This is the first entry to my Backlog Quest series.
The venerable Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest series has seen, at the time of writing, ten main series entries. It’s one of those franchises that has always been more popular in Japan than the United States, and has been a staple of otaku condescension for as long as I remember. Until recently, I only understood Dragon Quest as the more colorful, less brooding, and more Japanese-y counterpart to the Final Fantasy series (which is, of course, also from Japan).
A note on the name: In the US, these games were originally titled Dragon Warrior, in order to avoid conflict with the TRS-owned trademark DragonQuest. In 2005, Square Enix finally saw fit to refer to the franchise as Dragon Quest, even in English. Purists apparently regard this as the correct name for the franchise. In my case, I’ll stick with the name of Dragon Warrior, since that’s what my cartridge says.
In 2000, a compilation cartridge of the first two Dragon Warrior games was released for the Game Boy. I picked my copy up used some years later and, like many games I purchased in the last ten years, I immediately tossed it into a bag with other Game Boy games, not to be touched again until now. While I understand that there are some cosmetic changes to the game from the NES original, for my backlog quest I chose to play the GB version because, as far as I can tell, the changes make the game infinitely more playable, even if the name “Erdrick” was changed to the much-less-cool-souding “Loto.”
I wanted to do some videogame archaeology, so I popped this cartridge into my GBA and played the first game in the series. Eventually, I’ll get around to the second.
Playing the game, I was most excited about the art. Here’s the thing about sprite art: I love it. I love it more than I love almost anything. The primitive, blocky, colorful graphics remind me of fruit snacks, of everything I loved about the games of my childhood. 8-bit MIDI scoring makes me nostalgic for a time before my birth, for games I never actually played, experiences that exist in the collective subconscious of gamers. Participating in the shared assumption of these cultural memories is among the delicious burdens of someone that grew up with games such as I did. The Akira Toriyama-style art drew me in the way a warm blanket would do in winter.
Dragon Warrior is, in many ways, the grandfather of all JRPGs. Playing the game, I could see the conventions that would become complex components of the genre: the turn-based battles, the ever-improving selection of armor and spells, the reuse of enemy designs, with cosmetic changes made to them to indicate a greater or lesser threat.
The game was, I suppose, fun to play, in a grind-y way. Only a few times a year do I crave that sort of experience, when the parts of my brain that call out for cheap rewards desire the bright chemicals accompanying a level-up. The plot was laughable, of course: DracoLord (real name) is doing evil stuff (ooo!) to the world, and only I (the hero!) can stop him. This game was made before people seemed to care about videogame plots, when the very idea of story in games was a novelty only on the precipice of importance.
As I said, playing this game was an exercise in archaeology. I’m glad that I can scratch it off my list, say that I’ve played it, and move on. I don’t expect to ever play it again, but that’s okay. Sometimes, these old games exist more as an idea, a memory, than they do as contemporary experiences in their original right. Much as no one reads Greek myths looking for religious enlightenment, I enjoyed Dragon Warrior not as a thrilling experience of exploration but as a method of filling out the canon of videogames.
These motives will have to do.