It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t so long ago that I didn’t think I could possibly get through a late 8-bit JRPG without, I don’t know, lapsing into a coma from boredom. I wasn’t a fan of the genre at its best, so I certainly wasn’t going to be able to get through a game from a more archaic age. Time makes fools of us all, however, and I’ve since toppled a few. Not many, but at least Final Fantasy and the first two Dragon Warrior titles.
I generally credit Dragon Warrior with helping me break the barrier. Having heard so much acclaim for the early titles coming from Japan where it’s known as Dragon Quest. I was curious as to what the appeal was. I still love the original title, and Dragon Warrior II was a great follow-up, but a lot of the praise I had heard was more specifically aimed at Dragon Warrior III, commonly considered to be the Famicom/NES series’ pinnacle.
However, it would take me years before I finally got the willpower to finally topple the title. Part of this is because — no disrespect intended — Dragon Warrior works like a sedative on me; its repetitive, turn-based battles and droning music lulling me into a gentle snooze. Also, aside from the first game, they’re massive time investments. I was planning on playing shorter games to review here, but Dragon Warrior III got in the way of that plan. Now, 40-some hours later, I guess I’ve got one review for you.
GET UP AND GO
The story opens with you following in your father’s footprints and setting out to defeat the Archfiend with a party of adventurers you choose and name yourself. That’s about it, there’s no depth beyond that, and no clear motivation besides, “let’s make dad proud and erase the evil from our land.” It’s pretty par the course for an RPG of this vintage.
From there, it’s up to you to figure out how to progress in a world that opens up gradually. At first, things are pretty straightforward, but after a while, you’ll be left to explore and solve problems as you find them.
Gameplay is basic JRPG. You walk around an overworld and get jumped by randomly appearing monsters. If Dragon Warrior III does one thing unique, it’s the fact that you’re not limited in your class customization. There are six classes and an additional secret one. Party members can be male or female, carry whatever name you give them, and even switch classes later in the game for additional customization. There are no restrictions, so if you want three magic users to join you, shine on, you mana-slinging fool!
While the party changes are the main distinction between this game and Dragon Warrior II, the world also deserves some recognition. Simply put, it’s pretty huge and full of small details that make it tantalizing to explore. The world is shaped to vaguely resemble Earth itself; expertly crafted to ensure you can only reach the areas that are pertinent to you at the time. The towns all basically look the same, but small changes in their layouts make them distinct, if unremarkable.
The dungeons, on the other hand, are all very monotonous looking. Don’t get me wrong, from a functional standpoint, they do the trick, but you can only look at thick walls for so long before you wish to return to the overworld. You’ll be doing that often, however, since the flow of dungeons seems to be delving as far into it as you can before your party is worn out, then having to retreat back to a town to hit the inn. There are no mana potions here.
On the other hand, while the dungeons may be drab, the art style as a whole is entirely loveable. Done by Akira Toriyama, the artist behind Dragonball, the Dragon Quest series features memorable monsters and cheery graphics. The blocky characters are so adorable and the monsters are so weird and non-threatening; it’s one of the game’s best features.
The game’s flow can be a problem though. The entire mid-section of the game involves sailing around, finding tips on problems that can be solved. The focus on exploration is nice, and it’s great that there’s so much player agency, but the random battles that constantly show up put a damper on it. The encounter rate is simply much to high in the overworld, which makes getting from point A to point B a pain in the butt. Luckily, you can use a spell to just return to any town you’ve been to — a first in the series — but that just means you’re skipping out on the exploration.
It’s easy to get stuck not knowing what to do. There are environmental tips and there’s usually a character somewhere who will point you in the right direction, but it can be tedious to talk to everyone. It can drag so much that the instruction booklet actually came with a short walkthrough of the game. Personally, I used an old Nintendo Power, which added a dash of nostalgia to the mix, but I hate having to look things up. I shouldn’t have to.
Even with the help from Nintendo Power, however, I still wound up getting stuck in a couple of spots, which is honestly refreshing. I’ve always found that RPG’s are devoid of challenge since you can simply grind your way to success, but in Dragon Warrior III, it seems almost fruitless to do so. A lot of the time, a certain strategy must be applied and your party must be utilized properly to actually get past certain bosses and dungeons.
WORLD OF DARKNESS
Dragon Warrior III lacks the diversity of Final Fantasy, but where it excels is surprising the player. Like other games in the Dragon Warrior series, the game is packed with secrets and tricks that reward the player who is willing to step off the beaten path. Not only that, but it plays with its cards close to its chest, rarely hinting at what’s coming up. Fans of the original game will probably be delighted by the final act, a throwback that brings the trilogy full circle.
On the other hand, you still have to get through all the random encounters, which I’ve never been a fan of. Given the year that the game came out, and the system it came out on, it should be no surprise that it’s as archaic as all hell. I think it takes a certain type of willpower to stomach RPG’s of this vintage because they’re typically as unfriendly as a bouncer at an all-ages concert, and the UI requires a certain finesse just to navigate comfortably. It gets in its own way whenever it can, but that’s just because it’s a product of its era.
It wound up causing me a lot of hesitation, however. The walking speed is really slow, and text boxes feel like that take a few seconds too long to pop up. I wound up ignoring a lot of NPCs at my own peril because they seemed inconsequential and I didn’t want to waste time waiting for their blurb of unnecessary information to show up. It can feel like a slog.
Not only that, but the armor and weapons aren’t explained. Certain classes can only equip certain equipment, but who can equip what is not clear. It’s never shown, and the only way to tell within the game is trying to equip it and seeing the effect. This might be cleared up in the game’s manual, but that’s not necessarily good interface.
While I can say I enjoyed Dragon Warrior III, I must confess I don’t really see it’s magic. It could just be that I worked hard to acquire a taste for JRPG’s, and I’m still not comfortable with them, but I feel like I enjoyed Final Fantasy and even Dragon Warrior II more. It could also be that I’m in a stressful point in my life and slogging through a 40-or-so hour RPG wasn’t the best of ideas.
It’s hard to say for sure, but what is certain is that I enjoyed Dragon Quest III and would happily recommend it, so long as you can stomach the archaic habits of late-8-bit era RPG’s. It still retains its lovely graphics and wonderful personality, which gives the Dragon Quest its charm. I guess I should just sum up by saying that, if you enjoyed the first two games in the series, the third one is worth the walking.
This review was conducted on an NES with an original cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.