Dragon Warrior (NES) review
"Step outside the castle and you might make it fifteen or twenty steps. Or you might make it one step. Or two, or three. Suddenly, that village a half-screen away can seem almost out of reach. This is compounded by another problem: the hero is a wimp for the majority of the game."
You don’t always have to know much about your enemy to hate him. Sometimes, just a simple label will inspire the lowly peasants to hiss every time someone utters your name. An excellent example of this is ‘Dragonlord,’ the fearsome monster you must slay if you play Dragon Warrior. There are no cut scenes, no moments in the game where you stare at the screen and wonder how a monster could be so wicked. Still, the villagers all pretty much decided he’s bad news a long time ago. They hate him a lot, and so you must slay him.
Your quest to put an end to this unspeakable evil begins in a castle’s throne room. By the end of the game, this Spartan setting will extend to include a patch of desert to the southwest, strips of forestation nestled at the base of periwinkle mountains, and wide prairies that border festering swampland. If this sounds just a little bit too typical of the genre for your tastes, you won’t like Dragon Warrior. And even if you do like your role-playing as generic as possible, problems remain.
Said problems make themselves evident almost immediately, before you even access those prairies and mountains I mentioned. After chatting it up with the king, you’ll begin your quest by checking a bunch of treasure chests. You do this by first accessing a menu, then selecting the ‘take’ command. Six button presses where one would have done the job just as well. When you’re done helping yourself to the goodies those chests contain, you next head over to a staircase. Rather than trudging down the steps automatically, your warrior will stand there doing nothing until you access the menu and actually choose the ‘stairs’ option. It’s the same story later on when you want to open certain doors, or when you want to talk to someone. When something as simple as menu navigation is a mild chore, you know the game has issues.
But let’s assume you’re willing to forgive clunky menu navigation. After all, gamers have certainly endured worse in other role-playing titles. Almost the minute you’re past that roadblock, another presents itself: random battles.
Before you say anything, you should know I’m generally in favor of a little random chaos. Such battles can make the journey to that elusive mountain village harrowing, even exciting. Modern games don’t rely on them so much, but there was a time when they existed in the bulk of anything worth playing. With that said, there’s no excuse for the frequency with which they occur here. Step outside the castle and you might make it fifteen or twenty steps. Or you might make it one step. Or two, or three. Suddenly, that village a half-screen away can seem almost out of reach. This is compounded by another problem: the hero is a wimp for the majority of the game.
Consider the statistics and the reason for this should be immediately apparent. For one thing, you can’t carry more than eight item types. Part of that inventory is tied up with keys, while most of the rest of it is used for ‘event items’ that you can’t afford to discard. Throw in a few torches and you aren’t exactly the hulking warrior you might like. This worked well enough in Dragon Warrior II, where there were three separate party members, but here’s the kicker: the first game in the series forces you to go it alone.
So there you are, walking across a grassy prairie when suddenly a blob known only as ‘slime’ attacks. A somewhat lively battle tune pipes out of the speakers as the view switches to a vaguely first-person window and you see your opponent, rendered in 8-bit glory. He’s a motionless mass of blue with two dots for eyes. You now have a grand total of four battle options. You can fight, run, cast a spell, or use something from your mostly useless inventory.
These commands are all self-explanatory. The problem is that none of them are particularly exciting. Trying to escape a battle is an exercise in futility. For reasons unknown, your hero is so sloth-like that even a lump of jelly can easily overtake him three times out of four. Knowing this, you would do better to use one of your other three options. However, there are only eight magic spells in the whole game, and these are spread out over the 30 levels your hero can attain. Early on, your options will consist entirely of the fearsome-sounding ‘hurt’ spell (fear me miscreant, or I will hurt you with my powerful magic!) and a healing spell. Later, you’ll gain non-battle skills that allow you to exit dungeons quickly, before a return to power with ‘hurtmore’ and ‘healmore.’
Now, lest you think this isn’t as bad as it sounds, let me assure you of one thing: it is. It really is. You see, the hero doesn’t really gain mastery of his spells as his levels rise. Early on, the ‘hurt’ spell might do 6 damage to a lowly slime, just barely enough to kill the fiend. At the game’s conclusion, it has precisely the same impact. The only attack you have that grows stronger at all is your ‘Fight’ command, which improves as you find the few better weapons that exist in the game. Magic ends up assuming a secondary role: fight, fight, fight, heal, fight, fight, fight, heal, fight, fight. And just for the sake of variety and to avoid all those infuriating battles, sometimes you might cast a ‘Return’ spell. Assuming you’ve played the game long enough to learn one.
And if you’ve played the game that long, you’ve had the opportunity to see more of those flaws I keep mentioning. Though I’m aware that some palette swaps were necessary back in the 8-bit glory days, Dragon Warrior takes this to an extreme. Remember the slime I mentioned? You’ll see him again, in metal form (he’s gray). Also, enemies are fond of learning spells. A drake becomes a magidrake, a wyvern a magiwyvern. They taunt you. Watch in envy as they cast all manner of cool spells while all you can do is ‘hurt’ them or put them to sleep. Writhe in agony as a dragon toasts you like a marshmallow, then respond by gobbling an herb and thinking that the monster wasn’t quite so tough when he was on the other side of the bridge you just crossed and wasn’t pink.
Speaking of that, the game makes exploring its map quite the chore. The structure here is so rigid it could almost be considered level-based. Journey west from the castle where you start and you’ll come to a bridge. Cross it too soon and just like that, you’ll be staring at the ‘Game Over’ screen because some vicious beast spanked you soundly. Bridges are something monsters apparently can’t cross, and in this game they serve as the natural boundaries that indicate when you’re about to find an increase in challenge. Or, in simpler turns, the bridges let you know when the monsters are about to get cheap. Since you don’t have other party members to revive you in the event of such a blunder, exploration becomes a matter of trial and error.
So does finding those event items I mentioned near the start of the review. Some of the puzzles you must solve if you want to complete the game are downright asinine. For example, in one area you must find a magical flute by searching just the right patch of soil within one of the villages (five button presses per attempt can make such a project more tedious than you might suppose). You will only know this if you are reading a guide, or if you’ve been talking to villagers repeatedly and keeping note of what they all say. One guy might say something useless, but another might give a vital clue or directions to the next town. You never know, and so you must talk to them all. Just to be safe. Just to avoid traveling over the map any more than absolutely necessary.
And so it goes with the whole game, until suddenly you’re heading for that next dungeon, gritting your teeth and hoping no monsters attack so you can wander about for awhile. It’s at such moments that you wonder why you’re even bothering with Dragon Warrior. For many, the answer is simple: this game was one of the first. The role-playing titles we love now mostly evolved from this archaic mess. For that, I am grateful. Doesn’t mean I have to play the damn thing.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (January 08, 2005)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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