Sometimes when recommending an older game to other players, it comes with a caveat. You know, something along the lines of telling them, "Now, it's pretty old and dated, but it broke a lot of new ground for the time!" These were the main reasons I rated the original Dragon Warrior (and to a lesser extent, its sequel) so highly, and the innovations that those titles brought to console RPG gaming can't be overstated. However, Dragon Warrior III is truly the first of the series to actually feel like a full, modern Dragon Quest game (give or take the necessary 8-bit presentation). Unlike the bare-bones quest of the original or the brutally unbalanced second half of DWII, DWIII brings forth everything you'd expect from the series from the get-go: a large, balanced quest, a well-written (if episodic) storyline, a streamlined travel system, and even mini-games and side-quests in addition to the visual and musical pedigree.
This story begins this time with your unnamed hero (or heroine!) setting out from their hometown of Aliahan to solve the mystery of their missing, heroic father Ortega. You won't be alone in this quest, of course, but instead of taking predetermined characters with you, you get to choose your own party. Including the hero, you can have four members at once, and each member can be one of 8 available classes. Like the original Final Fantasy, it's up to the player to decide which classes to go with, giving the game a nice sense of customization and replay value from the get-go. Like DQIX, this comes at the expense of characterization from your buddies in arms, but the core plotline of DWIII make up for this slight shortcoming.
The guy in front will always be in the Hero class, but the other 3 are fully customizable.
The standard Dragon Quest gameplay takes the reigns from the get-go; you'll be doing a healthy mix of overworld-exploration, dungeon-crawling, and town/NPC interaction from start to finish, and there're a great deal of different memorable scenarios that take place during your quest. For instance, one young King is obsessed with pepper and is willing to give you his ship for some. Another town must be built from the ground-up using one of your own Dealers (a class in the game). And another town is hauntingly empty and ruined during the day, but comes to life at night with a group of ghostly citizens who don't seem to be aware that anything's awry! There're tales of kidnappings and forbidden loves and stuck-up countries who don't let bumpkins in their walls, all interspersed with the series' traditionally difficult dungeons and towers. They finally improve the Return spell by letting you pick your town to visit, and there's even the first appearance of the series' monster arenas! By this point, it really feels like Dragon Quest has found its footing entirely; there's fairly little about this game that feels mechanically dated.
The enemies have all the personality you'd expect from this series, and are beautifully animated on the GBC to boot!
All this would be strong enough to put DWIII on par with games like DQVI and DQIX, but a late-game sequence manages to take things to the next level. See, the game contains a couple plot twists that're easily on-par with many modern game stories, and even add several hours of gameplay to the end of the title. In fact, DWIII's storyline might be one of the strongest in the series, a truly impressive feat for a game that originally came out in early 1988. I advise anyone going into this game to go in blindly, avoiding reading about it online; I unfortunately was spoiled but it didn't detract my appreciation of the tale. I'll just say that it's rich in thematic storytelling, although I wish I could go into more detail.
This review is specifically of the Game Boy Color version, so I had to check to see which additions were GBC-specific versus which were already in the original game. The GBC, at the expense of less viewing space, adds some pretty cool new content that helps flesh out the adventure further: there are Monster Medals for every beast in the game that randomly drop when you defeat them, there's the Mini-Medal quest (which was originally in Dragon Warrior IV), there're Pachisi/Treasures 'n' Trapdoors boards (which originally were in Dragon Quest V), and there's even a new class in the Thief, who's quite useful for finding hidden treasures and swiping goodies from foes. But the core of the quest and most of its streamlining were there from the beginning.
The world map's overall design hides a very clever secret that slowly reveals itself to players over the game!
The visuals are nice, another step up from the previous game and full of more creative monster designs than ever. The monsters carry over the animations from the Japan-only Super Famicom remake of DWIII, and they're pretty gorgeous in their own right. There's also the series' first appearance of the day/night cycle, meaning that there are recolored versions of most of the overworld visuals, along with the usual gameplay features--harder enemies and different dialogue at night. The music is one of the game's stronger points, full of great tunes from start to finish, and even some neat renditions of classic songs.
That said, there are two gameplay issues that stick out a bit. The first is that a few too many of the dungeon areas gravitate towards the unpleasant "maze" design that plagued some NES RPGs. A handful of areas will be laid out in monotonous, confusing hallways, with some even repeating upon themselves indefinitely (think Zelda 1's Lost Woods) for no real reason. Attempting to figure out a dungeon can be very enjoyable in a challenging way, but whenever there's no real indication that you're going the right way or just circling back on yourself (thanks to a lack of landmarks), it's all simply too confusing. Particularly when you factor in frequent random battles. The other issue is that offensive magic starts to feel very obsolete towards the end of the game. DWIII starts getting extremely stingy with spells actually hitting their targets late in the game, so I inevitably gravitated towards hitting foes with my multi-hit tools like Whips and Boomerangs (new to the GBC version) and saved my resources for healing and the occasional buffs. It feels a bit unbalanced, probably due to the somewhat-overpowered weapons, and it makes many of the late-game battles devolve into just picking Fight a lot.
One of the new features in the GBC version--collecting Monster Medals as random drops.
All in all, however, this is a wonderfully impressive game that actually hits a great balance of innovation and modern amenities. Don't let its age scare you away; Dragon Warrior III is a must-play for any fan of the series, and can even best some of the later games in several areas. Just make sure you don't read up too much on it beforehand!
Great review! I have this game in my collection - I should get to it. It is something I've been meaning to do for a while. Maybe it'll be a good one to tackle over the course of the fall/winter seasons coming up.
So long as Pokémon Sun/Moon doesn't get in my way...