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On the Quest for Dragons; Convictions of Reinforcement

Dragons.

They are the one mythical creature that seems to transcend all cultures. Every culture seems to both revere and fear these giant creatures. They are the final bosses, mini-boss, mystical quest givers, wish-granters of a lot of fiction and fantasy. There is no greater feat a fictional heroic person can accomplish than that of slaying a mighty, fearsome dragon. As a lad prone to fits of flights of fancy, the epic nature of a quest to fight dragons is something that played very close to my deepest of heart of hearts.


As I mentioned in my previous blog entry of this series, the Dragon Warrior (forever known as Dragon Quest in Japan, and in modern times) series is what more or less set me down a path of loving RPGs. Thus when I heard a game I so loved and cherished was getting a sequel, I saved my allowance and purchased Dragon Warrior 2 as soon as it hit the streets. By this time I had probably already completed Final Fantasy and was clamouring for more RPG exploration. Dragon Warrior 2 was probably my first entry into what the concept of what a sequel was as it related to video games. The lauded Mega Man series had yet to become a thing in the US with it’s endless sequels. Thus, Dragon Warrior/Quest 2 would really be my entry point of what to expect with regard to a sequel.

As some background; the game takes place 100 years after the end of Dragon Quest. The epic hero, the Heir of Erdrick, sets off with Princess Gwaelin -- whom was rescued from the clutches of the vile Dragonlord -- into parts unknown to seek their fortunes and favors in the lands outside of the continental nation of Alefgard. These two would seed three kingdoms across the lands, Moonbrooke, Cannock, and finally Midenhall. Your main character is the Prince of Midenhall. You supply a name, and something I learned in my recent playthrough of this game is that there is a strange algorithm in connection to your name that derives your stats for the character. Something I also did not know was that your chosen name would set the names of the two other characters in the game, as well as their stats. There were only so many names that could be chosen apparently, but I remember playing this originally as a kid, having no concept of the variable nature of the names of the other two characters.

In this sequel, the dark priest Hargon has set a curse about the land, and is seeking to call forth foul entities from the great beyond to enter the world and sow chaos. You learn this in the game from what I am going to say was my first experience of a “cut scene” in a video game, as the Castle of Moonbrooke is attacked by the forces of Hargon. This game sets the stakes immediately, as your future companion, the Princess of Moonbrooke watches her father be viciously slain by Hargon’s minions. She supposedly flees, and a lone soldier survives the slaughter, making his way to Midenhall to announce the horror to the king there. The King of Midenhall tells his son -- the Prince of Midenhall -- that shit just got real, and he has to step up to end the curse of Hargon, and stop the world from plunging into darkness.

Nintendo -- notorious for censorship in the American releases -- left this, wisely, opening in the game. However, I think it was fairly standard as far as sword and sorcery tales go. As a kid, I think it was this initial setup that really got me into the game. I was no longer just some dude showing up on the doorstep of a kingdom to save the princess and defeat the evil power. My avatar in this universe was invested, as was I, in the well-being of his people. This was a do or die moment. As I mentioned in my previous article of this series, looking back now, I believe it was this simple story conceit that makes the Dragon Quest series great. There are no needless twists. There are no weird time traveling elements. There are no weird false memories or strange alien entities that want to destroy the world for strange reasons. What you get is a fairly tried and true hero’s quest, and I am fine with that. What I think Dragon Quest 2 does best is respect the gameplay of the original entry and simply expands upon it to it's betterment.

Over the course of the story, you will track down your cousins (personal note, I am not sure if I remember that the other two characters were related to the main hero, I just remember them being other people who joined your party), and get them to join your quest to defeat Hargon. There is a particularly interesting quest where you have to break a curse on the Princess of Moonbrooke to get her to join your party as she has been turn into a dog. With the party formed, you journey about the world seeking a way to reach and defeat Hargon. In a strange twist, the grandson of the Dragonlord -- the main villain of the first game -- gives you your main quest of finding the world crests, to get the power of Rubis, to break the illusion on the gate to Rhone, where Hargon’s castle is. This part of the game was always interesting to me, as when you got the game, in the box was a map of the main world. Right in the middle of it was the land of Alefgard; the area from the first game. It was pretty cool to revisit the lands you trod in the first game, and sink your way into the infamous Charlock Castle -- the last dungeon of the first game. It is here that you find a sprite that looks just like the Dragonlord from the first game, only to discover that it’s his wimpy grandson who wants nothing to do with being evil in the world and sends you on your way to destroy Hargon.

This was a fun added bonus to the game. I recall playing this game and started out seeing familiar enemies such as the Slimes. As the game progressed, there are variations on slimes, along with a new host of monsters showing up. It started to solidify to my younger self that a sequel was more of the same, but with fresher content. It was also possible to seek out the equipment of Erdrick, the vaulted hero mentioned in the first game. In the first game, it was the ultimate goal to collect this equipment, as it was the most powerful in the game. In Dragon Quest 2, it was just considered mid-level gear. Granted it lasted till nearly the end of the game, but it blew my mind to find something more powerful than the gear of the great hero to be the end game gear. I remember my younger self really having trouble reconciling that fact.

Thinking back 20-25 years it is hard for me to remember which game I played first; Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior 2. As such, Dragon Warrior 2 would be either my first, or second as reinforcement, to the concept of party management. Building on top of the whole theme of a “party”, monsters came at you in groups. There were spells that could attack groups, or everything on the screen. If anything, this was my one of my first introductions to group tactics. Your hero, the Prince of Midenhall is a powerhouse -- he strikes hard, is heavily resilient to damage, but lacks magical prowess. As I understand it, he is the only hero character of the Dragon Quest series that lacks the ability to cast magic. I know for a fact that this would shape my conscious to the notion that a heroic character was a strong fighter type. Magic was something left to your support characters. I would not start to consider being a magic user as the main character till more recently in my gaming adventures. Something that would cement this notion, however, would be the fact that video game AI and pathing was never the greatest. I always felt that my main character HAD to be an aggressively armored fighting type as I would usually have direct control over my main character. This allowed me the ability to muscle my way into melee as a defensive line to protect my support team of casters. I can readily critique the fact that videogames have been mostly terrible with party AI and it’s ability to protect a main character that might be a weaker spellcaster. In a way, being a weaker spellcaster-type character has often been “hard mode” for RPG games throughout the past.

This is mirrored in the concept of your party members in Dragon Quest 2. The second character you pick up is the Prince of Cannock. He sacrifices some (a lot actually; his fighting capability really pales in comparison to the Prince of Midenhall) melee capabilities for the ability to cast magic. The Prince of Cannock has this strange concept of being sorta good at everything, but not great at anything. To call him a "Jack of All Trades" overstates Cannock Prince's abilities. He basically mops up what the Prince of Midenhall does not one-shot, and supports as a healer when needed. Though the supposed weaker of the cousins, the Princess of Moonbrooke is actually a fairly capable magical powerhouse. She is a spellcasting girl. Personally, this feels like a weird cliche that would take forever to find it’s way out of gaming. It is only recently that I have seen RPGs, and really games in general allow women to be tougher, more front-line melee characters. I am sure many a boyfriend subconsciously made their girlfriend be the healer in RPGs and MMOs due to this strange early concept of needing to “protect the girl” and “the girl is the spellcaster” because of games like Dragon Quest 2 starting this stereotype.

The one thing I remember as a kid is not really using the magical capabilities of the Prince or Princess as much as I should have. I had this weird apprehension to using magic outside of bigger battles. More so, I was still using my tactic of running away from everything to get to the next dungeon, and sort of “cheat” to get my way to the next level of gear. As such, I made this game much harder on myself as a kid. I did not do that this time around, and fought practically every battle. I took the time required to grind some gold to get the best gear. Again, I was playing this on the iOS mobile version, so it's grinding nature was great to kill time when I had it. I was also much more liberal in my use of magic. I would cast spells as much as possible with this playthrough. Another neat feature I discovered, is that the few weapons that the Princess could equip had the ability to cast magical attack spells during battle if the item was “used” instead of simply selecting the "Attack" option, thus whacking monsters on the head with it. This made the game much more enjoyable this time around.

Being older now, and playing this series as a retrospective, I was keying in on the concepts that would have been new at the time of original play in the late 80's. It has a sailing ship, which once acquired, opened the game as an almost open-world type of thing. This game was doing open world before open world was Bethesda-cool. Getting the ship allowed you to get all the keys. Getting all the keys allowed you to find secret chests with some truly powerful gear inside that made your party nigh invincible in a standard fight. Dragon Quest 2 is a game that rewards exploration. Though it had the limited inventory slots of the first game, it did have a “banking system” that allowed the player to store items, and more importantly, gold. See, when the characters get wiped out in the game (e.g. die), they return to the last place they saved, keeping all progress, but losing half the gold being carried on hand. The bank system allowed the player to stash away hard earned gold so that it would not be lost during a party wipe.

Another thing I really love about the Dragon Quest series is the concept of a “silent protagonist”. In RPG games, it is highly uninteresting for me to play as a predefined character. Game Developers nowadays really have this focus on story. As such, I am often playing the writer’s story, not engaging in the world that the story presents to the player. Often enough in RPGs, I am experiencing the game vicariously through a 3rd-party. Dragon Quest 2 tells me that I am the Prince of Midenhall, but what that means to me as the player past that singular story bit is up to me as the player. There are a few places where a choice is presented, and there is no spoken dialog from the Prince of Midenhall enacting that choice. It is merely a Yes/No question, and the world reacting to my choice as the player. As graphics and computer horsepower improved, game-makers realized they could emulate comics, books, and movies and attempt to tell grander stories. It is in this attempt where I feel that most modern games fail, as they misunderstand what it means to be a video game. For me, playing a videogame is to put myself in the game. Whether the avatar in-game is a spaceship, heroic character sprite, or a simple dot on the screen, that representation is me. I am that character, and it enacts my choices within the game. Whether those choices are simply shooting an enemy in the field, or interacting with an NPC to haggle over the price of a witching job, that choice should be mine and only mine as the player. What are often called, RPGs -- or role playing games -- often forget to have a role for the play to transpose themselves onto within the game. More or less what the game ends up being is a "story playing game", where the player is simply controlling the movements of a certain character in the game, with no real choice on how that character acts or is perceived by other characters in the game. Players are merely following the beats of a story written by someone else, rather than being immersed in a world and allowed to play a role within the activities of the game and the story itself.

In what is a narrative standard for all the other Dragon Quest protagonists to follow, the Hero (the Prince of Midenhall) is utterly silent. He only communicates a few times in a manner of “yes or no”. After doing some research; this was apparently a conscious decision made by the series creator, Yuji Horii, to help draw the player into the world on a more personal level, rather than viewing the events of the game as an observer.

As I play through the series of Dragon Quest, I am realizing more and more where my favorite concepts of gaming were instilled. I only ever played Dragon Warrior/Quest 1 and 2 as a kid. I would not pick up the series again till Dragon Quest 8 on PS2. Having replayed the two earlier games, I now realize they had such an impact on my understanding and likeability of other game series that would follow. While I loved Final Fantasy 2 and 3 on the Super Nintendo (SNES), subconsciously I was bouncing off the series realizing I was merely just “reading” the story as I watched it unfold before me. I was not an active participant in the story as it progressed. I was merely moving the characters from here-to-there in what more or less could be called the early genesis of “quick time events” in the form of the "active time battles". Meanwhile, in the Mass Effect series, players do have some direct control over Shepard’s movements and decisions, yet it was all for naught by the end of the series as the writers forced players into the conclusion of the story the writers wanted to tell. This is why I enjoy open world games so much. As the player, I am allowed to explore the game at my own pace. More so, I can seek out random powerful items and “break” the game as I see fit. It was such a weird sensation to play through Dragon Quest 2, only to realize that the ground work for what I truly loved in an RPG, much less videogame in general, had been laid all those years ago. The fact that I already know that Dragon Quest 3 lets the player build a team of adventurers as one sees fit, means that I cannot wait to dive into that game.

As put the finishing touches on this article, right now I am firing up Dragon Quest 3. I can conclude that the Dragon Quest series did indeed have the impact on my likes and dislikes in gaming. I love a simpler story, as I do not feel like that a game should actively working against me with it's story. I love a game that lets the player truly be part of the game; I do not want to “watch” a game unfold without my input. More so, I am content to make my own smaller stories through the sheer random events that may occur in the general play of a game. The fact that I can now see these concepts that I gravitate towards, and where those seeds were sown through this series, has already made this retrospective quest worth it. What follows from Dragon Quest 2 are the Dragon Quest series games that I have never played before. Dragon Quest 1 and 2 have been nostalgic dives into the core of who I am as a gamer. The next leg of this adventure is seeing what I missed and whether or not the ideas borne in these first two games carried through to the rest of the series.

As a final comment; not a whole lot of dragons in Dragon Quest 2. Hopefully that changes in the games to come.

This guy wants to eat your face...


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On the Quest for Dragons; Original Memory Quest

After a rancorous field of gaming in 2016, I decided maybe it was time to steady my hand and dive into my Steam List. I am eventually working my way towards diving into Stellaris, but first I decided to finish of the fantastic Tyranny -- starting to see a Paradox Interactive theme going here now. After completing that fine piece of Obsidian coding, I start back into the amazing Witcher 3. I am finally into the DLC Blood and Wine after having gotten through the main quest and Hearts of Stone over the holidays. In the spirit of going back, I also set the sort of bucket list life goal to make my way through all of the numbered Dragon Quest games. I think Dragon Quest 10 is a Japan-only MMO (which sounds amazing BTW), so I will be skipping that one. With Dragon Quest 11’s release looming this year, I thought it fitting to dive into the old series.


If you were a kid growing up with a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), something you probably had in tandem with that was a subscription to Nintendo Power. If you were like most kids with a NES in those days, you were introduced to Nintendo Power -- and by association, RPGs -- through an unfathomable marketing tactic at the time; give away a free game. Thinking back, I cannot remember what was more enticing; the thought of Nintendo Power or a free game. It was probably a bit of both as I do not remember being a huge fan of RPGs before that time. Thus I do not think that the thought of what boiled down to a more advanced point and click adventure, would have enticed me into getting a year’s subscription to Nintendo Power as an aside.

I had played old adventure games on my dad’s PC, and I was a huge fan of things like Space Quest, and King’s Quest. Yet games like Wizardry from the PC, were not in my wheelhouse at the time. Ironically, what got games like Dragon Quest started was Japanese developers coming to trade shows in the U.S. and seeing the adventure and RPG games on the PC. Something like Wizardry was a direct inspiration for Dragon Quest. These developers took notes, and went back to Japan to produce games like Dragon Quest that would go on to become sensational hits there. Therefore, what we consider Japanese Role Playing Games, or JRPGs, are really just U.S. RPGs with a spin. Yet sales in America flagged, and through some marketing genius, Dragon Quest was renamed to Dragon Warrior, and attached to a promotion to give away with a year’s subscription to Nintendo Power.

Dragon Quest was first released in Japan in 1986. It would see it’s U.S. debut in 1989, with the Nintendo Power promotion running the very next year. It came with full fold out maps and posters and all kinds of cool stuff that I hung on my wall. I remember the grind, and at the time it was different and fun. The concept of beat up monsters for gold and experience fed into a pleasure point of mine I would not recognize till more recently. I love the concept and action of collectibles and building up a character that is basically me. I have an active imagination, thus it was easy for me to imprint myself onto my game avatar. I remember going, “...if I run away from all the enemies, I can make it to the next town and achieve my goal.” Thus I started a misguided strategy of running away from most interim battles between story points in RPGs. This would not stop until I accidentally erased my save on Final Fantasy 2 (in the U.S.) on the SNES. That act some how snapped me back into actually conducting the fights. It was then that I realized that achieving goals, while the points of the game, were not as good as the lil’ mini stories created through the tension of each individual battle along the way.

So, I ran away a lot in fights in my original playthrough of Dragon Warrior/Quest. I did complete the game, and even ground my levels out to the pinnacle of Level 30. I would beat the Dragonlord repeatedly. I do not remember going through any subsequent playthroughs, but I did just go back and beat the Dragonlord with each level gain just to see how much easier it was to accomplish. I am sure by then, Final Fantasy had come out and I was onto that. RPG releases would be few and far inbetween in the years. I cherish Final Fantasy 2 and then Final Fantasy 3 (6 to all you purists) when it was finally release for the SNES. I would dive into other, more similiar but not quite RPGs like Ogre Battle. I would not play another Dragon Quest game will the Eighth installment on the Playstation 2. The developers themselves are still trying to figure out why Dragon Quest is not such a popular series in The West. I moved onto PC and found gems like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout. Hell, even Diablo fit that niche of action RPG that games like Secret of Mana, and Secret of Evermore (an underrated game that needs more love and sequels) installed within me.

Role Playing Games, or RPGs if you will, are in my blood. I love a good tabletop game with the boys. More so, I played a lot by myself in my room. Most of that was spent acting out epic stories of science fiction and fantasy with my Legos and various other toys. It was interesting how something like Legos allowed me to meld them into what my mind wanted. I would create cities and airships, only to have them crushed in some cataclysm only to rebuild them into something new. When I moved from Jacksonville to Orlando in the 90’s, my stories made the same sort of transition as my heroes and villains dimensionally traveled across time and space from my old room to my new one. Playing RPGs foster that sort of self-entertainment. Even to this day, I am more attuned to the stories in my head than I am the world around me.

Here, all this time later, I felt I owed it to myself to step back into some retro-gaming and pay homage to a game that birthed a piece of who and what I am. With as much media is at our fingertips these days, it is pretty easy to find old games either through virtual consoles or emulation. I chose a more preferable legal route by getting the first three in the series of Dragon Quest games on my iPhone. To date -- originally at least -- I have only actually played Dragon Warrior 1 and 2, and Dragon Quest 8. I have followed the series through media and other outlets, and feel a closer association to it than say the Final Fantasy series. While I enjoyed the Final Fantasy series of games, I can say they never imprinted themselves upon me the way that the original Dragon Quest did. I love Cecil’s adventures in Final Fantasy 2/4, and following Terra’s path to discovery in Final Fantasy 3/6 was pretty memorable. While I have some love for Final Fantasy 7 as that first taste of a 3D RPG, looking back now, I loved it's weird cast of characters more than it’s story overall. While it is a landmark game, I feel that FF7 is a bit overrated and I am one of the few not clamouring for a remake.

I was elated when Squaresoft and Enix merged years ago. I thought The Western Markets would see more Dragon Quest games, but they were always console releases, and they released typically on consoles I did not have at the time. Nintendo has always been my default console, but within the last eight years or so I have not had a console that I felt beholden to. My PC has been my primary source for gaming. I am not a big “mobile” gaming person. I consider the 3DS a handheld gaming console -- the nomenclature of “mobile” I feel is left to iOS devices and the like. In that manner, I have never really gotten into mobile games. Thus, I was reluctant to purchase the first three Dragon Quest games on iOS. They were cheap though, and I figured that it would be conducive to filling idle time when I’m waiting or bored somewhere that I am away from my primary gaming systems.

I started the original Dragon Quest about a week or two ago on my iPhone. It’s grinding nature of leveling was almost perfect for a mobile game. Instead of usual mobile gaming conceit of aligning three colored items together, I was pressing buttons, battling beasties for gold and experience. It was almost mind blowing that I could sit and wait for a wrestling event and have Steve laugh at me as I failed repeatedly against the final boss. I actually finally defeated the Dragonlord in the last row of chairs in front of a wrestling ring, just before the wrestling house show started. Here I was reliving an event from my childhood that had me glued to an old 12-inch TV and clunky console back in the day, and now I was out and about with it simply in the palm of my hand. The commentary on scientific progress was not lost on me in that moment.

Dragon Quest tells the simple tale of the Heir of Erdrick coming to the land of Alefgard to free it from the darkness of the Dragonlord. You grind against various monsters, collecting gold to buy upgraded gear, to make yourself stronger, so that you can rescue the princess, and defeat the evil power. In terms of gameplay, it is indeed simplistic. You can only hold a certain amount of each item, you have to manage a limited inventory, and your weapon and armor choices are extremely sparse in choice. The graphics of the iOS version were that of a SNES remake that I never knew existed. If you showed this mobile game to someone without the context of it being nearly a 30-year-old game, they would probably think it to be a pretty neat mobile game. The graphics of the remake, really allowed the artist style of Akira Toriyama (think Dragon Ball if you don’t know what I’m talking about) to standout in ways that the original 8-bit designs never really conveyed. This no more apparent than in the final boss himself, the Dragonlord.

All-in-all, this was a great trip down the memory hole. It was fun to relay the experience to friends and family over the past few weeks as I trekked through the first game. This is a series that never got a lot of love in The West. This is a sad notion considering the Japanese government enacted legislation dictating the Dragon Quest games can only be released on certain days of the year in order to quell and control the hordes of fans. The release of this game is practically a national holiday over there. I always felt the Dragon Quest games had more coherent stories in comparison to some of the other JRPGs like the Final Fantasy series. I was never quite sure what the hell was going on in the Final Fantasy games. So much in interface and concept was borrowed from the Dragon Quest series in other games (menus, items, spells, monsters, etc.), yet the story is something other developers could never quite get right. One could indeed say that the Dragon Quest stories are simple, but that belies the emotion that is held within these stories. For some reason, modern developers give the appearance of thinking that complexity breeds emotion. One can tell a simple story and still draw upon a lot of emotional themes that will move the player.

For that, I recommend everyone give the Dragon Quest series a shot. Like most series, you don’t have to play the previous one to enjoy the experience of another. Just find one and play it. In the meantime, I will continue to relay my experiences of my quest for the dragon here on Vorpal Power. Now if you will excuse me, I need to go wait in the deli line at the grocery store and play Dragon Quest 2 on my iPhone.


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