Nowt like a bit of grinding to make you go all hard-headed


Dragon Quest (1986)

Now please believe me: I’d love to spend my days and nights playing only the very best games, the champagne titles, properly sinking 200 or more hours into your Witchers, your GTAs, your Breath of the Wilds, even your Saints Rows. Alas, I’m cursed to play games from all walks of life. I’ve got this first world problem of owning too many games consoles, which means that I’ve got access to a wide range of games, and that’s before you even get to emulators. So when you see that I’ve written a piece on the original Dragon Quest, AKA Dragon Warrior, I know you want to tut, roll your eyes and ask why I’ve bothered. Well, put it this way – at least you can press Back, or you can read on and be finished in a few minutes. Dragon Quest 1 took seven hours from me.

For a JRPG, 7 hours sounds like sweet Fanny Adams, but when you consider the amount of grinding that’s required, it’s a Sunday afternoon nap after a roast. Honestly, you may or may not have spent some of your teenage formative years grinding up against “yatties” (I’m told that’s what they’re called) on the dancefloor. That kind of grinding is enjoyable, and you get something out of it. It’s not a bit like Dragon Quest grinding, where you’re waiting for a buzz that never comes and what sounds exciting ain’t really exciting at all.

They call Dragon Quest the Star Wars of Japan. Well, I can’t really see anyone hitting The Phantom Menace up voluntarily, can you? You might have the pod-race, which is a bit of brainless fun, but that’s it. Dragon Quest I can be brainless fun, but only if you like grinding in its simplest form because there’s nowt else to get excited for. This is a severely antiquated game.

Or is it? You can play it entirely one-handed (steady now), just like EarthBound, so you can just keep your phone in your hand as you power through the workmanlike to-me-to-you combat. Now that’s a game built for the modern need. And the battles are almost the entire gameplay really, since the whole game flow sees you slaughtering a million monsters and waiting an aeon for your numbers to go up. Then you end up accidentally going in the wrong direction and your one party member ends up getting chiefed.

And that’s pretty devastating because if you do get blown away, it means you lose half your gold. They pulled that money-grabbing trick in Pokémon Red and Blue as well, but at least there was sod all to buy in those games, just more Pokéballs to throw at Zapdos. It wasn’t as if every penny in Pokémon counted towards vital weapons and armour.

Guess where all that does count? The arse-end of Dragon Quest I, that’s where. Honestly, the need for grinding in this game is almost beyond belief. Yet strangely you accept it, because you know it’s pretty much the first of its kind and so you have to go easy on it. You’d just look churlish if you raised the objectively correct opinion that battling a hundred, now astonishingly generic enemies before even getting a sniff of a level-up is just a little bit of a liberty.

After all, it’s not as if there’s even a compelling story to keep you going. The whole point of this game, when it came out, was to have you march towards alien locales and gleam some info from the townsfolk. This is intended to give you a few juicy hints to keep you going. Sounds quaint and all, and it’s more than the original Zelda game gave you. But why not just get an old GameFAQs guide on your side and consult that instead? It’ll spare you many a grindy hour of backtracking, believe me, and it means you’ll get to the end before that seven hour mark and crucially before your brain starts melting out of your skull and through your ears.

It’s just one-on-one out there on the overworld. There’s a small advantage here in that you don’t have to think about or look after a whole party. Of course, the flipside of this is that if you get hopped on by a few ruffian knights and suffer some bad luck then that’s half your wallet gone. And since the only real point of the game is to earn coinage to get better armour for your behind, one inopportune encounter can cost you a heap of time if your attacks miss and their spells (imaginatively titled HURT and indeed HURTMORE) whack you, one after another. I hate to advocate Save States, but they’ve always worked for me.

You do get sick of the slightly too loud swirling mote at the start of each battle. And there isn’t much else to do, beyond doing your level best not to die. It’s not like there’s sidequests or party members to talk to or even interesting townsfolk. Some of them are a bit Castlevania II with the nonsense they feed you, which is another reason to not go too hell-for-leather with this nostalgia trip and just stick to using a guide. No normal people actually use graph paper to help them through Metroid NES, and it’s the same here – you’d have to be mad, a regular feeder of ducks at the pond, to honestly want to engage the Dragon Quest NPCs in conversation.

Gosh, this is as basic as they come. I played the game on a fan-translated Super Famicom ROM, not exactly legally gotten but the Metal Slime police haven’t quite caught up to me yet. I figured that, for a stone-age game, it’s best to go as nouveau as you can. As another example, you’d have to be certifiably insane to want to play Final Fantasy 1 on the NES, but you just might get a bit of juice out of the Dawn of Souls GBA remake of FF1 and 2 instead. Actually, the most recent iteration of Dragon Quest I, and indeed the majority of the series, can now be found on mobile devices. But obviously I have some self-respect, so mobile wasn’t an option for me.

So it was the fan-trans, which unfortunately did mean I missed out on one of the defining aspects of the NES, United States release of Dragon Warrior – Ye Olde English dialogue. Let’s be honest, everything being thou, thy, art and thwittens gets pretty old after the first ten screens of dialogue. And I’m not even sure if the blunt message of “Thou art dead” when you run out of HP is twee or tragic, but it’s certainly memorable. 

Another reason not to play the NES original is that the command menu is so clunky and segmented in its programming. As you make your sprite wander rigidly around the world, you can interact with a few different objects – we’re talking some pretty complex contraptions such as doors, treasure chests etc. But they each have their own command when you wish to interact with them.

So you’ll call up a menu, again very similar to EarthBound (and I’m aware that me using EarthBound as a reference point for Dragon Quest is like me telling you to look at Spaceballs in order to understand Star Wars) and it’ll have individual commands like STAIRS, DOOR, and SELF-IMMOLATE. Try to use STAIRS in front of a door and guess what? Thou art a dunderhead. I get the feeling that the lads in charge didn’t even have the nous to just program in a catch-all CHECK command. We’re talking Lego brick computational power here.

You can probably tell by now that Dragon Quest I isn’t an altogether fun experience. But the pervading question is, is it worth playing regardless? And I’d say yes, just about, but make sure you know what you’re getting into. You can either try it for thirty minutes and possibly run away screaming, which is fine. Or you can see it right the way through to the end. But what you cannot do is give it a few hours, only to then give up. If you’re out there grinding, it doesn’t matter if it ain’t to your taste – you need to see that grind through to the end, and who knows what you might be rewarded with?

7 February 2020

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