Dragon Quest I: A New Day Yesterday

“Heroes’ Quests” is an ongoing diary chronicling my journey through the Dragon Quest series. Our maiden voyage takes us on a retrospective of Dragon Quest I, originally released on the Famicom in Japan in 1986.

Dragon Quest I might be my ideal RPG.

It’s impossible to overstate its historical significance. At a time when computer role-playing games were limited to, well, computers, designer Yuji Horii and programmer Koichi Nakamura did the impossible: they brought a sprawling, epic fantasy adventure to the living room by way of Nintendo’s Famicom. Dragon Quest laid the groundwork for decades of role-playing games on consoles.

The Famicom didn’t have the memory capacity or sheer control flexibility to handle the likes of a true CRPG like Wizardry or Ultima, but developer Chun Soft managed to make it work nonetheless. Dragon Quest pared the experience down to friendlier terms. It complemented a streamlined interface and simple story with memorable music by composer Koichi Sugiyama and monster designs by famed manga illustrator Akira Toriyama. What it lacked in depth, it made up in heart. It was cute, it was easy to play, it was available in native Japanese, and it didn’t require prohibitively expensive and exotic PC hardware to run. Dragon Quest was a smash hit, and the JRPG genre was born.

Nintendo sensed a big opportunity and decided to capitalize on its success by bringing Dragon Quest to the United States. It would take some time to localize to English but they struck a deal and got to work. They put the full weight of their marketing machine behind it, confident that the newly-named Dragon Warrior would take off in the west.

Unfortunately, their ambitions were a bit too lofty, and the timing was all wrong. It didn’t see shelves in the US until three years after it had hit Japan, where Enix was already preparing to release Dragon Quest IV. In 1986, Dragon Quest had been a revelation; by 1989, Dragon Warrior was obsolete.

The NES was loaded with fast-paced action titles and cutting edge graphics. The concept of the RPG certainly wasn’t new to American audiences, and console gamers just weren’t looking for a slow, plodding, text-heavy adventure. Its visuals were already dated when it launched in Japan, and apart from some minor improvements, they hadn’t changed much when it reached the States. From a gameplay perspective, fans of dungeon crawlers had already been turned on to The Legend of Zelda with its exciting combat and puzzle solving, and the competing Final Fantasy would be localized several months later which improved on many of the concepts that Dragon Quest had introduced. Dragon Warrior just didn’t impress.

Fortune smiles upon thee.

It’s hard not to wonder what video games in North America would look like if Nintendo’s gambit had paid off. In Japan, Dragon Quest fandom had reached such a fever pitch that an urban legend began to spread claiming that the government had asked Enix not to release any new games on a weekday because the country would grind to a halt. Many aspects of the series resonated with the Japanese people, such as Toriyama’s art pedigree and the parallels to the traditional mindset that anybody could succeed if they just put in the work. In the US, however, poor sales would go on to scare publishers away from going all-in on RPGs for nearly a decade. Dragon Warriors II through IV would eventually release on the NES late in its lifecycle, and other examples of the genre would see a handful of sporadic releases, but the JRPG wouldn’t truly gain traction in America until Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997.

Facing a surplus of cartridges due to overproduction, Nintendo launched a massive campaign in 1990 to give Dragon Warrior away for free in conjunction with subscriptions to their magazine, Nintendo Power. Whether their primary goal was to offload the excess inventory, get the game into Americans’ hands, or attract new magazine subscriptions, the plan worked: hundreds of thousands of new subscribers flooded in, and copies of Dragon Warrior proliferated across the US. They still couldn’t brute force their way into consumers’ hearts, but more Americans than ever now had access to the JRPG that started it all.

Slime time

The first time I played Dragon Warrior, I was five or six years old. My brother had an NES and a couple dozen games, and when he moved on to the SNES, he passed it all down to me. (Mostly to keep me from touching his SNES.) I judged each game by the label on the cartridge, of course, and I was struck by this one: a nightmarish green dragon with a horrible grin and soulless red eyes, staring down a caped hero and surrounded by a blazing inferno. How exciting!

I’d pop the game in and fumble around the King’s throne room. I couldn’t read so I didn’t know how to open the door, and then I’d quit and play Castlevania instead.

But eventually I did learn how to read, and it started to make sense. I learned how to search and open doors, and then how to wander around and get into fights. Dragon Warrior was unlike anything I’d played (which wasn’t hard because I’d played like ten games). You jumped on goombas as Mario, and you whipped zombies as Simon Belmont, but you told John Dragonwarrior to whack a slime, and then it got whacked. There were words and numbers and a story? It was all very unique.

I still wasn’t advanced enough to figure it all out myself, but the game came with a map and a complete walkthrough (the “Explorer’s Handbook”), and that helped me get around. It felt good to beat things up in combat, and even better to hear that sweet, sweet level-up chime. I remember reading that stronger monsters lived on the other sides of bridges, and my curiosity ran wild. I wondered what they were like.

When I was a kid, the thing that motivated me more than anything else to progress in a video game was seeing what would come next. There was a real thrill in finally beating a level and being rewarded with a new stage and new music. I can think of so many examples from my childhood: Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Battle of Olympus, Super Mario Bros. 3, F-Zero, Final Fight. I didn’t need much, just to see the new levels, hear a new track, die, and do it all over again.

Dragon Warrior was no different, only here, it was seeing the new monsters. The screen would flash, and then one of them would be staring at you in a pop-up window against a close-up diorama of the terrain. You start with slimes, and before long you’re fighting drakees and ghosts. Cross one of those bridges, and sure enough, you were fighting more dangerous enemies: scorpions, skeletons, wolves. Then there were palette swaps, new and improved versions of the creatures you’d already seen. Scorpions became metal scorpions. Drakees became magidrakees. Magicians became warlocks.

Start going underground and you REALLY get into the weird shit. Druins. Drolls. The dungeons are cramped and claustrophobic. You’re surrounded by darkness, and even if you have a torch, you can only see a few spaces around you. When combat starts in one of these caves, there is no diorama of the landscape, no open countryside surrounding the combat window. It’s black, all black, and now there’s a mutant horror in front of you, eyes on stalks, mouth agape. Descend further, and the pitch of the music churns lower. Harder monsters appear. You’re low on magic points, out of herbs, and your HP is approaching zero; all of the text in the game has turned red to alert you of your impending demise. Inches from death, you’re suddenly aware of exactly how far you’ve come into this accursed labyrinth – and just how far away you are from the exit.

It was intense, and isolating, and suffocating.

That stuff scared the crap out of me, so I avoided dungeons. I was content with roaming above ground and fighting bad guys in the daylight. I probably only ever made it halfway through the game (I wouldn’t finish it until years later when I could use save states because I’m a disgrace), but the goal never mattered to me. What was important was the experience.

Simple, streamlined satisfaction

Looking back as an adult, it’s a pretty bare-bones game. Everything it does has been done better, even by its own sequels and contemporaries. There’s only one party member, the progression across Alefgard is very linear, the story is your garden-variety “save the princess and defeat the evil wizard,” and you can count the number of dungeons on one hand. The interface is all menu-based, so any action takes a couple of button presses to execute. To save your progress, you have to go all the way back to Tantegel Castle, where the game begins, and talk to the King; if you die, you lose half your gold and are dumped unceremoniously at his feet. It isn’t always the kindest, snappiest, or most exciting experience.

The core progression of Dragon Quest I follows an everyday “find the legendary things” formula. As a descendant of Erdrick, the hero of legend, you are tasked with finding three artifacts that have been scattered across the land. Once you’ve found these artifacts, you’ll be ready to storm Charlock Castle, challenge the Dragonlord, and fulfill your destiny once and for all. Of course, there’s some other stuff to find, too, such as Erdrick’s legendary armor and sword, a couple of magic items, and exactly one ring. Have I mentioned its simplicity?

The music is similarly basic, which isn’t a surprise based on the NES’s limitations, but the compositions themselves are very memorable and set the stage perfectly no matter where you are. The triumphant title theme is so evocative of the adventurous spirit of the series that it’s still used to this day. The overworld theme is calm, wandering, and listless, perfect for long treks through the foothills and forests of Alefgard. Battles are striking and exciting. The music in each dungeon has a cautious, tentative trill, and, as I mentioned earlier, it deepens in pitch the further down you go – a beautiful touch that really plays up the atmosphere of a dank, spiraling underworld. It’s a shame that later scores would start feeling so generic, despite the improved fidelity and full orchestration, because Dragon Quest I uses its music to excellent effect.

Being an RPG, you’ll be spending a fair amount of time in combat. You only have one hero to worry about, so he carries all the responsibilities that are usually split up among several party members. He can fight, cast healing and offensive spells, and use items. As such, combat is a one-dimensional back-and-forth slugfest: I hit you, you hit me. It’s about as vanilla a system as you can get, but it’s somehow made special by Akira Toriyama’s excellent enemy designs. As I mentioned above, the enemies are wonderfully varied, and each is distinct and memorable. It’s little wonder why many of these same designs are still being used in modern Dragon Quest games. From the iconic slimes to the hulking knights to the wiry skeletons to the fearsome dragons, each one stands the test of time. 

Other than fighting goons and finding Erdrick’s stuff, there’s not much else to do along the way. There aren’t really any subplots that diverge from the main story, or extracurricular activities to engage in. You can even see your final destination from the opening moments of the game – the Dragonlord’s castle is just across the river. The focus is purely on the quest. The world is relatively open for exploration, with only the difficulty of the enemies you encounter to help funnel you along the correct path. You’ll need to return to Tantegel to save, so geographically it sits in a sort of centralized location, and you’ll branch off from there in some direction or another depending on where you need to go next.

I don’t think that all that simplicity is bad, though. In fact, I think it’s a large part of its charm. Dragon Quest is the role-playing game distilled down to its fundamental mechanics. That’s why it’s my ideal RPG – it isn’t complicated, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it hits on the adventure and exploration that I value most in video games. Find a new town, buy better equipment. Travel to the next town, fight new monsters along the way. Meet people, hear rumors, follow those leads, and hunt around for secrets and legendary treasures. Games have followed this same template for decades, and for good reason: it works. Your hero gains experience over time, improving his stats and learning new spells. You buy better weapons, fight bigger monsters, and eventually defeat the Dragonlord and save the world. It’s succinct and straightforward. If you know where you’re going and what to do, you can finish the whole game in under ten hours (or less if you learn how to manipulate the very fabric of time).

Most importantly, though, I found that Dragon Quest I is still very playable today. It’s accessible, despite being such an early RPG. It doesn’t take a massive investment of time to learn how to play, and compared to an abrupt “game over,” the penalty for dying is actually pretty forgiving. And have I mentioned how much I love the monster designs? Sure, the story is dated (you literally carry the damsel in distress in your big strong arms from her underground prison back to her home in the castle… okay), but it’s breezy and light. If you’re playing the Switch or mobile ports (more on these below), being able to save anywhere allows you the audacity to be bold and daring without fear of losing a ton of progress. It makes for an excellent portable game and is really just a fun piece of gaming history.

I wish more developers today would be so daring as to eschew overblown production values, cut the gimmicks, and focus on delivering a solid and fun core experience. I’ll take a 20-hour RPG that executes perfectly any day over a sprawling and self-serving 100-hour affair, or worse, a game-as-a-service that only ends when I get bored. Dragon Quest isn’t going to give you any procedurally-generated dungeons or room for experimentation with builds, but it doesn’t have to. What you get instead is a short, sweet, compact RPG with a clear goal and a satisfying ending.

A variety of varying versions

So far I’ve spoken about Dragon Quest I almost entirely in the context of Dragon Warrior, the NES game that I grew up playing and for which I still (quite clearly) have a fondness. However, my NES experience ends here. While I wholeheartedly recommend that anybody interested in the series at least try the original if possible, it isn’t necessarily the ideal or most convenient way to experience it.

Ask a room of Dragon Quest fans which version of each game you should play and you’re bound to get a complicated, messy answer. As I noted above, these games are timeless and highly influential, and most of them have seen a variety of remakes and re-releases over the years. DQI alone has seen ports to the MSX, Super Famicom, Game Boy Color, Wii, mobile phones, and modern consoles. You can play it in Elizabethan English, fan-translated English, re-translated English with new names, or re-re-translated English with a mashup of new and old names, each with its own graphical style. Some versions were censored by Nintendo and others weren’t. Ports of some of the later games shed entire features, or add them back in. It’s daunting, and there’s rarely a clear favorite.

For the sake of convenience, availability, price, and accessibility, I will be playing the Android versions of the first six Dragon Quest games (which are actually based on re-releases themselves). My goal with this series is to explore the content of each chapter and how the gameplay and stories evolve over time, so I’m not too concerned with capturing the original feel of each game. Regrettably, that means that I’ll end up overlooking certain things that might have shined in the original versions. For example, I adore the music and atmosphere in Dragon Warrior on the NES, but neither stood out in the Android port. It’s an unfortunate trade-off and I’m a little sad that I’ll lose out on those experiences, especially in the early games.

The remake of DQI is very faithful to the original, with a handful of quality-of-life features added to modernize the experience. There’s an extraordinarily welcome “quick save” feature which allows you to save your progress anywhere. (This is arguably game-breaking because it enables save-scumming, but you can ignore it if you’d like; I didn’t because, as mentioned before, I am trash.) The translation has been updated from the original Elizabethan-style English, which is a bummer as fortune no longer smiles upon thee when thou hast found the torch, but it levels out the script to be consistent with the rest of the series. Menu commands have been replaced with a single context-sensitive button press signified by a “!” bubble above your head when you’re near something you can interact with, another small but meaningful improvement. Some of the maps are slightly different, and I feel like there may have been some fine-tuning under the hood in terms of enemy balance and progression.

My biggest gripe is with the updated graphics. In true “HD remake” fashion, I think the 16-bit aesthetic is kind of ugly and doesn’t have nearly as much charm as the 8-bit original. The updated monsters aren’t bad, but they leave a little less to the imagination, and the rest of the game just feels like a generic SNES-era RPG. It’s all fine, it works and it isn’t awful, it’s just not quite the same.

The memorable melodies from the original are still mostly intact, and they’ve been rearranged and updated with synth orchestration. While they’ve improved from a technical standpoint, though, they just didn’t grab me the same way. The DNA is still there, but it all feels buried and bland. The dungeon theme is the biggest casualty here: it’s been drawn out and fluffed up and is totally unrecognizable. Granted, the original was short, sparse, and a little monotonous, but it evoked a sense of curiosity and danger, especially as you descended deeper. The new arrangement is flat, forgettable, and lifeless. It lacks the dynamics that built up a growing sense of dread. Combined with the updated graphics, the atmosphere that I loved so much about the dungeons felt like it had been neutralized.

Those gripes are extremely subjective, though, and probably wouldn’t be worth mentioning at all if I didn’t have such reverence for the NES original. Besides, the accessibility of the remake ultimately far outweighs those negatives. Presentation updates aside, this is fundamentally the same game that I played as a kid, and it’s just as wonderful now as it was then.

Conclusion

Dragon Quest I might be my ideal RPG. I’m aware that nostalgia skews my opinion here; I grew up with the game and it certainly influenced my tastes. I’ve played through it several times. I’m so familiar with it that I wasn’t even planning on replaying it before writing about it (but I did anyway). However, Dragon Warrior was my last brush with the series until Dragon Quest VIII on the PlayStation 2, and later Dragon Quest XI on the Switch, so by and large, the rest of the games represent uncharted territory. Furthermore, Dragon Quest II seems to be one of the least-liked entries in the series, and II comes after I. Will my appreciation for the first game be enough to carry my momentum forward?

As it turns out, Dragon Quest II isn’t a bad game – it’s just misunderstood. In fact, in hindsight, I may have liked it almost as much as the original.


References & further reading

Gamasutra, “The History of Dragon Quest” by Kurt Kalata
USgamer, “Why Dragon Quest Failed to Make it in America 30 Years Ago” by Nadia Oxford
USgamer, “The History of RPGs: How Dragon Quest Redefined a Genre” by Jeremy Parish

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