There are two conflicts in the entirety of Dragon Quest’s world: a kidnapped princess and a tyrannical dragonlord. Saving the princess is, interestingly, not even required to finish the quest. What Dragon Quest values then is this one action, a clash of light and dark, and all else is unimportant, in a way less than superfluous. To become the representative of light, the hero must come into his birthright, which are the tools of war used by the previous hero, buried away until needed again. Most of the game is spent chasing the ghost of an ancestor, a physical ceremony of finding and wearing their armaments. Nothing is known or is learned about the previous saviour. Elders, of some apparent religious significance, believed in him, and they test the dragon warrior. Their blessing is required to make it to the dragonlord’s keep. There’s nothing else pressing in the world. It’s cardboard propped up by familiar ideas and symbols. The intention is to invoke but the towns are too idealized, filled with anxious but happy people ready to serve the player, lacking any allusion to a functioning history or culture. There’s a quest, a world to save, but not much incentive for it, as there’s nothing to really care for or nurture.
This leaves Dragon Quest lonely. Silent, hostile videogames usually feel this way, but it is an abnormal feeling in a rpg, where fellowship is a cornerstone. The hero is a stranger in a strange land and all conversation, by necessity, revolves around their burden. It feels like a hero reduced of all agency. None of living existence is like the hero, or can empathize with him. It’s often how The Legend of Zelda feels, an existence of near religious, sacrificial significance. In Dragon Quest, however, there are rewards for the hero. A dramatic payoff of kingship softens the alienation, the labor having a fantastic reward, but the crown is pointless. There are no signs of life in kingdom, nothing to rule over. Besides, If the hero exists because of desire to be saved, then what can he do after? There’s no confidence or reason to believe the hero will be a better ruler than the dragonlord. It’s a pithy gesture of empowerment, one that repulses me: be special, save the world, and rule over it.
That’s easily pushed from the mind, though, as I find Dragon Quest to be of a relationship with the world itself, being a game of action instead of implications. Alefgard is a relatively small landmass (a normal mapsize for j-pc rpgs at the time) that gently curves and swirls while maintaining even-sized threads of connection. Places to enter are always encircled, or half circled, by some kind of geographical formation, which maintains a consistency and wholeness. It feels, in a way, like a perception of rationality, because of the consistency and logic of the formations. Through the unnatural orderliness and cleanliness of the map, the burden of determinism is itself reflected in the design. This motivates relief in me, a single-minded catharsis as I travel over landscape that shifts into different positions of its own self, confident in its familiarity. Being orderly, instanced, and samey is the map’s double-edge, as it can feel less like a crescendo and more like being stuck, a conflicting awareness of its stasis.
Caves, the only kind of dungeon maps in Dragon Quest, are mazes in a literal sense. They’re innately stressful as the hero has a small light radius, the player can only see a few steps around them. Its theme music takes on a lower tone and slower pace the further down, an adaptive accent that reinforces the fear of sudden defeat. They are very closed and claustrophobic, to a frustrating degree. I find all of the caves boring, they develop very erratically, and because of their sameness in color and presentation, they offer little personality to be absorbed. While the rest of the game is supportive of the hero purpose, these areas are markedly aggressive. These mazes are flat, unorderly, and needlessly complex in a way that contradicts the rest of the world’s composition. Without any apparent design goal other than making a player get lost, their resulting function is to waste time and consume resources, a blunt and forceful execution of stressful play. I think Dragon Quest feels more at home instilling a tentative, but growing, confidence and purpose, rather than an innate fear and exhaustion.
Most of playing through Dragon Quest, as its reputation, is grinding through random encounters. It’s a relatively short game, so in no exaggeration, half of its playtime is spent pacing and hacking monsters. In the soft, idyllic overworld, it lends itself to feeling like a meditation, and intimate familiarization with the map. It’s compartmentalized, though, earn enough gold around one settlement to enable travel to the next one, and repeat. It doesn’t take long to be able to defeat the area’s monsters with ease, but tons of gold is still required after that point, so the grinding feels like actual work, instead of punctured survival arcs. And, I say this not lightly, but the overworld theme, though bespoke in its assertions of loneliness, is also very shrill and loops after little melodic progression, which makes it difficult to flow into the labor of grinding. The battle theme is unobtrusive, a sensitive, floating piece. It sets a great tone against new enemies that present a solid risk to the player, warbling in its own fearful way, but is only somewhat appropriate for the activity of grinding that begins to fade in its own importance, and is responsible for draining altogether what little pleasure there is to be gleaned from grinding.
Ultimately, Dragon Quest is a very focused, simple, and lean construction. As every fight is one-on-one, and there’s little other way to feel like an existence other than fighting, it’s an example of videogame loneliness only matched by starkness of the original Metroid or Hero Core. This is what resonates powerfully through all aspects of the game, an ode to the solitary, the laborious struggle and determination requisite to accomplish anything despite being a pariah. If you’re seriously invested in jrpgs or rpgs, I urge you to play Dragon Quest, if not for the experience, then for its fundamental approach to its established ludic language and visual composition. Undertale, of all things, contains direct remnants of Dragon Quest in its menu design and item limitations. I can justifiably say Dragon Quest is a contemporary rpg in its most condensed and raw form, enabling it to be an easy to understand model of the clear relationship and purpose these now common ludic devices were meant for. Playing the game for this reason may feel boring, but it is certainly enriching. Dragon Quest illustrates the simple effectiveness of rpg language and its fundamental influence can be felt to an astounding degree, while being a specific and unique experience within its own context.