DARK SEAL / Data East / Arcade
As a kid I went to a ton of arcades, and I always thought that if a cabinet was even mildly popular at some point in the mid-80s to mid-90s I would have seen it in person somewhere at some point. I don't know what's up with Dark Seal. It looks like it should have been popular, because it's basically a spiffy hybrid upgrade of Gauntlet and Cadash, and those were both all over the place. But I'd never even heard of it until over two decades later and the MAME scene.
Anyway. Data East gets into the "fantasy hackathon with mild RPG elements" space with this one in the early 90s. The kingdom of Whatever is under threat from some dick. Choose Clunky Knight, Hottie Sorceress, Vampire Hunter D or Anachronistic Ninjer and get into the fray.
The perspective / camera angle is one of the best things about the game. It's an isometric view, but with free eight-directional movement, which really gives it both a "dungeon crawl" and "Gauntlet on steroids" feel. The base gameplay is pretty similar to Gauntlet, minus the monster generators; monsters are either hanging out at fixed points in the level already or just kinda run or spawn in at times. You truck through them with one base attack, which is a little different for each character. The knight swings a hefty morning star which he can do an optional twirl with, the sorceress is basically a walking flamethrower (but can only throw short-range straightforward columns for some reason), the bard has a long spear and the ninja has the usual endless shurikens which he hucks in a sort of spreadshot pattern.
If it were just the base attacks, the game would get tedious pretty quick. What spices combat up is the variety of magic. Each character has their own "magic book" with unique spells. You can unleash them as you fill up your colorful magic meter sidebar thing. These usually involve transforming into something temporarily, with a wide range of options from The Human Torch to Medusa. The other side thing going on is that among the various treasures you're constantly picking up, you'll sometimes find pieces of equipment that raise your offense / defense / movement speed or in some cases even modify your base attack.
Though the level of detail and the animation aren't anything special for the period, the dungeon and enemy designs are pretty good here, particularly some of the oversize bosses. The music is also very good.
One simple thing holds the game back, and it's that Data East just plain got greedy with it. The game is a cheap hit fest for much of its length, and it just gets worse as it goes on. Some of the bosses have attacks that just plain appear to be unavoidable.
The characters are also unbalanced. The knight is great, the sorceress is pretty good once you upgrade her a little, but I never found a situation where the bard or ninja were really a good choice. The ninja in particular seems like he was just cobbled in because ninjas were SO HOT RIGHT NOW in the late 80s.
This one was almost a big winner, but I think I see why it didn't get significant market penetration
(at least in the US). When it comes to gameplay balance Data East basically just said "hell with it, not gonna bother, just feed me all your quarters." There are definitely things to like here, but on the whole it doesn't come off as well as other fantasy-arcade RPG-lite hackfests like the D&D series from Capcom.
* Gameplay Video