During my early NES days I considered platformers and action games to be my favorites. I bought nearly all of my games used from a local hobby store and only ever got new games for Christmas or my birthday. Contrary to popular belief, the price of games has always been high. It’s only gone up with current generation games and then only $10 up from the glory days of NES and Sega Genesis. Because there was no internet and I didn’t have any magazine subscriptions the only way I could find out about games was from other kids talking about them or renting them from the local video store, The Video Place, which is long defunct and had a limited quantity. Because of this I never owned some of the most popular games of the time. Despite my love of platforming games and action games I never owned Super Mario Brothers 2, Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden, or Contra. I did own Mario 1 and 3, Double Dragon 2, and Mega Man 2, but I also had some weird/bad stuff like Narc, the Predator game (based on the movie) and some from the now infamous LJN movie series, Nightmare on Elm Street and even worse…Jaws. Since I didn’t know what was out, good, or popular, I went with what was familiar. I liked Freddy so I bought the game. Narc was cheap and available. I loved (and still love) the Predator movie so I bought that one too (though it sadly didn’t work…talk about one disappointed kid…). Not only did I go with what I knew, but I was also usually restricted by what the local comic book/used media store had in stock. Often this meant buying obscure titles but sometimes I lucked out; like when I wanted a Game Boy for my birthday but they only had Game Gear which was both in color and awesome to the 12 year old me. Another lucky find was Dragon Warrior.
I bought Dragon Warrior (or Dragon Quest to Japanese fans) because I thought it was a Legend of Zelda-style adventure game, or hoped it might even be a Double Dragon 2 style beat ‘em up. I played the hell out of Double Dragon 2 and hoped for something similar in a fantasy environment. Shockingly, when I put the game in I saw the most rudimentary graphics I’d ever seen on the NES. My character was a barely animated sprite. Most of the game was text. And then there was the game play… Why am I talking to guards? Who are these people? Is that mass of blocks with the brown square a shop? Is that smiling blue thing really a bad guy? Is the ghost making a face at me? Why don’t they move? What am I doing? Why doesn’t this damn bamboo pole do anything?! Why is it in the game if it doesn’t do ANYTHING?! These were my first thoughts on Dragon Warrior. And I hated it. Or at least I said I did. But for some reason I kept playing it. And kept playing it. I had no idea what I was doing so I wandered randomly, kept fighting creatures, leveling up, and collecting money. I died. A LOT. I wiped every couple of hours and was magically transported back to Tantegel Castle where I was robbed of my gold and forced to walk back to where I died where, if I was still too low in level, I would wipe again rinse and repeat.
Because I didn’t play any of the table-top RPGs I had no concept of RPG conventions. Character traits, character status effects, enemy levels, listening to NPCs, attack-misses, and running away…it was all a mystery. So I wandered aimlessly for hours and hours. I had no idea I was actually power-leveling and grinding. Every now and then I’d come across a new town, village, or environment texture and was thrilled to see something new. As I progressed further into the game I started to figure out the methodology. I listened to all those guys who said the same thing over and over (and over and over) again. I started following their advice, and found Erdrick’s Sword and armor and figured out how to defeat the Golem. It was immensely rewarding to easily best the Green Dragon and save Princess Gwaelin and get my status updates by using her “love.” There was nothing more satisfying to a young gamer than to eventually grind your way (on purpose!) to the Dragonlord’s Castle.
The fight with the Dragonlord was harrowing. I remember my heart pounding in my chest as the music came up and he changed from a warlock into the massive dragon. Beating Dragon Warrior was by far the most memorable video game victory of my youth. In most games of this era, once you figure them out you can beat them quickly and easily again and again. This was the first game I ever played that required as much toil to beat again as it did to beat it the first time.
It is still the best RPG I’ve ever played. Its simplicity and design taught me patience in gaming, strategy in tactics, how to listen to characters, to pay attention to the surroundings, to remember details, and even how to “trick” the game to make things easier.
Modern RPGs have abandoned many of Dragon Warrior’s “slower” tendencies. Most of them now play more like action games to compete with flashier titles and more instantly gratifying games. Everything happens quickly, fighting is rarely turn-based, and few necessary story elements require serious problem-solving. To me (and yes I’ll show my age here) there is something far more entertaining and rewarding about going through a game line-by-line to dissect the correct course of action.
As was stated in my “Value of Life” post, success and failure meant something in this era. Often it meant starting over from the beginning (or in this case the beginning place which was punishment enough based on how slowly you moved…) This required you to get good at the game. It rewarded you for your progress with little short cuts, power ups, and story elements. Even in the many Dragon Warrior remakes they’ve removed many of these elements to make it a “faster” more “friendly” game. Give me standard NES Dragon Warrior any day. There’s a reason I still have my original poster (with map on back!) framed on my wall.
It’s still my favorite game of all time and perhaps the one that taught me some of the best traits to add to a gaming/personality skill set; patience, attentiveness, strategy, problem-solving, plus text swordsmanship/”HURTMORE” spell mastery. If you get the chance, break out the cart and play it. Even today it might teach you a little something.
Just don’t join the Dragonlord…seriously…don’t do it…