History Lessons: Dragon Quest

Other History Lessons posts can be found here. For some context, you may wish to read the post about Final Fantasy first. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Well, this is getting ridiculous. When I wrote my History Lessons post about Final Fantasy, I outlined an ambitious plan to give the same treatment to the rest of that series (or at least the older entries). Now, nearly two years later, instead of finally tackling the second Final Fantasy game, I decided I really should go through the Dragon Quest series (known as Dragon Warrior in the United States until 2005) too. Maybe I’ll be finished with all of these in a decade or two.

But there is some method to my madness. Dragon Quest was released before Final Fantasy (1986 to Final Fantasy’s 1987, although the games didn’t come to the United States until 1989 and 1990, respectively), and is widely regarded as the game that set the mold for the entire genre of Japanese-style role-playing games. It could be cited as a direct inspiration for Final Fantasy, and it spawned its own long-running series (eleven main games plus a bunch of spin-offs) to rival the behemoth that is the Final Fantasy franchise. While I played some of the original Dragon Quest — which had to change its name to Dragon Warrior in the United States to avoid infringing on the trademark of the tabletop game DragonQuest — I never got far, and I’m less familiar with the series as a whole than I am with Final Fantasy. Playing Final Fantasy for its History Lessons post sparked my interest in the evolution of the Dragon Quest series as well.

To be honest, I don’t remember if I ever personally owned Dragon Quest. I recall playing it on several occasions with different groups of people, and since my friends and I would often lend each other games or bring games with us to each other’s houses, I’m not sure who actually owned the game. What I do remember is us wandering around in the game, getting into fights and trying to save up enough money for better equipment. I also remember discussions of secrets and strategies, unsure which were true and which were just urban legends. And, of course, I remember the Elizabethan English, with dialogue full of “thee”s and “thou”s.

That’s the version I played for this post: the 1989 US Dragon Warrior release for the Nintendo Entertainment System (the same hardware as the Japanese Famicom). I played using emulation, as I did for Final Fantasy, using RetroArch with the NestopiaUE core emulator. There are links to detailed instructions for setting that up in my Final Fantasy post. As with Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest has seen many re-releases and remakes, including recent versions for the Wii and mobile devices, but the only way to play the game as it originally appeared is via emulation.

The US release, which arrived three years after the original Japanese release, features some minor graphical upgrades and the ability to save one’s game to memory on the cartridge, rather than relying on a password system. But it is otherwise essentially identical. Except for the Elizabethan English, of course; the game was often mocked for this, but I actually find it charming. It fits the game’s simple, chivalrous story of a hero rising up to face the evil Dragonlord, stopping to rescue a kidnapped princess along the way. The oversimplified morality and fairy tale setting would somehow have felt sillier with modern English dialogue. Alefgard is a place of magic and monsters, legends and prophecies, and its residents’ archaic speech simply sounds right.

The story and setting are not the only simple things about Dragon Quest. It is mechanically very basic as well, simpler than Final Fantasy and far simpler than most computer role-playing games at the time. Dragon Quest’s lead designer, Yuji Horii, wanted to bring the experience of computer role-playing games to players who were unfamiliar with the genre or even with video games in general. Dragon Quest therefore strips down a typical role-playing game design to its basic components. Players control a single hero, able to choose only this hero’s name. The wikipedia page about the game claims that the choice of name determines the hero’s starting statistics and how those grow as players level up during the game; this is not mentioned anywhere in the game’s manual, but the page cites an official strategy guide as confirmation. There are only four statistics: strength, agility, maximum HP (hit points, a measure of the hero’s health), and maximum MP (magic points, for casting spells). Players indeed have no control over how these statistics increase as their hero gains levels by defeating monsters, but they can equip one weapon and one piece of armor which, together with the strength and agility statistics, determine the final attack and defense scores for the hero. Spells are learned automatically as the character reaches certain levels. While Final Fantasy took inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons for its magic system, putting its spells in tiers with a certain number of casts allowed per tier, Dragon Quest uses a simpler MP system where each spell has an MP cost and any spell can be cast as long as the hero has enough MP. This system was common in other computer role-playing games and would become the standard for Japanese-style role-playing games as well.

Players travel around the world in a top-down view, moving one tile at a time in a manner similar to one of Horii’s inspirations, the Ultima series (which I’ve still never played, but plan to give the History Lessons treatment eventually). This visual style for exploration would be used for years to come in both the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series, as well as countless other Japanese-style role-playing games. Combat occurs randomly when exploring outdoors or in certain locations, but the player only ever faces a single adversary at a time. A window appears showing the enemy, and players use a menu to attack, cast a spell, use an item, or run. This makes most fights simple affairs, especially compared to later games in the genre which allowed for multiple heroes and groups of enemies. Defeating enemies earns the player gold and experience points, which eventually result in a level up that grants bonuses to statistics and sometimes a new spell. These spells might add more tactical depth to the combat, but only a few spells are useful in battle. The Hurt spell, which directly damages enemies, is only useful early on when it does more damage than a direct attack (it’s quickly obsolete), but the Sleep spell sees a lot of use as it can immobilize a stronger foe and allow the hero to defeat it. There’s always a chance the enemy will awaken, however, making this a risky tactic. Other spells are more useful outside of combat, increasing the hero’s ability to explore and survive more dangerous locales.

Despite its simple systems, Dragon Quest is not an easy game. Unlike Final Fantasy, which cleverly funnels the player along a linear path through the game world, Dragon Quests’s world is completely open, gated only by the difficulty of enemies and the utility of more powerful spells. To complete their quest, players must pay close attention to hints provided by townspeople, and hunt down hidden treasures and secret entrances scattered across the realm. Many areas are blocked off by locked doors, which cannot be opened until midway through the game, so players will often revisit places to access new sections or learn new clues. I enjoyed this aspect of the game, and while I was often unsure of where to venture next, the hints I found were usually enough to work it out. I was reminded of exploring in Might and Magic Book One, released the same year; Dragon Quest’s world is never as mystifying or adversarial, but there’s a similar sense of slowly piecing together what must be done.

Both Dragon Quest and Might and Magic use powerful enemies as a way to delay access to certain areas, but in Might and Magic I always felt there was somewhere I could go and explore as I gained levels. Dragon Quest, however, is quick to present players with unbeatable enemies, requiring repetitive “grinding” to progress. Japanese-style role-playing games would become infamous for this type of design, but I was surprised to find that in Final Fantasy I could mostly just get on with my task, leveling up as I went; this is most definitely not the case in Dragon Quest. From the very beginning, players will be unable to wander more than a few steps from the starting location of Castle Tantegel without facing deadly foes. Much time is spent wandering in circles just to fight monsters for the experience points and gold, in order to get better statistics, equipment and spells. I remember hearing that this was worst in the early stages of the game, easing up once players bought some decent equipment and learned the most useful spells. But it never really abates, and while I did feel like I was making good progress in my quest in the middle section of the game, I was chagrined to find that the end of the game required the most grinding of all.

Some of this was due to the fact that I had prioritized seeking out certain treasures, some of which were hidden in very dangerous territory. By tactically retreating from most fights, I was able to navigate some deadly locales to claim my prizes. These excursions were delightfully tense, involving many brushes with death. While dying in Dragon Quest does not end the game, and players will keep any experience points they’ve gained, they lose half of their gold, which is a major setback when saving up for the most expensive equipment. And since the only place to save the game is Tantegel Castle, there’s a lot to lose from an extended trip afield. I justified these risky forays with the argument that equipping my hero, Sheila, with the best equipment as soon as possible would allow her to fight more powerful adversaries and gain levels most efficiently. But I still found a disappointing (and boring) amount of grinding was needed before I could head to the final confrontation with the Dragonlord. I was mentally ready long before Sheila was physically ready, although I did have more fun once Sheila was powerful enough to explore the Dragonlord’s castle, Charlock, as she gained levels.

Despite my annoyance with the grind, I was impressed with Dragon Quest. It manages to do a lot with its simple design, offering a variety of places to explore — including dark dungeons with only limited visibility offered by torches or spells, a surprising detail that is not often seen in later Japanese-style role-playing games — and tricky secrets to unravel before players can complete their journey. It’s also gorgeous for a game made in 1986. The US release (in 1989) added additional sprites to show the hero and other characters facing in different directions, unlike the original Japanese version which more closely resembled Ultima’s static sprites, but the vibrant background art remained largely the same. Bright and colorful, with a slightly cartoony style for its enemies as epitomized by its famous cute slimes, Dragon Quest looks much better than its contemporaries. Might and Magic Book One barely had any graphics at all, and even more graphically advanced games from 1986, such as The Bard’s Tale II, had limited color palettes and somewhat stilted motion. Dragon Quest’s smooth scrolling art is far more impressive.

It also sounds great. The musical score may seem dated now, but it’s far more impressive than the basic and sparse music in contemporary games (Might and Magic had no regular music at all) and it features memorable melodies with different arrangements in appropriate areas. My favorite detail is that the musical theme that plays in caves and dungeons is slowed down, in both pitch and speed, as the hero descends to deeper floors. By the time I’d reached the deepest depths of Charlock, the music was an ominous bass drone befitting a lair of evil.

The interface, however, is clearly an early prototype for what was to come in the genre. Players press a button to bring up a menu of commands, including standard options to view the hero’s stats, use items, or cast spells, but also more common actions such as talking to someone, opening doors or using stairs. Those would later become context-sensitive actions in most Japanese-style role-playing games, automatically executed at appropriate times without requiring a menu first. There’s also a search command, used rarely but in memorable moments, as players unravel the secrets of the game. Having to call up the menu for simple tasks like talking to people felt clunky, but controls clearly evolved quickly. The next year, Final Fantasy appeared with more context sensitive commands, a four-character player party created from different classes, combats against packs of enemies, several vehicles for faster transportation, and a larger array of spells and equipment. But it sacrificed the open world design of Dragon Quest, and the emphasis on uncovering tricky secrets.

And, as I only learned while conducting research for this post, the sequel to Dragon Quest actually appeared before Final Fantasy, in January 1987 (Final Fantasy released in December 1987), and it includes some of the features that Final Fantasy incorporates. Dragon Quest II was released in the US in 1990 as Dragon Warrior II, but I never played it (although that box art looks familiar…), so I don’t to what degree it served as an inspiration for Final Fantasy. It will be the next game I play in my efforts to track the history of these two series, so I’ll find out soon! OK, maybe not that soon, but hopefully before another two years go by.

If you want to give Dragon Quest a try, there are a lot of versions available, most of which feature redone graphics and other changes. For example, the versions available for Android and iOS clearly feature newer graphics, and they appear to have a different English translation, although they thankfully keep the Elizabethan English. The only way to play the game as it originally appeared (other than tracking down an original cartridge) is to use emulation, as I did.

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2 Responses to History Lessons: Dragon Quest

  1. Drxe says:

    You might want to skip DWII. It is a grindfest, and while with its charms, if you had problems with grinding in the first game, you might get burned out and not get to the third and fourth, which bring a lot more to the table and hold up much better. The second game has three characters, but does not do much more than greatly expand the scale of everything in the first game.

    I strongly recommend returning to II later, after III or even IV (and 5 and 6 to finish that trilogy).

    • waltorious says:

      Thanks for the warning! I definitely intend to play through to Dragon Quest IV at least, as I had that one toward the end of my NES-playing days. I never finished it — I think I got stuck somewhere — but I always wanted to get back to it. If it’s really the start of a trilogy then I’ll continue through those too.

      I’m pretty stubborn, though, so I think I will play the series in order. I can handle grind when I’m expecting it, and I don’t think I’ll burn out, especially since I tend to take really long breaks between the games. It’s already been over nine months since I wrote this post about the first game. Besides, my History Lessons posts are motivated as much by learning the history of specific games, genres and developers as they are by enjoying the game in question; I don’t mind as much if there are problems or annoyances when I’m analyzing a game in this way. And it will set up some context for the improved sequels that followed.

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