Review: Dragon Quest 1, 2 & 3

While never beco­m­ing qui­te as popu­lar as Final Fan­ta­sy in the west, it’s hard to deny just how influ­en­ti­al the Dra­gon Quest series is on the RPG gen­re. It set the stan­dards for con­so­le RPGs, and has stay­ed true to its roots even as many other fran­chises tried to turn to more action-ori­en­ted game­play. The­se Switch ports of the first three Dra­gon Quest games were the per­fect chan­ce to capi­ta­li­se on the suc­cess of the latest ent­ry, Dra­gon Quest 11, but ugly visu­als and per­for­mance issu­es stop them from being the defi­ni­ti­ve way to expe­ri­ence the series’ origins.

Being an ear­ly con­so­le RPG, the ori­gi­nal Dra­gon Quest is very sim­plistic in both its sto­ry­tel­ling and game­play. You’re tas­ked by the king of a near­by king­dom to slay the dra­gon­lord, a being that is ter­ro­ri­sing the land and kid­nap­ped the king’s daugh­ter. Dra­gon Quest 2 and 3 also fol­low a simi­lar ope­ning, with the main cha­rac­ter of each being sent by a king to defeat an evil being. Both Dra­gon Quest and its sequel are rela­tively light on sto­ry over­all, most plot points being rele­ga­ted to a few lines of dia­lo­gue from an NPC befo­re you move onto the next town or dun­ge­on. Dra­gon Quest 3 takes things up a notch, having a more expan­si­ve sto­ry that actual­ly has a few inte­res­ting moments. It still pales in com­pa­ri­son to the sto­ries of later Dra­gon Quest games, but it’s fasci­na­ting to see just how quick­ly the series deve­lo­ped after only a few years. 

Each game’s sto­ry may come off as dated nowa­days, but the real pro­blem with going back to the older Dra­gon Quest games is just how dull batt­les are. Dra­gon Quest has no par­ty sys­tem and enemies don’t attack in groups, and you’ll spend the first few hours of the game wal­king back and forth in an area mashing one but­ton to finish each batt­le. Things impro­ve slight­ly as you unlock more spells, but the most effi­ci­ent way to fight is still just to use regu­lar attacks and save MP for healing magic. It gets repe­ti­ti­ve incredi­b­ly quick­ly, espe­ci­al­ly when you have to spend time grin­ding for levels and money befo­re you can safe­ly explo­re more of the map. Dra­gon Quest 2 intro­du­ces par­ty mem­bers which does impro­ve batt­les some­what, but the ever-pre­sent grind and con­stant ran­dom encoun­ters still drag down the expe­ri­ence over­all. 

Ano­t­her bar­ri­er to enjoy­ing the first two Dra­gon Quest games is how vague they can be at times, espe­ci­al­ly Dra­gon Quest 2. After you’re given your quest by the king, there’s very litt­le in the way of gui­d­ance. This means that you must talk to every NPC in every town to find a hint on whe­re to explo­re next. In Dra­gon Quest this isn’t too bad, sin­ce the map isn’t over­ly lar­ge and only con­tains a hand­ful of towns and dun­ge­ons, mea­ning that you’ll have a gene­ral idea of what to do next even if it’s not com­ple­te­ly obvious. Dra­gon Quest 2 on the other hand has a com­pa­ra­tively lar­ger world map, making it har­der to figu­re out whe­re you need to go. This beco­mes even more of an issue when you acqui­re the boat, and you’ll often not rea­li­se you’re going the wrong way until you’re wiped out by an ene­my encoun­ter. 

Thank­ful­ly Dra­gon Quest 3 fixes many of the­se issu­es, even if it does still car­ry some of the pro­blems that most ear­ly JRPGs had. For star­ters, you’re able to crea­te your own par­ty of adven­tu­rers from a selec­tion of clas­ses. While this does mean that none of your par­ty have any real back­sto­ry or impor­t­an­ce to the over­all plot, it makes batt­les far more inte­res­ting sin­ce you have far more con­trol over the abi­li­ties your par­ty will gain. It’s also a more direc­ted expe­ri­ence, while not being over­ly line­ar, often making it easier to tell what you have to do to pro­gress the sto­ry. Said sto­ry is also far more inte­res­ting to expe­ri­ence com­pa­red to the ear­lier tit­les. The­re are still a few issu­es, main­ly with the slow speed and fre­quen­cy of batt­les, but it’s easy to see how it set the tem­pla­te for future Dra­gon Quest games to build upon. 

Even with the first two Dra­gon Quest games fee­ling dated, we still would have recom­men­ded play­ing them to get a bet­ter under­stan­ding of how far the series has come. Howe­ver, the­se Switch ports, which should have been the defi­ni­ti­ve way to play the ori­gi­nal tri­lo­gy, are held back by some stran­ge visu­al choices. Ins­tead of using just using spri­tes from the SNES ver­si­ons, or redrawing ever­ything, all three games ins­tead use a mish­mash of dif­fe­rent styles that don’t work well tog­e­ther. Maps use SNES tiles, which still look good on modern screens. Mean­while, cha­rac­ter spri­tes are taken from the mobi­le ports, which have all been redrawn in a style that doesn’t real­ly match the old-school spri­t­e­work of the envi­ron­ments. Ene­my spri­tes and batt­le back­grounds have also been redo­ne and, even though they do look nice, they’re not even con­sis­tent with the new cha­rac­ter spri­tes.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Dra­gon Quest 1 suf­fers from stut­te­ring whenever the came­ra moves. For such an old game this should not be an issue, even with the updated gra­phics. For all the good chan­ges made to the­se ver­si­ons, like the impro­ved loca­li­sa­ti­ons and menus, the ugly and in many cases lifeless visu­al reworks drag all three games down a lot. There’s also a lack of qua­li­ty of life fea­tures that would help make the older tit­les more acces­si­ble, like increa­sed expe­ri­ence gain or a way to speed up batt­les. The lack of care and atten­ti­on put into each port is sad­de­ning, as for many this is the easiest way to legal­ly play the­se games. 


Dra­gon Quest 1 and 2 may not be par­ti­cu­lar­ly fun to play nowa­days, but Dra­gon Quest 3 is whe­re the series hit its stri­de when it comes to both sto­ry and game­play. It’s just a shame that the Switch ver­si­ons of all three games are mar­red by incon­sis­tent spri­t­e­work and baff­ling frame­ra­te issu­es. If you had to play one, defi­ni­te­ly go with Dra­gon Quest 3, but a series of this calibre deser­ves far more effort than the­se lazy ports. 

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