Thursday, December 5, 2019

Challenge of the Five Realms: Sins of the Father

A jester outlines three rumored fates of my father, any of which he would have deserved.
          
I spent a very long session with Challenge on Tuesday, in the midst of a snowstorm back home. I had hoped to win it, but I still have a few areas left and a number of open side quests. I quit when I started to get a bit impatient with the game, but for most of the session I was having a lot of fun. Challenge definitely feels like a new era in the complexity of the story and the density of the plot. It's one of only a couple of games so far in my chronology that I find it difficult to blog about because I have to elide so much of the NPC dialogue. I also have to take a lot of screenshots to help me remember what happened. I might finish the typical 40-hour game with 250 screen shots, but for Challenge, I already have more than 1,000.

Throughout this session, I continued my pattern of visiting new locations in east-west strips, working northward, away from the creeping darkness. I used "Teleport" to move between areas whenever possible, saving actual time for healing and rest instead of traveling.
           
The final location I visited this session.
     
When I began, I was still in the gnome kingdom of Alveola, trying to figure out who murdered the local brewmaster, and how to convince the gnome king to join my cause and give me his crown. This was a king whose own people described him as a miser who rejected any suggestion of charity, who refused to acknowledge poverty and inequity in his own kingdom. Back when we had arrived in the kingdom, Cagliostra had said that, "We need to teach the Alveolans the power of charity, of giving, and we need a symbol of that change of heart."

Eventually, I did what I often do in adventure games, and I simply went through all of my equipment to see if I already had anything that qualified. I paused on the "spirit lamp" I had purchased from a beggar in Farinor, gave it a try, and was pleased to find that it worked.
           
Well, that sounds like a downer.
           
The lamp made everyone viewing it see the world from the perspective of its last owner. When the gnome king realized what it was like to be a neglected, ostracized beggar, his whole demeanor changed. He gave me a coin to give to a human beggar. While he insisted that I'd have to "cut him open" to get his crown, he did offer to join my party--at which point I simply plucked his crown from his inventory and put it in my own.

Unfortunately, I had to kick someone out to accept him. I ultimately chose Barilla Beggarlove, who had been with me since Greenberry. This became a theme throughout this session. Although the game is very generous with the number of party members (10), it is extremely generous with the number of NPCs who will join the party, and I spent most of this session agonizing about who I should take and who I should leave. More on that as we go on.
           
Booting one NPC to accept another.
            
As we searched various houses, we discovered that the root that had poisoned Kito Pona had come from Shika, one of his nurses. Shika was a former lover of Danzo, Kito's son, and her plan was to get Kito to will everything to Danzo, then murder Danzo's wife and take her place. She killed herself when I exposed her. The whole enterprise got me a whole 20 gold pieces from Kito's family, a paltry sum that the Prince complained about but to no avail.
          
Maybe wait for your attorney to arrive.
           
We left Alveola and warped back to the island of Monteplai, where as I surmised last time, the door to the prison was waiting for me in the back of the front office. In exploring the prison, it became clear that my father was not just arrogant and negligent, but actively evil. In contrast to the prison's reputation for housing the worst murderers and most nefarious criminals, I found that it was mostly stocked with my late father's political enemies and people who couldn't afford to pay their taxes.
           
This is not the worst thing that Chesotor will find out about his father.
         
Inmates included an actor who dared make fun of Clesodor in a play; Felron the Cooper from Ragmar, who interfered with some knights who were hassling young maidens; a brewer whose yellow beer was unlucky enough to fall under the Beer Tax and the All Yellow Tax; a sea trader who had protested a new tax on trade; and a tutor who had unknowingly violated the king's edict against anyone mentioning his late wife's name. The only true criminal seemed to be Kendric the Terrible, leader of the Connington Forest thieves, who admitted his crimes but protested that his sentence of life imprisonment was unjust.
          
Did you make any particular jokes about the prince?
         
The last cell held a prisoner named Kothstul. During conversation, he revealed that he was actually the warden and that he would earn Duke Gormond's favor by killing me.
             
Regrettably, he was not a madman.
           
I had a lot of trouble with the subsequent battle. Once the battle map is established, enemies can appear anywhere, even in walled-off areas inaccessible from the rest of the map. Yet in an engine oversight, enemies can shoot missile weapons and cast spells over walls. I had under-prioritized missile weapons in my own party and didn't have much to shoot back at them (you run out of spell points fast). I had to try to station knights in all sections of the map and then provide enough support to keep them from dying.
          
Some of Kothstul's men start on the left side, some on the right side, and Kothstul himself is in a cell in the middle.
        
In my best combat, I managed to kill Kothstul with "Explode" spells while taking out his half dozen guards with melee attacks, but I lost Glenwin Ironbelt. Since I needed space for new party members, that turned out to be not such a bad thing.

A very annoying sequence followed. I found the cell keys on Kothstul's body, but the game's normal mechanism for unlocking doors ("Use" the key, then click on the door) didn't work in the prison. The only way I could free any prisoners was through dialogue, and that only worked on a couple of them. I had hoped to free all of them. Both Felron and Kendric would join the party, the latter promising to help me out when I got to Connington Forest. I took them both, dismissing the relatively useless Peppercorn.
         
Perhaps the gnome king hasn't undergone as much character growth as we thought.
       
Castle Thiris was next in my exploration pattern, but all I found was a large, empty building with nothing to do. A portal appeared as I explored the building, but I wasn't able to activate it without all five crowns. The endgame happens here.
          
I'm here a little too early.
       
We moved on to Connington Forest, where I soon encountered a bug. It became clear that some outlaw leader named Ogdoth was supposed to pilfer my belongings, and I was supposed to kill him to get them back. But all I got were a lot of NPC messages congratulating me for having already killed Ogdoth. His various thieves were all planning to leave the band and start their lives over elsewhere.
           
I have no idea what this guy is talking about.
           
The map had several people who had been hired by my father to raze the forest in preparation for a new castle. But most important was a clearing guarded by a group of living trees--knights who had served my grandfather but who had become disgusted with his indolent ways. For their opposition, my grandfather's sorcerer, Clitax Malocchius, had turned them into their current states. They begged me to find a Ring of Transformation and return their forms. Apparently, Malocchius's descendants live in Thornkeep.
          
A tree is blunt.
        
Onward to the town of Silvermoor, a community of actors and artists, or at least people who fancied themselves such. There were also beggars in the town, and the first house that I wandered into was occupied by a rich jackass who bragged about leading a secret society responsible for killing the beggars at nighttime. He offered me 500 gold pieces to finish the job by killing the last five. I declined the mission and killed the man in combat instead. Later, we were attacked by other members of his society.
         
A large combat in the middle of an artisans' village.
         
As for the beggars . . . I'm not sure. Each told a sob story and had a reason why 25 or 75 or 125 gold pieces was all he needed for a fresh start in the world. I was generous, but I couldn't help but notice the beggars were still hanging around their old posts even after I'd given them the money they said they needed. I don't know if this is an engine limitation or an attempt to model the behavior of actual beggars. I've noticed that lots of them who only need "$10 for the bus," upon acquiring the $10, curiously do not get on the bus.
      
I'm sounding a bit like this woman, aren't I?
        
One of them gave me a Ring of Translation, though, which turned out to be important. Another sold me a painting and a third a mermaid statue after I quickly warped back to Monteplai to get a block of marble for him. I got a set of musical instruments from a craftsman. A novelist hanging out in a tavern wanted me to bring him a muse if I ever found one.
          
Only in an RPG would I believe this story.
        
Chesotor got to meet his favorite author, Shanna Nobokov (I'm pretty sure that should be "Nobokova"), author of Lost Labor of Love, who's now working on a book about "corruption in the royal family." A librarian didn't want to speak to me unless I had "something new" for him, but he wouldn't accept a copy of Nobokov's book nor a new book of philosophy that I got from another NPC, so I'm not sure what he was looking for.
         
Chesotor needs to work on his pickup lines.
        
An old knight named Sir Balthazaar was guarding a theater, where a director and several actors were staging a play called The Forest Tale; more on that below. Chesotor knew Balthazaar from his childhood and wondered why the knight had left his post at Castle Duras. Balthazaar said he'd been scared off by a ghost, but he offered to join us. I didn't have any room, so I declined, which Balthazaar interpreted as calling him a coward. He was sad.
           
That's quite a career change.
        
In the end, I'm not sure I got anything absolutely necessary out of Silvermoor, but it was an interesting stop nonetheless.

We continued west to Castle Duras, once my family's summer castle. Upon arrival, we were immediately attacked by the garrison commander, Sir Osborne, another flunky of Duke Gormond's. We killed him without much trouble. The castle cook had heard a rumor that Clesodor died choking on a chicken bone. I made a jester happy by letting him keep his job. On the upper floor of the castle, we found Clesodor's "knighting sword."
          
When the entire known world is one unified kingdom, why do we need castle walls?
         
On the lower floor, we found the ghost of my mother. She had a long speech in which she said the "chains of her worry" had bound her to the earthly realm. "I could not move on to what lies beyond without seeing you again, without making sure that you were safe from your father." She related what I'd already suspected--that Clesodor had overlooked poverty and suffering, her persecuted innocents, had banished magic for no reason except that he couldn't cast it. "Your father killed for pleasure and gain," she said. "He was an evil man."
          
My mother was apparently Veronica Lake.
        
She went on to say that she had not accidentally fallen from the Cliffs of Mahor. Instead, King Clesodor had told her to meet him at Castle Duras to discuss the issue with Sir Valakor, and when she arrived, she was attacked and strangled to death by a hooded executioner while Clesodor "watched with a cruel eye." Clesodor had been driven to the act by the queen's friendship with Sir Valakor, which admittedly sounds like an emotional affair even if it was never physically consummated.
           
Yeah, sounds like dad was jealous for nothing.
        
She asked me to bring Valakor to her so she could say goodbye before departing the worldly realm. Since Valakor was already in my party, she immediately made her farewell. "I will await you, my love. We will have our day." (Valakor, oddly, had nothing to say.) But before she left, she dropped one other bombshell: Cagliostra was not just her friend, but her older sister. Cagliostra immediately confirmed this. As my mother ascended to heaven, her chains appeared in my inventory as a spell component.
           
Chesotor immediately regrets certain evenings spent with that magic mirror.
          
Off the northwest coast of the city lay the Sea of Belgror. I couldn't "Teleport" there, but fortunately a ship was still available in the port city of Pendar. When I arrived, the game told me that we immediately found a portal and went through it to the underwater realm of Thalassy. I think I needed the "Swim" and "Breathe Water" spells, but the game didn't force me to cast them. It seems that having them in my inventory was enough.
             
Thalassy had its own "world map" with three areas.
         
The warlike Thalassians turned out to be blue fish-men who lived in the skeleton of a giant sea-creature, with small buildings made from shells, sponges, and arrangements of bones. I found that they were a segregated society, with women living in a separate city. (The region had an entirely separate "outdoor" map with two cities and a shipwreck.) The men were in an uproar because a giant whale had recently appeared and started patrolling the perimeter of the city, repelling all attacks against him by the Thalassians.
            
The local spell shop was in a giant skull.
         
I soon met the Thalassian emperor, Claret III, whose father (like mine and the gnome king's) had recently been slain by Grimnoth. He agreed to help me if I could get rid of the whale. I swam up to the beast and looked through my inventory and spells for anything promising. I decided to try the "Friends" spell. To my surprise, it worked immediately, establishing a telepathic connection that allowed me to speak with Voolz, the whale.
          
This was an original plot twist.
         
Voolz related that he wasn't there to threaten the Thalassians but rather to help them evolve. By patrolling their borders, he will protect the city from all external threats, allowing the Thalassians to concentrate on arts and skills other than martial ones.

Ironically, that wasn't quite enough for Claret III. He made me explore the shipwreck to find a prototype spear gun before he'd come with us and thus allow access to his crown. I also got the leader of the females, Neika, to join us by stealing the two Great Seals for the male-dominated town. I had to dump John Oldcastle to fit her in, but in many hours, he hadn't said anything except to insult me by calling me a girl's name. I think the Thalassians could only leave their kingdom because I had "Breathe Air" and "Walk" in my spell inventory.
         
Fortunately, Claret has "Sword" and "Shield" skills to rival Oldcastle's.
        
Miscellaneous notes:          
  • There were two amusing references to previous RPGs. In Alveola, a gnome objected to my bursting into her home uninvited. She noted that "someone named Avatar was through here not so long ago," and had looted the home of its valuables. This would be funnier if the Ultima wasn't the one series that defies this common trope and actually punishes the Avatar for stealing from random houses. In the other, the play The Forest Tale in Silvermoor was about a wizard named Temeres, which is also the name of Paragon's Wizard Wars (1988).
  • I'm having an ongoing interface issue with haling and speaking. I can't seem to figure out exactly how the system works. Usually the two commands do the same thing. Sometimes, I'll be sitting next to an NPC pounding the (S)peak key and nothing happens. Other times, I'll hit the key at the edge of a screen when no one is around, and then suddenly an NPC will automatically pipe up when I walk into range. Sometimes I have to click and target the NPC I want to speak with, sometimes I don't. Sometimes the NPC's portrait remains on the side of the screen long after I've stopped talking to him and wandered away.
         
Shika's face remains to the left even though I last spoke to her 15 minutes ago in another building.
        
  • The food and armor stores in Thalassy refused to sell me anything because I was a human and thus had an incompatible physiology. I guess that made sense.
  • I'm pretty sure something is bugged in the economy. My money doesn't seem to decrease as I spend it. 
  • Multiple transitions show Grimnoth observing my progress.
          
You told me to bring you the five crowns! How do you know that I'm not just doing your bidding?!
       
As I mentioned earlier, I think Challenge has more words--at least, more NPC words--than any prior game. Unlike with, say, Crusaders of the Dark Savant, I have no complaints about its wordiness because the words are well-written and serious. The characters have unique and realistic personalities. The game also probably sets the record for unique, joinable NPCs and manages to continue to have them comment on the action on a regular basis. Finally, it's one of the few games of the era to really understand the concept of "side quests."
          
Inside a Thalassian sponge-house.
         
Aside from a few interface issues and bugs, the only place that it really fails--and this is keenly felt--is in character development. It has the same problem is the team's MegaTraveller games, in which skill development is erratic and inconsistent, and by the end of the game the team isn't notably stronger than at the beginning. In the entire game so far, none of Chesotor's attributes or physical skills have increased. I guess they simply don't. His "Sword" skill has gone up 7 points. His "Large Blade" skill never increased despite the fact that I equipped him with an axe for half the game, nor has his "Shield" skill gone up at all. "Morality" hasn't budged despite the many role-playing choices, nor have "Reading," "Observation," "Persuasion," "Charisma," or "Courage" gone up despite the many uses of those skills. Then, on the other extreme, "Leadership" has gone up 29 points, "Spell Casting" 20 points, "Bargaining" a whopping 30 points despite the fact that someone else almost always steps in to do it, and "Learn Spell" about 80 points. Why does that last skill increase almost every time you learn a new spell, but "Sword" doesn't go up with the same rapidity?

There also isn't much of an improvement in terms of equipment. The game seems to feature no unique or magic weapons or armor. You can buy everything in its inventory in shops, and you have plenty of money to do so. Altogether, this means that Challenge--much like Paragon's previous games--feels more like an adventure game than an RPG. It's a better adventure game, I would add, but it's still hard to get excited about side quests when the game has no experience points and such a paltry approach to improving skills.

Time so far: 22 hours

Monday, December 2, 2019

Game 349: Dragon Warrior (1986)

But does he possess the Power of the Glow?
            
Dragon Warrior
AKA Dragon Quest (original Japanese title)
Japan
Chunsoft (developer), Enix (publisher)
Released 1986 for MSX and NES (Japan); English version released for NES in 1989
Date Started: 22 November 2019
Date Ended: 30 November 2019
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5), adjustable based on how much you grind
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
         
Dragon Warrior tells the tale of a hero out to defeat an enemy called the Dragonlord. You have to visit two small castles, six small cities, and four small dungeons to collect a series of clues and items necessary to make your way to the Dragonlord and beat him in combat. The whole enterprise takes about an hour.

Oh, except for the grinding. Which took another goddamned sixteen hours. Before I played Dragon Warrior, I thought I knew what it meant to "grind." I thought I'd done it, in fact, in games like The Bard's Tale and Wizard's Crown. I thought it could be kind of fun, allowing you to test out various attack and spell options that you might otherwise have neglected. I even opined on several occasions that I preferred games with a bit of grinding. All of that was before Dragon Warrior held me down and robbed me of my innocence.
          
Get used to this screen.
          
The basic setup of Dragon Warrior is that you start at a castle. Around the castle are slimes that earn you one hit point and one experience point. Eventually, you have to explore the entire land for the items and clues that will lead you to the endgame. This would only take you about one hour if there were no enemies. But the farther you get away from the castle, the harder the enemies become. At first, you care only about simple survival around the castle and its closest town, Brecconary. Soon, you reach a high enough level that those enemies are no longer a problem, but at that point you have to worry about surviving a trip through the ghosts and magicians that haunt the path to Garinham. Once that's accomplished, you have to get good enough to defeat the scorpions and skeletons blocking the way to Kol. Every time you start to feel like a badass, the game rudely reminds you that some new, tougher pack of enemies is hovering just over the horizon.
           
Alefgard, looking a lot like Britannia except that the enemy's castle is on Buccaneer's Den.
            
Except for the imbalance between gameplay and grinding, Dragon Warrior plays a lot like (and was clearly inspired by) an early Ultima. We've got a game world shaped almost exactly like Britannia from Ultima IV, including the position of the castle and first town. We have an iconographic interface. We have a Lord British-like king, a Mondain-like enemy, and a bunch of NPCs in between who offer one-line clues. Beyond this, the developers added some original elements, but not enough to make up for the sheer number of hours that you have to spend fighting slimes.

The backstory is mildly amusing, starting with its redundant opening words: "In olden days of yore." The realm of Alefgard was once cloaked in darkness--a darkness lifted when a brave warrior named Erdrick defeated "an evil being." To accomplish this feat, "he used balls of light." You might guess that the source of these magnificent balls was supernatural or heavenly, but no, they were simply "bequeathed to him by a friend." When the balls had done their work, Erdrick gave them to King Lorick, who brought peace to the land. But during the reign of King Lorik XVI, the evil Dragonlord stole the balls of light from Tantegel Castle, "and once again the kingdom of Alefgard was plunged into darkness." Enter the hero.
         
"Right now. This minute. Like, the moment you press START on your controller."
            
Character creation consists only of a name; everyone begins with 3 strength, 3 agility (speed), 15 hit points, 0 magic points, 3 attack power, and 1 defense power.
                   
"Character creation."
           
You and your GCLM start in Castle Tantegel (obviously a reference to Tintagel in Cornwall), speaking with King Lorik XVI, who does three things for you throughout the game. First, he tells you how many experience points you need for your next level. Second, he saves the game for you. The throne room is the only place you can save, which is a restriction I don't mind and even encourage. Third, he resurrects you when you die, although it costs half your gold.
         
I thought it was balls of light. Plural.
         
From the moment you leave Tantagel, you can see the Dragonlord's castle, Charlock, across the bay. Most of the non-grinding part of the game involves reaching his castle, made difficult because the world of Alefgard apparently has no boats.
          
Castle Tantagel, Brecconary, and Castle Charlock.
         
To reach Charlock's island, you have to use something called the "Rainbow Drop" to create a bridge from another nearby island. The Rainbow Drop is a fusion of the Stones of Sunlight (which are different from the Balls of Light, apparently) and the Staff of Rain, and the old wizard who performs this fusion will only do so if you find Erdrick's Token and thus prove that you're a descendant of Erdrick. Both the Staff of Rain and the Stones of Sunlight have a couple of precursor quests, but in general you get the idea. NPC clues lead you most of the way.
        
The end result of most of the games items and clues.
         
There's at least one major side-quest in the game, although come to think of it, I'm not sure how it can be a side quest. It involves the rescue of the king's daughter, Princess Gwaelin, from a green dragon in a dungeon. You'd think her kidnapping would be important enough to mention in the backstory, but the manual doesn't include it. It's not a tough battle after Level 10 or so; later, green dragons appear liberally as random encounters.
         
The dragon and princess.
          
The rescued princess professes her love for the hero and gives him an item called "Gwaelin's Love." Whatever it is, it allows him to communicate with her from anywhere in the game, and she takes over Lorik's responsibility of telling the hero how many experience points he needs for the next level. She also tells him where he is in respect to the castle, which I thought was fairly useless information until I got a clue to find Erdrick's Token 70 leagues south and 40 leagues east of the castle. Still, I feel like I could have figured out the location without Gwaelin's coordinates, so it makes me wonder what prevents me from winning the game without having rescued Gwaelin first. Since she shows up in the endgame, I assume something does.
           
I feel like I could have accomplished this by just counting steps.
            
Other than Erdrick's Sword, which is found in Charlock, this is all you need to defeat the enemy mechanically. Defeating him functionally is a different story. You can't hope to reach him, let alone defeat him, unless you're at least Level 18. I defeated him at Level 19, but it took me four tries and I was abusing save states to "reload."

This is where the grinding comes in. Level 19 requires 22,000 experience points, and if all you did was walk from city to city picking up clues and items, and then make your way to the Dragonlord, you'd only earn about 1,000 experience points from the random combats along the way. The other 21,000 experience points you must seek out for yourself.
         
The hustle and bustle of a typical Dragon Warrior town.
         
Combat comes upon you randomly as you wander across the landscape or through (most) dungeons, and it is more akin to Wizardry than Ultima. You only ever face one enemy at a time. He might surprise you and get a free attack, but otherwise combat begins with your options to fight, cast a spell, flee, or use an item. Running works often enough to get you out of a tight spot, but not so often that you can use it to pass through areas far above your level. The few items that you can use in combat stop being useful after the early levels. So most of the time, you're fighting or casting.

Fighting does a modest amount of damage based on your strength and weapon. Occasionally, you get lucky with a critical hit or (as the game has it) "excellent move." Occasionally, the enemy parries entirely.

Most of the strategy of combat, to the extent that it has any, is in the few spells. You acquire them in stages as you level up. "Heal" comes at Level 3 and greatly extends your ability to grind in between inn stops (resting at inns is the only way to restore all health and magic). "Hurt" (Level 4) harms enemies, and "Sleep" (Level 7) puts them to sleep for at least one round. "Stopspell" (Level 10) negates enemy magic, and "Healmore" (Level 17) and "Hurtmore" (Level 19) are super-powered versions of their weaker cousins.
             
Fighting a harder enemy late in the game. I had him under a "Sleep" spell, but he woke up at the last hit.
           
"Sleep" is pretty useful from the moment you acquire it, and if you're lucky it will put enemies to bed for enough rounds that you can hack them to death. The problem is that when you're grinding for a handful of experience points at a time, quantity is more important than quality. You want to stay in areas where you don't have to resort to "tactics"--where you can just hold down the "Fight" option and plow through them. This means that for the first hour, you're killing slimes, red slimes, and occasionally "drakees" around the castle for 1-2 experience points each.

Once you hit Level 5 (110 experience points), you can make it to the city of Garinham without dying. Then you're stuck battling ghosts, magicians, and "magidrakees" at 3-5 experience points each for a couple of hours until, say, Level 8. From there, you move to the city of Kol, which is surrounded by skeletons and scorpions with 6-11 experience points each. By Level 12 (4000 experience), you can survive for long periods of time on the large southern island (accessible through a dungeon), where warlocks, wolves, werewolves, wolflords, and wyverns occupy you for 13-40 points each.
            
The first level-up.
            
The far southern parts of the map are swarming with enemies capable of casting high-level spells. They include wraith knights, starwyverns, magiwyverns, green dragons, axe knights, and demon knights. The most valuable has maybe 70 experience points. I never reached a point where I was comfortable mindlessly grinding through this lot, but after you pass Level 13, you have the "Return" spell, which automatically warps you back to the safety of the castle, so you can afford to take more risks. I finished the game at Level 19 with 22,500 experience points, but it goes all the way to Level 30 and 65,535 experience points. Who in the world would take it that high?

Leveling up has a palpable effect on combat difficulty, with each new level contributing a boost in strength, agility, maximum hit points, maximum magic points, and perhaps a new spell. But you're not just grinding for the experience. You're also grinding for the gold, so you can buy improved equipment. (There are a handful of chests in the game, but not enough to deliver significant gold rewards.) Early in the game, you earn gold at a rate of about 1 for every 2 experience points, but against higher-level enemies the ratio reverses, and soon you're earning double the amount of gold as experience.
         
The paltry selection in the first town.
         
Gold is used to purchase weapons, which go in this order: bamboo pole (10 gold), club (60), copper sword (180), hand axe (560), broad sword (1500), and flame sword (9800). Armor progresses as follows: clothes (10), leather armor (70), chain mail (300), half plate (1000), full plate (3000), and magic armor (7700). Shields are small (90), large (800), and silver (14800). As you upgrade, the shop will give you half the value of your current items back to you, but it won't let you buy the new item until you have enough gold without considering the buy-back. So when you go to upgrade from chain mail to half plate, the shop will offer 150 for the chain mail, but you can only make the offer when you have the 1000 needed for half plate on its own, not 850.

At first, I thought it would be a constant mental struggle whether to buy the next incremental upgrade or hold out for a higher level. For instance, do you bother to upgrade from chain mail to half plate, or just save your gold until you can go to full plate? But you can't really move on until you have enough experience anyway, and getting to the requisite experience levels generally means that you have enough gold to hit every incremental improvement along the way. The only purchase that I felt was wasted was the magic armor, as I found "Erdrick's Armor" shortly after I bought it. Erdrick's Armor heals you 1 hit point every step you take and protects you against damage from swamps and magic barriers, and in an replay or walkthrough-assisted game, it would be worth a suicide mission, running from as many enemies as possible, as soon as you can plausibly hope to reach it.

The game has a few other usable items that are fairly clever. Dragon's scales raise your defense temporarily; fairy water prevents enemies from attacking for short periods; herbs restore hit points; and wings cast the "Return" spell and warp you back to the castle. You also have to buy magic keys to fully explore the interiors of towns and dungeons.

Once I had the necessary items and Erdrick's Armor, which generally assured I could reclaim my hit points between battles without wasting magic points, I decided to take on Castle Charlock. The first level has a throne but no occupant, and I had to fiddle around with search options to find a hidden staircase behind the throne.
    
My armor protects me against the magic barriers as I approach an empty throne.
          
Below the hidden stairs are eight dungeon levels, one of which has a chest holding Erdrick's Sword. Fortunately, I found it before meeting the Dragonlord because I understand it's necessary to kill him, yet I don't recall getting any clue to that effect.
             
That was lucky.
          
The bottom level is a large one, but you ultimately encounter the Dragonlord in his "real" throne. He immediately offers you a deal: "To share this world and to rule half of it if thou will now stand beside me." Of course I had to say yes the first time. He replied: "Really? [I think I had to say "yes" again.] Then half of this world is thine, half of the darkness, and . . . if thou dies, I can bring thee back for another attempt without loss of thy deeds to date. Thy journey is over. Take now a long, long rest. Hahahahaha . . . ." The screen turned red and the game was over.

I'm not really sure what happened there, but I think there was a glitch. "Without loss of thy deeds to date" is text from the king's offer to save your game. I suspect something else was supposed to appear there that made it clear the Dragonlord was betraying me. Or else it was an ironic echo of the king's offer.
         
I mean, I would like to take a long rest. But the "hahahahaha" part makes me suspicious.
           
Either way, I reloaded and said no. A battle against the Dragonlord commenced and ended after three rounds. But then, "The Dragonlord revealed his true self!" and turned into a dragon. I'd like to say this was a major plot twist, but he kind of gave it away by calling himself "Dragonlord."
              
It turns out he's kind of racist.
            
The dragon Dragonlord was much tougher, and as I mentioned above, it took me four tries to beat him. The issue was mostly that I needed to cast "Healmore" every two rounds, and eventually I would run out of magic points. (No other spells seem to work in battle against him.) If I had been playing without save states, waking up in the castle at every loss, I would have spent another few hours grinding. As it was, I just kept trying until I got a luckier sequence of random numbers where I only had to "Healmore" every three rounds instead of every two. That left me enough attacks in between to slice away his hit points.

Once he was dead: "Thou hast done well in defeating the Dragonlord. Thou hast found the Ball of Light. [I still want to know what happened to the other ones.] Across the land spreads the brilliance until all shadows are banished and peace is restored."
          
Was the Ball of Light really necessary as a plot point?
         
I was teleported back to the castle, where the king said that the legends were true and I was the "line of Erdrick." He offered me his throne, but the game had me automatically decline. "If ever I am to rule a country," Chester said, channeling Conan, "It must be a land that I myself find." One wonders how he'll "rule" a place that has no other people, but we'll let it go for now.
              
"I will have my own kingdom, my own queen."
           
Gwaelin immediately volunteered herself as a companion on my journey. (Honestly, I didn't mean to suggest I was leaving today.) The game offered me "yes" and "no" options, but if I said "no," Gwaelin responded, "But thou must!" and I got the "choice" again. So I made her happy by accepting. "And thus the tale comes to an end . . .  unless the dragons return again."
            
Which they will, at least 12 times, in the main series alone.
             
There was a nice animation of some trumpeters playing before the final screen. That puts me in mind to talk about the game music. Because I haven't otherwise focused much on music, I don't know what game first introduced the idea of multiple background themes for each major division of gameplay, including outdoor exploration, town exploration, dungeon exploration, and combat. The first that I can remember is Ultima IV, and it wouldn't surprise me if Sugiyama took his musical cues from Kenneth Arnold. But where Arnold's compositions are mostly homophonic, with one clear melody line supported by complementary chords, Sugiyama's uses a complex polyphony (multiple melodies operating at once). I thought the complexity was utterly lost on the era hardware, but I admired it nonetheless. Of course, I turned it off after a few minutes, as usual, because I don't like repetitive background music no matter how much I admire the counterpoint.
          
The winning screen.
          
As for the rest of the game, I found it trite and boring. The running-around-looking-for-clues portion is no more advanced than we saw in the original Ultima five years earlier, but instead of making a 6-hour game out of what they had, the developers of Dragon Warrior bulked things up with a lot of tedious grinding. However, the game is undoubtedly an RPG. It is probably the earliest console RPG (available in English, anyway) that we don't have to qualify with prefixes like "quasi-" and "proto-." On my GIMLET, it earns:
          
  • 2 points for a basic, uncomplicated game world.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Character creation is nothing, but development is rewarding enough--the one thing other than sound that's more advanced here than in early Ultima.
        
My character sheet a little more than halfway through the game.
          
  • 4 points for NPCs. This is the earliest JRPG that I can remember to include a healthy number of clue-givers and lore-speakers.
           
NPCs offer a lot of one-line hints.
         
  • 2 points for encounters. Enemies aren't much differentiated except for those with spell abilities and those without. There are no non-combat encounters.
  • 2 points for magic and combat, both fairly primitive.
  • 3 points for equipment. The linear progression of weapons and armor is balanced by some creative usable items.
  • 4 points for the economy. It lacks complexity, but it sure does remain relevant for most of the game.
  • 3 points for quests. In addition to the main quest, there are a few side areas. Notably, I forgot to follow a clue to a "Warrior's Ring" that might have helped.
            
This should be standard in RPGs, but without the subsequent betrayal.
          
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I don't like the graphics of this era in general. I would prefer the smooth, crisp lines and distinct colors of pure abstract iconography over the early console era's attempts to depict complex things with limited hardware. (Graphics are credited to Akira Toriyama, better known as the creator of Dragon Ball.) The sound is occasionally fun but not in any way atmospheric. The console controls, infantile as they are, work reasonably well for the limited number of commands the game offers.
           
When you're bringing the princess home, the icon changes to show you carrying the princess--which is just a bit too difficult to convey using the graphics capabilities of the system.
          
  • 2 points for gameplay. Too linear, not replayable, and too long. I wouldn't say it's "too hard," because that depends on how long you make it, but even for a moderate level of difficulty, it's too long.
           
That gives us a final score of 29, which is below my recommended threshold but in some ways still high given its place as the first incontestable console RPG. I could see it whetting a player's appetite for RPGs, like Questron did for me, without being a great RPG itself.


Kurt Kalata covers the history of Dragon Warrior--or more properly Dragon Quest, as it's known in Japan--in an article at GamaSutra. Developers Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura attended the 1985 Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco and were enchanted with Wizardry and Ultima but deliberately decided to simplify Wizardry's combat mechanics for the average console player. (I find it amusing that the "dumbing down" of console games, often argued by computer game partisans and contested by console partisans, is directly confirmed by the accounts of early console developers.)

In Japan, sales were slow but ultimately developed quite well. The 1989 North American release (the one that I played) featured some upgrades from the original, including the hero's icon changing to match direction of travel and a battery save rather than a password save. It sold poorly and got mediocre reviews, as much more complex games had come along in the intervening period, but the game's enduring fame was assured when Nintendo Power started giving free copies to subscribers.

The name change in North America was due to the' tabletop RPG DragonQuest (originally a competitor to Dungeons and Dragons but acquired by TSR in 1989), but I'll revert to the original title in discussing the future. Dragon Quest II came out in 1987 for the MSX and NES (North American release in 1990) and Dragon Quest III a year later (North American release in 1992). Each stepped up the complexity of inventory, economy, and combat, and most of all allowed for multiple characters in the party and multiple enemies in combat. After that, the public got a new Dragon Quest game every two-to-five years, culminating in Dragon Quest XI in 2017. Dragon Quest XII is currently under development. The main series has kept the same primary team of developers throughout its history.

A spinoff series called Dragon Quest Monsters started in 1998 (last release in 2016), heavily inspired by Pokémon. The Mystery Dungeon series (1993-2006) were a quartet of roguelikes based on Dragon Quest characters and themes. One common enemy in the Dragon Quest environment, Slime, got an action-adventure series between 2003 and 2011. There were also board games, card games, manga, novels, and anime. The main series has continued to enjoy western releases, and Enix has been able to use the original title since 2003, when they registered Dragon Quest in the United States with no objections from the then-owners of the DragonQuest copyright, Wizards of the Coast.

I think only the most recent release, Dragon Quest XI, is on my official list, as it's the only one to appear on the computer as well as the console. We'll see if I ever reach it or get to any of the others. This week, Dragon Warrior was supposed to be a quick piece that I was going to hold in reserve in case I failed to make my publication goals on any of the primary games, but it took me so long that I had to publish it immediately instead of the next Challenge of the Five Realms entry. I should have learned a long time ago that I can never plan for a four-hour, one-entry game, no matter how primitive the mechanics. Such games do happen, but only when you aren't deliberately counting on them.

Between Dragon Warrior, Bokosuka Wars, Deadly Towers, and the PC JRPGs that I've managed to play, I'm satisfied that I've covered enough of the early JRPG era and early console era. If I decide to try a console game again, I'll feel comfortable leaping to one of the landmark games from the late 1980s rather than experiencing everything in between. But don't look for that soon.