Top 100 Retro Games: Dragon Quest
Nintendo Entertainment System
Dragon Warrior, er, Quest, is a game that has consistently frustrated me over the years. The game has never really clicked with me in the way that other RPGS of the era, most notably of course Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star, did. Dragon Quest has a number of problems that continue to be problematic, even with modern reissues that add “quality of life” updates.
However, with that said, Dragon Quest, as a game, and as a series, is a fundamentally important part of not only the history of role playing games, but of the modern video game era. We never quite did an episode about the game on the podcast, but I did do prep for one, which makes writing this up a lot easier.
Like literally hundreds of thousands of other games, my copy of Dragon Quest for the NES came from renewing my subscription to Nintendo Power. Under Iwata’s guidance, Dragon Quest had become Dragon Warrior when localized to avoid some pesky trademark issues, and there was significant hype for the game in Nintendo Power including multiple articles, maps, and a guide.
Despite all of this, I found the game to be very sluggish and frustrating. I never felt like I knew where I was going and would get lost in dungeons which led to being overwhelmed by enemies without heals and then a game over. I started and stopped the game a number of times and never got more than two thirds of the way through it.
I discussed this in our episode about Final Fantasy, but I am fairly certain at this point that Final Fantasy became much more popular than Dragon Quest because of the massive guide that Nintendo Power went out.
Here is the thing: It was not just the guide, or the maps, or the beautiful artwork that was included in the guide. They fleshed out the story line in each chapter. The backstories of friends and foes were further explained and even before you got to a certain part of the game, as an avid reader, you knew so much about it.
Dragon Quest is a very lonely game. This would change in future games in the series, but in this one it is just you fighting your way, alone, through the world. Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and others give you a party of different characters. Here, you have to do everything yourself. If you are fighting, you cannot heal. If you heal, you cannot use an item. If you use an item, you cannot fight. The world map is fairly small, but feels so empty given how many towns and dungeons are in the far reaches of the tips of the map. A long walk in this game is tedious and boring. Since you have to do everything at once, a long walk can lead to a quick death and having to replay what you had done since your last save. I got sick of this game over and over and did not play another Dragon Quest game until a significant number of years later.
So, the plot of Dragon Quest goes something like this: You are tasked by the king to defeat the Dragonlord, save the Ball of Light, and rescue Princess Gwaelin. Unless you do not rescue the princess. You totally do not have to do so. Either way your descendants are in Dragon Quest II.
Nintendo Power had significant coverage of Dragon Quest over a handful of issues. You also got a copy of the game if you subscribed or resubscribed to Nintendo Power too. Since Nintendo of America handled the localization of the game instead of Enix they pushed very hard for gamers to pick it up and turn the series into the phenomenon it was already in Japan.
Dragon Quest was ported alongside Dragon Quest II to the Super Famicom. It has also been on the Gameboy Color, mobile phones, and a massive compilation on the Nintendo Wii. Dragon Quest along with II and III are also available on the Nintendo Switch, which is how I replayed the game.
I replayed Dragon Quest via the reissued version of the Nintendo Switch. There is some good and bad for this version: They cut down on some of the grinding and made some other quality of life improvements like giving more gold from defeated enemies. That is good. What is bad is the redone graphics. Dragon Quest was already a fairly chunky looking game, but it is even worse now. Your avatar is huge on the screen, and in such an empty, open, world looks really massive. It is hard to believe they would be overwhelmed by enemies. Big kayfabe violation.
Even with quality of life improvements, I still had to grind a lot! When I began playing this game, I had been looking forward to streaming my way through it. A few of my regulars, who are younger, had been curious about seeing the earliest game in a series they were more familiar with in modern times, and we spent so much boring time grinding. It really felt like after every task, new town, where you had to grind for weapons and armor, needed for the tougher enemies in the area, you went to the next task or town to…grind for more weapons and armor that is needed for the tougher enemies in the area. The whole point of Dragon Quest feels like building tasks around grinding, and the game became very tedious for me to play through. My viewers also began getting very bored. At a certain point, you need to just start taking chances that you can complete a task.
I can think of two more quality of life updates that would make this game a lot more bearable: How much experience do I need to level up? You can get that from the king, but you have to go all the way back. I am certain in 1989 that was a limitation of the game, but nowadays, that should be straightforward to add to the game. Also, what floor am I on in a dungeon?! I got so lost a few times because I could not figure out what floor I was on. I ended up being on the wrong floor, died, and had my time wasted. I hate that. I hate how much this game wastes my time.