Released in North America in 1989, Dragon Warrior was the first foray into the RPG genre that really had any promotion behind it. Most of it came from a deal from Nintendo Power magazine where the game was included free with a new subscription to the magazine about a year after its initial release. Of course, that was in North America. In Japan, Dragon Warrior - or Dragon Quest as it was known over there - was a smash hit. The game was so big in Japan that lines went out the door to buy the sequels when they came out, and they had to be released on weekends so that kids wouldn't skip school and adults wouldn't call in sick at work. Yeah, it was that popular over there.
What made the game such a big hit was the fact that it was so different from most other games out at the time. Instead of a game that tested your reflexes, here was a game that tested your mental flexibility. You were given a fairly abstract goal - beat the Dragonlord, situated in a castle that's plainly visible from the game's starting point but impossible to reach until you complete a handful of sidequests first. There were no linear stages, no concrete milestones of progress like we had seen in previous adventure games like The Legend of Zelda, just a sprawling kingdom with towns sprinkled liberally about where you could buy equipment and gather information.
This was a complete departure from the games we'd gotten accustomed to seeing on the NES, which were mostly platformers, shooters, or maze chases. The closest thing we had to this type of game was The Legend of Zelda, and even then the puzzles didn't amount to much more than looking for secret passages between the rooms of a dungeon. The only clues you ever really got were vague platitudes that didn't make a whole lot of sense and ended up being pretty unnecessary to get through the game, because ultimately you could brute force your way through the tricky parts if you really had to. You couldn't get away with that in Dragon Warrior - you actually had to talk to all the villagers if you wanted to know what you were supposed to do. (Or you could cheat like the rest of us and look it up in a player's guide.)
But apart from that, Dragon Warrior was a really simple game as far as RPGs went. You had a few towns, a few monsters, a few spells, a few objectives... It didn't overwhelm you with too many things, because it was already busy teaching you all of these new procedures. Kinda like a tutorial would.
In fact, that's exactly what Dragon Warrior was: a tutorial dressed up like a video game. An introductory Role Playing Game that taught you the fundamentals of the genre. Things like the overworld map, the random monster encounters, the paradigm of gaining experience to level up - those are all things that you as a player had never been exposed to before, and here's Dragon Warrior teaching you just enough about these things so that the next time you play an RPG, you'll know what you're doing and could focus more on the plot and the quests than having to figure out the mechanics of casting spells.
And now you see why Nintendo was willing to give away Dragon Warrior to its magazine subscribers. They knew that RPGs were already a hit in Japan, and they wanted to bring the genre overseas to an American audience. They knew that there were plenty of RPGs that had already come out in Japan that might have a chance of becoming popular in the states - but first they'd have to teach American gamers the basics of Role-Playing Games. Thus, the Dragon Warrior promotion. Those who subscribed during the promotion not only got the game, but a comprehensive walkthrough, maps, monster charts, and a poster - for Dragon Warrior II, which surprise surprise, had just come out stateside.
In total, over half a million copies of Dragon Warrior were moved in North America, one way or another. That's half a million people who've just been given a course in Role Playing Games 101 - many of them for free. So how did the sequel fare?
In a word, terribly. Only 150,000 copies of Dragon Warrior II were sold - less than one third of the figures from the first game. While it certainly didn't help that the market had just been split by the release of the Sega Genesis, that couldn't be the whole story. Truth is, Dragon Warrior II was just not as good of a game as the first one - even though it expanded on the template that the original Dragon Warrior laid out.
So what was wrong with Dragon Warrior II? Quite a bit more than you'd think.
What you're looking at above is the world map for the first Dragon Warrior game.
By video game standards, Alefgard was a pretty small kingdom. The original Legend of Zelda featured a 16x8 screen world map, each screen being 12 blocks long and 10 blocks wide. That's 15,360 total blocks worth of world to explore, not counting the dungeons. Meanwhile, the entire world map of Dragon Warrior was 120 blocks long and 120 blocks wide, coming out to a total area of 14,400 blocks. And if you look at that map, you'll see that a good 25% of it is covered in water, so in reality, only about 10,000 blocks of area is actually used.
But the difference between traveling the overworld in The Legend of Zelda and in Dragon Warrior is that in Zelda, a specific group of monsters inhabit an entire screen. That script is consistent and routine: if a screen has six Octoroks in it the first time you visit it, it'll have six Octoroks the tenth time. (With the exception of when you only kill some of the monsters onscreen instead of all of them; revisiting the screen will only bring back whichever number of monsters you didn't kill the previous time.)
In Dragon Warrior, however, combat is handled on a step-by-step basis. Every single step on the map brings with it the chance to spawn a monster attack. Sure, you're only fighting one monster at a time, but it's very possible that you could take a step, get attacked, take another step, get attacked again, take a third step, and get attacked yet again. And while you still have the same option to either fight or flee, the feedback wasn't instant as it was with Zelda; you put in a command, and then a few seconds later you'd see how much damage was dealt. With each monster being handled individually, combat was more drawn out.
That said, much like The Legend of Zelda, the map to Dragon Warrior is compact enough that if you know where you're going and how to get there, going from one point of interest to another never takes more than a few minutes, even with all the monster encounters you may face.
Now, compare that to the world map from Dragon Warrior II.
Feast your eyes on a world map that measures both twice as long AND twice as wide as its predecessor. (And before you ask, yes, these maps are to scale.) Oh, and did you notice something unusual on that map? Something that looks kinda familiar?
That square was the original kingdom of Alefgard that you had to explore in Dragon Warrior I. Not only has it been completely swallowed up by the surrounding lands, they had to scale it down to about half size. So the world you're trudging through in this game is actually more like 8 times larger than the one you had to navigate in the first game.
And as I mentioned about the first Dragon Warrior map, roughly a quarter of the map's area was filled with water, and since you couldn't traverse water in the first game, it pared down the playable area of the map to about 10,000 blocks. WELL GUESS WHAT NON-EXISTENT PROBLEM THEY SOLVED IN THE SEQUEL.
That's right: 1/4 of the way into the game, you get a boat to sail the seas. Suddenly, the entire map is traversable, and get ready to do a lot of sailing those remaining 3/4 of the game, because that's the only means of travel you have available to reach many of the important locations. Complicating matters further is the lack of an in-game map. Consider Zahan, a town that hides a critical item for your quest. It's hidden away on an island in the southeast corner of the world, surrounded by nothing but ocean. Now, if you had a map to reference during the game, it wouldn't be as much of a problem, because you could look at the map as you got closer and home in on the island. But instead, you're forced to point your boat in a direction, fending off monster attacks all the while (because heaven forbid you get a break from enemy encounters), and hope that you stumble upon your destination by sheer luck.
And even when you get to an island, you may not be able to make landfall right away. Many of the islands you come across also have the nasty feature of surrounding its coastline with tall mountains or shallow reefs, preventing your ship from docking until you go all the way around to the one part of the coastline that they'll allow you to park your ship.
The original game shared another interesting feature with the first Zelda game regarding its world map: almost the entire map was accessible to the player from the very beginning, save for the island at the center that housed the final dungeon. Oh sure, stray too far away from home base at the start and you're liable to get thrashed by a monster that's way beyond your ability, but for a game that uses exploration as a selling point that's not a bad thing. You learn the boundaries of your character's sphere of influence naturally by seeing how far you can travel before you're officially in over your head.
Meanwhile, the world to Dragon Warrior II was much more linear. Before you get the boat, quest items are arranged in a specific order that prohibits you from trying to skip ahead. And even when you get the boat, which would theoretically open up the entire world for exploration, the game continues to cling to a specific itinerary. Go into a town before you're expected and you'll be unable to do anything significant while you're there.
Dragon Warrior I had very little in the way of items. A healing herb, a torch for caves, wings to send you back to the castle. Again, all very simple tools that you'd want available to teach someone new to RPGs about inventory management. Your character could only hold so many items, but there were so few to begin with that you rarely had to worry about not having the room in your bag to carry something important.
In Dragon Warrior II, however, the inventory issue is a huge problem. You have three party members, so of course you can carry three times as much stuff, right? Well, yeah, but it's not that simple anymore.
All of a sudden, your inventory has to account for everyone's equipment as well. This wasn't an issue in the first game; since all the weapons, armor, and shields got stronger as you progressed with no additional features, the game figured that you didn't have a need for the sword you just made obsolete with your last purchase and bought it back in the same transaction. But now, the game allowed you to keep multiple pieces of equipment in your possession - which meant you had to keep them somewhere. Figure one weapon and one suit of armor for each party member, a shield for two of them, and a helmet for your leader, and that's more than a third your inventory space already taken up by the equipment you're just using right now, never mind any extra equipment you might want to hold on to later use.
Oh, and like the first game, Dragon Warrior II uses a multitude of locked doors that need keys to open them. But unlike the first game, one size key does not fit all. There are now four different types of keys, each opening a specific type of door, and each of them take up a separate inventory slot as well, instead of stacking on top of each other or having the new key replace the old one. That's now 13 inventory slots spoken for - and we haven't even brought up the prospect of quest items that you'll also have to keep in the same inventory. There's very little room now for things like healing herbs or antidotes.
(The first game also stockpiled herbs very conveniently in your inventory; you could carry up to six at a time and it would still only take up a single inventory slot. Same thing with keys. Such is no longer the case in Dragon Warrior II; each individual herb eats up a spot in your bag now.)
The limited inventory makes questing that much more difficult. With so little available space for curative items, there's now a strict limit on how much healing you can do in a dungeon before you have to go scurrying back to town in order to restock. Once you run out of herbs and your MP is exhausted, there's nothing more you can do to avoid being dragon kibble if you try to forge ahead. Maybe if you levelled up a little bit more before going into the dungeon a second time you might reduce the chances of this happening, but that brings me into the next complaint about the sequel.
Without question, the most annoying element of a role-playing game is the prospect of having to wander around the world map, fighting random monster encounters for no other reason than to grind out gold and experience, because if you don't, you can't afford the equipment and you won't have a high enough level to avoid getting clobbered by the monsters in the next cave or tower. Objectively speaking, Dragon Warrior I was more guilty of this crime than any other game in the genre. But due to the game's bare-bones simplicity, it gets away with it. The game treated the level-ups and big purchases as their own goals; the reward was that now you were better-equipped to go into that cave you saw earlier.
In the sequels, that goal-reward structure is reversed: getting through the dungeons are now the goal, with the quest items inside being the reward. And now there's a lot more stuff that needs to get done. Instead of just five dungeons in the entire game - two of them being completely optional - you now have a total of 13 places that you have to fight your way through in order to complete the game, every single one of them a necessity. And yet, even if you made it a point to take part in every single random monster encounter along the way as you played through the game, you'd still eventually reach a point where the monsters would be too tough for you.
The clearest way to explain how out of control the phenomenon of level grinding gets in Dragon Warrior II is to show you one very simple set of numbers:
What's the significance behind these numbers? They're the amount of experience points required to reach level 30, for the first game and for each character in the second.
Let those numbers soak in for a moment.
The second game in this series is now expecting you to do three and a half times the work you did in the first game, just for one character - your main character, mind you - to reach the same level. That number goes up to 4 1/4 times the experience for the second character, and a whopping 8 1/4 times the experience for the third.
Now, let's consider why I chose Level 30 as the baseline for this experiment. If the nature of the first number didn't tip you off, Level 30 is the highest level attainable in Dragon Warrior. It also represents a ridiculously overleveled character: most walkthroughs (including the one published by Nintendo) suggest that Level 20 is adequate to beat the game.
(Incidentally, the experience quotas for Level 20 are 26,000, 40,000, 57,000, and 125,000, respectively. The ratios aren't as bad as Level 30, but you're still grinding more than one and a half times as much as you did in the first game to get the Prince of Midenhall to the same level.)
And unlike the first game, where Level 30 puts your character at a godlike status, in the second game Level 30 is considered the recommended level for the final stages of the game. In other words, Level 30 is no longer extra credit: you have to reach that level with your first character at least, or else you're practically doomed in the final battles.
This is mostly because the individual level-ups don't do much to make your characters significantly stronger. When my Princess finally got to Level 2 - which needed 100 Experience to reach, by the way, compared to 12 for my main character - all she got out of it was a little more agility and a new spell. Compare that to the original Dragon Warrior, where every attribute got a boost when you made it to a new level. This is a running theme each time your supplemental characters level up throughout the game - they'll take forever to improve in any substantial way. And since it takes more experience for the two of them to level up, they will consistently lag behind your main character's abilities.
You can easily figure out what the ramifications of these raised requirements are. After spending double or even triple the time you spent in the first game on farming for levels, getting little in return for each one, you'd grow impatient of all the grinding you're doing. When you do finally get to a level you think is fit for the next quest, you start avoiding monster attacks, and run away from the ones you do encounter. As the game progresses, you'll find yourself more and more overmatched, and run away more frequently - at least, as much as the game would allow given its penchant for blocking escape attempts and handing enemies free ambushes - until finally you come up on a boss fight or a particularly difficult cave that you have no hope of conquering in your underleveled state. The time you mortgaged trying to avoid level grinding is now coming due in the form of one giant grinding session that can easily stretch out to several hours.
And chances are, you'd abandon the game, because you're not going to spend that much time doing the RPG equivalent of homework. Especially when you consider what you're fighting.
There's a reason why level grinding in Dragon Warrior II is so frustrating. Trolling for gold and experience in Dragon Warrior I was - continuing with the trend - dirt simple. In fact, it almost became a mindless, background exercise. You just paced back and forth on the world map, and whenever a monster showed up, you smacked it around a bit, gained a little bit of gold and EXP, and repeated the process. Sure, eventually your HP would drop to a dangerous level, so you'd cast HEAL and continue fighting. Then when you ran out of MP, you'd head back to either the closest inn or the castle, where you'd restore your life and magic levels. There weren't many different monsters out there - only 27 unique species in total - and the only truly dangerous ones were the ones that could put you to sleep or were agile enough to dodge your attacks well.
Fighting monsters became much more of a hazard in Dragon Warrior II. Obviously, fights were no longer a 1-on-1 affair; even in the early going, when you did only have one character at your disposal, you could be attacked by a half-dozen monsters in one go. This would quickly wear you down to the point where you'd have to retreat to the town to recover. And even when you got additional party members to potentially even the odds, the monsters would retaliate with spells and attacks that targeted your entire party.
If you look at the spell list from Dragon Warrior I, you'll notice there's only 10 spells. All but two of them get a fair amount of use out of your character as the game goes along. The two that don't are the two offensive spells, HURT and HURTMORE. Generally, your innate offensive power will be stronger than the damage output from either of those spells when you get them, so you're not going to use them very much - but the monsters will. The reason those spells exist is so the monsters have additional ways to hurt you, because the spells were usually stronger than the monster's offense.
Which brings us to Dragon Warrior II. Spells like Firebane, Explodet and Infernos will end up being cast an awful lot more against you than against the monsters. While most of the offensive spells will be given to Princess, and the spells will do more damage than her standard attack (which is dreadfully anemic), there's one major difference between monsters casting spells and party members casting spells: if the Princess casts enough offensive spells, she'll run out of MP. Monsters have no such limitation. And the MP we expend on spells isn't restored unless we go all the way back to town and rest. Even if monsters have a finite amount of MP, once you defeat one spellcaster there's surely going to be another one coming up right behind with a fresh supply of mana.
(Bear in mind, the Princess is the only one who wields the two most important healing spells, as well as the one spell that revives a fallen party member. That means most of her MP will be spent keeping the party alive rather than hurling fireballs.)
It should also be mentioned that combat with multiple party members could prove frustratingly difficult, due to the targeting system the game uses. Rather than picking out individual monsters to direct your attacks at, you could only choose a group of monsters, and the AI would randomly target one monster from that group. Spells were equally problematic; while the enemies enjoyed the ability to cast multi-target spells at your entire party, the best you could hope to do with most spells is again target one group.
And there's more - two spells in the game are instant-death spells, and are obviously there to give enemies an ace in the hole. The Defeat spell instantly kills one target; the Sacrifice spell other kills everyone on the opposing side at the cost of the caster's life. Defeat is bad enough - it hardly ever works when you cast it, and even when it does you get no rewards for monsters beaten this way. But having Sacrifice in the arsenal is about the cheapest thing I've ever seen in a video game.
Imagine forging your way through a cave that's rife with pitfalls, dead ends, and even endlessly-looping hallways, on your way to the game's final dungeon. You somehow emerge from the cave, wounded but alive, staggering towards the last safe haven there is before the game's end. One step before you reach it, though, a Gold Batboon ambushes you, and in your failed attempts to run away, he casts an unblockable spell that instantly murders your entire party. It happens so fast the text on the screen goes red before the spell even resolves.
Hope you enjoyed slogging your way through the Cave to Rhone. Now do it again.
Granted, this is a very specific scenario. There's only one monster in the field that's capable of casting this spell on your party. (One of the bosses in the final castle, a palette swap of this guy, has it too.) But the fact that the spell exists, there's a monster capable of casting it, and it's just as impractical for you to use as it is lethal for the monster, is just plain malicious. There is no reason to give a monster an instant whole-party knockout spell other than sheer antagonism and/or misanthropy.
With monster encounters being more common, and the monsters themselves being much stronger, many attempts at exploring a new cave or traveling to a new destination get false-started as a quick attack by a bunch of bruisers will send you right back to the town to try again. I've talked a lot about needing to grind in order to avoid getting slaughtered by later foes, but here's the biggest crime that the game commits on that front: even if you're the right level, it might still not be enough. If you're unlucky with monster encounters, if you get caught in too many ambushes or the wrong monster casts the wrong spell, it's all for naught anyway.
Dragon Warrior II gives the player a lot of things to accomplish. You have to assemble your party, get all the necessary keys, obtain a ship, find five magic crests, wake up an ancient spirit, fight your way through a humungous cave filled with traps and dead ends, reach the final castle, and then FINALLY fight the final boss(es). Again, with so much that needs to be done, you'd think they'd find ways to speed up the game's pacing, so you're spending less time messing around and more time progressing through the game. But that's not the case here - in fact, there are many instances where the game actually moves slower.
Most of the delays come from the action menus that were introduced in the first Dragon Warrior game. If you look at the menu from Dragon Warrior I on the left, you see eight commands. In Dragon Warrior II on the right, the menu is condensed to six commands. Although they did clean up a couple of things - STAIRS, for example, was totally superfluous - they took out two of the more useful commands in the new menu. Originally, you could select TAKE to automatically open whatever treasure chest you may be standing on, but now you have to use the SEARCH command. In using SEARCH, the game doesn't automatically recognize the chest - it just gives you the same generic "search the ground" commentary before realizing there's a chest to open. But the really glaring omission was the DOOR command, which automatically opened up a locked door as long as you had a key in your possession. With that command gone, the only way you can open a door is by going to the ITEM command, selecting the party member with the right key, selecting the key, and selecting USE. That's five button presses instead of just two. It may not sound like much, but this isn't Dragon Warrior I, which only had about four or five doors that had to be opened throughout the game. There's dozens of doors to open now, and each one of them puts you through the same ordeal.
Anything that requires navigating the menus is a chore. Go to a weapons shop and buy a new sword for your Prince. If you want to sell the old weapon, you can't do it at the same shop - you have to go to the item shop and do it there for whatever reason. Do multiple party members want to sell things? Well, too bad - you have to cancel out of the dialogue and restart the transaction for each character. Make a mistake in selecting a spell or item? Sorry, you have to quit out of the command window and start over. Every action is a hassle, even the simple ones.
They don't really speed things up in the travel portion of the game, either. Monster encounters happen quite frequently in this game - enemy encounters after taking just one step on the map are not uncommon, and there are even times when you'll be attacked literally upon leaving town - and the pacing of the battles is dreadfully slow. Navigating the item and spell menus in a battle sequence can be a chore, and once the commands are put in, all you can do is sit and watch everything play out, one turn at a time. Even though you can change the message speed of the main game, there's no way to speed up the battle flow, so monster fights will take up the bulk of your time. And given how many battles you'll have to fight in order to raise your experience to a high enough level, it turns the most ubiquitous and the most mandatory element of the game into the most boring as well.
And throughout all this, you have to deal with controls that can feel incredibly sluggish and clumsy. This was a problem in the first game, and its presence in the sequel only exacerbates the game's slow pacing. There's a split-second lag when you start to move, and thanks to the game's block-by-block navigation system, it can be easy to overstep a boundary or miss a hallway thanks to not changing direction fast enough. NPCs still have a nasty habit of blocking narrow passages and not having the common sense to get the hell out of the way. In some ways, it almost feels as though the hardware is struggling to handle all of the activity - only you know that's a ludicrous thought, because The Legend of Zelda was equally epic and Link moved just fine.
Everything we've covered so far are all faults with the game that should have been corrected before the game was released. But perhaps the biggest reason why Dragon Warrior II failed is something that it had very little control over.
When Americans got their first taste of Dragon Warrior in August of 1989, the game was already more than three years old. As mentioned before, the game we know as Dragon Warrior had been released in Japan as Dragon Quest in May of 1986. And looking at the game, it obviously looks, feels, and sounds like a game that was designed when Nintendo's 8-bit console was still in its youth. If you compared it to other games out at the time - games like Mega Man II, Ninja Gaiden and Life Force, Dragon Warrior looked crude and unrefined. The graphics were blocky and undetailed, the music was primitive, and the controls felt slow. You could make the excuse at the time that presentation needed to be sacrificed in order to produce a game this robust.
But there's no way you can get away with that sort of excuse twice. Especially when the second game of the series is being released in November of 1990, a whole five years into the lifespan of the NES. When Dragon Warrior II hit the shelves, there was no ignoring the lack of an update in the game's presentation. The world map still looked like patchwork, the controls were still clunky, and the soundtrack was just as grating, if a little bit denser in its composition. Once again, Dragon Warrior II looked like an old game - and once again, it was: the Japanese version had been released at the start of 1987.
What sealed the fate of Dragon Warrior II, aside the fact that players were already starting to drift away from the NES and towards the newly-released Sega Genesis, was the fact that there was now competition. One game, which saw its Japanese release in December of 1987 (a full seven months after Dragon Quest II), had managed to get its localisation done faster and earn an April 1990 release in North America, seven months before Dragon Warrior II could make it onto store shelves. Care to take a guess what game I'm talking about?
(Hint: it's only the best-selling console RPG series of all time.)
Yep, that one.
Final Fantasy, a game so titled because its developer was on the verge of bankruptcy, completely stole Dragon Warrior's thunder. You could practically do a side-by-side comparison between this game and either installment of Dragon Warrior and highlight all the problems that Final Fantasy fixed, mitigated, or outright eliminated:
- The world of Dragon Warrior was a mishmash of forests, fields, mountains, and swamps.
- The world of Final Fantasy looked like an actual world, with all of its terrain fitting together much more realistically.
- Dragon Warrior's soundtrack only used all four of the NES' sound channels in its music twice: in the opening theme, and the ending theme. Nothing went for longer than 30 seconds before looping.
- Final Fantasy's soundtrack was melodic, adept at setting the right scene, and took full advantage of the NES' musical capabilities.
- Dragon Warrior's interface was driven entirely by menus. Multiple keystrokes were needed to talk to NPCs, unlock doors, or open treasure chests.
- Final Fantasy's interface greatly minimized the need to use menus. Talking to NPCs or opening chests was simply a matter walking up to them and pressing A; opening doors was automatic as long as you had the key. (One key, by the way, that opened every door for the rest of the game.)
- Dragon Warrior's controls were slow and unresponsive. NPCs wandered aimlessly about town, often blocking your progress.
- Final Fantasy characters moved more briskly, with vehicles that allowed faster travel and fewer enemy encounters (or even none at all), and you could push obstinate NPCs out of the way.
- Playing Dragon Warrior under ideal circumstances, you might have to fight as many as 100 battles with single monsters to go up to a suitable level to advance the plot.
- Playing Final Fantasy under average circumstances, a party could still level up with as few as 20 to 25 battles, as being able to fight multiple monsters in a single battle accelerates the experience gathering.
- Enemies could literally attack in Dragon Warrior after taking a single step. In Dragon Warrior II, you could even be attacked the moment you exited a town (while still standing on its icon on the map).
- In Final Fantasy, you were always guaranteed at least 9 safe steps after a fight, allowing for more exploration with fewer stoppages along the way.
- When fighting monsters in Dragon Warrior II, you had to direct your attack at a group and hope the characters picked the right one.
- When fighting monsters in Final Fantasy, you could have each party member target a specific monster, allowing for more strategy in fights.
- Getting lost was almost a guarantee in Dragon Warrior II, with its use of small, nondescript islands and no in-game map to reference.
- The world of Final Fantasy consisted mainly of four distinct continents, with a readily accessible map to pinpoint your location and that of your next destination.
And that's saying nothing about the customizable party and modular spell features that Final Fantasy boasted. Put it all together and you have a game that's much more suitable to be a "second grade" for RPG fans than the sequel to Dragon Warrior, which seemed content to present itself almost exactly the same as its first game, just with more stuff to manage.
Final Fantasy's pre-emptive release also meant that for those who had actually purchased the first Dragon Warrior game instead of waiting for Nintendo Power to hand them a copy for free, there weren't any other options if they wanted to continue down the path of RPGs except for Final Fantasy. (Well, there were, but titles like Ultima: Exodus and Nobunaga's Ambition were never going to appeal to young gamers who were using Dragon Warrior as their introduction to the genre.) By the time Dragon Warrior II finally came out, gamers already had a game that was doing everything the sequel to an RPG primer was supposed to do, and did it better. They didn't need Dragon Warrior II.
Dragon Warrior II failed for two salient reasons.
For one, they failed to correct whatever flaws were present in the first game, and actually made many facets of the game worse.
For another, someone else corrected their mistakes before they ever could.
In fact, judging by the later NES releases of the Dragon Warrior series, it's possible that Enix didn't even look at things like the simplistic presentation, the user-unfriendly interface, and the high experience curves as mistakes. Both Dragon Warrior III and IV also struggled with similar issues, once again piling on more cargo to a premise that desperately needed to lighten its load.
(To prove the point, consider Dragon Warrior III on the Game Boy Color or Dragon Quest IV on the Nintendo DS. They take the cores of both games and eliminate many of the annoyances that doomed their NES counterparts: namely, cleaning up the controls and battle mechanics. They may not have fixed everything - to wit, DW3 still feels like it could speed up its experience curve - but the evidence that either game could have been playable on the NES with more refinement is there.)
Meanwhile, Final Fantasy employed the clever tactic of holding back on releasing certain chapters of the series US, with the reasoning that they didn't want to flood the market with games that were too similar to each other. No doubt this was an obvious counter-tactic after watching the way Enix did things, as they were busy releasing four RPGs for the NES that all looked the same, sounded the same, and had the same mechanics, all in a span of less than four years. Figuring one Fantasy was enough for the NES, Square turned their attention to releasing Final Fantasy IV for the SNES (rebranded as II in North America), a year and a half after the first game was released in the US. With the more efficient combat mechanics, better look and sound, and more engaging plot of the first Final Fantasy now enjoying a 16-bit tune-up, Dragon Warrior had officially been rendered impotent in America. Enix never even bothered to compete: neither Dragon Quest title for the SNES saw a North American release, and even when they got back into the water by releasing Dragon Warrior VII for the PlayStation, all their momentum was gone.
(It's a shame, because Dragon Quest VIII for the PlayStation 2 is one of my all-time favorite games, because they stopped forcing you to grind for two to three hours at a time to accomplish anything, and it allowed you to actually appreciate the quest rather than get bogged down by it.)
And of course, cultural differences between the playing audiences of video games in Japan and the US also had a lot to do with RPGs floundering in the 8-bit era. In Japan, gaming was an activity enjoyed by both kids and adults, and it was the grown-ups who really gravitated towards the long-term quests that Dragon Warrior and its sequels provided. And it's very possible that things like the slow experience curve, brutal encounter rates, and limited inventory were intentionally kept in to drive the difficulty up to a level that adults would appreciate.
But here in the states, it was mostly kids playing video games, and we were still busy with our Marios and Mega Mans and Zeldas to notice a game that wasn't action-oriented. If Dragon Warrior and its sequels were going to be a success, they had to appeal to kids with much shorter attention spans. The precedent was alive and well to tone down the difficulty of a game that was considered too advanced for North American audiences, or even bypass the game all together; that's the reason we have a different Super Mario Bros. 2 from Japan.
And it wasn't as if Final Fantasy was an overnight smash hit in the US, either; even though Final Fantasy slapped the Dragon Warrior franchise silly with its sales - Final Fantasy sold 780,000 copies in total - compare that to the number of consoles sold and it still meant that just 1 in about 43 people actually had arguably the best RPG on the console. By comparison, about 1 in 4 people with an NES owned Super Mario Bros. 3.
I loved the original Dragon Warrior as a kid. The fact that it was such a different game from all of the action-oriented titles my friends were playing meant that when I got my copy as part of that Nintendo Power promotion, I finally had a game that none of my friends had. I was excited about the sequel - but after having played Final Fantasy first, the second installment of the series felt like merely an extension of the first game, rather than an improvement. As ambitious and unique as the original premise of Dragon Warrior was, it was not a perfect game, and it was up to the developers to recognize that when the time came to continue the series. Failing to correct the problems that a rival company effortlessly skated over is a surefire way to screw up a sequel.
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