Dragon Quest (originally released as Dragon Warrior in the West), first released in 1986, is the very first JRPG, a classic in every definition of the word, and Japan’s original take on the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired Western RPGs released during the 80s. And to think, I considered skipping this one. But it was the promise of a short length (I needed a break from all these dozens-of-hours-long epics like Tales and Final Fantasy), the tantalizing appeal of DQXI, the fact that the first three games form a introductory trilogy of sorts and codify many series tropes (or so I’ve heard from various sources), and the game’s cheap price and easy accessibility on Switch that convinced me to start here instead of with a more renowned title in the series such as III or V. Boy, am I glad I made that choice. I liked the first Dragon Quest so much that I played its sequel immediately afterward, even though I didn’t plan to review it and don’t typically play JRPGs besides those I discuss for this series. However, Folklore, the first game of this review series, hardly qualifies as a JRPG, so I want to make it up to you all with a bonus review of DQII. Look for that later in summer 2020.
But back to the main feature. Dragon Quest is widely considered the first JRPG because it introduced many of the tropes used by JRPGs today, including the simple menu system (at least in comparison to Western RPGs of the mid-80s), classic combat options familiar to anyone who’s played a game of the genre (attack, spell, defend, and flee), random encounters, an overworld map to explore, towns with navigation puzzles to solve, basic equipment, and crazy monster designs. Going into this game, I knew nothing about Dragon Quest except that Slimes are a thing, and that the series is known for its monster designs. Well, I’m not surprised, because even from this first game I can see why many of these monster designs became classics. And I did watch runs of the NES version to get the classic experience — unfortunately the remake that available on Switch features hand-drawn art for each creature. While they look great, I’d rather at least have the option to view the original sprites, but it’s not a dealbreaker for me.
This brings me to a constant sticking point I have when trying to play the classics. On the one hand, I always try to play the original release of any game when possible, because I want the same experience a regular old fan at the time of release would have had. On the other, I don’t own any consoles pre-N64 and don’t care to get any (I’m about out of free space in my place as it is), so I am often forced to play remakes or greatly enhanced versions of games. While not ideal, these usually include speedup features or other quality of life improvements that tend to outweigh my desire for the true OG experience. In the case of Dragon Quest, I don’t mind. I’m happy to watch a speed run of the NES version to get a feel for what it was like, then appreciate all the improvements in the mobile/Switch version, such as the ability to save any time (It’s essentially save states, which I happily admit I abused.). After all, I’m old enough to remember playing NES games when they were new, I just wasn’t playing RPGs at the time. It’s relatively easy to put myself into the mindset of my young, early 90s self and appreciate classics like this. But now at age 30, I also want to be able to save any time and not waste hours of my life.
With all the modern enhancements, Dragon Quest is an easy game indeed, though it requires a (legendary) amount of grinding, especially for the final boss. I don’t personally mind this, as I like to turn on a podcast and zone out a bit while I grind, making it go by super fast, but this is an obvious spot for sequels to potentially improve on. (And I intend to play every sequel, so stay tuned.) At any rate, when I say this version is easy, I am only referring to the combat, because the obtuseness of the main plot is present in full force here. While there aren’t many NPCs compared to what you might find in modern JRPGs, I’m thankful I took copious notes of what each one said, as nearly every bit of information turned out to be crucial in understanding the world and, more importantly, where to go next. With that said, it’s manageable, and I never had to resort to referencing a guide, but I also have a lot of patience and enjoy slowly working out clues and retracing my footsteps, so mileage may vary on that. If you do enjoy that old school adventure game style of figuring out clues using somewhat out-of-the-box thinking, there’s a lot to love here.
One of my favorite things about this game is how simple it is conceptually. Or perhaps humble is the more appropriate word. Stats for characters, weapons, and everything else start in the single digits and stay there for much longer than you’d find in a game like, say, Final Fantasy. Your max HP doesn’t reach 100 until the game is nearly over, for crying out loud. Each fight consists of your hero against a single enemy. You either attack, use a spell, use an item, or flee (wait — this part hasn’t changed much since ‘86). Even though it doesn’t matter in the overall scheme of things, this contrast to other well-known JRPG series, in addition to all the memorable enemy designs, sets Dragon Quest apart to me. I can see why it hooked players on release and why the series continues to enthrall to this day.
Beyond all that, I don’t have much to say. The music is brilliant: I didn’t know I was familiar with the Dragon Quest theme until I instantly recognized it when starting the game for the first time. The story is rather bland but feels appropriately epic. As the descendant of the legendary hero Erdrick (Or Loto apparently, in the original NES release? I’m certainly glad they changed that one. At least Erdrick sounds like a somewhat realistic name for a Medieval-esque knight.), you are chosen by the king to rescue the princess and defeat a great evil. That is, in fact, all there is to the story, but it works well given the small scale of the world and game overall. This took me less than 10 hours to beat, and I was often plodding along or reloading saves. And all of this is a good thing for me; it fits the design of the game well. My only complaint is the difficulty of that final boss, especially since the only purpose of his insane amount of HP is to force grinding at the very end.
There are almost no characters to speak of. The protagonist knight is the only character who gets any kind of development as well as the only party member, but the unique angle here is that there is no canon name for the hero — he’s your hero, whoever you want him to be, and in this respect I grew more attached to Rob, my hero, than I might normally in a JRPG. It helps that the world is brilliantly designed, full of color, and small enough for every location to be memorable. I can picture the entire map in my head and remember the locations and names of major towns, which is more than I can say for most games of the genre. It’s a world that makes me want to come back just to run around and listen to the music.
Dragon Quest lives up to its legacy by truly feeling like the origin of a new genre, and I encourage any fan of any kind of JRPG to give this one a try. What a gem. It’s no wonder Japan loves this series so much, and I can tell that from just the first game. I can’t wait to play Dragon Quest XI S, the latest in the series as of this review’s publication, but that will have to wait until I have more DQ games under my belt. At the very least, I want to play DQIII, and I think I also want to play the VII-VIII-IX trilogy first as well. Check back in 2021 to find out!
Until then, feel free to join me next month as I finally visit one of the most well-known consoles for JRPGs and discuss the SNES classic Secret of Mana, a.k.a. Seiken Densetsu 2.