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Dragon Warrior (NES) artwork

Dragon Warrior (NES) review

"Enix's Dragon Warrior never was a great game, but over the years it has accumulated legendary status. The only legendary aspect of the game was Nintendo Power's promotional giveaway juggernaut. As a result, undue claims have garnered, from the inane (''This is the game which turned the crank of the RPG machine!'') to the just plain incorrect (''This is the first ever RPG!''). Still, Dragon Warrior is the first Japanese style role playing game to be released in the United States, and, due to i..."

Enix's Dragon Warrior never was a great game, but over the years it has accumulated legendary status. The only legendary aspect of the game was Nintendo Power's promotional giveaway juggernaut. As a result, undue claims have garnered, from the inane (''This is the game which turned the crank of the RPG machine!'') to the just plain incorrect (''This is the first ever RPG!''). Still, Dragon Warrior is the first Japanese style role playing game to be released in the United States, and, due to its proliferation because of Nintendo's savage marketing, it introduced many players, myself included, to a great style of gaming.

Dragon Warrior places you into the role of a self-named hero, who apparently has some undisclosed relation to the fabled warrior Erdrick. You know this because the king of the land tells you. And what wise judgment the king has; seeing that his kingdom of Alefgard is in complete turmoil, he drags you, some bum—penniless, defenseless, and naked—into his throne room, dons you Erdrick's heir, and sends you off to murder the reclusive Dragonlord, who seems to do nothing but lounge in the basement of Charlock Castle. Note that although it's called a castle, only one floor is above ground. I have a feeling the Dragonlord is a homely decoy for the more serious and standard matters of political corruption, crime, and sagging economy.

But at least the king doesn't send you off empty handed; he's nice enough to give you a key so you can get out of his throne room. While I would have preferred some sort of entourage, perhaps a squad of guards, the king gives you enough cash to clothe yourself and to buy a board with a nail in it so you can successfully smash the giant smiling gumdrops which for some reason infest the area between the castle and the surrounding town.

The end goal of the game, of course, is to slay the lethargic Dragonlord, but before that happens you must gather equipment which Erdrick inconveniently scattered around the world, tasks which you may accomplish in any order you please assuming you are strong enough to do so. Naturally, completing objectives in some orders is more natural than others, so, for the most part, you are at the whim of Enix's designers. Filling in time between tasks, you fight endless battles and discover the locations of the scattered equipment with the help of vague hints by townspeople.

The most memorable facet of the game is its Elizabethan style of prose. Rather than saying something like, ''Go north to find a town,'' inhabitants of Alefgard would remark, ''If thou doth travel north, thou shalt discover a town.'' Such stylistic language is often refreshing in a game otherwise devoid of personality, but it has an unfortunate side effect of obfuscating the content conveyed. As a result, essential hints become buried in thick language.

Dragon Warrior's main problem is lack of things to do. Once at the appropriate level of experience and knowledge of item locations, gathering the entire set of necessary artifacts takes no longer than twenty minutes. Until then time is spent gaining experience and gold by fighting. And fighting. And fighting. Dragon Warrior is a regular slugfest as you'll fight literally thousands of battles just so you can level up to fight more battles. Most of this fighting happens on the world map, an cumbersome land mass full of uncreatively placed environmental tiles. Hills, plains, forests, it's all the same. The only variety to be found is in the handful of dungeons and item scavenging, which are battle prone in themselves. There's a princess to be saved, but it's a nearly optional side quest.

Further crippling Dragon Warrior is its sheer inconvenience. In order to save your progress, you must speak to the king at his castle, causing much unneeded frustration and backtracking. Insane enemy encounter rates ensure that getting anywhere will take unnecessary amounts of time. Gaining levels and gold takes depressing amounts of time. Everything takes a lot of time, and that's how Dragon Warrior derives its game play. It's not an overly challenging game, but it certainly is time consuming.

The fighting itself is unbalanced. Enemies are placed into several groups of similar power so that all enemies in a region are of roughly same strength. However, transitioning to a stronger group is sloppy and risky. It is often the case that you are forced to fight feeble foes, earning paltry amounts experience and gold, because the next strongest group will wipe the floor with you. This becomes an issue especially at the later stages of the game where it takes fifty to one hundred battles to gain a level.

At least Enix got the battle interface right. Fleeing is effective and strategically viable and even necessary at times, and magic is surprisingly balanced considering how many later games got it horribly wrong. Though limited and basic, certain spells are life savers in battle, and, more importantly, spells are cheap, even the most expensive ones.

Even after all those issues, Dragon Warrior still has some sort of mysterious allure. The utter simplicity and abstract freedom the game offers is somehow attractive, and it's almost as if the game mocks you if you give up. ''Can't beat me, wuss? Have any idea how many nine year olds conquered me in two days?'' Despite fighting the same battle over and over I feel the need to gain that extra level, move to that next group of enemies, get that next piece of equipment. The inherent simplicity and freedom also lends itself to funky challenges between players. What's the lowest level you can beat the Dragonlord? Save the princess? Get Erdrick's Armor? Simple game, simple challenges, surprising yet frustrating fun.

Many complain about the appearance of Dragon Warrior, but I rather like the enemy designs. The dragons, golems, and skeletons are especially vibrant, and every foe is clearly identifiable. Especially nice touches are the cute weaker enemies who smile at you; just don't dawdle lest you be slain. As for the landscapes and sprites, they are tiled just like in every other NES game, except Enix didn't seem to spend much effort hiding that fact.

On the flip side, many hail Dragon Warrior's music as classic. Sure it's memorable but only because you'll hear the same two pieces over and over again. Eventually the monotonous tunes will drone on in your skull long after you've stopped playing. This can lead to insanity. Most of the game's effects are the usual suspects: that sound could either be that of a sword piercing flesh or that of a grapefruit impacting vinyl siding. It's hard to tell. However, a cute trudging noise plays when walking up or down stairs, and a particularly vicious sound occurs in the event you deal a lot of damage to an enemy.

Dragon Warrior deserves to be played and deserves to be remembered, but it doesn't deserve to be cherished. Unlike true classics of the time, Dragon Warrior is bested by just about every similar game subsequently released. The same can't be said for titles such as The Legend of Zelda and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! I, like many others, have to credit Dragon Warrior for creating my interest in Japanese style role playing games, but Dragon Warrior is just a start. Subsequent entries in the Dragon Warrior series and competing games such as Final Fantasy do a much better job bringing a truly fun experience to the player.

whelkman's avatar
Community review by whelkman (March 01, 2003)

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