You’re journeying through a massive world and have two choices: you can either save a hot babe or slay the Dragon Lord. Which would you choose? Regardless of your decision, you don’t have to make that choice in the first RPG to hit the NES, because Dragon Quest allows fans of 8-bit games to do both.
This 8-bit title amazed Japanese gamers back in 1986, because it brought the immersive experience of PC RPGs such as Wizardry to consoles. It didn’t reach the U.S. until three years later in the form of Dragon Warrior, but patient fans of epic adventures devoured it at a rate faster than a drunk emptying pitchers of booze.
So why did this title impress? Was it Dragon Quest’s incessant use of ‘thee’, ‘thou’, and ‘thy’? Did its random battles grip players like nothing before? Was it its “original” princess-saving quest? Or was it the massive overworld that took players weeks to traverse? It was probably a combination of all of the above, but it’s hard to believe that players were once so enamored with this title.
Unlike NES titles such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, and even Final Fantasy (to some extent), Dragon Quest just hasn’t held up very well. It’s difficult to criticize a pioneer that launched a now-massive genre on consoles, but in this case, it must be done.
Dragon Quest starts out decent enough — it introduces you to its world with a brief intro detailing the exploits of a legendary hero named Erdrick who’d previously saved the world with his ‘Ball of Light’, but it was soon stolen by the evil forces who plunged the world into darkness. As a descendant of Erdrick, you’re entrusted with saving the land by your considerate monarch.
Actually, your goal isn’t to save the realm of Alefgard initially; instead, you’re given the task of saving the king’s daughter, Princess Gwaelin. To do so, you’ll have to battle vicious monsters, travel through dungeons, and speak with countless idiotic villagers who’ll aim to trick you more often than not.
As you begin your journey, you’ll immediately notice Dragon Quest’s archaic menu system. To speak with villagers, open treasure chests, and even climb stairs, you have to first enter a menu and highlight that option. This was probably a carryover from PC games of old, but it was an unnecessary addition that makes performing nearly any task a hassle.
The eight-term menu system may be annoying, but it’s not as ugly as the game’s visuals. NES visuals were generally pretty basic (especially in 1986), so Dragon Quest can’t be faulted too much, but that doesn’t hide the fact that its bland towns and 2D sprites don’t look much better than someone who lost their lunch. Fortunately, the main character, world map, and battle screen look a bit better, but the majority of the artwork will make you cringe.
Even worse than the visuals are the annoying bleeps and bloops you’ll hear regularly. If you turn the text speed up to fast, you’ll hear less of this, but some of the sound effects you’ll hear sound more grating than someone scratching a chalkboard with their nails.
Fortunately, Dragon Quest has some decent music that at least partly makes up for the “classic” sound effects. The world map theme is excellent, and definitely makes you feel as if you’re on an epic journey. Likewise, the title theme that has been used in every Dragon Quest title is memorable, albeit a bit tinny sounding. It’s unfortunate that you’ll hear the battle theme that sounds about as pleasant as a car alarm more often than these songs, but this is an RPG.
When you finally embark on your journey from Tantegel Castle, your first task is to check out the adjacent village before fighting monsters. The game doesn’t explicitly tell you this, but it’s important that you travel there to outfit your naked warrior, so he won’t fall in battle. Your hero will equip items automatically after purchasing them, so you won’t have to worry about individually equipping swords, shields, and body armor.
Once your character is equipped, you’re free to explore the village or leave and fight monsters. Talking to villagers won’t get you very far, as many of them will spout nonsensical dialogue, give you vague hints, or mislead you. If you’re normal, you won’t want to listen to their yapping for very long, and will instead opt to journey the world.
The world map is quite large, and you don’t have an actual map to guide you, so you’ll have to discover towns and dungeons on your own. While seeking your destination, you’ll encounter monsters every few steps of your travels. Depending on what type of terrain you’re traveling through, you’ll encounter different types of monsters and varying encounter rates. When you’re looking for easy traveling, grass is the ideal terrain to travel through, since there are fewer encounters and easier enemies.
Once you actually engage in battle, you’ll fight creatures ranging from slimes to skeletons. Many of these creatures would later become series staples, so they’re quite recognizable to Dragon Quest veterans.
You’ll soon notice that Dragon Quest’s random battles only feature one enemy at a time. When you encounter an enemy, a small window with a colorful background will appear on screen. In this small window, you’ll notice a menu with commands such as ‘Fight’, ‘Spell’, ‘Item’, and ‘Run’. Dragon Quest has a fairly standard turn-based battle system (it’s the originator after all), so it’s easy for any RPG veteran to understand.
When your character ends a battle victorious, he’ll gain gold and experience. As nearly everyone would guess, gold is useful for purchasing equipment and items in villages, while experience points enable your hero to gain levels. Once your character has accumulated enough experience, he’ll gain a level at the end of battle, and it’ll give you a breakdown of what stats have improved. Gaining levels is also the only way your character can learn spells, so it’s important to fight as often as possible.
Most spells you’ll learn are relatively basic and poorly named (Heal, Healmore, Hurt, Hurtmore), but you’ll also earn a few handy non-battle moves that’ll allow you to escape dungeons and repel weaker enemies. When your MP runs low, you’ll have to return to the nearest village inn.
Inns are handy for restoring HP and MP, but they’re often quite expensive. Fortunately, there’s a way around this, as you can restore your MP at Tantegel Castle for free. You’ll be returning there regularly, as you’ll spend over 99% of the game fighting enemies.
If you happen to fall in battle (which will almost assuredly happen), you’ll return to the throne room with your life restored and experience intact. There is a nasty side effect of dying, however, and that’s the loss of half of your gold. You’ll spend nearly twenty hours grinding to raise enough gold to purchase essential equipment, so it’s important that you return to the castle to save regularly.
It’s unfortunate that you can only save at the castle, because it makes venturing into new territory a hassle. While in new lands, you’re at a high risk of dying, because you might be surprised by incredibly powerful enemies who’re capable of landing critical hits. It would have been nice if you could save at nearby villages, since the world takes a long time to traverse on foot (there are no vehicles), but unfortunately, you can only return to the castle. Eventually, you’ll earn a spell that’ll allow you to return to the castle quickly, but you’ll still have to make the trek back to where you previously were.
Dragon Quest’s grinding is more tedious than writing math proofs, so most players won’t have the patience to stomach fighting the same monsters hundreds, if not thousands of times. These battles may have been a bit more “entertaining” if the dungeons and world map they were fought on were interesting, but instead, they’re generally a mucky mess.
The dark dungeons you’ll travel through are just simple, tiled mazes with blocks and stairways. I can understand why Enix chose to shroud these areas in darkness that can only be penetrated by torches or spells, because they’re so darn ugly.
Even the story can’t save players from the incredibly repetitive Dragon Quest. You’ll eventually rescue the princess from a dragon, and you’ll then be forced to gather the legendary Erdrick’s equipment to battle the Dragon Lord, but none of this covers up the fact that this game is one of the most grind-heavy RPGs in existence.
After playing through Dragon Quest IV and V, I was looking forward to experiencing the series’ genesis. I figured that a video game series that has a Star Wars level of fandom had to have an epic beginning, but I was wrong. I know that I shouldn’t have expected much, since this is an NES RPG, but even for an 8-bit title, it fails miserably. It’s not just Dragon Quest’s basic story, ugly visuals, and annoying sound effects that bothers me — it’s the game’s battle system that’s the primary offender. I don’t enjoy fighting the same few difficult enemies for six hours to earn enough money for equipment that is essential to survival, and I don’t think I’m alone here. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy role-playing games, I highly recommend staying away from Dragon Quest, unless you want to learn of the genre’s roots.
- It’s the first console RPG
- The world map theme is pleasant
- Equipping weapons and armor is easy
- 99% of the game is grinding
- You lose half of your money when you die
- You can only save at the castle
- Battles are incredibly monotonous
- Villagers are there to confuse you more than aid you
- You’ll feel like you wasted 20 hours after completing the game