It was the early 2000s, and someone had convinced the gaming industry that cel-shaded graphics somehow imitated comic books, although I have never read a comic with art similar to cel-shading save cartoon tie-in comics. Still, cel-shading was in vogue with everyone but Zelda fans, and Majesco fell victim to it when they decided to make a game called Drake and the 99 Dragons.
Although not quite as infamous as other bad games, Drake of the 99 Dragons is a stain on Majesco’s history, a history already pock-marked with all sorts of ups and downs, but Drake stands out in a way that the Nacho Libre tie-in DS game and The Daring Game for Girls do not. Mainly in that, they were actually trying to make a really good game with Drake, but failed utterly.
The boxart certainly masks the contents within, and while it probably won’t lure you into taking it off the shelf, this game hides all the components of yet another terrible game, one so bad it managed to supplant Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis as the go-to terrible Xbox game. But the question of course is… is it really that bad? Well, I feel it’s only appropriate that I dissect the game in a manner befitting the arbitrary number in the game’s title. Here are 99 problems with Drake and the 99 Dragons.
PROBLEM #1: IT’S CREATION
…As much as I’d love to leave that hanging, I do have stuff to say about that subject. Drake of the 99 Dragons was not conceived simply as a game, but as a launching point for an entire franchise (Problem #2). As we have seen recently with the cases like Mighty No. 9 (which is at least 9 times better than Drake), you cannot try to build an entire franchise before you’ve actually set down the proper groundwork. The success of things like Pokemon has emboldened many game companies to try and launch a franchise off the back of a video game, but the thing is, multimedia franchises like those are a surprise. It’s not like He-Man where you can build a franchise off of toys or Star Wars that spun-off from a blockbuster hit. Video Games are a flimsy base and even the aforementioned Pokemon caught most of the mainstream with its TV show. This all might’ve not even been relevant if the creators of Drake, Idol FX, weren’t trying to rush it all out at once to get the ball rolling, leaving Majesco with 6 months to make a game (Problem #3). Considering the short time frame and the demands, Majesco did a rather competent job at making a game, in that it is playable. They made a functional machine, but added nothing to make it more than that.
Unsurprisingly, making the linchpin of your franchise a game you rush out the door meant the Drake of the 99 Dragons brand never took off, even though they did release a single comic (Problem #4), which has art that even uses proper shading rather than aping the cel-shaded aesthetic the game uses to be more comic-like! Still, it’s as close as you’d probably get without making the comic look like a cartoon, although the comic seems to do a better job at being what it tries to be than the game, albeit still turning out as nothing exceptional.
We shan’t dawdle too much on the extraneous factors though, as Drake brings more than enough problems with the game itself.
PROBLEM #5: DRAKE
Our central character, Drake (who I constantly want to call Jake, perhaps due to some memory of American Dragon Jake Long) is pretty much meant to be the thing that draws you into this game. Drake is so generically edgy its painful, and even people who like characters like Reaper from Overwatch or the main character of Hatred might be turned off by Drake, partly because those two at least do and say things to earn it. Drake has, I suppose, the design of a badass. He wears a trenchcoat and holds two guns, and that’s really all you need for such a formula. Everything beyond that only serves to tear him down and make him less interesting than his already cliche appearance. Drake has the hard lines of a Batman: The Animated Series character, and if the game had been trying to ape that style, it does so pretty decently, although surprisingly the Batman: The Animated Series game for Xbox (where you fight a Chinese enemy even!) goes for less angular and more detailed models than this game. However, Drake is hard lines and his face is as rigid as stone. Throughout the game, no matter what happens, he will keep the same vacant, open-mouthed expression on his face, whether he’s sad, mad, or happy (Problem #6).
Clearly, this is Drake utterly devastated that his clan has just been decimated and their sacred artifact was stolen, right? Drake does, admittedly, close that mouth sometimes, but his expression is usually that same goldfish stare, as if someone had placed a tiki mask on a person’s neck and hoped no one would notice. I should also mention that Drake is undead, hence the white eyes and grey skin, although he looks that way even before he dies and in a flashback to before he even got the power to live on past death, which couldn’t have been that hard to correct and ultimately has to come from laziness on the part of the programmers (Problem #7). Still, maybe this design won’t put you off somehow, and you still think trenchcoats and guns is enough.
Then, you’ll need to hear him speak. You’d probably expect something gravelly or grim, but Drake sounds like he’s doing a movie trailer voice the whole time (Problem #8), and it of course has an emotional range to match his facial expressions. He doesn’t sound heroic or like an anti-hero, it really just sounds like a guy reading a script and trying to sell something to you. Despite having such a voice, Drake’s voice often is very quiet and hard to make out behind the music and the sound effects (Problem #9), and if you think this could be rectified in the options menu, you’ll be happy to see it only has options for the Music Volume and Sound Effects Volume, meaning you can never truly pull character voices out from under the cacophony (Problem #10). I should also mention here that the options menu is pretty much just sound based (Problem #11), so you can’t edit your controls (although it was thankfully inverted by default, my preferred method but not liked by most people) or put on subtitles or anything like that.
Perhaps the worst part of Drake are his one-liners (Problem #12), which, while not appearing during gameplay, make up the bulk of the game’s cutscenes and are so bad they’d make James Bond swear off doing puns forever. Things like “House of the Dreaming Cloud? I’m your wake-up call.” or when setting a motorcycle on fire: “Fight fire… with fire. Now that’s what I call a burnout.”
“Thugs, this is a one-way street… TO HELL.” and of course, just saying things like “Peekaboo” or “Hi and Goodbye.” when he enters an area to shoot it up. Notice the lack of exclamation points, as he delivers these one-liners with very little energy. Not to mention the fact that a few of his one-liners are completely orphaned from their set-up a few cutscenes ago and make no sense without the long forgotten context.
Naturally though, you must be wondering by now, what is the story behind Drake and the 99 Dragons?
PROBLEM #13: The Story
Drake’s story is about avenging the death of the 99 Dragons clan, the death of his master, and recovering the Soul Portal Artifact, the blame for all three falling on the shoulders of a man named Tang, who is trying to collect the souls of the dead to use them to power a cyborg army that I guess he’s going to use to take over the world.
Most every aspect of this simple plot is problematic though. First of all, Drake, supposedly the most lethal and effective of the 99 Dragons, is of course the only member we ever really know anything about it, and we don’t really see how effective Drake is save after he’s given god-like powers in his afterlife. (Problem #14). So we’re already running on a bunch of assumptions that the game just tells us, but maybe we’ll find out about the 99 Dragons, right? Heck, a few missions have us saving their captured souls from the enemy! …And then promptly forgetting them. The 99 Dragons have an almost zero presence in this game and really, Drake seems more concerned for the artifact and his master rather than the death of the other clan members. The 99 Dragons are pointless (Problem #15), despite sharing the title with Drake and perhaps trying to entice you with the promise of 99 things, when I’m sure you only collect at most 20 of their souls during the game. The artifact, on the other hand, the game takes its sweet time explaining to you, and it wasn’t until halfway through the game do you know anything besides “it belonged to us and they took it” (Problem #16). It apparently opens a portal to the demon world, where Tang hopes to get tons of spirits, but the path to him getting the artifact is artificially extended by nonsense detours the game’s plot takes.
So, after your clan is killed, the artifact stolen, and you come back to life to kick some ass, the bad guys pass off the artifact to a random courier, who proceeds to be the worst deliveryman in history (Problem #17). Presumably you’d expect him to take it to Tang so they can get going on the plan, but he runs around the city before losing you, only to rush into a casino to play ELECTRIC MAHJONG (Problem #18). I suppose I didn’t mention it yet, but this game takes place in Neo-Macau, basically a “futuristic China” where the game does nothing to sell that concept (Problem #19). Electric Mahjong is a problem for simply being the best demonstration of this future China than anything else in the game, and you only hear the name Electric Mahjong rather than seeing it. Not to mention its name is basically a cheap way of making a futuristic pastime, and I did google it to make it sure it doesn’t exist. There is, in the present, electronic mahjong, but its like video poker but with mahjong, and our Courier manages to bet away the artifact while playing it, which you can’t do on a machine.
Going back to Neo-Macau briefly, the game’s setting is baffling. The Chinese aspect only shows in a few moments: the first level is in the kwoon of the 99 Dragons, most characters are Asian, and the buildings sometimes have sloped roofs, but it really doesn’t do anything else with the idea that we’re in China as the levels are all generic city areas besides the kwoon (Problem #20). The futuristic side is even less represented (Problem #21), because while the game has the good sense to stick the occasional Chinese lantern somewhere to remind you what country you’re in, the time period is represented pretty much only by the robot enemies. And if you’re thinking maybe they connect the robots with Chinese mythology about souls and demons, I assure you, the demons and souls in this game are all made up for this game only and have no mythological connections (Problem #22).
So, while the setting is poorly done, the game doesn’t stop giving you random tasks. After tracking down the courier and trying to get it back from the casino, being sent after the courier again, only to find out the casino DID have it but hid it very well, you are torn away from that part of the quest to… stop Tang’s men from harvesting the soul of an albino orca? (Problem #23) This task comes from nowhere, the albino orca looks more like a sperm whale, and the task is quickly forgotten and never brought up again as you get back on track. This must have been the one extra mission they had time to add to the game I guess.
So, we get back on track, gradually make our way to recovering the artifact, where we find, somehow, we’re too late to stop Tang from opening the portal to demonland, and naturally we fight… a hologram of him, or a ghost or something? Tang, the main bad guy of the game, is never directly fought or confronted, and doesn’t suffer for his crimes (Problem #24). You fight that hologram, then a demon steps through the portal, and the last 5 levels are you going into hell and fighting demons to reclaim the artifact and resurrect your master (but no other 99 Dragon members, because Drake really wasn’t beaten up too much about their deaths I guess). Overall, all the antagonists and characters in this game come and go so quickly with little to no build-up to some of them that it’s hard for the game to even keep track of who’s still involved. (Problem #25) Most of them enter and disappear from the story without fanfare, including the main villain, leaving only really Drake and the Master as characters worth paying attention to.
This already awful story isn’t helped by its presentation. Short cutscenes crop up through the game, delivering the minimum amount of details to connect the levels (Problem #26), not to mention the fact that Drake and every other character’s dialog consists mostly of straight exposition (Problem #27). Funnily enough, the whole game spills most its twists in the second cutscene! These so-called “twists” appear in a commercial that Drake seemingly watches but doesn’t pay attention to, where Tang says “bring us dead bodies so we can make cyborgs”, then he proceeds to be shocked as he gradually uncovers Tang’s plan to make a cyborg army out of the souls of the dead (Problem #28). When the game isn’t spending its time directly telling you what’s happening, it’s trying to be funny and failing, with most the humor being Drake’s one-liners or poorly executed punchlines (Problem #29). At one point, when you hear the courier is playing ELECTRIC MAHJONG, he’s bet most everything “but still has his pants”. The punchline is stated so awkwardly that I half-wondered if it qualified as a joke, but it must be one because of the framing behind it. The game does hit with one legitimately funny moment that most people seem to think wasn’t intentional but has to be. Drake, realizing he is undead and flowing with the powers of the gods, screams he is invincible and cannot be stopped, jumps out a window, and “dies”. This is absolutely framed as a joke and is, unsurprisingly, the game’s best moment for pulling it off well.
What happens after it, not so much. Four gods will greet you whenever you die, either in the story or for failing at a level. They are based on the four Chinese guardians, which are of course: Dragon, Turtle, what can generously be called a Tiger-ish Guy, and Woman. I wouldn’t even think they were going for a Chinese Guardian thing if not for the turtle and dragon both being there, and it again shows their half commitment to the Chinese side of things. The Four Spirits exist as an explanation for why you can lose a level but get revived, which is fine, many games try to justify returning from death, but every time you die, you go to the Serene Garden (Problem #30), a pointless ten second level where you can’t do anything and you only go there to hear one of the Guardians spout some snarky line that, more often than not, is one ripped straight from a cutscene so you’ve heard it before (Problem #31). This makes dying in the game even worse, as not only does it throw you back to the start of a level, but it loads up a pointless interstitial area that keeps you from immediately retrying, and THEN it replays the pre-level cutscene and needs to load up the level again (Problem #32).
PROBLEM #32: Visual Design
Look at your mushy faced master. If you thought Drake was bad-looking, nearly every other character in the game, even other main characters, looks even worse, with painted on faces that can barely move and make the cel-shading look even worse (Problem #33). It may seem I dislike cel-shading, but I don’t! It looks great in Wind Waker and other games, even if I don’t think it looks like a comic, but in Drake, the visual aesthetics does the game no favors, simplifying an already drab world into large blocks of single colors.
Besides the Master, all the characters are pretty generic, mostly men in suits, muscly men, women who will take a few times running into to identify as something besides more men in suits, and lumpy demons (Problem #34). The Four Spirits probably look the best out of all characters, and tellingly they can only hover up and down, whereas other characters have to walk and fight, or talk with their mouths closed but moving their jaw a bit entirely out of sync with their speech. Speaking of bad animations, (Problem #35), this game has some really bad animations! Drake himself moves around with less grace than an action figure, and whenever he jumps, he tries to strike a pose as if he was in a John Woo film, no matter how you were trying to move him. A short hop and he’ll position himself as if he’s doing a dramatic Matrix dive, only to of course land on his crotch and immediately correct to a standing position. Worst of all has to be his arm animations.
Drake will point his guns all around the place as you play, but both arms seem to be attached to their own mind. If there is an enemy to your right and an enemy to your left and you try to fire at both, Drake would rather bend his right arm around his back to shoot to the left and cross his left arm over his chest to shoot at the right rather than doing the expected badass pose of both arms stretched out to shoot at both enemies (Problem #36). Throughout the game Drake will struggle to point his arms properly, and it almost never looks good except when you’re pointing straight forward. It should also be mentioned that despite the cutscene models looking… acceptable, in game you can see that Drake’s face has almost no definition due to the lines being eliminated, and oftentimes, enemies are similarly ill-defined models (Problem #37). I can only assume Drake’s mouth is actually shut during gameplay since his face appears to be just a blank white slate with black eyes.
The game also does a terrible job at conveying damage and effectiveness in every aspect. There are, of course, many explosions throughout the game, but their range and their effectiveness is a mystery, as they are all weak affairs that look like they’re overlays rather than actual bursts of fire in the environment (Problem #38). While its hard to tell how effective these tiny fire farts are at killing things, its even harder to tell if you’re hurting enemies at all, as almost no enemy flinches or reacts to being under constant gunfire, right down to the bosses. (Problem #39). You can be unloading clip after clip into a boss, but they have no lifebars to indicate their remaining health and they will continue to act even as you effectively injure them. (Problem #40).
Before we move on, I feel its worth mentioning the absolutely pointless little text bubbles that pop up to mimic comic book sound effects (Problem #41), a failed attempt at reinforcing that comic book aesthetic and one that usually only appears when your character does something that isn’t particularly noisy. Machine gun fire will have “Ratta-tat-tat” appear, but when you jump, sometimes you land and its says THUD! randomly, but none of these sound effect bubbles are frequent enough or large enough to remind you this is meant to be like a comic book. Every now and then I’d be like, “Oh yeah, those sound effects appear.” Speaking of sound effects…
PROBLEM #42: Sound
Drake and the 99 Dragons has a lovely soundtrack of what must be 4 generic action-sounding background tracks with no energy or variety between them (Problem #43). Almost all of the music is sort of beeping or base tracks rather than anything with melody or feeling behind them, and the levels just seem to get one from the small clutch of them arbitrarily. The music is mostly easily ignored for being so generic and unobtrusive, but its the game’s sound design that really takes the cake for being awful. Despite being a game focused on gunplay and combat, nothing seems to pack any aural impact, with most weapons sounding exactly the same, only faster for automatics and slower for shotguns (Problem #44). It’s hard to tell what weapon an enemy has, as all weapons of the same firing speed sound the same and don’t seem to pack any real kick behind them. Nothing that hits hard sounds like it hits hard, and some baffling sound effect choices are made, like when Drake forcibly gets the dragon tattoo from his Master using two sticks with nails on them, which naturally sounds like someone playing a metal instrument.
More interestingly, almost the entire game’s cast are Chinese, so naturally their voices all sound like country folk in the US putting on cartoon voices (Problem #45). Tang himself, when you first see him in the commercial, sounds extremely Southern, and there are guards outside one building who sound like actual rednecks. The Master is the only person who doesn’t sound like an American who isn’t even trying, because instead its an American doing his best Chinese voice. The Four Spirits are evenly split between the bad generic deep-voice dragon and generic male voice for the tiger-ish guy, and a hissing turtle that is somewhat well done and the generic woman voice that is inoffensive.
Now, we’ve made it this far and have about half of the 99 problems with this game, but here’s where we hit our real stride, because while the game’s story and presentation are bad, most games can save themselves as long as the gameplay is good.
PROBLEM #46: The Gameplay
This is not one of those games.
Here’s where we’ll find our other sins this game has committed, and they’re going to be coming fast and loose now as we dig in deep and tear this thing open.
Drake is an incredibly basic 3rd-person run and gun shooter. I hesitate to refer to what the game has as “gunplay”, but it is technically the proper term, despite it hardly being play at all (Problem #47). The game’s crux is that you have two guns you can fire with either trigger, but these guns never actually run out of ammo, simply reloading and continuing to fire an endless spray. This wouldn’t be so bad if not for how you aim in this game, or rather, for how you don’t aim. The game does it for you with an autoaim feature (Problem #48) that saps the game of any real challenge in the gunplay department. Drake will often target the enemy closest to the center of the screen and you can open fire without any real concern for accuracy, but when you’re in a crowd or trying to target a specific enemy it can be problematic. I had a moment where Drake was staring right at the enemy in front of him while both his arms were firing off towards enemies who weren’t even onscreen! There is, however, a PC port of Drake of the 99 Dragons (Problem #49) which has proper aiming… and I can only imagine the game to be worse. The visuals are a step up, more vibrant and defined, but Drake’s auto-aim was clearly done to make up for the fact that most the time the camera does not allow you to properly target your foes (Problem #50). You’ll be thrown into an area full of bad guys, and the way you win is simply hammering the fire buttons and running around, somewhat guiding the autoaim but mostly hoping it will spot the characters you can’t really see.
The camera itself is another foe, and it really hates it when you aren’t in a flat open area (Problem #51) Many levels will have vertical areas where the camera believes you want to either look down on Drake or look up from his feet rather than allowing you to zoom out properly, and the game will often jerk itself to what it deems a proper angle while you’re trying to look around, which is why I am sure aiming in the PC port can only be torture. Thankfully, the auto-aim is used for most things you need to do, but it can’t target enemies who are too far away or a specific object you have to destroy in the final boss fight, thus giving you a taste of that manual aiming that works terribly (Problem #52). I half suspect that the gunplay was designed as an attempt to mimic 2D shooters in a 3D world (Problem #53) but auto-aim was not the way to do it. In 2D run and gun shooters its about aiming properly and handling crowds of admittedly weak enemies effectively, but Drake has you basically moving around and hoping you can target who you want to kill.
Despite training in a kwoon and the game seeming to suggest Drake has some martial arts, the entirety of combat focuses solely on your ability to shoot guns (Problem #54). The game does tease you in a cutscene with the idea of firing from motorcycle back, only for Drake to blow his bike up and take to foot to continue the same old style of shooting enemies until they die. This would almost be okay if the guns were good, but the starting pistols are so good there is rarely need to change, and the few guns on offer are all pretty generic (Problem #55). You have the default pistols, then a revolver that is too slow to be useful, machine guns that fire faster and presumably weaker, a shotgun that fires presumably stronger, a grenade launcher I almost never found and couldn’t properly use without hurting myself, and that’s about it. The guns are such small adjustments to each other and it usually felt best just to stick to the default gun, although bosses often were easier with automatics. There was no need for the variety though as you could do a just pistols run without any trouble at all or being forced to vary your tactics.
What really makes most fights almost too easy though are your special abilities, mainly your ability to Slow Time (Problem #56). Slowing Time is actually a good mechanic, but it is problematic in how easy it is to use. You almost never run out of power for it if you use it intelligently, but you can still enter a new room, turn on slow time, immediately shoot dead just about everything in there, and move on. The only time where this didn’t really work was during a fight where a miniboss got robot back-up a few seconds in and I had used all my slow time powers trying to mow her down quickly. There is also a Freeze Time (Problem #57) power but it slows you down so much as well that I can only imagine its good for aiming grenade shots, since trying to use pistols during it make it so slow that you’re spending all your time energy on basically just taking a small break. Any other abilities you get are pretty useless (Problem #58), in that they are so rarely usable or hardly do anything worth doing. The first one you get is Soul Attract, one so minor its not even a problem, but the fact you can’t tell you’re using it is (Problem #59). I had to find out you have to hold down the button to attract souls towards you since Drake does not do any sort of animation or appear any different when he’s doing it, and you can only tell its working because souls, which already home in towards you, will come towards you from far away. The other abilities are Soul Explode (Problem #60), an entirely useless ability where you blow up the soul pick-ups, which are how you get health and energy, in an attempt to blow up enemies. But it’s so slow, imprecise, and difficult to execute that it’s a waste of time, energy, and those souls! The last ability is the Undying Dragon (Problem #61), which you can only get by overhealing yourself and then you do an area explosion, which would be nice if you didn’t have the overhealing requirement, as if you are surrounded, you can bet you found that out by an offscreen guy shooting you down below max health.
The game’s health system is ALMOST good, in that I like how you get more of it. When you kill a guy, Drake can go over and collect their soul before it fully flies off to the afterlife and it will replenish his health and sometimes his energy (yellow gives only health, green gives health and energy, but the yellow seem so rare and hard to tell apart from the green they might as well be the same). You have 99 health normally, which is, yes, why the game is called Drake of the 99 Dragons. Supposedly your body houses 99 souls that you lose if you take damage. It’s a game trying to justify its just below 100 health bar by making a plot element that it mostly forgets about. But it sucks because you’ll never figure out how much health you lose from attacks (Problem #62). I can be hit by a car once and take 20 damage, or be hit again and instakilled. I can get shot by a guy and take 10, or take 30. Fall damage (Problem #63), which is standard for a bad game, is determined rather poorly, and sometimes you can cancel it by wall jumping but sometimes you can’t, and I can fall from the same height and take 30, 60, or instantly die. And then, there are Red Souls (Problem #64), which I thought at first would be okay, in that I thought they encouraged you to not just jump straight towards a dead body to grab a soul, but instead they are basically booby traps in unexpected places. In some areas there are dead bodies placed solely to be accidentally shot to release red souls that home towards you to stun you and deal damage, and I should remind you that this game has auto-aim, meaning most every time you shoot these dead bodies to release the red souls, its because the game auto-aimed you at them. Sometimes they will appear alongside health souls to make you not use your Soul Attract, which is how I felt they should work and I was fine with those time, but the game making you shoot these triggers for Red Souls in other instances was just the game being a dick.
But you might be wondering… where DOES Drake shoot all these guns?
PROBLEM #65: Level Design
If you answered hallways, large empty areas, and the streets, you’d be on the right path! The game does try and take you through nominally different locales, but besides the opening 99 Dragons Penthouse and the Casino, most are just themed on being in or outside of buildings, although they do make sure you revisit the Penthouse and Casino just for the sake of level “variety” (Problem #66). The levels are mostly pretty empty looking too (Problem #67), with enough window dressing to pass as what they claim to be and not much else. Expect boxes in factories, computers in the labs, and cars in the road. They occasionally do slap some cute sign up somewhere, but the levels were so sparsely decorated that I was legitimately surprised when I opened a door in a casino and saw slot machines… which were in a small room off to the side, like in every casino.
It’s barefacedly apparent the rooms are designed mostly to house the bad guys, or the occasional environmental hazard (Problem #68) which mostly consist of alarm lasers that are quite easy to avoid. All they really do is slow things down instead of providing an interesting challenge, but the real hazards are the blind corners (Problem #69). When you are running down a hallway you have to turn around ninety degree angles, and the games likes to squish enemies into hiding spots around corners or in small divots in the wall that you basically have to fall for once to know are there. And naturally, these ambush enemies are packing heat and will probably kill you the first time you fall for their cheap trap, so eventually you just learn to further abuse Slow Motion as you go around corners just in case. That’s of course when the game ups the ante by giving levels tons of decorative and seemingly pointless doors, where an enemy will pop up right as you walk past and shoot you down.
Speaking of those decorative doors, the game is terrible at leading you through the level, forcing them to place down flashing green light arrows all over the place to properly explain where to go next (Problem #70). The game even tries to suggest more complex ways through areas with these arrows, or sometimes it’s the only way to notice the dark hallway above you that is blending in with the dark room’s ceiling. Notably, during the mission where you chase down the courier, not only do you not really have to keep up as he’ll kindly wait if he’s too far ahead, but it tries to give you an interesting mechanic in following his blood trail from where you shot him… but still has the green arrows to point you the right way.
All the fake doors make it difficult to figure out which way to go without some guidance, and the game likes to strip away the arrows in its more maze-like areas, although the game is so linear that there is almost no room to deviate from the path once you’ve found it (Problem #71). This game has no extra content in it at all, no secrets, no optional objectives or power-ups, and this is despite the fact they stick you in large rooms with piled boxes and other objects that could have been a deviation from the main quest… although they also put a timer in the game (Problem #72) just to punish you if you do want to take a look around or can’t find the right green arrows in one of the more cluttered areas. I never had the timer go below 5 minutes for me so it’s not really an impediment, but I almost wonder if it is there to prevent players from exploring the place and possibly coming back disappointed.
Speaking of that timer, the reason I could finish the levels so easily is because the levels are surprisingly short. The level objectives (Problem #73) are often vague “move into the level” ones or simple “collect 6 of a thing” ones, and while the collecting one ends when you have them all, the area you are trying to reach in the majority of the levels is rarely clearly indicated, so you run into a place and suddenly you get a mission complete message. These abrupt mission endings (Problem #74) almost always left me surprised as I had no idea the level was about to end as I entered another generic grey room, although sometimes I completed a level after getting killed, and some levels end when the game does a scripted kill on Drake. It never felt like the objective was actually complete in those cases, just a sudden shift into the next cutscene because you apparently did it! These short levels ultimately total up to 25 levels total, the game itself taking me only around 5 hours to complete it because of these abrupt endings. It’s strange to complain about the game length (Problem #75) in a bad game, but you usually expect a certain amount of content in a game like this, and Drake is quick to rush you through it all, perhaps hoping you won’t notice its flaws as long as you get through it fast enough.
Really though, what makes the levels in Drake and the 99 Dragons awful is the platforming (Problem #76). For some reason, this run and gun shooter tries to include multiple points that require you to hop around the environment, which probably wouldn’t be so bad if the game didn’t decide to mess that up in every way it could.
Let me tell you about Drake’s Magnetic Shoes (Problem #77).
Although not literally magnetic, they might as well be, both for how they connect him to walls and how unreliably they do so. See, to be even more like an action movie (or comic I guess?) Drake can both Wall Run (Problem #78) and Wall Jump (Problem #79), and neither works they way they are meant to. I mentioned earlier that Drake almost always does an overdramatic dive when he jumps, and to activate either wall jump or wall run, you have to jump at a wall. So, while Drake’s body figures out how to make that work, you’re usually running up the wall before you are ready to be. The game loves to make obstacles where you have to run up a wall and jump, or just jump from wall to wall, but since the game decides when it will and won’t register, every attempt leaves you wondering for a second if it succeeded, and a second is how long you have to complete the run or jump. You can only wall run once before freefalling, but you can jump between walls three times, naturally making it possible to skip around in areas the games doesn’t want you to but making it nearly impossible to do it when the game expects you to have a mastery of it. Most of your fun with fall damage will happen when the game wants Drake’s magnetic shoes to work exactly as intended instead of how they’re programmed.
Notably, at one point we see Drake in an elevator (Problem #80), and the game’s platforming engine was not designed to handle elevators, so expect quite a few of them throughout. I wager the issue comes from the game trying to process the fact he can run on walls and the floor, but when you’re in an elevator or on a raising or lowering platform, Drake and any other object on it has trouble comprehending they’re meant to be on it. Characters abruptly bounce up and down as the elevator stutters in its attempts to carry you, and the camera really likes to try and get an upskirt on Drake during them if their an interior elevator, or you get a God’s eye view if he’s on an exterior one.
Most of the common elements of the levels are changed when you enter hell to fight demons (Problem #81), and the abrupt change to the game and not really for the better. Technically the spirit world, it falls into all the same tropes of a typical hellscape. It’s red, its got bones and fleshy stuff all over the place, and it loves to reuse this corridor where all you do is run down it and gun the demons that spawn in. When you get outside though, the game throws its cruelest curveball yet: small platforms (Problem #82). The game had you jumping onto tiny metal bars and signs in earlier levels, but usually it was just one problematic one, and the janky wall jumping could sometimes save your life. In hell, the platforms are one Drake wide and he still does his goofy jumps to reach them. If you miss one of these tiny platforms, Drake will freefall, likely down to another platform as they spiral upwards for much too long. The best thing to do when you miss your jump is to actually guide Drake towards a bottomless pit, as they do no damage and the game will mercifully respawn you pretty close to where you fell off from.
The game has a few other quirks to it, like keycards and fans that will lift you up into the air, but they’re not particularly offensive save where they mix with the games actual failings. But now that we know where we shoot the bad guys… its probably time to meet the bad guys, isn’t it?
PROBLEM #83: The Enemies
Drake of the 99 Dragons has quite a few different foot soldiers in it, or at least they do a good job of reskinning the same few concepts over and over. Most levels have bad guys in suits shooting at you, but some levels will add strong guy who tries to attack you physically! Almost every bad guy is either a shooter or a physical attacker, and when you run into a room, slow down time, and unload, you’ll realize neither pose much threat. The shooters will at least sometimes get a shot on you, but the physical attackers never really get a chance to get close to you unless you’re sucking on purpose. Even the demons near the end of the game shoot red energy balls or smack you, making them at best a mix of the two common enemy types. Some enemies I never found out what they could do, because you had no reason to ever allow them to pull it off.
There is one type of enemy that is particularly annoying, however, and that would be the flying enemies (Problem #84). Goons with jetpacks appear in many levels and often far away from you or in a vertical shaft. These guys fire guided missiles that explode on contact, and while you can usually swallow a few rockets well enough, its really hard to hit these flying enemies as the game struggles to adjust your auto-aim with their movement. The game loves pulling your targeting reticle into solid walls or refusing to target them because they’re too far away, so sometimes its best to just ignore them (and I’m not entirely convinced you can’t just run past most enemies in general). However, those missiles will keep coming, but DON’T WORRY! The game’s loading screens have a hint system! And one of those hints is: “Missiles Can Be Shot” (Problem #85). The hint system seems to not understand its own mechanics at times with suggestions like these, as the auto-aim will not lock onto missiles, meaning even if you’re surrounded by a vortex of missiles, you’ll only ever shoot them if you’re lucky. I did shoot down a few, but never on purpose.
I suppose its worth mentioning that the enemy AI isn’t too good (Problem #86), which can be a blessing at times in that you can be standing next to an enemy on a gun turret and he’ll just keep firing it forward rather than moving. Most enemies have one set idea of what they’re going to do and won’t deviate from it, making imposing enemies like the guys in Aliens style loaders easy to beat as they mostly like to spin in predetermined areas and look threatening. Some enemies also have the same problem as Drake, where they shoot off to where their arms are pointing rather than where their target is. This janky AI is the main crux of what gives the game is bipolar difficulty (Problem #87), as most areas are either too easy thanks to slow motion and incompetent enemies, or annoyingly difficult because enemies with good firepower are pointed the right way. That and the bad platforming with magnetic shoes will cause most your deaths rather than any fault of your own, but you gradually learn through dying how you have to approach that area.
Surprisingly, most the games glitches come from the enemies as well, although its often hard to tell what is a glitch and what was just part of the game’s design (Problem #88). The same applies to Drake’s magnetic shoes, but while you’ll notice the problems with wall running and jumping, I didn’t know some of the issues the enemies had until I read a walkthrough after beating the game! The obvious glitches (Problem #89) often involved enemies doing weird things like pressing through platforms they were on or doors they were waiting behind, as well as just continuing to live their lives after dying. They will no longer be able to hurt you or affect the world, but I killed a guy on a covered turret once who just kept trying to fire it after he died, and sometimes after killing a level boss you get a brief moment to see him walking around just fine after his death animation. The glitches I didn’t notice often involved improper coding on how much damage an enemy is meant to do, with a few opponents completely neutered to the point their attacks don’t properly register.
The most glaring glitch happened after level 20, and I’m still not exactly sure what causes it, although I have a hunch. The level is a boss fight, and the first few times I beat it, the game froze and made my controller rumble endlessly (Problem #90), and after a few attempts it just kept happening. Finally, I managed to get past him, and seemingly the fight was shorter that time, so perhaps it only freezes if you take too long to beat him?
I suppose its time to mention the bosses and minibosses (Problem #91), the minibosses being so unexceptional I didn’t think to label them as such until I saw the walkthrough do the same. In a few levels there are enemies that are marginally stronger than the others and appear at the end of the level, with some you are able to identify as important but others you’re surprised afterwards were meant to be important. Most of the time I’d kill them like any other enemy, or they’d be amidst a crowd of enemies and die alongside them, but one miniboss had potential. At one point a cutscene sets up this character called Banshee (Problem #92), and she is said to be the right hand of the villain, a real force to be reckoned with that Drake is shocked by her ruthlessness. So, when its time to fight her… well, she’s glitched so her attacks are really weak, the fight’s difficult part is she sends like six cyborgs at you at once so you can’t use your slow motion until then, and then you just shoot her until she dies, and its not even acknowledged in the cutscene. This will become a trend with most battles, as the game is anticlimax after anticlimax in almost every aspect of the story (Problem #93), as I mentioned earlier with no defeat of Tang and which will come up as we look at a few more bosses.
The first boss you fight is Ossu, (Problem #94) who looks like they took Killer Croc from the Batman cartoon and gave him shades. You fight him at a gas station where he’s twirling a chain that supposedly deflect bullets, and the game urges you to use the environment against him. After trying that for a while, I slowed down time once and opened fire on him and managed to kill him the normal way, so I don’t know if I accidentally found an opening or if the game was just making up the bullet deflection thing. I feel it might be a little of both, but either way, its attempt to get me to do something besides just shoot a boss to death failed. The game continues to throw bosses you just shoot until they die with the Master Cyborg (your master’s body being used for the cyborg army) who you just keep shooting and avoiding the missiles of and the Spirit Marshall Envoy (a giant demon praying mantis monster thing) that sucks out the souls of a nearby morgue that mostly just give you a constant dripfeed of health as you keep both triggers pressed the whole fight (Problem #95). Neither fight is too difficult save where the Spirit Marshall froze my game after killing him too slowly, although it does supposedly get stronger as it absorbs more souls so maybe the game freezing was a poorly coded punishment for being too slow to stop its power increase.
Technically, we have one more boss, but first let me mention the final miniboss and one of the few of note: the Ghost (Problem #96). This guy killed your Master and stole the artifact before handing it off to the world’s most incompetent courier, and most the game is Drake trying to get revenge on this guy. The ghost looks kind of spooky and evil despite having a cartoonish hillbilly voice, but the fight with him is, unsurprisingly, an anticlimax. He’s on top of a pile of bones in hell, and you just need to run circles around it, firing your guns with the auto-aim, and he’ll keep attacking too slowly to ever hit you. There, you avenged your master.
After killing the Ghost you are dropped down into a pit where the final boss waits (Problem #97)
I should note that this character is never foreshadowed or mentioned before this fight, and he mostly just seems to be a generic ruler of hell type manifested as a three headed snake dragon thing…who is both the easiest and hardest boss once you figure out how to fight him. At first, he’s invincible and there’s no good indication of that, but there’s something on a nearby wall covered in bones. Here, you must do for the only time in the game, non-auto-aiming. Of course, Drake will still be tempted to shoot at the boss if it’s too close, so you need to press yourself against the bones and hope you found the one sweet spot where the final boss can’t instantly kill you with three quick attacks in a row. So, gradually you uncover the red thing behind the bones, which has a diagram of the boss, but its hard to tell how many bones you need to break as there is no indication the boss is truly vulnerable yet. The diagram flashes green on the boss heads which I think is the go-ahead, but when you open fire on the boss it sounds and looks no different than when you did it to him while he was invincible. Still, if you’re standing in that sweet spot and chose the right time to open fire on the boss again, he just… dies. He doesn’t get any harder, he doesn’t cover the diagram back up with bones, he just sits there and takes it while you slowly mow down each head.
And that’s the game! The ending, unsurprisingly, is pretty bad (Problem #98). You have recovered the body and soul of your master and reunite them to bring him back to life (although Drake doesn’t seem to care about the other dead 99 dragons still), and Drake gets some platitude from him and the four spirits saying now he’s even better than before. Drake says something like “so this is the end” and a spirit says “no, this is just the beginning”, likely a sequel hook that never caught anything, although that’s likely why Tang never got dealt with. The credits roll, and you realize you just spent 5 hours on this game.
Ultimately, the biggest problem I found with Drake of the 99 Dragons (besides trying to remember the title properly) is PROBLEM #99: It’s Mindless. Not mindless fun, but a game that does not require much thought to beat. You run into an area, the game aims at the enemies for you while you slow down time so you don’t die, you rinse and you repeat. The game throws “challenges” at you in the form of bad platforming or cheap ambushes, and then the four spirits scold you for falling for them. One of the four spirits even has the line about how brute strength alone won’t work, you need to use strategy. The only time I used strategy was to circumvent what the game wanted me to do, taking advantage of janky or overpowered mechanics to beat parts. Brute Strength worked 90% of the time.
Drake is not nearly so bad as games like Bubsy 3D or Superman 64, but its a more subtle kind of bad. Bubsy and Superman hit you with the awfulness right out the gate and keep bringing it until the end, but Drake has a nice enough looking cover, and it will open the door and invite you in before you begin to realize not everything is quite right. The place is mostly empty, and Drake has taped two guns to you that keep firing as he makes you follow the glowing green arrows through his place, and then he pushes you out the back door before you even got to think much about what was going on inside that place. It’s easy to see how someone who wasn’t thinking about what was going on might like this game, but there are zombie shooting games that exist to give you that cheap thrill of shooting down a bunch of things at once, and they at least have proper visceral feedback and require you to think a bit about what you’re doing. While not nearly as offensive as other terrible games, Drake of the 99 Dragons still is poorly made, poorly conceived, and as inspired as its generic main character.
Drake is at least slightly better than the company he keeps on the bottom of the ladder, but being a rung above garbage doesn’t mean you’re not trash. This game’s got 99 problems, and Drake’s only one.