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Save States: ‘Dragon Warrior’

I killed some slimes in the name of journalism.

The Facts

-Game: ‘Dragon Warrior’ (originally ‘Dragon Quest‘ in Japan)
-Original release date and platform: August, 1989 exclusive for the NES (May 27, 1986 for Famicom in Japan)
-Original developer and publisher: Chunsoft / Nintendo (Enix in Japan)
-Version played: Original ‘Dragon Warrior‘ cartridge on original NES hardware

The Bias

-Turn-based RPGs are my favourite genre
-‘Dragon Quest VIII‘ was the first in the series I played
-I’m a relatively new fan to the series, but it grows on me every year

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The Landscape

Nintendo’s Game Boy had just launched. The big grey brick that would look like ancient history to kids today but was my most prized possession as a child. It would enjoy enormous success, but 1989 was also the year that Nintendo met its first true long-term competition in North America with the Sega Genesis. 1989 was also the year of Nintendo’s Power Glove, Tengen’s unlicensed version of ‘Tetris’ (that die-hards will insist is better than the original), and the release of such seminal works as ‘SimCity‘, ‘Prince of Persia‘, ‘Mega Man 2‘, and ‘Super Mario Land‘. It was even the year when ‘Solitaire‘ and ‘Minesweeper‘ were coded. Yes, that ‘Solitaire‘ and that ‘Minesweeper‘. ‘Final Fantasy‘ wouldn’t make it to North America until 1990 and because it became significantly more popular, many forget that another enormously influential RPG was released the year before.

The Hype

It’s hard to say, the internet wasn’t close to what it is today. Most hype took place in schoolyards huddled around a copy of ‘Nintendo Power’. It’s safe to assume that the hype wasn’t significant however, because beyond a bold (and incorrect) prediction from ‘Electronic Gaming Monthly‘s “Quartermann”, ‘Dragon Warrior‘ didn’t get any true popularity until free copies of the game were included with a subscription to ‘Nintendo Power‘ over a year later. The magazine enjoyed nearly 500 000 additional subscribers because of the promotion. That’s the power of free stuff. It probably would have been just as effective with a game not nearly as good.

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The Way it Plays Today

Dragon Warrior‘ is old. It came out in Japan the year I was born. It is the first in a series that has had ten major entries and plenty more spin-off titles. It – alongside ‘Final Fantasy‘, ‘Ultima‘, and ‘Wizardry‘ – ushered in a console version of the rich fantasy worlds of ‘Dungeons and Dragons‘. In fact, it is so old that sometimes I sincerely forgot I was playing the original game on original hardware and thought to myself how good a job the dev team did on making a retro-looking and sounding ‘Dragon Quest‘ game.

As for how it played, even as a JRPG fanatic, I found ‘Dragon Warrior‘ to be dauntingly old fashioned, at least at the onset. The game relies on a menu to accomplish nearly every action on the field, as there is no context-sensitive action button. Want to talk to somebody? Better bring up the menu before they walk away or else selecting “Talk” will be meaningless. Wondering why you’re not walking up or down the stairs to the next room? It’s because you forgot to select “Stairs” from the menu. The choice was not made for hardware reasons, but rather because the game seeks to emulate both tabletop RPGs and text-based adventures and my experience with it transitioned from “irritating” to “involving” during my time with the game.

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I eventually realized that my overabundance of RPG experience was working to my detriment. ‘Dragon Warrior‘ is a game that requires the player to pay attention. Excursions must be planned and strategies must be devised to grow stronger in the most efficient way. I was texting a friend who is very familiar with ‘Dragon Warrior‘ and he suggested that I name myself “Noob”. It set the right tone.

As I got used to the game, its intention seemed to fall into place. I really did feel like I was on an adventure and I had to explore and gather information as well as growing stronger in battle to complete my quest, and isn’t that feeling the ultimate goal of an RPG? ‘Dragon Warrior‘ shows its age, but at the same time it shows its resilience and importance. Maybe RPGs have become distracted from what made them compelling in the first place. ‘Dragon Warrior’ is simple in many ways with its single party member and barebones story, but it is surprisingly both sturdy as a game and informative to the genre, even 25 years later.

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Next Time: It’s time to switch genres completely and dive into a popular and robust sequel for the original PlayStation.

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