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SummaryA superb update of two classic JRPGS.
The GoodMaybe you already know the story of Dragon Quest. Maybe you know that it was a modestly successful title that grew into a smash hit in Japan. Maybe you know that its sequels have enjoyed ever increasing popularity in its home country. Maybe you know that it didn't sell well as Dragon Warrior in the states. Maybe you know that things got so bad that Nintendo of American ended up giving away guides and copies of the game with Nintendo Power subscriptions. Maybe you know that its sequels sales were equally underwhelming in the US, so much so that its SNES entries were completely omitted from the North American market as Enix USA pulled out of operation in the early 1990s. And it's a shame they did, because we missed out on an update that may have revived the Dragon Warrior legacy in our neck of the woods.
Dragon Quest I & II is a Japan-only remake of the first two entries in the excellent Dragon Quest series. Both games are featured in their entirety, giving players a chance to relive two thirds of the Roto saga (and an equally good remake of the final chapter would follow). These updates not only bring to bear the graphical and audio power of a 16-bit system to these 8-bit classics, but they also tune up the game-play for a more streamlined player experience.
There are a lot of reasons why the Dragon Warrior series never really took off in the US. For one, by the time the original Dragon Warrior hit the streets in 1989, the game was over 3 years old. While that may not seem like a big deal, NES developers had learned a lot in that span. Specifically, the graphics deployed in the first game looked horribly antiquated to say Final Fantasy, which was release contemporaneously. Likewise, because Dragon Quest was inspired by western RPG series like Wizadry, and originally developed for home computer systems like the MSX and PC-98, it retained some cumbersome mechanics from its forebears. Dragon Warrior fixed some of these issues, like animating the water graphics and eliminating the need to specify which direction to talk (yeah, in Japan, Roto/Edrick didn't turn, so you had to talk North/East/South/or West), but still forced you to go to a menu to interact with just about anything in the game world, including the stairs.
Mercifully, Dragon Quest I & II eliminates both of these issues. Although the graphics aren't in the top tier of what was produced on the SNES by any stretch of the imagination, they are still more than adequate after all these years. No longer confined to being strictly squares, tiles for everything from the King's throne, to the appearance of castles are now more detailed and distinct. The environments enjoy greater vibrancy as well. The trees and swamps actually look like trees and swamps. Walls cast shadows on the floors. The torches of the first game light up a rounded radius instead of just the next nearest squares, the the torchlight glows as well. The character graphics are outlined, unlike in the NES versions, so they stand apart from the background. Although the enemies aren't animated in this version (they would become so in the subsequent Dragon Quest games), they too benefit from an upgrade in resolution in color and it allows the unique designs of Akira Toriyama to show through like never before. The battle screens both received a graphical boost with the originals becoming more detailed and Dragon Quest II replacing the plain black with an actual background for the first time.
As for the game-play, everything has been tweaked and re-balanced to make what can be an arduous task (especially playing through Dragon Warrior II) much more enjoyable. Being forced to plumb the depths of the menu system just to open a treasure chest is now a thing of the past. Like most console RPGs since 1987, you can interact with game objects with the stroke of a single button. The pacing of the games is vastly improved as well. Most of the early mobs encountered now drop as much as twice the experience and gold. This means the old-school practice of spending an hour leveling up just to be able to explore the game world is a thing of the past. Likewise, prices have been tweaked, weapons and armor improved, and the games are much less punishing in general. This is appreciated most in Dragon Quest II, where the approach to the final boss could require as many hours of grinding as it took to play the game to that point. Other touches include spells being powered up and the Flame Sword casting Blaze when used in battle in Dragon Quest I (this already worked in II).
The biggest improvement in presentation, however, is in the audio department. Koichi Sugiyama's scores for the series have been lauded over the years, and rightfully so, but the NES couldn't do justice to the orchestral beauty that he had written. Enter the Sony SPC 700. Although known as a somewhat difficult chip to program sound for, the power it wields may be most evident in this remake. Everything from the lilting trills when the flute is used, to the the walking pizzicato under the over-world theme comes through perfectly. The quality is so pure, so clean, that it puts to shame the Redbook audio of the CD based consoles of that era. I don't know if it's the quality of the score that brings out the best in the chip or vice versa, but this is perhaps the most enchanting SNES game to listen to.
Despite all the tweaks and changes, the underlying game code is basically the same. In the first outing, your 'class' or the way you level up is still seeded by what you name the protagonist. You can still complete the game without rescuing the princess. Dragon Quest II still has the same gambling mini-game, etc. All of this means that the games are instantly familiar for anyone whose experienced the originals, and ensures that the elements that made the games popular to begin with (in Japan at least) are retained in full.
The BadAlthough the game-play is largely improved, both of these games are still probably a little too grindy for modern gamers. Rather than naturally growing in power as you explore the world, you'll still have to take some time out from your adventures just to raise levels. The time commitment for this is greatly reduced, but its a requirement nonetheless.
From a story perspective, both games are sparse. If you haven't played the originals, you're bound to get lost and there isn't a lot of information to work with. This could be particularly daunting if you're playing the untranslated version of the game. Neither game has improved the walking speed of the protagonist either, and with the Return spell only bringing you back to the castle in the first game, there is a lot of hoofing it throughout.
The graphics are certainly greatly improved, but in a lot of ways, they're still 8-bit graphics with more colors. Particularly, the character size is still squat. Also, in the first game, your character had different graphics for when you're armed, whether or not you have a shield, and which direction you're facing. Oddly, this wasn't carried over despite all of the other effort put into providing a better visual design. Neither of these quibbles is unforgivable, but a little more attention to detail would have been appreciated.