DragonStrike: Nostalgia Review
2018 has almost passed and yet I somehow haven't seen anyone mention the fact that it marks the 25th anniversary of Dragon Strike. For the unaware, it was released by TSR (the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons) as a simplified version of D&D. But I don't want to talk about the game itself. I want to talk about the most incredible thing about Dragon Strike: the half-hour hyperReality™ video that it came with to teach newcomers about roleplaying games.
Yes, before there was Critical Role or The Adventure Zone, there was the Dragon Strike VHS tape. This cinematic marvel didn't really teach you how to play, in fact it only barely follows the rules of the game as written. But it sure did a good job of making you feel like a giant nerd for wanting to play.
This disembodied head is our "Dragon Master," who, as in the game, explains and narrates what is going on. Everyone in this video seems intent on outdoing the others in chewing the scenery without a hint of irony, but the DM (John Boyle) has a big advantage, what with being an omnipotent guy in a black turtleneck.
He addresses a group of off-screen players about the game, answering questions like "Is this like a video game?" with "Sort of. But it uses the most powerful information processor in the world– your brain." The Dragon Master explains that the players don't need to learn a bunch of rules since he'll be running the game. This is a legitimately good thing to tell new players, even 25 years later, although he does get a little aggressive about it.
With that out of the way, DM launches into his first bit of purple prose.
It's night. A long time ago. You see a castle. This castle belongs to the evil wizard Teraptus. The castle's high towers and jagged walls glow in the light like the dull white of a skull. You sense magic in the air. Your nose is assaulted by the scent of death and decay. You're struck by the stillness. The stillness... of death.
I am so in!
But before we go any further, I need to explain something for those of you who haven't already bailed on this to look up the video on YouTube. All of the "in-game" footage is a strange mix of high-school-theater-grade live action, computer generated images, and traditional animation. Or hyperReality™. It's truly bizarre, putting other forms of rotoscoping to shame. If it feels a little unfair to make fun of decades old special effects, please keep something in mind: this didn't look good at the time either. In all fairness, I doubt that the DragonStrike production team had the budget Jurassic Park did, but my brother and I were thoroughly unimpressed at the time.
Okay, so the story so far: We've met a (good) wizard fleeing the evil wizard's castle who collapses in a (good?) king's banquet hall. A fight breaks out between the death knights of Teraptus and our heroes.
Cut back to the people playing the game, and they have chosen their characters, named Wizard, Fighter, Thief, and Elf. Yes, they actually call each other those names, like it's a perfectly normal thing to do
We get a taste of a CGI dragon that looks straight out of Final Fantasy VII, but that's actually pretty good for the time! But what comes next, as Thief attempts to sneak into the castle, is inexcusable.
Anyone who has played D&D before can clearly identify this as an owlbear. All the traditional owlbear features are there: the two giant tusks, the reptilian skin, and its pet owl that it talks to in a bad "Who's On First" routine. Owlbears do not appear as an enemy monster in DragonStrike the board game.
We get a lot more pointless vignettes of the characters doing some D&D stuff: finding a secret passage, intimidating some orcs, and watching a minotaur (also not in the game) trigger a trap. I would laud this section for showing that there can be more to roleplaying games than just hacking and slashing, but unfortunately this is not backed up in the rules themselves. I suspect they only had the time and budget to film a few fight sequences.
We do get a fight against this guy— the manscorpion— who is possibly owed some royalties from Lucasfilm for the Darth Maul character design. Compared to all the cheap rubber masks and PlayStation graphics, this guy actually looks pretty nice and was one of my favorite monsters in the game.
This leads us to our final encounter, against Teraptus the evil wizard and his sexy lady fire elemental. "All the men are mesmerized by the fire elemental," the Dragon Master says. What a weird thing to include in a video for a D&D-for-kids game. Especially since once again, this has nothing to do with how the game is played!
Yada yada yada, good triumphs over evil and the heroes walk off into the sunset until the Dragon Master cuts back in with "DO NOT TURN THE VCR OFF YET!" He dispenses with some "secret knowledge" for Dragon Masters, which really doesn't amount to much. They should've hired a young Matt Colville for this role.
Less than five years after the release of Dragon Strike, TSR ran out of cash and was sold to Wizards of the Coast, who were then bought out by Hasbro. Dragon Strike can certainly exemplify TSR's policies of the late eighties and early nineties of throwing as much spaghetti at the wall to see what would possibly stick.
If memory and photographic evidence serves me correctly, I received this game for Christmas in 1994. It was my first introduction to roleplaying games. I don't think it's hyperbolic to say that this gift greatly affected my life, at least much more than the Ghostbusters ECTO-1 car. I think it's easy to make fun of games, TV, and movies marketed at children from this time period, but it's important to remember that cheesy as they seem now, some of this could have had a real impact on people in one way or another.