R-P-G. In the world of video games, not only do these three letters stand for role-playing game, but its mere mention also evokes more loyalty, passion and debate than perhaps any other genre. Though I write that last sentence as if it were common knowledge, I ponder what made RPGs so endearing to me and millions of gamers around the world to begin with. Today's gaming climate—clouded with countless reiterations and hybrids—makes it difficult to recall why the earliest console RPGs were able to capture our hearts and imagination.
Thankfully, after playing through Dragon Warrior I & II on the Game Boy Color, I'm no longer confused. Like a beacon of light, the ground-breaking title that first debuted on the 8-bit NES/Famicom console and now resurrected on the ageless portable system, has shown me the answer: The foundation that RPGs built their success on was realism.
Back in the '80s, when the 8-bit NES was at the height of its popularity, practically all video games were two-dimensional in orientation. Stages were all segmented, linear in design, and players were typically given three lives to play through a game. When Nintendo released Dragon Warrior and introduced the RPG genre to a console system, that all changed. Players could freely explore a vast world at his or her own control and choose which quests to undertake. This was a game in which fighting wasn't solely decided on reflex and agility. Wit, strategy and growth also became factors. For the first time on console system, players could retreat from battles, equipment could be purchased from stores, and players could slowly develop into great warriors. Most importantly, this was a game in which death wasn't sugar coated as some sort of a metaphorical do over. If a player perished in Dragon Warrior, he or she had to suffer the dire consequences of losing progress and precious gold. That element of death enovked a sense of instinctive fear and tension for survival (something largely missing from today's console RPGs), and that's what got me hooked. Dragon Warrior allowed me to see a part of myself in the game.
Of course, creating a sense of realism and engaging a player on that level during those pioneering days was no easy feat. The graphic capabilities of the NES system was not up to the task of producing photo-realistic imagery. The system could only muster up dozens of colors on a limited resolution with little or no detail. In order to compensate visually, developers conceptualized text-based menus to simulate conversations with people, character attributes and carried inventory. Turn-based battle systems were designed to represent the most realistic combat possible. Dragon Warrior shows us that RPGs were fashioned the way they were in order to make up for the inadequacies of the system hardware in the process of trying to create the most realistic gaming experience possible.
So there's bit of irony when you consider today's modern RPGs don't suffer from the same graphical limitations as the developers of Dragon Warrior did, yet they still use the same age-old conventions that were utilized to make-up for old hardware limitations. So are RPGs defined by those old conventions or are RPGs about creating the most realistic experience possible? What is the true essence of role-playing? And what does all of this have to do with my review of Dragon Warrior I & II on the Game Boy Color?
Well if you're an "old-school playa" like me, you don't need me to tell you this title is money. Save the graphical facelift and modern day transitional gameplay tweaks like on-the-spot temporary saves and attribute boosting items aside, this is still the same game you know and love. Enjoying the nostalgic flashback is a given (love the tunes!), but whether you find the experience as refreshing as I did in comparison to today's player-detached, story-driven CG-cluttered RPGs is entirely up to you.
If you're too young to have played Dragon Warrior on the NES or missed the experience during the '80s, and you do decide to give the game a try, I'm hoping youll dwell on these questions as I have. For me to try to convince anyone that Dragon Warrior I & II is worthy of praise based purely on the aesthetics of the gameplay, graphics and sound would be foolish. To appreciate Dragon Warrior for what it is requires the player to go beyond the surface, look a little deeper and buy into the riches of history.
Dragon Warrior is history that can't and shouldn't be ignored. To not acknowledge that would be an injustice to the collective art of video games, and it would also make for a bad review.