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Dragon Warrior Monsters (Game Boy Color) artwork

Dragon Warrior Monsters (Game Boy Color) review

"An underappreciated celebration and love letter to fans of a long-lived series"

In 1996, Pokemon Green and Red almost single-handedly injected new life into the decrepit nearly decade-old Gameboy and kicked-off what became the most valuable multimedia franchise in history. In 1997, the first generation Pokemon games outsold Final Fantasy VII. And much like the wave of RPGs that flooded Playstation after Final Fantasy VII, there was a stream of flatuent Pokemon-clones smearing themselves on Gameboys . These games would latch onto something like monster catching, trading, 2-player battles, releasing two seperate versions of the same game without reason, or some other feature of Pokemon, and they were rarely good.

When Dragon Warrior Monsters was released 2000 in North America, it was almost universally viewed as yet another Pokemon clone. ďIf you've already Ďcaught 'em all,íĒ Jeff Gerstmann said on Gamespot, ďand you're looking for a game to tide you over until Pokemon Gold and Silver are released near the end of the year, Dragon Warrior Monsters is exactly what you're looking for.Ē Here on Honestgamers, all four reviews for Dragon Warrior Monsters mention Pokemon in the first paragraph--three of them (including the one you are reading), in the first sentence.

The comparison to Pokemon is a common slight that Dragon Warrior Monsters has endured since its release and will likely never shake off due to its timing, platform, and the contemporary experience with the series at that point. Itís also a comparison, however, that gives undue credit to Poke-mania and misses just how much of an evolution Dragon Warrior Monsters is of the existing entries in the series. It is, in truth, a game that very well may have been made even if there was never a Pokemon.

Letís start with the story. Dragon Warrior Monsters is a prequel for two characters that appeared in Dragon Quest VI, Terry and his sister Milly. With Dragon Warrior still being a niche series in the North American market and Dragon Quest VI never being released outside Japan (a decent unofficial translation didnít come around for several years) itís no wonder that players didnít know this was a spin-off of a game from 1995. In Dragon Warrior Monster, Terry and Milly are children who become stuck in the magical kingdom of Great Tree. Terry is persuaded to enter the Starry Night Tournament, where if he wins then he is conveniently granted a wish, such as returning home with his sister.

The Starry Night Tournament is an arena where monsters that Terry has befriended are pitted against monsters trained by NPCs. Herein lies another Dragon Quest connection. Like the final half of Dragon Warrior IV, the player cannot directly control monsters, but instead give tactical suggestions to AI-controlled companions. This system is greatly expanded in Dragon Warrior Monsters. Tactics can be set for individual monsters, and depending on which tactics are used the monsterís AI will permanently adapt its behavior, becoming more willing to use certain types of spells and abilities. This information is exposed to the player via the monsterís personality.

There is quite a bit of nuance to this. For example, In a particularly difficult arena fight, I couldnít get my one monster to cast Surge--a spell that healed all status effects on the party. If it would do this, Iíd win easily. The solution was to practice with this monster and select the defensive tactic, which altered the monsterís personality to be more willing to cast the necessary spell. The reverse applies to strong attack spells--you need a monster to be more aggressive in order for it to cast those spells in the arena.

There are other properties that factor into how a monster acts in combat, such as its wild value (the higher it is, the more likely the monster is to ignore you). In non-arena combat, you can give direct orders to monsters (such as ďuse this specific spellĒ) but doing so weakens the monsterís ability to fight on their own in the arena. Since completing arena fights is the only way to progress in the game, the player needs to understand the nuances of the AI-directed combat, using the ability to give direct orders to very specific situations.

Outside of scripted arena fights are travelerís gates, procedurally generated worlds where the player can grind and find new monsters. Herein lies another Dragon Warrior connection--grinding. Each Travelerís gate looks mostly the same, with each gate having different monsters that can be encountered, a different number of procedurally generated floors, and a different boss at the end. These bosses are often reprisals of bosses in Dragon Quest history and often require a light puzzle to be completed before they can actually be fought. The fact that the player can actually recruit many of these bosses makes slogging through travelerís gates worth the repetitive grind.

Dragon Warrior Monsters screenshot Dragon Warrior Monsters screenshot
Travelerís gates offer procedurally generated content, but they are repetitive and look mostly the same, varying only in the number of floors and monsters that can be encountered.

Recruiting monsters was not a revolution introduced by Pokemon Red and Green. Demon recruitment and fusion was a core gameplay innovation in Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei (1987). In 1992, Dragon Quest V introduced a monster recruitment system into the Dragon Quest series. Certain monsters (42 of them) would randomly offer to join the party after being defeated in battle. These monsters would stay with the party and functioned as additional party members that could gain experience and level up. In Dragon Quest VI, monster recruitment was expanded further and a Monster Master character class was added to the game.

Dragon Quest V: Tenkuu no Hanayome screenshot Shin Megami Tensei screenshot
Dragon Quest V (left) introduced monster recruitment, which was refined in Dragon Quest VI. Monster recruitment had already been a part of the Megami Tensei series (right) since 1987.

A common theme here is that Dragon Warrior Monsters is a natural evolution of things that were not released outside Japan. Recruitment in Dragon Warrior Monsters is almost identical to Dragon Quest V and VI, although you can increase the chances of a successful partnership by gifting the monster tasty meat treats.

Monsters recruited directly from battles are limited to low levels and will only obtain 3 skills unique to that monster. To truly break this game, you need to breed monsters. Yes, you can force a slime into marriage with a dragon. Thankfully, the details of these unions are not shown to the player. When two monsters mate, they run off, leaving behind an egg with a new monster that will inherit the strength and skills of both parents.

Dragon Warrior Monsters screenshot
Breeding is the only way to obtain most of the gameís 215 monsters.

For example, suppose you force a MadCandle and a MiniDrak into an unholy union. Youíll lose both of them, but be left with a level 1 Swordgon, a monster with much more potential. Not only are its stats significantly higher than a wild Swordgon, but it can obtain higher levels and eventually learn all of the skills that its parents had. This means valuable skills like HealUsAll can be passed from parent to child across generations.

There are no words to describe how addicting obtaining new monsters can be. Everytime you stumble upon a breeding combination that wields a powerful boss-type monster is a treat. And, this being Dragon Warrior, it also means you have a level 1 monster that you need to grind into an awesome emissary of winged death. Thankfully, there are enough travelerís gates that youíll have unexplored places to grind until very late in the game.

The bestiary here is a massive 215 monsters strong, spanning the history of the Dragon Quest series to this point. The sprite art for this pantheon is perhaps the pinnacle achievement of the Gameboyís hardware. Each monster has its own unique animated sprite in the field and enlarged portrait in the menu. If youíre a fan of the Dragon Quest series, youíll inevitably find yourself scrolling through the in-game library marveling at all of them.

Dragon Warrior Monsters screenshot Dragon Warrior Monsters screenshot
The sprite work is some of the best on the Gameboy.

The music too is also a love letter. The last floor of each travelerís gate reprises a musical theme from the game where that travelerís gateís boss first appeared. Everything about Dragon Warrior Monsters oozes the slimy charm of the series--itís the RPG equivalent of Super Smash Bros.

And herein lies why the Pokemon-clone label has been so persistent with Dragon Warrior Monsters. Given the tepid popularity of the series in North America, Dragon Warrior Monsters was likely to be the playerís first exposure to Dragon Quest. Nintendo famously gave away copies of the first Dragon Warrior on NES with subscriptions to Nintendo Power, which probably sold more copies of the magazine than it did for future games in the series. Dragon Warrior Monsters came out at a time where there was more of an appetite for RPGs, and it sold an impressive 60,000 copies in North America in its first three months alone. In contrast, Dragon Warrior IV on NES sold 80,000 total in its lifetime and no other games in the series were localized until Dragon Warrior Monsters. Had it not been for the absurd success of Final Fantasy VII and Pokemon in the North American market, we might not have seen Dragon Warrior VII or Dragon Warrior Monsters officially in English.

Itís hard to see the massive homage that Dragon Warrior Monsters is to the series history for players that simply missed out on that history. Creating your own DeathMore and Mirudraas will mean nothing to players who never heard of them. A huge swatch of its 215 monsters are from games that did not have an official English localization. North American players can also be forgiven for not knowing that the last two games in the main Dragon Question series had a monster recruiting that predated Pokemon Red and Green by a few years, nor that Dragon Warrior IV (the least successful of the games that were localized) featured very similar AI-driven combat.

Things are different now. We have official or unofficial translations for all the Dragon Quest games that did not leave Japan during the drought of the 1990s and the series is now known by its rightful name. Yet today, Dragon Warrior Monsters (and itís phenomenal sequel) still canít shake the superficial comparisons to Pokemon, even though the only thing the two games have in common is that you get to play with monsters. Dragon Warrior Monsters isnít a clone of anything; itís an evolution of what the series was already doing, a celebration of one of the most long-lived RPGs, and a love letter to anyone whoís played it.


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Community review by dagoss (February 15, 2021)

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