Ten years ago, 2-D games were effectively dead. Aside from the occasional Game Boy Advance gem, the genre was played out. There wasn't much innovation, and all the good ideas seemed to have been used up.

But indie developers and smaller studios have changed that notion and transformed the landscape. Seeing an opportunity and harnessing gamers' collective nostalgia, they're leading a resurgence of the 2-D side-scroller. Behemoth had success with "Castle Crashers." "Super Meat Boy" was a critical darling. Meanwhile, "Braid" emerged as the biggest leap in the genre since the 8-bit era.

Courtesy of AtlusAn elf rides a giant battle cat while attacking goblins in "Dragon’s Crown." The new titles by Vanillaware games features
Courtesy of Atlus An elf rides a giant battle cat while attacking goblins in "Dragon's Crown." The new titles by Vanillaware games features lush hand-drawn artwork. ( Courtesy of Atlus )

Riding this resurgence, Vanillaware offers a game that's inspired by the 2-D beat-'em ups from the arcades. "Dragon's Crown" will give gamers flashbacks to titles such as "Golden Axe" or "Final Fight." It takes the concept of controlling a warrior who pummels an army of thugs, then brings it forward with modern ideas.

"Dragon's Crown" has a strong role-playing element as players choose one of six characters and level up that warrior throughout an 18-hour-plus adventure. During each stage, they will find gear that makes them more powerful while experience points let them choose new abilities on skill trees. They will even find bones of fallen heroes, some of whom are real gamers, and they can resurrect the avatars and use them as AI companions if no one is available for four-player co-op.


That's par for the course, but Vanillaware adds touches to the level design, side quests and structure that make "Dragon's Crown" feel new. The developers put in a pointer, which lets players touch the environment to uncover treasure, secret rooms and runes that grant temporary boosts. It works great on the PlayStation Vita but feels cumbersome on the PlayStation 3.

When it comes to structure, the campaign offers branching paths and hidden rooms. This effectively doubles the size of the adventure and changes the pacing. Players won't be button-mashing their way from point A to point B. In some instances, they will have side quests that require puzzle solving. Other times, the big twist is in the boss fights, which require careful thought and observation of the environment. This is a thinking man's brawler.

All of this serves to highlight the star of "Dragon's Crown" -- the hand-drawn art. It's a hallmark of Vanillaware games, and the team's latest effort is its finest work. It's lush and vivid -- unfiltered imagination in pixels. Yes, some visuals can be racy, verging on raunchy, but it's so well-crafted, so vibrant, players can't help but admire it. (That's also why I recommend playing this on the PS3 over Vita.)

"Dragon's Crown" shows that 2-D titles can still surprise players and that there's more life in sprites. A new generation of gamers just has to discover it.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/gcacho.

'Dragon's Crown'

* * *

Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita
Rating: Teen