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.

 

1989: The Game Boy and Charles Boy are born. The Berlin Wall also fell, which is completely unrelated -- or is it? -- but oh well.

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…

 

 

Enter Dragon Warrior, a fantasy like no other.

 

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.

 

Tantegel Castle lit my imagination ablaze.

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.

 

My "dragon quest" began 17 years ago and continues to this day.

 

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.

 

Here's to the series that changed everything for me and so many others.

4 thoughts on “Reflection #5: Dragons, Questing, and Unfinished Basements”

  1. Nicely written, Charles. I like memories like this. Never had that feeling of playing in the dark or basement as they aren’t a typical house structure where I come from. But it sure sounds appealing from how you describe it. Lucky for you that you found the appeal Of Dragon Warrior and RPGs early on, because Dragon Quest back then had the complete opposite effect on me but for some reason it’s still a vivid memory I have. It was my cousin’s uncle who got me into gaming back when I was a kid, but when I used to watch him play DW, I felt it to be too complex and boring for me…a game for adults. I slept during those sessions sometimes. So sadly, I missed out on a lot of the classic RPGs in the 80s and early 90s because of my disdain towards the genre. It wasn’t until Mario RPG in 1996 which had me hooked. Mario back then was too appealing of a franchise to me so even though I noticed that it was slow like Dragon Quest, I gave it a gamble anyway…and never looked back.

  2. I don’t have any experiences with unfinished basements myself, but that’s only because the basements in all the places I’ve lived, or all the places I visited were finished basements lol. That said, there are certain places that remind of certain games. Case in point Toys Я Us. Every time I visit that store for whatever reason it reminds me of Zelda and Metroid, because for the longest time that was my “go to” store for both series. I picked up the original NES Metroid, Zelda and Zelda II at a Toys Я Us and have such fond memories of waiting in a line of about 12 people for A Link to the Past and Super Metroid. Those were the days, before pre-orders hit the scene. Ah, good memories. So to this very day I’m always reminded of Zelda and Metroid whenever I go to one of those stores.

    As for the Dragon Quest series, I think everyone knows how I feel about it. I love it! The original Dragon Warrior was a gift for belonging to Nintendo Power in late 1989, and what an awesome gift it was. Having already played the original Dragon Quest on my friend’s Famicom back in 1986 I was stunned to see all the changes made to the series upon its release in North America. It’s funny, but by the time North Americans got Dragon Warrior, I had already played the first three Dragon Quest games, but they were not in my native tongue so when I played the original Dragon Warrior it finally allowed me to understand all the nuances. It was so awesome!

    At that time I never why RPGs never took off in North America. All my friends thought just like Ahmed did, that these games were too slow and boring. I consider it their loss though because while I was enjoying Final Fantasy and the four Dragon Warrior games on my NES, and both FF and DQ on my friend’s Famicom, all these other people would want to catch up once Final Fantasy VII hit the scene.

    Remembering back to the year you mentioned, 1995, wow what a year that was. That’s when I actually picked up Dragon Quest VI, and it would end up becoming my favorite DQ ever. While you were enjoying your experience through the original DQ, in December of that year I was playing through such a great Super Famicom RPG lol. I was SO ticked when, again in 1995, it was announced that Enix America would be closing shop and that all work on Dragon Warrior V would be stopped. So this year is pretty important for many different reasons lol.

    RPGs have a very special place in my heart. I am very thankful to have played through the entire DQ, FF, and DW series as each new iteration was released. This is on top of other classics like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG and countless others. To this day RPGs remains one of my favorite genres. The last game I played through was Mass Effect 3, and I’m now 25 hours into Xenoblade so go figure lol.

    This series has become a C.O.E. staple Charles and I hope you continue it for years to come. Discussing our memories of beloved classics is just awesome.

  3. I’m glad that you both enjoyed the article. Interesting that you responded to Dragon Warrior in that way, Ahmed. It certainly wasn’t an unusual response as many people who play various kinds of games today still feel that way about RPGs anyways. I was always really heavy into fantasy storytelling so it instantly struck a chord with me.

    Were it not for the original Dragon Warrior I have no idea when I would have gotten into RPGs. Question, Jarrod: what is your fave DQ game and why?

    1. That’s a seriously hard question for me to answer only because I haven’t played through the original DQ games in years. My fav for years and years was DQ VI, but I’m not sure if that would hold true any longer. See the thing is it came out during my favourite generation of gaming, the SNES vs. Genesis era. I loved the way you traveled between two different worlds, and the cast of characters was awesome. There’s also the brilliant way DQ IV breaks the game up into a sequence of chapters, with each one focusing on one party member until all members combine to take on the ultimate evil. I loved how each chapter was longer than the one that came before it, and the final chapter was just kickass. There’s also DQ V, which allows you to have a family and literally play through the entire life of your main character, which is equally awesome. So those three remain my favourite, but unless I go back and play through them all again I can’t pick one over the other.

      I also wanted to mention that you said DQ wasn’t a technical showpiece until DQ VIII, but that’s actually false. The original DQ may not have been quite as technical as FF would be after it, however DQ II, III, and especially IV were significantly longer and more diverse than the FF games of the time. So what the first four DQ games lacked in graphical prowess they more than made up for in sheer length. That said, the SNES ones were incredibly technical. Only DQ V is somewhat primitive because of the time it was released, but go to YouTube and check out DQ VI and the remake of DQ III and you’ll be shocked at just how graphically beautiful the games were.

      DQ gets a back wrap mainly because the gameplay always used simple text to interact with virtually anything. So if you wanted to walk down stairs, you had to actually input a command to do so. This changed with the SNES games, but that’s where the image started to take shape. DQ VII is the main culprit though. It was supposed to be released as a Super Famicom game, but when it shifted development to the PS1 most of the assets had already been created and they didn’t feel like going overboard with a 3D engine. The end result was something like Grandia, where it used elements of the 2D games and a 3D backdrop. The developers succeeded in creating one of the longest and deepest DQ games ever created though, and I continue to tell people to pick up a copy of DQ if they find one. It’s easily worth the $99 asking price, even today. Just realize the game doesn’t look all that outstanding. The thing is though, because it uses 2D sprits, it has aged far better than people give it credit for.

      So that pretty well discusses the entire series lol. DQ VIII is one of my favourite games released from the last generation, especially the North American version. The fully orchestrated music, the incredible voice acting, and the revamped text blocks were all incredible. I consider it to be a gem and a game I’ve completed three times, which is nuts considering how many hours I put into it each time I play it.

      Recently the series has been trying to attract new blood, but has lost me as a result. While I enjoyed DQ IX, and played it to completion, at least the Japanese version, the story disappointed me. The interactions between party members were gone, replaced by generic characters. I loved certain elements of the game design, but for the most part would have much rather had something more akin to DQ VIII. Now as we gear up for X’s release, I doubt I will ever play it. MMOs aren’t my thing, and even DQ won’t convince me to pick up a game where all I do is complete 2,010 fetch quests. I am craving a new DQ like you wouldn’t believe though. One with a rich, and deep storyline where the party members interact with one another, and we learn why they’re all here and where they’re going. That’s what DQ means to me, a group of characters who form a strong bond and achieve the unthinkable.

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