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

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