Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dragon Warrior (NES)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Really fun game, easy to play, colorful graphics and beautiful music
Cons: Multi-menu interface and maze-like dungeons are annoying

Dragon Warrior is a game that is very near and dear to my heart; it was one of the first RPGs I cut my teeth on, along side The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy and Ultima: Exodus. When we got our first Nintendo when I was young, we only had a few games for it, so those games ended up being played so often and engraved into my brain that I'll never forget them. Dragon Warrior being all the more fun because it came totally free with our subscription to Nintendo Power magazine. Now that I'm older and have started collecting vintage Nintendo games, I have a much larger collection - but I still love to take out a few from my childhood and replay them for the nostalgic value. Often I'll start up a game and instantly remember every single thing about it, and this was the case with Dragon Warrior as well.
Dragon Warrior (known as Dragon Quest in Japan) is a role playing game that was developed by Chunsoft and published by Enix in 1986, though it didn't make it to North America until 1989. It's features a pretty standard story these days, where you're a stranger who comes to the kingdom of Alefgard and is tasked with saving it's princess and defeating the evil Dragonlord and recovering the Balls of Light he has stolen. Along the way you fight monsters like slimes, magicians, knights and dragons in random encounters on the world map, gaining experience and gold as you go. You actually rescue the princess fairly early in the game, and technically you can even skip rescuing her all together. When you finish the game, she'll be back at home in the castle anyway. If you do rescue her though, she gives you her "love" as an item that you can use to tell you how much experience you need to level up, as well as give you your coordinates on the world map. This is helpful for finding one of the items necessary to complete the game, so unless you're using a walkthrough or have beaten the game previously it's probably best to go ahead and save her.
The world map is setup in a tile-based overhead view, and your single character can walk around in four directions. Enemies all have fixed stats and do not gain in strength as you do. The map is pretty open, allowing you to travel almost anywhere you want - but if you try to go to an area that's too difficult the enemies will make mincemeat out of you. Crossing bridges across rivers signify major changes in enemy difficulty though, so at least you have some sort of warning that the difficulty is going to increase as you travel. There are a number of different enemies in Dragon Warrior, but many of them are just palette swaps (the same graphic as another enemy, but colored differently). For example, the slime, red slime and metal slime; or the drakee, drakeema and magidrakee. Departing from the overhead view of the rest of the game, the enemy appears facing you in a box that takes up the middle of your screen. Enemies only appear one at a time, and you fight them in a turn-based fashion using a small menu consisting of Fight, Spell, Run and Item commands.
There are only a small number of different weapons and armors that you can equip, but on the other hand this means that each new piece is a noticeable upgrade. You can also obtain a limited number of items such as torches, medicinal herbs, magical wings to transport you back to the starting castle, etc. There aren't that many items, but it's almost a good thing because you have very limited inventory space in Dragon Warrior. You will often find yourself throwing away herbs or torches or something that you wanted to keep because you need the room for other things. You also start off not knowing any magic, and gain a new spell every few levels, for a grand total of 10 spells. These spells allow you to heal yourself, exit a cave, return to town, light up a cave, keep weak enemies away for a brief time, hurt an enemy, put them to sleep or stop them from using magic.
One thing that always annoyed me about Dragon Warrior was the user interface. It's not exactly bad, but it's totally menu driven, with lots of sub-menus to get anything done. Especially climbing up and down stairs... instead of just walking onto the stairs, you also must hit a button to bring up the menu and then select "Stairs" from the menu. The same holds true for talking to people, opening doors or treasure chests, searching the area... The other annoyance is the fact that dungeons are all mazes that are pitch black. Using a torch illuminates one square around you until you leave, while the Radiant spell illuminates 3 squares around you and then reverts to 2 squares after a while, then down to 1 square and finally disappears entirely. A torch often isn't enough to help figure out the maze-like dungeons, and you don't even learn the Radiant spell until level 9. This makes early dungeons really annoying to traverse. Later ones aren't that much better, because they're usually longer and filled with thougher enemies, so you want to save your limited magic points for healing or battle spells.
You have 3 "Adventure Logs" that allow players to pick a name and a message display speed for 3 different games on the cartridge. When we first got the game I wasn't the only family member playing it, so it was nice that 3 of us could all play our own games (one at a time). You can save your game by talking to the king and recording your journey in the "Imperial Scrolls of Honor", and it saves to the cartridge's battery backed RAM so there are no long annoying code strings to input to continue. If you die, you're transported back to the king, so it's often useful to suicide on purpose rather than walk all the way back if you don't have any magical transport wing items.
The vibrant and colorful artwork in Dragon Warrior was drawn by Akira Toriyama. Some may quickly recognize him as the creator of Dragon Ball, one of my favorite manga and anime series of all time. Characters in the game are drawn in the same style as Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda, where they have short bodies and big heads. This makes it easier to add details to the head where they'd be more recognizable than on the body, and also makes the characters look more cute and fun. The character style meshes well with the bold and colorful tiles that make up the world, making the whole game look charming and appealing.
The music in Dragon Warrior was composed by Koichi Sugiyama, who is well known for his composition of Japanese television shows. It's beautiful and melodic, and some of my favorite music from the Nintendo era. The soundtrack features eight classic sounding pieces, including the introduction, castle, town, world map, cave/dungeon, battle, final boss music and the ending track. The world map music is free and airy, giving you a sense of freedom as you explore. This is contrasted harshly by the dire battle music when you engage in a random encounter with enemies. The music for the final dungeon is ominous and foreboding - you know you're getting near the end when you walk into Charlock castle by the music alone.
I'd recommend that everyone should play Dragon Warrior at least once. If you have a working Nintendo, the game can be found for about $5 online. It has also been remade (along with Dragon Warrior II) for the Super Nintendo and the Gameboy Color in a 2-game cartridge if you can play it that way. It's truly a fun game, though it offers little replay value. Once you've beaten it, you pretty much know everything there is to know about it. I still play it every couple of years for the nostalgic value, but I can breeze through it in a day now.
"Congratulations! Thou hast restored peace unto the world! But there are many roads yet to travel. May the light shine upon thee."

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