Dragon Quest | jp box art

Dragon Quest (NES/MSX/SNES/GBC/Mobile/3DS/PS4/Switch): A JRPG Pioneer (Detailed Review)

Given the niche of people who read my stuff, I am sure most of you are aware of the impact the Dragon Quest series has on JRPGs as a whole. There is a strange sense of disconnect when thinking about how popular the series is in Japan when comparing its overseas releases. While the series is moderately popular in the west, the Dragon Quest series is pretty much mainstream in Japan. Today I am going to look at the game that started it all.

Prior to about a month ago, I have never played the first three Dragon Quest games (and still have not played the third as I am writing this). I beat the first Dragon Quest a few weeks ago and am very close to completing Dragon Quest II. For the sake of context, the version I played through was the SNES version but I played a bit of the NES version until my emulator went kaput and made me lose all my progress. I plan to briefly talk about each version though and this piece is meant as a critique of the game overall.

Dragon Quest | Dragon nation
Then everything changed when the Dragon Nation attacked!

It is worth mentioning that the US release that we know as Dragon Warrior is practically a remake in and of itself of the 1986 Japanese original. The NES version added improved graphics and a save system that replaces the original’s password system, but Akira Toriyama’s cartoony aesthetic in the manual was replaced with a more traditional tone in a similar vein to the Ultima series, and the text was written in an Elizabethan style. While I am usually in favor of staying true to the original script, I do have a preference for the more medieval aesthetic of localization. There is just way too much iconic charm to the localization to dismiss it (although titling the first damage spell “hurt” sounds overly cringeworthy and childish). There is a reason that the English release of the Mobile version retained this style.

While the addition of a save feature is a welcome addition and an immense improvement over the password save, the change does remove a rather creative implementation where if you accept the Dragonlord’s offer to take half the world, he gives you a password that starts you at the beginning of the game with weaker stats.

Having gone from the NES version to a fan translation of the Super Famicom remake, there are some surprisingly vast differences from one version to the other. The most notable difference is that remakes are a fuckton less grindy than the original. This is not just from the difficulty of the enemies, but also due to the fact that the experience and money gains in the remake were also greatly increased.

Dragon Quest | A slime draws near!
If you can’t hear this gif, then you are low on your gamer swag and need to eat more mountain dew and drink more Doritos!

If one is looking for a beginner’s RPG that is easy to play, then you will want to avoid the NES version the same way this game avoids pulling any punches. This also makes it feel much more rewarding when you get past a certain area and thus incentivizes the player to try and find clever work arounds, but it also drags the pace of the game to a halt and makes even the most basic random encounters nerve wracking as hell. It is because of this that I would like to complete the NES version for myself someday, but I would highly suggest any of the remakes over it. The future remakes of Dragon Quest 1 are pretty much identical gameplay wise, so the rest of this review will also apply to the Game Boy Color and Mobile releases, as well as the 3DS and PS4 versions if they are ever localized.

Story wise, Dragon Quest 1 is basically “evil wizard rules the world go kill him.”Although you technically don’t figure out that the Dragonlord is a wizard until you fight him, and until then, you are given little information about him other than that he’s big and scary. I like the way that the game uses the NPCs to provide hints as to both the lore of the game, and towards gameplay and plot progression in a way that involves interaction with the game world as opposed to NPCs just saying useless shit. On the other hand, this likely means you will have to use a guide at one point, especially if you don’t know that you can walk around the walls of some towns.

Graphics wise, the NES version is pretty good for the time. For once, I believe the more dull color palletes actually enhance the feeling of intimidation with most of the enemies. The shadow knight looks far creepier as just a black silhouette after all. The SFC version of Dragon Quest 1 is kinda shit graphics wise. The game was made using the same engine as Dragon Quest V, yet the game looks WORSE than it does, which is impressive considering that the SFC version of Dragon Quest V wasn’t the most graphically advanced to begin with.

Dragon Quest | Dragon Quest V comparison
Left: Dragon Quest V                    Right: Dragon Quest 1

The Mobile version does look a bit better and clearer than the Super Famicom version, and it better be given that they had 20 years to clean up the visuals. Music wise, Dragon Quest 1 is excellent as typical with Koichi Sugiyama’s music… the super famicom version at least. The original NES OST kinda varied in quality depending on the track. While the melodies were strong and catchy, a lot of the tracks were screechy and lacked harmony. While this works with tracks like the battle theme that are meant to signify the danger and strain of battle, it doesn’t work for the village theme that is meant to be calm and happy.

I naturally found the SNES arrangements to be immensely superior given that they now were much more harmonic and pleasant to listen to. One thing to note is the genius of the battle theme with how it gets all the more chaotic and loud as the battle goes on as opposed to the NES version being a 20 second loop. It’s the same melody but considering that most battles are over in less than 20 seconds it means that you are likely only hearing this in the harder battles. Hell the first time I heard the song loop was when fighting the Green Dragon guarding Princess Gwaelin so it definitely works. On another note, the mobile/3DS/PS4 version really should have had the options to allow the SNES or NES OSTs similarly to how the Final Fantasy and Ys remakes have handled this feature, but given that Koichi Sugiyama is a bigoted shithead, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dragon Quest XII couldn’t be released in the west with all the music being muted or redone on Vuvuzelas.

Dragon Quest | Darth Dragon
Thank the Goddess I didn’t name my character Luke!

Gameplay in Dragon Quest 1 is fairly simplistic. Unlike every future entry in the series, you only control one character and can only fight one enemy at a time. It is worth noting that Dragon Quest 1 was not the first turn based computer RPG nor was it the first computer RPG made in Japan. It was however, a brilliant example of “streamlining” done right. While someone going back to the NES version of Dragon Quest 1 may find it archaic and cumbersome by today’s standards, it is important to note that computer RPGs that came before it were even more cumbersome.

Earlier this year, I actually tried to play the NES version of Ultima III: Exodus and I just couldn’t do it. While I appreciated many aspects of its presentation, the gameplay has aged so horribly that I could not make it through it. In particular, the issue is that early computer RPGs basically tried their hardest to emulate Dungeons and Dragons to a fault.

Features that most of you thought were standard in Computer RPGs were pioneered by Dragon Quest 1. Early RPGs did not just have you select spells from a list and instead required you to type them out. This was made even more complicated by the fact that spell names were cryptic nonsense like “Appar Unem” or “Mittar” rather than words that actually convey a meaning to people who aren’t expert linguists like “Heal” or “Hurt.” And if you didn’t write those names down at the time then you were fucked.

Dragon Quest | Press F
Press f

Dragon Quest could have done it the old way to considering that there was a keyboard peripheral to the Famicom in Japan, but they were smart about knowing what to remove. Dragon Quest also knew to do away with the mechanic of needing to constantly buy food to not die, or overly cumbersome combat mechanics, while keeping the overworlds and the idea of saving by speaking to the king. Meanwhile they kept battle mechanics of Wizardry but removed some of the more obnoxious features like characters aging and thus having their stats decrease past a certain point and allowing a total party kill through dumb shit like teleporting into a rock. I haven’t even played enough of Ultima 3 or Wizardry (or any for that matter) to compare how much grinding there is, but it’s likely a fuckton.

Unfortunately, Dragon Quest still has its fair share of errors. The first of which is that your stat progression is determined by what you name your character. The game does not tell you that this is the case, which meant that some players are bound to have a harder time than others by virtue of their own name. Also this is the case in EVERY version of the game.

On top of this, there is also the irritating mechanic where dungeons need to be lit up with either a torch or the “radiant” spell. In the NES version, the torch gives you a middling amount of light that only barely improved your ability to find your way around, while the radiant spell needs to be re-established frequently. This is thankfully more bearable in the remakes, but you still will most likely need a map.

Dragon Quest | Charlock castle

Battle are all fairly quick and simple, yet can also be challenging. As stated, all battle are one on one and it is mostly based around outlasting your enemy’s damage while continuing to hammer away at them. There is also a fair bit of strategy in regards to knowing when to heal and when to try and use “sleep” or “stopspell” on an enemy, or whether to just go all out. You are unlikely to get through the game very easily if you try to Leeroy Jenkins your way through, although how much difficulty you have depends on the version.

I found Dragon Quest 1 to be a fun and charming game all the way through. Despite its age, I still found the SNES version quite compelling, and it is the perfect way to introduce a newcomer while still having a fair bit to enjoy for experienced RPG veterans. It may be simplistic but it is some very well executed simplicity, and it is a definite piece of gaming history that often goes overlooked in the West.

On another subject, I am sure some of my regular readers have noticed I haven’t been updating quite as frequently as before. The reason for that is that I have been focused on some other bigger things and that I have not only had less time to write, but also had a bit less motivation. However, I am still going to be doing my best to bring some fairly regular content to this blog. Stay tuned everyone, and yes I will be reviewing Dragon Quest II as well.

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30 thoughts on “Dragon Quest (NES/MSX/SNES/GBC/Mobile/3DS/PS4/Switch): A JRPG Pioneer (Detailed Review)

  1. Originally, I set out to play each of these top 100 games on their original format, but the more I play NES games, the more that I realize that they are just too harsh to be fun. I’m not sure what to do!!!

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