Dragon Quest - Review

In the Beginning...

By: Bill Johnson

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 3
   Interface 4
   Music/Sound 4
   Originality 1
   Plot 2
   Localization 7
   Replay Value 1
   Visuals 4
   Difficulty Hard
   Time to Complete

20-30 hours


Title Screen

   ...there was the Word. Or, in this case, the Acronym--RPG.

   In 1988, Enix developed a sleepy title called Dragon Quest (copyright issues forced Nintendo to retitle the game Dragon Warrior for its North American debut). Touted a "role-playing game," or "RPG" for short, Dragon Warrior defied virtually all of the period's existing video game genres. Instead of Goomba-stomping or alien-blasting, it adopted the approach of Ultima, Phantasy Star, and the scarce few other RPG's of its day. By allowing players to step into the boots of a medieval hero in the kingdom of Alefgard, Dragon Warrior established itself as the one of the patriarchs of the American RPG industry. While the series' popularity has since trailed off domestically, the game's enormous popularity has since spawned an impressive string of sequels, and has become a cultural icon, in its Japanese home.

   Dragon Warrior's battle engine is as Spartan as conceivably possible, and has found itself at the butt of numerous old-school gaming jokes.

   "A Slime draws near! Command?"

   Or a Ghost, or a Drakee, or a Jell-o Pudding Snack, or whatever. In fact, one of the hallmarks of Dragon Warrior's battles is their one-on-one, dueling nature. You may face your quest alone, but you needn't fear being ambushed by a band of roving critters. Crossing paths with a monster presents the player four options. They are, of course: fighting, running, casting a spell, or using an item. In all but a scant few cases, the monster is gracious enough to grant the player the first attack turn, and the completely static battle setup means players can take as much time as necessary devising tactics. Virtually everything about the battle system is self-explanatory. Spell names include "Heal", "Sleep", "Stopspell", and the like, and anyone who can't figure out what Fighting and Running do should probably be rat-poisoned for the good of society as a whole.

   The game engine itself is equally elementary. Every command the game requires is packaged neatly into a master menu, accessible at any time with a simple press of the A button. Most recent RPG's feature automatic commands depending on the game context when the button is pressed-the same button that automatically opens a treasure chest in dungeons might also bring up a dialogue window when used near a townsperson. Unfortunately, Dragon Warrior requires trudging through the menu interface for everything from opening doors to climbing stairs. It may have been a pioneering effort, but that does little to relieve the frustration of executing a two-step menu command for the 47th time simply to ascend a staircase.
The noble hero, in hot pursuit of the hot babe.
The noble hero, in hot pursuit of the hot babe.

   The trend of simplicity continues into the game's music and sound effects. Dragon Warrior's soundtrack consists of but a handful of tunes, and monophonic square waves rate highly in very few people's books these days. The sound effects are better, with such features as footsteps indicating the player's entrance to or exit from a town, or a movement between floors. Unfortunately, the most noticeable sound effect in the game is the beep accompanying every one of the game's ad infinitum menu selections. The effort is valiant, but with such a limited library to draw from, Dragon Warrior's music and sound effects find themselves extremely hard-pressed to add much depth to the game.

   Unfortunately, despite being one of the first RPG's to grace the genre, Dragon Warrior added relatively little of its own to the RPG pot for future use. Most of the game's mechanics and look-and-feel are borrowed and alloyed versions of those used in the day's existing RPG's, which makes them look even worse by comparison today. Some aspects could even arguably have been lifted from action/adventure games. The plot is generic at best, and everything about the game appears quite stale by today's standards.

   Dragon Warrior is almost purely a gameplay-driven RPG. The plot develops straight as a Midwest rural highway from start to finish, but does so smoothly. Don't look for astonishing twists partway through-at the very beginning of the game, the player receives instructions to slay the Dragonlord and recover the sacred Balls of Light (no snickers from the peanut gallery, please), and this remains the raison d'Ítre for the duration of the game. Subquests pop up from time to time, but they serve only as elaborations on the primary "kill the villain, save the princess, rescue the treasure" theme. It's plainly presented, easily digestible, and boring as all get-out.
When dealing with lycanthropes, shoot first and ask questions later.
When dealing with lycanthropes, shoot first and ask questions later.

   One of this game's greatest strengths is its localization. Ours is a time when some of the most high-profile game scripts are Final Fantasy Tactics' deplorable translation, and Working Designs well-done, but pop-influenced and off-color localizations. But the grandfather of American RPG's proves that medieval-styled English can indeed be captured in a translated game, and it adds a remarkable extra dimension sorely lacking in many contemporary releases. While it ain't Othello, the script--rife with thee's, thou's, and -eth's--is a pleasure to participate in.

   Dragon Warrior's replay value is, unfortunately, virtually nonexistent. While many gamers new and old have and will continue to play it simply on its historical merit, few if any of them will go through the game more than once. Getting through the game even once without uncovering virtually all its secrets is almost impossible. The game's design makes nearly every aspect of the game necessary to its completion, leaving very little to discover on subsequent plays. Gamers may play through once, but very few will attempt a second go-round, and fewer still will come back from a second play sane.

   A large part of Dragon Warrior's low replay appeal lies in its high difficulty compared to recent RPG's. Virtually every new challenge the player undertakes in Dragon Warrior requires a session of dedicated level-building before any reasonable chance of success can be had. Players who don't mind long interludes of monster hunting may not mind, but the sluggish game tempo will definitely turn some RPG'ers away. Further, the absence of any party system leaves little margin for error in battles. A single tactical miscalculation, or a powerful blow from an enemy, may be enough to end the game when only one character is fighting. Nonetheless, some hardened veterans will be drawn to the challenge simply to see whether they can conquer the beast.

   And, the first thing noticeable when playing the game is the last to go under the microscope here. Dragon Warrior's sports both the nice and the nasty. The colorful, attractively designed foes help enhance the battle mode, but the remainder of the game's graphics leave much to be desired. The overworld map consists of but a handful of terrain tiles, and the unvarying appearance of such a visible aspect quickly becomes highly tiresome.
A Town draws near!  Command?
"A Town draws near! Command?"

   From start to finish, Dragon Warrior can be expected to consume 20-30 hours of an individual's life. It's a tough road to walk, but reaching its end will instill a new appreciation of what today's RPG's are all about. Everything from its extremely 8-bit graphics to its dialogue style proudly proclaims its vintage, and after grinding through the ascendant to all of today's RPG's, you may find yourself with a new appreciation of modern fare. But, despite the eye-popping movie sequences, epic orchestral soundtracks, and twisting plots of today's hit RPG's, Dragon Warrior will forever hold a title that no game can take from it. To many games, and to countless players, it was a first.

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