“As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”
– Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats
“The following is a guest post by The Iron Mage.”
I often scratch my head at the backwardness of the game developers of yore. Their ideas during the 8- and 16-bit eras never cease to baffle me. While, of course, all of these opinions are bourne out of hindsight, coming from someone who doesn’t share the same blinding childhood nostalgia that others might have for early console RPGs, there still resides within me a soft spot for the genre from this particular bubble of time. While the plots are simplistic and their aesthetics usually barebones, the writing and world-building are often thoughtful, imaginative.
I can escape into these worlds, for the lack of better words, in different ways to the modern RPG. The settings, the characters, the gravity of my quest on the fate of the world are not spoon-fed to me as games of today might force me to do. Those modern-day gaming experiences of the Skyrims and Witchers are unique and powerful in their own rights, but early games possess something else, something special. It’s the written words that come alive, the writing, much like a book, wherein I cement the missing visual gaps with my own imagination. It makes every individual experience more personalized, more mind-stimulating.
Dragon Quest (and the many so-called “clones” that it spawned in the 8-bit era) handily used empty space as a tool in constructing their fantastical worlds. They couldn’t dazzle you with thriving worlds and massive landscapes full of animation and complex ecosystems. In immersing the player, using realism and believability in games was not an option. Developers were aware that players would experience a sort of cognitive estrangement or alienation in these fictional universes, and that they needed to manipulate players’ suspension of disbelief, since they were likely unfamiliar with such a new medium of experiencing fantasy.
The goal was familiarity and accessibility without ever having released something in the past… but how? How could you take someone out of their real-life world that they’re familiar with and put them in a setting that’s completely brand new, where we have no idea who anyone is or where anything is? What about the history of this world, its politics, and its economy? Its culture? Of course, there’s no way to truly incorporate all of these facets of life into such a minuscule cartridge.
Players were clearly willing to be taken out of their real lives and believe in an unbelievable world. And so, perhaps subliminally and subconsciously, the game’s narrative canon would come to incorporate box art, manuals, strategy guides, posters, and whatever other media was available to support the construction of its imagined world. Strategy guides would not only display a full depiction of an in-game map, but also a more realistic representation of the location alongside it. Manuals might introduce characters and their names that might have been otherwise absent or depicted crudely in-game. Early adventure games also incorporated extra-game merchandise into game packaging, called “feelies” (a shortened form of “touchie-feelies”), such as coins, maps, comics, fiction, etc. to expand that fictional world into the real.
In Dragon Quest’s case (called Dragon Warrior in its early years due to a copyright conflict), Akira Toriyama’s artwork was already extremely recognizable, and therefore, became accessible and familiar to both Western and Eastern audiences. All of these elements would help to fill in those empty gaps in graphical fidelity, becoming almost as important as the actual game itself. Critics are keen on disregarding prototypical RPGs as being overly simplistic (and, perhaps, some of DQ‘s clones clearly are). However, I would argue that skeptical game designers were only wanting to secure this new interactive genre to a public that hadn’t experienced anything like it before. And thus, we get the Japanese RPG.
The DQ series shines not necessarily in the breadth of its storytelling ability, but in its depth. They are content with giving the player a small box to play in, but hide all sorts of treats (hidden and not-so-hidden) within. Sidequests, I find, tend to be the most memorable sections of games for me, because they deal, relatably, with regular people. The Dragon Quest games have some tremendous localization work put into them, and they are underappreciated for that point alone. Their use of dialect or accent, depending on the individual character or on where the character hails from, adds so much spice to the soup of player immersion.
Some players may write off the the medieval-ish Elizabethan-ish dialect of some dialogue as being needless, but they’re ignoring how much this added accent removes the player from present life, and places them into another context. Not only that, but not all of the dialogic accents used in-game are the same: some villages’ inhabitants speak different accents than others’, such as the regal speech of the king, versus the Cockney accent of lower-class individuals. You can even get a sense of the personality of a character through their speech patterns. Essentially, the use of dialectic dialogue is a clue to the player that it is not only the information of a given textual passage that is important, but also the way that the text is structured and portrayed. In later games, this differentiation between the various subcultures of villages would become a major draw for me, marking the first visit to every town as a memorable occasion, a well-deserved treat for having braved the dangers of the overworld map.
However, going back to my initial statement–the idiocy of early game design choices–these experiences were often frustratingly marred by… problems. Problems that I do not think are due to games being in their “early phases” and developers simply not knowing how to design games properly in their respective times. No, I think these are corporate problems, political problems, all of which are, sadly, still existent to this day. For example, the obscure solution, the deceptively hidden yet necessary next step in the player’s quest… This is beyond frustrating in any game. It’s prevalent not only in the proto-RPGs of the 80’s, but even travel as far as the narrative-heavy adventure games throughout the late 90’s. I have heard talk of this nasty design choice as being a way for developers (or, more probably, publishers) to artificially lengthen a game’s playtime–to give buyers “more bang for their buck.” The implication being that time = money.
Now, this is where I scratch my head. These are video games. And, at the time, video games were, essentially, toys (y’know, for kids). If a kid wanted their game to last longer, they would just play it again. A child, no matter how disconnected from consciousness they are, would absolutely prefer to just hit the reset button on their video game console, rather than have to slog their way around an 8-bit world, investigating every last tile and brick for a possible [insert fantasy item here] to defeat the evil sorcerer and save the world. A real hero wouldn’t do that. A real hero is who I want to be. It’s nothing but fluff, padding–an immortal sin in the arts world, and one that I find no logic in. I would much rather a short, fulfilling experience over a long and fluffy one, yet devs or publishers can’t seem to understand that.
Dragon Warrior is one such game that seems to be a textbook case of this dastardly immoral lengthening of playtime. Thankfully, I stuck around with this experience thanks to the charm of its dialogue and setting. I happened to play both the original 1989 NES version as well as the Super Famicom one from 1993 with much improved graphics, yet its brutishness and flaws remain intact in the latter. Indeed, there were many instances in which I wanted to just abandon this fantasy land’s hero and leave its people for rot. I had gotten beaten down by the world and its underwhelming assortment of medieval villages, its labyrinthine caves, and its monotonous overworld map. I had grown tired of the deafening frequency of its random battles, those of which I was usually severely underlevelled or overlevelled for. And of course, as is the case with many an RPG of yesteryear, much level and money grinding was had. And it still never felt like quite enough, as some monsters were just so infuriatingly threatening. Thankfully, the Dragon Quest games sport some of the quickest and most minimalistic battle systems, so while battles were many, they were largely manageable.
Several mandatory items are found in obscure locations throughout the game world, and these locations are only hinted at by NPCs… in obscure locations throughout the game world. The thing is, I’m the type of player that likes talk to every character I see, enter every building I see, battle every monster I see. But even then, I somehow missed a few of these key conversations, and therefore, there was a lot of head scratching and fist clenching that occurred. And finally, when I had at last found these items, I probably exclaimed, “that is so stupid!” Seriously, some of the key item locations in this game are really stupid.
It was, in fact, at the very end of the quest, immediately after I had defeated the obnoxiously difficult final boss, that I was most impressed. All of the purple poisonous swamps throughout the world are turned into pretty beds of flowers, and every person I talk to showers me in praise for saving their way of life. Instead of using the Return spell to immediately transport me to the next and final errand on my quest, I decide to make the trek back to the starting point, the introductory Tantegel Castle. This last march back is no longer interrupted by waves of foe after foe after foe, but instead becomes a peaceful little stroll across a beautiful world. I’ve even got the once-kidnapped princess cradled in my arms (and the little sprite that represents that is adorable).
While I do think this is a well-executed farewell to this experience, I can’t help but feel that its general monotony actually enhanced the magnitude of its ending, that the reward felt much more deserved, that I had actually accomplished something. It was also only at the end of the game, that I was able to see and appreciate all of the optional stuff that I’d missed on my journey. In my rush to get all the damned monsters off of my screen and amass hordes of experience as quickly as I could, I’d actually missed visiting an entire city, as well as a couple of minor sidequests, including killing a golem and a crazy knight. I wasn’t at all disappointed or angered (although I could have bought some better equipment in that city I skipped and made the last leg of my journey so much less agonizing), but I was excited. I was excited to play again, someday in the future, to experience those things that I’d accidentally skipped. This, I think, is the proper way to extend the length of a game: sidequests, optionalities, stuff that adds to the uniqueness of every player’s individual playthrough.
Kurt Kalata of Gamasutra, while sharing my same opinion in calling Dragon Quest “basically the video game equivalent of comfort food,” additionally notes that its stressful situations are not without purpose: creating tension through something similar to gambling. The scarcity of save points, the fee one has to pay when their hero is knocked out, the existential decision to either sprint for the end of a tunnel with no supplies or teleport home and live to fight another day… when you are punished, the experience is more engaging, threatening. [Cue the Dark Souls comparison.]
That is an exemplary microcosm of the paradoxical nature of all video games, I feel. While games are, just like toys, meant to be fun, they all have their own manner of puzzles, stresses, and challenges, and the existence of all of those things only serve to magnify the overall feeling of accomplishment for my efforts. Despite its striking flaws, I’m glad I played Dragon Warrior, one of the catalysts for sparking the Japanese RPG interest worldwide. It is precisely those flaws that helped me realize the inevitability of stress on the player in video games, and how it can be used in impactful ways.
The 8-Bit Review
Some may find the original NES graphics to be crude, but I find them charming, and just simplistic enough to not seem overly clunky. No sprite, tile or animation seems out of place. The SFC port looks extremely eye-popping and pretty, but the upscaled graphics in such a plain world can magnify the monotony of its aesthetic. The world would benefit from more landmarks and a larger NPC population in both versions, as the trek through the world map might be difficult to navigate when everything looks similar. The interface and menu system are handy for the most part, but it’s unfortunate that there’s no way to examine what an item does before buying it at a shop.
I am not impressed by the music in most of the Dragon Quest series–mainly because a lot of the same tracks are reused throughout its games, and most of those tracks are just not exciting to my ears. None of the songs have any percussion, so there’s no driving rhythm behind them. There are definitely some great compositions, especially the Overture and the Castle Theme (which are both used throughout the series), but I found that the bulk of the soundtrack was nothing too memorable.
The game is the Japanese RPG in its rawest, most simplistic form. There’s nothing very strategic about the battle system. Still, the way the player is punished for death, the limited inventory system, and the dependence on grinding for cash and experience creates an engaging tension, begging the player to get to the next save point to catch their breath. Battles can be fast-paced at the control of the player, and so despite there being a high encounter rate for random battles, they are mostly all over relatively quickly. Unfortunately, exploration seems to be a discouraged, except for when the player arrives in a new town.
While the plot of Dragon Quest is simplistic, just as its gameplay is, its true strength lies in how its story is told. When the player embarks on a sidequest with a minor NPC, any sort of story can unfold in a cute and charming way, from uniting two lovers by delivering messages between them, delivering items across the world, saving an entire city from an evil menace, and so on and so forth. The real weight of the player’s actions are felt throughout the world, as NPC dialogue reacts depending on their heroic accomplishments. The writing itself is well-crafted, utilizing different English dialects and accents to add depth and personality.
I feel that Dragon Warrior is, simply by its existence, one of the most accessible RPGs you can get on the NES. Its graphical aesthetic, even by this primitive point in games history, is tried and true, and so are its many medieval fantasy tropes. The interfaces are intuitive and most of the game is relatively logical, aside from a few obscure hidden locations.
The only real challenge that Dragon Warrior offers is its test on patience, as most of its playtime will revolve around you trying to explore new locations and being interrupted by enemy encounters. Eventually, you will reach a section in which you will have to grind for experience and money in order to proceed, which becomes the essential rinse-and-repeat process throughout the game. It also demands a rudimentary understanding of its limited inventory space (and I mean it’s really limited), so you have to prioritize certain items over others, even if every item you’re carrying is important in some sense.
Even by this point in the early days of the JRPG, Dragon Warrior was by no means a “unique” game. Maybe to the Japanese masses, who absolutely ate up Dragon Warrior, but, as we can see in the way it took 3 whole years for it to be localized for the West, there was nothing that separated it from the dozens of other fantasy video games on store shelves. It only happens to be unique in its approach to narrative, as I have mentioned in the section above, and combining some of the better elements from Western RPGs such as Ultima and Wizardry.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
I find it hard to not appreciate and have fun playing such a classic, despite having pointed out its glaring shortcomings. While it’s definitely not a perfect experience, I can’t help but enjoy some of the little moments, like saving the princess and carrying her to safety, or discovering that hidden key item that was vaguely hinted to me by a shady character. I feel that the team behind Dragon Quest accomplished what they set out to accomplish: to make a game that feels familiar, accessible, nostalgic, yet also still feel fresh and fun.
Aggregated Score: 6.1
The Iron Mage, in his natural habitat, is commonly found wielding his weapon of choice: his 8-string guitar. A musical fanatic who is also fascinated with studying the arts through a critical lense, his YouTube channel showcases his dedication to writing challenging progressive rock and metal music, as well as rearrangements of video game music.
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