Editorial | 1/28/2012 at 7:55 PM

Co-Op Classics: Welcome to the Year of the Dragon

The all time top five co-op games featuring dragons

This past week marked the beginning of a new lunar year. According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2012 is the year of the dragon. The sign of the dragon comes along but once every twelve years, and is said to be the luckiest year of the entire cycle. Across all cultures, dragons have always been popular, and it's not hard to see why. They are symbolic of tremendous strength and fierce power, and have captured the fancy of many throughout history.

Is it any surprise, then, that dragons are featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of video games? From the earliest Multi user Dungeons to the latest MMOs, and every genre in between, dragons have appeared in all sorts of titles. Today, we'll take a look at five great game series featuring dragons. Each of these games have been quite popular, and of course, each of them include the co-op gameplay that we all enjoy.

The Double Dragon series

We begin our little countdown with one of the most influential games of all time. Yes, I suppose it's cheating to use Double Dragon on this list; after all, apart from the title screen, pictured above, there aren't any dragons to speak of. So why the title? All the martial arts moves that partners Billy and Jimmy learned gave them the right to earn the nickname "Double Dragons", according to the more detailed story tied to the Japanese version of the game.

Real reptilian creatures aside, Double Dragon is without a doubt the most influential game on this entire list. It was the first successful side-scrolling brawler that allowed two gamers to play at the same time. No taking turns here, unless you played the lame NES adaptation, at least. Double Dragon was followed by several official sequels, but even more co-op games followed its innovative gameplay patterns, including modern titles like Castle Crashers.

Bubble Bobble

Back in the mid 1980s, there was one debate on everyone's mind, something everyone you talked to had an opinion on. New Coke vs. Old Coke? No, friends, it was about the identity of Bubble Bobble's adorable protagonists. Were they dinosaurs, or dragons? Even today, some sources claim they are dragons, while others hold to the dinosaur theory. Personally, I'm coming down on the dragon side; we all know dragons breathe fire, and these little cuties breathe bubbles, which is pretty close, right?

Bubble Bobble has been an enduring series, with a large number of entries, the most recent of which was released in 2009. The appealing characters, addictive gameplay, and stellar music have struck a chord with gamers for decades. Bub and Bob teamed up for a spinoff series, Puzzle Bobble (aka Bust-a-Move), with similar success. Dragons, or dinosaurs? Who cares, when the games are so good!

The Golden Axe Series

Moving up on the list, we come to a beloved hack and slash series from the late 80s and early 90s. Golden Axe was the gold standard, if you'll forgive the pun, for brawlers in both the arcades and home consoles for many years. As befits the swords and sorcery genre, dragons were a big part of the experience. In the original game, you could use dragon-like creatures as mounts. The Genesis sequel, Golden Axe II, gave Tyris Flare a wicked fire-breathing dragon as her ultimate magic attack. And check out that Boris Vallejo cover!

What was it about Golden Axe that made it so great? It wasn't any one thing, so much as several strong features all wrapped up into one. The heroes were appealing, very distinct from one another in play. The decision to save potions up for one mega blast, or use them more recklessly for a lesser effect was interesting. Surely, though, solid three player co-op throughout was the biggest factor. If only the most recent Golden Axe, 2008's Beast Rider, had included this vital aspect of the series' legacy...

Altered Beast

So far, we've looked at a pair of non-dragons, two maybe-dragons, and a game where you can ride or summon dragons as allies. That's okay and all, but wouldn't it be better to actually BE a dragon in a game? Early adopters of Sega's Genesis console got to do just that in Altered Beast, an arcade port that was the system pack-in before a certain speedy blue hedgehog arrived on the scene. On certain levels, your protagonists would turn into strange were-dragon hyrids. Flying around the screen and zapping anything that moved was undeniably fun.

Unlike the previous games on the list, Altered Beast wasn't followed by very many sequels, which really is a shame. Buffing your skinny human dude up into crazy were-creatures was a hoot, especially when you could steal the little blue orbs from your co-op partner, preventing them from powering up. And who could forget the unintentionally horrible digitized speech? "Wise... fwom your gwabe!" Let's hope the franchise comes back from the dead and onto modern consoles sometime soon.

Capcom's Dungeons & Dragons Brawlers

When it comes to dragons in video games, most people immediately think of the many games with Dragon in the title. Old school grognards might mention Dragon Warrior, while modern gamers probably think of Dragon Age, or even Skyrim. All of these titles, though, are single player affairs. RPGs, most of which have a strong dragon presence, usually are intended for one. That's fine, but this is Co-Optimus, and we are looking for teamwork and cooperation between multiple players in this list.

We can still go back to the original RPG, the tabletop sensation that brought the gaming world such concepts as levels and hit points: Dungeons & Dragons. The venerable D&D license intersected with cooperative gameplay elements on a few different occasions, but the most memorable are Capcom's D&D side scrolling brawlers: Tower of Doom in 1993, and Shadow over Mystara in 1996.

RPGs and beat-em-ups might seem like an odd mix, but the formula was used to great success in River City Ransom, among other games. By the mid 90s, the brawler was king in the arcades, and Capcom was the cream of the crop. Couple their peerless expertise with the most influential role playing game of all time, and you have a recipe for success. The distinctive character classes, signature spells, and famous monsters of the tabletop game were converted seamlessly into video game form. You would be hard pressed to find better examples of the beat-em-up in any era. Cementing it's place on this list, the series included the biggest, baddest dragon boss you'll ever find, pictured above. Yeah, dragons are awesome.

So there you have it, the all-time best co-op games featuring dragons.There is one honorable mentions that is great in its own right, but didn't quite make the list: Rampage, with Lizzie, a fire-breathing giant reptile as a playable character. Did we leave your favorite dragon game off the list? Let us know! In the meantime, may you find luck throughout the remainder of 2012, year of the dragon.