In 1990, Nintendo Power ran a promotion packaging a free copy of some game called Dragon Warrior with a paid yearly subscription. Back then, there were far fewer games to choose from on store shelves, and a “free” game was something to be coveted—a thing to harass your parents over and a thing to play into the ground once they gave in and got it for you. It was a thin era, a time when you would play and replay any game to death, no matter how unfathomably boring it was. (See: The Three Stooges.) Dragon Warrior, despite being promoted as a subscription perk, turned out to be not only playable, but pioneering.
It was among the first of its kind, a dungeon-crawling role-playing game before “dungeon crawler” was an established thing. You play as the descendent of Erdrick, a hero of yore. The back of the box says it all: “All is darkness. The Dragonlord has captured the Princess and stolen Erdrick’s powerful ball of light. You are Erdrick’s heir. To you has fallen the most dangerous task—to rescue the King’s daughter and recover the mystic ball of light.” Not that you have any choice in the matter.
For players seeking a familiar parallel, Dragon Warrior bore a faint likeness to The Legend Of Zelda, in terms of its swords and sorcery and kidnapped princesses and evil wizards. But where Zelda’s hero Link has to only collect certain items and find keys to progress, Dragon Warrior requires you to level up—increasing your power and abilities with points earned from successful battles—by defeating a steadily more powerful menagerie of enemies. Sure, those smiling blobs of gelatin aren’t too threatening, but venture too far from your home base and you quickly find yourself beset by the likes of werewolves and sorcerers, who spring themselves upon you at random. Underpowered heroes are quickly exposed, so you’re forced to “grind”—that is, walk around the map, fighting and leveling up, until you’re sufficiently empowered to survive more grueling areas.
The grind is lessened, though, by Dragon Warrior’s save feature, which was somewhat uncommon for the time. (Zelda had one, too.) The game allows you to save your progress, to be taken up again at your leisure. To manage this minor technological miracle, though, you were advised by the game to hold in the reset button as you powered it down. The NES wasn’t originally designed to accommodate battery-powered save files. Unlike today’s games, which often save your progress every few minutes, your Nintendo could easily suffer a minor stroke and fry your saved game. The slog of Dragon Warrior wasn’t for the faint of heart, constantly playing in perpetual danger of oblivion. I vividly recall accidentally kicking the machine one night more than 20 years ago and losing what seemed like years of work.
The game begins at the king’s castle. Across the river, not inches from you on the map, lies Charlock, home of your antagonist the Dragonlord. He’s so close, yet so far away. The people of this kingdom, Alefgard, have apparently not mastered the building of basic watercraft yet, so you’re forced to circumnavigate the entire world map on land when a simple raft would’ve cut out a lot of this nonsense. After buying “The Club” and “The Clothes” at the nearby town of Brecconary, you’re off to kill monsters and prove worthy of Erdrick. (Some villagers in the game actually ask you for proof of your descent. Alefgardian birtherism at its worst.)
After building up your hit points and magic spell arsenal, and collecting Erdrick’s discarded gear through many, many tedious hours of fighting and healing, you must fetch this artifact called the Rainbow Drop. It’s held by a cranky old man in the southeastern corner of the map. This essential item magically bridges the continent to the Dragonlord’s island fortress. (Again, boat.)
Once at Charlock, you make your way to the catacombs. In dungeons, you need either a torch or the Radiant illumination spell to navigate the tunnels. It’s a claustrophobic experience. Blue dragons, axe knights, and other irritating enemies harry you constantly, but eventually you wander into the center of the labyrinth, where you find Erdrick’s Sword. This, you’re told earlier in the game, is a weapon capable of cleaving steel, an Arthurian blade fit for the chosen one.
Once out of the cellar, kill your way through the Charlock courtyard until face to face with the Dragonlord himself. Up close, this infernal presence is much less intimidating than you had been led to believe. This underfed blue elf is, apparently, the unholy terror we’ve all been worried about. The waif doesn’t lack for confidence. “Welcome, Drex,” he tells me. (It’s a typo I was too lazy to fix.) “I am the Dragonlord—king of kings. I have been waiting long for one such as thee. I give thee now a chance to share this world and to rule half of it if thou will now stand beside me.” It takes a few seconds to sort through Dragonlord’s Arthurian grammar, but it seems as though he wants you to join his cabal of evil. “What sayest thou?” he asks.
Why sell out Alefgard and the princess now, especially after all you’ve done to get to this point? Well, for one thing, the temptation to break from the preconceived narrative—the shattering of Erdrick’s descendent’s unbreakable Calvinist destiny—is strong. The whole encounter is not unlike the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, except with spookier music. You’ve killed so many monsters big and small, healed yourself from grievous wounds so many times. You’ve spent countless hours wandering the wilderness, increasing your power for… For what? So far, you’ve done all of this because it’s expected of you as Erdrick’s descendent. But where’s the payoff?
Half the world? Very well, Dragonlord. I accept your offer. “Then half of this world is thine, half of the darkness and… If thou dies I can bring thee back for another attempt without loss of thy deeds to date.” So far, so good. Perks are decent (half the world), and the benefits package can’t be beat. But he’s not done talking. “Thy journey is over. Take now a long, long rest. Hahahahahahaha.” The screen goes red, and your gold reserves go down to zero, effectively ending your game. Betrayed!
But this is the beauty of that save-game chip inside the Dragon Warrior cartridge: It’s a mechanism of redemption. I can flirt with evil, try out the “cackling, pointy-haired blue elf” life for a moment, and still come back and be the hero, because that memory chip has my back. That is, as long as I don’t kick the machine, which is the ultimate sin. So, with my saved game restored, now I know not to trust the Dragonlord’s silver tongue. This time, when he asks, “What sayest thou?” I draw Erdrick’s sword and get to work. Turns out he has a couple more tricks up his sleeve, and he transforms into something resembling Epcot’s Figment dragon. He’s tougher than he looks but eventually falls before Erdrick’s mighty blade. I head back to the castle to claim my prize, the lovely (if clingy) Princess Gwaelin. Eh, better than nothing.