RPG fans have no qualms about going back to their 16-bit favorites—your Final Fantasy Sixes, your Chrono Triggers—but NES RPGs are the Dangerfield of the genre: they get no respect. Often criticized for being tedious, grind-heavy slogs, the dungeon-crawlers of the 80s have an admittedly high barrier of entry to them.
It’s not that I don’t get these complaints; in fact, I used to be
one of those critics! But it’s far too easy to overlook the elements that some of these games brought to the table, the impressive foundation work that set the stage for nearly every other game in the genre to follow.
Enter Dragon Warrior. Released on the Famicom in 1986 under the name Dragon Quest, this title was really the one to shape the Japanese RPG as we know it. Series creator Yuji Hori wanted to bring to the masses a more accessible fantasy adventure than the usual. The “usual” in this case meaning pen-and-paper games chock full of stats and rules that could fill a tome. Hori took a bit of the genre’s existing titles—like Wizardy and Ultima—and compressed them into a simplified, digestible form known as Dragon Quest. Or Warrior, in the case of the first few games of the series in America. Exploring was top-down like in Zelda, while the battles were in a static first-person window.
A big part of making the game more fun was bringing aboard illustrator Akira Toriyama, who’d then just begun to create the manga series Dragon Ball. Toriyama did the character design and—more importantly—the monster design, ensuring that every creature came to life with personality, even in 8-bit. Mix in orchestral composer Koichi Sugiyama and you’ve got quite the talented Triforce of artists working on this game. In fact, one of the reasons the franchise is seen as so consistent and reliable is because these three men have worked on every one of the mainline games. The writing, despite being peppered with ye olde English, has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to it, even on the NES, and that charming appeal only grew as the series did.Slimes were one of many DW baddies that had a lot of personality onscreen.
DW’s gameplay is very straightforward. Your job—as the nameless Hero and the title’s solo fighter—is to defeat the Dragonlord and recapture the stolen Ball of Light. Naturally, you’ll start off weak with little in the way of equipment, and gradually gain both EXP and Gold as you battle enemies one-on-one. The world of Alefgard is moderately-sized but intimidating, with the creature difficulty quickly ramping up if you wander too far. There are a few towns and caves dotting the landscape, but it’s often a long and treacherous walk to the next point of interest, which means you’ll be doing a lot of fighting to make progress.
DW does a few things extremely well, and might not get the credit it deserves for them. The first is that the world is mostly nonlinear. You can theoretically wander across the entire world map from the very beginning of the game (with only the very last area being blocked off), and the only things really keeping you from doing so are the strength of the enemies. This makes the early game progression of gradually pushing yourself to explore further and further away from the safety of the castle quite addictive. And just barely making it to the haven of that next town by the skin of your teeth never fails to feel supremely rewarding. The narrative of the lone hero setting off to solve the mystery of finding the Dragonlord is charming and permeates throughout the game, even if the plot itself is very basic. The original Famicom version is on the left. Your sprite always faced forward, even when moving to the side!
The challenge level during the game’s first half is very well-balanced, too. You’ll rarely be able to afford all the new equipment upon reaching a town, so you’re often trying to make tough choices on whether to boost your attack, your defense, or get a lesser piece of equipment so you can stock more vital items like Herbs and Torches. Many modern RPGs make the mistake of having everything in a new town immediately buyable, which kind of eliminates the dilemma of choice and rewarding feeling of coming home with a shiny new treasure. Likewise, you can really feel the increase in power when upgrading your weaponry in this game.
Finally, this might be the only RPG I’ve played where every spell is quite useful and has its own place. There are only ten of them, but they’re essential to your success and it makes the resource management of MP a constant challenge to keep track of. The MP consumption prices make sense (particularly with Heal, which I find is too cheap in other games), and that’s especially impressive given the time this was made. Heck, the game's sole status-affecting spell, Sleep, actually works on enemies and is worth doing (of course, it works when the enemies do it too, which can be infuriating)!
Now let’s address that initial complaint: DW requires a lot of battling. A lot! I hit severe roadblocks a few times where my warrior was far too weak and needed to simply level up for 1-2 hours at once before progressing to the next area. The final boss in particular has ridiculously powerful attacks, and most players won’t stand a chance against him without extra grinding. I really feel that the first half of DW flows nicely, while the second suddenly hits the brakes because of the difficulty. It does feel like a slog and drags the game down, but this was really more of a later-game issue—the early game was paced pretty well.
Additionally, compared to later RPGs, DW’s controls feel “sticky” and slow, its battle music is oddly amelodic for the composer (hey, he was just starting out), and the random battle frequency can be irritating. Enemies sometimes get the drop on you with a first strike and...remember that Sleep spell I mentioned? Right, few things are more irritating than being ambushed by that and not waking up, allowing the foe to beat you into submission without a single turn of your own.
But there’s still plenty to like here, from the generally decent art style and compositions (gotta love that main theme and overworld theme), an open/nonlinear world to explore, a mostly suitable challenge level that often works with the game, and the lack of losing progress upon dying. Plus, you know, it kinda showed how an RPG could be done on a console. If you’re the patient type that enjoys the series and wants to get a fun history lesson, you could do a lot worse than the original Dragon Warrior. If you’re willing to put up with the work involved, of course!