Dragon Warrior IV (NES)

The developers at Chunsoft had their work cut out for them when it came time to craft a follow-up to their 1988 smash hit RPG, Dragon Quest III. The pioneering series had been a phenomenon across Japan from day one, but the public’s response to the third installment in particular bordered on frenzy. Widespread school and work truancy on its Wednesday launch date prompted rumors the Japanese legislature had drafted a law forbidding Dragon Quest’s publisher, Enix, from releasing future installments on weekdays. Like the supposed Space Invaders yen coin shortage a decade prior, this was just an urban legend. The fact that it seemed plausible to so many, however, speaks volumes to the game’s cultural impact. To this day, it routinely shows up at or near the top of many Japanese “best games ever” lists. It wasn’t just a tough act to follow, it was arguably the toughest.

The safe, obvious route would have been to double down on III’s most iconic gameplay feature: Its character class system. A fully customizable adventuring party had made for an exponential increase in strategy and replay value over the previous two entries, after all. Cut to 1990 and Dragon Quest IV finally ships with no character creation component whatsoever! Rather than staying the course and praying for lightning to strike twice, lead designer Yuji Horii and company opted to further their burgeoning saga through more thoughtful writing and an unorthodox story structure. A bold stroke indeed for the minds behind a franchise long noted for its hidebound conservative bent in relation to its contemporaries. Let’s see how it panned out for them.

Not being fluent in Japanese, I’m reviewing Dragon Quest IV’s official North American NES localization, Dragon Warrior IV, which suffered the misfortune of being delayed until late 1992. The 16-bit consoles were in their prime by then and relatively few were interested in shelling out a hefty chunk of change for a primitive looking 8-bit RPG in a post-Final Fantasy IV world. If you caught this one in its prime, you were likely a weirdo who got hooked on the series early and wouldn’t have missed an installment for the world. So, yeah, I played the hell out of it.

Admittedly, the broad strokes of Dragon Warrior IV don’t make it seem like much of a departure. A stock medieval fantasy world is threatened by an evil overlord and only a hero of prophecy and his/her loyal companions can stop him. This entails wandering the land in search of magic MacGuffins while vanquishing hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in menu-driven combat. Killing these monsters (all of which benefit greatly from adorable designs by famed manga artist Akira Toriyama) nets you the money and experience points needed to power-up your party. This in turn allows you to keep the Pavlovian cycle going when you inevitably encounter tougher baddies in the next area. Doing fetch quests to make numbers go up; such is the way of Dragon Quest. The fan base wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is where story structure and writing come to the fore. Dragon Warrior IV takes JRPG clichés which were already growing long in the tooth by the end of the ’80s and sort of inverts them. The result feels both fresh and familiar. Most notably, you don’t start out controlling the chosen one. The narrative unfolds across five distinct chapters, with the main protagonist not appearing at all until the start of the final one, many hours into the game. Before then, you’re introduced to all seven of the hero’s eventual allies. First up is Ragnar, a stalwart soldier tasked by the king of Burland with investigating an epidemic of missing children. Next is Alena, tomboy princess of Santeem, who escapes her castle with two helpful retainers in tow and sets out prove her strength to the world at large. After that is Taloon, the portly, middle-aged merchant and family man who takes up adventuring in order to get rich enough to buy his own shop and build a commercial empire. Finally, there’s Mara and Nara, sisters and powerful magicians hunting for revenge on the man who murdered their alchemist father. Only after you’ve completed all four of these preliminary adventures, some of which are virtually mini-RPGs unto themselves, does the world truly open up and the full scope of the quest reveal itself.

Similarly, the identity of the antagonist and the nature of his schemes isn’t immediately spelled out to you as it was in the previous three games. Vague whispers and portents are all you have to go on until much later, when he eventually does appear in the flesh to make his motivation clear. Yes, the villain has a real motivation this time. The writers didn’t just decide to make him an “archfiend” and call it day. That’s progress.

I definitely don’t want to oversell the storytelling here. This remains a terse NES RPG and there aren’t exactly reams of sparkling dialog provided to bolster its ambitions. Your party members only speak a handful of lines each over the course of the game and much of their personalities are merely implied. Still, there’s something to be said for leaving a few blank spaces for the player’s imagination to fill in, and walking a mile in each party member’s shoes can’t help but endear them to you at least a little. Moreover, a game doesn’t necessary need to be wordy to be clever. Take the opening to chapter three, in which you play through weapon merchant Taloon’s typical work day. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to actually be the poor schlub who gets to stand behind a counter all day, waiting patiently for random fantasy heroes to drop in and sell you the extra copper swords they looted from dead slimes? Talk about role playing! This sequence is hilarious and blew my mind as a kid. Here was a game unmistakably poking fun at itself by lampooning a common genre trope. These so-called fourth wall breaks are commonplace in media today, to the point where they’re as trite as anything they ostensibly call out. This wasn’t the case at all thirty years ago, making Taloon’s introduction one of gaming’s most memorable. It’s no wonder he became the breakout star of the cast and went on to star in the the first three installments of the Mystery Dungeon spin-off series.

Visually, there’s not much to distinguish Dragon Warrior IV from its predecessors. Crude, squat sprites waddling over unnaturally gridded terrain is the rule, interspersed with detailed close-ups of Toriyama’s wacky monsters during battle. The final boss fight is, fittingly, the highlight. Your adversary’s form contorts and mutates in various hideous ways throughout, the animation of which seems lavish in the extreme after so many hours spent staring at static portraits of foes. Much more impressive as a whole is Koichi Sugiyama’s sprawling soundtrack, which clocks in at nearly an hour. Sugiyama is a classically trained composer who had been working on major television and film productions for years before adding video games to his portfolio in 1985 at the tender age of 54. His unusual background (the average game composer circa 1990 was a twentysomething rock fan who’d played in a band or two in college) makes his chiptune work wholly unique. Consider the gobsmacking end theme, a ten minute magnum opus that seamlessly weaves melodies from every chapter together into a veritable NES symphony. It’s the most grandiose piece ever written for the system’s humble five voice sound chip, and I don’t consider that debatable.

Before this devolves into a total puff piece, I should probably mention Dragon Warrior IV’s most divisive element: Diminished player control during the game’s second half. See, the first four chapters play out like they would in any other RPG: You issue battle commands for each party member and they dutifully execute those commands. This goes out the window in chapter five, where you’re suddenly restricted to commanding the legendary hero alone and the other seven members of your team operate at the behest of the game’s A.I. Your influence over them is limited to selecting from a few broad tactical paradigms (Offensive, Defensive, Use No MP, etc). No matter what, the majority of your moves will be chosen for you from here on out. I’m torn on this feature. It’s offputting at first, no doubt, and you’re bound to taste defeat at least once or twice due to boneheaded calls by the CPU. On the plus side, removing a good 75% of the decision making and button pressing speeds things along and keeps time spent mindlessly grinding money and experience to a minimum. I suppose if this is a dealbreaker for you, you could try the 2008 Nintendo DS remake. It allows you full control from start to finish, though it also tacks a sixth chapter onto the main story which isn’t nearly as well-designed or satisfying as the rest in my opinion. Make mine the original.

Correcting for my middle school nostalgia as much as possible, I still love Dragon Warrior IV. By taking the usual “save the world” plot fans were accustomed to and rearranging it in a less front-loaded manner, Chunsoft carved out breathing room for mystery and allowed for a gradual raising of the stakes, all without alienating the faithful. Better still, the decision to focus on a playable ensemble with their own distinct backstories and goals added a much-needed human element to the proceedings and paved the way for even more fully-realized Dragon Quest characters to come. The loss of the mute, contextless custom heroes from the last game is a small price to pay for all that. Many, myself included, consider this the best turn-based RPG available for the NES. As for its fate at retail, the delayed American version predictably flopped hard. So hard, in fact, that Enix took an eight year hiatus from exporting Dragon Quest titles. The Japanese edition fared much better, to the tune of three million copies. This makes it the fourth best-selling Famicom game of all time, coming in right behind, you guessed it, Dragon Quest III.

Dragon Warrior III (NES)

Enough screwing around: It’s time to review the single greatest game of the entire twentieth century!

According to readers of Famitsu magazine, that is. In August of 2017, Japan’s most revered video gaming publication celebrated its 1500th issue by polling its readership to determine the 100 best games of all time. The number one slot went to 2016’s Persona 5. Number two was Dragon Quest III.

Surprised? I was, too. The game’s North American release, under the alternate title Dragon Warrior III, is remembered as a modest cult classic at best. Of course, it’s common knowledge that the RPG genre enjoys massively popularity in Japan and has ever since the very first Dragon Quest dropped in 1986. The remainder of Famitsu’s list is overwhelmingly stacked with Japanese-made console RPGs in the Dragon Quest mold, often called “JRPGs” by outsiders. In contrast, only a small handful of JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII and the main series Pokemon games have managed to attain comparable mainstream success in West over the years. But why is this specific entry in the long-running series held in such high regard? What does its country of origin see in it that the rest of us, for the most part, don’t?

One major factor is timing. There was a staggering four year delay between Dragon Quest III’s 1988 Famicom debut and Dragon Warrior III’s 1992 arrival on the NES. To put that into perspective, North American Super Nintendo owners had been gawking at Square’s flashy 16-bit epic Final Fantasy IV (under its misleading Final Fantasy II moniker) for three months at that point. That Enix bothered releasing Dragon Warrior III at all under these conditions is surprising. Most of its major innovations (a robust character class system, large world to explore, and dynamic day/night cycle) were either well established by 1992 or simply didn’t blow minds the same way 256-color graphics or faux orchestral soundtracks did. Dragon Warrior III’s party of silent protagonists undertaking routine fetch quests to slowly save the world from a motiveless evil overlord also came off downright quaint next to Final Fantasy IV’s flamboyant anime style melodrama.

On the other hand, as a 1988 release for the Famicom, Dragon Quest III was a massive leap forward for the series and for JRPGs as a whole. There was a greater increase in overall gameplay depth here than in any other single Dragon Quest sequel before or since. The original saw the player controlling a single, non-customizable hero. The second game upped the party size to three, with each character’s abilities still remaining fixed. Dragon Quest III expanded the maximum party size again to the now standard four and introduced custom character creation to the mix. While you’re still required to have the game’s main hero in your party at all times, the other three slots can be filled with any combination of male or female members of seven distinct character classes: Soldier, Fighter, Pilgrim, Wizard, Merchant, Goof-Off, and Sage.

The first Final Fantasy, released around the same time, also let you choose your party composition in this way, but DQIII did it one better by permitting characters to change their classes any time after reaching the 20th experience level. You could create a physically feeble Wizard, level him up to learn a variety of useful attack spells, and then change him into a heavily armed and armored Soldier without losing access to any of the magic he’d previously mastered. One class, the almighty Sage, isn’t even available at the start and can only be transitioned to later by meeting certain esoteric requirements.

Cultural context is another angle to consider. Veterans of old school Western RPGs are likely scratching their heads right now and asking, “What’s so amazing about getting to choose classes for your party members?” Absolutely nothing, if you cut your teeth on Wizardry, Ultima, and other Dungeons & Dragons-inspired computer games of the period. Bear in mind, however, that the JRPG sub-genre left most of that mechanical complexity behind at its inception in the interest of appealing to a mass audience of Famicom owners accustomed to the likes of Super Mario Bros. In this gaming milieu, the degree of unbridled freedom DQIII’s character creation system represented was nothing less than spellbinding. It sold over a million copies in Japan on release day alone. In an era before pre-orders and online shopping, that meant more than one million people flooding retail stores on the same day with cash in hand. This planted the seed of the long-standing myth that the Japanese government passed a law forbidding Enix from launching future Dragon Quest games on weekdays due to concerns over widespread truancy and lost productivity.

And…I’ve done it again. I’ve spent more time talking about the history of a Dragon Quest game than about the game itself. Like I said last year in my review of the first game, these early entries in the series play such a central role in defining what a JRPG is that they tend to come across as hopelessly generic when you actually start breaking down their stories and gameplay in detail. It’s a bit like trying to describe the flavor of unseasoned rice cakes.

Dragon Warrior III opens with the main hero waking up on his or her sixteenth birthday and being instructed to speak to the local king. The king explains that the young hero is the son of the legendary adventurer Ortega and consequently the only one who can save the world from an “archfiend” named Baramos. Strangely, even though you’re given the option of making the hero male or female, both versions of the character are represented by the same sprite and all of the dialogue refers to you as Ortega’s son in any case. Is it an oversight? Is the girl hero supposed to be just that butch? Beats me. After this little info dump, the king forks over a ridiculously small sum of money and waves you off to the local inn to create the rest of your party.

Once you’ve gathered your companions, it’s time to venture out into the field and settle into the usual series routine: Finding the next town, figuring out what the problem there is, sorting it out at the local dungeon, and being rewarded with whatever key or other item you need to access the next chunk of the map. All the while, you’ll be chugging through the constant stream of random turn-based monster battles needed to raise your characters’ experience levels and gain the cash necessary to upgrade their gear at the shops.

Depending on your temperament, this core gameplay loop is either hypnotically soothing or a mind-numbing living death. In any case, I found that this installment at least does a much better job than the original Dragon Warrior of giving the player new goals to pursue on a fairly regular basis. You’ll still have to deal with just as many repetitive random encounters as before, but a larger game world and more quest objects to fetch means that you’re rarely ever forced to stop exploring completely just to grind experience or gold. This one improvement single-handedly negates my biggest criticism of the first game.

On the subject of improvements, and despite all the wisecracks I made above about its generic story, Dragon Warrior III does feature one major plot twist at around the the 3/4 mark that’s quite clever and well-presented for the time. Credit where it’s due, this really would have been quite the jaw-dropper for fans circa 1988 and likely constitutes another major reason the game is so fondly remembered in Japan.

Between the added flexibility of the class system, the more fleshed-out quest, and that nifty plot twist, Dragon Warrior III represents a massive upgrade from its predecessors and is my pick for the first truly great entry in the series. Is it game of the century material, though? Hardly. I wouldn’t even rank it among my top three Dragon Quest games. For all the refinement it brought to the nascent JRPG formula, it still suffers from some woefully aimless and anemic storytelling. Your party of heroes are mute ciphers from start to finish. Only one is given the slightest semblance of a backstory or motivation (being the son of the great Ortega) and this still manages to amount to a whole lot of nothing in the end. The villains seem content to exist entirely off-screen until you eventually stroll right into their throne rooms, whereupon they recite a couple short sentences about how very evil they are before getting themselves killed. If the stars of the piece are this dull, you just know the regular NPCs you interact with in town don’t stand a chance.

Beginning with Dragon Warrior IV, the series’ creators would endeavor to include much more in the way of characterization. Every party member in that game came complete with a compelling reason why they chose to spend their days wandering the world beating up on assorted goofy Akira Toriyama monsters, be it duty, revenge, youthful rebellion, or just wanting to get rich quick. The main antagonist also had a tragic past and a coherent motive underpinning his genocidal ambitions. For me, this previously lacking human element was the final ingredient needed to make later installments like V and VIII some of my most treasured gaming experiences. With all due respect to Famitsu and an entire generation of nostalgic Japanese gamers, I find Dragon Warrior III to be, at the utmost, the greatest JRPG of 1988.

On the plus side, this does mean that I can keep on reviewing games, confident it’s not all downhill from here. I was worried there for a sec.

Dragon Warrior (NES)

Forsooth, thou art most rad!

Now this takes me back. What can I even say about 1986’s Dragon Quest, better known here as Dragon Warrior? It was the first turn-based RPG for the Famicom/NES and consequently the first that many gamers of my generation, myself included, were ever exposed to. It’s ground zero for an entire genre in the minds of millions. The wilds of Alefgard are where I scored my first experience point, achieved my first level-up, and cast my first healing spell. This is primal stuff, man. Archetypal.

I can start by dispelling a few common misconceptions about the game. For starters, it was neither the first console RPG (1982’s Dragonstomper for the Atari 2600 is the best candidate for that honor) nor the first Japanese RPG (domestic creations like The Black Onyx and Dragon Slayer were staples on Japanese home computers as early as 1984). It also wasn’t designer Yuji Horii’s first major success. 1985 had seen the Famicom release of Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Incident”), Horii’s port of his own “visual novel” style detective adventure game originally released for home computers in 1983. In converting Portopia for Nintendo’s machine, Horii wisely avoided limiting the game’s appeal by forgoing use of the Famicom keyboard accessory and instead replacing the text parser of the computer versions with a menu of fourteen standardized commands that could be easily managed with the default controller. As the first adventure game released for the Famicom, Portopia moved over 700,000 units and ignited a passion for visual novels that persists in Japanese gaming circles to this day.

As a follow-up effort, Dragon Quest can be seen as a return to form for Horii: Start with a complex and potentially intimidating game type that’s popular on niche computers and then streamline and simplify it for introduction to the much wider and more lucrative console market. He took a cup of Ultima, added a dash of Wizardry, and then garnished with a user friendly interface straight out of Portopia. Two millions copies later, it was clear that lightning had indeed struck twice.

Well, two million copies in Japan, that is. Enix had equally high hopes for the North American release in 1989, for which Nintendo themselves would take over publishing duty. They went all-out by springing for enhanced graphics, a top notch localization of the game’s script, a battery save option to replace the original’s cumbersome passwords, and a detailed 64-page strategy guide bundled with every copy. It was a resounding flop.

What went wrong? Well, it turns out that much of the game’s initial success in Japan was due to its artwork by superstar illustrator Akira Toriyama and its heavy promotion in the pages of the popular action manga magazine Shōnen Jump. Over here, however, it was a totally unknown quantity to consumers and the result was warehouses full of unsellable Dragon Warrior cartridges. The solution? Another, more desperate stab at a magazine cross-promotion: Readers of Nintendo Power were actually sent a free copy of Dragon Warrior with every $20 subscription! An estimated 500,000 copies were distributed in this way. The hope was that, once they were exposed to the game one way or another, players in North America would be just as hooked as their counterparts across the Pacific and turn out in droves for the sequels.

Again, things didn’t quite work out as intended. Sales of Dragon Warrior II, III, and IV on the NES were all lukewarm at best. By the time Dragon Quest made the jump to 16-bit, Enix had given up entirely and the West wouldn’t see another entry in the series until Dragon Warrior VII made it to the PlayStation in 2001. In the meantime, Pokemon and Final Fantasy VII would step in and become the long-awaited smash hit “gateway” RPGs for the North American market, finally succeeding were Dragon Warrior had failed.

Don’t feel too bad for Yuji Horii and friends, though. Dragon Quest may still only hold cult appeal in my neck of the woods, but the mania it kicked off in its homeland has never truly abated. Even now, new releases are virtually national holidays in Japan and the franchise’s grinning blue slime mascot is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

Geez, that’s a lot of background. What about the actual game? Well, it goes like this: You start out in a throne room talking to a king. The king tells you that an evil dude called the Dragonlord has stolen the magic artifact that safeguards the land of Alefgard and kidnapped its beautiful princess to boot. Since you’re the descendant of a legendary hero, it’s now your job to gather the tools needed to breach the Dragonlord’s stronghold, introduce him to the pointy end of your sword, and recover the missing magical thingy. Also, that princess, if it’s not too much bother.

In order to do this, you need to explore the game’s medieval fantasy world from an Ultima style top-down viewpoint searching for important items and interrogating friendly villagers for hints on where to head next. Random encounters with monsters will shift the perspective to a first person combat display similar to Wizardry’s where you can choose your commands from a basic menu that includes options to fight, flee, cast magic spells, and use helpful items like medicinal herbs. These battles are very frequent and you’ll need to win hundreds of them in order to garner the thousands of experience points and gold pieces necessary to power your initially wimpy character up enough to stand a chance against the Dragonlord.

What’s that, you say? This sounds like every console RPG ever made? Bingo!  When I called it archetypal, I wasn’t exaggerating. Dragon Warrior is the very mold, the template, the plain cheese pizza of JRPGs. This is what makes it so tricky to pin down three decades later. Even so, I’ll do my best to cover the highs and lows.

One thing that still stands out today are Toriyama’s stellar monster designs. Though I’ve never been able to find any enjoyment in his most famous creation, the Dragonball series, I’ve always been drawn to his “40% menacing, 60% adorable” take on traditional fantasy critters. Even when I was finally face-to-face with the fearsome Dragonlord himself, part of me wished I could rub his cute scaly belly instead of dueling to the death. The detail and charm packed into every foe’s portrait single-handedly justifies the choice of a first person view for the combat.

I’m also impressed by the sheer scope and quality of Dragon Warrior’s English translation and localization, which are credited to Toshiko Watson and Scott Pelland, respectively. Their work is years ahead of its time when you consider that the 1980s were the Wild West of game localization and many publishers couldn’t manage to produce so much as a single screen of translated text that didn’t read like drunken Mad Libs. Here, all the dialogue makes sense and the faux Elizabethan dialect the characters speak with is profoundly corny, but endearingly so. I’ll even admit to finding it pretty epic as a kid. There’s also a sweet extended in-joke included in the form of some character cameos that will be very familiar to former Nintendo Power readers.

If there’s one undeniable downside to playing through Dragon Warrior, it’s the extraordinary amount of mindless grinding required. While almost all RPGs expect the player to engage in endless random battles for money and experience, the best of them also give you plenty of places to go and things to do along the way. That way, you never have a chance to dwell on how repetitive these frequent combats can be on their own. Unfortunately, there are no side quests or diversions to be found here. Dragon Warrior has exactly two goals for the player: Kill the Dragonlord and rescue the princess. The game world is also quite small, which makes gathering the three key items needed to enter the Dragonlord’s castle is a simple task if you know where to look. The end result? About two hours of worthwhile exploration and excitement aggressively padded out into an excruciating 10+ hour slog. The late game in particular is a mess. By level 15, I had tracked down every key item, acquired all the best equipment, and even rescued the princess. There was literally nothing left in the entire game for me to do except kill the Dragonlord…which requires you to be around level 20. Reaching level 20 requires a total of 26,000 experience points, well over twice what I’d accumulated up to that point. So, stubborn fool that I am, I spent hours pacing back and forth over the same stretch of map, robotically striking down hundreds of generic enemies and pausing only to trek back to the inn when I ran low on healing spells. Then I killed the Dragonlord. Such fun.

Don’t get me wrong: As an introductory RPG circa 1986, Dragon Warrior’s approach is nothing short of genius. Horii managed to pare away every non-essential element from the popular computer RPGs of the time while still retaining the core appeal of a grand fantasy adventure where the player’s avatar continually grows in power and sharp wits and sound decisions matter more than quick reflexes. There’s no character customization to be found here, no class system, no multiple character party to manage, and the story is the most basic “princess and dragon” setup imaginable. This not only insured that the game had the broadest possible appeal, it perfectly set up Dragon Quest as an ongoing series, since follow-up releases could be predicated on gradually reintroducing these very same advanced mechanics in modular fashion. Thus, the second game included multiple player characters, the third added character creation and a robust class system, and so on. In this way, the series both birthed and raised a generation of Japanese RPG fans.

Dragon Warrior captivated me back in 1989. I played it day and night and even wandered its perilous fields and dungeons in my dreams. Next came Final Fantasy, tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and so many more. Revisiting it now, though, I’m reminded why I mainly play action games these days. While the presentation still has its charms, it’s clear that my elementary schooler self didn’t value his time very highly. Simple and repetitive as it is, Dragon Warrior is best approached today as either a nostalgia trip or an interactive history lesson. In either case, patience is a must. RPG fans in general are much better off seeking out the later re-releases for the Game Boy Color and Super Famicom, which both cut down on the grinding significantly. That, or skipping straight to the brilliant Dragon Warrior III.

Thou hast been warned!