Review: Dragon Warrior (Retro)
- Release Date (NA): December 11, 1986
- Publisher: Enix (before Square Soft bought them)
- Genres: Traditional RPG
Single playerLocal MultiplayerOnline MultiplayerCo-operative
Dragon Warrior was released in 1986, almost 30 years ago. As one of the larger, self proclaimed Dragon Quests nerds of GBAtemp, I would like to take a look into the past at this game. Kinda like how when we as a collective race look into the stars, we are seeing the light that was produced billions of years ago just now reaching earth, I am going to examine this game from 2013, and not 1986 from whence it came.
The original title Dragon Quest was created by Yuji Horii, a semi popular creator of similar minded role playing games in Japan. But being big in Japan wasn't enough. Teaming up with the immensely popular artist Akira Toriyama and musician Koichi Sugiyama to spearhead development of the legendary series. The title was a hit in its home country, but less favorable in the west. As time progressed, developers took a few hints from the ROM hacks and the game saw numerous re-releases with more "forgiving" mechanics. DW spawned enough interest for a trilogy with an overarching storyline as well as a few manga and anime productions to fill the gaps between the games.
The game's story is as cliche as it gets. The king tells you there is a dragon who has stolen the princess and some plot item known as "the balls of light". Fantastic naming choice by the way, Enix. You eventually save the princess but soon realize you have to defeat the Dragonlord and recover the light balls before the land is restored. Luckily for you, someone in the Dragon Warrior universe took time out of his/her busy day and carve instructions into a stone tablet depicting exactly what to do, should something like this happen. More interesting, is that the Dragonlord's castle is visible from the very first time you step out of town, across a tiny river.
One of the more slightly redeeming aspects of Dragon Warrior are the chiptunes. Well, at least at first. There are only a few of them and they never change. The town theme is the town theme and the battle theme is the battle theme. And by battle 45 you are going to start reducing the volume on your TV, or mute it all together.
Graphically, this game is an eyesore. Castles and towns are all tiled with the same 7 or 8 repeating tiles. Not only that but once you've seen one town you have basically seen them all, given that there are only 5 towns in the game and they're all built out of the same material. I think the only things that are actually animated are the towns people wandering randomly around town. At least I think they are human. It's kinda hard to tell.
The over world does only as well as it needs to convey plains, forest, mountains and water. Other than that, the most artistic visuals in the game come from the battle sequences. The backgrounds are all hand sprited, not tiled, and monsters are actually the most detailed and interesting parts of the game. Most of them are original and, surprising in contrast with the rest of the game, refreshing. Unfortunately, that says nothing for the actual battle system...
The game can almost be divided into two parts: Towns and the over world map.
Dragon Warrior starts you off in the king's chambers, which is located in town. The first thing you are going to encounter when you pop this great grandpa of a game into your NES is the hideous dialogue. As the king tries to explain in broken Elizabethan English what your quest is, I'm guessing you are already thinking about turning it off. Which is probably a good idea, considering that the next thing you have to do is figure out how to get down out of the kings chambers. It took me a few minutes to figure out that there is an actual command in the menu to use stairs. The menu is used for EVERYTHING. Opening chests. Doors. Need to talk to someone? You're gonna have to use the menu. Is that a flight of stairs? Guess what. Menu. There is even a command "Search" which allows you to search around your feet for items. Great. Just what I want to do, walk around the world map having to bring up a menu every time I want to look down at my feet. If you managed to get out of the kings chambers, the next thing to do is wander your way out of the castle. You can find townspeople and guards to chat with, if your heart really desires more cryptic dialogue with bland NPCs saying bland things in illegible English. Trot to the edge of town to trigger to over world map (Surprisingly, there ISN'T a menu command to "Leave town") and really start the adventure.
Combat is where the game really shines. Or where it would, if the game had any intentions of keeping your interest. Battle consists of you and an enemy. You trade blows like every traditional RPG. Combat really never gets any more complex than you in first person trading blows with the lone monster you happened to cross paths with. Due to limited space on the game card, you never get any party members at all. You only ever run into one monster at a time. Save that the monsters are well drawn, there is really nothing interesting here either. Battle is static and left un-animated again. No hit flashes to register a successful blow or anything. More disappointing is that the game relies on this mechanic to fuel exploration of the game. Fighting slimes might be easy, but they only net you 1 EXP. At lower levels, heaven forbid you run into a magician. But if you manage to beat one of those you get a whopping 4 EXP! Better buckle up, because you are going to need to do a lot of grinding against one monster at a time.
More than 50% of the time, that monster is going to have your bacon, because Horii wanted to introduce non linear exploration. You can travel anywhere you want on the world map thanks to the game not physically restraining you. Instead the monsters get stronger (almost exponentially) when you cross a bridge, signifying a difficulty difference. Gameplay is artificially lengthened by grinding and trial/error exploration. If you get too far out of town and slaughtered by monsters (or "a monster" considering you only ever meet one at a time) you are transported back to the castle and revived by the kind king. His fee is half your gold, of course. When you finally get strong enough to take on monsters outside of your home turf, you will soon discover a new obstacle. "Poison marshes" drain you 2 HP when you step on one. To make matters worse, certain towns and important places are guarded by this imposed "mandatory handicap."
How it all adds up
I'll give you a hint, not very well. Wandering around towns talking to people feels like nothing more than putting off the inevitable grinding against monsters and getting your butt handed to you. Townsfolk and other NPCs are less than helpful and talk in a painful dialect. Weapons and armor cost far more than they are worth. Sometimes you find yourself net gaining negative amounts of money trying to buy upgrades, thanks to the king lining his own pockets with the contents of yours every time you die. That's right, its possible to make negative progress money wise. Game progress is slow thanks to artificial exploration limits imposed by stronger and stronger monsters. Not to mention needlessly punishing game flow that leans heavily on saving and retrying exploration. Item inventory is limited, which might have been due to memory constraints as well as Horii making the best of a bad situation by telling players "It makes things interesting and keeps you thinking".
So why the legacy? That's actually a simple question to answer, but requires thinking beyond the 8 bit walls of the Drgaonlord's castle. Even if the west didn't go bananas for this like Japan did, Horii still managed to popularize a relatively niche genre with a single game. It wasn't the first RPG ever, but it was the first "console" RPG. Dragon Quest/Warrior spawned games far past the original (unplanned) trilogy and far out into the expanse of gaming. When Horii sat down at the drawing board, I don't think he would have believed you if you told him how many games/spinoffs and how man console generations this series would span. So while the NES' Dragon Warrior might be a dusty rust tetanus injection, the trails Horii's team blazed still stand today as a light into the darkness for games to come.
+ -Spawned the beloved Dragon Quest line of games.
+ -Introduced the iconic "slime" monster.
+ -What little of it there is, the chiptune themes are great...
- -Dialogue is confusing as all get out.
- -Fighting/grinding is difficult and unrewarding
- -...until your ears cant take it anymore.
- -The menu has to be used for everything. There's a command for "stairs." I mean really.
- -exploration is trial/error with artificial handicaps.
Muddled menu systems, bland towns, battle screens, and infuriating lack of progression makes for a difficult game to love.
Incredibly simple, but due to advancements made by almost any RPG that learned from DW's mistakes, going back to DW is almost impossible.
Almost none. Beings that this is archaic groundwork for most modern RPGs that have been improved upon in almost every way, your best bet is to play the GBC re-release version. There is really no reason to play this unless are a die hard, in which case you are probably displeased by my review, and reading a negative one isn't going to change your mind anyways.
out of 10
(not an average)
Most of legacy that DQ introduced to the console and handheld worlds is mostly clouded by rose colored glasses and nostalgia. The game itself deserves to be buried along in the same hole as Atari's "E.T.", the ideas, legends, and genre defining inspirations are what really need to be remembered.