Sunday, October 30, 2016

Worldly Weekend: Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior) (NES) 

Yet again we're faced with another NES box art malady. While the box art for Dragon Warrior is hardly as offensive as Mega Man's, it submitted to the all-too-common illusion of making the game seem "cooler" than it actually was (which, to be fair, was present in Japan as well). Whereas the American cover portrays a generic medieval fantasy, the Japanese artwork portrays a more colorful, light-hearted affair.

As it should; after all, it was done by none other than Dragon Ball's Akira Toriyama, whose 80's trademarks of cute, squat protagonists and fleshy, rotund beasts would set the tone for the series (it's no coincidence the dragon is cuddlier than your average Final Fantasy monster: the same would echo across the game's variety of enemies, not the least of which is the famous Slime).

And note the difference in name, too: Dragon Quest became Dragon Warrior for US release. The cause may not be as immediately apparent as that of Rock Man to Mega Man, as a pen-and-paper RPG of the same name held the "Dragon Quest" name. The word "Warrior" also undoubtedly appealed to American boys more than "Quest," and so the series was dubbed as such here until 2005's Dragon Quest VIII.

Just as it does with box art, Leave Luck to Heaven represents games with their American names whenever possible. But as developer Enix (or should I say Square-Enix?) went to the trouble of retconning the Dragon Warrior name, so shall I for the reviews.

At any rate, it's well-known Dragon Quest became a phenomenon in Japan, providing the building blocks for Japanese RPGs: medieval worlds of fantasy, spells obtained upon leveling up, and a hero whose name is up to the player. Such success was not repeated in America, as its late release paved the way for its niche status over here. A 1986 RPG revolving around antiquated menus/commands would hardly light sales-charts in 1989, and while a Nintendo Power subscriber giveaway proved successful, said giveaway was initiated only to empty unsold stock.

Unfortunate, but at least we got an improved product out of it. Much of it boiled down to player convenience; for instance, no longer did the save system rely on tedious passwords, but a battery-pack save. The Famicom menu was far too cumbersome in that you had to choose the direction of the Talk command, but here it's just a simple selection. Even the graphics were adjusted across the board, as NPCs and even the hero himself are now applied directional animations. (Speaking of which, I highly recommend clicking here to witness the Japanese version's unintentional hilarity courtesy of the hero's groovin' trot. Nothing quite like 80's cringe!)

It was an ambitious undertaking directed by none other than the late Satoru Iwata, then a programming prodigy steadily rising within the ranks of HAL Laboratory. As the game that more or less forged what we know today as "JRPGs," playing Dragon Quest was something of a moving experience: to know a part of his legacy was being responsible for bringing what essentially jump-started an entire genre to our shores--and on top of all that, improving it--awakened a melancholic blend of gratitude on more than one occasion.

Alas, it's not enough to salvage the game from old age. It's vital to dispel any claims of mediocrity: Iwata's tweaks ensure Dragon Quest functions okay in a modern age, but an 80's menu-based RPG has much more going against it than the timeless likes of space-shooters and precision-based platformers.

Really, it's crazy just how much of this has to do with the game's overall pacing. There's not a whole lot of meat to Dragon Quest's campaign, so it relies on being one big grindfest from beginning to end. It's not an exaggeration to say over 80% of one's time will be spent fighting monsters, accumulating EXP and leveling up rather than embarking on swashbuckling adventures. Needless to say, tedium can settle rather quickly.

Other trappings of its age are hit or miss -- like other open-ended 80's games, the world of Alefgard is far from linear and expects players to follow vague NPC hints for progression; naturally, this results in players getting lost, and the frustration of unrelenting (not to mention random!) enemy encounters might discourage exploration. Thankfully, Alefgard isn't particularly big in comparison to future 8-bit RPGs (namely its NES sequels and the Final Fantasy games), so it's easy to memorize the lay of the land.

On the other hand, there's just no getting around the clunky menus. At best, they are what they are: an outdated element that falls into every 80's menu trap (can you say, no item stacking? Limited inventory space?), and yet Dragon Quest's execution is particularly archaic. Using commands to talk and search is clumsy enough, but for there to be one for using stairs? 

There's other minor annoyances: for one thing, having NPC villagers walk around towns is a novel 8-bit touch, but it's not so "novel" when they decide to block exits and store counters. This is something hardly exclusive to Dragon Quest, mind you; after all, it's another piece of retro baggage, yet I still found myself shaking my fist at those who dared blocked my inn stops. ("I'm only at 5 HP, dammit! I'm gonna die!")

It's a good thing then that the game's world is so charming. Dragon Quest's localization took the liberty of injecting the script with Elizabethan-styled dialogue, with characters speaking like "Take now whatever thou may find in these treasure chests to aide thee in thy quest" or "Thou hast been promoted to the next level." Before playing, I was immediately apprehensive: wouldn't such an embellishment smother the script with stuffy language, particularly since Dragon Quest games are known for their witty dialogue?

I was surprised to witness that wasn't actually the case. Not only was the script relatively free of errors (a rarity in an era ripe of mistranslations and typos), but such a direction was rather fresh compared to the the dry, passive scripts commonly found in localized RPGs of the time. It's still a direction cheesy enough that I wouldn't want touching a modern localization, but within the context of those equally-cheesy 80's, it somehow fits like a glove.

Speaking of localization, most of the aforementioned graphic changes are for the best; truth be told, not only do the new sprites hue closer to the round, squishy citizens commonly found in 8-bit RPGs, but the Japanese version's NPCs look like what an ill-fated Americanized version would attempt to render it "cooler".

Really, the only aesthetic misstep is the infinitely bland title screen, which doesn't have a patch on iconic Japanese logo. Just look at all that wasted gray space!

But no amount of box art or title screen changes can stop Akira Toriyama's art from shining through. While mainly reserved for the monster designs, creatures like the Slime, Drake and the tongue-protruding, witch hat- wearing Ghost instantly captivate our hearts, whereas we immediately want nothing to do with the Axe Knights, Golems and Werewolves that cross our paths. Not that the hero should underestimate every cute enemy he comes across, mind, but Toriyama's design ensures the enemy hierarchy of power is instantly apparent.

Such moments even extent to the simple story: the rescue of Princess Gwaelin triggers an "aww" moment of the most triumphant kind -- the hero's overworld sprite carrying the princess bridal-style back to her castle. Director Yuji Horii's first attempt at an "emotionally involved" system might be rather barebones today, but that it elicits such emotions thirty years later speaks of fine craftsmenship.

And let's not forget the music by the legendary Kochi Sugiyama which...which...look, I'm sorry, but I can't avoid the elephant in the room. As much as Mr.  Sugiyama is a talented composer, as much as he's contributed to the success and awareness of video game music, he's also kind of a terrible human being. Yes, the very first champion of game music is not just a history revisionist; he's a hardcore nationalist who regularly funds and participates in organizations that fuel such conspiracies.

Having grown up with Dragon Warrior Monsters and only just recently diving into the main series, this was immensely disappointing to learn. That his politics are removed from what is ultimately a playful, light-hearted series is a blessing we can all be thankful for, but knowing that his Dragon Quest proceeds go directly to history-revisionist foundations that suppress elderly rape survivors does not weigh easily on my conscience. While I will continue applauding his efforts in future Dragon Quest reviews, I won't be so neglectful in mentioning his misdeeds.

But since I've already called it out, what is effective about Dragon Quest's score? There's simply no going about reviewing Dragon Quest music without diving into the main theme, which makes its first appearance here. A bright, celebratory march that greets us at the title screen, we're up and ready to enter the game's world upon the first note.

Naturally, Sugiyama's legacy as a classical conductor dwells within every one of his compositions, but it's most apparent in the above battle theme. Creeping and slow, it recalls to mind that of a stalking menace lurking behind us. Just look at how well it translates into orchestra!

The cave theme also engages in, to my knowledge, one of the earlier experimental themes for NES/Famicom. Ignore how the above video is probably two minutes too long and click on the playlist button; see how there's eight different versions? In the game's final dungeon, the song gradually lowers in tempo as you descend deeper and deeper, echoing the apprehension before taking on the Dragonlord. How's that for scaring your pants off?

But as iconic as the main theme is, my favorite track lies in the overworld theme: Unknown World. As Dragon Quest highlights a solitary journey, it's only fitting that its world echoes a theme of loneliness. Laced with uncertainty, that we're left to discover what the game's world holds makes for a palpable effect.

Much like the game itself, actually. While not without its mishaps, Dragon Quest braved new waters for the sake of one goal: to distill the complicated RPG genre for a widespread audience. This could not just be done by simplifying the system; with Dragon Quest's hero being tied to the player's identity, we become invested easily, and so we're willing to leap over any hurdles involving clunky menus and uncertain progression.

Such an admirable achievement became the ever-improved fabric of the series going forward, but its heart still beats within its first effort. It's a relic, but a functioning relic: its age doesn't stop it from being accessible, and that alone makes a quest worth embarking on.

No comments:

Post a Comment