Nintendo was practically an unstoppable juggernaut force in the NES days -- even more so than it’s become in the era of Wii, DS, and blue ocean gaming, if you can believe it. Most estimates put the NES’s command of the American home gaming market at 90%, meaning that nine out of ten families that owned a videogame console owned an NES. (The other ten percent were a noble minority of Master System fans and complete unfortunates whose parents’ frugality left them with dreadful, outdated Atari systems.)
And yet, even then, Nintendo wasn’t infallible. Many of the company’s biggest mistakes -- such as its harsh manufacturing rules that maximized its own profits at the expense of its third-party licensees -- were big-picture issues that took years to come around and explode in the company’s face. But sometimes, it simply made the wrong call... even when all evidence suggested it was actually doing the right thing.
Such was the case with Dragon Warrior, the U.S. adaptation of the first game in the incredibly popular Dragon Quest? franchise. Dragon Quest had proven to be a genuine phenomenon in the land of its birth. By and large, successful Famicom games had translated into NES hits with nary a snag, so there was little reason to think the success of this role-playing game wouldn’t carry across the Pacific as well. It even had a few built-in bonuses! Americans already loved RPGs, whereas Dragon Quest had been instrumental in introducing the genre to Japan. To sweeten the deal, Nintendo and Enix worked together to tweak the American version of the game, improving its graphics and streamlining the interface to fall more into line with its sequels, already available in Japan.
And yet, Dragon Quest was hardly the runaway success Nintendo was hoping for. The company clearly had high expectations for the game, taking it in beneath the umbrella of a first-party release while promoting it heavily in Nintendo Power. The game was heavily modified to improve on the weaknesses of the rather rough original release of the game; a battery back-up replaced Japan’s arcane passwords, and the game’s English script was the most involved localization work yet seen on NES, patching a rudimentary classical English style into what had been workmanlike Japanese text. Certainly the game was no flop, but Nintendo definitely overestimated its appeal... not to mention the proper quantity to manufacture. Though not quite a debacle of E.T. for VCS proportions, Nintendo eventually ended up giving away copies of the game -- presumably tens of thousands -- with new subscriptions to Nintendo Power. Certainly a better fate for those carts than forming a fascinating new stratum of the New Mexico bedrock, but quite the ignominious end for what should have been the next big thing.
Where did Dragon Warrior go wrong? An important clue can probably be found in the fact that the game was revamped to better resemble its sequels. By the time the game reached U.S. stores -- just in time for Christmas 1989 -- the series was already on its third chapter in Japan, and the epic fourth was in the works. The original Dragon Quest was very much a 1986-vintage NES game, and its age showed, even with its improved sprites and slimmed-down menus. NES game design enjoyed a brisk level-up around 1987 (as seen in the Goonies? games), and the three-year lag in Dragon Quest’s localization into Dragon Warrior was a fatal blow. The game’s primitive tile-based graphics, heavily windowed interface, and sluggish movement would have been less detrimental when every game looked like that. But in 1989, we had gorgeous action games like Mega Man 2; Master System fans had been taunting us with the vibrant brilliance of Phantasy Star for two years; and 16-bit consoles had become a reality rather than a vague possibility. The charmingly primitive Dragon Warrior didn’t stand a chance, as its charm was insufficient to overcome its primitiveness.
The fact of the matter is that even in Japan, Dragon Quest wasn’t much of a success at first. The game barely made a ripple upon its release, and it was only after months of heavy cross-promotion in manga weekly Shounen Jump -- where Dragon Quest illustrator Akira Toriyama ruled the roost with his hit comics Dr. Slump and DragonBall -- that gamers started to take notice of the games. Much as with the Mega Man series, it was really the sequel that earned Dragon Quest its fame; Dragon Quest II sold far better than its predecessor, and the third was a genuine blockbuster. Had Nintendo skipped the original game and started with the second, the franchise probably would have fared much better in the States. Of course, fans would bitch and moan about "the one that got away,” but the upshot is that there would have been fans, which would have been a nice change of pace from how things actually worked out.
Ironically enough, America’s familiarity with RPGs probably worked against Dragon Warrior as well. Japan went from Wizardry II to Henk Rogers’ clone The Black Onyx and straight into Dragon Quest. Here in the U.S., we had Wizardry, Ultima, The Bard’s Tale, Might and Magic, Quest for Glory, S.S.I.’s Gold Box games, and countless other examples showing us just how deep and expansive the genre could be. Along came Dragon Quest with its colorful graphics and one-on-one battle system and teeny-tiny world... a revelation for kids who grew up without an Apple II or Commodore 64, sure, but for existing RPG fans, Dragon Warrior was like a children’s primer by comparison to the meatier epics to which they had grown accustomed on their PCs.
That simplicity was an intrinsic part of Dragon Quest’s appeal, of course. It was the first full RPG truly designed for console play; rather than a watered-down port of a complex PC game, it was built from the ground up to work with an interface consisting of a D-pad and two buttons. Further complexity would be integrated in the sequels, but even with the franchise’s ninth entry its core mechanics remain accessible and undemanding.
Director Yuji Horii’s preceding work was a graphic adventure game called The Portopia Serial Murder Case, and in designing Dragon Quest he brought to the RPG much of the mechanical vocabulary of the adventure genre. Add to that a bestiary of colorful creatures that felt more at home among the likes of Mario and Wonder Boy than in the Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Compendium and you begin to understand the thinking behind Dragon Quest: It’s meant to be an RPG for gamers who cut their teeth on action games without abandoning the menu-driven format of classic RPGs.
Ultimately, Dragon Warrior’s failure was a simple matter of context. For a game developed in the NES’s toddler years, it was stunningly rich in content. Here was an adventure which began with a quest to save the princess, just like all the other NES games, but that rescue was only the beginning. (This trick was so clever, in fact, that Final Fantasy borrowed it wholesale a year later.) The point of the game was quite clearly the journey rather than the destination -- said destination could actually be seen across the water the moment players stepped out of the first castle. The question wasn’t “Where do I go,” because Charlock Castle, bristling its forbidding swampland, was clearly your goal. The question instead became, “How do I get there?”
The answer led players across an entire kingdom, through towns and caves, against ever more difficult enemies. There was a deserted town that broke the rules, denying players the safe haven that town icons were meant to represent. Timeless standards were introduced, including the elusive but valuable Metal Slime.
But arriving in the U.S. at the end of 1989 made Dragon Warrior a tragic case of the wrong game at the wrong time. Nintendo had the right idea in transplanting the game to the U.S., but they went about it all wrong. The Dragon Quest franchise got off to a sluggish start in America, a stumbling beginning that’s haunted the series ever since. Maybe Dragon Quest IX -- the first Nintendo-published chapter since the original -- will finally put things right. But then again, maybe there’s just something about Dragon Quest that makes it success-proof in America.
Whatever the case, Japan’s RPG progenitor remains an interesting historical curiosity for many reasons... but most of all for being a rare instance where Nintendo got it wrong.