Dragon Warrior - Reader Retroview  

So Old It Feels New Again
by Gareth 'Boojum' Hughes

Precisely calibrated
10-20 hours


Rating definitions 

   If you ask many RPG players about the original Dragon Warrior, they will respect its status as one of the progenitors of the genre, but consider it to be obsolete, and with little to offer to a modern player. However, while replaying it recently, I found myself looking forward to it more than the other games I was playing concurrently. While it has certainly been far outclassed in presentation and complexity, its very simplicity can prove to be appealing and almost hypnotic. Moreover, some of its design choices didn't catch on with the RPG genre in general, and are uncommon today. This includes a world map that is completely open from the start, encouraging exploration, a battle system that is simplistic on the level of an individual battle but interesting over the long haul, a gratifyingly steep power curve, and a Spartan limitation on healing resources that creates a true tension in wondering whether you'll be able to reach the next town before they run out. The rarity of these elements in today's games means that Dragon Warrior can actually provide a very refreshing experience for those willing to look past its faults.

   Battles in Dragon Warrior are about as simple as you can get, consisting of single combat between your character (whose abilities are fixed and can't be customized) and one enemy at a time. They proceed in a straightforward turn-based fashion, and your options consist of the standard commands of Fight, Spell, Item, and Run. Spells are learned at pre-determined levels, and consist of a pretty basic assortment of healing, damaging, status, and utility effects. This extreme simplicity means that battles aren't very exciting from a tactical standpoint. Despite this, however, the battles happen quickly and never seem to drag, and there is some enjoyment to be had in figuring out which foes are best approached with a Sleep or Stopspell, and which should be beaten with normal attacks. Also, there are definitely some tense moments when both you and the opponent are substantially wounded. Do you go for the kill, or play it safe and use up some of your healing resources?

Aww, he just wants a hug. Aww, he just wants a hug.

   This decision takes on additional gravity precisely because your ability to heal is so limited. Every time you set out from town, you can have 6 medical herbs and a full tank of MP to heal yourself with, and that's it. There are no tents, no save points, and no other way to recover apart from returning to an inn. This creates a sort of "meta-battle" situation, where the challenge doesn't lie in beating a single opponent, but rather in managing your resources effectively enough to reach your destination and return safely. It's a far cry from the genre-standard "buy 99 of all healing items before leaving town", and adds to the tension of the game immensely.

   Speaking of returning safely, Dragon Warrior has one of the most forgiving save/death systems around. If you do die, you're sent back to the castle and lose half of your accumulated gold, but keep your experience and any items you may have found. For the most part, experience is more imporant than money in this game, so this is less painful than the standard loss of all progress since the last save point.

   For the most part, since the options available are relatively limited, the menu system works just fine. The one major issue is that all actions performed while walking around (such as talking to people, opening chests, and most annoyingly, going up or down stairs) must be selected from the menu each time they are performed. Another niggle is that you can't see what equipment does in-game, but that is pretty standard in NES RPGs. One saving grace is the translation, which renders all speech into archaic English. While this may repel some (and was gradually phased out of the series), I found it charming, and felt that it added to the fairy tale ambience of the game.

Y'know, I bet I could just swim across. Y'know, I bet I could just swim across.

   Sounds consist of the fairly standard NES bleeps and bloops, and will neither repel nor impress anyone used to playing on the system, though the sound played for a critical hit is appropriately gratifying. Music, on the other hand, has some very strong compositions that set the mood well and instantly recall the game even when heard years later. The throne room and overworld themes are particularly memorable, though the dungeon theme deserves special mention for making use of an interesting trick - going down to the next level of the dungeon does not change the tune, but deepens the pitch noticeably, making the sound more ominous. The downside to all of the music is their extremely short length, with few lasting more than 30 seconds or so. This can cause them to grate after a long enough time.

   Although RPGs had been established as a genre a few years previously by titles like Ultima and Wizardry (and before that, Dungeons & Dragons), Dragon Warrior deserves credit for effectively adapting the formula to consoles for the first time, and thereby kickstarting the entire JRPG subgenre. Its story, however, is as bare-bones as they come. You have two goals given to you at the beginning of the game (rescue the princess and defeat the evil overlord), and there are no twists or significant choices along the way to achieving them. Those who expect the storyline of a game to act as a motivator need not apply.

   As with several other elements of the game, the visuals will do little to impress, with relatively crude-looking sprites and repetitive tilesets. However, the bright colors of the overworld are easy on the eyes, and the battle graphics are fairly attractive, with large, well-drawn (though un-animated) monsters and pleasant backgrounds. A neat touch is the treatment of light when exploring dungeons - you can see nothing without a torch or a Radiant spell, and even then you can only see in a radius of one or two tiles from your character. This makes it possible to have some difficulty navigating the dungeons (though none of them are so complex as to get truly frustrating), and makes them feel qualitatively different than exploring the overworld.

   Because so few variables play a part in the battle system, it can be balanced fairly precisely. At any given level on your journey, there will be some types of monsters that represent a stiff but beatable challenge, some that are more of an even fight, and others that you can easily dispatch, but still give enough experience to be worthwhile (as well as those too far above or below your level to bother with). A great aspect of this is that the power curve is much steeper than in many modern games. This means that with each level-up, you will see an immediate and very noticeable improvement in your abilities, making the creatures that were formerly a stretch to beat much more manageable. As watching your characters grow in power is one of the primal draws of any RPG, this instant impact is gratifying, especially compared to games in which a level-up amounts to a +3% improvement in stats, and you'd be hard-pressed to notice the difference in battle.

   A common complaint leveled against Dragon Warrior is that you spend an inordinate amount of time simply grinding for levels.. While there is a kernel of truth to this, I found it to be substantially overstated. A strength of the design is that the entire world is technically open from the beginning, allowing you to travel anywhere as long as you can survive. My experience was that as long as I made the effort to fully explore the world and fought all the monsters along the way, I rarely needed to stop exploring and grind for more than a few minutes to move on to the next area. The one exception to this is at the very end of the game. Be prepared to level up for an hour or so (out of the ten to twenty you'll likely spend with the game) to build up before tackling the final boss.

   While Dragon Warrior is in many ways simplistic and outdated, it contains enough enjoyable elements (particularly ones that haven't been emulated in modern titles) to be worthy of recommendation. It will certainly take a level of tolerance to overlook the crude graphics, somewhat clumsy interface, and level of repetition involved in the gameplay, but for those able to do so, it can be a refreshing and surprisingly addictive experience.

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