What does RPG stand for? Radioactive plutonium giant? No. Remember Peter Gabriel? No. Rocket-propelled grenade? N...well, yes. But no. No, what we're looking for here is "role-playing game." In 1986 the concept was relatively foreign to gamers, at least those who liked pictures. There were text RPGs, sure, but nothing really fit the image of a console RPG we have today. Nothing, that is, until Dragon Warrior showed its face.
Called Dragon Quest in Japan, the game follows a knight (named whatever you want him to be named) descended from the hero of legend, Erdrick. The Dragonlord residing in a nearby castle has stolen the "Ball of Light" and somehow this is going to cause apocalyptic destruction for the world unless you personally go recover the ball. Well, that's a little extreme, but I guess it's better than the whole "save the princess" crap every other game tries to pull. Oh hang on, this says there's one more plot detail. Let me see....ah, it seems that Princess Gwaelin was also kidnapped by the DragonlOH FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! How hard is it really? Why do all these princesses keep getting taken like kids after some sweet sweet stranger candy? Why is it my job to go bail them out every single time? You're the heir to the freaking throne, you'd think you could learn some freaking responsibility for once. Or hey, how about, I don't know, a bodyguard or some castle security?
And I'm not excusing you either, oh kings and queens of ages past. It's your daughters getting swiped by the Winona Ryders of the world. Maybe go out yourself and take care of it instead of sending me. "Oh but I have a kingdom to king," ye say. Well damn fine job you're doing of it, what with letting a freaking dragon come into your castle and yoink your little tiara-toting bink. My job is to prevent the the world from falling into complete and utter ruin and you want to task me with hunting some stuck-up prude in a cave? And you think I'm going to respect your ruling authority? Pshaw, I say, PSHAW!
At least things can't get much worse....oh dear mother of pearl. They took the tomatoes too? That. Is. IT. Dragonlord, you are so done now. I'm ready. Ready to beat you down and make you cry for your little scaly momma. Let's see, I go to the world map from the castle, and hey, there's your place just slightly southeast. Oh it is on now....wait a minute. Why can't I get down there? You're kidding. You absolutely must be kidding. The only thing separating the starting castle from the Dragonlord's castle is a small river. And you can't cross it. So now, on top of everything else, we've got a hero of destiny who can't even swim. Will the king make you a boat or something? Of course not. Legendary heroes, they walk. F that, man. F that.
And it ain't long walking before you start fighting the many denizens of the world. Battling in Dragon Warrior is turn-based. You input a command, the monster chooses to attack you using one of its available moves, and both things happen. Then it repeats. None of it you'll ever see on the screen - you'll just get a still image of the enemy you're fighting and it'll flash occasionally when something happens. It's not very pretty or exciting, but it is time-efficient, so I can give some props there.
Of course, that time efficiency goes straight out the window when you consider the quantity of battles you'll have to engage in if you want to actually complete the game. The world map is pretty well segregated into different enemy types. One region might have nothing but slimes and little bats, while walking to the next square over results in ghosts slaying you in a single stroke. There's a good deal of trial and error involved in figuring out not just where you should go next but especially where you can go next, in terms of how much abuse you can survive. So while technically speaking Dragon Warrior isn't linear and you can go anywhere you please at any time, you'll die unless you progress through the game the way they want you to, and in order to survive you'll need to spend a lot of time in each spot grinding up your levels. A chore, to say the least.
Each battle gives you experience and gold, both of which you'll need. Certain monsters give a ton of one and virtually none of the other, so you'll learn as you go which spots to farm whichever you need more. The good news is that when you eventually do find the princess, she's not out of your way - although technically the whole game is out of your way...seriously, you can't even just build a bridge? What kind of kingdom can't figure out how to build a bridge? But I digress. When you find her and kill the creature guarding her, guess what she has you do? If you guessed anything other than "carry her lazy ass all the way back home," you guessed wrong.
I mean, don't get me wrong. She's got the common decency once you get her back to the castle to fall in love with you and pledge herself to your manly desires, so there's that. And considering every other woman in the game is a hag, you could certainly do worse. But of course, getting down to business would mean abandoning your slightly more important mission, so the inn will have to do. But more good news - sleeping in a medieval hotel is basically the greatest medicine ever conceived. For real. All ailments cured, all wounds completely healed without so much as a scar, all soul juice (or mana if you're an atheist) replenished... sheesh. Holiday Inn Express got nothin' on that.
Speaking of your soul juice, I guess this protagonist must be some sort of prodigy. As you level you'll automatically learn new spells. I can understand maybe having some of the game's sages teach you stuff or whatever, but it's pretty darn impressive for a dude to just spontaneously learn how to radiate light out from himself at will. And it's a good thing you can do that stuff, because the Dragonlord apparently has a little mojo himself. Throughout the game you hear about some town called Hauksness, which got all infernoed on by the Dragonlord. Naturally, this town is now inhabited by some of the most nasty foes you'll encounter in the entire game, and naturally it contains the legendary armor of your ancestor that you'll need if you want to take out the Dragonlord.
Since you are inventing this magic on the fly, it's not very promising that your creativity in naming the spells is so limited. I can envision all kinds of lights and sounds and flashes and glowing and otherwise very intimidating energies flowing around you as an enemy looks on, horrified. And then you go "Prepare thyself fell demon! I call this one...HURT!" Kindergartners are laughing at you, dude. I mean, you could even call it "Pain" and that'd be sufficiently frightening. Who wants to get hit with a big blast of pain? Yikes. You can do better. You ought to do better.
The Dragonlord himself is rough to approach. His castle is littered with powerful guys, and if you need to rest and recover, you'll have to flee and make the whole journey back again. Of course, that's sort of the point - it's not supposed to be easy, but you're leveling up every time you push a bit deeper into his crib. When you finally encounter him, he asks if you'll join him in extinguishing the living world and governing what's left. And you actually get a choice box! You can actually choose yes! If you do he'll even double check. Credit to the villain for being suspicious, but if you choose yes again, he actually hands over half the world and you guys conquer it. That's freaking awesome. Do I want to side with the all-powerful sovereign of dragonkind, or with the guy who can't figure out how to cross a stream? The downside is that allying with the Dragonlord ends the game, so you'll have to refuse his offer if you actually want to finish. Weak.
The Dragonlord is immune to magic too, so good luck with all that Hurtmore nonsense. He's actually really tough to beat, but if you do kill him you get the Ball of Light and expel the shadows from the land, blah blah blah. Let me get back to hookin' up with that broad I saved. You'll cast a spell to get back to the castle and everyone in the place quite clearly wants to worship you. Who wouldn't, right? The King even begs you to take his kingdom. Hot damn! And it's at this point you kind of ask yourself "What am I even doing here?" These guys are so far from self-sufficient it's scary. Kinging these scrubs is like the the worst babysitting job ever. No way. So you decide to go make your own kingdom somewhere far away. The princess wants to come with you, but you know what traveling with her means - hauling that bimbo around because she's incapable of walking on her own. No thanks, babe.
Dragon Warrior is a simple, straightforward game that doesn't try too hard to be too much. That's its charm, really. Grinding gets old....brutally, terribly old....but at least you feel accomplished when you can enter a new region without getting slaughtered. It's about breaking it down into little mini-goals. If you can do that, you'll find enough to like about the game. If you can't, you're probably better off building a boat and sailing away from it all. Not like anyone from this game could follow you anyhow. For real, guys. It's a freaking river.
Bottom Line: 12/20