I grew up playing role-playing games: Ultima, Wizardry, Final Fantasy. But the first console-exclusive RPG I ever played was Dragon Quest, known at the time as Dragon Warrior on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). By today's standards, it's a simple game, but one whose premise and gameplay absolutely hooked me.
Dragon Warrior was delightfully uncomplicated: while I enjoyed customizing my own parties in Ultima and Wizardy, it was also refreshing to dive right into Dragon Warrior's prefabricated world and character without any setup. Dragon Warrior eschewed the first-person perspective that I found confusing in games such as Dungeon Master and Pools of Radiance (I was never one to make my own maps), preferring a consistent top-down view for both the dungeons and overworld. It was also relatively linear: while I could go anywhere I wanted almost immediately, the difficulty level would ramp up considerably if I went the "wrong" way. Yet the game was extremely forgiving: if my ambition and curiosity drove me to discover new lands, leading to my untimely demise, I didn't need to pay any resurrection fee or reclaim any lost items; I was simply penalized half the gold I was carrying, leaving me with still more than I'd started with.
I rented Dragon Warrior for three straight weeks, knowing that if I returned it, my saved game would likely be lost. I don't know why I didn't simply buy it; it couldn't've been that expensive or hard to find, given that Nintendo Power gave away millions of copies for free. It wasn't until I won a copy of Cybernoid in the Nintendo World Championships that I exchanged it at Child World for my own copy of Dragon Warrior.
My love of the franchise continued throughout the 8-bit era. While I never finished Dragon Quest II, I did eventually finish Dragon Warrior III on the Game Boy Color. I counted Dragon Warrior IV among the best Nintendo games of the 1990s; I still listen to the orchestral arrangement of its symphonic soundtrack.
Later sequels proved hit or miss, I borrowed a Super Famicom copy of Dragon Quest V from John Ricciardi, but lacking a translation or access to the Internet (this was the mid-1990s), I didn't get far. Dragon Warrior VII for the Sony PlayStation fell flat for me.
Then Dragon Quest VIII was released for the PlayStation 2, and I was completely absorbed. I thought I would play for only a few hours to enjoy the nostalgia, but I spent a full 80 hours to finish the game. In the last 15 years, the only other games I remember commanding that much of my attention are Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn.
Dragon Quest IX was released for the DS, a handheld I never owned; and Dragon Quest X was never published outside Japan. I've yet to delve into Dragon Quest XI, released last fall for the Nintendo Switch, as I'm not sure I could stop myself from investing another 80 hours of my life.
Back to the beginning
Last year, Square Enix took its remastered mobile ports of the original Dragon Quest trilogy and released them the Nintendo Switch. All three were recently on sale, making it hard to say no to buying the first game for only $3.99.
Once again, I thought it would be a brief visit for old time's sake; once again, I ended up playing the game in its entirety. Other than briefly introducing a friend to the series in 2006, I hadn't touched this game in probably 25 years.
Despite the passage of time, I was surprised how much I remembered: the locations of the Faerie Flute in Kol, Magical Keys in Rimuldar, and Princess Gwaelin in Quagmire Cave came back to me with ease. Yet other details, like Galen's grave in Galenhom, or the destruction of the town of Damdara (what I once knew as Hauksness), were less vivid.
Despite the occasional need to grind through "ponderous one-on-one battles", as Nadia Oxford put it, I enjoyed revisiting the land of Alefgard. I picked up on things I might not have noticed when I first discovered the game as a pre-teen.
Trying to relate this classic game to the point in my life where I am re-experiencing it in a pandemic, and noticing that the hero had no discernible mouth, I imagined he was wearing a face mask.
The final foe is the Dragonlord, who sits deep in his castle, visible from the hero's home base yet unreachable until the Staff of Rain and the Sunstone have been collected and traded for the Rainbow Drop.
No matter how many healing herbs I packed, I was never able to beat the Dragonlord without first grinding to Level 21. I vowed this time to be a smarter, better gamer than I was a quarter-century ago.
After about five hours of gameplay, I set off from Tantegel Castle at a modest Level 20. When I reached the Dragonlord, he offered to let me rule by his side. I'd never been bold enough to accept his offer, so, curious, I did so. My character simply reawakened in nearby Rimuldar, having suffered a bad dream. I returned to the Dragonlord's stronghold… except en route, cumulative with my previous expedition, I gained enough experience to attain Level 21. It was at that level that I once again defeated the Dragonlord, restoring peace to Alefgard.
A day later, I discovered that I had defeated the Dragonlord on the 31st anniversary of the game's release.
I considered restoring a saved game and facing the fiend again at Level 20 — but perhaps it's fitting that my adult experience so closely mirrored my last adventure.
I don't need to have become better than the player I was when I first discovered Dragon Quest. It's enough to have been reminded that I'm still that person who loves a quest, a hero, and the invitation to venture forth.