Swords and sorcery. Kingdoms and caves. Monsters and merchants. Boats and...blackjack? If the world's in peril and you've still got time to hit the casino, chances are good you're playing Dragon Warrior.
Nowadays you might more readily recognize the name Dragon Quest, but when this roleplaying video game series came to America from Japan back in the late 1980s, changes were made to certain aspects of the game, including the title: DragonQuest was the name of a pen-and-paper fantasy RPG at the time, and Dragon Warrior sounded far less infringatory. Personally, I think Dragon Warrior has a nicer ring to it, so I'll limit my discussion to the four NES games bearing this noble name.
If you've played Breath of Fire, Final Fantasy, Golden Sun, or any other turn-based, 2-D, fantasy RPG, the basics of the Dragon Warrior series should be familiar: fight, talk, purchase, explore. However, there are three key elements that distinguish Dragon Warrior from its competition:
(1) Every battle matters. Too many RPGs balance the presence of excessive random encounters with enemies that can be vanquished, unless you're grossly underleveled, by blindly mashing the attack button. The Dragon Warrior series gives its enemies a wide range of special abilities that require real tactics to overcome--even the most unassuming foes might be able to heal, hit your entire party with an unlikely-to-succeed instant death spell, summon reinforcements, or boost their defense power through the roof. Given that hit points and damage output are scaled back to reasonable levels (compared to games that don't use numbers with fewer than three digits), there are frequently times when a single point of damage could be the difference between life and death.
(2) Simplicity. The graphics remain comfortably similar throughout each installment. Most cutscenes, if they are present at all, are short and to the point. You don't need a strategy guide to keep track of all the playable characters. New equipment is obviously better or worse than what you currently have--it's very rare that you'll ever deliberate about what to keep. Sidequests are few and far between, and you never need to worry about being at a supreme disadvantage against the final boss if you skipped an optional sidequest. The games might seem shallower and more primitive than most modern RPGs, but I argue that the simplicity helps to keep the games focused on gameplay and progress.
(3) The artwork. I'm a sucker for the monster designs of Akira Toriyama; I suspect this is partially influenced by my love of Chrono Trigger, which he also illustrated. From smiley-faced Slimes to ghostly Rogue Whispers to those accursed demonic Bullwongs, I find the enemy designs to be creative and filled with character--even ubiquitous foes such as skeletons and simple forest animals seem to have a personality built into their artwork.
These three reasons apply to all four NES Dragon Warriors, although I can't say I like the games all equally. Each game has its highlights and its lowlights, though in many ways, if you've played one Dragon Warrior, you've played them all. Whack monsters with sticks, trade your shiny stone for a bigger helmet, chew the fat with kings and commoners, and traipse through the wilderness in search of the next plot point.
With your permission (I'll do it anyhow), I'd like to conduct a brief overview of the elements and ideas that set each game apart...for better or for worse.
STORY: A lone hero sets out to rescue a princess and slay the evil Dragonlord who has brought darkness to the land. There's nothing fancy here--no elemental crystals; no meteors crashing into small towns; just uninterrupted monster mashing in the name of The Greater Good.
COMBAT: Don't think of the combat in this game as a series of random battles. Each fight is a sudden duel to the death. Players must be exceedingly cautious to stay alive, constantly weighing the risks of each decision both in and out of combat. When you're on your last few hit points and won't survive another hit, do you attempt to flee from your enemy, or take a chance on an unreliable-yet-powerful magic spell that could end the battle in your favor? Should you explore just a little more of the dungeon, or turn around while you still stand a chance of getting home in one piece?
The obvious road to success is beating up on the easy enemies until you're respectably overpowered and bored to tears; however, an adventurous player might adopt a strategy based on calculated risks that yield faster progress...like the time I sprinted across an entire continent, relying on getting lucky running away from each and every random dragon that stood in my way (having barely survived against just one dragon as a major boss), burning through my entire inventory of healing herbs, and ultimately limping through the gates of a distant city just to buy a new sword that I had no business owning at such a low level. That was fun.
WHAT MAKES IT GREAT: Atmosphere. Kings and commoners throw around "thee," "thou," and their ilk like an attendee at a Renaissance Faire; even if it's a little hackneyed, this twist on the otherwise simple dialogue gives the game character. Caves are pitch black unless you've got a torch or magic spell to illuminate a small radius around your hero, and eventually your light will go out, leaving you to stumble around in a place where no one might ever find you again. What a clever, scary bit of realism.
The simple boops and bleeps of the music manage to evoke a sense of cheerful safety in the towns, heroic solitude in the overworld, omnipresent danger in the underworld, and mortal peril in every battle. Combined with the tension from knowing that every random encounter very well could be your last, Dragon Warrior offers an atmosphere far richer than its repetitious gameplay and 8-bit graphics and sound would suggest possible.
WHAT MAKES IT LESS GREAT: If the aforementioned atmosphere doesn't suck you in, Dragon Warrior is pretty much a game about hitting the "A" button a bunch of times until somebody dies. Usually you. Repeatedly.
OVERALL: This is the game that made me fall in love with RPGs. There's a serious nostalgia factor here that colors my opinion of the game, but even so, Dragon Warrior's accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at. If they were, however, I'd feel a sense of nosestalgia.
Dragon Warrior II
STORY: One hundred years after the events of Dragon Warrior (rather, the event, singular; not much actually happened in that game), a lone prince embarks on a quest to defeat an evil wizard. After realizing that all the monsters are impossibly difficult and keep killing him all the time, he recruits a princess and another prince so that he doesn't have to die alone. Together, the trio marches and sails around the world, getting killed almost nonstop in an attempt to figure out where the heck they're supposed to go.
WHAT'S DIFFERENT: (Eventually) three party members instead of just one; ocean travel, bigger map. Not much else, aside from new music, monsters, and locations. Oh, and even after discovering battle tactics that work and spending multiple game sessions doing nothing but grinding for XP, the game is still oppressively difficult: between overpowered monsters, attacks you can't possibly defend against, and worthless party members who either can't hit their targets or can't survive the first round of any battle, it's a wonder anybody bothered getting out of bed for this. But that's only half the reason this is one of the worst RPGs I've ever played.
THE OTHER HALF OF THE REASON THIS IS ONE OF THE WORST RPGS I'VE EVER PLAYED: The natural geographic features of the overworld map have conspired with the townsfolk of every town in the world to ensure that the player will never have any idea where they're supposed to go. Clues as to the next destination are frequently vague or nonexistent, and memorable overworld landmarks are few and far between. The entire bottom half of the world map consists primarily of vast ocean, random tiny islands that are easy to miss, and sweeping coastlines blocked off by impassible mountains. When you don't know where you're going, there are too many directions to explore; in the rare event that you do know where you're going, you can't get there!
REDEEMING FACTORS: At one point, the king tells you, "Thy strength is that of many fearsome Hibabongos." Also, there are Hibabongos.
OVERALL: While it continues the story and expands on the gameplay of the original, anything that might be considered an improvement in Dragon Warrior II usually backfires spectacularly. The concepts of a bigger world, multiple party members, more complex monsters, and greater character diversity are all fine and dandy, but most of the fun of the first game is lost in the execution. There are people who love this game, but unless you're a diehard fan or obsessive completionist, you might do better to skim through a walkthrough of DWII, bang your head against the wall a few times, and then jump ahead to the next game--it'd be almost as though you'd actually played it.
Dragon Warrior III:
DISCLAIMER: I have to confess that I've only ever played the Game Boy Color remake of DWIII; my apologies for the lack of total authenticity in this allegedly NES-only review. My understanding is that the basic game is still completely intact, with a number of additions (minigames, bonus dungeons, a personality system that affects your stats as you level up), along with some changes (a new character class, weapons that now affect multiple enemies, modernized shopping mechanics). I've seen screenshots, so I can pretend like I've played the NES version instead (which, incidentally, has a few changes of its own from the original Japanese release).
STORY: One hundred years before the original Dragon Warrior, a lone hero, Ortega, travels the world to slay Baramos, the Evil Bad Guy. Ortega is killed, but apparently never saved his game so he could go back and try again. Thus, it is up to Ortega's child, the hero, to be guilted by the general populace into finishing the job.
WHAT'S DIFFERENT: You can choose the gender of the main character, and recruit (or dismiss!) party members at will. Gone are the set-in-stone character classes: not only can you select from a number of classes for your party members (Wizard, Fighter, Merchant, Soldier, etc.), but you can also change their class after a certain point in the game.
Time passes while traversing the overworld, and locations hold different secrets by day and by night. New kinds of equipment, spells, and items are available, all of which add a welcome level of depth to the gameplay. Just as DWII added ocean travel to the mix, DWIII takes transportation one step further and allows you to take to the skies.
IN OTHER WORDS: It's pretty much the most customizable and open-ended game in the entire NES series.
WHAT MAKES IT GREAT: The balance of a fairly linear plot progression with the freedom and replayability described above makes for a refreshing "guided sandbox" experience--you can explore and experiment as much as you'd like, but the next plot point is almost always within sight. Towns and dungeons contain enough variety, both in terms of layout and aesthetics, to keep them interesting and distinguishable from one another. The quests and NPCs are just unique and complex enough to feel more like purposeful missions given to you by the real inhabitants of this fictional world, and less like this thing you gotta do because a walking billboard told you so.
WHAT MAKES IT LESS GREAT: It's the times when the next plot point is almost within sight that the open-ended-yet-linear gameplay starts to drag. Exploration can easily give way to being lost. Experimentation can put your party into tough situations where no one is properly equipped for the fight at hand (though, admittedly, not anywhere near as badly as in Final Fantasy V Advance). If you're playing well, and playing regularly enough to remember what you're doing, you'll probably be fine; otherwise, DWIII can feel like a bit of a chore.
OVERALL: While I'm willing to grant that the niceties and complexities of the GBA release are probably affecting my opinion, DWIII is everything a sequel should be--deeper, more expansive, and more streamlined. The game doesn't take too many risks, and there's very little outside of the new gameplay elements that is particularly novel, but it's a "safe" RPG without any show-stopping flaws, and I absolutely love the continuity with the original Dragon Warrior that's eventually revealed.
Dragon Warrior IV:
STORY: Set in a time and place that have nothing to do with the first three games, a lone hero bands together with a number of other adventurers to defeat the Ruler of Evil. By far, this is the most complex plot yet.
WHAT'S DIFFERENT: You don't actually meet the lone hero until halfway through the game. DWIV is broken into chapters, and each chapter focuses on a different character or characters. You'll play as a headstrong princess and her two bodyguards, a soldier trying to rescue some missing children, magical dancing sisters seeking vengeance for the death of their father, and a merchant whose only goals in life are EXCESSIVELY EXPENSIVE. Only after their chapters are completed will you take control of the legendary hero and see how all these stories tie together (though you'll certainly get little hints along the way).
Also new to the series are some sidequesty minigames: a perpetual scavenger hunt for Small Medals, and a completely optional casino featuring multiple ways to change your character class to Utterly Destitute Pauper. There are some neat, exclusive items to be gained this way, but nothing so crucial that you can't beat the game without them.
WHAT MAKES IT GREAT: Each character has a unique personality and combat style that give a distinct flavor to each chapter. The solitary solider's chapter plays out like DWI, the princess and her companions are reminiscent of the heroes of DWII (though with considerably longer life expectancies), and both the merchant's and the sisters' chapters almost feel like they could be part of a different RPG series altogether.
It's refreshing to see such variety, and the overall story is strengthened by the opportunity to run around and establish some history with the locations and characters before the main adventure truly begins. Throw in a dynamic soundtrack, an eminently navigable overworld map, the aforementioned casino and item hunt, cleverly designed dungeons and towns, and creatively challenging enemies, and you've got what should easily be my all-time favorite Dragon Warrior game.
WHY IT'S NOT MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE DRAGON WARRIOR GAME: I fancy myself a somewhat respectable RPG tactician. I am also something of a control freak. If I die in an RPG, it should be my fault for choosing poor or overly risky tactics. Otherwise, a Game Over is not acceptable. Imagine how much I enjoy continually losing to the same boss because SOMEONE on my team is on autopilot and can't think of any other action but casting a guaranteed-to-fail instant death spell seven turns in a row.
Any party member who is not a lead character in the chapter at hand is relegated to autopilot during combat. Though you can assign general combat tactics (offensive, defensive, use no magic, etc.), there will always be one person who insists on putting everything to sleep instead of blasting it with holy fire, and one person who absolutely, under no circumstances, may be trusted with the immensely powerful one-use-only healing item you were saving for the final boss, and not some random encounter 50 feet away from a town.
I have never shouted, "MORONS!" at my television screen so frequently.
The other issue is that each chapter starts you off at Level 1. It's tedious to spend so much time working your way up to the cooler equipment and more challenging enemies, only to complete a chapter and start all over again with the same kinds of mundane swords, armors, and 9-HP foes you just graduated from. Especially when you have to start from scratch five different times.
OVERALL: If it weren't for the uselessly incompetent party members (who, I'm sure, have quite sophisticated AI by NES standards) and needing to work back up from first level over and over, Dragon Warrior IV would be the definitive Dragon Warrior game for the NES. However, even with these flaws, it's still every bit as good as DWI or III, except the highs are higher and the lows are lower--in the end, it about balances out.
With ports, remakes, and an entire franchise spanning years and years across multiple systems, there's plenty more Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest to enjoy. For the NES games, at least, any installment is a fine choice for first-time players--even Dragon Warrior II. It all depends on personal preferences and gameplay styles; most elements of these early games are so similar that you'll be able to tell fairly quickly whether this series is right for you, regardless of the unique highs and lows of the particular game you're playing.
If you're a fantasy nut, an RPG aficionado, a retro game enthusiast, or just looking for something to fill a lot of time, then fortune smiles upon thee. Thou hast found Dragon Warrior.