Dragon Quest [1986]

Let’s start in the middle, when most of the plot, such at is, revolves around some guy named Erdrick. Erdrick is presumably dead, but he casts a long shadow. The player character is, they are told in Edrick’s Cave, a descendant of Erdrick. A couple random townsfolk comment that they do not actually believe that the player character is. Finding Erdrick’s leftovers, like his armor or his sword, is a major boon and probably necessary for the average player, and the main thing you’re gonna be doing in the middle part of the game. The endgame, the main questline, is actively gatekept by a cranky old man in a cave who requires you to not only find two mystical artifacts representing the natural forces of rain and sunshine, but also Erdrick’s Token, an otherwise-useless item chucked into the middle of a swamp that only serves to, through some unexplained mechanism, prove that you are in fact Erdrick’s descendant. (This cranky old man is, themselves, the descendant of someone who Erdrick told to gatekeep this stuff.) Even when you win the game, the first congratulation you get from the King is that this truly finally proves you are Erdrick’s descendant. To Dragon Quest [1986], it’s just not enough to prove your worthiness through your deeds like rescuing the princess or finding mystic artifacts or slaying The Dragonlord. It’s equally important, if not moreso, that you prove your ancestral claim to greatness by birthright. It could be interpreted as more symbolic than all that, that your claim is to being a spiritual descendant, but there’s no suggestion to that effect in this game. In either case, you can never surpass Erdrick, only potentially become his equal.

Chosen-one-bloodline narratives, like the rightful-king narrative, is a stock fantasy cliche with troubling implications that is often put into some pulpy jumble pretty thoughtlessly, and so it is here. Yet it strikes me still as odd. The past is treated with such reverence, but Dragon Quest is the beginning of its series: it has no past glories to live up to, no previous game where Erdrick is the main character.

The glorious past is not found within Dragon Quest itself. It processes an acute anxiety of influence. Erdrick is Ultima 4 [1985].

Edge – Daughter Of Moonstone [1986]

Like, it’s not even subtle. It’s right up front. When you start the game, there’s this king sitting in their throne room that, as in Ultima 4, you revive at with less money every time you die. Downstairs from that is their castle, which has square castle turrets shaped tile-for-tile exactly like Ultima 4’s castle turrets and a secret but progression-vital staircase hidden along the very edge of the map, like in Ultima 4. The castle has a treasury where the treasure chests are laid out diagonally going from up-left to down-right, like the one in Ultima 4, which can also be exploited for infinite money like in Ultima 4, though doing that either takes more work for less profit or a glitch. Amusingly, because Dragon Quest actually has no morality system nor even a way for guards to attack you, the most it can summon up is a perfunctory guard who hangs out in the treasury and weakly tells you that stealing is wrong. Dragon Quest also has, in its Ultima-style open “overworld”, its own town that lays in crumbling ruins, though without the skeletons making puns nor any moral value or even I believe explanation for its destruction.

The list goes on, this game really really wears its influence on its sleeve. Some things on that list are “generic fantasy RPG stuff”, things that Dragon Quest certainly played its part making generic: its chained fetch quests for artifacts, its bustling towns where you’re never sure what the citizens are going to say next, its wilderness full of monsters taking over immediately outside of the town, et cetera, which I only feel circumstantially confident are inspired specifically by Ultima 4, because… what other RPG with that stuff would designers Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura have been familiar with? There weren’t a lot of readily-available hardcore undiluted RPGs in Japan at the time, and by Yuji Horii’s own testimony he had to literally leave the country to discover Wizardry 1 (just ported to Macintosh and translated to Japanese that year) and Ultima (presumably 4, just ported to Apple II) at the 1985 MacWorld expo. They’d find out about Rogue [1980] only later on and make Mystery Dungeon [1993] in response. The Black Onyx [1984] is a reasonable possibility to speculate, but other than having an NPC-strewn town, it’s essentially redundant with Wizardry.

Oddly, I’ve always seen the Wizardry influence most referenced when talking about Dragon Quest and the “JRPG” in general. It’s definitely there, but it’s way less obvious, though you probably spend more time with the Wizardry stuff than the Ultima stuff. They’re Dragon Quest’s mom and dad. Wizardry is largely responsible for the mechanical systems here, like its scuba-diver tethering rhythm, where you can only go so far from the starting location before having to loop back to refresh your resources, and as you level up and get more resources, these loops get longer and longer. Or battles coming up randomly but their difficulty depending mainly upon your physical location instead of scaling to your level, and then also how each battle is a menu of options where 95% of the time you’re just mashing “Fight” over and over and over. What qualifies as strategy in this game is putting enemies to sleep or preventing them from putting you to sleep. A better sword or more experience can function kinda like an adventure game’s key that lets you unlock a new area, but progressing over the invisible lines into area where the random encounters trend harder is… spongier. You might luck out and get less-frequent enemies that are easier to handle, or you might get unlucky and get put to sleep and killed without being able to do anything about it.

It’s just as tedious as it was in Wizardry, but it’s nowhere like as brutal. I think my idea of covering Wizardry so that I ran up against my distaste for this kinda menu-battling gameplay early as an inoculation worked better than I expected, because if I hadn’t run into it there I would have run into it here and instead Dragon Quest just looks good in comparison to the most miserable game I’ve ever played. Weirdly, I can feel already that I’m going to end up some oddly strong semi-purist opinions on what qualifies as “an RPG” for someone who doesn’t really like RPGs at a baseline. Like, I’ve already wound up with a couple comments insisting that The Legend Of Zelda [1986] is indeed an RPG (I can see the reasoning but can’t believe in it,) and I’m likely to end up in camp “JRPG is not a genre” based on how internationally intertwined the RPG is and how diverse the RPG is in Japan, though we’ll see. Certainly this game, often cited as the first JRPG, doesn’t yet feel to me like it could be a meaningful beginning of anything!

One big regional difference is that all the American RPGs yet covered by me were attempts to translate Dungeons And Dragons [1974-present] to the computer. But Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura do not have direct reference to D&D. This game is a second-generation attempt to translate computer RPGs to the console. Consoles digesting computer games has been and will continue to be fertile ground for creative synthesis, but Dragon Quest is more iterative than The Legend Of Zelda or the team’s earlier attempt at an adventure game, Portopia Serial Murder Case [1983/85], from which Dragon Quest imports its menu system. Dragon Quest, as is traditional for console gaming, ends up significantly streamlining these computer games for a number of reasons, from the technical constraints of the NES like its two-button controller, to a stated design goal to make something easier and more palatable to a mass audience, to the lack of sentimental attachment to maximalist cruft, like how Ultima 4 deliberately and pridefully used every single key on the keyboard.

Two prime examples: First, the summary elimination of the fiction of groups. The real point of having an adventuring party is that tabletop gaming is a communal activity first and foremost, a fun reason to hang out with your buds. Like, it’s literally called a “party.” Until the world wide web comes along, this is pretty hard to translate to digital games, and yet the party structure remains even when a game like Ultima 4 has an obvious main protagonist character. Eventually this idea of a party will mutate and be put to different ends, like characterization, but presently, extra members of your party are simply extra limbs. Dragon Quest simply gives you one character who is capable of doing everything that would normally be divvied up throughout a balanced party, and likewise has you face off against one enemy at a time. (It’s very easy to see how you get from here to Pokemon Red [1996]: already, what I would say is actually the principal attraction of Dragon Quest is the interesting and varied cartoons of monsters, and its hammer-on-“Fight” battle system cries out for something more baroque.)

Second, Wizardry restricts how many spells with their own levels that you can cast per the character’s level, such that you functionally have multiple independent sets of Magic Points, while Ultima 4 has one universal pool of MP but also separate pools of reagents that have to be purchased and maintained. Dragon Quest correctly identifies both of these as unnecessarily convoluted and redundant, and instead has one universal pool of MP and spells that unlock by character level where higher-level spells cost more MP to cast. MP can only be restored at inns, with the one in the starting area being 6 gold and the price increasing as you venture further out into its open world, meaning that its tethering rhythm can be adjusted to have a different point to which you tether though it’s often preferable to make the trek all the way back to save on coin. MP ends up being the fundamental constraint, period. It’s a simple, linear exchange: you transmute MP into additional Health Points, and then trade HP for money and Experience Points (XP) through battling.

I’ve seen this game frequently accused of being incredibly grind-heavy, and I don’t think that’s quite accurate. From the one perspective, the entire game is one long grind, because as in Wizardry, you simply have to get leveled up and strong enough with good enough gear collected to beat the game. I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint, but if we mean grinding in a very limited sense as in “deliberately walking back and forth over and over to get into fights because you need the gold/XP,” there’s certainly some, but this game is again far more gentle than Wizardry. Probably the poison pill that creates this perception is that the beginning of the game, the first 9 levels or so, like a solid two days’ shifts of playtime for me, really are just grinding and it puts its worst foot forward. Most charitably, this is an extremely protracted introduction to the core gameplay loop. This is why I had to start in the middle, the beginning is maximally dull and vacuous.

After level 10, though, I spent only about an hour and a half combined total deliberately picking fights. (“Only!”) The rate at which you randomly encounter fights is very, very high — often enough, I would take three steps and get into three fights in a row. So if I traveled a significant distance across the map, I’d customarily rack up like a thousand XP and gold or more just as an incidental matter without even trying or taking any damage worth worrying about. Because of its scavenger-hunt structure imported from Ultima 4, where I had to figure out unmarked special locations where progression-gating things were buried based on directions from NPCs, I spent just about enough of the game crossing almost the entire span of the game map back and forth trying to collect items or just figure out what to do, leveling up without that being a conscious focus so it didn’t feel like a grind. If I did know what to do, if I had relied on a walkthrough, there’s no doubt that the pacing certainly would have broken down and I’d have had to grind to make up for it.

The other trick it uses for pacing is that its penalty for dying is much lighter than Wizardry’s, where dying is pretty permanent and can just mean flat out starting all over again, and it’s similar to Ultima 4’s, which also revives you in the throne room in the event of total dealth, but takes away all your gold and every item that was not equipped (or, if I recall correctly, quest-vital.) In both cases, dying is a dire failure, something to be avoided as much as possible. In Dragon Quest, dying costs half of your gold, and that’s it. If money isn’t important to you at the time, or even if it’s just not a deficit that’s going to take very long to recover from, it’s just a free recharge and teleport to the starting area. Dying and trying again becomes a key part of its rhythm: you enter into a difficult area that you know you need to get through, but you’re underleveled so you eke out a couple of victories but then get wiped across the floor like a ragmop, but then you walk back and try it again, and again, usually a little stronger each time and thus able to get a little further and get more XP each time.

Where this rhythm is most acute and well-executed is the labyrinthine final boss dungeon. I entered at about level 16 and couldn’t get very far, in part because I could only just scrape through battles and in part because it was a complicated web of stairways to figure out the correct route through. Every time I made a run at it, I got a little bit farther, until I was dying on the bottom floor. The bottom floor is fun because it’s a deliberate architectural mirror of the starting castle, but warped and wrong, with round but progressively lopsided and oblong turrets instead of regular square ones. And also a cartoon heart drawn into the map, complete with two ventricles, one of which pushes you through a one-tile flap, which is striking though symbolically detached from everything else. I think someone just had some fun doing that. Eventually, I was dying to The Dragonlord himself, again in part to being too underleveled and in part to not knowing the proper route through.

Oh, that’s the basic story premise, by the by: As in Wizardry or the earlier Ultimas, you’re on a quest to kill a powerful, evil wizard, and (as in the collected works of Shigeru Miyamoto) rescue the princess. It’s only towards the end that this basic story distinguishes itself in anyway, again seemingly just as fun for the designers. It’s actually technically optional to rescue the princess at all, although this makes finding Erdrick’s Token much harder and leaving her to rot in her dungeon cell goes unacknowledged except by the final scene not having her there demanding you marry her. That’s one of the two times you’re caught in a dialog with her and she requests that you do something, and if you tell her no, you are famously told “But thou must!” and sent back to choose between Yes or No again and again, badgered until you choose Yes. I’ve seen this made fun of before, which is odd because it’s clearly already a joke, and a funny one. This is a Role-Playing Game, and damn it, you’re going to play the role.

The nose-tweaking of the limits of video game choice also comes up with The Dragonlord, in one of the most striking and bold things in the game. He gives you the boilerplate villain monologue that you should join him, rule beside him, and if you say yes, even he’s thrown off by it and drops the Ye Olde Time speech to just say “Really?” And if you say yes again, he tells you that half of the world is yours, and then quotes the other king verbatim about saving and loading your game just to underline the mirrored nature of the monarchs and to further tweak the fiction and artifice of video gaming. It’s then implied that he betrays you, but he also just might be laughing, and your game freezes necessitating you turn the power off to quit, or in Japanese he gives you a booby-trapped password — either way, demonstrating his might by transcending the confines of fiction and screwing with the game itself. It’s electric. It’s fresh.

Like dying, this isn’t really a failure state. It’s entertaining, you hopefully have a workable save to go back to. It’s not a judgement of the player’s performance or some sort of hint, it’s a perverse alternate ending that is simply there for the reading, for the fun of reading it, that has to be willfully and consciously chosen by the curious player. I don’t know if that’s precedented before now! It’s not impossible: if you can think of an earlier example (maybe in a text adventure?) do tell me. It definitely becomes part of the toolkit of video gaming from now on.

Likewise, I’m also not sure to what extent its good ending is precedented. After you defeat The Dragonlord, you get a playable epilogue where there are no monsters left to fight and you can just wander around a world where all the NPCs say anymore is “Hurrah! Hurrah! Long live ${your_name_here}!” It’s a “post-game.” Again, definitely something that’s prevalent later but I’m not sure if it’s been done before. It would have been a natural fit for A Mind Forever Voyaging [1985] where the entire point of the game is retreading the same ground and seeing how things have changed, but instead you get a kind of playable epilogue where you get a helicopter’s-eye view of the town, presumably for space constraint and/or pacing reasons.

Then you get back to the king, and it’s just a series of things that are at once generic fantasy stuff and bizarre if you dwell on it for like a second. There’s the Erdrick emphasis again, then the king says it’s your right to rule over this land ala King’s Quest [1984] but without any explicit reasoning, then even stranger, your protagonist says that if they’re to rule a country it must be one they themselves find! It’s a lot of careless right-wing ideology in a very tight package, bloodline stuff right into an unspecified hazy mix of Divine Right and meritocracy right into Terra Nullis stuff. Disquieting, really.

If you think I should have called it Dragon Warrior instead, here’s a New Game Plus mode of this post for you! The password is “Edrick.” [sic]

8 thoughts on “Dragon Quest [1986]

  1. I have a hard time sufficiently distancing myself from a few nostalgic moments (which you mention!) in DQ1 so that I can say something critically insightful. It was one of the games I bought thanks to a writeup in Nintendo Power.

    I played Ultima III on my C64, but by the time Ultima IV rolled out, I was spending all my money on Infocom and NES games. Between Birthdays, Christmas, and the occasional good report card (I was a troubled child). there was room for maybe 4 or 5 games max. I could see the U3 influence at the time, though it would be many years before I played Wizardry or its successors.

    I recall grinding a lot of skeletons and gold men for money–there were some pinch points for money in particular.

    I remember DQ1 best for its jokes and moments of weird conversation–this would become a beloved (or annoying for “no fun allowed” types) feature of the series.

    In Japan, Final Fantasy came out the next year, and it’s hard not to see it as a (successful) attempt to iterate upon and complicate the the systems of DQ1 (or better mimic Ultima and Wizardry).

    For a while, each Dragon Quest was better than its predecessor, and I think the series really hit its stride, narratively and mechanically, with DQIV, which married the series’ troubling interest in blood and destiny with colorful party members, a casino, and a multithreaded narrative.

    Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a love letter to the series, and I enjoyed it despite some problematic stuff.

    Of course, my love of the DQ series would later be complicated by the knowledge that series composer Koichi Sugiyama was a war crime apologist and nationalist who abused his wealth, prestige, and platform to advance such causes. I was glad–and I do not say this lightly–to hear of his death last year.

    Can I ask about the PW-protected post?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought that password-protecting a post would make it so it didn’t show in-line with the normal posts. I would have done something about it earlier but I’ve been at work today. It’s just a joke post where I changed all the instances of “Dragon Quest” to “Dragon Warrior” and “Ultima 4” to “Ultima IV”.

      I knew that about Suigyama, but every way I could think of to put it in the post itself felt trite and trivializing.


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