Dragon Warrior and the birth of the JRPG

Dragon Warrior vs Final Fantasy NES games

Last month, one of my Twitter friends, Farrell the Feral asked a very important question: Who among us in the Twitter Retrogaming Community aligned ourselves with “Team Dragon Warrior” and who with “Team Final Fantasy.” The question is innocuous enough, but my mind immediately changed the question to: Which is better: “Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy?”

Farrell isn’t the type to attract a lot of toxicity, so the resulting conversation was civil and pretty interesting. But my own answer was sort of half-assed. I just said Final Fantasy “has more stuff” but I preferred the story in Dragon Warrior.  

But I really feel much more strongly about it. I’m all in on Dragon Warrior, and don’t enjoy Final Fantasy much at all. I have a lot of opinions on the topic, and thought it would be fun to write a little post pitting the two RPG giants against each other from an objective point of view. You know, which has better gameplay, monsters, story, etc.

But there is so much more to tell about these games and once I started writing, things got out of hand. See what I mean…

Which is better: Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior?

Dragon Warrior NES game cover
North American Dragon Warrior cover

It’s the ultimate match-up. And a question that’s been burning in the minds of classic gamers for a human generation. (Or like, four console generations.) Who did it better? Enix with Dragon Warrior (1986, Japan; 1989 USA) or Squaresoft with Final Fantasy (1987, Japan; 1990 USA)? That’s right! It’s Dragon Warrior vs. Final Fantasy in an 8-bit JRPG battle royale! It’s an 8-bit JRPG Thunderdome! Two games enter, and one game leaves. 

However, since I want to make this a comprehensive analysis and consider all aspects of these games, including their times and places in gaming history, I thought it was important to offer some history, background, and cultural context for their release. And that’s where this article exploded.

Because Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy are both part of the same story. And it’s a story every bit as epic as Erdrick’s descendant questing alone to free Alefgard from the Dragonlord’s clutches. And every bit as epic as… I don’t know, whatever the hell Final Fantasy’s convoluted and meandering story is supposed to be. (Burn!)

Both of these games were the product of Japan’s contribution the RPG genre. And that’s a story that has repercussions even today.

The Quest Begins

Play this track while you read the rest of the article.

Entire books have been written about the early days of RPGs and actually, that would be a pretty satisfying book to write. But I’ve got stuff to do, you know? So I won’t get too much into the nitty-gritty of the genre’s emergence. 

For this piece, it should be sufficient to know that RPGs—both classic tabletop RPGs (D&D), as well as their video-game cousins (Ultima, pictured below)— were already very well established by the time Dragon Warrior hit the scene. There were even some attempts made to bring role-playing to other consoles like the Atari 2600 (Dragonstomper. Check out THAT golden oldie…) with varying degrees of success. But in the mid-80s in North America, the NES was the major, ubiquitous gaming system in just about every household. And RPGs had yet to make a big appearance there.

In the US, Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest and Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, were both released in 1989 (many months before Dragon Warrior) and both introduced a number of RPG elements into the action/adventure genre. 

At the same time, games were becoming bigger. Games like Metroid and Metal Gear were starting to demonstrate how much players wanted epic experiences tailored to home consoles, instead of just arcade-style games. Developers were still adjusting to the home console market. They could create longer, more immersive experiences, rather than quarter-gobbling, adrenaline-pumping action.  

Enter Yugi Horii. Well, don’t enter him. That’s gross.

Dragon Quest (as Dragon Warrior is called in Japan. Oh, you knew that already? Of course.) was created by Yugi Horii. From what I can glean with Wikipedia, RPGs were quite unpopular in Japan at the time. There was some success with the Dragon Slayer (Xanadu) series, but the vast majority of the Japanese console audience was simply not into it.

Dragon Quest Famicom cover art
Dragon Quest Famicom cover art

Horii wanted to create a game that would bridge the gap, and bring the western genre of RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry to those Japanese console gamers. He wanted to package the RPG gameplay into a game that was fun to look at and easy to understand.

The Portopia Serial Murder Case Famicom cover
The Portopia Serial Murder Case

In his previous work, Horii had created visual novels and adventure games, including his The Portopia Serial Murder Case, a console adventure in the style of Deja-Vu that included with a dungeon-crawling sequence. Portopia heavily influenced Horii in his creation of Dragon Quest. And as a visual novelist, he felt that a compelling story was essential to any good game. 

He teamed up with Akira Toriyama, a Manga artist and creator of Dragon Ball, to produce artwork for the new game. The goal was to take those complex PC RPG experiences and put them into simple sprites with easy interfaces and streamlined sequences that novice players could easily get into.

It worked. Like, really well.

Dragon Warrior NES game overworld
Horii hoped seeing the final destination right across from the starting point would help guide new RPG players.

Dragon Quest was released in Japan on May 27, 1986 and went on to sell 1.5 million copies. Dragon Quest II and III would later surpass that number, with Dragon Quest 3 selling nearly 4 million copies! It is the 12th highest-grossing came for the Famicom, surpassing Mario Bros, Metroid, Punch Out!!, and other legendary games. The Japanese console market was gobbling it up. Yugi Horii and Dragon Quest had succeeded beyond anything they’d dreamed.

Coming to America (but leaving the boobs behind)

Dragon Quest didn’t make its way across the ocean to the US until 1989, just months before the release of Dragon Quest IV in Japan. For the US version, the name was changed to Dragon Warrior to avoid confusion with the American tabletop RPG, DragonQuest by Simulations Publications Inc. (later absorbed by TSR).

The name wasn’t the only change when the game came to the west. Akira Toriyama’s great artwork was Americanized for the instruction manual to more closely resemble western-style RPG aesthetics. The game’s graphics were revamped, and the battery-backed save system was utilized. The Famicom version used a password system.

The slime is the quintessential early-game RPG monster. But nobody does it like Dragon Quest.

Names and dialogue were changed to reflect Elizabethan-ish English-type Medieval fantasy tropes (thou art dead). And ah—oh, hey this is interesting! And taken right out of Wikipedia:

…in the Japanese version, in the town where the hero first buys keys, a woman offers to sell puff-puff – a Japanese onomatopoeia for a girl rubbing her breasts in someone’s face, or juggling her own breasts. In the North American version, the same woman sells tomatoes.

Bet you didn’t know that! 

Enix shipped roughly two gazillion copies of Dragon Warrior to the US, in anticipation of the wildfire that was about to consume the American gaming population. But…

America wasn’t buying it.

Make no mistake. The hype for Dragon Warrior was real. Gaming magazines anticipated Dragon Warrior to be the breakaway hit of 1989, based on the Japanese sales of the series, particularly DQ3. But despite Dragon Warrior’s generally favorable reviews, nobody seemed interested. It flopped.

Let’s take a moment to reflect here.

Dragon Quest began when its creator, Yugi Horii was so impressed by Western PC RPGs that he wanted to introduce the genre to Japanese console gamers. And Japanese console gamers were so impressed with Dragon Quest that Enix wanted to introduce Japanese console RPGs back to western console gamers.

The video-game RPG had made its way across the Pacific and back again. Japan gave American RPGs a (much-needed, imo) makeover in order to be playable on console systems. And it just didn’t work.


Nintendo Power to the Rescue

In the late 80s, Nintendo Power was the ultimate authority over which games were destined to become popular, and which ones were doomed to languish. If you follow me on Twitter, you certainly know I’m a huge Nintendo Power fan. And I think this topic alone is worthy of a deep-dive article like this one to explore the history of Nintendo Power, but for now, we’ll just talk about how it relates to this story.

Yes, Dragon Warrior belly flopped in the US. And the subsequent legend goes a bit like this: Distributors, having ordered a gizaillion too many copies of Dragon Warrior, were understandably upset. They had been expecting the game to fly off the shelves. Instead, they were sitting on unmovable cases of Dragon Warrior games. So what to do with all the extra cartridges?

Welp, Enix and Nintendo Power struck a deal. Nintendo Power bought up the remaining stock of Dragon Warrior games for pennies on the dollar. And then Nintendo Power began to do what they did best. They made us love Nintendo games.

By Christmas of 1990, Nintendo was literally giving away copies of Dragon Warrior. The promotion was epic! When you bought a subscription to Nintendo Power, you got Dragon Warrior for free, along with Nintendo Power’s brilliant propaganda strategy guide pack. Guess what was under my Christmas tree that year?

From the instructions

In this context, with this kind of brainwashing marketing, Dragon Warrior was a smash hit. Both Nintendo Power and Dragon Warrior became ubiquitous within the market. How many kids got their subscription that year? If your first issue featured Mega Man III on the cover, you’re part of the Dragon Warrior club. So am I.

I had played Dragon Warrior when it first came to the US. My cousin had it. I loved the artwork, I tried it, I didn’t like it very much though. I assume that’s how it went for most Americans at the time. We didn’t really understand it. After a few minutes trying it out, I took out my cousin’s Dragon Warrior cart and put in Ikari Warriors 2 instead. (My cousin had everything.) 

Of course, he was very much into PC games, RPG video games, and tabletop RPGs. He was in it. I was much younger and didn’t quite understand.

Fast forward to that Christmas when Dragon Warrior was under my Christmas tree.

Having just tried that game and not liking it, I was a bit disappointed. But we were ghetto, even back then (especially back then), and Nintendo Power’s promotion must have seemed like a godsend to my parents. Look! A Nintendo magazine subscription! And a free game! With a dragon on it!

Yes, I still have all the stuff. And it is immaculate!

Even though I was disappointed at first, I soon changed my mind. With the strategy guide provided by Nintendo Power, I could finally “get” Dragon Warrior. With the walkthrough guide, it made sense. I could follow step-by-step to learn how an RPG worked, how to level up, how to progress and improve my inventory. I was about to turn 7, I could read well enough to follow the game and the guide, and I had never seen anything like it.

“Sales” of Dragon Warrior boomed. Nintendo Power worked their magic. And soon, an entire generation of American gamers were believers. The “Japanese” RPG was born.

Thou hast opened the door

…still not as epic as the battle of Final Fantasy vs Dragon Warrior.

Yugi Horii opened the gateway for JRPGs in the US. He was the pusher that got us addicted to leveling up and upgrading our equipment. How many millions of hours of productivity has that man cost the US economy? I’m sure there’s a conspiracy theory in there somewhere.

Anyway, Horii opened up the door with Dragon Warrior, and the following year Final Fantasy came out. Squaresoft decided to piggyback on Enix’s success and release their own JRPG. Final Fantasy was born at the right moment and it saved Squarsoft from bankruptcy. But that’s a story for another blog post.

The point is, Dragon Warrior is more than just the most vanilla JRPG ever. It’s a piece of history, and it’s the first (certainly not the last) RPG I ever loved.

So then, did Final Fantasy improve on the formula? Is it a better game? Which RPG would really win in a Thunderdome scenario?

Find out in the next installment, Ghetto Fam. Till then, keep it ghetto.


4 responses to “Dragon Warrior and the birth of the JRPG”

  1. […] graphics are also pretty decent for the NES. I’ve seen better but I’ve also seen much […]

  2. […] because they are both role-playing games (JRPGs more precisely. You can learn all about the Birth of JRPGs in Steven Long’s deep dive on that topic) that were released for the Super Nintendo around […]

  3. […] a hefty post about the surprising history of Dragon Warrior and JRPGs, if you want to know what “puff-puff” […]

  4. […] I said before, Dragon Warrior was great for what it did for JRPGs, but it’s far from the best one in the series or on the […]

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