Culture Brain's Hiryū no Ken fighting series dates back to the 1985 arcade release, Shanghai Kid. The 1987 NES title, Flying Dragon: The Secret Scroll – exclusive to Japan and the US (1989) – took the original concept and expanded on it, as well as paving the way for future entries in the franchise. This martial arts outing follows Culture Brain's arcade to NES adaption, Kung-Fu Heroes, in 1986 (US, 1988).
In Flying Dragon, players take control of a young Shaolin monk named Ryuhi, who lives in a mountainous region of China and sets out on a journey after his teacher is attacked and robbed of his Secret Scrolls of Hiryu-no-Ken. Fortunately, the sixth volume - the Shingan No Sho - is still in the pair's possession, and so at the request of his dying master Ryuhi departs on a quest; he eventually enters the World Tournament of Combat Sports to challenge the mysterious Tusk Soldiers, linked to the incident, and reclaim the stolen scrolls.
Flying Dragon channels classic martial arts stories about defying odds - overcoming evil and ultimately saving the day - that would be right at home in a Karate Kid movie of the same era. Unfortunately this is Flying Dragon's downfall. While attempting to portray the full picture of our young protagonist's adventure, the game sadly bites off more than it can chew, bringing two problematic styles of gameplay together to tell its tale.
The first segment in Flying Dragon is side-scrolling platform stages referred to as “The Journey", and illustrates Ryuhi's travels. Here, the player is required to battle an army of thugs and bosses to increase their punching, kicking and jumping abilities, gather items such as money bags to increase their score and - most importantly - collect keys to enter tournament matches. Admittedly, this section of the game does not shine. It lacks depth, is highly repetitive with ongoing waves of enemy attacks, and is unforgiving in terms of difficulty. The controls also lack the required precision and responsiveness. On a positive note, the difficulty factor is slightly lessened courtesy of a nice big health bar and the Virtual Console save state feature – making progress somewhat feasible.
Once Ryuhi overcomes the journey, the player is thrust into tournament matches. These sections are comparable to a regular fighting game, but have slower animations and are less fluent overall. This mode draws inspiration from Culture Brain's original arcade title, Shanghai Kid, with use of a target mark system to indicate the opponent's next attack, and also display where they are most vulnerable. Various attacks can be executed including spinning kicks and the legendary Hiryo-no-ken when the K.O. gauge is filled, and secret scrolls providing new abilities can also be collected by defeating opponents. Possess enough skill, and these fights are more than just button mashing, but a mixture of well timed attacks and blocks.
In terms of sound and music, the whole package is representative of typical martial arts media of the time – with classic punching, kicking and blocking sounds, and a traditional style of music. The only problem is the lack of variety, with musical beats lasting mere seconds and then looping for the entirety of the game. Visually speaking, Flying Dragon is a standard affair. The platform sections aren't all that appealing, although the fighting segments look a bit better based on the background environments and a closer up view of the fighters.
Flying Dragon: The Secret Scroll is an ambitious game. While the back story is inspiring, the two gaming concepts meshed together do not work in harmony; this title would have been best left solely as a fighting game given Culture Brain's previous experience. The mechanics in the tournament segments of Flying Dragon are a lot stronger, but the efforts here are unfortunately undone by the platform sections which are sure to deter most players from delving deeper. Unless you're an absolute die-hard of the now-classic martial arts game genre, look elsewhere for your next fight.