Dragon Warrior (sometimes Quest) is the game that is widely credited for launching the entire JRPG genre. As such, it must be considered one of the most influential titles in all of gaming, as, even today, there is still a new game every month that harkens back to the Dragon Warrior of old (even if said game stars rejected Sailor Moon characters in a magical high school, it still counts). Dragon Warrior is indisputably the beating heart of all JRPGs.
Which is kind of amazing when you consider how much Dragon Warrior sucks.
Unless some nimrod has managed to stick these words in a book somewhere, you’re reading this post on my website. You will note that this is FGC #377. This means that, with the exception of a few “theme weeks” and medically mandated breaks every fifty articles or so, I have played three videogames every week for the last two-going-on-three years. And nearly 400 games! When I was a child, I could nary imagine that there were 100 videogames in the world, left alone that I would one day play four times that many for a silly website. At this point, I want to say that I have a fairly good grasp on what is good or bad. Even if I once only played AAA, best of the best titles once; now I can safely say that I’ve played Ice Climbers, and lived to tell the tale. After all that, I know what I enjoy, what is fun, and what is… Dragon Warrior.
The basic elements are here! Akira Toriyama, even at this earliest point in the franchise, is knocking it out of the park with monster designs that are adorable (slimes, drackys), menacing (skeletons, wizards), and occasionally somewhere in between (aw, look at the sleepy widdle golem). The world is large (for an NES game), and the plot may be simple, but it’s charming fantasy to a T. The dragon has kidnapped the princess (and stuck her with a lesser dragon), and also stolen the anti-monster bug zapper that keeps the world clean and enchanted. The Dragon Warrior must now quest to stop the Dragon Lord, and acquire the treasures of his exalted ancestor along the way to eventually ride the rainbow bridge and score 120 stars or something. It’s all there, it’s all exactly what Dragon Quest was made for, and, by all accounts, this should be a fun, if primitive, DQ experience.
But it’s just so, so awful to actually play.
First of all, retro aesthetic aside, there is no way that selecting STAIRS to ascend or descend steps was ever a good idea. Someone managed to program borders into every town to transition between the overworld and a castle, so why the hell is there a dedicated command for activating “go up stairs now”? Hell, you could theoretically justify the TAKE or SEARCH commands with the many tiles that hide buried treasure around the DW world, but stairs are never hidden. They’re stairs. Actually, there is exactly one time stairs are hidden, and you use the SEARCH command, not STAIRS to find ‘em. You had one job, STAIRS! And talking is equally a pain in the ass, because Loto forbid you open a treasure chest when you’re trying to talk to a townsperson that is never anywhere near a damn treasure chest. Just performing basic tasks in this game is a lesson in misery.
But it gets worse! So much worse!
The Dragon Warrior world is huge, filled with monsters of varying shapes and sizes, and at least one town that is a secret dungeon. There are optional dungeons, optional towns, and even an optional princess. There’s a lot to do in DW!… Unfortunately absolutely none of it will prepare you for the rest of Dragon Warrior. EXP and Gold values are absurdly skewed against the player’s favor. A lowly copper sword costs 180 GP, and a local slime drops… 2 GP. In only 90 battles, you’ll be ready to go! And you might be level 3 by then! And this is decidedly not the kind of game that is meant to be played with a “low level” hero (without some superhuman RNG manipulation, at least), as later monsters will absolutely obliterate your hero inside of three turns as poor Son of Erdrick whiffs over and over again with his puny punches. There is simply not enough to do in the DW world to justify the kind of gold and experience it takes to so much as make it off the main continent, and mindless grinding has never been an entertaining compromise.
So, after discovering that Dragon Warrior is not just “primitive fun” like Final Fantasy, but more “never been fun” like Wizards and Warriors, I was forced to ask the obvious question: why? Not “why does this game suck” (that is already obvious), but why did DW spawn the JRPG genre? Was it some kind of cultural misunderstanding? Was it the monster designs? Was it an unmistakable love of carrying princesses through swamps? No, I want to say the entire reason Dragon Warrior spawned decades worth of sequels, spin-offs, and that one surprisingly sticky controller is this…
This is the first thing you see when entering the overworld. Not coincidentally, it is also the first thing you see every time you die, as you respawn back at Castle Useless. Every time you turn on the game, every time you must restart, every single time, you see this same image. You’re at the starting castle, there’s a starting town nearby, and, there, across the humblest of rivers (maybe a fjord), is your final destination, The Dragon Lord’s Castle. This means that, from the absolute moment you grab your controller, you are always reminded of what you are fighting for, what you’re fighting towards, and, even though a Wolf Lord just kicked your ass back to square one, you have a goal, and you must save this poor world of magic key-obsessed people from the sinister clutches of evil.
And that is singularly brilliant.
This is how you get people hooked. This is how you create a genre. The designers of Dragon Warrior enjoy gambling? Yeah, these are the kind of people who know how to keep their audience salivating for that next jackpot. Your winnings are just over that river. You might get a few bad rolls between here and there, but you’re getting better. You’re getting better, and you’re going to get there. You’re so close! And you will be so close for the next few hours!
Dragon Warrior objectively sucks. I will stand by that statement. However, it is also a brilliant game, and an unmistakable classic. It might not be enjoyable for anyone that has experienced modern conveniences like “fast forward” or “a game being actually fun”, but there’s always that drive to save the world, and that counts for a lot. Dragon Warrior might be terrible at conveying your goals on a quest-by-quest basis, but you always know your ultimate objective, and that can carry you through 10,000 slime encounters.
You will make it across that river. You will slay the Dragon Lord. Why? Because thou must.
FGC #377 Dragon Warrior
- System: Every.
- Number of players: The Erdrick bloodline has withered down to one dude in a silly hat.
- What’s in a name: I’m sticking to Dragon Warrior, because it says it right there on the cart. Dragon Quests are for later generations.
- Land of the Rising Fun: Hey, guess what, the game is even worse for the original Japanese release! It has more primitive graphics, so the characters always face stock straight toward the player. That isn’t so bad, but since your character doesn’t turn, you have to manually select which direction you’d like to face every time you want to use a command like TALK. So, basically, it takes an already annoying system, and makes it more annoying. Hooray for localization improvements!
- Favorite Monster: Forgive me if I’ve confused this dork for one of its cousins, but the Starwyvern looks like a pink duck-snake-eagle that is constantly taunting the player. And it knows midheal, so the odds of ever killing it are super low for anyone not swinging around the Erdrick Sword. It effectively is Dragon Warrior in one wiggly tube of hate.
- Speaking of Erdrick: Hey, dude, where’s your shield? You had to have one of those, right?
- Did you know? The Dragon Quest title screen contains a little silhouette of the Dragon Lord, and a sword for the letter T in Quest. The Dragon Warrior title screen retains the dragon shadow, but drops the sword from the (absent) T. Guess which flourish would go on to become a standard part of the logo for future titles.
- Would I play again: Absolutely not under any circumstances. I don’t care if you take away my gamer card, you can’t make me trudge through those dragon swamps ever again. Erdrick can keep his damn token.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… MorphX for the Xbox 360! … Wait, what game? Isn’t that just a graphics card? Or something? Anyway, please look forward to it, I guess.