Let me preface this by saying that I was aware of both what Nintendo Hard meant and the level of difficulty I should expect from Dragon Warrior/Quest titles before going into it. A fact that often escapes my notice about the phenomenon that is “Nintendo Hard” is that in order to make sequels enjoyable to the late 80’s audience a common tactic was to make the same game only much more difficult. This trend basically continued until the SNES emerged. So if you’re playing an original NES sequel (I’m looking at you Final Fantasy 3 and Super Mario Bros 2 aka The Lost Levels) expect to be challenged.
Now with all that out of the way, oh my Glob this game was challenging. It uses the trope from Final Fantasy 3 of putting the last save just ages away from the final boss.
But DW2 takes this a few terrifying steps further. I expected an overall damage output increase from the enemies, that didn’t surprise me. The creatures after the last save hit really hard, no big deal. I wasn’t even too put off by their tendency to crit and deal an inordinate amount of damage when doing so. What I wasn’t prepared for was the crits being capable of one-shooting everyone in the party including the strongest most heavily armed character. But I could have lived with that. I could possibly have also handled the creatures who do instant death attacks that actually connect semi-frequently (thank you Final Fantasy 1 for building up my tolerance there). Where DW2 starts to get a little intense was when they introduced a little spell called Sacrifice.
This spell is nothing new to JRPG fans, cast it and you die and, in exchange, a higher hit rate instant death spells hits your enemies. It’s generally given to a very useful character, often the paladin or white-mage and occasionally a monk or powerful blue mage (bonus points if you can guess the monk and blue mage to whom I am referring). Sometimes it can even be given to a boss to encourage you to learn an “auto-life” spell. Do you know who shouldn’t get it? Random encounter enemies that show up one-fifth of the time and in groups of two to four.
If I sound like I’m complaining it’s only because I’m speaking from passion. And passion is something which Nintendo Hard games are great at creating. It’s one thing to hand me one of these babies:
But it pays off best when you had to work for it. When you can think back to the power you needed to earn, the strategies you needed to concoct and the sheer time you needed to invest to get that reward, that’s when it has value. It’s the same feeling I imagine ordinary people get when they have a clean home, see their children succeed or grow a garden. The thrill is in knowing what you had to do to make that thing happen and how much of yourself went into the task. So in that regard Dragon warrior 2 succeeds.
Beyond the difficulty you’re looking at a standard top-down grind session:
So a lot of palette swapped enemies, some midi tunes and the art a younger Akira Toriyama (of Chrono Trigger and Dragon Ball Z fame). This was one of the earliest examples of party-based JRPG’s, however, so that’s worth noting. And by that I mean having more than one PC in the adventure not, like, booze and music in a role playing game (although that’s starting to sound like fun, also). There is a female party member, which is a hot topic these days, although she was quite physically frail she did dish out more damage, on average, than the male characters. Everyone talks about Samus and Zelda but no one ever mentions poor Varia/Princess of Moonbrooke *nostalgic sigh*.
In any event, where was I? The consequences of dying had to change with the addition of party members and DW2 handled this quite well. In the early stages of the game you are punished relatively severely for dying but not so much that every death is an automatic restart. In the late game, as a result of your increasing power and resources, death is less terrifying but still a serious problem. Only one character can ever resurrect people with magic and there is an item that can resurrect but you can only have one at a time. So a character dying to say a random encounter enemy exactly halfway between start and destination can really wreck your day.
Inventory management returns from the first DW2, something that I’ve miss needing to think about in modern RPG’s. I’ve never been sure how we enjoyed it so much in Resident Evil but then just removed it from most other games. It was always more immersive for me that I couldn’t carry 99 potions and elixirs because I had a limited amount of pockets. But maybe that’s just me.
Another feature that has since gone, and some might say returned, is the usefulness of effect or grey magic. Your sleep and mute spells come in fairly handy fairly frequently. Further there is a nice balance between utility of magic and availability of MP. You’ll find yourself rationing your MP but still using it until it’s almost empty for both healing and damage spells. All of which makes for a remarkably diverse and strategic game considering it came out almost thirty years ago and relies on the awe-inspiring 8-bit engine of the NES.
In regards to story, it does have one. That might seem like an odd statement but at the time it wasn’t common. “Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president/princess” is a common joke today but in the late eighties it was all we had. In DW2 we get to see a relevant opening “cinematic” (it’s still top down and 8-bit) and we are made to solve puzzles and gather information to get our party together. It was no Mother 2 but it was a start.
Seen as a whole, Dragon Warrior 2 makes excellent use of the resources it is given. When you have to rely on static pictures you can’t do a lot better then grabbing a world renowned manga artist. If your challenge can’t be in having a lot of things on the screen and quick button pressing then you make use of resource management instead. And if you’re putting most of your horsepower into challenge then sometimes you have make sacrifices in story. The point is that in most respects the game makes good use of the resources available to it. Much like you will have to if you hope to succeed. And if you are taking a run at it be sure to kill a few Blizzards for me. I hate those freakin’ things.