Dragon Quest (Switch Review)

The original Dragon Quest predates my existence on this Earth by over three years. As far as historic, genre-defining games go, it’s not exactly one I would have ever relished the thought of playing today, in 2019. During my recent adventures in retro gaming, the only JRPG I had to deal with was the original Final Fantasy on the NES Mini, and I could barely tolerate its antiquated gameplay. Dragon Quest 1, better known as Dragon Warrior in the United States, is even older and more decrepit, though it wasn’t commercially available on platforms I was covering in my old school gaming education. And then Square released three NES remakes as part of the launch of Dragon Quest XI on Switch. And, holy moley, are they ugly. I’ve never seen a classic gaming remake that turned off so much of its target audience just by virtue of its appearance. Not the character sprites while moving on the map or the textures, but rather the look of the enemies during combat.

Yeah.

Jesus Christ, that’s embarrassing. It looks like a fan-made remake with character models done in MS Paint. They’re apparently all in the same poses as the 8-bit Famicom/NES originals, but they look so unintimidating. The overworld doesn’t look like that. It has a sort of high-resolution sprite appearance that could pass for 16-bit. But those hand-drawn recreations of the 1986 pixel designs are so amateurish that it turned off a lot of long-time fans of Dragon Quest from making a purchase. Normally I’d tell people that gameplay is king and looks shouldn’t matter. But Dragon Quest on Switch looks like a student project or something. In reality, this is an actual Square-Enix release. Granted, an inexpensive one that’s based on their mobile Dragon Quest re-releases, but still, it feels disrespectful to the source material. When I’m saying that, someone who the retro community often accuses of being disrespectful to classic games, you know it must be bad. Why the hell do the look like that? What’s the original concept art of the game look like?

Oh.

Well, now all that bitching about the hideous artwork is awkward. But, I’m going to continue to insist the art is direction is a complete failure and those concept arts were just that: CONCEPTS. Never meant to actually be used. And it’s even worse because of the backgrounds that concept art was placed on top of. It doesn’t match! NOR does it match the overworld. It’s three totally incompatible styles that makes simply viewing Dragon Quest (along with Dragon Quest II and III, both also on Switch, though they’re priced higher) kind of painful. Plus, they have this weird shading about them that gives them that cheap MS Paint look I was talking about. I don’t know what they were thinking, but a lot of people who were interested in buying these re-releases passed because of how it looks. I’m going to call that what it is: justifiable shallowness.

But yes, gameplay is STILL king, and Dragon Quest is an old game that I had almost no chance of liking. So imagine my surprise when it turned out I didn’t hate the experience of playing all the way through it as much as I thought I would. In fact, I didn’t hate it at all. Which is not to say I overall liked Dragon Quest. It just wasn’t the torture I thought it would be. Actually, I found the mother of all JRPGs to be pretty educational. Because you can still see the design logic and what they were aiming for, and it all makes perfect sense. For real! No twist coming. No “haha just kidding, it sucks!” There’s honest-to-God merit in it.

Apparently, the NES/Famicom original had a glitch with this item where it didn’t do anything. I can’t tell you if that’s fixed here. They seemed fickle about the stuff they wanted to change or not.

For example, there’s locked doors everywhere in the game. You have to get keys to unlock them. BUT, you can’t possibly hope to get keys until you’ve leveled-up enough to venture east, to the only town that sells them, and even then you have to find the “hidden shop” that has them. Getting to this point required hours of grinding, thousands of gold spent in upgrades, and a lot of exploration. Just to be able to open locked doors. But, believe it or not, the act of buying your first key feels like a major turning point in the game. An event. A significant plot point. And a perfectly logical moment from a design point to build towards. They successfully made unlocking doors a big deal. That’s incredible! It’s like fantasy insertion for locksmiths.

Dragon Quest is impressive as a historic relic because the foundation for everything that came after is laid here. If you’re someone who cares about gaming history, when something works in Dragon Quest, you feel a strange sense of relief, and the slightest hint of accomplishment, for the original team who made it. Especially because there’s so many ideas that don’t work. Of course, this being the first game in the franchise, they had to try these things to realize what was a bad idea. Not being able to save the game anywhere but the starting castle? Bad idea. A very limited supply of weapons, upgrades, or useful items to purchase, essentially rendering all gold found from the mid-to-late game useless? Bad idea. Having the princess’s vagina squeak when you rescue her? Really bad idea. Logically, the squeaking should come later, and probably from behind closed doors.

My God, that’s cringey writing. Even Stephenie Meyer would blush with shame if she wrote like that.

The writing is horrible. That was to be expected. Their chief concern was simply getting the game working. I don’t expect a game from before I was born to blow me away with its plot anyway. But, if you’re going to remake the game, like I said about Link’s Awakening: remake the fucking thing! Otherwise, you’re just making Gus Van Sant’s Psycho: a shot-for-shot remake that has no reason to exist. Why not clean up the dialog or plot? They did for the game play! The original 1986/1989 release apparently featured a cumbersome interface that required you to do every single action through the menu. Want to talk to someone? You have to open the menu to do that. Want to take the staircase? You have to use the menu for that too. I imagine that’d get quite annoying. That’s all gone here. The menu exists for things like casting spells, using items, and checking your status. I never played the original NES cart for more than 30 seconds and I’m pretty sure I quit because of the “open menu to use the stairs” thing in the starting room with the King. I’ve come a long ways as a gamer. Who’d of thunk I’d ever have the patience to beat the original Dragon Quest? Well, the truth is, I didn’t. I did to beat its more streamlined remake, though.

The thing is, Dragon Quest I was boring, but not terminally so. In fact, once I put Dragon Quest in the background and threw on the television, it was actually quite zen-like to grind up experience and gold. 95% of the time you’ll spend playing it can be done without your full, undivided attention. The grinding is so simple and requires so little effort that it’s practically like using a fidget spinner or popping bubble wrap. Something you veg out doing. Actual dungeons and tasks could easily be knocked out in just a few minutes with a guide (and I do recommend a guide since the directions and writing provided by the NPCs are so vague that they’re useless). It’s quite relaxing and kind of fascinating from a time capsule point of view. Playing Dragon Quest is like watching a TED Talk on an interesting historical subject being delivered by a nasal, monotone person.

The Hero was called a heathen in red states for this act.

But, a lot of little niggling issues hold this back. When you unlock a door, it relocks as soon as you leave the town or dungeon, requiring you to go buy more keys (and you’re limited to carrying six at one time). It’s also never really clear what the object of the game is. You know you’re supposed to take out Dragonlord, but the writing doesn’t tell you how, or really what order you’re supposed to do things. You don’t even get a clue what sections of the map are safe to start exploring until you begin a random fight with a significantly stronger creature that you have no hope of beating. Sometimes bridges mark boundaries, but a lot of the time you simply start facing tougher monsters and die. I can’t imagine how this was ever beaten without a strategy guide. The weird thing is, it HAS been rewrote with Dragon Quest I & II on the Game Boy Color back in the day. Why not use the script from that? I don’t get it. And, to be frank, I don’t think the RNG of the game is legitimate. I tried running away from fights a total of seven times, and each of those seven times the run command failed. Meanwhile, I killed probably around ten of the high-experience-yielding Metal Slimes even though they’re supposed to run away, making slaying one a rarity. In fact, I only had six or seven run away. The running gag with me is I’ve always had absurd RNG luck (or, more usually, a lack thereof), but my time with Dragon Quest took it to lottery levels of unlikely. So much so that I suspect there’s something wrong with the RNG code.

Is it fun? Not really in the strictest sense. The plot points are overly simple and there’s only four “missions”: get the keys, then rescue the princess, then get the MacGuffins that open the path to the final level, then beat the Dragon Lord. I supposed getting the legendary armor and sword are part of that, but I sort of just stumbled upon both. When you’re powerful enough to actually set out to complete these goals, they can be finished in five minutes. No joke. The majority of the game is spent simply walking back and forth to spawn enemies to grind up enough experience to not get killed in those areas of the game, and there’s nothing to take the edge off getting from Point A to Point B. There’s a spell that’s supposed to make weaker enemies not instigate a battle that should make the slog of traveling go faster late in the game. In theory. In execution, the spell wears off in like ten seconds. Instead of fighting monsters every X amount of paces, you have to recast the spell every X amount of paces. Problem solved? Meanwhile, there’s no method of fast travel to other towns. It only works to take you to the starting castle. It’s bizarre that they chose to cut out all the menu busy work but not further streamline the Dragon Quest experience with the ability to save in more locations or warp from town to town. Like, they knew it wasn’t idealized and later games figured it out better, but they didn’t want to change too much or fans of the original would lose their shit? I guess? As if they wouldn’t with those ugly ass graphics.

Some moments managed to disappoint, too. The game heavily built up this battle from very early on. The significance of the flute and its effect on the Goelm. When I finally ran into it, guarding the final town in the game, I knew exactly what to do. I blew the flute, put it to sleep, hit attack.. and then the fucking thing woke up and killed me. Seriously? In fact, I had to blow the flute multiple times just to finally slay the damn thing. Couldn’t I just put on country music and hope it killed itself?

So, here we are. I didn’t expect to be on the fence about whether or not Dragon Quest on Switch earned my Seal of Approval. I went back and forth on it more than you’d think. On one hand, I’d find myself looking forward to grinding up enough experience to level up and head to more challenging sections of the game. On the other hand, I’d quickly realize that there wasn’t all that much to see and I’d often be let down once I got there. There’s not a particularly large variety of enemies, and many battles I figured would be epic still ended in seconds. Hell, the final encounter with Dragonlord made me literally chuckle because he looks like Sesame Street character. A silly one. And it doesn’t help that I beat its first form in about ten seconds, followed by it turning into a Spyro the Dragon lookalike.

I can’t remember ever literally LOLing upon getting my first glimpse of a final boss. Jeez, couldn’t they change THAT design too? Something a little more intimidating?

I think game designers and people interested in gaming history will find more than just lessons in Dragon Quest. It’s almost enjoyable. It aged so much better than it had any right to. Though that probably owes a lot to the stuff they removed from the NES game, adding only a tiny shimmer effect to areas of the ground where hidden stuff is and an autosave feature that doesn’t give you any information on where that save is. But really, this is a fraction of what a remake needs to be. So, who is this made for? Old school Dragon Quest fans hate the look. New fans will hate the primitive writing and antiquated gameplay. While I didn’t hate Dragon Quest, the best complement I’ve got for it is that it didn’t bore me as much as I thought it would. I almost gave it my Seal of Approval, but really, games should aim higher than to simply “not bore.” And really, I can’t get over how bad it looks, or why this direction was taken at all. Why not do something like Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, where the original graphics can be switched on the fly for a newer facade that looks better? Make it look like a cel-shaded anime, like the later games do. The off-putting concept art mixed with sprites that still look wrong for their project just doesn’t work at all. This port feels phoned in, and it didn’t have to be. For its time, Dragon Quest might have been special. Now, it’s only special by virtue of rotting slower than expected. I was THIS CLOSE to giving it a thumbs up..

But, shouldn’t a re-release be about trying to get new fans for your franchise? I mean, you don’t have to convince the diehards to buy your game. I made the same point about Link’s Awakening on Switch: you’ve pretty much made a sale with the diehards the very moment you announce the existence of any remake. They’re going to buy it. They’re going to do so no matter what. That’s just how it works with the hardest of hardcore fans. If you change things around, they’re still going to buy it. They might whine and complain and say “MY version is better” in a fit of nostalgia drunkenness. They might even say those things even if deep down they don’t really believe it’s true. It doesn’t matter either way. They’re still going to buy it. That’s what makes them hardcore. And that’s why the only goal of a remake should be to secure a new generation of fans, tailoring the remake to modern gameplay and writing standards. You know I’m right.

Meh, at least it looks better than Wonder Boy Returns Remix.

Dragon Quest was developed by Square-Enix
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$4.99 said an angry game critic drew near in the making of this review.

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