The RPG Scrollbars Replay: Drakkhen

Hey, dude! What's up? You got my torrented Game of Thrones ready yet? What's with the altar? Your basement need tidying again? I told you man, it's cool. I'm a dragon. We're totally fine with a bit of mess.

Over the years, there have been many RPGs. Definitely more than five. Perhaps even ten. Every now and again we’re going to dig into the archives to take a look at one from when the ink was still dry on the Elder Scrolls. First up, Drakkhen [Wikipedia page], one of the more unusual games that I was never very successful at back in the 80s. But goodness, what a memorable half hour to fail at.

Oh come on! You know what I had to do to get in here?

Now, I never actually bought this game. Back in the 80s, at least in the UK, there was a company called Special Reserve that pioneered – and by that I mean, was basically the only company to get away with – the idea of games retail as a club. If you wanted to order from them, you had to become a member. This would give you slightly better prices than you’d find elsewhere (or so it seemed), access to one of the biggest catalogues of games at a time when PC games not by Infocom were rarer than hen’s teeth, and in my experience, games arriving about three sodding months after being ordered. Not that I’m still bitter about that today or anything.

At the time though, it was a pretty good experience. You got free games for signing up, plus regular newsletters that I’m sure were terrible but at the time were always fun to receive. Here my memory gets a mite fuzzy, so do correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember that Special Reserve had two clubs – its main one, and Official Secrets, whose magazine was called “Confidential” and focused far more on my kinds of games. Adventures and RPGs and other things that made you feel properly grown-up while sucking on free Zool promoted Chupa-Chups. Sadly, Official Secrets wasn’t long for this world, and soon enough there was only a much crappier mag called NRG.

Yes, it was exactly as 90s as it sounds.

Anyway, when I signed up, I got a ‘free’ copy of Drakkhen, along with the Amiga version of Myth, a crappy little mini-game made specially for it by Magnetic Scrolls. I was promised a PC replacement. It never arrived. Again, not bitter. Really. Especially after eventually playing it. It was Not Good.

I'd quite like to find a scan of Confidential. So if anyone knows of one... The only thing I remember of it specifically is a feature on Obitus, which is exactly one feature more than most people remember about that game...

So what this meant was that I had a copy of Drakkhen and absolutely no idea what Drakkhen was. This was pre-internet. I’d never seen a review of it, and at the time games either did well enough that mags never shut up about them, or were mentioned exactly once before fading into obscurity. It was a mystery wrapped in… well, a very nice shiny box, actually. Gold text! With a novella inside!

(Certainly better than this awful, awful alternate one…)

The black space was free!

I remember the novella about as well as the game itself, telling the story of a stupid knight who kills the last of the dragons and in doing so dooms the world. As far as I can tell it has exactly nothing to do with anything until the last five seconds, which is actually a power-struggle between very much still alive dragons over magic gems and such, but never mind. I particularly remember in quite vivid detail the bit where he returns to collect his prize for being Mr. Hero, only to find himself instead becoming Mr. Limbs Chopped Off And Fed To The Hounds once the king hears. It’s a warm memory from the days when novellas were linked to their source by title, and basically title alone.

(My other favourite from the time was the Starglider one, which pretended the game’s wireframe graphics were actually a super-advanced tactical display way better than seeing solids. Nice try.)

Eternam was friendlier, definitely.

But to the game! Not having had any idea what the game was going to be, this was incredible. Well, it was also the CGA version, but I’ll spare your eyes that in favour of these lovely EGA graphics instead. Most of the RPGs that I’d played up to this point had been either spent in dark dungeons, peering through tiny windows, or viewed from far on high with pretty much no animation.

This? This was a full 3D world! Open! You could see the sun and everything! If you wanted to turn around and run back the other way, you could! Or you could run over to the right and try to get to those mountains! You wouldn’t be able to of course, but you could still try – and nothing could take that away from you! (He laughed hollowly, in bitter tones of foreshadowing…) There’s even day and night changes as you wander around, slowly shifting from one to the other. Pretty cool early on!

Even by Azeroth standards, this make geologists cry...

So yes, Drakkhen was impressive. But oh goodness, it was brutal. This is where you start: right in front of a faintly ominous looking castle. That’s where you meant to go, but even so it’ll happily throw in random enemies the very second the game starts and not necessarily your usual Level 1 trash. If it throws a scorpion in your path, you may as well just restart the game right there and then.

Then you actually get to the castle, and…

Whut?

HE HAS A SHARK. A DRAGON WITH A SHARK. THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING.

And not only are we attacking a dragon protected by a shark, making him just one grinding chord away from being the most metal RPG character ever, that shark is a straight-up monster. You not only can’t kill it, you have to precisely time your run, a bit like getting under the Marshmallow Man’s legs in the 8-bit Ghostbusters games, or he straight-up one-hit destroys your guys.

OH COME ON!

I’m not even sure what you have to precisely time. The shark will kill you even if it’s under the drawbridge, has swum round, has just gone past… the only faint, faint mercy is that you only have to get one character past it to get everyone into the castle. It’s still very easy to get a total party wipe.

Actually go wandering off into the wilds and you… there’s no other way to put it. You die. You die horribly. There’s no real tactics behind the combat either, just flicking it on and realising that you’ve accidentally gone questing with the Quiche Awareness Board’s LARP group. They’re just pathetic at the start of the game, outmatched by just about everyone, and that includes bodies of water. Accidentally dip a toe in a puddle – and look at this field of view, it’s hard not to – and your guys start drowning until you pull them back to land. Morons! Total morons! Begone!

And that's just with ONE of his heads...

Step out of the part of the map you’re supposed to be in, and Drakkhen really stops messing around. Particularly dramatic are these crossroad markers thrown in to punish childish notions like ‘running down the road’. Bump into them, and Cerberus here pops up to explain the error of your ways. Even later on in the game, these things are crushingly powerful. At least they’re also easily avoided.

Wait, that's your bed? How do you even get your tail in that thing?

Inside the castles things become a bit more adventure style, with some actually quite nice backgrounds and a fair few puzzles – flicking switches to close off magic fields, enemies bursting in if you trespass in the wrong areas, and if you’re lucky, meetings with the Drakkhen Princes, all of them with names that sound like Klingons desperate for throat-sweets. Hazhulkha. Haaggkha. Hordkhen. Nakkhtkha. You spend much of the game just delivering messages to each of them, which inevitably means fighting through their home security systems, before discovering that your real goal is to collect the magic tears in their foreheads to bring magic back to your own world.

Now, personally, I query their honesty here. The entire plot in the PC version is kicked off with the death of the last dragon, who in fairness to him, was actually quite a gentleman in the novella. A bit like Dragon Heart, I remember, only genuinely surprised that his vanquisher decided to finish the job instead of just taking the treasure. There’s no real explanation though for how this whole other island full of the buggers came to be, but you’d better believe that the finale involves them both saving the world and adding rather pointedly “Now quit killing dragons, you assholes. Seriously!”

I like to think that they’re just taking advantage of the situation, not least because they don’t even blink at crushing your entire party without so much as a hello. As well as the Princes and Princesses mostly being pricks, the casual explorer will soon encounter giant flashing arrows sitting on the ground. “Come to us,” they whisper. “We’re interesting. We’re- Ha! Dragon in your face!

AAAAAAAARGH!

Needless to say, I never got particularly far in this game back in the day, and looking at the walkthroughs of it now, I can’t say I’m entirely sorry. I like my RPGs a lot more narrative driven, and the occasional inn where local humans will spread gossip and point you to things of interest really don’t help all that much. I’m told that once you get past a certain point you hit the usual rolling-rock of power and the second half especially gets pretty straightforward, but… well, no. A game that expects you to check the manual just to see what your magic spells are in nonsense-letters is a game that’s probably not worth ploughing through to see what the ending’s like. (Though it’s like this!)

Instead, most of my time with Drakkhen was spent staring at one thing… the death screen. And goodness, is it a doozy. Generally these things will end on something like a skull, a casual mutter that “Your party has been defeated” or somesuch. Not Drakkhen though. Drakkhen really rubs it in.

And your puppy is dead, and its puppies are dead, and the animal shelter you got it from has been burned down, and the ashes sprinkled with the blood of orphans, killed by starving puppies, who have also been killed by other, even more adorable puppies...

…P.S. Game Over.

51 Comments

  1. Gothnak says:

    Oh god, i’ve had flashbacks…

    I also remember the shark, the inst death lakes, as if they were infinitely deep and no one could swim, the giant dog heads, but more than that, how can you forget the dancing silhouette monsters that say ‘I LOVE YOU’ over and over again until you die?

    link to youtube.com

    I think i tried to play this game loads, but invariably it was run away, run away, run away, until you meet something tiny, kill it for miserly xp and repeat.

    • Sigh says:

      Wow, that Youtube link was the BEST exotic dance I have ever experienced!

    • oafish-oaf says:

      I played it a lot when I was younger, too. I’d like to say that I rage-quit fairly often, but I’m pretty sure I was too confused to get really upset.

    • Samuel Bass says:

      I remember having both Drakhen and the equally ambitious / not-quite-good Sleeping Gods Lie (link to youtube.com) on my Atari ST, being incredibly impressed by their real 3D world’s and then failing miserably at actually playing either of them.

      • LaundroMat says:

        My God, Let Sleeping Gods Lie.. I must have carried around that title in my head for the last 25 years now, never knowing what it was except that it must have been a magnificent adventure.

        The problem with all of those games back in the day was that I always supposed I was the stupid one. It never occurred to me that the game might a be flawed (even a little bit).

  2. Chris Cunningham says:

    The thing I remember more than anything else about Drakkhen (well, except for the almost Dragon’s Lair-esque approach to instant death for moving the wrong way) is that so much was collectible. Literally every suit of armour hanging up on a wall, every weapon in a rack. Full plate baby!

    (also, Jesus goddamned Christ, could RPS maybe figure out how to redirect its login page back to whatever you wanted to comment on, like every other blog has been able to do for over a decade now?)

  3. Erithtotl says:

    I can think of a bunch of ‘almost succeeded but failed’ games that deserve pages of write up. #1 has to be Star Fleet 2: Krellan Commander. There was also a game I was obsessed in trying to figure out if it was actually good. It was a really early sort of open world sci fi RPG called Astrillis or something like that. I must be getting the spelling wrong because Google is coming up with zilch and I have to believe someone, somewhere must have written something about it. Also, remember the Universe games? At least Moby Software has some info on them. They were super ambitious: link to mobygames.com

  4. Guvornator says:

    It’s still lovely getting some of that smooooth Richard Cobbett magic on the RPS airwaves. Also Alt Text!

  5. karnak says:

    The Drakkhen engine was later also used in an adventure game called Eternam:

    link to mobygames.com

  6. WiggumEsquilax says:

    Drakkhen wasn’t an RPG, it was a survival horror.

    If you fought an enemy near a body of water, your party could and would wade in to fight, almost certainly killing themselves in the process.

    Older armor pieces would stop being available for purchase as you out-leveled them. Particularly problematic considering that armor was destructible, with older models sometimes layered under the new stuff to provide an accumulative effect. That chain shirt you were wearing under your plate? Permanently gone.

    Even the stars themselves would summon monsters to kill you, literally punishment for daring to look towards the night sky.

  7. endtime says:

    Hey, Myth wasn’t crappy!

  8. phuzz says:

    Ah Special Reserve, that £2-3 reduction in price could make the difference between being able to order a game now, or having to save for another week.

    • Samuel Bass says:

      If I remember right, when it became NRG it gained what might be the single crappiest comic strip I’d ever seen. Was searching frantically for images of said comic, but no joy.

      I loved them for the discounts, and because they’d ship games overseas (I was living in Papua New Guinea in the early 90’s, not a ton of gaming stores there). The comic, however, was dreadful.

    • bill says:

      I remember seeing the special reserve magazine ads and thinking it sounded like the coolest thing ever. Don’t think I ever convinced my parents to sign up though.

      Later, in uni, I signed up to a similar scheme for CDs. I got 3-4 cheap cds on joining, and a free one too. But then you found out that the prices weren’t that great (usually more than the in-store / on sale prices in stores) and they kept trying to send you and bill you for a monthly recommended CD.
      One month I forgot to decline that, so that cd basically wiped out any savings I might have made over the rest of the year. Then I cancelled.

  9. DarkFarmer says:

    the 16 bit ports of this, Battle Master, and Sword of Sodan were the worst games of the era. the laughable way the dragon would appear and the black sphere would grow in size until he landed and that bizzare noise. haha and when the constellation attacks and kills your whole party at night. Fun stuff.

  10. slerbal says:

    I love reading your articles here, Richard. More to this sort of thing, say I :)

  11. Risingson says:

    I played the EGA Spanish version (well, Spanish… I still remember with pain that “Abilidad”). There are many misconceptions about this game: the “I love you” was only in the SNES port, not in the PC one, and there were at least two ways to pass the shark. Two ways that were really straightforward and easy to guess.

    The not that easy part is how to enter that castle looking at north. Or travelling three regions to get the bow, the only good first decent weapon. Or that grinding to get a good set of greaves, or a nice ring. The best part was the really fast travel, even for a computer of its time, the atmosphere and, oh God, the adlib music.

    It is strangely enough one of the few RPGs I actually finished. With a friend, sharing clues and such, but we finished it and went naked into the circle and said DRAK DRAK or whatever.

    • Jp1138 says:

      Well, the game was fairly famous in Spain at the time, and appeared once and again in spanish games magazines – Micromania, anyone? I also remember playing a bit, but I think I had some troubles with it in my computer and never got very far.

      And It also had an VGA version that looked nicer than the one posted:

      • Risingson says:

        Yeah, Micromania is to blame :) Every RPG that appeared in their RPG section became inmediately popular, and now I remember that I got the clues from there. This is why some of these games were extremely sought after in Spain, as Dark Heart of Uukrul, Bloodwych, Shadowlands or Legend. It was nice to play the games and go back to your old magazines, read that Ferhergon guy well written rants, these letters from the readers, that sense of community of games we should all play.

        Shadowlands. How popular that one was. Isn’t that absurd?

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          Mostly remember Shadowlands from Click magazine’s feature, where they got incredibly excited about the lighting and absolutely nothing else.

          • bill says:

            Oh, I vaguely remember shadowlands. But I’m not sure why. I don’t remember if I played it, played a demo of it, or just looked at lots of screenshots of it in some games magazine and dreamed of having a PC powerful enough to display games with anime character graphics.

          • Risingson says:

            Following the offtopic,

            1.- WOW, VHS VIDEO REVIEWS. THE FUTURE.
            2.- The lighting was a very advanced fabulous part of what it ultimately was a Dungeon Master with Diablo elements. There was some strategic stuff involved, but the game was mostly about coping with a user interface made in hell. I remember it being featured in the named Micromania as one of the bestest rpg ever, just above or below Dark Heart of Uukrul.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Eh, I played it in CGA back in the day :-)

        • Risingson says:

          Thanks to you, I replayed it this evening. And when I replayed it I could not remember if I first played it in EGA or CGA. I think it was EGA, but the colours were different.

          So I feel like a Philip K. Dick character, not knowing if my memories are made up.

          • Colthor says:

            If it’s any consolation, your brain is constantly remaking and overwriting its memories. So yes, they are made up, and probably wrong. And so is everybody else’s.

    • DoktorV says:

      Damien ‘Dragondarch’ Moody, who is something of an expert on Drakkhen, said the “I Love You” monster was from the DOS version. The same monster appears in the SNES version but it doesn’t have voice-over, it just plays strange music. See link to speeddemosarchive.com and listen to the commentary.

  12. mr.earbrass says:

    The only good thing about this game is the soundtrack.

  13. boo01 says:

    DRAKKEN

    FOR THE SUPER GAMEBOY

  14. fredc says:

    What I learned from the end of game Youtube is that this game includes a dragon called FUKKHEN, which sounds fukkhen appropriate.

  15. Baines says:

    Drakkhen was also ported to the SNES, which is where I knew it from.

    The SNES port apparently had a sequel called Super Drakkhen, Drakkhen II, or Dragon View depending on where you live or who you ask?

  16. Emeraude says:

    Ctrl+F Shadowman.

    0 Results.

    Surely others around here MUST have also suffered though that childhood trauma ?

  17. Press X to Gary Busey says:

    Ugh Cool Spot. The 7up radical (hippidy rappidy hopping?) early 90’s franchise mascot. First time I’ve seen that one in almost 20 years.

  18. Colthor says:

    We had a copy of Obitus! Which we probably got from the “buy one game a month for cheapish” club we were members of (Special Reserve or otherwise, no idea).

    It was one of the few games that didn’t get returned for not working on our 8088. I still don’t remember anything about it, beyond that there were trees.

  19. jrodman says:

    Luckily the Amiga version made even less sense. Several of the puzzles are crucially incoherent.
    It freed me from the need to do anything but screw around.

    I played the super nintendo version many years later and was shocked at how much sense it made by comparison.