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Dragon Warrior Review Rewind

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On 01/31/2019 at 10:15 AM by Jamie Alston

This RPG is a real grind. No dragon your feet here.

While by no means a bad game, consider going with the mobile version for a smoother experience.

If there’s one thing I absolutely adore about Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest), it’s how much its subtle charms have influenced each sequel to come after it. There’s just something special about playing the latest game in the series (currently Dragon Quest XI) and still hearing the familiar sound cues of attacking an enemy, taking a hit, or the brief but satisfying victory chime and level-up fanfare. Additionally, the character designs by Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball creator and illustrator) give a visual continuity throughout each game. Without question, the Dragon Quest series has laid down some deep roots that all started here. But although it's a beloved first entry for nostalgic fans of the series, newcomers might not warm up to certain gameplay elements that would not be refined until much later.

You are the brave descendant of Erdrick- the legendary hero of Alefgard. Trouble brews when the big bad Dragonlord steals the Ball of Light from your kingdom, disrupting the peace it once enjoyed. He also locks King Lorik's daughter in a dungeon under heavy guard by- you guessed it- a dragon. As Erdrick's descendant, Lorik instructs you to bring his daughter back to the throne, defeat the Dragonlord, and take back the Ball of Light, thereby restoring peace and order to the land. All in a day’s work for our hero.

In a similar vein as The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Warrior encouraged exploration and discovery ahead of being told directly where to go and how to get there. Most of the locations on the overworld map are available from the start. The only thing that really dictates how far you can go is the types of enemies you'll run into while traversing the land. Of course, you’ll eventually need to have a special item to reach a crucial section of the map. But by that time, you'll definitely know where to go next.


Enemy encounters are always one-on-one in the first-person viewpoint.  The turn-based battle system is straightforward, with only a few commands to choose from (Fight, Spell, Item, and Run). There are no animations depicting the actions of enemies or your character. Instead, everything is narrated by text on the bottom portion of the battle screen. All dialog in the game is translated into Elizabethan English to give an “authentic” feel to the medieval setting. While personally, I don’t mind it much, others may find it to be a bit off-putting initially.

On occasion, you'll do critical damage to an enemy. There are also times when your attacks will miss the target. While not uncommon in most turn-based RPGs, it can be especially troublesome if you're fighting an enemy that’s evenly matched or moderately stronger than you. If you're ever fighting a star wyvern or a stone man with a slightly under-leved hero, the last thing you need is a missed hit, especially a critical one. It's easy to get killed if you don't carefully watch your HP, even after you've reached level 20 and beyond. Dragon Warrior has a thing for keeping players on their toes.

The spells are just as simple as using regular physical attacks. There’s only a small handful to learn with simple names like heal, hurt, and repel. Personally, I found the early heal/hurt abilities to be virtually useless after you encounter the more difficult enemies like werewolves, knights, and green dragons. The healing rate or damage your abilities can do usually doesn't compensate well enough for the damage dealt out to you on the next turn. Healing and damage spells don't become very useful until you learn "heal more" and Hurtmore. Unfortunately, the required skill levels needed to gain the more powerful spells were so wide that I often found myself struggling through more than half of the game before I finally became even remotely formidable.

But that isn't to say that you won't learn other types of abilities in the meantime. Two of my favorites are “outside” and “return.” Outside allows you to exit any cave or dungeon as long as you're not in the battle at the moment. I found it very useful when I've completed certain tasks and want to get back to the world map without having to fight monsters all over again. The "Return" ability is even better when you want to...well...return to your home castle to see the king, which you need to do to save your game.


Graphically, Dragon Warrior is simple but appreciable to the keen eye. The residential locations aren't all that interesting as far as finding things to do, items to discover, or people to chat with.  But that also means you won't be getting lost inside of huge towns or bogged down with numerous side quests from the townsfolk if you prefer to stick to the main quest currently underway. While there are no animated sequences in battles, the action is conveyed via sounds and brief flashes when using a spell.

Successful normal attacks make the standard *squeak* chime. You always know when your character is about to deliver a critical blow because you'll hear the weapon whirl up before hitting the enemy. It's particularly heartbreaking to hear that whirl-up sound, only to immediately miss the enemy. I swear this seemed to happen to me on far more occasions than it did to the monsters. While there’s not much complexity in the composition of the music, I did notice that in multi-leveled dungeons, the notes of the tune become slower and prolonged each time you descend further into the area. It’s a nice touch that gives an eerie cadence to your surroundings.

If you’re expecting to quickly level-up into the double digits, prepare to have your hopes dashed to pieces. Battles in Dragon Warrior are so tightfisted with the allotment of experience points and money that it makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like a philanthropist. With each new level you reach, the gap of required experience becomes significantly wider. While, yes, you’ll eventually be able to purchase armor and weapons that augment your stats, it’ll be quite a while before you can amass enough money to afford the good stuff. All of this was no doubt designed as padding for an otherwise short adventure.

As you progress onward fighting some of the tougher monsters in the world, they tend to be 2 or 3 levels stronger than you are, which can easily overwhelm you if you're unprepared for battle. And if you die, you'll wake up in the king's throne room with only half of your cash, which can be really frustrating if you just got finished fighting countless battles to save up money for equipment. On the bright side, you retain your current level and any additional experience points you had before kicking the bucket- a design element that would become a hallmark of the series.

Besides the hero's slow experience progression, the other glaring issue in Dragon Warrior is the unintuitive method of interacting with the environment. Talking to NPCs, climbing stairs, or entering doors each have individual commands that you have to select through the main menu for your character to perform that specific action. It would have been nice if such common actions were mapped to one of the controller's buttons or required only input from the directional pad. While you could argue that Dragon Warrior was released in the early days of JRPGs, other games like Final Fantasy and Zelda II (released in Japan before Dragon Warrior) had proven that such streamlined was not only possible but also worked very well.


The menu also has a "search" command necessary to find a couple of key objects that you'll need later in the game. The problem is that, beyond those particular items, you don't really need the search function. And besides that, those key items are located in places where the average person wouldn’t think to look (and not in that “good game design” kind of way). Sure, the townsfolk might give you a clue or two, but it's often too cryptic to really know what they're talking about. Due to this rather rudimentary style, it tends to impede your progress, which is very annoying.

Dragon Warrior had unique gameplay elements for its time; they just haven’t aged well in some key areas. In all fairness, it isn’t a product of bad game design. It’s more a victim of being outmoded by the improvements that refined the genre over the years. In the three decades that have passed since Dragon Warrior was originally released, one can’t realistically expect the robust experience you’d get in times recent. While the NES version is hard to recommend, there are other options.


If you’ve been curious about this game and want to give it a try, I recommend going with the mobile version on iOS and Android (search for “Dragon Quest”). It boasts a few refinements to smooth out some of the rougher edges of the original. Most notably, it awards more experience points and money per battle, minimizing time spent grinding. You’re also able to save anywhere on the world map instead of just at the castle. And the functionality is tweaked to allow your character to interact with doors and stairs without needing to navigate the menu to perform those simple actions. At $2.99, it’s the best way to experience the first game in the series.

To put it simply, Dragon Warrior is like the very first automobile- it's an important invention, but most would have a better time with something constructed in the 21st century.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

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Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.



Nick DiMola Director

02/01/2019 at 02:53 PM

Talk about a game I could not wrap my head around as a kid. This was the only RPG I owned on the NES and I was embarrassingly bad at it. I'd venture out of the town and just roam around until I died and couldn't understand that the point of the game was to become progressively stronger.

I should go back and play this again and see it through new eyes. Nice review!

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

02/01/2019 at 09:00 PM

Thanks Nick! Dragon Warrior was always a hard sell to American gamers at the time. I think what hurt it most was the 3 year gap between it debut in Japan and when we got it in the US. By 1989, most of us were at least somewhat familiar with games like Legend of Zelda which gave you that questy feel of an RPG without the rules of stats and heavy use of menus. It was such a streamlined experience that Dragon Warrior seemed too convolited by comparison. For us, it was Final Fantasy that eases more people into RPGs.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

02/01/2019 at 06:34 PM

Like Nick, this game was too much for me when I was a kid. I tried to get into it, I really did. Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I love the series now. Dragon Quest VIII was my favorite until XI came out last year, and I’ve also played some of the remakes of the SNES era ones. Great series. Great review. 

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

02/01/2019 at 10:46 PM

I actually can’t remembr how I became aware of Dragon Quest in the first place. Most likely it was when DQ VII came out on the PlayStation, though I still haven’t played it to this day. Also, I think the flood of video game websites that cropped up in the late 90s and beyond basically made it impossible for me not to know about the DQ series.

At any rate, I never played any DQ game in until around 2010 when I played Dragon Warrior for the first time. I personally enjoyed it.


02/01/2019 at 06:51 PM

I go back to this game every so often to see how far I can get. I know I respawn after a death but the deaths are so disappointing to me, and seem unfair, that I always stop after a particularly annoying death. The game encourages you to explore, and that's fun, but you inevitably stumble into an area where the monsters are too strong for you and you'd be very lucky to be allowed to run from an encounter. That just always burned me up.

I've been watching and reading DBZ lately and see the art style similarity to Dragon Quest. Akira Toryiama, I presume. I love his work. 

The iOS version sounds great. I wish it would come to modern consoles though. I like the big screen. Which reminds me, I have it on GBC and can play it on my GameCube Game Boy Player. That's a solution. 

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

02/01/2019 at 10:56 PM

Yeah, I found it annoying that your experience level doesn’t seem to mean jack when youre trying to flee a battle. Sometimes, you just don’t feel like fighting that monster that you knew would put your guy to sleep or use some other inconvenient debuff. Or maybe I just didnt feel like fight low level slimes. Even then, the game wouldn’t always allow you to flee.

If you have a PS4,I highly recommend DQ XI if you haven’t played it yet (or wait for the inevitable Switch port). It’s a nice throwback to previous DQ games including this one.


02/02/2019 at 10:30 PM

I hate when I get into an encounter and know right away I'm going to die, but can't run. So annoying. 

Oh man, I have DQ XI and played about a hour of it so far. I need to get back to it.


02/01/2019 at 08:22 PM

Jamie! Damn man, glad to hear from you. I died so many times through wandering in this game. It teaches you to be cautious,

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

02/01/2019 at 11:00 PM

Thanks man, it’s good to be back. I agree with you- this game had me spamming that “return” spell and saving like nobody’s business. I didn’t want to risk getting into an encounter and losing half my cash thanks some une sleep spell cast on me that I didn’t wake up from in time.

Cary Woodham

02/02/2019 at 09:28 AM

My friend had Dragon Warrior and I went over to his house to play it when we were kids, but I never felt compelled to buy it for myself.  Same goes for the first Final Fantasy game.  It wasn't until FF4 on the SNES that I got into RPGs fully.  To this day I still have a hard time breaking the habit of calling it Dragon Quest instead of Dragon Warrior.

When Pokemon first came out I was covering it for The Dallas Morning News, so I was reviewing any kind of Pokemon ripoff.  That included Dragon Warrior Monsters.  My brother Jeff LOVED it and after I reviewed it, he confiscated my copy of the game!

Last year I got Dragon Quest Builders for Christmas.  My brother Jeff also loves Minecraft and this is basically a mix of DQ and Minecraft, so he loved it, too.

My favorite Dragon Quest game is Rocket Slime on the DS.  Have you ever played that one?  Man it's so much fun.  I wish the 3DS sequel would've come out in the US.

I wish I had time to play more DQ games, but I'd have to cut work and sleep out of my life and that's not going to happen.  Can't play all the games out there, you know?

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

02/03/2019 at 05:46 PM

No, I've never played Rocket Slime, but I remember it got really good review almost universally! If I ever come across it for a good price, I'll pick it up. That game when I started noticing how much people love the Dragon Quest series.

Joaquim Mira Media Manager

02/06/2019 at 09:00 AM

I remember playing this game back then. I was playing it in tandem with my older brother. We got stuck midway through it, but eventually he figured it out, and had finished the game not too lon after that. It's quite the nostalgic game for me. The only other game I've played from this series is DQIX, and it just didn't connect with me.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

02/07/2019 at 08:14 AM

I have DQ IX on my docket to play at some point. But yeah, from what I've heard, it was a noticable departure from the gameplay elements of most other Dragon Quest games and fans weren't super happy with that.


02/09/2019 at 10:46 AM

Dragon Warrior was my first exposure to console RPGs, along with the NES version of Ultima III. Its reminded me a bit of Alternate Reality, an Atari 8-bit RPG, though that game was in first-person mode for exploring as well as fighting. I'm still a fan of the series.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

02/11/2019 at 09:24 AM

I just read up on Alternate Reality. I really like the idea of a multiple sequel series that would be interconnected and allowed to player to essentially move between games by entering cerain doors and changing the disk. It's too bad they only made two games from that idea.

Super Step Contributing Writer

02/26/2019 at 01:34 PM

From what I gathered from your review and the video included, this is my nightmare game ... but with really charming music and presentation. Dammit, JRPGs ... 

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