Reflection #5: Dragons, Questing, and Unfinished Basements
I think that most of us are probably able to name a few landmark games that have made a tremendous impact on our gaming habits, genre preferences, or even inspired us in other ways. I have a few of my own. Just take a look at my past Reflection articles and you’ll get an idea of how important the Zelda series has been as a vehicle for my gaming passions. Games like Link’s Awakening and The Wind Waker have enchanted me like few other pieces of entertainment have. Today, I’m going to turn back the clock to my early childhood and show you one special game which has influenced me for over a decade and a half.
Now, let’s keep in mind that I’m a bit younger than some of the others here on the site like Jarrod, Steven, and Ahmed. It wasn’t until 1989 (the year the original GameBoy was released, go figure) that I screeched into this world, and so it wouldn’t be until four or five years later that I would actually begin to get involved with video games. The very first system I owned was a GameBoy Pocket that my parents purchased for me on a family outing when I was six years old. However, during the couple years leading up to this grand moment in my life, I’d already been getting my video game dose every Sunday when my family went to my father’s best friend’s house for weekly dinner get-togethers. My honorary cousin owned a Super Nintendo back then, and we’d play Super Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Country, and various other games for hours on end. I had run-ins with the original Nintendo as well, but the SNES was the first home console I was heavily exposed to. It was during this era that I grew up, primarily playing Super Nintendo and GameBoy, with a little bit of Genesis and NES on the side.
Gaming was a little different for me than for people who were born in the early 80s, as I was introduced to both the NES and SNES in the same time frame instead of in chronological order. Despite being technologically inferior, the 8-bit Nintendo appealed to me just as much as the Super Nintendo. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the midst of both consoles and the SNES was never the clear-cut successor to me that it was to older gamers. Yes, the Super Nintendo housed the newest, biggest, and boldest games, but the NES had a slew of exceptional content to its name that never felt dated in part because it was simply stellar, and in part because it was all fresh to me anyways. It’s worth noting that I mostly played platforming, racing, and action games back then and had very little exposure to certain genres. However, things changed after I played one particular game in a genre completely unfamiliar to me. It wasn’t a SNES game, but an NES game that came out years earlier in 1986. It’s obvious to say that it wasn’t on the bleeding edge of its genre at the time I played it, but as you now know, I was a few years late to the gaming party to begin with. Regardless of what else was available on the market at the time, the experiences I had with this gem of a game bent my gaming preferences forever after and it stands tall as one of my all-time favourites. So, what game could have this kind of influence over a young boy? Well, it was developed by a Japanese game developer, Enix, and featured slimes, swords, and sorcery…
Yes, Dragon Warrior. To the best of my memory, this was the very first RPG I played when I was a kid. To be honest, it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly when I first played this game were it not for the fact that it was on a family vacation and therefore the dates are quite easy to verify. I had just returned to Canada after living in England for five years at the time, and was on the other side of the country visiting my family in Prince Edward Island in 1995 (just a year before the N64 was released, crazily enough, and showing how I was totally not with the times back then), when my cousin introduced me to the game. I can remember the sweltering humidity that day — the day when my cousin and I hid in a dark and cool corner of my uncle’s basement with the Nintendo hooked up, and I got my first glimpse at a side of gaming far detached from the Marios and Mega Mans of the day.
The first thing I remember about Dragon Warrior was how cool the castle was. I’d never played a game from the overhead perspective wherein you could explore such a detailed and populated castle. Of course, it was really just a small set of corridors, moats, and brick rooms, with grey blocks representing castle walls, and there were only a handful of characters with whom you could make meaningful interactions, but back then it felt so convincing, and my imagination filled in the castle and each subsequent area with all the flourishes one could cognitively paint onto a pixelated 8-bit tapestry. And that’s part of what’s so appealing about the Dragon Quest franchise. To quote series creator Yuji Horii, it’s “a world you can feel”.
It wasn’t until Dragon Quest VIII that a game in the series boasted truly impressive visuals. Before that PS2 marvel, the atmosphere of the games was hinged entirely upon the things that went on “behind-the-scenes” in the dialogue, in the immersive story, and in your imagination. In short, this series has not been known for setting visual benchmarks. However, a lot of developers out there push for graphical fidelity but fail to establish a rich, lively setting even with the extra frills. Fortunately, failing to bring the world to life has never been one of Dragon Quest’s shortcomings, even if the games aren’t the prettiest ponies in the stable. The sweeping, pixelated landscapes, the memorable monsters, and the final, epic battle — I can’t forget these landmark moments that turned me into an RPG addict for years to come, and Dragon Warrior was responsible for all of this despite being nine years old at the time and graphically outclassed by almost everything else I was playing back then.
The game mechanics utilized in role-playing games clicked with me instantly and I soon sought out more RPG worlds to explore. Leveling, exploration, looting, and epic stories punctuated the majority of games that I played throughout the rest of the 90s and 2000s, and it was all because of the first Dragon Warrior with its Healmore spells, Silver Shields, and Metal Slimes. It’s funny to think that there I was in the hot summer of 1995, tucked away in my uncle’s basement playing Dragon Warrior, and here I am on a warm Sunday afternoon in Japan seventeen years later about to sit down and delve into Skyrim. Evidently, I’m still just as in love with the same basic RPG game mechanics that Yuji Horii and his team introduced me to all those years ago.
It’s strange, but aside from its legacy as one of the great RPG forerunners, Dragon Warrior left a mark on my life in a bit of an unusual way as well. As I mentioned above, my first experiences with the game took place in my uncle’s basement in Prince Edward Island. My uncle’s basement was unfinished back then (and still is), so it had that wonderful, earthy, damp “unfinished basement smell”. You most likely know exactly what I’m talking about. I spent so many hours down there immersed in Enix’s fantasy world that the pleasant odour became congruous with Dragon Warrior to me. Even today when I set foot in an unfinished basement, the musky scent brings the memory of the first time I wandered the halls of Tantegel castle to the forefront of my thoughts. Walking into an unfinished basement is a unique pleasure to me because the experience is firmly bound to that wonderful childhood memory. It will always bring a smile to my face just as booting up my cousin’s Nintendo and playing Dragon Warrior brought a smile to my face all those years ago. Perhaps you have similar connections between games and external experiences? Either way, I think we can all agree that the Dragon Quest series will continue to bring smiles to faces everywhere for years to come, even if it isn’t played in an unfinished, countryside basement.
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