Retro Review: Dragon Warrior IV (NES)

Dragon Warrior III basically perfected the gameplay of the series, so Enix wisely decided to try some new things with Dragon Warrior IV. As is often the case with new ideas, some were successful, and some less so.

First and foremost (the subtitle of the game is “Chapters of the Chosen”) is the chapter system the game uses. Story-wise, this is great. You spend four chapters introducing the characters that will eventually team up with the prophesized hero, establishing their character and motivations. Each has a strong connection to the plot and at least some justification to why they would join the hero. And the stories told in these chapters are quite good on their own: related to the overall story, but generally pretty self-contained.

The downside of the chapter system is that you need to level characters up from level 1 without help four times. RPGs are often fairly boring in the early going, since the numbers are small and you have few abilities. DW4 does as well as you can with the situation, with a wide variety of low-level monsters between the chapters, but it still turns into a bit of a slog in the long run.

This is the first game in the series to have actually named characters, and they do a good job of filling in the roles of DW3’s classes. The basic melee classes are each covered, but the wizard and pilgrim classes each have their abilities largely split between a pair of characters. Once you have the full party, and the ability to (in some locations) switch between party members during battles, this design really starts to shine.

As cool as the wagon and character switching are, they come with the AI system, another cool idea that doesn’t work so well in practice. Unlike later versions, you don’t have the option to directly control every character, meaning that in chapter 5 you only control the actions of the hero. The party AI isn’t bad for random fights, and it speeds up the game considerably when exploring or leveling, but your characters waste a lot of actions and MP trying to kill bosses with death spells or use other tactics that are doomed to fail. It’s even a problem in certain normal encounters where you need to focus on particular monsters first and your party just isn’t interested in doing so.

The story is one part of the game I have no significant criticism of. The chapter stories are cool, and in the final chapter you learn that the bad guys are just as aware of the prophesized hero as the good people of the world, and are acting against him or her. It’s a nice take on the hero legend which will carry forward into at least DQ5. They subvert the hero trope in a few non-obvious ways that I enjoyed, but I don’t want to get into spoilers.

The villain in particular is quite good. Unlike previous series villains, this one actually has motivations and they even build some sympathy for his point of view. Rather than the usual big bad priest who wants to destroy everything, we get a bad guy out for revenge and gathering his power similarly to how the hero is. The story leads to a satisfying conclusion that plays off your expectations based on the previous games’ tropes.

Finally, there’s the gameplay. Largely unchanged from DW3, aside from the AI system, the gameplay is solid throughout. However, the game does offer up a few too many dungeons in the late going, and I found myself questioning what to do at several points. In particular, there is a tough boss that I figured I’d have to defeat later (which I did), but the game offered no actual advice that that’s what I ought to do. Considering how hard the AI system makes bosses, I really have no idea what the game was intending for me to do, even in hindsight.

All in all, DW4 is a very good entry in a very good series. Enix could have rested on their laurels and just made another DW3, but they changed enough to make DW4 its own game. Not every change worked, but advancement is rarely strictly positive. I still prefer DW3 in general because it has less flaws, but DW4’s story is certainly the best in the series to this point.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Dragon Warrior III (NES)

Dragon Warrior suffered from a lack of content, and Dragon Warrior II suffered from a lack of balance. Dragon Warrior III suffers from no such issues, and really doesn’t have any major issues at all. This is a very solid, very long, and very satisfying RPG experience. The game is positively huge, yet well-conceived from end to end. The only complaint I can really come up with is that it is perhaps a bit too much – by the end I found myself thinking some earlier plot points had been in previous games because I had gone through them so long ago.

This is the game where the Dragon Warrior formula, at least as far as gameplay, was first perfected. You have the introduction of a class system that is simple yet satisfying and pretty well nuanced. For example, they added an openly useless class and actually gave a solid reason to play it. Indeed this is indicative of what’s so good about DW3: there’s a ton of stuff here, and all of it has a purpose.

Plot-wise, this is pretty basic stuff. The game actually teases a rehash of DW2’s endgame sequence before taking a very cool sharp left turn (And, unfortunately, something Nintendo Power spoiled for me more than 25 years ago.) But in the end, you’re still just tracking down some big bad by venturing through countless dungeons and collecting cool items. That’s kind of what this series is about, at least up until this point.

The first two Dragon Warrior games felt somewhat like the early Ultimas, and that feeling is even stronger in this game. The party system is reminiscent of Ultima III, and in many ways it’s a similar game except that DW3 is many, many times more dense. It’s mostly linear, though it does feature the requisite midgame “gather up all the mcguffins” quest line to mix things up a bit.

Unfortunately, saying more than that would probably venture into spoiler territory. But if you’re looking for an old-school, combat heavy, endurance RPG, you can certainly do worse than Dragon Warrior III. As I understand it, this is the point in the series where all the rumors about Japan making it illegal to release Dragon Quest games on weekdays (sadly not true) started, and I can see why. Maybe with some different timing and better marketing, Dragon Warrior/Quest could have been a thing in the US. Or perhaps the ‘gameplay RPG’ genre was just too well-covered by PCs here. In any case, I really enjoyed this game and would recommend it to any fans of the formula.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Dragon Warrior II (NES)

Dragon Warrior II was designed to correct its predecessor’s many flaws, and in that it does an excellent job. Unfortunately, it introduces a whole bunch of new problems as well.

Let’s start with the good. The vast majority of DW2 is fantastic, way ahead of its time upon its original 1987 release and frankly not bad for 1990 when it came here. Graphically and particularly with respect to artwork, this game looks quite nice and pushes the NES hardware pretty well. It does suffer from a very obviously tile-based overworld map, but makes up for it with huge and colorful monsters and lots of NPCs.

The biggest change in DW2 is that battles are no longer 1-on-1. You can recruit two other party members, giving you a fighter, a mage, and a hybrid character, and can fight against multiple monsters at once. Combat is far more strategic than it was in the original Dragon Warrior as a result, and the addition of some basic defense buffs and debuffs to the standard spell set from the original is a nice touch. For most of the game, you have a well-balanced party and the monsters offer a difficult but fair challenge.

The problem is, none of that is at all true during the end game. Like a Red Mage from the first Final Fantasy, your hybrid character becomes essentially worthless at the end of the game. He stops getting weapon upgrades and his mediocre spells will be resisted by monsters more often than not in the last few areas. Your full-time mage is a bit better, but her spells are also fairly likely to fail. In effect, your party becomes one fighter hitting single targets and two characters keeping him (and themselves) alive. And that could even work, but tons of monsters can disable characters with Sleep or even instant death spells later on. (There’s even a monster that casts an unresistable instant party wipe late in the game, because apparently the programmers hate gamers.) This is extremely frustrating, and it’s not hard in a fair way.

To add insult to injury, some of the later bosses (including the actual final bosses!) can heal themselves to full at will. I’ve been screwed by random numbers with one boss healing himself up a dozen times (I stopped counting at that point). The game is as forgiving about death as the first was, and the gold penalty is no big deal at that late juncture, but you will waste a lot of time to death. Beating the game basically requires you to avoid a series of potentially lethal die rolls.

On the other hand, this game’s grind is far more enjoyable than the first game’s. Good strategy can often get you past one or two really tough encounters if you run home and rest instead of pushing your luck, and the final area has a ton of ultra-hard encounters that give crazy experience along with a save point that fully restores your party from any state for free. You’ll probably die in half of these fights when you first get there, but you’ll progress shockingly fast nonetheless.

Up until the final series of dungeons, this game is a solid B+, peeking into A territory. But the endgame is brutal, unfair, unforgiving, and unfun. Enix would eventually figure out how to balance parties and monster groups, but even they’ve admitted they failed to do that in Dragon Warrior II. It’s too bad because this is otherwise a sprawling, open game that feels more like an old-school PC RPG than a modern JRPG, and that’s pretty great in my book.

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Dragon Warrior (NES)

Giving away the original Dragon Warrior was, perhaps, not Nintendo’s wisest move. I got my free copy and (eventually) beat it, but the game didn’t exactly make me run out and buy the sequels. Of course, upon its release in 1986, Dragon Quest was something new: a pretty good facsimile of a PC RPG on a gaming console. Things had changed significantly before we got Dragon Warrior in 1989.

The actual structure and mechanics of Dragon Warrior are actually quite solid. The game is hard, but buoyed by the fact that the penalty for death is limited to half of your gold. Losing money does make it hard to progress, since gear is so important, but if you keep at it you will eventually become strong enough to finish the game.

Dragon Warrior is also notable because its debuff spells actually work, a theme that would continue in the series. Sleep, for instance, is not only effective, it’s vital for extending the list of creatures you can challenge early in the game. Combat tends to differ greatly when you’re leveling vs. delving into a dungeon, because the game is primarily endurance-based. MP is important and cannot be recovered except in towns, and your strategy will revolve around this fact.

The problem with Dragon Warrior is that the game doesn’t have nearly enough events for its levels. You spend far too much time just grinding experience for the sake of doing so. This is particularly bad in the late game, where there are less than half a dozen plot events that are supposed to bridge the gap from level 13 to level 20 or so.

Having a game based on grind is one thing, but where Dragon Warrior truly fails is that its grind is poorly conceived. The hardest enemies in the game will give 100 experience at a point when completely trivial foes are giving 40, and the result is that the best way to level is without any challenge at all. Sure, you can take the time to go from your save point across half the world and try to get a few levels deeper into the Dragonlord’s castle, but the time spent going home and recovering once you run out of MP to heal greatly outweighs the gains in comparison to mindlessly grinding trivial enemies.

The unfortunate truth is that if you’re fighting challenging enemies in Dragon Warrior, you’re probably doing something wrong. It’s too bad, because the rest of the game isn’t bad. You explore, listen to townspeople for clues, and are basically left on your own to put everything together. There’s no linear plot here and it really does evoke the feel of early Ultima or other PC RPGs in many ways.

The series would immediately fix the major flaws of its first entry, but it was too late to save it in the States. Dragon Quest still hasn’t really caught on here, and may never do so. And for that, I blame Nintendo Power. (Not really.) (OK maybe a little.)

Review Score: C

Out With the New, In With the Old

Today the Final Fantasy XIV guide is officially retired.  I considered leaving it up as-is, but it’s already two patches behind and will only get further out of date. The reason for this is that I cancelled my account. While I still love a lot of FFXIV, the time investment requirements just keep increasing and it no longer seems worth it. Truth be told, I hate how much of my time MMOs monopolize so I’m kind of happy to have cut the cord.

With all that extra time, I’ve veered pretty hard into retro RPG territory. Playing Dragon Quest V made me go out and complete my collection of old Dragon Quest games, and I’m currently up to the third. I’ve even imported SFC copies of V and VI, because as I said, I’ve gone a bit crazy.

I’m not sure how much time I want to spend making Dragon Quest guides, but the original Dragon Warrior is actually quite sparse on information so it seemed fitting to at least make one. I don’t want to turn my back on Final Fantasy or anything, but right now I want to play new (to me) retro games, and I’ve played all the old FFs quite a bit.

So far, not having MMOs in my life has given me a lot more headspace to work on the site, so I’m hoping to crank a few guides out in the near future and fix up some lingering issues. I won’t make any promises, but it does feel good to be back in the swing of this crazy hobby of mine.

After Playing Dragon Quest V, I Think I Finally Get Dragon Quest

Like many others, I got a free copy of Dragon Warrior with Nintendo Power.  I (eventually) beat the game, but neither the gameplay nor the overall aesthetic really grabbed me.  I mostly tuned out the series until a glowing 1Up Review of DQV for DS convinced me to pick up that game and the others in the series.  I figured I’d play them in order, but never got past the second entry (on Gameboy Color).

Well, an episode of Axe of the Blood God finally convinced me to skip the intervening games and give Dragon Quest V a try.  I was hankering for an old-school RPG and the multi-generational story seemed very appealing.  I just finished the game and immediately decided to write this gushing blog post.

Dragon Quest V impressed me greatly in two very different ways.  First and foremost was the story.  It is exceedingly rare for me to actually play a video game RPG “in character,” and certainly not a Japanese RPG, but this was the exception.  This game builds strong personal connections with many characters, even beyond your wife and kids, and doesn’t waste time on irrelevant side quests and whatnot to take away from that.  I have a bunch of new entries in my list of most powerful RPG memories.

I played DQV specifically for the story, so I’m not too shocked that it lived up to expectations.  What I am rather shocked about is that this game made me not only understand but fully embrace and enjoy the Dragon Quest style of game.  It’s not at all like Final Fantasy, and I’ve always considered that a negative.  This time, though, I realized that they had somehow taken the spirit of really old-school RPGs (like Ultima III) and distilled it.

I’m the most at a loss to explain how not only did I not mind the game’s grindiness, but actually enjoyed it.  Maybe I’ve played too many MMOs and just having a grind with an end is that much more appealing.  However I think it’s the comfort in the knowledge that, sooner or later, you can get to where you need to be.  I could probably write a thesis paper about the subject of RPG grinding based on this game, but I’ll spare you.

The bottom line is, Dragon Quest V is incredible and if you haven’t played it, you should.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go give the Dragon Quest series another look.