Dragon Quest

dragon-quest

Introduction

The Eidansha Boshu Service Center was a company founded in Japan by Yasuhiro Fukushima in 1975. They mainly published tabloid magazines with real estate advertisements. When the service center failed to establish a retail chain, Mr. Fukushima transformed his business into a software development company dedicated to gaming in 1982, renaming it Enix. To search for talented programmers, they held a contest, styling it after manga competitions. It was advertised in various manga and computer publications, and winners would be awarded one million yen. One of the winning entrants was Yuji Horii, who managed to place with his sports game, Love Match Tennis.

Mr. Horii had purchased his first computer one year earlier, learning to program with it through the process of modifying other games. Around this time, he read a PC magazine and discovered a budding genre from the United States known as adventure games – a movement largely spearheaded by Ken and Roberta Williams, the founders of On-Line Systems. Their 1980 debut title, Mystery House, was groundbreaking in that it was the first such game to feature graphics, depicting objects and actions onscreen as opposed to describing it in text. Mr. Horii then noticed that the Japanese gaming scene lacked such games and decided to create one of his own.  Developed using BASIC programming language, the result of this effort was The Portopia Serial Murder Incident. The goal of this game was to solve a locked-room mystery involving the death of a successful bank’s president, and the story develops through the players’ commands. Owing to its novel concept, Mr. Horii’s game was met with a warm reception, selling nearly 700,000 copies. Its impact was such that it defined a completely new genre of first-person adventure games known as the visual novel and even inspired other people, such as Hideo Kojima, to enter the industry.

While developing Portopia, Mr. Horii, alongside another contest winner, a programming prodigy who gained fame while still in high school named Koichi Nakamura, discovered Wizardry, a series of pioneering computer role-playing games (RPGs), at a Macworld Conference & Expo. As Mr. Horii enjoyed the game’s depth and visuals, elements of the dungeon crawling mechanics present in Wizardry made their way into Portopia, but once he finished that project, he had a new goal in mind: to expose the Japanese gaming scene to what was, at the time, an purely Western genre. To this end, he sought to have his game released on Nintendo’s Famicom console, believing it to be the ideal platform because players could start each session from where they last left off. To ensure that Mr. Horii’s game would reach a large audience, Akira Toriyama, best known as the artist of the highly popular manga, Dragon Ball, was hired to produce concept art. Its name was Dragon Quest, and it would go on spawn sequels, eventually becoming one of the most beloved series of RPGs in its native homeland.

Analyzing the Experience

When exploring the world of Dragon Quest, the game is presented in a tile-based top-down perspective in which you can move your character in four directions. This finds its origins in Richard Garriott’s Ultima series, and by pressing the action button, the player can open up a list of commands that could be considered a pragmatic, simplified version of the complex keyboard interface from the series’ fourth installment where each key corresponds to a different command.

dragon-quest-field-menu

“Talk” allows the protagonist to converse with the NPC (non-player character) in the direction he is facing. Listening to what they have to say is often important to learn how to progress. “Status” displays his combat proficiency. By choosing “Stairs” on a staircase tile, the protagonist while ascend or descend one level. Selecting “Search” on certain tiles will reward him with a useful item. “Spell” brings up a list of magic techniques known by the hero. “Item” brings up the inventory menu. “Door” expends a key in the hero’s inventory in order to unlock a door. Finally, when standing on a treasure chest, you can use the “Take” command to open it and acquire its contents.

Dragon Quest begins at Tantegel Castle where the player is informed by its king of the game’s central premise. The Dragonlord is terrorizing the land and has kidnapped the princess. As the descendant of the legendary hero, Erdrick, the burden falls on you to defeat the evil tyrant and rescue the damsel in distress. Throughout the game, the castle acts as a base of operations for the player, and speaking with the king allows them to save their progress.

dragon-quest-overworld

After exiting the castle, the player is then taken to the overworld – a larger area that connects to every important landmark in the game. It has a drastically different sense of scale, as the protagonist remains the same size, yet towns and other important locations only occupy a single tile. In practical terms, it’s an effective method of giving the world a sense of grandeur while excising the uninteresting parts of the protagonist’s journey.

dragon-quest-battle

With each step the hero takes through the overworld and other hostile regions, there is a chance he will be accosted by a monster. When then happens, the game shifts to a first-person perspective similar to Wizardry, and a new list of commands appears. From there, the player can select an option, causing a round of combat to be played out. Each round allows for a single action on both sides, with the combatants’ agility ratings determining who strikes first. Combat ends when either the monster or the hero has fallen or left the battlefield. If the hero proves victorious, he is rewarded with experience points (EXP) and gold coins. Once he has acquired enough EXP, his level will increase, improving his overall combat performance.

The gold can be exchanged in towns for goods and a room at the inn for a night which will completely restore his health and magic power. The hero has three different pieces of equipment he can acquire: weapons, armor, and shields. Weapons increase the damage he inflicts when selecting the “Attack” command in combat while armor and shields, in turn, decrease the damage he receives from the enemy’s onslaught. It’s a good idea to vanquish any monster that comes your way, but you need to exercise caution because although the hero’s defeat won’t cause the game to end, half of his funds will disappear, which can be a significant setback if you’re trying to save up for an expensive, useful item. Knowing when to fight or run is vital to surviving in the world of Dragon Quest.

Up until the release of Dragon Quest, electronic RPGs were almost exclusively enjoyed by a small, if dedicated, niche of computer enthusiasts. The process of loading a computer involved navigating DOS prompts, which was a skill that required a degree of technical expertise in an era when such knowledge wasn’t widely shared outside people who actually worked in the industry. By contrast, starting up a console game was a simple matter of placing the cartridge or disk in the appropriate slot and pressing the power button. When one takes this into account, then it’s evident that Mr. Horii had a difficult task ahead of him; he needed to translate an extremely complex genre into a simpler console experience without compromising the intricacies which made Wizardry and Ultima so compelling. He ultimately succeeded beyond all expectations when the game became a hit in Japan, with sales figures exceeding two million units. In doing so, he helped RPGs break into the mainstream, and many other artists, directly or indirectly, would take inspiration from this title. This style of game, which features turn-based combat and an emphasis on dungeon crawling and interacting with the world’s denizens, would later be dubbed the JRPG (Japanese RPG).

With all it managed to accomplish as the first JRPG, one may wonder how Dragon Quest has held up over the years. The answer is that it hasn’t really. Because skirmishes only feature two combatants, the hero and a monster, they’re only a matter of trading shots until one of them falls. Needless to say, this makes for an unengaging experience where most players would just hold down the action button until they win, occasionally breaking the pattern to heal or run when their health gets too low.

As was the case with many games from the eighties, this game is rather difficult to understand without a guide – especially from a modern standpoint. When starting a new game, the player is asked to name the hero. Something many people may not have picked up on is that the character’s name affects their growth rates. Although it’s possible to beat the game with any combination of letters, when one examines the code, it’s revealed that certain names produce more effective fighters than others. Even in the context of when this game was created, I don’t understand this feature. Theoretically, it could add replay value, but anyone who learns about this is doubtlessly going to use the names that would result in stronger characters. Being limited to certain names only succeeds in taking away a degree of personalization that is meant to allow players to connect with their character.

In a move that would later be considered uncharacteristic for the genre, Dragon Quest has something of a non-linear design to it. Rather than blocking progress with physical boundaries or unmovable NPCs, later areas will bombard you with brutal random encounters. Only when your character has leveled up sufficiently and has decent equipment is it realistically possible for him venture forth into these regions. This means you have partake in what is called level grinding, a process in which the player is to intentionally fight multiple enemies in a row with the intent of garnering as much EXP and gold as possible. This leads to what I believe to be this game’s defining flaw: the grinding one must complete in order to stand a chance against the stronger monsters is far beyond a reasonable level. To put this in perspective, the amount of EXP required to achieve the maximum level of 30 is 65,535 and the monster that provides the most upon defeat only awards 155. This means a majority of the game is spent not exploring dungeons or interacting with NPCs, but rather fighting the same monsters over and over again until you can gain levels and afford the new set of equipment which always seems to be just out of reach.

Even a retro gaming fan trying to enjoy the game for what it is would be confronted with several setbacks that would prevent them from doing so, the most glaring of which is the interface. Mr. Horii deserves credit for effectively simplifying a typical CRPG keyboard layout to a controller with only four buttons, but it is annoying having to bring up the menu for every single action. In future JRPGs, what action the main button performs changes depending on context. For example, standing in front of a chest and pressing the button opens it. In Dragon Quest, you have to stand over it, open up the menu, and select “Take.”  Although this may sound self-explanatory, it’s easy to pick the wrong option by accident. If you do, you must open the menu and try again, wasting time with a task that wouldn’t present a problem in any other game.

Moreover, most dungeons are pitch-black, requiring you to bring torches to help light your way. Theoretically, that’s the correct course of action, but in practice, it doesn’t work, as they only succeed in lighting up one square in each direction. At level nine, the hero learns the spell “Radiant,” which is far more effective than the torches, but it wears down over time, necessitating a second casting if possible. Should you run out of torches and magic power, you’re left wandering aimlessly in the darkness, desperately hoping that you’ll find the way out. Because using staircases requires the use of the appropriate command rather than being an automatic function, this is next to impossible without a map.

Every single door in the game is locked; they can only be opened by using a magic key. While this may sound obvious, the system is made much more complicated than it needed to be. For starters, they’re only sold in a limited number of areas. There is a merchant in Tantegel who sells them, but you can’t reach him until you by them from another town that’s much more difficult to reach. The worst part about them is how easy it is to expend them needlessly. You’ll often find inaccessible rooms with several treasure chests only to later learn that their contents don’t even begin to make up for the cost of buying the keys in the first place. If that wasn’t enough, the doors reset, so if you need to revisit those areas or you exited to the overworld by mistake, you need to use another key.

There’s also the issue of needing to return to the beginning of the game every time you wish to save. I admit it’s not as bad as it could have been because Tantegel is easy to reach early in the game and by the time you start exploring distant regions, there’s a good chance your character can cast the “Return” spell, which will transport him there instantly. However, this doesn’t prevent the trek back to where I last left off from being tedious and boring because it often involves fighting swarms of enemies that ceased posing a credible threat several levels ago.

dragon-quest-characters

Even after all of that, Dragon Quest is not without its upsides. The story may not be anything remarkable, but for a game made in Japan in the eighties, it has a surprisingly solid localization. NPCs give legitimately helpful tips such as informing the player that bridges can be used to gauge where stronger monsters reside. In other games translated around the same time, you were lucky to get comprehensible sentences, let alone any useful hints – even Nintendo’s own games weren’t immune. The text itself is presented in a faux-Elizabethan style of old English, which sounds cheesy, but it actually adds character and could be perceived as a shout-out to the Ultima series. Another thing worth noting is that, despite having been subject to Nintendo of America’s strict censorship policies, thus excising any religious and sexual references, Dragon Quest outright states your character is dead when his health runs out. Though it may seem unfathomable now, a console game using any form of the word, “death,” was practically unheard of at the time.

dragon-quest-nester

The North American version also featured several improvements over the original. In the Japanese version, character sprites only ever faced down, meaning whenever the player wished to use the “Talk” command, they also had to specify a direction. Furthermore, it also relied on passwords to save progress rather than utilizing a battery backup system. Although these touches don’t redeem the monotonous nature of the game, they’re greatly appreciated and helped streamline many processes that would otherwise come across as nothing more than mindless busywork, if only a little.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Pioneered a new genre of gaming
  • Good localization for its time
Cons:

  • Level grinding is interminable
  • Boring music
  • Difficult to succeed without a guide
  • Unengaging gameplay
  • Only one save point
  • Clunky interface
  • Dealing with dark areas is annoying

As Enix did not have many offices outside of Japan when this game was originally produced, the burden of publication fell on Nintendo. Doubtlessly inspired by its sales figures in their native homeland, the amount of effort they put forth to promote Dragon Quest, originally dubbed Dragon Warrior, was truly awe-inspiring. The excellent translation likely demonstrated to future developers the importance of a strong localization. Unfortunately, though understandably, Dragon Quest was largely ignored by American audiences due to a combination of slow-paced gameplay and the existence of an already thriving RPG market compared to Japan where this title was practically ground zero for the genre. Consequently, Nintendo had vastly overestimated demand, and were left with many unsold cartridges. They then decided to give away free copies with each subscription of Nintendo Power magazine, which helped it gain recognition overseas, but this was short-lived, for in 1990, Final Fantasy debuted in North America, providing a much more polished experience and rendering Dragon Quest obsolete immediately.

In a way, it’s similar to the 1984 action-RPG Hydlide in that both are beloved classics to those who were able to appreciate them in their native context, but were almost uniformly dismissed by everyone else. A large part of why they failed to catch on overseas is because by the time they were being considered for localization, their target audience had access to the works of those who had already surpassed them. The situation could be compared to a tech company wishing to introduce floppy disks to a group of people who all have DVD players. Still, for what it’s worth, Dragon Quest remains an important part of gaming history for pioneering the JRPG and being an important basis for several masterpieces that would follow. It’s not quite to the point where I can recommend playing it for oneself, but it deserves respect from anyone who claims to be a fan of RPGs.

Final Score: 4/10

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9 thoughts on “Dragon Quest

  1. I remember the first time I wandered a little too far south and faced off with a Wyvern. It was so traumatic that I didn’t even have to look up the enemy’s name over 10 years later. I personally love the series despite the flaws you mentioned, and every few years I pick it up again with the intention of finally beating it. Never have, though! Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That reminds me of the time I played Wolfenstein 3D as a kid and got destroyed instantly by the first boss. Weirdly, I don’t think it actually scared me as much as it left me in total confusion; I was wondering how one could even beat him.

      I haven’t played Dragon Quest as much as Final Fantasy, but I do have to say that the former series’ fifth installment is better than any Final Fantasy game I’ve ever played. In fact, I intend to review it next. I’ve also been playing the 3DS version of Dragon Quest VII lately, and I’ve been enjoying it so far. I’m glad the series is getting more recognition lately because it’s very underrated.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice! You did you research! I don’t think the first Dragon Quest was that great, but it was an okay start to a huge franchise. I like the later games. They change enough of the first game’s formula, like adding more characters and incorporating a job system in some cases.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was a fun one to research; I knew Dragon Quest was ground zero for JRPGs, but I had no idea Mr. Horii’s previous title pioneered the visual novel as well. There so many masterpieces that owe much of their existence to his early efforts: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Undertale, Persona 4, and Earthbound just to name a few.

      As for Dragon Quest itself, yeah, it’s not a terribly good game. It’s basically the Japanese equivalent of Ultima IV in that playing it felt like a homework assignment, yet I can appreciate its place in history. The only other game in the series I’ve completed is Dragon Quest V, which is amazingly good; it’s astounding how much Mr. Horii stepped up his game for that one. From what I’ve researched about other games in the series, it seems as though they share the same formula, yet it’s used to explore different ideas each time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah, it definitely looks like someone did his homework here. Nice to see, I actually learned quite a bit I didn’t know before.

    All of my experience with this game comes from the GBC remake, which is polished up in a lot of ways. I never knew you had to manually ascend the stairs, for one thing, and so long as you prepped, it was always a simple matter to make it back to Tantagel. Dragon Quest is kind of a curiosity for being the first of its kind, which I feel is really where the value in playing it comes from. As you mentioned, taken out of its element… well even in its time, Dragon Quest became obsolete in a hurry. There’s enough variety to fill a fair amount of the time, but the game still mostly becomes an exercise in grinding until you reach level 30, then just going for the win. A lot of repetition, not a lot of depth, and thankfully, the genre quickly moved past that.

    Well, for the most part. The SNES/Early PS era sees plenty of resurgence of just these same problems in their JRPGs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I knew Mr. Horii left quite the impact on the games industry, but I had no idea of the sheer scale of it until I began looking into the subject.

      That was even worse in Ultima IV; not only was ascending/descending staircases manual, there were two separate keys for it (“K” for [k]limb and “D” for descend). I actually didn’t mind the field command menu when it made its appearance in Earthbound, but that’s because the menu loaded so quickly that it was never an issue; the menu seemed to have some sort of delay in Earthbound Beginnings and Dragon Quest, which is why I was prone to selecting the wrong option by accident. Still, I’ve found it strange in hindsight that Earthbound was using it when its contemporaries had long since abandoned it; it wasn’t until Mother 3 that there would be a contextual action button.

      I feel grinding works best when it’s solely a means to an end, and not the main attraction of the game. Fortunately, most developers realized this in the coming years, and began to create scenarios with actual substance to them. In fact, it’s kind of amazing how quickly the genre improved. There were a few teams that didn’t get the message, but it’s a major reason why their games don’t tend to be as fondly remembered (or, as I’d imagine in some cases, not even localized in the first place).

      Liked by 1 person

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