When it comes to RPG games, there’s typically two different categories that tend to come to mind. Western-style RPGs and Japanese-style RPGs. Generally speaking, western RPGs are typically stat-heavy games that draw their inspiration from tabletop classics like Dungeons & Dragons. Good examples of western RPGs are games like Ultima and Wizardry. Recently, I posted reviews for The Bard’s Tale trilogy, a series of classic 80’s-era western RPGs. Today, I’m going to look at the other side of the coin; Japanese RPGs (or simply, JRPGs). These games are also rooted in classic tabletop fantasy, but with a slight Asian flair. If we’re being honest, when you dig into the gameplay itself you’ll find more similarities than not. The big difference between JRPGs and their western counterparts usually has less to do with gameplay and more to do with art-style. Western games tend to present things in a gritty, realistic fashion. Whereas JRPGs tend to be presented in a more “kawaii” anime style. This is certainly true for the game I’m about to discuss, Dragon Quest.
I know what you’re about to say. The picture of the box at the top of this review says “Dragon Warrior“. Well, you’re not wrong. When it was originally released in the US, Dragon Quest was rebranded under the name Dragon Warrior due to some complex copyright issues. These days, all of that is water under the bridge and the series is once again know by its proper name. Regardless, the original artwork still bears the Dragon Warrior title.
Dragon Quest is a classic top-down RPG published by Enix. It features a story about a young hero who must take up the mantle of his birthright and defeat the evil Dragonlord. To prove he is worthy of the quest, he must first set out on a mission to rescue the local princess from the clutches of a terrible dragon. During his journey, he recovers the heirlooms of his ancestor and finds the courage he needs to stand against the Dragonlord.
Dragon Quest was originally released on the Famicom in Japan and was an immediate hit. In fact, when you mention RPGs, Dragon Quest is one of the series that enters the mind of most Japanese gamers. Here in the US, Dragon Quest was also well received. But for one reason or another, it’s never quite caught on like it did in Japan. I suppose there are a number of reasons behind this. To start with, the game is pretty simplistic in its design. Unlike other popular JRPGs, there’s only one character to control. There’s no real choices to make when it comes to things like inventory or spell management. Weapons and armor or either better than what you already have, or they’re not. Magic spells are learned automatically as you level your character, and you never find yourself in a position of having to choose from one spell over another.
Inventory space in the game is very limited, which can sometimes be problematic. But there are NPCs scattered throughout the game that offer to store your valuables and gold to help alleviate this problem. This brings me to my next point, death. In Dragon Quest, when your character is defeated in combat, they are immediately resurrected but at the cost of half of the gold in their possession. For this reason, it’s important to take full advantage of the storage option the game provides. Gold kept in storage remains untouched whenever your character is defeated.
Whenever the character comes back to life, you always start back in the throne room of the King’s Castle. This is also the same location where the game begins. As you play through Dragon Quest, you’ll get used to visiting the king as speaking with him is actually the only way to save the game. Well, I guess that’s not exactly true… If you’re playing one of the modern releases of the game (which, more than likely you will be if you’re playing Dragon Quest today), you actually have the opportunity to create a single savestate at any time.
These days, the original NES version of the game is pretty hard to come by. And unlike the Japanese market, there’s only a handful of re-releases available. Here in the west, Dragon Quest saw a limited re-release as part of the Dragon Warrior I and II collection for the Game Boy Color back in 2000. But aside from that, the only other remake of the game came in the form of a mobile phone version – until now.
Finally, at long last, a modern remaster of the game has been made available as a downloadable title on the Nintendo Switch. In truth, this release is really nothing but a tweaked version of the mobile remaster. But it’s an excellent update to the original game. This is the version I played through for this review, and despite a few random oddities (more on this later), it is the version of the game that I recommend.
Aside from being the only real modern release of the original game, I recommend the Switch version for a few other reasons. First of all, it’s the only release of the game to bear the proper name. Plus, it corrects many of the ridiculous censorship issues that plagued the original Dragon Warrior version. Yes, like so many other JRPGs, Dragon Quest was created with a different culture in mind. In Japan, certain types of innuendo that are considered mature here in the US are often looked at a childish and silly. So, when the game was first released for the NES, this sort of content was removed from the game completely. If you’ve read this site for any length of time, you know that I despise censorship. Thankfully, the Switch version includes an entirely new translation that restores all of the “questionable” content.
Speaking of localization and language, one element of Dragon Quest that helps it stand out from most other JRPGs is the use of Arthurian Old English. This is something that’s actually unique to the western release of the game, but at least in my opinion, it’s a welcome addition. It actually works quite well with game’s traditional “save the princess, slay the dragon, defeat the evil knight” storyline. A lot of people criticize Dragon Quest for having such a basic plot. But to me, the simplistic storyline, combined with the unique dialog and entry-level gameplay elements really gives the game a nice one-of-a-kind feel. It’s almost as if Dragon Quest is the perfect introduction for players interested in trying out JRPGs for the first time. All of the atmosphere is there, but without any of the overly complicated mechanics that so many RPGs these days tend to have.
This was actually my first time playing a Dragon Quest game. Of course, I knew about the series, but I never managed to sit down with the original back in the 80’s. These days, the game certainly feels a bit dated. But, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. I found it to be fun and colorful, without requiring too much of a mental investment. It’s not a game that everyone is going to enjoy. But for those of players who don’t mind older RPGs or who have a love for anime, Dragon Quest is worth a look.
Version Reviewed: Switch
Difficulty: Medium – The Switch version of Dragon Quest is a bit easier than the original release. This is mostly due to the new option to save the game at any time. But even so, the game itself isn’t a walk in the park. The difficulty in this game comes mostly from combat with tough monsters. Every time you explore a new area, expect the monsters to be a bit more difficult. As most RPG fans probably know, it’s easy enough to grind your way to higher levels. But it requires patience and dedication to stay ahead of the curve.
Story: I’m really torn on the storyline for this game. On the surface, the set up is about as basic as you can get for a fantasy game; mysterious hero, kidnapped princess, evil overlord. The whole background is made up of nothing but tropes. But at the same time, it’s done so blatantly that it comes across as “cute”. In some ways, it almost feels like the developers look at this game as the original fantasy story, something that has to be covered in order to move on to the story they really want to tell. Of course, I could be 100% wrong about this. I guess we’ll see as I play through the future installments in the series.
Originality: Storyline aside, even the other elements of Dragon Quest don’t feel particularly unique. I have the impression that Ultima was a huge inspiration behind this title. The overall look and feel of the game is very reminiscent to some of the earlier Ultima titles. And, I suppose that’s acceptable. To some extent, every game pays homage to what came before. One thing that really stands out about this game is the colorful cast of monsters. For example, slimes and golems have been staples of the fantasy gaming for years. But this game manages to take these classic monsters and put a quirky spin on them that feels new and unique.
Soundtrack: This is one of the shining points for the game. The music composition is amazing. The soundtrack for this game is masterfully written and a joy to listen to. This is especially true for the remastered version which features a fully symphonic score as opposed to classic chiptunes of the original NES release. The soundtrack does a fantastic job of setting the stage and giving Dragon Quest a regal and epic feel.
Fun: Players who enjoy retro RPGs or JRPGs in general are likely to find this game enjoyable. Modern RPG gamers may find this to be a bit antiquated. For me, I found Dragon Quest to be a very chill experience. It was something I could just kick back and play casually without having to invest too much mental capacity into it. I enjoyed my time with the game more than I expected.
Graphics: This game is famous for its art direction. The concept art was designed by Akira Toriyama, the artist responsible for Dragon Ball. This is seen in all of the promotional materials for the original Japanese release and it carries over into the game itself. The original 8-bit release looks pretty rough at times, even for an NES game. It’s not bad, but it certainly could have been better. The Switch release, is hands-down the best looking version of the game. Most of the monster art actually looks hand drawn in this version and the rest of the graphics are vibrant and colorful as well. The only aspect of the remaster that seems out of place is the main character himself. The character model just seems a little oversized and awkward looking in this version.
Playcontrol: No real complaints. This is a turn-based game that doesn’t rely too heavily of precise controls.
Downloadable Content: No.
Mature Content: Immature suggestive references.
Value: The remake is available on the Nintendo Switch shop for around $5.00. For this price, it’s well worth it. If you’re looking for an original NES copy, you’ll be paying collector’s prices.
Overall score (1-100): 80 – Dragon Quest is a great entry-level RPG. It has all of the atmosphere that a fantasy lover could want but with gameplay mechanics simple enough for beginners. Even though it’s labeled as a JRPG, it actually has a weird mixture of both eastern and western elements. That’s something that I find pretty interesting. It results in a game that’s really hard to peg down. At times it felt like nothing I ever played before. Then again, almost everything in this game felt old and familiar. The end result is really good game, that feels just a little out of place at time. Regardless, I enjoyed myself immensely with this title. I hate that I waited so long to explore the world of Dragon Quest.
Original System: NES
Available today on: Switch – (List updated as of Fall 2020)
Best Modern Experience: Switch – (As of Fall 2020)
Other Reviews In This Series:
Dragon Quest Swords – Dragon Quest Heroes – Dragon Quest Heroes II
Dragon Quest Builders – Dragon Quest Builders II