First I’m going to describe in detail why I really thought I was going to be able to complete Dragon Warrior III this time. I was able to pinpoint exactly what changes the series had undergone between the earliest games and this one that made playing it an enjoyable experience, rather than a vomit-in-your-mouth experience. That’s worth discussing.
Then I’m going to explain why I had to quit playing it.
Playing a JRPG means being stuck inside of two boxes at once. Imagine the two boxes, with you in the center, which grow independently of each other. You can do whatever you want inside the confines of the smaller box, but you can never move beyond it, no matter how big the larger one is.
The walls of the first box are defined by your boundaries in the game world. You can never explore further than your plot progression, regardless of how powerful you are. In early RPGs like Dragon Warrior III this typically means finding a ship, or getting an NPC to open a door for you, or finding a magic key. In modern ones it usually means seeing a particular cutscene or tripping some plot flag. There’s just no outrunning the plot, yeah? The more plot balloons you swat down, the bigger the game world gets, and the more places there are to poke around in. Eventually you’ve poked everything, and you win. Yay!
The second box is defined by the power level of your heroes. It’s expected that, at a particular point in the story, the heroes will be at least tough enough to fight whatever monsters happen to be hanging around. If you can’t survive the encounters, or beat the boss, or afford the new equipment, or whatever, it doesn’t matter how big the game world is — you’re not going anywhere but the Game Over screen. So you do whatever you have to do to make your numbers go up, and at some point your numbers are high enough that you can survive anything, and you win. Yay!
If the numbers box grows faster than the plot box, that means your heroes are in a constant state of being stronger than everything the game can throw at them. By the time the cutscene rolls around and the next continent is opened up, you’re already strong enough to deal with all the uglies that live over there. You end up racing from cutscene to cutscene at a brisk pace, focusing more on story than gameplay challenges. This is how most of my beloved Final Fantasy games are structured.
But if the plot box grows faster than the numbers box, that means the game world is laid open for you long, long before you’re able to survive most of it. The next continent opens up, but traveling across it is going to kill you, so you need to grind up your numbers before boarding the ship and heading on over. This is a pretty good description of the original Dragon Warrior; you can go just about anywhere right from the start, but you will never survive the journey.
Dragon Warrior III and Dragon Warrior IV are both the second style of game. What these games do right, which their predecessors got very, very wrong, is that the plot box is enormous. You are confined by your numbers in all four games — that’s just how these early JRPGs rolled — and the solution is always to fight monsters to gain EXP, and bring carts full of GP to the shops for constant equipment upgrades. In the first two games, you reached a point where the entire world was open and your heroes could go anywhere — but could survive almost none of it. So you had to do all your grinding in areas you’d already cleared, instead of exploring new and interesting content.
In the latter two games, there are so many locations and so much to do that simply poking your head into each new place will be enough to get your numbers in order. The game is very receptive to a playstyle where you push as far as you can into one dungeon, decide it’s too hard for you, then find and explore an easier one. In clearing the easier one, you get the EXP and GP you need to clear the harder one. By then the next plot flag is tripped, the plot box expands, and you’re on your way to the next continent.
The original Final Fantasy did a lot of this as well, as do most dungeon hacks and WRPGs. This setup gives the game a nice, oldschool flavor where you get to discover the world at your own pace, rather than be whisked from cutscene to cutscene at breakneck speed. Or being stuck in a forest grinding goblins for hours because you need a new sword.
That’s the context in which I was enjoying Dragon Warrior III for several weeks. I realized I had gimped my party a bit by putting a Goof-Off in it, but the rest of my team was fairly strong and I was able to make lots of progress by playing conservatively. I made sure to find my overworld boundaries before going into any dungeons, which was worth a few levels and new swords… but it also gave me a clear idea of what shops to focus on and where the invisible “monsters get stronger beyond this point” lines were. At one point I even had busted out the graph paper to keep track of maps and notes. It felt good.
When it came time to go into the dungeons, I usually had more than one option. With only one healer on the team I had to budget my MP very carefully; the rule became “explore the dungeon until Rosa is at half MP, then leave and warp back to town”. Sometimes I was able to clear a dungeon in just a couple trips. Sometimes the monsters were too tough and I knew I wouldn’t make it deeper than a screen or two, and I should come back later. Either way, progress. Far, far more satisfying than circling a forest hunting for goblins.
Then I found the cave with the mushrooms. There were four of them, and they all used an attack that put my entire party to sleep. Next round, they all did it again. Sometimes one of them would punch me instead. There was no winning this fight, even though none of the other monsters in the area were particularly tough. They weren’t easy, mind you; I was still measuring each step against my priest’s MP. But the mushroom fight was such a crazy blowout that I had to abandon that dungeon for the time being.
No matter, there’s another dungeon in the desert far to the south. The monsters here hit a little harder, and had a little more HP, but nothing put me to sleep and town was only about twelve tiles away. Before long I had cleared everything in this new dungeon and my guys were much, much stronger than they were going in.
There was a slight hiccup. One of the treasure boxes in this new place was a Man-Eater Chest. The Man-Eater chest could kill any of my heroes with one attack, had god-only-knows how many HPs, was seemingly immune to magic and could not be run from. In Dragon Warrior games, dying means losing half your money. (Actually, a little more than half, considering you need to pay some dude to revive your other party members.) As far as I can tell, these boxes exist only to tax the player for thorough exploration.
But okay, there is an NPC in town that says the treasures in that dungeon have long been looted. And this is indeed the case! The boxes that weren’t Man-Eater Chests were all empty. Had I read the clues and concluded it wasn’t worth my time to open any treasure boxes, I would have been safe. This was the kind of thing that passed for world-building back in the Long Long Ago, so I was willing to split the blame for what had happened. When I found a part of the dungeon that clearly had never been touched, all the treasures in that area were legit. Good form, good times.
Five levels stronger and decked out in all-new equipment, I then returned to the cave with the mushrooms. This time there were no mushrooms. Huh. Just an unlucky encounter generation, I guess.
That was my first clue that Dragon Warrior III was going to end up in the bin. Every single aspect of Dragon Warrior is left up to chance, see. The dice decide what monsters you fight, how many, what they do, whether their attacks land, whether your attacks land, when magic is effective, and so on. The variance in Dragon Warrior III, however, is so high that you can never be sure whether you’re failing in a dungeon because you aren’t supposed to be there yet, or because you just had a bad draw. Chances are good that had I just thrown myself at the mushroom cave after my first loss, I would have cleared it. (In fact, I had already seen all but two or three screens of it.)
Chances are equally good I would have been slaughtered by mushrooms again, though. Even with all my swank new spells and weapons, I’m not sure I could have survived another mushroom pack, had I encountered them.
About that time, my plot box expanded. I quickly found some new dungeons to explore, new shops to buy from, new coastlines to follow. At one point I decided to poke my head into a tower, just to see what was inside. The monsters there were tough, but nothing overly chancy, so I decided to see what treasures I could get.
Man-Eater Chest. Oh, good.
I had to shut the game off. I was fuming. This time, there was no splitting blame; my only crime was exploring this shiny new tower I’d found. I was taking the monsters down legitimately, I had a reliable escape route for when things got too heavy, and I had spent enough time with this party to know exactly the point at which I’d be pushing my luck. Left to my own devices, I am certain I would have cleared this dungeon in a couple of trips. But the game didn’t allow it. Bang, zoom, lose half your gold, have fun walking back.
It’s outright player abuse.
My options at this point weren’t great. The only reason I was in the dungeon was to find treasure. But I couldn’t take any of the treasure, for fear of running into another Man-Eater Chest. Avoiding the treasures was counter-productive, because that’s why I was there. I was trying to make my numbers go up. But taking them was counter-productive too, because opening the wrong one led to a Game Over and a loss of half my gold. Which means less cash for new equipment. Which means my numbers weren’t going up.
I might as well just run around the forest grinding up goblins.
I could have looked for another dungeon, I guess. But what guarantee did I have that it, too, wasn’t infested with random Man-Eater Chests? What am I supposed to do? Save state in front of every chest just in case? At this point in the game I had literally seen only three Game Overs — two from Man-Eater chests. I had a good enough handle on my party that I felt like I deserved to stay alive for as long as I played carefully.
The game disagreed. It thought I deserved to die randomly.
So the game goes back on the shelf. Sorry, Dragon Warrior III, but you suck just as much as your older brothers.
(My party, by the way, was Hero/Fighter/Priest/Goof-Off. I’m sure that information will come in handy for when you DQ nuts want to leave helpful comments about how I should go back to the game, what I was doing wrong, or how all this was my fault somehow. While you’re doing that, I’ll go back to Final Fantasy.)