DRAGON WARRIOR II / Enix / NES
 
 
The adventure game genre struggled through a very awkward adolescence of bad design decisions in the late 80s and early-mid 90s: clumsy arcade sequences, horrible mazes, game breakers where you could be stuck 5 hours in because you missed some obscure thing back in the first hour of play, etc. I'd like to say that these were growing pains on the way to maturity, but what actually happened was that the genre got into a horrible car accident just after getting its drivers license as a teenager and has been in a coma for 15 years, only just recently stirring and showing signs of life again.

Console RPGs (aka JRPGs, since they overwhelmingly came from Japan) went through a similar phase around the same time, with the Dragon Warrior / Quest games being the experimental pioneer. The Dragon Whichever series particularly was responsible for a lot of the genre's design missteps - ridiculous encounter rates, cliched stories, sudden jags in difficulty that mandate hours of tedious grinding, trollish dungeon design that serves no purpose but to waste your time - but instead of learning from them and growing, Dragon Warrior embraced and endlessly replicated them and still became an enduring sales success in Japan. I still don't have an explanation for that phenomenon, but I've always chalked it up to the Japanese market just being of a particularly masochistic bent. Dragon Warrior did moderately OK in the West, but nowhere near Japan where droves of salarymen called out sick on release day like it was Super Bowl Sunday for every new release in the NES and SNES eras.
 


Unfortunately, Dragon Warrior 2 commits one of the cardinal sins of gaming; being engrossing and fun for most of its length, leading you to drop a bunch of hours into it, only to kick you hard in the grapes with a ridiculously unbalanced and overly difficult final act that you'll most likely quit without finishing out of sheer frustration. Thus basically wasting the 20+ hours you just spent getting there. It wouldn't be so bad if Dragon Warrior 2 was the lone offender and learning experience on the way to better things, but this actually turned into a pattern repeated to various degrees in all the rest of the NES and SNES Dragon Warrior/Quest games, with #6 being the apex of ridiculousness in this regard.

But back to Dragon Warrior 2. Getting to the final area really isn't bad at all, and even quite a pleasant experience sometimes. The game is more linear than the first Dragon Warrior for the first 1/3 of its length or so, up until you get hold of a boat. Once you get the boat, it's the same procedure of being left on your own to roam the world talking to random-ass NPCs to get clues as to where to go and what to do as in Dragon Warrior 1 ... except this time with a boat and a much bigger world to explore. Though sometimes a bit obtuse and annoying, like the first game there's also a strangely progressive feel for such an old and primitive RPG. No handholding, no heaps of dialogue, no linear corridors or set pieces, and nary a non-interactive cutscene in sight (except for the one the game opens with, possibly the first ever of the JRPG genre ... but after that there's never another one.) Back in the day you really needed Nintendo Power as there is no in-game world map and a whole lotta empty ocean out there, but let's be real, it's 2013 now and we have Sweet Mother Internets caring for us, so there's little reason to grouse about the world map or the sometimes unclear objectives.
 


But again, the trouble is you'll dump 20 or 25 hours into this reasonably pleasant experience, only to get painfully rustled in the jimmie region when it's time to go into the lair of the Big Bad for the final showdown. The Big Bad spends the game camped out in a mountain region called Rhone, and all of your efforts are basically bent toward opening the pathway to it by collecting both crests and keys. Dragon Quest vets talk about the Cave to Rhone as one of the worst moments of the entire series, but it's really the least painful bit of the endgame sequence. In fact, the only REALLY bad part of it is a final floor riddled with unmarked pitfalls that you just have to tediously trial-and-error through if you don't have a map (but again, Sweet Mother Internets solves this problem in about 5 seconds.)

No, the real bullshit part of the game is Rhone itself and the Big Bad's castle. It's stocked up with random enemies that are just utterly unbalanced and terrible, to the point where walking through it feels more like playing a shitty casino slot machine than an RPG. It would be completely and totally untenable if the designers hadn't seem to realize (too late in the process) that Rhone was complete and utter unplayable bullshit, so they threw some inexplicable Shrine where you can get healed/revived for free and save your game right in the middle of it.

I wish the Shrine hadn't been placed there, however, as it would have saved me a couple extra hours of grinding due to false hope of actually completing the game. But you make the long walk from the Shrine to Big Bad Castle, hoping the bullshit little Cookie Monster On Fire enemies who spam the randomly-kill-the-whole-party spell don't kill the one guy who can revive people first, hoping you don't run into a party of Gold Batboons (whom the devs apparently started every day of development with a worshipful circle jerk to) who can put the party to sleep, resist attack spells like 90% of the time, usually can't be run away from, and petulantly cast a spell that literally wipes out your whole party with 100% success when their HP gets low. Or simply getting jumped by 3 or 4 enemies who pull Heroic Attacks out of their ass and/or spam an Explodet spell every single turn that takes 1/3 of every character's health off too often, which depletes your MP through battle and recovery too much to actually challenge the Final Castle and its gauntlet of mini-bosses when you get there.

The Final Castle is a short and simple affair, but you're expected to run through three mini-bosses before facing the final boss. Without healing or restoring your MP at all, which undoubtedly took a beating just making it through Rhone's gauntlet of bullshit enemies. The first one gets to attack twice and can kill one of your pussy supporting characters in their two turns outright if they choose to. The Revive spell (that only one guy has) can't be used in battle for some stupid reason and the only other life-restoring item is a Leaf that you're only allowed to carry one of and have to truck halfway across the world to some dumb island to replace when you use it. So yeah. If he chooses to kill someone outright on any given turn, the battle is fucked and you might as well reset. And walk the gauntlet all over again. I never saw the second and third mini-bosses as this was the breaking point for me, where I just felt the game had become pure Japanese masochist abuse ritual and I refused to participate any more.

tl;dr Rhone is like playing a Dungeons & Dragons session run by Eric Cartman.
 


Sadly, not only did all the Dragon Warriors decide this sort of thing was a marvelous idea up until #7 or so, but a number of other Japanese RPGs decided to tap into this vein of insane cultural masochism or whatever the hell drives people to actually attempt this shit. I trashed 1999s Persona 2 for pulling this exact same sort of bullshit, and off the top of my head Odin Sphere (2005 for the PS2) is an even more recent one that I played recently that pulled a variant of this nonsense too. Point being, stuff that should have been regarded as a serious design flaw and ironed out here actually became embraced as JRPG convention and replicated over the next 20 years. You can thus probably blame Dragon Warrior 2 for a fair deal of the Terrible the genre is known for.

At least the resolution was too low at this point for fruity fashion boys flying around and bloated FMV cutscenes.
 
 
Links :
 
* World Map - You're gonna need this if you play. But really the winning move is just to never start this game.
 
Videos :
 


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