Sunday, August 4, 2019

Why I Own 14 Copies of Dragon Warrior (And Counting)

Have you ever loved a thing so much you bought it every time you came across it? Probably not. That doesn't seem to be a very common thing that normal people do. Well, I own 14 copies of Dragon Warrior and counting, and by my own admission, that's not a normal thing to do. Maybe we should talk a bit about that today.

Exploring the land of Alefgard.
"Descendant of Erdrick, listen now to my words."

Thirty years ago this month, Dragon Warrior was released in the U.S. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was certainly not the first role playing video game in existence, but it was my first role playing game. Role playing games are a genre that I have sunk countless hours into, and the original Dragon Warrior was my first taste of what was to come. I'm confident Dragon Warrior was the first RPG for many people from my generation, just as Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation was the entry point for many people younger than me.

At its core, Dragon Warrior is a very basic game. Everything about it is basic, to be honest, from the plot to the game mechanics. Part of why I love the original game so much is because of how contained and simplistic it is, though. The world map isn't very big, and the story of "save the princess, slay the dragon" is so cliché it's charming. This isn't some grandiose 200+ hour quest. This is something that you can finish in a reasonable amount of time with your character level maxed out, which happens at level 30, might I add.

Where Dragon Warrior was extremely simple, Dragon Warrior II improved upon the groundwork laid by the original by upping your party to three characters, as well as the ability to fight more than one enemy at a time. Despite this clear improvement, I still prefer the simplicity of the original game. Even as a kid when I rented the second game, I found it didn't grab me like the first one ended up doing. That's not to say I don't like the second game, but the first one is more special to me. Clearly.

There's something almost therapeutic about the game. I find it very relaxing to roam around the map and get into random battles, slowly gaining experience points and gold. This is true for many RPGs, but in this game it almost feels more productive to do it somehow. I feel like I'm accomplishing something with every single random battle, and I don't feel that way with a lot of role playing games.

Dragon Quest III article.
"This is a magic place."

Before we even got the first game, Japan was already playing the third. There's a short article in the very first issue of Nintendo Power about the Dragon Quest fever that was sweeping Japan at the time. The article wonders if the same fever will hit America when the first game is eventually released here. Unfortunately, Dragon Quest has never reached the levels of popularity it enjoys in Japan, and it typically takes a backseat here to Final Fantasy.

I'm not going to copy/paste some Wikipedia article explaining the history of Dragon Warrior here, but briefly, the series is called Dragon Quest in Japan. The name was changed when it was brought to America due to copyright issues with TSR, the company that makes Dungeons & Dragons. The series didn't become Dragon Quest in America until the eighth game, but it has always been called Dragon Quest in Japan.

Being a big fan of the series, I have picked up the Japanese versions of many of the older games from eBay and I was gifted several of the Super Famicom games from a friend of mine who visited Japan. It's important to me to own these versions as well because I have read about how popular the series is in Japan, and I find these versions of the games to be culturally significant. Even if I can't read Japanese, I still feel compelled to own them.

Dragon Warrior tools to help you win the game!
"May the light shine upon thee."

I was not one of the many people who received a copy for free in the mail for subscribing to Nintendo Power. In fact, I don't think I even knew about that offer until I was an adult. Actually, my copy was bought for me by my dad at a place called Lowell's. No, not Lowe's the hardware store. Lowell's was a department/jewelry store. I'm not sure if it was a local business or a chain, but other than K*B Toys, it's where a lot of my toys and video games came from back then.

Walking into the store, there was a little open foyer area and to the right of that was an area that had electronics in it. In the back of this room was a glass counter and behind it was a cabinet full of video games. It probably had more than just NES games in it, but that's all I cared about back then. I remember standing at this counter with my dad and asking for Dragon Warrior. I had probably seen it in an issue of Nintendo Power by this point, as the first issue I received in the mail after subscribing had a huge feature about the game in it, but I had not seen the game in motion or played it before.

The green dragon is the foulest dragon.
I got the game, took it home and played it... and absolutely hated it. Plot twist.

Dragon Warrior came out in 1989 in America. I was probably 8 or 9 years old when I first played it. Knowing what I know about the game now, of course I didn't like it at first. I would never suggest Dragon Warrior to an 8 year old. It was an extremely complicated game for me. I didn't understand the concept of leveling up and earning experience points. I didn't like that you couldn't just explore everything from the get-go like The Legend of Zelda. I didn't like the menu system, i.e., having to open the menu and select "stairs" to walk down a set of stairs. It was clunky and I didn't know what was going on. As I mentioned earlier, it was my first role playing game.

I continued to play the game, however, because that's what you did back then. I read more about it in Nintendo Power and talked to my friends about where to go in the game. At the time, the game seemed enormous. Basically there were areas that were impossible to explore because the enemies were so incredibly difficult after crossing bridges, and I hadn't quite grasped the basic RPG practice of "leveling up" yet. I'd be exploring, cross a bridge, and suddenly come face to face with a skeleton or other advanced enemy that would absolutely annihilate me. I'd attempt to run from battles in a futile attempt to explore more, but it always resulted in my hit points reaching zero and the ominous message, "Thou art dead" scrawled on my screen. I didn't have the knowledge or maybe even the patience to keep fighting enemies to become stronger so I could defeat those skeletons.

"Coming soon to the NES!"
I struggled with the game for a long time, making progress in baby steps. Then one day, one of my friends named Brett told me that he had heard that our local video rental store Video Clips had a copy of Dragon Warrior with a save on the cartridge that was at the end of the game. This feat seemed so impossible to me that I actually rented a game I already owned just so I could see more of the game world. I got the game home and it did in fact have a save on it with max levels and all equipment. The character was named STUN, and with this character, I was able to storm the Dragonlord's castle and beat the game for the first time.

Then I did something sneaky. Instead of returning the actual copy of the game I had rented, I instead returned my personal copy. That way I would have access to the STUN save and could finish the game at any time. When I told Brett he was furious with me over it, because he too had planned on renting the copy so he could finish the game as well. That or he planned on doing exactly what I did and I beat him to it.

However, telling this story now makes me realize that I don't own the original copy of Dragon Warrior I got from Lowell's. I don't think I like that. Then again, the STUN save is pretty legendary. I think I'd rather have my original copy, though. I'm big on nostalgia and I'd like to hold my original copy and be able to say, "This is my childhood Dragon Warrior my dad got me." I can't do that now. Hm. Well, moving on before I get sad about that...

My Japanese copy of the game.
"Dost thou love me? But thou must."

I feel compelled to "save" copies of Dragon Warrior whenever I encounter one. I feel like I have to bring them home and wipe off the dirt of neglect from the cartridge until it shines like new again. There's something oddly satisfying about it. I also find it highly enjoyable to pop the cart in and see where the saves are at. I have found on most copies of the game I own the original owner has saved the princess, but their levels are not typically high enough for them to have finished the game. I guess the idea of level grinding that much turned them off and they abandoned their adventure.

I'm not setting out to have the most copies of Dragon Warrior or anything like that. I don't have some kind of lofty goal with it. I also know I'm not the only person buying multiple copies of the game. The guy over at The Unorthodox Dragon Warrior Collection has over 600 at the moment, and I'm definitely not trying to compete with that. I will, however, continue to buy every copy that's in good shape I come across. I've turned down many because they had some kind of imperfection, one as recently as last Saturday.

"Listen to what people say. It can be of great help."

Dragon Warrior is not only special to me, but to many of my friends as well. I asked a few of them about Dragon Warrior and what it means to them, because I was curious about the impact the game had on them. It would seem I'm not alone in cherishing this game.

My good friend Matt Hackett [Website | Twitter] had this to say:
"The original Dragon Warrior was the first RPG I ever played. Totally inaccessible and mysterious and irresistible to play. Grindy, full of secrets, catchy music that remains in my head to this day. Still have the strategy guide, complete with rusty staples. Not to mention the cartridge itself staring at me from my desk every day.
"As far as influence, the first professional game I ever made, Onslaught! Arena, the main character Xam looks quite a bit like Dragon Warrior's protagonist. [Dragon Warrior] definitely inspired me to become a game dev. One of the many games. My first couple QBasic games were trying to be Dragon Warrior. One was called DRAGON and I think I even built a portion of Dragon Warrior's town in it."
Another friend of mine, Jim MacDonald, got his alias Jikg (pronounced Jink) from misspelling his name in Dragon Warrior. He had this to add:
"My go-to avatar is a Dragon Warrior blue slime. And it birthed my internet handle as well, since I'm an idiot at typing in my name. 
"First RPG I ever played. My introduction to a game that emphasized exploration and discovery, the dangerous risk of venturing too far from the safe zone, the importance of resource management, grinding to better your character; everything a good RPG should embody. I owe my love of the genre to this little gem. 
"I didn't have Nintendo Power, nor did I own the strategy guide. I remember borrowing the strategy guide from [a friend] and poring over the artwork. So beautiful. Discussing its contents was the discussion of many school recesses. 
"This was the first game that I didn't mind my siblings helping me with, as we could take turns leveling up and exploring. My older brother's friend even borrowed it one weekend and gained me some levels! 
"Likely being the first game that I played featuring a battery save system, it was only fair that it was the first game that I lost significant progress in from not saving. I can still recall that sinking feeling of losing hours of grinding to this day. Hold the reset button before pressing the power button!"
My friend Matt Speroni [Twitter | DeviantArt] told me:
"I guess the one thing about Dragon Warrior I remember doing more of than other games was taking notes. My dad and I were playing through it and he had a little notepad where he wrote everything down that all the townspeople said and whatnot. I think he was actually more into it than I was. We did that for other games too like Shadowgate and The Legend of Zelda, but we never had a dedicated notebook for any of them."
"And thus the tale comes to an end... unless the dragons return again."

And with that, we've made it to the end of the article. So, why do I own 14 copies of the same game, and why is it Dragon Warrior? I guess it's a relatively simple answer. It's a special game to me and it holds tremendous value in my heart. The game held a sense of wonder that no other game up to that point had for me before, and it continues to excite and captivate me 30 years later in spite of and because of how basic and small in scale the game actually is. Admittedly it isn't as technically marvelous as the games that followed it, but I'm incredibly nostalgic for it because of the treasured memories the game has given me.

When I add copies of the game to my collection, I feel this small rush of excitement. The thrill of seeing that yellow label. The iconic image of the hero of legend battling a fierce dragon. The incredibly quaint adventure contained within the little gray cartridge.

This is Dragon Warrior. This is special.

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