Thursday, 28 February 2013

Dragon Warrior (NES)

Dragon Warrior NES title screen
Dragon Warrior may not be the first Japanese RPG ever made (not by a long shot), or even the first Japanese console RPG ever made, but it's the one that really set the template for the JRPG genre. Chunsoft grabbed the overhead view overworld adventuring from the Ultima games, the first person turn based battles from Wizardry, and fused them together with a Portopia Serial Murder Case style menu based interface to form a more accessible kind of RPG for a more mainstream audience.

Or so I've heard, I've never actually played the game. So I'm going to shut up, turn it on, and get myself educated about a piece of genuine videogame history.

Dragon Quest Famicom Title Screen
The series has always been called Dragon Quest in Japan, but it had to be changed in the US to avoid trademark infringement. Of course everyone already knows this, but I needed an excuse to show off the Japanese title screen because it's so much better than the dull US version. It even has the proper logo in all its curvy 3D glory.

I tried to look up what the series was called here in Europe, but it turns out there WAS no series in Europe. Well okay we got Dragon Warrior Monsters in 1999, but the first main series DQ game to get a release here was Dragon Quest VIII in 2006, 20 years after the first game hit Japanese shelves. Took their bloody time.

Dragon Warror King Lorik throne room
Alright, enough of the Dragon Quest history lesson, time for... crap, a history lesson from the King. At least I started off here and wasn't forced to go walking around every room in the castle looking for him.

The King explains that there once was a brave knight called Erdrick, who sought evil out and destroyed it. But after his fall Dragonlord stole his Ball, and it's me who has to retrieve it. PS. Rescue the Princess.

Dragon Warrior might not look so great even for a NES game, with its basic top down view and... you know I think those yellow boxes are meant to be a throne, but this is actually a graphical upgrade from the Japanese release.

Dragon Quest (Famicom)
Originally the Dragon Quest hero couldn't even turn around! He waves his arms from side to side as he walks around and stomps his little feet, but he always faces forward. Same with all the NPCs in fact.

If you're wondering how you interact with people and objects without being able to change direction, well they thought of a cunning solution: you have to specify the direction you want to be facing using a menu each and every time. Fortunately that's all gone in the US release. 

Also the English translation has turned the dialogue very... I dunno, Shakespearian? I don't mean to imply that it's a great work of literature, but they've definitely have the "thee"s "thy"s and "thou"s dialled up to a dangerous degree.

You can really see the adventure game influence on the game here, as I have to bring up this command box before I can interact with anything. Even going up the stairs requires me to choose the 'stairs' command. The rival Final Fantasy franchise solved this clunky interface flaw about 19 months later by adding... a second button for context sensitive actions. So Final Fantasy 1 you can TALK, DOOR and STAIRS without ever opening up a menu!

Dragon Warrior overworld
At last I have successfully escaped the castle! I hadn't been that impressed by the music so far, but I'm loving this overworld theme. It perfectly suits the lonely journey of a single brave hero in a grim and unforgiving land.

Right, before me lies two choices: I could send Erdrick's daring descendant wandering off in the general direction of adventure and end up getting him killed by some level one imp creature, or I could visit the town conveniently situated nearby and purchase a sword.

Dragon Warrior weapon shop
Common sense won this time so I went to buy a weapon.

So this is a town then is it? It looks like they've put an outline of paving stones down in place of walls and they're all pretending that they're shops. I suppose that familiar yellow square is meant to be the counter now.

Final Fantasy NES Coneria shops
Final Fantasy (NES)
Here's a shot of Final Fantasy for comparison, which is suddenly looking a lot less basic to me now than it used to. A lot less abstract at least. It's even got little shadows!

Dragon Warrior NES shop screen
I think I dost wish to buy a club and some clothes, seeing as that's all I can afford. Wait, if I didn't have clothes equipped already, does that mean my hero's been running around naked? Damn, it's fortunate for me that the first place I found was a clothes shop really.

Next I guess I should go interrogate the peaceful townsfolk until one of them reveals where the next part of plot is hidden.

Alright now I have some pants and a stick, I am finally prepared to face evil head on. A helpful villager told me that I should go north, then follow the coastline west until I reach Garinham, so that's my current plan.

To be honest, I'm surprised I've made it all the way up here without a single random encounter.


Dragon Warrior NES slime battle animation
A couple of steps later I got jumped by the happiest little red blob of slime I've ever seen. Fortunately a couple of hits wiped the smile off his face and I took his... two coins. Wow, only 69 more fights left until I can afford the next sword! Though I'd need to do another 15 fights on top of that to afford the healing at the inn as well.

Battles play out from first person view and I get four commands to chose from each turn. Only Fight and Run do anything right now though and I've only got the one hero in my party so I only get the one move each go. Pretty basic really.

Damn, that little blue guy just hit me so hard I'm seeing red. Or pink, whatever.

I think my calculations were a little off earlier, cause I'm gonna need a lot more trips to the inn before I get my sword. Still, I've reached level 2, woo.


"There are no stairs here."?

But, I can see the stairs. I'm looking at stairs right now! Oh right, I don't need the Stairs command here, because I can just walk over steps on the overworld to automatically use them. Unlike staircases inside a building which MUST ONLY BE ACCESSED WITH THE COMMAND PROVIDED.

I'm level 3 now by the way. Still no sword, but I have earned a free HEAL spell which can recover a fair chunk of health at the cost of most of my mana. Without any items to recover MP, I only get the one shot each trip.

Damn, I wasn't expecting it to be pitch black dark down here. This is pretty much the most realistic depiction of a dungeon in gaming history! I guess I have to use a torch to light up the cave then?

Wow, this is just... awkward. 3x3 blocks really isn't much to work with when I'm trying to find my way around a maze. Any one of these passages could lead to treasure, but I'm struggling to remember where I've already checked.

At least there's no enemies down here. Yet.

At the very end of the dungeon I found... a tablet. Well that's just fantastic.

Whoever wrote the tablet in ages past seems to have been pretty confident that I'll be the first person to ever find it, which is impressive considering I had zero reason to come down here except for curiosity. The tablet explains that I'll need three items to reach the Isle of Dragons, and that they are guarded by three worthy keepers whom I shall need to seek out.

And then... that's it. Obviously the guy couldn't tell me names as the original keepers would be long dead by now, but a map would've been handy. Or I dunno, he could have TOLD ME WHAT THE ITEMS ARE. 'Yeah you'll need three things guarded by three people, so good luck with that'.

And that's the story of the time I made my way to the bottom of a labyrinth in the dark. Now I just have to get back out again.


After a little more grinding I returned to the village with enough cash for The Leather Armor. The shopkeeper kindly bought my pants back off me for half their price, which seems to be the only way I can compare two items. Armour costs 70G, the clothes sell for 10G, 70 is more than 20 therefore it must be better gear.

I've been talking to the townpeople too, hoping to find out if anyone knows anything about the items mentioned on the tablet, but sadly there's no 'ask something useful' command on my menu, so the best I've gotten out of them is a warning about bridges.


Oooh it's a bridge, scary!

Actually maybe I should do a bit more grinding before I see what's over there. I mean I'm sure there's other places I could go check out first. I never did reach that town on the north coast for instance.

Aw fuck it, I'm going over the bridge. I'm level 4 now, I've unlocked HURT magic, I'm a fucking badass, I'm sure I can take whatever they've got to throw at me.

Oh shit, this Skeleton's taking off 7 hit points every turn! Okay lesson learned, I'm not ready to go across the bridge just yet. I mean sure it seems that I can just run away from every fight in this, but if the first enemy can kick my ass this badly, I don't want to know what I'll find at the end of the road.

I ran away back across the bridge with only a sliver of health remaining and kept heading north until I stumbled across this icon of a town. You know, I think this is that place I was looking for at the start of the game!

With any luck this town will have an inn to rest at and maybe some affordable weapons. I've kind of given up on that 180G copper sword for now because it's taken me forever just to earn 102 coins. It really does seem to take a while to get anywhere in this.

Dragon Warrior Thou art dead screenshot
What the shit? I was one square away from the town! ONE SQUARE! Fuck you Magician and fuck the spell of HURT. What sort of asshole hops out and attacks a wounded man for no reason, huh? Was he just trying to mug me?

Dragon Warrior Death should not have taken thee screenshot
Fortunately King Lorik is the hero's bro and had him brought back to life, no game loading required. Which is good because this guy's the only save point I've found in the entire game so far, so I haven't been saving often. Could be worse though, in the Japanese version there's no saves at all. Instead the player has to note down a spell of resurrection (ie. a password).

King Lorik's kind of like the dad in EarthBound now that I think about it, there to tell me how far I am from my next level up and to record my progress so far... in his Imperial Scrolls of Honor. He's been writing down everything I do, so they must basically read like an ancient version of Super Adventures right now, except with less swearing and more words like 'thou' and 'dost'.


With a little bit more grinding I reached level five and finally arrived at that town on the northern coast, hoping for bargains or at least a clue. But the stuff here costs even more than the last place! I've only got like 100 something gold, minus what I spent on HERBs (health potions), I can't afford anything worth having.

Wait, does that say 35G? What the fuck happened to all my money? I'm sure I had... back when I... oh shit, I must have lost half my cash to pay for the resurrection. Well shit, now I'm buying even more HERBs, because I'm not letting that happen again.


Dragon Warrior Rocky Mountain Cave entrance
Alright, I'm level 8 now. I have the fabled 180G copper sword, I have a shield and I'm menacing enough to make ghosts run from battle, scared out of their spectral minds. And now I have returned across the scary bridge to face down the skeletons and see once and for all where this path leads.

Oh. It seems to lead to a hole.

Another gloomy labyrinth. I saw it coming this time though and packed a couple more torches just in case. Also I'm drawing up a map as I go, because this place seems like even more of a maze than the last cave.

Crap, I can't say I saw this coming. This cave comes complete with random encounters, to harass me every few corridors and make me lose track of where I am. I'm trying to draw up a map here you dumb bug creature thing! Once I kill this guy I'll have to back up a few steps to figure out my position again and hope another one doesn't jump up and attack me there as well.

Oh that's just cruel. This staircase leads down to a tiny 2x2 room walled off on all sides, with a treasure chest on the other side of the wall out of reach. I bet that's the item I came down here to find as well.


Well I think I've mapped both of these floors out correctly now and it took way way longer than I'd expected. It's kinda hard to get a good idea of my surroundings when I can only see one square ahead. (Also, it turns out that paint programs aren't the quickest tool for scribbling down maps, so lesson learned there). But the thing is, I still can't get to that bloody treasure chest! It's sitting right next to another one on the top left of floor 2 and they both seem to be behind walls. Like they're only there to torment me.

I hate to do this, but I'm going to look for a map online and see if there really isn't a way to get to them.

Well it turns out... I'd just drawn up the map wrong. I was able to walk down a perfectly accessible and not at all secret corridor to open the chests and claim my reward: a torch and a fighter's ring! What does the fighter's ring do? Haven't got a clue, it doesn't say.

So far the most noticable difference between this and Final Fantasy 1 hasn't been the graphics and the battle system I reckon. It's been the fact that everything I do in this bloody game seems to take forever and be absolutely pointless in the end. I must have been playing this for at least two hours and all I have to show for it is a ring that may or may not do absolutely fuck all, and a tablet that told me I need to find 'things' guarded by 'people'.


But it takes more than that to discourage me. I went and spent my hard earned 1000 gold on a shiny Half Plate armour and got a serious boost to my defense power stat, so I figured I'd go wade through this poison marsh sapping 2 HP with every step and check out this other hole in the ground.

Holy shit! He just... 31 health... one hit, 31 health... shit!

Oh fuck it, if a 1000G suit of armour isn't strong enough for this place I can't be bothered grinding until I'm ready. I can't even just run through all the fights this time, as they've been attacking first before I got my turn. So that's it, I'm done with the game.

Dragon Warrior actually gets a lot of the fundamentals right I think. Going around slaying slimes and earning cash for better gear is a formula that works and has become the basic foundation of the JRPG genre. Plus it's great to be able go wandering across half the world right from the get go, something I've always appreciated about the Elder Scrolls games. But I never got any sense of achievement from anything I did, I didn't help anyone or find any quests to complete. I was just searching for crap in dark caves and making my numbers go bigger so I could cross more bridges and find other crap in other caves. It seems to be built around grinding to a degree that even other classic JRPGs would find 'a bit excessive'.

I do still like the original NES Final Fantasy, but this one's a bit too basic and a bit too much work for me. I couldn't find the fun in it.

Any thoughts about Dragon Warrior, the Dragon Quest franchise, all those words I just wasted your time with, or my awesome website in general? Please feel welcome to leave comments.


  1. FF I bored me to death with its grinding and slow combat, so if that's worse...

    1. I wouldn't want to talk anyone out of trying a game for themselves, but if the grinding in Final Fantasy 1 bored you to death, then this would bore you to a fate worse than death.

  2. This game actually pre-dated Final Fantasy by a bit, so it can be expected to have an inferior interface. For what it was, it did a good job pioneering the genre. King Lorik really is like the dad from Earthbound.

    1. For more than a bit, actually.
      The next Dragon Quest games are way better, specifically. Dragon Quest IV is the best RPG in the NES by far.


Semi-Random Game Box