In 1990, I received a surprise copy of Dragon Warrior in the mail. It was a bonus for subscribing to Nintendo Power - every subscriber got a free copy of the game along with a complimentary ‘Explorer’s Handbook,’ laden with hand-drawn artwork, a comprehensive enemies list, and a map to all weapons and items (sold and hidden). It was an impressive package - a gift that none of us asked for or were expecting.
At first glance, Dragon Warrior didn’t seem like my type of game. When I was eight, the definition of a ‘proper’ game was a narrow one - if I wasn’t stomping on heads or killing baddies, I was bored. Then, this mysterious game arrived in the mail, with a fighting system based not on reflexes, but on choice and strategy. I played it for a bit, and the further I progressed, the cooler my character became. I learned spells. Gained weapons. Explored dungeons. Slayed dragons. Slept in Inns.
For many of us 90’s kids, Dragon Warrior was one of the first exposures to the role-playing genre - popular in Japan, but virtually unknown in the States. Minoru Arakawa, the President of Nintendo of America at the time, saw Japanese RPGs as untapped potential. Arakawa encouraged gimmicks such the Nintendo Power giveaway, which allowed a stubborn, American audience to play an RPG with no strings attached. It was a gamble, but for me and thousands of other kids, it was a watershed moment. Final Fantasy. Shining Force. Chrono Trigger. Kingdom Hearts. Ni No Kuni. We’ve played them all, and they can all trace their lineage back to Dragon Warrior, the first RPG craze to hit American shores.
The first task in the game was to leave the Throne Room, which provided a basic tutorial for the game’s principal mechanics. All actions were done through a menu interface - the most popular of these actions was ‘Talk,’ which allowed your Hero to converse with King Loric and the other characters in the game. ‘Talking’ became essential - villagers would offer hints and valuable information, such as how to defeat the Golem, or how to find an enchanted suit of armor.
For now, however, you got to learn the tragic backstory of the Alfegard Kingdom. The game’s usage of Elizabethan dialect was a particularly cute touch - an overload of ‘thous’ and ‘thees’ that lent an ancient grandness to these 8-bit proceedings.
So once you were finished talking to the King and his guards, you used the ‘Take’ action to open the Treasure Chests. Then, you used the ‘Door’ action to get out of the Throne Room (which you wasted your only Key to unlock). And finally, you used the ‘Stairs’ action to leave the area and explore the rest of the Castle. Thankfully, no other area in the game was this irritating or anally specific.
Eventually, you made your way over to the nearest Town, and unless you planned on beating dragons to death with your bare hands, it was time to get equipped. Here, the game provided you with an intriguing choice. You had enough gold to buy armor and a weapon, but not enough to buy the best of both types. So, did you buy the Leather Armor and the Bamboo Pole? Or, did you buy the Clothes and the Club? I always went for the latter- I figured that if I could kill my enemies quickly, I wouldn’t have to worry about their retaliation.
Okay. See this next screen?
This was the Fight interface, and whenever you explored beyond Towns, you were at risk for enemy attacks. These interactive fights were turn-based - first, you would attack, and second, your enemy would attack. Sometimes, randomly, your opponent would attack you before you were ready. It happened rarely, but when it did, it always felt violating, like a random, swift kick to the balls.
The ‘Fight’ option would swing your Melee weapon. You also had the option of using a ‘Spell’ - as you leveled up by gaining Experience points, you learned both offensive and defensive spells. ‘Heal,’ which you learned at Level 3, restored a portion of your Hit Points. ‘Hurt,’ which you learned at Level 4, shot small fireballs at your opponents. ‘Sleep’ which you learned at Level 7, could completely incapacitate certain enemies. The ‘Sleep’ spell, however, didn’t work on everyone, and so every time you tried it, you risked losing a turn.
The ‘Items’ Menu offered the use of collected assists, such as Herbs, to strengthen oneself in a fight. And last, but not least, was my favorite - the ‘Run’ option. When your health was low, your magic was depleted, and a massive Knight with a Battle Axe was coming after you, the best option was to run like hell. You just prayed the enemy was too slow to catch you.
Dragon Warrior did a wonderful job of slowly ramping up its difficulty. You had quests and objectives, but they were not contextual or time sensitive. You could stay near Tatangel Castle and kill Slimes all day if you wanted to.
Pretty soon, however, that got repetitive. You, not the game, make the choice to test your limits and explore beyond the safety of home. The game used bridges as warning signs - once you crossed a bridge into another area, scarier, stronger monsters awaited you. You paid dearly for crossing too early (half your Gold if you died!), but eventually, you were able to defeat those stronger enemies. And so, you pushed onwards - to the next bridge, and the next bridge, and the next great challenge. But again, only when you felt comfortable.
That subtlety - of allowing the player to cut the cord rather than forcing him or her to advance - gave this game depth and figurative meaning. We started as mere boys, beating Drakees and Slimes with our Clubs, but we became grown men, Silver Shields against our chests, by the time we reached the Dragonlord.
What a wonderful metaphor for life and growing up. Once homesick, we strayed further from the familiar. Once weak, we gained strength and experience. Once fearful of small enemies, we moved to conquer larger ones.
And, hopefully, we hooked up with a Princess at the end of it all.