DRAGON WARRIOR / Enix / NES
Dragon Warrior wasn't technically the first console RPG - the rather bizarre Bokosuka Wars beat it by a couple of years - but it was the first one that really *mattered*, and the one that became the basic template for the entire JRPG genre. It took a lot of inspiration from Western PC RPGs that had come before it, particularly the Ultima and Wizardry series, but streamlined the experience to make it simpler and easier but tailored to a two-button gamepad, smoother to play and more pleasing to look at.
Released as Dragon Quest in Japan in 1986, it took until 1989 before Enix and Nintendo were willing to gamble on localizing it for the West (though the long release delay did give the Western version the advantage of a battery backup to replace some seriously long passwords in the original Japanese release.) Nintendo made a tremendous push to get the game over in the West, giving Nintendo Power subscribers a free copy as well as a free strategy guide, and likely you can thank their considerable financial investment for JRPGs even taking hold and being a Thing in the U.S., Europe and Oz/NZ (imagine a world where we never heard of the Final Fantasy series until the late 2000s, because it was never localized! Might have happened without this push.) It makes it all the more strange that Nintendo never really showed interest in developing their own in-house RPGs over the years after making such an effort to establish the genre here ... the only really significant series they had was Fire Emblem, and it took a good 20 years before they localized any of those!
Looking back through the lens of 25 years, Dragon Warrior is a little hard to take. Well, maybe that's an understatement - it's really pretty difficult to stick with if you've never played it before. It has the most slow and primitive 4-direction tile-based movement. It has inconsiderate NPC placement where they can jam up doorways, shop counters and other miscellaneous bottlenecks, and there's just nothing you can do but wait on their rude ass to randomly move out of the way. You have to truck all the way back to the starting castle to save the game. Every action, such as climbing stairs or opening a treasure chest, has a separate command on a menu.
Despite the Extreme Aged Cheddarness of it, however, it still sports better production values (in terms of overall polish and usability) than a number of 16-bit RPGs! The game has a simple but oddly charming look, and color is used well. Composer Koichi Sugiyama wouldn't really get to flex his musical chops until the SNES entries of the series, but within the confines of the NES sound chip he still manages to craft some memorable melodies, such as the haunting overworld theme and the now-classic blaring trumpet title screen theme.
This first entry also feels strangely progressive, as it is entirely open-world from the beginning! Very few areas of the game world are physically locked off to you from the outset; the only thing preventing you from getting to them are the random encounters with enemies who will smack you down in no time flat. While the game lacks anything more than the most rudimentary plot and your character keeps their mouth sealed shut until the ending, it also is completely free of non-interactive cut scenes. The open-world possibility of wandering into a situation that is over your head is counterbalanced by a total lack of perma-death; death simply kicks you back to the King for an auto-revival in Ultima style, minus a fee of 1/2 of your gold for the trouble. You get to keep your experience, though, so a dungeon run that ends in death never feels like a total waste of time. Dragon Warrior also nails one of the core principles of adventure-RPG design right out of the gate; make the overarching goal very clear and the challenge in figuring out how to get to it, rather than having nebulous overall objectives that require simply plowing blindly through whatever areas you can get to. In this case, you can see the game's penultimate goal the second you step outside of the castle - the home of the Dragonlord is visible right across the water, and you'll have to work your way around the world map to get to it.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of JRPGs would not go on to copy this design style. They would, however, copy Dragon Warrior's rather lazy central means of generating challenge - long mandatory stretches of grinding. Even if you can take the slow and old-skool interface, Dragon Warrior does its best to drive you off anyway by having giant difficulty humps between areas that can only be overcome by a solid hour or more of walking in stupid circles fighting weaker enemies for EXP and gold. At the game's outset, you're just about capable of taking on the first challenge - travelling to a nearby tomb to recover a tablet that proves you are the descendant of legendary hero Erdrick. After that's done, though, there's a sizable hump where you're far too weak to do anything else in the game until you've ground up to about level 8 and upgraded your equipment. This opens up the ability to travel the northern hemisphere freely ... but most of the dungeon areas there are still too much for you, requiring some more grinding to about level 12. And then taking on the Dragonlord and the bowels of his castle will require a good chunk of pure grinding too; I had to grind from level 17, where I had completed everything else in the game (including retrieving the Ubersword from the final castle), all the way to level 21 before I had the requisite attack power and MP to go blow-for-blow with his final form.
Sadly, grinding became a JRPG genre staple rather than an early design flaw to be ironed out. Despite this I think Dragon Warrior has aged a bit better than the first entry of chief rival Final Fantasy, which actually had quite a bit more mandatory grind time on the whole, on top of slow battle speeds thanks to clunky animations and characters' amazing propensity to whiff on attacks for at least the first few hours of play. Strangely the "open world / death simply costs you some money" style would largely die out from here in RPGs ... but would be picked up later by sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto instead!
I found it kind of refreshing to just be thrown into a world that you have to explore freely and talk to NPCs to figure out how to proceed (and a very good localization keeps this from being a frustrating process.) However, all Dat Grinding is a real heavy price to pay for the game's enjoyable qualities.