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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior)

Generally considered to be the forefather to the entire JRPG genre, Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior) was a relatively popular title in the NES's heyday, aided by a Nintendo Power campaign that would give many fans free copies of the game and an accompanying strategy guide.  But is this quest still worth undertaking today, or is it simply too dated to retain its charm?

Dragon Quest was originally released in 1986 was a massive hit, bringing a complex RPG experience to home consoles and losing little from its PC and tabletop counterparts - the player still had to gather clues from townspeople, upgrade equipment and overcome massive dungeons in order to succeed.  Inspired by the likes of visual novels and, of course, the genre-defining Wizardry franchise, the game proved to be a success, selling millions of copies in Japan and kicking off a massively popular franchise which continues to this day.

In America, however, the franchise had a considerably tougher time.  While all four of the Famicom Dragon Quest games did get ported over, they saw relatively low sales as the RPG genre's popularity hadn't yet grown much.  The first game was the most prominent example of this; despite a large marketing campaign by Nintendo, Dragon Warrior (renamed due to rights issues) proved to be unpopular at retail.  Facing a financial disaster for this, the game was later given away for free alongside subscriptions to Nintendo Power magazine along with a player's guide that essentially provided a step-by-step walkthrough for the whole adventure.

Still, while it is easy to dismiss the game as "basic" and "generic" these days, Dragon Warrior showed quite a bit of refinement compared to many other games of the era.  The game's translation was actually surprisingly good, with virtually no namespace limitations leading to confusion and a well-written script that uses medieval English without coming off as forced.  This in turn helps the player figure out many of the puzzles on their own power, as some NPC or clue in the game world will usually tell you exactly what needs to be done and where necessary items are found - a very strong contrast to games like Castlevania II and Milon's Secret Castle, where the overall design was opaque and the spotty translations made puzzles almost impossible to decipher without outside help.  Enix clearly put a lot of effort into making the game stand out, and it's a bit of a shame that it went largely unappreciated by gamers of the era.

A few elements of the game can accurately be described as "basic", though.  There is only one playable character in the game and their abilities are more or less set - you get the same list of spells and overall gameplay each time you play, with only a very slight variation in your starting stats determined by the name you input for your character.  While there are several towns and dungeons in the game to explore, the game can only be saved at the starting castle, requiring frequent trips back to record one's progress.  Combat is similarly simple, always pitting the player against a single monster at a time, which gradually grow tougher as the player crosses bridges and enter new dungeons further away from the start point.  There aren't really any elemental weaknesses to speak of, either, and only two status effects, so combat is fairly generic overall.  Still, there is a relatively large amount of variety in the enemies, from the iconic Slimes to oddities like Drolls and Druins to, of course, the powerful and dangerous Dragons, most of which still appear in franchise entries today.  Much emphasis is placed on level grinding as well, with it comprising the vast majority of game time - even in speedruns of the game, roughly 80% of one's time is spent powering up  to be ready for the next dungeon.

A few other refinements were made to the NES port of the game as well.  Some extra graphics were added for shorelines, and the gameplay overall saw some tweaking; in the Famicom original, all NPCs would always face toward the screen and the player would have to choose a direction each time they wanted to interact with the environment.  The NES port changes this for the better, giving each character a set of sprites for facing in each direction and having interactions automatically take place where they're facing (or the tile they're standing on).  The Famicom game also utilized a password system to save one's progress, which was just a bit cumbersome; the NES version changes this for the better, utilizing a more convenient battery backup system.

Graphical improvements aside, the game retains a simple but charming style, with simple, tile-based representations of water, trees, grass, swamp and bricks for the locales.  The most detailed elements come in battle, with some surprisingly elaborate enemy designs; still, animation is relatively minimal throughout, with attacks simply represented by vibrating the screen or making a sprite flicker momentarily.  Still, for a game originally released in 1986, it works relatively well.  The music and sound effects in the game are much in the same vein - simple, but iconic.  So much so that they're still used in series entries over thirty years later.

In short, Dragon Warrior/Quest was an icon in its time, as well as a good NES RPG, showing a level of polish that few other text-heavy games of the era did.  It is a bit hard to revisit nowadays, though, owing to its heavy emphasis on level grinding and overall slow pace.  Still, it's at least worth a look as an important piece of history for the JRPG genre.

Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Enix
Platform: Famicom/NES, MSX, PC-9801, Super Famicom, Sattelaview, Game Boy Color, Mobile, Android, iOS, Nintendo 3DS, Playstation 4, Switch
Released: 1986, 1989, 1993, 2000, 2004, 2011, 2014, 2017, 2019
Recommended Version: Most of the game's remakes and ports make attempts to update the gameplay a bit to more modern sensibilities, having enemies award more experience points and gold and updating the graphics and sounds a bit to more modern standards.  The Game Boy Color version is a personal favorite, adding more animation and redoing the music in the Game Boy's unique soundfont, making it sound quite nice.  The Switch version is easily available as a relatively cheap download or on a (quite overpriced) physical compilation with 2 and 3.