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Dragon Warrior (NES) artwork

Dragon Warrior (NES) review


"Wander, kill, level up, repeat."


We take the roleplaying genre for granted these days. Some of us complain when a new game doesn't give us a fully explorable open world, a deep narrative, complex character-building options, romantic side quests, cinematic cutscenes or tough moral decisions. I know I'm going to sound like an old codger when I say this, but back in my day we didn't even have party members to recruit, or lengthy bits of dialogue that tell you precisely how to advance the campaign, or manually upgradable stats, or stories that didn't revolve around rescuing a one-dimensional damsel from a similarly shallow villain. Why, when I was a youngster, the only thing we could do was venture to the east and get our asses kicked by werewolves. We'd then grind for hours until we were powerful enough to fell them, only to begin the process again when we met a worse threat later on.

When I was a kid, we only had Dragon Warrior, and we were thankful.

The protagonist in this old school RPG doesn't get an origin story or a series of sequences that show us his heroism. He's just a basic dude in armor who's been enlisted by a king to search for a kidnapped princess, with no other finer details offered. Just, "You there, go find my daughter. Don't ask me where she is. Do I look like her boyfriend or something?" So he sends you out into forbidding world, consisting of a single land mass teeming with cute monsters designed by Akira Toriyama of "Dragon Ball" fame.

Before setting out, you'll notice a town next to the castle. Wise players always head towards that and hit up the place for juicy tidbits. And by "hit up the place," I mean "slowly tread from one NPC to another, tediously opening a menu and selecting 'talk' until they read something helpful." Some folks drop vague hints, suggesting there might be a helpful item nearby. Others mention a cave in the distance that might hold an object or piece of equipment that'll serve you well on your quest. After some note taking and head scratching, you'll likely say screw it and just wander until you locate a place of interest.

Or realize it's 2020 and hundreds of superior RPGs have come out in the decades since Dragon Warrior's release...

The first twenty minutes or so of a campaign usually sets the tone for the rest of the adventure. Dragon Warrior is no exception here, as you begin your quest in earnest by wandering around and murdering happy little slimes. You do this until you gain a proper amount of levels or gold so you can become stronger, and then venture farther out and slice up more smiling creatures, who then drop more gold and provide you with higher amounts of experience. From there, you boost yourself further, stray farther away from the castle and kill more cheerful monsters. Eventually, you reach a new town, and you can spend your hard earned cash on fresh equipment, which allows you to scotch additional merry monsters. You do this until you happen upon a dungeon, which you might then explore. And surprise, it's full of lively critters to kill...

Voyaging into a dungeon means you'll either turn back screaming because the joyful beasts within are too strong, or you might reach a temporary dead end, or you may locate a useful item after hours of bumping around in the dark and listening to the grating BGM attached to such areas. You'll find that a lot of stages are well built in that they're fittingly labyrinthine, but otherwise primitive. This being one of the first console RPGs (DragonStomper on Atari 2600 predates it, as well as another title or two), you can't expect dungeons to be more than simple, dark mazes that require you to stock up on torches like mad.

After hours of tedious talking and exploring and killing and lighting torches and checking places out and writing down notes that may or may not be helpful, you eventually encounter your first boss: a plain green dragon. You stand tall, thinking you may have a chance against him until he burns you to a crisp. You know what that means: many more hours of grinding and exploring until you've got a knight that can withstand fire breath and dish out damage like a champ. So you commit to more antiquated roleplaying until you can vanquish the wurm. Your reward is actual story progression.

And where does that lead you? To more killing, exploring and exchanging equipment, except this time you need to search for hidden items that belonged to a legendary hero. Granted, there are a few cool segments in store for you in the latter half of the campaign, such as one where you search a ruined city and scrap with the legendary Axelord. However, the content you encounter still consists of such basic stuff that most modern players aren't likely to find thrilling.

Yet, despite its dated setup, I still can't call Dragon Warrior a complete waste. This is the type of game you play when you just want a quick, basic RPG fix, because it can provide that easily enough. You don't have to worry about lengthy bits of exposition or clumsy, gimmicky rule systems, because this experience is as rustic as it gets. You can jump in and almost immediately engage in the most simplistic turn-based battles retro gaming has to offer. Some players are only looking to scratch a primal itch in playing an RPG like this, and this title definitely fits the bill.

It's also great that this game is nonlinear, and you're free to explore as you please. Without a hard-set storyline to follow, you're can venture just about anywhere, provided you can overcome the beasts dwelling in that particular region. You're mostly limited by your character's current abilities, and grinding can remedy that issue.

Let's admit one thing, though: Dragon Warrior hasn't aged well. Hell, on NES alone, there are several titles RPGs still worth playing, and a couple of them belong to the same franchise as this one. Personally, I still respect this game with all my heart, because it helped set the stage for the stuff I would play in my teens an twenties, and even many modern JRPGs. All the same, I can't recommend Dragon Warrior very strongly when so many superior products exist. Such is the fate of innovators, though. They may kickstart categories, but they're doomed to be surpassed by their descendants.

3/5

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (January 23, 2020)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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Feedback

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CptRetroBlue posted January 23, 2020:

I agree on this game being *very* straightforward.
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honestgamer posted January 25, 2020:

Good review! My own mistake was that I played this game after I played both Dragon Quest II (still one of my favorite JRPGs of all time) and the original Final Fantasy. So it compared poorly, even though it has a lot of value. Like you said, even just talking to someone requires a person to access a menu and select the "Talk" option, and going down stairs requires similar fiddling. I got the updated version on Switch, which I believe fixes that and some other things, so maybe the time when I will have this familiar adventure once again isn't so distant...
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JoeTheDestroyer posted January 27, 2020:

Thank you both for reading. I've seen the Switch version available, and I have to say I'm interested in picking it up (and maybe 2 and 3 as well, but really I want 5 and 6, since I never got the DS versions of those games). This is a pretty straightforward game, but it seems like it would play decentlywith some tweaking.
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overdrive posted January 27, 2020:

There also was a Super Famicom combo of the first two Dragon Quests that I played that made the first one a bit more user-friendly as far as menus and actions go.

Regardless of platform, the game pretty much reviews the same (at least if you're a fan of JRPGs and/or this series). It's short, simplistic and a bit grindy due to the whole "one man party" deal, but it was the first JRPG I played and without it, I likely wouldn't have had so many fun years with the genre before those games started losing their luster for me a year or two ago. Kind of like the first Super Mario or Final Fantasy in that it wouldn't be my choice of what game to play in its series today, but it holds a position in my heart due to what it was at the time I originally played it.

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