If you know anything about JRPGs, you’re almost certainly aware of Dragon Warrior (later renamed Dragon Quest, but for the purposes of this review I’ll be using the original name throughout). However, if you’re less of a fan of the genre, this series might have slipped you by, which is, frankly, remarkable. While its competitor franchise, Final Fantasy, is a global videogame titan, Dragon Warrior actually predates it, and to some, JRPGs as a genre begins with this little game that originally made its debut on the NES. It’s had many re-releases over the years, right up to the present day on the PS4 and Switch, but I’m choosing to play the GBC version, which for me hits the sweet spot between the functionally-cleaner but uglier modern versions, and the dated, ancient NES original.
Dragon Warrior (3DS, Android, GBC [reviewed], iOS, MSX, NES, SNES, Switch, PS4, Wii)
Released May 1986 | Developed: Chunsoft | Published: Enix / Nintendo
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 9 hours
One thing I love about Dragon Warrior is how simple its premise is. The kingdom of Alefgard is terrorized by a dark being known as the Dragonlord, who has stolen an artifact called the Ball of Light and kidnapped the kingdom’s princess. You play a warrior who follows in the footsteps of the legendary hero Loto (or Erdrick, as he is known on systems that don’t care about text limits) and sets off on a quest to retrieve the relics of the hero, rescue the princess, and finally defeat the Dragonlord. It’s the kind of old-fashioned high fantasy story that you so rarely see these days, although it’s easy to understand why; high fantasy has a somewhat marred reputation for obsessive hypermasculine power fantasies that carry a deeply embedded strain of misogyny as many of them treat women as mere objects to be rescued and/or ogled. Many high fantasy stories are also, paradoxically, derivative and predictable, often containing so many repeated elements as to be no longer a place of imagination, but just another mundane setting, replete with an abundance of dark lords, mystical elf forests, and dwarves hi-ho-ing their way along as they carve vast sculptures under the earth.
It’s small wonder then that other subgenres of fantasy rose to prominence over high fantasy, from the urban fantasy that recontextualises the genre in more modern settings to the ever-popular dark fantasy which uses realistic elements to change the stakes or rules of the genre, such as works like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Witcher. That said, while it’s easy and perhaps tempting to be dismissive of Dragon Warrior for not being a plot which either advances high fantasy as a genre or for indulging in some of the same issues that the genre has always had, for me it’s a harmless example of fantasy; it’s comforting in its familiarity, and, much like I remarked back when I reviewed Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior has that same feeling of being like a session of a table-top rpg. While the plot isn’t expansive and world-changing, it still carries with it that sense of old-school childhood simplicity that holds up beautifully.
That simplicity is also present in the gameplay. You’ll spend plenty of time exploring the world of Alefgard, carefully picking your way across the overworld in search of towns to replenish your supplies and health, and dungeons to delve into, but this is an NES game and as such your direction in this regard is very limited. You can natter to townsfolk – indeed, you absolutely need to, unless you want to spend your time with this game with a guide spread across your lap – and they will give you hints about the world or where to go, but these are often oblique and require some deciphering. Towns are also where you can spend your hard-earned gold to purchase upgraded equipment or new items, and it’s here you’re going to encounter a fact about Dragon Warrior that serves to remind you just how old it is: the sheer volume of menu screens.
Dragon Warrior absolutely loves its menus; it throws them at you for everything. It’s the sort of thing that really effectively dates it as an early JRPG, as the developers tried to fit a huge array of grand ideas into a tiny NES cartridge, and so if you’re a modern player coming back to discover a piece of history you’ll have to adjust to not having some elements of more contemporary releases, such as your character not automatically walking through doors without having to go into a separate sub-menu. Now, this is a factor of Dragon Warrior that subsequent re-releases sought to correct, but there’s still a degree of it which seems to remain regardless of the version. For example, the Game Boy Colour remake which I played for this review is still very UI-intensive, with menus that can clutter the screen as they nest upon one another.
As you wander the overworld you’ll inevitably get into some battles. Combat is conducted in first person, with a window popping up to show you your foes ahead of you. Even though it’s pretty straightforward and without a lot of flash to it, I do rather like the presentation, particularly because it lets you see the lovely sprite work and detailing put into both the monster sprites and into the environmental background which changes depending on what kind of area you’re fighting in. In combat you only have 4 options to work with; you can take a swing with your equipped weapon, select an item to use, cast a spell, or attempt to leg it. You don’t ever get access to anything more complex than this; you’re a lone hero, so you’ve got to make do with what you’ve got. There aren’t really any tricks to Dragon Warrior’s combat; some enemies might have a resistance to certain elements here and there, but mostly it comes down to how highly levelled you are so you can dish out bigger hits and tank more damage. If there’s a more nuanced way of playing, I’m afraid I didn’t find it. I suppose ultimately this means that Dragon Warrior lacks some depth when compared to its competitor in Final Fantasy – that game after all had a multi-character party that allowed for a variety of job roles and customization – but I don’t necessarily think that holds Dragon Warrior back.
I also don’t think the game – or indeed, its developers – especially care or cared about whether its mechanical choices hold it back or make it feel dated today. Dragon Warrior as a franchise has carved an identity built around a stoic refusal to adopt change at anything other than a glacial pace and, honestly, that works for it. It comes back to that comforting familiarity I was talking about earlier. All JRPGs have their niche within the genre, and of course all franchises attempt to change things up a bit from entry to entry, but I always think of Dragon Warrior as the series which resists it the most; I think you can pick up any main entry in the franchise and have a pretty good shout about exactly what you’re getting into, right down to the setting and the monsters you’re going to face. While that may not be a setup that works for everyone, I think for Dragon Warrior’s audience it clearly hits some kind of spot, given the popularity of it in Japan and the rising popularity of the series as it began to make in-roads into the Western market across its history. It’s also undeniable that Dragon Warrior had an incredible impact on the JRPG genre; while it might feel dated now when we play it, it’s hard to remember that this game codified a ton of stuff that we can now recognise as commonplace elements of the genre.
For me, as I’m sure it is for some others, that sense of playing a piece of history can excuse, or at the very least explain away, any doubts that might arise from the dated mechanical elements. Stripped of that context, sure, I can freely admit that I had some gripes. I find aimless exploration a frustrating part of JRPG overworlds, especially because the advice given by people in towns in Dragon Warrior tends to be unhelpful or isn’t direct, and even an improved translation for the Game Boy Colour re-release hasn’t solved that issue. It’s also a deeply slow game. Dragon Warrior certainly never hurries itself along – actions scroll along at their own pace, and having to navigate layers of menus always pulls the speed of the game back. The lack of a decent save system also harms it, as dying will send you right back to your starting location of Tantegel Castle, leaving you to make a potentially lengthy slog to get back to where you died.
As I reflect on the experience of revisiting Dragon Warrior, I’m left with the thought that it’s perhaps a game best suited for lovers of JRPG history more than it’s a game for JRPG enthusiasts today. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, or that you can’t enjoy it – it isn’t, and I did – but the age of its mechanics and approach have been laid bare over time, and I suspect many players will find them wanting. I’m tempted to say something pithy and dismissive along the lines of “oh, well who is even playing this game today if not JRPG history fans or people like me?” but Dragon Warrior’s most recent release was on the Switch in 2019. This is a game that, like Final Fantasy, is such a piece of history that its parent companies (or, company as it is these days given the Square-Enix merger) probably won’t ever let a console generation go by without making it available to play in some form. I’m all for that level of preservation, and without having played the newest version of Dragon Warrior I couldn’t comment on whether it takes the opportunity to revitalize the foundations on which it’s built, but I would imagine that even with a modern re-release, it still exhibits some of the same problems – or quirks, if you prefer – as its original release did some 35 years ago. As it stands, I can still get lost in the waves of nostalgia that come from playing the Game Boy Colour version, and I can recommend playing it, but I think it’s important to approach it with an awareness of what kind of experience Dragon Warrior represents. It’s not the cleanest or most user-friendly JRPG out there, but that it remains a solid game both over such a long period of time and despite the flaws contained within it stands as a testament to the resilience of Enix’s most recognizable and steadfast franchise.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.