn't "chop off" a girder from each screen like many ports do, and looks and plays closer to the coin-op than nearly every other competitor. All this holds true on the Dragon except for one thing – the black and white display. While Dragon gamers might not be too bothered by this in the privacy of their bedrooms, there's a deflating depression for anyone familiar with the CoCo port – and of course it kills any chance of impressing your peers with other machines.
Buzzard Bait
Buzzard Bait (B-)
This is a first-rate Joust clone on the CoCo that suffers even more than Donkey King on the Dragon because, instead of opting for black and white (which would have made distinguishing between riders impossible), the game is an abstract mess in the lower-res four-color mode. Yeah, it still incorporates every feature of the arcade down to the order in which platforms disappear (albeit with somewhat slower gameplay, especially with numerous enemies on screen). But this is where the ugly untruth of "I don't care about your looks, I appreciate you for your personality" is revealed. It's a first-rate personality attached to a 350-pound pimple-faced date. I just couldn't set those garish colors aside. Again, maybe Dragon users who never saw the CoCo version and were starved for any kind of Joust title might have been more appreciative, but even then there were too many games that were far more impressive, even within that creature's limits.