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Review by tankMage (May 2016)
Score: C (Historical Significance: A+)
Before we start talking about why I gave this classic game a middling score, we should first take a look at it’s context and initial purpose. Dragon Warrior was originally released as Dragon Quest in Japan way back in 1986. While the sources I researched are a bit vague, it’s commonly believed that the RPG genre was not familiar to Japanese console gamers, prior to Dragon Quest’s release. Yuji Horii (who must have been familiar with either western PC RPGs or Japanese PC RPGS, if they existed at the time) wished to introduce the genre to Japan and created one of the most influential games in history: Dragon Quest. It’s important to understand the goals Yuji Horii set for this game; Dragon Warrior was a very simple and stripped down approach to western RPGs of the time, which were often rooted in the rich and complex tradition of pen and paper games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Horii did not want to intimidate Japanese console gamers (many of which were probably children and adolescents, who had never seen an RPG) with mechanics like THAC0 and Hit Dice, so he created a more basic RPG that incorporated the primary elements of more advanced RPGs, while remaining accessible. This was a brilliant move on Horii’s part, because Dragon Quest became the progenitor of an entirely new branch of the genre: the Japanese RPG.
At this point you may be asking “Why would you give such an important game a ‘C’?”. Well it’s, because Dragon Warrior doesn’t have much to offer in this day and age. In fact, it quickly became obsolete even in the glory days of the NES and pales in comparison to it’s sequels and even many of its imitators. Still, it remains a well crafted game in many respects and may have some value to those with the patience to play through it.
“Thou art the descendant of Erdrick, blah blah blah…” So the story is really unoriginal and simple, but seeing as how Dragon Warrior was a new breed of game, it must have been novel to those who played it way back when. Anyway, the plot is laid out in the beginning of the game when King Lorik explains to the hero that he is the descendant of a great hero who defeated the evil Dragon Lord, who has now returned to conquer the land. As Erdrick’s descendant, it’s your duty to defeat the Dragon Lord (guess your ancestor didn’t do a good job of it the first time) and return peace to the realm. Horii took fantasy themes from western RPGs and put a decidedly Japanese spin on them in Dragon Quest…err…Dragon Warrior. There’s an emotional component (howbeit primitively executed) present in this game that is sometimes lacking in western RPGs, which are more often political or humorous. The story evolves slightly as you talk to NPCs, but there’s really not much more to it than what’s revealed in the intro.
There is a certain amount of free choice in this title, since you are made an offer at the end of the game, but it ultimately doesn’t amount to anything other than a glorified Game Over screen. The only thing that gave this game a sense of pizzazz was the faux-Elizabethan dialogue, which reads a bit like one of Shakespeare’s plays or King James’s Bible. There’s really not much more to say about the story. It’s ok for what it is and set the stage for Japanese RPGs, but that’s about it.
This RPG was made back in 1986 and looks the part. Many of the sprites are stumpy and malproportioned, animations (the few that can be found) consist of two frames that cycle regardless of whether or not the character is moving. Just to round things out most of the enemies are just palette swaps of little more than ten base monsters (to be fair, some of the palette swapped foes are holding new weapons). Some of the color choices for the palette swaps were just ridiculous on top of everything else, like putting pink boots on a wraith, which is a type of skeleton in Dragon Warrior. The towns aren’t much better since there are only a handful of NPC sprites and the majority of houses don’t even have roofs.
This sort of stuff wasn’t unusual for RPGs and video games of the time, but it doesn’t exactly help Dragon Warrior’s case. Granted, the game does have a sort of visual charm and some of the series’ famous stylized enemies, like slimes, make their first appearance here. It’s also good to see that the developers actually took the time to include a background with the battle screen, so it’s better than the black battle screens so many of its imitators used….unless you are in a dungeon, then the battle window is black, but at least that makes sense. And yes, this is the game I point out when I play other JRPGs with a similar battle engine, so there’s another strike against Dragon Warrior’s graphics, since it set the standard for dull pseudo-first person battle screens in NES games.
I’ve seen some wretchedly awful UI’s in my day and thankfully this one isn’t too bad. It’s not exactly streamlined, since you have to bring up the menu to do anything other than walk, but it’s not a convoluted mess either. In fact the battle menu is well designed for what it’s worth, since the cursor starts on the fight command, which you will be using a lot. There is a noticeable delay for all the button inputs, including walking, which makes the game that much more of a chore to play.
Do you like grinding (and by that I mean walking in circles and killing monsters for hours on end to level up)? If the answer is “yes”, then Dragon Warrior is the game for you, because it’s essentially a massive grind with a dungeon or two sandwiched in between more grinding. There’s really not much to do aside from move from one area to the next, killing monsters and buying gear, so you can go onto the next area and repeat the process. A lot of RPGs are like this, but at least other titles manage to dress things up a bit so the player doesn’t feel trapped in a digital Skinner Box.
Everything in Dragon Warrior is stripped down to it’s most basic components, from weapons and armor to magic spells. You want to kill something? Buy a club, walk around Tantegel Castle until “A slime draws near.” and select the “fight” command until you win or die. You want to heal? Use a medical herb, visit the Inn, or just cast the spell called heal. While this process may seem boring (because it is) it was really a brilliant move on the developer’s part since it was their intention to introduce their audience to something new and chose to make it as digestible as possible without being insultingly easy. If this was your first RPG, then you may have not realized you needed to buy a weapon or that your magic points would eventually run out if you cast heal enough, so much of the fun to be had from this title was discovering a new type of game for yourself.
The beautiful thing about this game is that it will kick your ass if you are unprepared; go too far at level one and a ghost or drakee may make short work of you. Dungeon exploration also boasts an interesting light mechanic that adds an extra dimension to gameplay, since dungeons are pitch black and the player will need to use a torch or a light spell to see. Of course, both of these options only provide a limited amount of light, so resources have to be carefully managed. The game world is also fairly open and the player must carefully explore towns and dungeons in order to fulfill the final objective, which adds some flavor to the game…too bad there are only a handful of towns and four dungeons to investigate.
Music and Sound
Most of the songs you’ll encounter are memorable, just don’t expect them to be on the same tier as the NES’s classic soundtracks. The only problem with the soundtrack is there’s so little of it, maybe six songs tops. The opening song and the castle theme are both quite good, especially the castle tune which starts off with a few very deep notes that give the opening sequence some punch. The sound effects are decent Nintendo Entertainment System type beeps and boops, but not spectacular.
Today, Dragon Warrior is a moldy relic of a bygone era that doesn’t really have a lot to offer. Even back in the early ‘90s, when I first played it, this game was sterile and barren compared to other RPGs. Having said that, Horii’s achievements are undeniable and his game created a legacy that lives on to this day. Thanks to Dragon Quest, we have not only its many sequels, but games like Final Fantasy and Star Ocean as well, which is why I created the “Historical Significance” score and why Dragon Warrior got an “A+” in that category.
As important as this game is, I don’t see much point in playing it in this day and age, unless you are new to video games and/or have never touched an RPG. Even then, there’s several RPGs I would suggest over this one. For those interested in NES RPGs, games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior 2,3,&4, or even Double Moon Densetsu are all better choices that have more complex gameplay and content. Dragon Warrior may have some value if you are like me and want to see a piece of living history or are compelled to play every RPG ever made, just be prepared for a slow burn of a game.