Not too long ago I thumbed through my library of video games and pulled out an old favorite from 1986: Dragon Warrior. The first one. Not a remake of it, or a port of it, or even an emulated version of it on a computer. I’ve got a square gray cartridge and a boxy Nintendo Entertainment System; both of which I repaired and cleaned myself. The cartridge’s battery didn’t even need to be replaced after 25 years. In this era of red rings, it’s hard to believe a video game product was ever intended to last that long.
Objectively speaking, the game is terrible by today’s standards. Not just because of improvements in technology, but because of improvements in philosophy. If you didn’t grow up with the game, then needing to select “stairs” from a menu is going to drive you nuts. In its day this game literally revolutionized the way developers looked at creating console RPGs, but the 25 years since then have seen a lot of improvements to the formula. None the less, I’ve made it about 80% of the way through the game as of this writing, and this will be the second time I’ve replayed the game since 2009.
There’s something about the game which connects to the heart of what an RPG should be. Not just video game RPGs, but tabletop RPGs as well. When the game starts, you’re given no directions. Maybe there was some help in the manual–even as a child I didn’t have that–but in the game itself you’re just given a request from the king to save his daughter. He doesn’t know where she is, or what challenges you’ll have to face, but that’s what he wants from you.
After that, the world is completely open to you. You can go literally anywhere, and the only barriers stopping you are monsters who become more ferocious the further you travel from Tantegel castle. Combat is simple; painfully so. But combat isn’t really the game’s challenge, it’s just a function of how far you leveled and what equipment you have on you. The game’s real challenge is exploration and problem solving.
A perfect example of this is the Golem. Near the end of the game’s “plot,” the player is likely to come upon the town of Cantlin. The town is difficult to reach, with a veritable maze of impassable mountains surrounding it, and a slew of extremely tough monsters blocking the path. It’s all worth it, though, because Cantlin is the highest level settlement in the game. Aside from townspeople who give you vital clues as to how you can defeat the Dragon Lord, the best purchasable items in the game can be found there. Unfortunately, any time you attempt to enter the town, you are attacked by the city’s protector, the Golem.
The Golem can be defeated by conventional means if the player is very high level, but it’s unlikely that the player will reach that level before they want to visit Cantlin. The solution is found on the other side of the world, in a town which the player should have found and explored much earlier in the game. A villager there has heard stories about the Golem, and relates to the PC that the flute is said to soothe the Golem. If the player has found the flute, they can play it, put the Golem to sleep, and defeat it while it is incapacitated.
This is the kind of puzzle solving which oldschool console RPGs were known for, and some might call it Pixel Bitching. That is, a problem with only one solution which cannot be logically deduced. However, I would disagree. This kind of problem solving is translated directly from tabletop games. Players are given ultimate freedom to explore and learn about the world. That should be their goal. They can then apply what they learn about the world towards accomplishing goals, such as defeating monsters. It’s a method of gameplay which gives the player a sense of empowerment and accomplishment. They were not presented with a challenge for the purpose of having them overcome that challenge. They encounter challenges which they are able to overcome because they played the game well.
The necessity of imagination is another element of Dragon Warrior which connects to me as a tabletop gamer. The game has a distinct and interesting visual style. However, by the time the player has hit 3rd level, they’ve seen pretty much all of the visuals the game has to offer. In fact, the most impressive visual in the entire game is when everything flashes different colors for a moment as you summon the Rainbow Bridge. And it doesn’t even end up looking any different from normal bridges! My point is that the game didn’t need to feed players an elaborate story with impressive visuals to keep them engaged. Rather, it gave them a vessel for their imagination in the same way tabletop RPGs always have. The limited scope of the game’s visuals and plot allowed players to fill in the blanks. True the world didn’t react to our imaginations the way it would in a tabletop game, but that’s besides the point.
Dragon Warrior is also the first game I played where I truly needed to make a map in order to succeed. I had played games like The Legend of Zelda before I played Dragon Warrior, and I’m told a lot of people did make maps for that game, but I never needed to. In Dragon Warrior, though, the game is truly impossible without a pencil and some graph paper, and sketching those maps was an experience which honestly changed the way I look at games. Always before I had viewed hand-made maps as a sign of poor game design. I believed a player should never need to use tools outside of the game in order to complete the game. But I was wrong. Making my own maps so I could explore the pitch-black caves of Alefgarde gave me a sense of investment I’d never felt before. And that’s something I want to give my players when I run a tabletop game.
That’s all I really have to say. I know this post wasn’t strictly ‘on topic,’ in relation to tabletop RPGs, and if you didn’t like it because of that I apologize. What it all boils down to is this: every time I sit down with the original Dragon Warrior, I feel as though I’m connecting to something basic. Something which touches the heart of what a role playing game is. I’m not sure why I feel that way–perhaps it’s just because of nostalgia. I don’t know. Regardless, I wanted to try to express this sentiment to you.
My standard tabletop ramblings will now resume.