Every video gamer is familiar with the concept of RPGs. They don’t usually play like a normal video game; they require time, patience, thought, and commitment, because you don’t play them in one sitting. You play them over weeks, over months, sometimes longer. They do more than just challenge your thumbs… they tell rich, vibrant stories and immerse you in the worlds they offer. They are role-playing games, and if you play your role in them, they can be extremely entertaining.
I have a deep and abiding love for RPGs, both on the screen and on the tabletop. I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons since I was in 7th grade, and I’ve enjoyed RPG video games since I picked up a controller at the age of 9. I came late to video games; all the good ones were already out when I first got my NES, and I knew which ones interested me. Joey Edsall did a wonderful write-up of the first Final Fantasy game back when we first started doing video game articles, but it occurred to me that I had not yet talked about an RPG game with you readers. It seemed the most appropriate that the first one I write about be the first one I ever played.
I knew this game as Dragon Warrior, but its actual title is Dragon Quest. As was often done for games developed overseas, Dragon Quest was re-titled for Western audiences. It is the first in a very popular line of RPGs, whose popularity is especially strong in its native Japan. Developed by elements of what would eventually become Square Enix, this game was released in 1986 but hit Western shores three years later. It received mixed initial reviews but ended up setting a standard for console RPGs. You see, other than a few text based games (example: Adventure!) and crude graphical attempts (like the classic King’s Quest series), the RPG genre was still young in digital form. Releases of RPG titles had been mostly restricted to early personal computers, so only the hardcore nerds had any extensive experience with them. There had been a handful of releases for second-generation consoles, but the 8 bit era had opened up such possibilities that the genre evolved along with the technology. All of this happened long before I got my hands on a copy of Dragon Warrior, but the game still had a profound impact on me. For the remainder of the article, I will refer to the game by its Western title, for the sake of clarity.
In Dragon Warrior, you assume the role of a descendent of the mighty hero, Erdrick. Your ancestor saved the kingdom a long time ago by using the Ball of Light. Since those golden days, however, things have gotten pretty lousy again. In the rich tradition of classic fantasy villains, someone called the Dragonlord has made off with Princess Gwaelin. Understandably, the king is beside himself and would love for you to mount a rescue… but this is only the beginning of your quest, which will ultimately lead you to the Dragonlord himself in Charlock Castle. Only you, the true descendent of the ancient hero, can set the world to right.
Dragon Warrior is a turn based game; that is to say, it doesn’t move at its own pace, but rather at the pace you set. Whether you’re poking around a village or cave or you’re swatting monsters in combat, things only happen when you prompt them to. You begin in the king’s chamber with pretty much nothing, but he’s a generous guy and hands you some cash to get geared up. After a chat with him, you can go around and talk to anyone else by standing next to them and picking TALK from the menu that drops down. This menu is how you do almost anything in the game besides move from spot to spot. Your inventory, status, spells, and certain specific controls are all here, and once you stand still for a second it drops down by itself so you know you can act.
Once you’re done at the king’s castle, take a short walk over to the town and get some equipment. Weapons and armor auto-equip when you buy them, and you can only have one set at a time, but that’s all right since there’s a pretty strict hierarchy in terms of weapon power and armor efficiency. Once you buy better stuff, you don’t need the old gear anymore, so the shopkeeper buys it back from you at a reduced price. There are also shops that sell “tools,” like HP-healing herbs and torches for caves/dungeons as well as other stuff. Some items must be found; most of these are story-advancing items that allow you access to new parts of the world or otherwise have significance in the progression of the game. There are even cursed items; I don’t advise using/wearing them, but they usually sell for a good price.
Once you’ve suited up and grabbed a weapon, it’s time to get out there and do some adventuring. Dragon Warrior is a seminal example of nonlinear gameplay in a console title; if you go too far into certain places without leveling up, you will get your ass handed to you by the game’s bizarre and oddly charming (but still formidable) set of monsters. I won’t list off types of monsters you’ll find in the game, because like most RPGs, there are so many that it’s easier just to link you to a massive list complete with pictures. By roaming about and murdering these creatures, you gain experience points, which gradually raise your level. This gives you more HP and MP, the former of which act as your “health” and the latter of which fuel the casting of spells. You learn these spells automatically at set levels, and some of them are necessary to move through certain areas of the game. In addition to helping you grow in overall power, fighting monsters gets you gold. You already know what that’s for, and it never hurts to have a stockpile of it, especially later in the game when new weapons and armor are more expensive. RPG players familiar with the term “grinding” will agree that a good deal of it must happen in Dragon Warrior; as I said above, a good way to die (and lose half your gold in the process) is to stray too far from civilization too early and get your shit kicked in by a giant bird or werewolf or something. You gotta get fit (and rich) before you start calling yourself a hero, scrub.
The visuals are very cool for their time, and while they’re not terribly animated, you never have to guess what something is – you can tell by looking at it. I especially like the monster illustrations; the monsters don’t move when you’re fighting them, but the art is expressive and interesting. Everyone who played this game loves the music, especially the beautiful overworld theme. None of the music has terribly long loops, but it is well-composed and always very appropriate to what’s going on when you hear it. Do yourself a huge favor and look through YouTube for renditions of the overworld theme. I’ve heard it on every real-life instrument and other weirder ones too. It is an indelible part of VG music history.
Dragon Warrior had three sequels for the NES in Western countries, all of which were pretty good. In fact, you’ll find a faction of franchise fans who will tell you each one is the best in the quadrilogy. The sequels (III is actually a prequel to the original) offer expansions on the original concept, like multiple player-characters (similar to the Final Fantasy games), more options in combat, and more involved plotlines. The original was ported to the Game Boy Color, and has been remade/remixed a few times as well. The cat was eventually let out of the bag as the franchise spread to later-generation systems, and all titles east-to-west used the Dragon Quest name.
To be truthful, as a relative retro purist, I have not played any but the original 4 NES titles. All I know is that when I first played this game, I stepped into a whole new world. I poured hours and hours into the land of Alefgard, and every moment pulled my 9 year old mind further and further into the fantasy genre. Dragon Warrior, in a not-so-small way, shaped who I am.