|IN DEFENSE OF 8-BIT
It's probably little secret by now that I'm a Fan of Dragon Quest, aka Dragon Warrior in my home country of the USA until 1997 or so. So this is a little "tribute" page to the original 8-bit releases from Japan and the USA, and why I tend to prefer these titles to the ones most people have been trying to sell me on since I sold a chunk of my NES collection to get Dragon Warrior IV.
Now it might seem weird that I'm putting this on the "famicom" section since I'm primarily a NES player being as I'm an American, but the truth is Dragon Quest never really took off in the United States until much later and was always overshadowed by Final Fantasy (which I also like). So I felt it was more fitting to make a Famicom article out of this as I may look into collecting the Japanese versions too. My interest in some elements of Japanese culture (Music and older JRPGs mainley) is more or less just born out of curiosity of hearing out other culture's views of the same medium, and how they tried them out. After all, I discovered P-Model for myself in 2008 because I saw The Cars Unlocked DVD with some clips of them playing in Japan in 1900...and that lead me to wonder if The Cars inspired anyone.Anyway, I wrote this because I always found the 8-bit installments get bashed a LOT. People on my side of the pond complain that these older 8-bit installments were grind heavy and "boring" (that's my wife's complaint), but to me, Dragon Warrior aka. Dragon Quest is more like a form of Video Game meditation than anything else. It's like reading a book, something I think a lot of people my age and younger are allergic to, but controlling the progress of the story yourself. And that's totally fitting as Chunsoft (the programming house tha did all the 8-bit installments run by Koichi Nakamura) did do literal interactive novels on the Famicom hardware or so I have read. Dragon Quest I-IV pushes it just a hair further, and leads to a relaxing, calm, and easygoing gaming experience for an RPG, even the much maligned 2nd installment. So this is more or less, an appreciation page for the original releases.
Dragon Quest history - the 8-bit Years
There's an awesome page on the History of Dragon Quest/Enix/Horii/etc - so I'll refrain since I'm sure I'll get a lot of stuff wrong and have to over-simplify it for my own website anyway. Anyway, there are four key people involved in Dragon Quest: Yuji Horii, designer & early developer, Koichi Nakamura, who created the programming house that made the early Dragon Quest games - Chunsoft Ltd - named after his own nickname of "Chun". Koichi Sugyama, the late pop music, ad jingle, and classical composer who was extremely famous in Japan and just passed away in early 2022 in his 90's - he worked on Dragon Quest pretty much till the day he died. And of course, the best known of the lot, AKira Toriyama, best known for his artwork on Dragonball/Dragonball Z, whose artistic style can be seen heavily in Dragon Quest, especially from the second game onward.
Released on May 27th 1986, Dragon Quest basically took all the elements of a Western RPG and watered them down just enough for the average person to easily understand. It had a simple premise: a propohecy long ago determined that a hero, a descendent of Erdrick the great, would come to save the kingdom of Alefgard from darkness should evil once again come to this land. Well, that has indeed happened. The Dragonlord has taken roost in Castle Charlock across the river from Tantgel Castle, and since his untimely tidings, monsters have begun to roam the land, killing people, destroying villages (Hauksness), aven abducting Princess Gwendoline. It is now your quest to save the kingdom (and save the princess....if you want to (But Thou Must!)). The game started many of the "tropes" of Japanese style RPGS (JRPGs), like excessive grinding for character development, fetch quests for items to exchange for other items, and later on - hilarious/bad/weird translations.
The game was not quite a super-fast success, but over time since it's release it started to build up interest in the series and started to generate enough interest for Horii and his team to create a sequel. I'm not too well versed in Japanese culture so I can't really comment that much on it's impact, but obviously it was impactful enough to warrant a quickly put together sequel - Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line.
And not even a year later, January 26th 1987, Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line was released in Japan, and with a bigger fanfare, and a much bigger game. However, Development for Dragon Quest II was said to be very stressful and hurried, with some "serious balance issues" toward the end of the game, and even a part that drops linearity like the first game for a more open, sandbox type approach. They could not even complete playtesting it before releasing it as the series had been growing in popularity. Dragon Quest II, however, was a excellent success in Japan, cemeenting the game as a pop-culture icon. Dragon Quest II was the start also of some minor unrest because schoolkids and businessmen would play hookie during the weekday to wait in line to purchase this brand new RPG.
As for the game itself, the plot was it had been 100 years since Erdrick's descendant had defeated the Dragonlord and brought peace to Alefgard. Since then, his family tree has expanded to a wider area of the world, now having three decendants in the Prince of Midenhall, the Prince of Cannock, and the Princess of Moonbrooke, on a quest to rid the world of the evil wizard Hargon who has brought despair throughout the land. The overworld was now 4 times bigger, sailing ships and waterbourne enemies were introduced, and the entire "world" of the game had been expanded to 4x the size with Alefgard slightly shrunk and fit somewhere in the northwestern region. Basically, the game was to put together your extended family and go on an adventure together.
A lot of people, especially in America, criticize this release because somewhere about midgame when we finally see Alefgard 100 years later (the world from the first game), the game drops you off from a linear path of gathering clues to advance and going on fetch quests, grind sprees, and the occasional boss battle with a mild "on rails" experience, to basically having 100% freedom to roam anywhere in the world you want once you get the ship. For Japan this seemed to be far less of an issue and more of a "reward for perserverence" thing than when we got ours in 1990. But it seems the Japanese gamer culture is aware of how much less fair the last 3rd/4th of the game is due to an incredible difficulty spike that kicks in toward the end of the Cave to Ragnarok/Rhone, where it seems a "quick fix" was to put a big shrine near the final castle, where you could return to the regular overworld, save, head, revive for free, and grind for hours upon hours to build your party up strong enough to defeate the final goons in Hargon's castle. Hours of seeing your party wiped out completley, or limping back to the Monolith to revive everyone and heal back up for another round of torture.
On February 10th, 1988, Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation was released for the Famicom, and became the smash, breakout hit of the series that would cement it into Japanese pop culture to this very day. In Dragon Quest III, you played as a boy on his 15th birthday summoned by the king to rid the world of the evil Archfiend Baramos. You are then tasked to put together a team of up to 4 characters, and go on a quest to rid the world of this vile villan, traveling all over the now huge overworld, eventually landing yourself in the land of darkness.....a very familiar land of darkness. Spoiler alert, Dragon Quest III was a PREQUEL to the original Dragon Quest, telling the story of Erdrick the Great, and how he came to be, with Erdrick being his TITLE, not his name, and he became great because you save not one, but TWO worlds in this game, with the regular overworld looking much like the real world complete with various, obvious refences, such as Jipang (Japan) telling the tale of the Oriochi, developing a new land in the west of what looks like eastern Asia, getting pepper for the king in Castle Eigerbear (Edinburgh) in what would be Scotland (though it takes up the UK and other parts of the British isles). The game was the first true, full-on, full-scale, RPG in the Dragon Quest Series. It also introduced day and night cycles, and character lives that followed those day and night cycles. And even a fancy new feature where you could change your character classes, icnluding the coveted and much adored "Sage" class that can cast both types of magic.
The sheer scale and size of this particular release was incredible for the time, and really represented a master-class in the JRPG genre, to a point that all other JRPGs would follow a lot of Dragon Quest.
Between 1988 and 1989, the First Dragon Quest was sent over to Howard Philips, the master playtester at Nintendo of America, to playtest, and of course, he must have liked it, and Nintendo saw a potential "Cash Cow" it seems because they really played out the release of this game. After the success of Dragon Quest III in Japan, NoA likely saw it as a potential major franchise, so they did some overhaul-work to the original Dragon Quest for it's north American Release.
Graphics were improved by adding a shoreline, and making the character sprites face the direction in which they were walking. Of course all the Japanese text was translated and some slightly altered from the Japanese original. One of the biggest new additions was a Battery Backed Save. In the original Dragon Quest, you had to put in a code to return where you last left off when you played due to the lack of an on-board savestate ROM and battery. But by 1989, the NES and also Famicom had these capabilities on the cartridge, making managing and upkeeping your savegames less ridiculous. One final tweak was a legal one. In America, the company that owned Dungeons and Dragons already held the rights to the name "Dragon Quest", so they had to change it and localize it to a new name - Dragon Warrior - and to go with it, the cutesy Akira Toriyama cover-art was changed out with a Heavy Metal Album style painting of an Americanized version of the hero facing a giant green Dragon coming out of a lava pit. This gave quite a different impression of the source material in America than Japan had.
The game, however, did not take off as much as NoA had anticipated, and they had over-produced the game cartridges for Dragon Warrior, causing an excess of games similiar to what happened with Atari's E.T. and Pac-Man for the 2600. But instead of shoving a great JRPG into a landfill in Washington State, Nintendo decided to use it as a *perk* to sign up for their new gaming Magazine, Nintendo Power. Basically, in 1990, if you signed up for Nintendo Power, you got Dragon Warrior + the STrategy Guide for free. This is the reason why Dragon Warrior is a $15 cartridge, but II is $54, III is about $75, and friggin Dragon warrior IV is over $150 in most cases. Because getting the first one is pretty darned easy as Nintendo made a LOT of Dragon Warrior carts anticipating a hit - which it was not. But we'll talk omre about the AMERICAN cultural impact vs the Japanese in another section. That said, Dragon Warrior failed to live up to it's expectations, and later releases would be full-on Enix releases, only Nintendo in that they had to order the hardware from Nintendo to produce them.
On February 11th 1990, the last, final, 8-bit Famicom Dragon Quest game would drop, Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen. This game featured a whole new story, in a whole new world that started what was known as the "Zenithian Trilogy" after teh conclusion of the "Erdrick Trilogy" with 1988's Dragon Quest III. The story was that Saro's elfen girlfriend who cried ruby tears was beaten to death and murdered out of human greed, and through his broken heart he became a misanthrope. So Saro killed Edgar, the alchemist of Monobaraba, to steal the Secret of Evolution to take over the planet and rid it of the evil, greedy humans, with a plan to revive Esturk, the Ruler of Evil, or even become one with him. Meanwhile, we follow the game through 5 chapters of each pivotal hero and their backstories: Chapter 1 is Ragnar, a soldier of the Castle Town Burland tasked to investigate Izmit village and figure out why children are dissappearing. Chapter 2 is Princess Alena, a tomboy who wants to prove her strength and women's equality, in a story where her cohorts Cristo the chergyman and Brey the Wizard are tasked to protect her, though it seems she protects THEM. In Chapter 3 we meet Taloon, a portly family man with a wife and a child who dreams of owning his own shop and gets caught up in the politics and commerce of Endor castle and it's surrounding cities and towns. In chapter 4 we meet Edgar's daughters Nara and Mara who are on a quest to avenge for their father's death, but they don't know who did it (at least not yet). And lastly, chapter 5, the biggest chapter, where we play as the half-Zenithian hero who has been quietly raised in a secret village and sees his entire life up to this point ransacked and murdered by Necrosaro and his minions - leading the quest on it's longest chapter, and ultimatley, it's inevitable conclusion.
Dragon Quest IV would continue the massive success of Dragon Quest in Japan, but it would be the last time we would see Dragon Quest in 8-bit in Japan, and it's later American release, the last time we would see Dragon Warrior for years.
Meanwhile, stateside in the USA, in September 1990, we got Dragon Warrior II, updated from the Japanese original with battery backup, a Japanese translation, and various modifications to placate to Nintendo of America's family friendly policies. While Dragon Warrior had not been a smash hit, Dragon Warrior II became more like a "Cult classic" that some retro-gamers may not even be aware of. And it was much more critiqued in our country for it's amazing difficulty spike late in the game, and a point where it just drops you off into a non-linear sandbox once you get the ship. Otherwise, it was identical to the Japanese release, and did not need much modifiation to fit into the American NES line.
One upgrade from the original Dragon Quest II release from 1987 was the addition of a introduction cut scene showing us Hargon sieging Moonbrooke castle, setting it on fire, and the king of Moonbrooke sending his strongest guard to let the King of Midenhall know of their fate, adding further context to the story than the Japanese release ever did. However, not even this could help Dragon Warrior get a foothold in the United States unfortunatley.
In March 1992 we got Dragon Warrior III to little/no fanfare. Dragon Warrior III was pretty much identical to it's Japanese counterpart except some family friendly alterations and translation into English. By the time Dragon Warrior III had come out, the Super Nintendo was already coming to our shores, and people were not as interested in 8-bit games for the old NES anymore, as the 16-bit Console Wars had begun, and the NES was old news.
So Dragon Warrior III got it's small share of press and sort of silently came and went without much notice. Sure, it had it's fans, but it was a cult-classic, like Mad Max, or Rocky Horror Picture Show for movie buffs, and not some massive mainline release. But more on that later. AS such, these carts are among the harder NES carts to find for a reasonable price.
In October 1992, not even a year after the previous release, we got Dragon Warrior IV. The last and final Dragon Warrior game in the United States for another 5-7 years. Same game as Japan's release, sort of as a almost "tossed out there" situation, as if Enix was finishing their association with their localized franchise, and moving on. They would go on to have a similar situation with Soul Blazer/Illusion of Gaia/Terrenigma in the following years afterward.Dragon Warrior would not see another release in the United States until 1997, with the Dragon Warrior I & II for the Game Boy Color, Dragon Warrior Monsters, and the Torniko (Taloon) Series based on the merchant from Dragon Warrior IV. In 2000, the series homegenized with it's Japanese side naming, and all branding in the series, regardless of territory, would remain to be Dragon Quest from that point onward.
8-bit Dragon Quest in the West - a Bit of American Video Game History
In America, Role Playing Games take root in pen-and-paper role playing games often played by nerds back in the 1970's. Dungeons and Dragons being one of the biggest ones. These games involved rolling a 20-sided-dice to obtain the "stats" for your character, and a "Dungeonmaster" would basically be like the narrator for all card-based pen-and-paper games with friends. If I'm getting any of this wrong, forgive me, for I have never placyed real DnD, just the SSI computer games.
I'd say the roots for the computer and console RPG's started around 1977 and 1978. First you had Houston Texas college student Richard Garriot, nicknamed "Lord British" by his friends, who decided to create a dungeon crawler type game using a similar system to Dungeons and Dragons for player stats. By 1979, his project was done and released independantly as Akalabeth: World of Doom for the Apple II. This lead to a publishing agreement with Sierra On-Line - yes the Ken and Roberta Williams Sierra On-Line also known for their King's Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Space Quest franchises, just to name a few. When Richard got this agreement, he created an updated game known as Ultima I: The FIrst Age of Darkness, for multiple desktop computer platforms in 1981, with the PC port coming out in 1984.
More notable though were the roots for the console, when Accountant gone Game Developer Warren Robinette decided to create a graphical adaptation of the BASIC classic Text Adventure known as Colassal Cave as a graphical top-down adventure game called "Adventure" for the Atari 2600 Video Computer System. In Adventure, you played a knight represented by a little "Square" (the "Ball" in Atari 2600 programming terminology), and you navigated labrynths, mazes, and castles to find a golden chalice to take back to the yellow castle. It had more in common with The LEgend of Zelda than it did with Dragon Warrior, but it was a step in the direction that would lead us to that game.
So here we have 2 paths, one for computers, one for consoles....
In the United States, they were seen as separate entities. A Computer was seen as a serious, businessman's device, mostly foruced on doing WORK. IE. Writing correspondence in a word processor, or making spreadsheets to make large scale calculations such as a budget or an employee payroll. Only Nerds and Businesspeople understood computers, the average layperson could not justify paying the cost of a small economy car for a computer back in the day, so they did not. Now, that's not to say that there were not some popular computer gaming platforms such as the Tandy TRS-80 CoCo III or the Commodore 64, but those platforms were still largely ignored in favor of the dedicated gaming home console devices that became popular starting with the Atari 2600, and continuing today with the PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch.
On the Gaming side at the time, the two most popular platforms were the Arcades, and the early 8-bit home consoles: mainley the Colecovision, Mattel Intellivision, and of course, the Atari 2600. These systems were mostly geared towards and had games aimed at the Video Arcade experience in the home. And at the time, gaming was a far more social activity. It was not unusual to see the family make pancakes and play ATari after the Saturday Morning Cartoons were over - like my family. So most of these games were developed to allow for up to 2 or 4 players at the same time, competitive or cooperatively depending on the design. So an "digital" RPG, a type mostly designed to placate to the lonely computer nerd on a saturday night while everyone else was at the concert. Also, typically those nerds were rich enough to have a computer if their parents did not buy it for them because "EDucational Value" and "Computers are the Future" (Even though nobody outside the nerds themselves knew how the computers work).
In 1983 the Video Game Crash happened and turned Video Games into a "fad". Adults stopped being interested in it so much, also in part due to bad press from the creepy men that could be found in video arcades, and more of a egocentric focus on "Appearing Adult" I'm sure. I dunno why but the early 80's seems almost like an "anything goes" period. The Video Game Crash made video games cheap, and nobody wanted them. More parents started to want to buy the home computers that had come down in price to educate their kids "on the future" if they could afford it, or "better yet" they liked that now maybe their kids would go play outside and get exercise instead of monopoolizing the family TV with their friends over a game of Space Invaders.
Then Nintendo came along with their Nintendo Entertainment System, and it's killer app, Super Mario Bros. At the time, because we did not have the internet, or any real connection to Japan. This was still the era when your fat, alcoholic, blindly patriotic uncle Pulltab was having a freakout over people not "buying American" and complaining about how Honda/Mazda/Suzuki/Hitachi/Mitsubishi/Toyota/Sony/etc. were going to "Take over the planet" with their quality products from the "land of the rising sun". So Nintendo played their cards right, and managed to get a new game console on the market, by marketing it as an "Entertainment System" - not a "game system".
And their killer app was Super Mario Bros. Honestly, the king of game design in Japan - unknown at the time - was Shigeru Miyamoto. He created Super Mario Bros. (1985), Super Mario Bros 2 (by extention of Doki Doki Panic Dream Factory in 1987), The Legend of Zelda (1987) - and thusly created the holy Mario/Zelda lexicon we had in the states. Dragon Quest who? Yuji Who? Nobody knew about them.
The big games for Nintendo in the home were mostly platformers, beat'em'up's, like Street Fighter, puzzle games brought the adults back in when Tetris came out in 1989, and Zelda was the exception, through more of a direct Action Adventure game than an actual RPG. American kids did not like those "nerdy" RPG games. That's not to say they did not come out, we got FCI/PonyCanyon's Ultima (III):Exodus conversion in 1990, around the same time as we got Dragon Warrior, and it's competitor and more popular here series - Final Fantasy. People liked Final Fantasy, and it came out just a short bit before Dragon Warrior I, killing any chance of success for Dragon Warrior right off the bat.
So here in the united states, the Dragon Warrior 8-bit releases were seen sort of like you did those video games you could rent from the local Gas Station. Sort of a weird "also-ran" that did not define anything or create a genre. They were the cartridges your friend had that you never played together, and that everyone saw as boring, slow, and not fun to play. So RPGs were never really that big. Sure you had one or two kids in your class that liked Final Fantasy, but most of the time, nobody really gave a crap. If you wanted old-world adventures, you played Castlevania or Legend of Zelda if you wanted a fantasy setting - not Dragon Warrior.And it continued to be so for my generation up into the 1990's, when we all got into our teen years, put down our controllers (mostly), and started doing other things like chasing girls and playing the guitar. That's when I took up video game collecting, because it was cheap. During that time, Dragon Warrior came over on the Game Boy color as Dragon Warrior I&II, Dragon Quest Monsters, and various other spinoffs, before finally taking up under it's proper name as Dragon Quest since 2001 onward.
The Method & Mindset of 8-bit Dragon Quest
My Personal History with Dragon Warrior/Quest and JRPGs
For example, in the first game, the first whole "act" of the situation is getting Erdrick/Loto's Descendant ready to head to Garinham. So I