Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen – NES, NDS

Stunning artwork by Akira Toriyama, which you will never see with the first-person battle system.

Stunning artwork by Akira Toriyama, which you will never see with the first-person battle system.

Sometimes I wonder if game designers ever play games themselves. When they go home from a hard day at Square-Enix or EA or wherever they work, do they sit down, pop in Goldeneye 64 and vent their aggressions on unsuspecting polygonal clones? Because half the time, the games I play suggest that the designers slapped together a few inebriated, late-night ideas together, hired some monkeys to make the code functional, then add required backtracking, level-grinding, or needlessly long menu dialogue to pad the game out to the optimal length for predicted financial success.

And so we arrive, weary and saddle-sore, at the beloved Dragon Quest series. In particular, Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen stands out as the paradigm of wrong answers to good questions. “What part of the traditional JRPG do players consistently enjoy as the most stunning part of the experience? What makes them ignore the phone, neglect their schoolwork, household chores and personal hygiene, and refuse to develop a social life more than any other point in the game?”

DS Battle“Compelling characters and a complex, driving storyline?” shouts an up-and-coming young mind in the Enix meeting room.

“Fuck you!” responds the boss, who follows up by firing the up-and-coming mind.

“Hours and hours of monotonous grinding?” someone suggests.

“Technically, true. Put it in the game. But what do they love? Why do they love RPGs with the intensity of a rabbit overdosing on Viagra?”

“The first hour and a half where you have no money, no access to anything cool, and  no abilities other than attack and item?”

“I like it,” says the boss. “We’ll do it five times, and throw in some of that grinding to make it more like three hours.

And thus, the incipient Dragon Quest took form. Chapters of the Chosen focuses on…the idea of not focusing on anything. The story opens with the generic blank-hero, a character so bland compared to everyone else in the game that the lord of hell himself couldn’t drag my projection of myself into the game. “You want me to imagine myself as that guy?” I ask the game. “No thanks. You go on and play without me. I’ll just watch this one.” Feigning a fast-paced, exciting game, monsters invade the hero’s village, looking for you. After killing your neighbors, your adopted parents, and your love interest, the monsters decide they just don’t feel like putting the effort into eviscerating one more human and leave your cowering in a mixture of fear and bodily fluids.

And then the game, bored of the hero’s personality already, leaves you as well, and goes on to someone much more interesting. I’ve just described the prologue. Bear in mind, you don’t even get to battle the monsters. No fighting. Not with the protagonist. Not yet. C3PO and R2D2 make it to their hero at light-speed compared to this game. So the game shifts to Ragnar McRyan, whose king has sent him to find the hero–but before he does, we have to help Tsarevna Alena pull a Princess Jasmine. Alena eventually Alena joins a tournament that almost introduces the villain–

Thought I should include a screen shot of the NES version. Apparently they added the borderline-offensive gibberish for the DS version

Thought I should include a screen shot of the NES version. Apparently they added the borderline-offensive gibberish for the DS version

–but first cuts to the story of Torneko Taloon, Akira Toriyama’s answer to Nicholas Cage, and his aspirations to profit from mass slaughter more than anyone has ever profited off anyone else’s misfortune ever before. Torkneko deserves special attention, for taking role-playing to the extreme. Flash back to the execs meeting:

Just to mess with you, they included "night," which translates to "for half the game, you'll wait for the useful NPCs to wake up."

Just to mess with you, they included “night,” which translates to “for half the game, you’ll wait for the useful NPCs to wake up.”

“We need a role that will open up their eyes to the possibilities!”

“Why not a Samurai?”

“That’ll never work. Next idea!”

“What about a Cowboy?”

“What do I pay you losers for?”

“How about we put players in the role of a mindless clerk standing at a cash register all day long?”

“Fuckin’ genius!”

I should mention at this point that I haven’t exaggerated anything yet. During Torneko’s chapter, you literally spend huge chunks of time standing on the merchant’s side of the counter, waiting for people to come in and buy weapons. Torneko hopes to save up enough money to buy his own gear to set out on a money-making adventure, but he doesn’t even get to keep the cash the store rakes in–his boss pays chicken feed, amounting to less than a 10% commission on each item sold. But still, it gives you the option of refusing sales to each customer, and sometimes they won’t pony up enough cash and will walk out empty handed.

I spent a great deal of time wandering as the game felt I'd enjoy it more if I had no fucking clue about what I needed to do next.

I spent a great deal of time wandering as the game felt I’d enjoy it more if I had no fucking clue about what I needed to do next.

And then just for good measure, we get another chapter. And each new chapter opens up with flat-broke, level-1 characters who fight monsters with all the effectiveness of a paraplegic cub scout wielding a foam pool noodle. Grind away, ladies and gentlemen. Seriously, I haven’t exaggerated anything yet. By the time chapter five dragged itself in to let me play as the hero, my game timer read 12:56. Out of the total 30 hours I played the game, I spent 43% effectively at the beginning, grinding until the “attack” option did reasonable damage. And for the zinger: the story keeps going after the final boss! I beat the game and it offered me another chapter. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

One positive thing I’ll say for the game: it gave Torneko an ability to initiate a monster battle at any time, cutting out the need for useless walking between battles. I take this as clear evidence that Dragon Quest IV knows it only has value as a time-killing grinder, but even with this trick to speed things up, it still felt like I’d hit my mid-life crisis before the end of the game. Unfortunately, any time gained by not walking while grinding balances out with time wasted managing menus. For each option, you have to flip through three or four dialogue boxes that want to confirm in triplicate that yes, you indeed want to use that herb. Or save. Or anything. Yes. Given the choice I will always answer yes. Yes, I’ll sell the damned sword! Yes, I want to equip the armor! Yes, I’ll continue the game after I save! (who thought of this one? Do you need to go to a special screen to shut the power off? Did the original NES erase your data otherwise?)

The game features a casino; If you want to waste more than time, why not waste money, too?

The game features a casino; If you want to waste more than time, why not waste money, too?

I think I can stick to the same assessment I gave the original; I’ll play the game as long as something else in the room can take my priority attention. Otherwise, I still don’t see the appeal in Dragon Quest, other than Akira Toriyama’s artwork, which I could download in much less than 30 hours. A game that centers on level-grinding and only includes a half-assed plot and characters doesn’t really offer much value, especially compared to most of the Final Fantasy installments. I don’t understand how these games rate so highly.  And yes, I’ve lived in Asia and I’ve seen Gaijin Goomba; I understand that different cultures think differently and have different needs. But I don’t think I need to spend thirty hours hitting the “confirm” button when I could have just as much fun pushing the buttons on my shirts.

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Dragon Quest / Dragon Warrior – NES, GBC

Yep...she makes you carry her halfway around the world.

Yep…she makes you carry her halfway around the world.

In tenth grade, my school required me to buy a graphing calculator. My trusty TI-85 and I became inseparable when I realized it came with its own programming language. I spent days in my bedroom, hunched over my calculator with thumbs blitzing like epileptic clog dancers until I managed to program a simple, shoddy dungeon crawler with about 20 rooms and 4 or 5 monsters that could beat you into negative hit points. It filled the calculator’s entire memory, had more bugs than a gas station bathroom, and I only played it once, but I still loved it. The next year I upgraded to a TI-89 and shinier, newer games found their way to me, including Phoenix, a 4-level version of Mario, a version of Tetris where blocks fell all the way down when their supporting blocks vanished, and a four-screen-map sequel to Final Fantasy VII with two characters, one boss fight, not enough monsters to level-up, and an inconclusive ending.

Any of these math-class knock-offs released on a dedicated gaming console would have undoubtedly given the impression that the video game industry had replaced all their experienced developers with a team of lemurs who had a penchant for writing fanfiction. They glitched. They wasted memory. They ran poorly on systems not designed for games. I had a Playstation and an N-64 by this point.  I didn’t need these crummy games; yet I still played them. I mention this because my recent play-through of the 1986 RPG legend, Dragon Warrior, left me in a quandary, puzzled over how games with as much substance as a half-finished knock-knock joke written on a pizza box can gather a large enough fan following to inspire one of the most long-lived series in video game history.

GwaelinDragon Warrior (known in Japan as “Dragon Quest”) hails from an age where RPG developers wanted to re-create the Dungeons and Dragons experience without the dice, paper, or need for that pesky socialization, but hadn’t yet figured out that interactive storytelling doesn’t exactly work the same way with pre-programmed computer characters.  As such, you play as _______, and up-and-coming warrior with the charm, charisma and personality of Edward Cullen after eating his weight in magic brownies. The King of Tantagel, in a display of straightforwardness that most video game mystics would find offensive, gives you a simple task: 1) Find the princess and 2) Kill the Dragonlord. After which, young ________ ambles through the world, slaughtering the indigenous fauna until he feels confident enough to carry out the assassination the king entrusted to him.

As much as the simplicity sounds like a breath of fresh air, however, we play games exactly for the roundabout nature of questing. In fact, if you’ve spent any length of time with literature professors, they’ll remind you that the world’s alleged greatest, most classic piece of literature focused entirely on Odysseus gallivanting around the Mediterranean for years, cavorting with nymphs while “guilt” over his marital fidelity “tortured” him, when it may have only taken him two or three weeks simply to walk home. I get that NES cartridges didn’t have the capacity to store complex stories, but like most RPGs from the 1980s, Dragon Warrior has a problem with math. Leveling up to the point where the Dragonlord won’t vaporize you like a bottle of  Zippo fluid requires over 20,000 experience. The most reasonable enemy to fight while level grinding gives you 54. With nothing to do in-game, I hope you have a second TV in your living room because you may want to put on a movie while you grind.

I humbly accept this quest my liege, and...did you just take my wallet?

I humbly accept this quest my liege, and…did you just take my wallet?

Furthermore, your gold supply creeps up with an impressive lack of urgency, while weapons and armor can run as high as 14800. To add to the tedium, every time ________ dies, he wakes up in front of the King of Tantagel, who admonishes you for having the gall to allow the overpowered monsters of the countryside maul you to death. The first time this happened, I didn’t realize that I kept all the experience earned since I last saved because my gold stock had dropped substantially from the moment of my death. But Eventually I realized that in addition to chewing you out for your audacious apathy toward life, the King takes half your gold every time he revives you.

Is it to late to reconsider your offer?

Is it to late to reconsider your offer?

After my initial outburst of anger at having to replenish larger and larger sums of money at each death, this got me thinking. One of the inconsistencies in the design, only certain buildings have roofs and entrances, while the rest simply appear as walled-off areas with a gap to pass through. The fact that some areas have inside maps suggests that the houses without them actually remain open to the elements. With a king who rifles through dead men’s pockets for loose change, I began to wonder if the Dragonlord might actually want to enact social change in the land of Alfgard. Perhaps instead of the black-and-white good-versus-evil trope of the fantasy genre, the villain’s crime doesn’t extend beyond threatening the provincial villagers with scary, scary change.  Unfortunately, while the game does offer the chance to team up with him, taking that option will end in a game-over after days and days of piling up monster corpses for the scraps of stat bonuses necessary to get that far.

First the old man asks me to find his balls, and now this guy?

First the old man asks me to find his balls, and now this guy?

Another factor that compounds the tedium stems from the cryptic hints and clues as to how to finish your quest, gleaned from random townsfolk throughout the game. The King shoves you out the door with absolutely zero direction, and every step you have to take you have to guess based on riddles thrown at you. They’ll point you in vague directions, or suggest items that you must infer you need to progress, or even tell you to visit certain people in certain towns, most of the time leaving you to guess the names of each town because the game won’t label them in any way. Rather than send myself into an angry rant, let me describe it this way; Any game that forces me to look up a walkthrough to progress automatically earns one strike against it. If upon figuring out what I need to know, I still feel like I couldn’t have figured it out on my own no matter how much time I gave it, the game earns another strike. Dragon Warrior forced me to create a third category; games where I look up the walkthrough and still can’t figure out the puzzles.

Dragon Warrior boasts its artwork, done by Akira Toriyama (Dragonball, Chrono Trigger), which could have saved this game…if I had seen any of his influence in it. Maybe the designers based the sprites off the interesting, colorful designs that probably looked something like Goku, but the 16×16 pixel designs couldn’t even hint that Toriyama had any hand in the game development. Someone else clearly did the box art, and I even downloaded the original instruction manual, hoping for more than the second-rate fan art that often graced the pages of NES games intended for 8-year-olds. But no. Even Toriyama couldn’t save this game.

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But still, as the first NES-era RPG released in Japan, the series succeeded. People there love it. They perform Dragon Quest music at major symphonic performances. Video games hold an advantage over movies in that their sequels don’t have to recycle the rotting corpses of the original, so I do trust that the later games in the series surpass the first by far. I can only explain its success via my calculator story; the portability and disguise of an education tool allowed me to take games into places previously forbidden, places I couldn’t exactly lug my Playstation.  Having it with me gave me an option. I enjoyed it more for the novelty of its existence rather than the value of its games, and Dragon Warrior can certainly claim the same novelty for its era and console. Still, the painfully slow pace of the grinding, also seen in Final Fantasy (released the following year in both Japan and North America, while Dragon Quest waited three years to cross the pacific…I wonder if that has anything to do with the popularity of each series in each region.), along with the dangerously unstable battery-backed saves of the NES cartridges, tell me I should put my time into the SNES-era games instead.