Developed by Enix
Published by Nintendo for the NES
What more can be said about the original Dragon Quest? As the story goes, it was Enix’s attempt to bring American style Role Playing Games like Wizardry and Ultima to Japanese consoles (a game called The Black Onyx introduced the genre to Japanese PC’s a year earlier). This attempt gave birth to a cultural phenomenon, as well as the most popular franchise in Japanese gaming.
Yet while most know about the Dragon Quest series in general, not many people ever discuss the original game. It may get a few paragraphs in “history of RPGs” or “NES classics” articles, but it is often overlooked by its biggest competitor of the time: Final Fantasy 1. For many gamers, FF is the only early RPG that matters for anything. You can find hordes of paragraphs detailing how great FF1 was for its time, how great it still is today, how it is so much better than Dragon Quest and that it is Squaresoft that should be considered the father of RPGs. Not exactly the best reputation for a so called pioneer.
There are reasons for this. The most obvious one is that while Final Fantasy may have ripped off the Dragon Quest formula (note to Square fans — I won’t argue this point. Take a real hard look at both and you’ll see what I mean), it still managed to make improvements to said formula, making it an arguably better game. Second, Dragon Quest has traditionally had a very weak presence in the States, despite the fact that only two games in the series are still unreleased here.
Meanwhile, Final Fantasy has become the golden series of the Playstation Generation, and is the de facto RPG series for many American gamers. If one of said gamers were to be so adventurous as to try out an old fashioned Role Playing Game, chances are it will have the Squaresoft logo stamped on it.
A certain air of fanboyism also has an affect. When you read fan reviews describing FF1’s story as a “true epic” and claiming that Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtracks are leagues better Koichi Sugiyama’s (despite the fact that Sugiyama was an established composer before DQ ever existed), one has to wonder if this is simply a reaction by Square fans who refuse to believe that someone else could have made a good RPG – or beat them to the punch at it.
But enough of this mindless prattling; how good is Dragon Quest 1 on its own two legs? Regardless of which version of it you may play, the game clearly shows its age. Everything you know about the genre is here, albeit in their most primitive forms. You’ve got an overworld, towns, dungeons, NPC’s, items and equipment. You only have one member to your party, and the only way to gain spells is to level up. This makes for a game that is incredibly easy to pick up and start playing, even if you’re a complete novice to the genre. This makes sense, since the game was intended to be an introduction to the genre for an uninitiated Japanese public. Yet don’t mistake simplicity for easiness.
As with most early RPGs, DQ1 is harder than it should be due to the developers’ steps to artificially lengthen the quest. Enemies can be incredibly tough when entering new regions, forcing the now famous process of “level grinding” upon the player whether they like it or not. NPCs give little advice as to what you should do or where you should go, causing vast chunks of time to be allocated towards wandering the map and hoping you’ve found the right dungeon. Then there is the matter of exploring the purposefully mazelike layout of the dungeons, led only by a torch that barely illuminates half of the screen. Simply put, if you can think of an annoying problem common in early RPGs, you can probably find it here (though considering it was a pioneer, it does have an excuse).
Despite this, I still managed to complete the game. And while I did so for the sake of this review, it never once felt like a chore. Dare I say that I actually enjoyed this simple quest of five dungeons and as many towns. Long time Dragon Quest fans will tell you that there is something different about the level grind in this series. They say that there is a zen-like feel to it, as you slowly venture farther and farther away from home, getting a little bit stronger and wiser every time.
I have no clue if director Yuji Horii ever intended for his game to convey this feeling, but it is certainly there. It seems to result from the flow between combat and exploration, as well as the quick pace of the battles. You fall into a very comfortable rhythm as your explore the game world, and Koichi Sugiyama’s soundtrack can be very soothing, despite being presented in archaic midi. Whatever is the case, there is something about Dragon Quest that makes it feel more like a game and less like a chore (which is what most old RPGs feel like).
Furthermore, while Dragon Quest may not go easy on the player it still has a degree of respect for them. It never belittles you for failure, it never tries to rush you to your next destination, and the sense of accomplishment you get from clearing a dungeon feels genuine. DQ channels a little bit of The Legend of Zelda, in that it becomes a very personal experience where you grow to care about the growth and success of your character. For a genre that involves little more than pressing the same button repeatedly, this kind of motivation is critical in order to keep the player coming back, and I was surprised to see how well Enix managed to capture this idea in such a simple, almost bare bones title.
I would not recommend Dragon Quest to anyone looking for an entertaining RPG, or even a good NES RPG. It is simply too old in its design, and the fact that it was the first means that it was improved upon by later games, Final Fantasy included. Yet Dragon Quest clearly shows why it became such a smash hit during its time, and also gives a clue as to why the basic elements of the Japanese RPG continue to entertain millions to this very day. I’ll even go on the record as saying that while FF1 may be a more refined and improved game, I find Dragon Quest to be the more enjoyable experience.
Go ahead and shower Final Fantasy with some praise; it has certainly earned at least some of it over the years. But no one can deny that Dragon Quest is just as important to the genre, deserving of its own praise and respect. Who knew beating slimes with a copper sword could actually work.