Before I start, I just wanted to preface this whole review by saying I played the Switch version of Dragon Quest. Being English, Dragon Quest didn’t hit my shores until the 8th entry. I could have bought an NES and a copy of the North American Dragon Warrior, or a Famicom if I was being extra insane, but this was a much more accessible way to play the classic. Plus, let’s be honest, most people are probably going to play the modern ports of the game – not the original releases.
Dragon Quest as a series is not only genre-defining – it’s genre-creating. Inspired by Western PC RPGs, which, in turn, took inspiration from Pen & Paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, it took the first step to bringing complex character building and worlds to home consoles. This year marks the 35th Anniversary of this venerable series, so I thought I would boot it up, give it a go, and have a gush about it. Be forewarned, spoilers are afoot.
A Legend Is Born
The all-powerful and mightily-dastardly Dragon Lord has emerged to enslave the people of Alefgard. The King of Tantegel sent an army to thwart the vile magi, but no word has been heard since their departure. With his daughter missing and the final hour soon at hand, he turns to you. The fate of the Kingdom and all of its people rests on your shoulders – don’t screw it up.
As a reason to do things, the story is fine. It’s a tad old fashioned and tropey, but this is an NES plot we are talking about here. The nuances of why you are doing what you are doing are not massively important. That being said, Dragon Quest, even in its most basic of forms, does a lot of things narratively that surprised me. Firstly, whilst the King’s daughter is missing, her rescue is entirely optional. If you choose to rescue her, when you do so, is entirely up to you, giving a further element of choice. You could rescue her early – killing a Green Dragon along the way – and get a pretty sweet reward. Alternatively, you could swing by at the end of the game and sweep her off her feet at the last moment. If you leave her to rot, you even get a different ending.
That alone is pretty damn impressive in terms of agency, but from a ‘games of the time’ perspective, this is huge. Most games of the era had ‘rescuing the damsel’ as the primary goal. Dragon Quest subverts this. The game does not end with her rescue, as she is a side quest at best. Secondly, the inclusion of multiple choices and endings reflecting those choices was massive. It’s impressive to this day that a game so ‘archaic’ offered this level of freedom. But that’s not all, as that isn’t the only story element that involves player choice. You will eventually meet the Dragon Lord, and when you do, he offers a simple choice. Join him, or die. The game allows you to abandon your quest and join the big bad. In the original release, this resulted in your death. In the modern versions, you wake up from a bad dream.
Subversion and Multiple Choice
From the get-go then, Dragon Quest brought forward multiple endings, choices, tropes and subversions of those tropes. Not bad for an NES story built during a time where Mario was considered fine literature. But where Dragon Quest truly shines is in its atmosphere, environments and sense of adventure. I may have weaved a compelling tale about Dragon Quest’s narrative, but in reality, it takes up about 30 seconds of the game’s 6-8 hour run time. Everything surrounding those words is what sells the experience.
You are alone. Always. There are a handful of soldiers left in all of Alefgard. Venturing into the nearby village reveals injured men – men who failed the quest you are about to embark on. If not you, there is no one. The world is a lonely place with vast expanses of land and sea between you and your next destination – wherever that may be. Cruel monsters prowl the wilderness, and you must face them alone. Stumbling around this large world, with little more than vagaries as guide was oppressive. But when I found my next town, I was at peace. A brief respite from the gruelling challenges that lay ahead. The opportunity to talk to people, exchange my hard-earned gold for new equipment and the chance to glean additional clues about what I must do next.
It’s all about exploring. You have a map that pinpoints areas of interest, although not all of them. Despite its age, exploring Dragon Quest is still special. It nailed the feeling of openness – of freedom. It subtly guides you by segmenting its world with bridges. Beyond each bridge lies stronger enemies, so venturing farther from Tantegel brings great risk. Therefore pottering around the immediate area, of which there are several towns and even a dungeon to explore, is encouraged. The game was pointing me in the right direction, but I never felt like it was holding my hand.
Embracing The Myth
As I stumbled into various towns, frequented their inns and mosied around their shops, the name Erdrick kept being mentioned. Erdrick was a legendary hero, and ancestor, who saved Alefgard from perpetual darkness in a time long passed. Your journey mirrors his mythical quest – you are following in his footsteps. Scattered across the land are pieces of Erdrick’s equipment, some of which are optional discoveries. You start with nothing but a bamboo stick, but by the end you are decked out with mythical artefacts and enchanted garments, brandishing a sword that has slain gods. Certain townsfolk will even comment on the acquiescence of his gear. You become more than a would-be-hero. You embody Erdrick himself and carve the path to your legend.
Then there is the atmosphere that the game builds from the get-go. The aforementioned soldiers who failed in Tantegel are just the tip and not even the first bit of spice thrown into the mix. The first thing you will see when you leave your starting castle is your destination – the Dragon Lords castle. It is on an island to the south, surrounded by sea and poison. You know where it is, it is looming above you, you just need to get to it. It’s an effective bit of world-building that is still used to this day. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did this exact thing, for example.
Going town-to-town is often depressing, with dialogue that hints that the people of Alefgard are not doing too well. They are living in fear but doing what they can. Despite this, towns are all peaceful. Monsters are nowhere to be seen and it is always a safe place to rest. Until you get to Damdara. Finding and entering Damdara is the same as any other town. It was a gruelling gauntlet of monsters and battles that left me drained and in need of provisions. Damdara, however, is destroyed, and you only find out when you enter the town’s gate. Monsters roam (metaphorically) and the buildings are all in ruin. The music, which is normally upbeat in villages, is slow and melancholic. The game showed me that this is what will happen to every village, and every person, if I fail.
There are a handful of dungeons to explore, some of which are optional. What is prevalent throughout is the insurmountable darkness that infests the labyrinthian underbelly of Dragon Quest’s world. Your main character emits a faint light, however, this is not enough to break through even a few feet of the dark. Lighting a torch helps, but nothing can truly hold back the black abyss. In terms of atmosphere (gameplay comes later), it makes exploring these dank holds feel confusing, stressful and dangerous.
So in terms of world-building, Dragon Quest absolutely holds up to this day, and is one of the reasons why I fell in love with the game. But the feelings it may, or may not, evoke are not the only things Dragon Quest offers. This is the first JRPG after all, and it needed to establish the foundation that all others would follow…at least until more Dragon Quests were born to expand the formula further.
When people think of JRPG’s, they often think of combat. Lots and lots of combat – usually turn-based. This fits Dragon Quest to a tee. Fighting monsters makes up a large portion of the game’s content. Combat has you selecting from a couple of options, usually attacking, magic or item usage. You conjure the elements or swing your sword until the enemy in front of you dies – or you die I guess. Mechanically it is super simple, and even when depth is injected, it maintains a fairly basic flow which is in part due to resource deprivation.
Most combats boil down to hitting the attack button. This does consistent damage, is quick, and has no MP cost. All encounters are 1v1, so your basic attack is effective in all scenarios. Levelling up will slowly unlock magic for you to use. Most importantly there are damage spells and curatives. Damage spells have a mostly-fixed damage number, and growing in levels doesn’t equate to low-level spells becoming more powerful. That being said, spells are often much more powerful than a basic attack, especially early on. They just cost MP, which is severely limited, and there are no ways of restoring it outside of resting at an inn.
What magic is then, in my opinion, is a means to explore new places without needing to invest in more powerful gear. A basic fire spell will annihilate most enemies in the first couple of areas. Once you realise this, you can venture to new lands and visit towns which provide you with stronger weapons and clues. This comes with a risk of course – running out of MP. Healing is also rare in Dragon Quest, so you are very reliant on your healing spells to stay alive when exploring or tackling a boss monster. If you spend too much time setting things on fire, you aren’t going to have the legs to get very far.
But again, it’s all very basic from a mechanical level. Your options are limited, but due to some stingy resource restrictions, there is a nice sense of risk vs reward that keeps things interesting. Combat frequency, however, is incredibly high. It was not uncommon for me to take a couple of steps before being assailed by another foe. You will fight hundreds of battles getting through Dragon Quest’s story, and needless to say, it can get frustrating. This is somewhat alleviated by the speed at which combats play. Each combat, outside of a boss fight, will last no more than 5-10 seconds. Animations are limited at best and play incredibly quickly. You will have a lot of fighting to do, but each fight is very short.
Becoming a JRPG
They are also very rewarding, as killing enemies provides both EXP and Gold. Gather enough EXP and your dude will gain a level. Unlike in modern games, a single level in Dragon Quest is a substantial increase in power. Gaining 5 Health might not seem that much, but damage numbers are also very low in Dragon Quest. The same goes for MP and every other statistic. I was level 19 when I beat the game, and each level felt like a substantial milestone. It also helps that new magic is unlocked frequently as you level up too, giving you more options inside and outside of combat.
The magic system in Dragon Quest gains a bit more depth when applied to the overworld or dungeons. Sure getting more powerful is funky, but what about the power to create light to illuminate the darkness? Not only does this save you money, but the light generated is much greater at the cost of valuable MP. What about the ability to teleport home, or escape a dungeon? Many of the spells unlocked in Dragon Quest are exclusively used outside of combat and all of them provide hefty quality of life improvements – for a price. Do you recast Glow to see better, or do you save that MP for an emergency heal, or teleport? More risk vs reward.
There is a bit of nonsense that permeates the combat, unfortunately. This comes in the form of the Snooze spell. Various enemies, including bosses, have access to this little bugger, and if you succumb to its effects, you are as good as dead. Snooze puts you to sleep and leaves you defenceless for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s unbelievably frustrating, and whilst it makes combat more dangerous, it’s not worth the hair-pulling. This would have been catastrophic if saving wasn’t so easy in modern Dragon Quest. You can quick-save at any time (other than combat), so utilising this feature is very much advised later on. A full save can only be performed back at Castle Tantegel, which is interesting from a worldbuilding/narrative perspective, but not hugely practical until you acquire a means to rapidly return home.
Meaningful Decision Making
Another feature of Dragon Quest that adds to the deceptively deep decision making is the humble shop and inventory systems. Monsters gold in tiny amounts until much later and items very expensive, especially equipment. Unlike contemporary JRPGs that have the ‘equipment buying stage’ of the game be nothing more than buying the biggest weapon, Dragon Quest forces you to make choices. Do you buy a weaker weapon, knowing that if you hold off you can buy a stronger one quicker? Not buying any weapon makes combat harder, but buying a weapon slows your progress towards greater gains. Then we have armour, and shields, which are also expensive, but the damage reduction is very noticeable. The game adds more and more economic layers and leaves it up to you to decide how you want to proceed.
Inventory management is also huge in Dragon Quest. You have a very limited inventory. Few items stack and everything, including equipped items and key items, take up space. By the end of the game, I was left with only 1 free space in my inventory, which I occupied with a single healing herb. What does this mean in terms of gameplay though? Mostly annoyance, but also, more decision making. Spending your hard-earned gold on a teleporting Chimera Wing, or a healing item not only costs you money, but also takes up inventory space. If you have too much stuff in your bag when you come across loot in a dungeon or a key item in a shrine etc. you must throw something away – wasting that gold spent.
I mentioned that Dungeons are these foreboding zones filled with darkness and terror – which they are. They are also fairly difficult and, in terms of gameplay, very frustrating. Taking out the limited visibility and a lack of a map, every dungeon is littered with dead ends and alternate paths. It’s very easy to get lost, and almost impossible to figure out whether or not you’ve found all of the treasure on any given floor. It’s a pain in the arse, but thankfully, most of them are short. They are also infested with monsters, often much more powerful than the encounters on the immediate surface. Early on, I resorted to tackling dungeons in two steps – mentally mapping as much as I could, retreating, and then going in for the conquer. Dungeons are gauntlets of attrition, and doing them slowly was worthwhile in my experience.
Dungeon Delving 2.0
This is especially true when you consider the insane rewards Dungeons hold within their dreary dorms. Most dungeons have chests ladened with vast swathes of gold, powerful weapons, armour and accessories. Where killing slimes nets you a mere 1 gold, a dungeon could net you several thousand, a new weapon, a charm and even a key item to continue your quest. The thing is though, you need to get out again, and dying is severely punished. If you die, you go back to Castle Tantegel with 50% of your gold lost. It’s all well and good scouring Galen’s Tomb, but if you can’t get out with the spoils, you’re going to feel bad in the morning.
If dungeons are where your resource management is tested, then boss fights are where your combat skills are put on trial. Whilst combat is simple, just swinging at a Dragon won’t do you any good. Boss fights are tests of endurance where you need to play cautiously alternating between attacking and healing to survive. This is as true with the first boss as it is with the last. This is where Dragon Quests combat shines, even if that shine is still a bit dull nowadays. There is one exception in Cantilin where using a certain item can help you immensely, which was a nice twist.
Which nicely segues into talking to people – one of Dragon Quest’s most important aspects. You are given very little direction when you set out, and you can’t just run-up to the Dragon Lord’s keep and slap his scaly arse – no matter how strong you are. No, you need to talk to people and gather clues as to what items are needed to progress. You will need several key items to even reach the Dragon Lord, and obtaining them will take you around the world at least once. Information is key, and listening to people is the best way to get that information.
Dragon Quest knows this too, as it rewards you with more people to talk to regularly. This is done most obviously when you get to a new town. You conquered X, found Y and ended up in Z. Awesome, have some NPC’s to exposit towards you. But in a much more subtle way, the game, on several occasions, hides NPC’s behind locked doors. Purchasing a one-use-only Magic Key (done much later on in the game) opens these doors. Some of these doors contain chests and loot, but the fact that sometimes they just contain a single NPC with a clue, shows just how valuable information is in the Dragon Quest world. It is directly comparable to equipment. Of course, you could just look up a guide, but unlike many NES-era games, Dragon Quest is very easy to complete without one. It is far from convoluted.
What is convoluted, however, are the items. Most items have a quirky little description, but not all of them are clear as to what they do. For example, every shop sells Dragon Scales. The game never tells you what they do, so you could go the whole game not knowing they increase your defence when equipped. Some items are also broken, such as the Warriors Ring. Found at the end of a dungeon, this magical ring is supposed to increase your attack damage. It’s bugged, however, and does nothing but take up precious inventory space.
I want to quickly natter about Dragon Quest’s ending, and how powerful it is – regardless of how many other games in the series have since done it. When you kill the Dragon Lord, the game doesn’t end. You are forced to walk back to Tantegel, only there are no monsters left. At all. You, as a player, get to experience the world you fought to reclaim. You can go to every town you visited on your journey if you wanted to, and every NPC will be cheering your name and praising your accomplishments. Where there was once poison, there are now flowers. It is a powerful moment that lasts exactly as long as you want it to. You can even teleport home and ignore it if you want. The trials and tribulations of Dragon Quest – the ups and the downs – lead to this moment, and it was worth it.
Whilst the remake I played has vastly improved graphics over the NES original, Dragon Quest has always had an instantly recognisable style. Penned by the then-and-now legendary, Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame, Dragon Quests visuals, especially enemy design, ooze charm. Whether I was being beset by the iconic Slime, nibbling Dracky or colossal Golem, everything looked smashing. This is made better by fantastic naming conventions applied to most monsters – my favourite being the ‘werewolf’ line of enemies. I won’t lie, I was chuckling when I saw that they were called Bewarewolves. Absolutely genius. It’s a shame there aren’t more enemy types, as I bumped into recolours almost immediately.
The charm also extends to the naming of spells, which are very onomatopoeic. Instead of being an increasingly more violent term for fire, Dragon Quest names its spells mostly on sound or function. Instead of Fire, you have Sizz, instead of Teleport, you have Zoom. A bigger fireball? Sizzle. What about a spell that makes other enemies’ spells dissipate? Fizzle. Even the dialogue is unique, as everyone speaks in Olde (the e is silent) English. I found it quaintly charming, and even a tad humorous at times. Dragon Quest is a lonely game, with a sometimes oppressive atmosphere, but it juxtaposes that nicely with the style and oodles of character.
Music is also top-notch with an amazing orchestral-like backing that fills the world with a sense of adventure. The violins that reverberate through the halls of Castle Tantegal will forever be etched into my brain, along with the overworld theme. Even the little jingles that play when you attack an enemy, cast a spell or level up sound great. This is also where the iconic trumpet opening (you know the one) was born.
I love Dragon Quest. I think that’s clear from my rambling. There are some issues with the game, most notably being the combat frequency, limited inventory, dungeon design and the Snooze spell. But it more than makes up for that, in my opinion, with an overwhelming sense of adventure and discovery. It also helps that the game is very short, and is paced magnificently, at least in the modern remakes. It took me 6 hours to beat Dragon Quest, which is why all of these negatives mean so little to me. They didn’t have enough time to fester to ruin the experience the game was trying to deliver. There is also no grinding required at all. I was able to beat the game just by fighting what popped up and exploring naturally.
Reviewing an old game is hard, because how do you rate it? I don’t think you can, so I won’t. Instead, I want to express my recommendation and whether or not it’s worth playing today. I would say yes, it absolutely is. As the first entry in the Dragon Quest series, and the progenitor of an entire genre, Dragon Quest should, at the very least, be played by anyone who has a passing interest in JRPG’s. The game’s length is short enough that completing it is not a huge time sink either. I think, even today, there is value in slapping the Dragon Lord silly, so grab a bamboo pole and get to work, Hero.