Dragon Warrior III (NES) review
"Dragon Warrior III is easily one of the greatest triumphs on the Nintendo Entertainment System, a gem that sparkles even in an age where all the other games on the block have larger assets. Not so much a game as an experience, this is one RPG that you owe it to yourself if the term 'role-playing' excites you even a little."
When I was younger, I fell in love. My mistress was strange indeed, a gray sort of individual, with a sticker on her front that said Dragon Warrior III. I stared at that picture in my spare time, the odd minute while lying on my bed, or squinting at the Sears catalog image while sitting on the couch out in the living room. I had to have her. She was my obsession, and she didn't need blond curls and pretty blue eyes to capture my heart. Of course, my mom subscribed to the absurd notion that I didn't need anything with 'Dragon' in the title (after all, the term 'dragon' is used in the Bible to describe the Devil), so our romance was to be a rocky one. Rocky, that is, until I finally triumphed over the odds and made the cartridge mine years after many others had forgotten the game existed. At last, my love went beyond staring at the pictures in the magazines. At last, she was mine!
If the preceding paragraph disturbs you, don't read on. You can never know the love an adolescent boy felt for a great game, and I feel sorry for your meaningless existence. If, on the other hand, you once felt similar about a game, we're in the same club. Perhaps the game that stirred such emotions in your soul was the same as it was for me. And why shouldn't it be? Dragon Warrior III is easily one of the greatest triumphs on the Nintendo Entertainment System, a gem that sparkles even in an age where all the other games on the block have larger assets. Not so much a game as an experience, this is one RPG that you owe it to yourself if the term 'role-playing' excites you even a little.
As the game opens, you find yourself in the role of a boy. You're no one special, just a run-of-the-mill boy who lives at the edge of the capital city with his mother. It's your sixteenth birthday, and the king would like to speak to you. So off you go on a morning jaunt past the item shops, over the drawbridge, and into the castle. There, you learn that you are to save the world from an evil known only as the Archfiend Baromus. Turns out it's in your genes. Your father, a brave warrior known only as Ortega, is believed to have perished in the depths of a volcano while battling this same evil. With such a lovely precedent before you, it's a no-brainer; you accept the king's challenge and head off to pick your companions.
Here, Dragon Warrior III offers welcome relief from its predecessors. The idea of forming your own party must have been a novel one at the time, and it's definitely welcome here. You can choose from a number of classes, ranging from wizards of one sort or another to the goof-off to merchants. Each class has different overriding attributes, and choosing poorly will result in an unbalanced party sure to make your journey more difficult than it otherwise would have been. This one feature means that the game can be played a number of different ways, so multiple plays are far more rewarding than they were in earlier titles in the franchise.
Once you have your party together, it's time to equip them. You won't have much gold to your name, and so most of the weapons you'd like lie well out of your reach. A quick tour of the shops around town reminds you instantly that this is a Dragon Warrior game. Medical herbs abound, and you'll be grinning from ear to ear if that's the sort of thing that shines your teeth. Of course, if you haven't played Dragon Warrior II or Dragon Warrior but you have played Final Fantasy, the fact that one pathetic herb can take up such a large percentage of your inventory will annoy you instantly.
And so goes your trip back out of town. Along the way, you might marvel at the beautiful red brick roads you ignored on the way to the castle, or at the stunted tree sprites and the merchant shops. As you pass people in the street, you might even think it seems like a nice little town. Then you're outside the city and the real world will be slapping you in the face. As always, the map that materializes is tile-based, and you should recognize a lot of the graphics from Dragon Warrior II. The ocean still looks frothy, the plains still look bland and lime green, and the trees still look like moss-covered slippers. Again, it's a case where nostalgia will enchant you or other game experiences will poison the experience. Regardless, the graphics have a certain charm, and they help paint the portrait of a massive overworld.
Of course, you won't get to see much of that world if you die trying. A few steps away from the haven that was the city you left just behind, you'll run into your first random battle. Most likely, you're facing a monster known as a slime. These guys populate just about every Dragon Warrior game worth its salt, and really they just look like gumdrops with smiley faces. You'll learn soon that the battle system this time around has grown more robust. Your characters can parry, or they can attack, or they can do both. If you've read the instruction manual, you'll know that you can parry, then back up a turn and then attack with that same character, and he'll both guard slightly against possible blows, and strike with one of his own. Why Enix decided this is a good idea is a mystery to me; it adds an certain element of tedium to what is otherwise a quick-moving experience.
The fact that battles are not 'real time' is nice because it means if you encounter a weak opponent, you can blow right through him without waiting for a gauge to fill. If a monster is extremely tough, you can spend five minutes contemplating your next move. Some gamers won't like the lack of realism, but it was the norm at the time and it works just fine here.
Eventually that battle will be over, and hundreds more like it. Your warriors will venture further and further from home, increasingly emboldened by the enormous number of scrapes they have escaped. This is where the game gets good. As I mentioned before, the world you get to explore is quite enormous. Towns dot the landscape, but they're not always obviously placed. Half the fun of this game is just exploring to see what lies around the next river bend, or at the end of that mountain pass. The frequent rate of enemy encounters is on one hand an annoyance, but at least here it heightens the experience in that you'll sometimes find yourself gripping the controller and cursing yourself for starting such a long trek before properly preparing. In the old days, lack of preparation in a role-playing game almost certainly spelled doom, and Dragon Warrior is as good an example of that as any title.
The landscape you see isn't limited to reruns of what you've seen before, either. There are larger towns with more impressive architecture. There are new terrains, such as deserts. There are more islands, too, and the world overall feels more intricate. In Dragon Warrior II, things tended to be quite scattered. While that created a much-needed illusion of massive areas to explore, it wasn't a whole lot of fun. Not so with Dragon Warrior III. Here, the world is connected by tunnels and passageways, inlets and forests. There's more lore, too, from sages and trolls to a hidden village of elves.
More impressive than the increase in areas to explore, though, is the class system. As I mentioned previously, you can pick characters from various classes, but it doesn't end there. As you progress further in the game, you'll find a shrine where you can change classes. This means that the warrior you've been buffing up can become a wizard. He'll lose some of his 'tough guy' stats, but he'll still have more vitality than a normal wizard. It's not hard to find yourself devoting hours just to turning your characters into walking weapons. The system is such that if you rush into it, you end up with a character who is good at nothing, but taking your time will lead you to rewarding accomplishments. It's very cool.
There are plenty of other nice touches in the game, too, details that affect gameplay in little ways. The roster of monsters has grown much, much larger. You'll fight dragons, as always, but there are plenty of other threats, old and new. How does a raging grizzly bear sound? And changes aren't limited to just the 'more of everything' variety, though there's plenty of that. Spend long playing and you'll soon discover the developers added the dimension of time. Days turn to nights. People close their shops and new items might be available. Also, there are other little secrets, like a field you can gradually turn into a bustling seaside town. And if you remember the original Dragon Warrior game with fondness, be prepared for a lot of what made that game special to return in a big way.
Truly, many of today's RPGs could learn a lot from Dragon Warrior III. Not content to rest on the astonishing laurels that were Dragon Warrior and Dragon Warrior II, this game pushed the genre boundaries almost as far as the NES would allow, ending up as one of the greatest games for the system and one of the most memorable titles the genre has ever seen. I recommend it whole-heartedly. Of course, I'm in love.
Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)
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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