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Looking Back: Dragon Quest

Way back in 1986, game developers Enix released a little game known as Dragon Quest for the Nintendo Famicom. It would be released outside of Japan a few years later as Dragon Warrior for the NES. Though the game may seem primitive today, at the time it was something revolutionary - forming the basis for the entire Japanese RPG genre as we know it today.

The game has been ported and remade multiple times over the years, with its newest iteration appearing on the Nintendo Switch, as well as iOS and Android platforms. Despite the fact that the game is so iconic, and has inspired so many other RPGs over the years, and I’ve played through nearly 100 different Japanese RPGs myself, I had never played this legendary game until very recently.

With Square-Enix’s launch of the Nintendo Switch port of the game, which was released on the Nintendo eShop on September 27th, 2019, I began to debate finally sinking my teeth into Dragon Quest, but it took me a while before I actually did so. It regularly retails for only $5 on Switch (and only $3 on the mobile platforms), but I managed to catch it on sale for around $4, so I downloaded the tiny little 194MB game, and began my first journey into the land of Alfegard.

The first Dragon Quest is a very simple game in virtually every way, and that extends to its story as well. You are the descendant of the legendary hero Erdrick, and despite the fact that you have apparently no qualifications to be doing any heroics beyond your lineage, the king has presented you with two tasks - rescue Princess Gwaelin from the minions of the Dragonlord, and defeat the Dragonlord himself in battle to restore peace to the land.

And… that’s it, really. Sure, you’ll come across a few minor conflicts from local townsfolk as you travel the world, but those two initial tasks make up the bulk of Dragon Quest’s story. You can’t really fault it too badly, since the game did originally come out in 1986, and many games at that point in time didn’t even have a story at all. Besides… it works. It gives you a little motivation to go on your quest, and for a game this old and this simple, I feel that it’s definitely good enough.

There are a few problems I have with the overall story and presentation though, which largely revolves around the game’s translation and dialog. The Dragon Quest series has pretty much always been given a rather loose (read: totally made-up) translation, especially with regards to things like character and town names, and as a stickler for accurate translations, this definitely upsets me. On the flip side, the dialog throughout the series, even in the first Dragon Quest, is at the very least, typically well-written and engaging.

However, the first Dragon Quest on the Switch is written entirely in “ye olde English”, which isn’t really a problem in itself, but their choice of words can occasionally be a bit hard to read, at least for me. This is especially annoying when you consider that the Japanese version of the game does not use any particularly archaic form of dialog, at least as far as I’m aware. Plus, there’s also the problem that the translations of the various iterations of the game over the years have not been consistent. If you get stuck somewhere and need to look up where to go next, you can have up to three different names for the same location being thrown at you due to guides based on different versions of the game. If they were going to butcher the translation, I really wish they’d at least have been consistent about it.

But enough about the story - let’s talk about how it plays. Dragon Quest on Switch is an almost straight port of the NES game with prettier graphics and some quality of life improvements. You won’t have to use individual commands to examine objects, talk to people or open doors like you do in the retro version of the game - it’s all mapped to one button now, and you can quicksave anywhere as well, but almost everything else about this game feels like they just took the original NES version and threw a new coat of paint on it.

And yes, this means that the mechanics are extremely dated in comparison to modern RPGs - or even many other retro RPGs, in fact. You have a single party member throughout the whole game, and you have a very limited number of actions that you can take in battle against your foes. You have a basic attack, a healing spell, magic that oftentimes isn’t even as strong as your basic attacks, and a few status spells that are only very occasionally of any use. Of course, you can use items as well, but you’re largely limited to basic healing items.

Speaking of items, managing your inventory is possibly the biggest challenge in Dragon Quest. You have a very small number of inventory slots available to you, and half of them will be filled with your equipment, while a few more of those slots will be dedicated to important key items - items which you oftentimes don’t know whether you’re going to need again at some point, or whether it’s safe to store them away in the bank. You’ll rarely have any space available at all once you factor in all of those necessary items, plus frequently used items such as Medicinal Herbs and Magic Keys. You’ll need to think carefully about what you want to take with you as you trek around the world.

And trek you shall - traveling across the world map between towns and dungeons, hitting random encounter after random encounter, as you make your way towards the eventual goals of saving the Princess and defeating the Dragonlord. Of course, you can’t just waltz into the Dragonlord’s lair from the start of the game, you’re going to have to grind like crazy in order to become strong enough to defeat the Dragonlord’s hordes of monster minions.

Therein lies the bulk of Dragon Quest - Grinding. The game is actually not very long in terms of objectives you need to complete in order to get to the ending, but it is padded heavily by the need to grind up your levels in order to beat enemies. This is obviously not a problem in itself - after all, every RPG ever is like this, but in this particular case, the game is almost completely bare aside from a very small handful of required events, and a constant need to grind your face off for hours on end just so you can survive a few turns against the enemies across the next bridge. The Switch version of the game doesn’t keep a record of your playtime, but I would venture that my entire playthrough took under 20 hours, and yes, the vast bulk of that time was spent solely on killing hundreds of Slimes, Chimaeras and other nasty baddies just to get my levels up and my bag of Gold filled.

The thing is… I don’t mind grinding. I quite enjoy it, actually. And if you expect to have a fun time with Dragon Quest, you will also need to be the sort of person who enjoys grinding, because that is what you’re going to spend all of your time doing. Every fight will push you closer to the next level, closer to your next piece of equipment - and you’re going to need these things, because every new cave you enter, every bridge that you cross to the next island, is going to have tougher monsters than the last area - and not just slightly tougher either. Every section of the world is a huge jump in enemy strength, so you essentially have to grind in one area until the enemies are no longer any challenge to you, in order to progress to the next area and immediately struggle, yet survive, against the next wave of foes. I would say that it isn’t exactly the most balanced RPG out there, but considering that you can go almost anywhere from the very start of the game… they needed some way to keep you from just storming the Dragonlord’s castle right out of the gate, right?

All in all, if you enjoy this sort of grindy, retro RPG, you’ll probably have fun with Dragon Quest, but if you’ve been raised on more modern RPGs, or don’t have the patience to deal with hours of grinding or the patience to wander around the world in search of that one NPC that will clue you in on where you’re supposed to go next… then you probably won’t enjoy it very much.

Finally, let’s talk about the graphics and music.

Graphically, the game certainly looks a lot better than the retro 8-bit versions of the game, though it’s still quite simplistic in design. It looks like something closer to a 16-bit RPG now, and the graphics definitely work for what it is, but it can almost feel too simplistic at times. For example, when you open a door, the door just vanishes. There’s no kind of animation for the door opening, it just instantly disappears into thin air. I’m sure that this is how it was back on the NES too, but I feel like they could have perhaps touched up the graphics just a little bit in certain ways, and it would have still remained true to the original, while giving the game a slightly better presentation. I mean, it still works, and it’s not really a problem, but it would have been nice for them to make a few more improvements to certain graphical aspects of the game.

Actually, they did change one thing about the graphics between the mobile releases of the game and the more recent Switch port, but I wouldn’t call it an improvement. The mobile versions have a uniform look for all of the graphics, you see. Everything from the characters to the backgrounds to the enemies all use the exact same art style. However, with the Switch version, they decided to change this for some unknown, possibly insane reason.

On the Switch, they’ve decided to apply a smoothing filter to all of the character sprites and enemy graphics (I actually think the enemies might be totally redrawn, but I’m not certain), which totally clashes with the graphics of the world around you, which was not smoothed out and remains pixelated. It is, needless to say, quite ugly. It doesn’t completely ruin the experience or anything, but I would have definitely preferred that they either retain the fully 16-bit look of the mobile versions, or have smoothed out all of the graphics - either one, but not both.

On the music front, Dragon Quest is decently solid as well. Nothing outside of the classic main theme really stands out, but most of the music fits the game just fine. There’s very little to complain about with the music, but also not much to make a big deal out of either. That main theme though? Still perfect, as always.

Final verdict: Recommended!
I would personally recommend that every fan of JRPGs play the first Dragon Quest game, due to its influence and importance to the JRPG genre. Sure, the game feels dated, and it could have used a few more additional bells and whistles added to the remake, but the game still feels good. You can definitely see why gamers in the 1980s were so obsessed with this game, and why it spawned an entire genre full of imitators. It wouldn’t win any awards today, I would personally say that it is absolutely worth playing, and not only due to its importance to gaming in general, but because it’s actually pretty fun.

However… If you hate grinding, and hate RPGs that basically toss you into the world and say “good luck” with very little explanation on where you’re supposed to be going… You’re not likely to enjoy the original Dragon Quest. You may even find it tedious and boring to play. But again, if you fall into the former category of people, where you enjoy grindy RPGs, then I would say it is absolutely worth your time to dive into Dragon Quest and experience the humble beginnings of the JRPG genre. It isn’t like it’s a particularly long game either - it can be beat in under 20 hours, so what have you got to lose?

*Logo courtesy of Square Enix, images from Doug's personal collection