GAME BOY ESSENTIALS

Dragon Warrior III

Adventure.

Adventure.

The video game discussed here was created in part by composer Sugiyama Koichi, who has publicly and financially supported historical negationism of Japanese war atrocities for decades. His vile activism should never be forgotten.

The Classiest of the Classiest

Game Boy Screenshot

I love Dragon Warrior 3 (Dragon Quest 3 nowadays and in Japan upon its release). It’s a cozy pair of slippers for my soul. When I’m mentally exhausted at the end of the day, I simply sit down, put my legs up and enjoy playing this magnificent video game. I then relax by slowly unwrapping the game, step by step, battle by battle, dungeon by dungeon, town by town. It’s never too complicated or difficult, meaning I don’t have to concentrate too hard to progress, and a fatal mistake only costs half your gold. Join me, why won’t you, on this essential quest to talk about why I love Dragon Warrior 3 for Game Boy Color so much.

Colours?

I want to start by talking about colours. Yes, colours. I’ve heard from many people that the Game Boy Color’s palette is ugly, with muted and dull colours. I don’t think they are particularly unpleasant, but I do agree that on an original system, with its unlit display, the colours tend to wash out. Developers clearly dealt with this problem in their own way, giving lieu to a lot of games with strange choices. Dragon Warrior 3’s colour choices, however, make me feel all warm inside. I love the beautiful pairing of red and gold of the ubiquitous castle carpets. It has a very regal look that makes you feel comfortable. Whenever you stop to look at a single tile making up a wall or a ceiling, you can find small intricate details that would normally go unnoticed. It’s incredible the amount of effort that went into every corner of this game. Travelling through this chibi fantasy world is a wonderful experience. There’s always more to explore in every new town, a different corner of the map to unveil, an unseen enemy type to encounter. One reason the game is so beautiful is Toriyama Akira’s art style is perfect for a low resolution. Famously known as the creator of Dragon Ball, Toriyama Akira has always been the dedicated character and creatures designer of the series. Whenever you compare his initial enemy drawings with the final result adapted for the pixellated screen of old systems, the number of retained details is impressive.

After the art is redrawn with such graphical constraints, you get to appreciate what makes his art style thrive here. His use of big eyes and in general large facial features while keeping a low line count is what impresses me the most. He obviously knew he was working within specific constraints and drew unique creatures that would work well with small sprites and limited colour choices. Look at his drawing of the golem, drawn initially for the first Dragon Quest game.

Picture

It has an aggressive pose, menacingly moving towards you. It looks like a cell from an animated film. Compare that with Amano Yoshitaka’s golem from the first Final Fantasy.

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It’s not as simple, not as iconic. You won’t find this drawing on a shirt. To be fair, I don’t think Yoshitaka had the same intention; he seems focused on making menacing monsters, readability be damned. The complicated relationship between Yoshitaka and the pixel artist for Square, Shibuya Kazuko (she often made pixel art of characters before the drawings were even made), doesn’t help consistency either. Which reinforces my point that Toririyama’s art style and methods are better suited to the Famicom’s limitations.

I’m talking about the Famicom here because the game was originally released on that system in February 1988. Subsequently released in the US on NES in March 1992, the game is what elevated the series to its revered status in Japan. It has a four-character party, with custom-built characters with an interesting list of job options, a simple class system, and a massive world to explore. For its time, it was a tour de force that such a complicated set of features was offered in an accessible package. Other RPGs of the era were often mean with their difficulty and obtuse with their explanations. The Dragon Quest games succeeded because they took pride in providing a game that was never punishing; failing at the game only ever meant losing half your gold and being transported back to your last save location. You never lose your hard-earned experience points and you’re never forced to reload a save. Because of its ease of use and lack of punishment, it’s a perfect RPG for an old curmudgeon like me who feels an urge to foolishly stay stuck in the past.

A Super Famicom Game in Your Pocket

The game was brought to Game Boy Color in 2001, but it wasn’t the first time the game was remade for another system. In 1993, the company Heart Beat entered the fray as the new supporting developers of Dragon Quest titles, starting with a remake of Dragon Quest III on Super Famicom. To understand the importance of that change, we need to step back and look at the development history of the series. The Dragon Quest games have a unique development structure; the trio of Horii Yuji, Toriyama Akira, and Sugiyama Koichi are responsible for their specific tasks, but the brunt of the development is done by a contracted company, initially Chunsoft. Enix (now Square Enix) ultimately publishes the games in Japan. By the time the Super Famicom became the home of the series, Chunsoft’s titles were underwhelming in many ways. The graphics were dated but more than that the user interface and speed of the games felt stuck in the past; they felt like old Famicom games. Their titles sold well, and Dragon Quest V is widely regarded as an incredible game, but it’s clear that the trio of Yuji, Akira and Koichi wanted something better. So Chunsoft was given the boot, and Heart Beat took over their role as the company developing the games. Dragon Quest III on Super Famicom is the first title made by this team of developers, and I think they blew it out of the park. They lavished a ton of effort and cut no corner. Their most impressive work is undoubtedly the full attack animations for every single enemy of the game.

It’s exquisite work, seemingly drawn by another team of developers at ArtePiazza. Heart Beat introduced new dungeons to explore once you have beaten the game, along with a fun new class, the Thief, and other less successful gameplay additions we’ll broach later. It’s a masterclass in how to improve on a previously released title, and the crazy thing with the 2001 release on Game Boy Color is that every element of the Super Famicom game was brought over to the portable title, even the intricate enemy attack animations. Those animations are beautiful on Super Famicom, but they’re a notch above on Game Boy Color due to their uniqueness.

I can think of no other GBC game with such smooth animation. We have TOSE, the shadowy developer, to thank for this Game Boy Color tour de force. It must have been a monumental job to redraw so many things to fit within the colour constraints of the diminutive console, and to bring over all those animations.

My Personal Connection

I didn’t know about any of those details when I bought the game. What had convinced me to buy the game was the poster for Nintendo Power 144, one of the first issues I read when I first subscribed to the magazine. I wanted to learn more about the upcoming Game Boy Advance and my English-reading abilities were good enough to read a game magazine by then. The poster features the cover art for the box and cartridge, a beautiful Toriyama Akira drawing, but what ultimately drew me in were all the details about the game on the back of the poster.

It’s nothing more than an ad in the form of a daily journal, but I was hooked and wanted to buy the game, even though the Game Boy Advance was out by this point and I could have spent my hard-earned money on more impressive games. However, there was a problem. The only store near me that sold games, my local Zellers, did not have the game when I went there following its July release. Perhaps the Sears catalogue would carry it come the Christmas season; with the Game Boy Advance now released, I knew this was a long shot. My only chance to buy the game was gone.

But by 2001, a new online store had opened, available for any resourceful 15-year old. I borrowed my parent’s credit card after much pleading, and I ordered from a new website, recently available in Canada, offering an incredible selection of merchandise and affordable shipping: amazon.ca. I do not have my order in my account anymore (I changed my Amazon account in 2004 for some reason), but Dragon Warrior III was my first online purchase, way back in the prehistoric era of 2001. I still remember going to my neighbourhood’s community mailbox, and the excitement I felt at finally seeing the key in our family’s mailbox for the packages box. When I got over the emotions of receiving the game, I opened it and started playing it. I immediately enjoyed its opening (particularly the battle between Ortega and the dragon, which feels like a Dragon Ball combat sequence), its previously mentioned colour palette, and the blazing fast walking speed. Oh man that walking speed is so sweet. You just zip through every screen at what feels like the speed of light, and I feel so grateful to the developers of the Super Famicom reissue for doing that, and for TOSE for brining it to their Game Boy Color version. The developers valued your time, and don’t want you to waste any time uselessly. I begrudge any RPG without a quick walking speed because of this specific game.

Once I had built a party, an interesting prospect since you’re forced to make heartbreaking class choices, you start exploring the world and discover the previously mentioned enemy animations, and the day and night cycle. It feels like nothing special, but the fact that TOSE managed to keep the Game Boy screen readable while conveying nighttime is a small feat in itself. Unfortunately, the second world map you explore much later is always in nighttime, and that’s a bummer.

The game is great, but not everything added with the Super Famicom reissue is perfect. I particularly take umbrage at the personality system. The initial test for your hero character’s personality is fun (particularly the unique final scenario to evaluate your reactions to a specific situation), but personalities’ numerical impact is never explained. Here’s the down-low: each personality impacts stat growth at level-up in positive or negative ways. You can gather books throughout the game to change your character’s personalities, but I would have preferred if the game was clear about what each personality did, especially since they are not equal. Two or three specific personalities are clearly better out of a large set of mostly inconsequential stuff. As it stands, nothing tells you if the personalities you find are improvements from what you have.

They also added Tiny Medals, unique hidden collectibles you can find and trade for increasingly better rewards. Since there is no way to precisely track which medal you already found, it can quickly become tedious to retrace your steps to look for medals you might have missed. Fortunately, you don’t need every single medal to get all the rewards, and the Thief class has two spells to alleviate your quest for the RPG equivalent of loose change hidden between the sofa cushions.

Not Hard

Dragon Quest games have never been hard; since the very first title, the consequence for dying is merely losing half your money and being sent back to your last save location. Another gameplay element has defined the series: Magic Points are only restored by staying at an inn, outside of some rare exceptions. These two core concepts make the series favour attrition over any other sort of challenge. It’s about your party’s ability to reach the end of the dungeon before they run out of resources, not about the particular challenge of each battle. This makes the adventure soothing and fun for me. I like playing a game to see how deep inside a cavern you can go, all while searching for treasure. Not every game needs to be a tense gauntlet like Dark Souls.

So Dragon Quest III is really fun to passively explore, as a kind of way to keep your hands busy while you relax. As a big bonus to the exploration fun, the world map is patterned after the real world; you start on an island that doesn’t exist, but then you get teleported to fake Italy and go from there. That way it’s always fun to figure out where you are compared to the real world, and what hall of mirrors parody of a nation you’ll encounter next.

Once you enter a dungeon, you’re on your own. The game only offers a world map; you get no such luxury anywhere else. This could be a big turn off for many people, and I completely agree if you don’t want to play an RPG that doesn’t have dungeon maps, especially if it has the small viewable area of the Game Boy Color. However, the absence of a map is not always a nonstarter; great developers will adapt their design to present a cohesive map that players can learn. Dragon Quest III, for the most part, offers simple dungeons that won’t be too hard to understand. Since you won’t have the crutch of a map to rely on, you’ll also learn and retain the structures of the game. After twenty years of playing, I instinctively know all the towers and caverns of the game because there isn’t a map.

Conclusion

I’ll still be playing Dragon Quest III when I’m 80 years old, and I’ll play it on Game Boy Color, like god intended. The mobile versions have terrible redrawn sprites, and all sorts of poor choices. Please do me a favour and stay away. I cannot wrap my head around playing that game tethered to a television. I want to put on a podcast and relax in my sunroom with the game in my hands, the dog at my feet and my wife next to me. That’s my definition of heaven.

I’d play in bed while falling asleep, but my wife gets woken up by my button presses.