The first thing I remember about Dragon Warrior was Nintendo Power trying to sell it in a campaign to convince American kids that something called “RPGs” were going to be the next big thing.
“RPGs?” I thought. “Rocket-propelled grenades!?”
I was, admittedly, a weird kid.
But once I read the feature, something about this game seemed significant. Maybe I simply let myself buy into the manufactured hype that Nintendo‘s official publication cast so desperately in our direction, but Dragon Warrior struck my fancy enough to prompt me to put it near the top of my Christmas list in 1989. When I opened Faxanadu the night before Christmas, I figured I’d pretty much seen what I was going to see in terms of new video games. But no: Bright and early that morning, I peeled back the paper on a second NES game (a rare treat!), and it turned out to be Dragon Warrior.
The second thing I remember about Dragon Warrior was my mother trying to downplay its contents to my very conservative grandmother, in whose name I had received the game and who traveled across the country to visit for Christmas. You know how that goes, perhaps: A distant relative commissions a parent to serve as their gift-buying proxy so as not to unwittingly pick up the wrong thing and ruin Christmas for some poor, materialistic child. I don’t blame my grandparents for using that tactic — especially as I was in the process of undergoing adolescence and the kids’ things they’d become used to giving me wouldn’t have gone over well at all.
So, my mother used her agency to pick up Dragon Warrior. It was a fine choice, but memories of the ’80s Dungeons & Dragons scare still lingered in certain churchy corners of America. My grandparents’ religious sincerity is something I admired about them, but it also meant that if I inadvertently connected the dots between D&D and Dragon Warrior, there would have been heck to pay. Well, no, but they would have set their faces in solemn looks of disapproval, which was so much worse.
The third thing I remember about Dragon Warrior was meeting up with some school friends the day after Christmas to work on an extracurricular project. Naturally, we all exchanged heady tales of our newfound prizes of consumerism. I listened patiently to their recitations, and when my turn came all I could talk about was Dragon Warrior. (Sorry, Faxanadu.)
“Dragon Warrior?” one friend said, frowning. “That game looks terrible. The graphics are so bad.”
Another shrugged. “I like that kind of game.”
I gestured in annoyance. “Guys, you don’t understand. It’s so huge! I beat the game yesterday, except I didn’t! I saved the princess, but the adventure wasn’t over. I think it just started, actually. This is so much better than Mario.”
I don’t think they agreed, but they put up with my hyperbole regardless.
At the time, I didn’t appreciate or understand the heritage behind Dragon Warrior, née Dragon Quest. The D&D panic of the ’80s hit my church hard, and while my parents didn’t buy into it — I remember my father had a rather dim view of the leader of the moral panic, a local police detective who I assume had made his rounds to all the city’s elementary schools to preach out against the hellfire and brimstone aroma of THAC0, including the one where my father was principal — there definitely seemed to be a stigma against it. Also, all the D&D fans I knew of were the surly, unhygienic dudes in RATT and Slayer T-shirts in my gym class, which was reason enough to avoid the pastime.
I also didn’t realize that Dragon Warrior wasn’t the game’s real name, or that the reason the “graphics are so bad” had to do with the fact that the game was actually as old as The Legend of Zelda, having taken three long years to make its way to the U.S. Aside from the oddly whimsical monster graphics in combat, nothing about Dragon Warrior screamed “This is from Japan!” — except, of course, the game credits, but it never really occurred to me at the time that all the games I like were from another country. I just assumed a bunch of Americans with foreign names all worked together on these projects, like maybe you had to be Asian-American in order to be smart enough to work on games. I don’t know. It was a small world for me back then. The World Wide Web was still five years away, and in any case I don’t think I’d ever even used an Internet-capable computer at that point. I didn’t realize Wargames was basically the story of how a bunch of disgruntled teens would spend Christmas 2014.
So I didn’t know Dragon Warrior was the biggest thing going in Japan. I didn’t realize the artwork had been drafted by the creator of one of the world’s most popular comics. I didn’t have the faintest clue that before the game could make its way West it needed to undergo a design overhaul, expand onto a larger ROM in order to accommodate all the inefficient English text, and incorporate a battery backup. I had no clue that it combined elements of Wizardry, Ultima, and The Portopia Serial Murder Case.
I also had no idea what turn-based combat and random encounters were about. Those utterly baffled me at first.
But I figured it all out quickly enough — quickly enough to have rescued poor Princess Gwaelin by the end of Christmas day. Dragon Warrior required a lot of abstract thought, but that was fine; I was a voracious reader and therefore quite practiced at using my imagination to fill in the gaps in media. It helped, too, that Dragon Warrior itself involved a great deal of reading; even though the script was hilariously limited and repetitive, each and every enemy encounter unfolded almost like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I had previously borrowed some Endless Quest books from a friend, and it wasn’t difficult to make the logical leap from there to here.
Even though I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Warrior — if the game continuing on after the rescue of the Princess blew my mind, the fact that the final boss resided in the castle directly across the water from the starting town detonated it with the vigor of a demolitions crew — it would be several years before I stopped being intimidated by the scale and majesty of RPGs. Nintendo did too good a job presenting this genre as something remarkable, as it turned out.
Note: This essay by request of aloiswittwer