Review by honestgamer

Reviewed: 09/10/03

Worth the price? Have pigs been known to wallow in the mud?

Sometimes it sucks to be a collector of fine games. It seems like there are just enough other people like you out there that you can never get the really, really good games for a decent price. That's true of any system you might collect the classics for, too, perhaps most noteably in the case of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Games can range in price from a buck to seventy or eighty dollars, and that's if you're lucky enough to find some of them on eBay. Perhaps the most notorious offender is Dragon Warrior IV, the last great role-playing game released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. But as you prepare to place that eBay bid and make it yours, you have to be wondering one thing: is it worth my $50? The answer is a resounding 'yes.'

If you know much of the history of console role-playing games, then you know that the first major role-playing game released on the NES was Dragon Warrior, the unassuming tale of some guy who was sent out to fight some evil dragon lord. Released by Nintendo in the United States (though it was developed and published by Enix in Japan, where the game was created), the title was given out like candy to subscribers who paid the $16 it cost to subscribe to Nintendo Power at that time.

Fast forward five years or so and Dragon Warrior IV was released to subdued acclaim. It was advertised as the biggest in the series. It was hailed as innovative, a must-have experience. Surprisingly, it was all these things and more.

The single largest reason to buy this game isn't really a single reason at all. Rather, it is the combination of three things. First, this game is enormous. You'll never find a larger role-playing title on the NES. Second, it's the most technicially stunning game in that genre that the system ever saw. And finally, almost every minute of it is so astonishingly fun that you'll forget you're playing a game that's been around for years. Combine these three factors and it's pretty obvious why people don't hesitate much before spending $50 to buy it.

When I say the game is enormous, what I really mean is that it practically splits the cartridge. The 'story' is divided into five chapters. Each chapter might well be a game in and of itself. The first chapter tells the story of a soldier named Ragnar who is investigating the disappearance of children from a nearby village. Nothing really all that complicated, but it succeeds in introducing both the character and the gameplay mechanics. The second chapter is about a princess. Confined to her room by her over-protective father, she longs to break free into a world more frightening than she can possibly realize. With you controlling her, she succeeds in doing precisely that. The third and fourth chapters feature heroes less magnetic: a merchant trying to build up his shop and two fortune-telling sisters out for revenge. But they are grander tales, woven more broadly on a tapestry of much greater size. When these first four chapters end, the game really opens up.

It is at this point that the game both spreads its wings and slips over the proverbial banana peel. The fifth chapter turns out to be the centerpiece for the whole game. It's about a young man whose village is taken away by monsters that meant to end his life, as well. He's the hero of the prophecy, blah, blah, blah. Though Enix works hard to make the story compelling and succeeded at the time, today it is one of the most easily recognized cliches in video game history. From there, it moves to a tale of a world in turmoil (as if that wasn't obvious in previous chapters, what with discussion of plagues and ominous clouds and such). A dark warlord is rising to greatness with his minions beneath him, and only the world's brightest stars can unite to defeat him.

Which is where things go south. On the one hand you have this massive world. It's everything you explored in the first few chapters, but with much more added to the mix. Words cannot really give a true sense of the vastness of this world. There are more cities, more dungeons, more islands, more modes of transportation. But at the same time, things feel so much more confined. You'll spend the first few hours in this new chapter just gathering your team, which is comprised of those heroes met in the first few chapters. And once they're together, you discover something distressing: you don't have full control.

For whatever reason, Enix decided players wouldn't want to have the option of controlling everyone in the party. It's due to the number of characters, I'm sure (which is admittedly quite impressive), but it's annoying just the same. Instead of giving individual commands, you assign tactics before the battle even begins. Then you hope against hope that you've anticipated everything. Few things are more annoying than dying in battle and knowing that if you'd had control of the reigns, things would have gone differently.

Despite this flaw, Dragon Warrior IV is easily the most ambitious title in the series. It shows in many ways, right from the start. For one thing, the graphics have been changed. You'll still see some of the same sprites. The slimes and babbles are back, as are numerous other foes. But there are plenty of additional monsters, confined mostly to their regions. The final boss is even animated. And then there is the matter of the world map. Gone are the frothy seas of the first three games. They've been replaced with something less 'artistic,' but perhaps more realistic. The world map has more depth, too. Nothing really makes you stop and stare, but it's obvious that the people at Enix weren't content to just add another title to the series built from all the same building blocks.

Graphics don't really shine until you enter dungeons. Once you get in the murky depths of some labyrinth, though, it's easy to get lost in how much detail went into them. Crumbling rock walls, faded pillars from massive underground cities, towers in the sky... all these areas and more are illustrated with splendor not seen in other NES titles. While tiles certainly are reused, the sheer number of different images blows the mind. It's amazing someone managed to pull so much out of teh aging system.

Looking back on Dragon Warrior IV, it's not hard to see that Enix wanted to spoil us. They succeeded, too. From beginning to end, Dragon Warrior IV is one of the best games ever crafted for any system, even when it's at its worst. While it's certainly tempting to spend your $50 on the game all your friends are discussing, a purchase in the name of retro gaming is certainly not a foul. Especially when that purchase is Dragon Warrior IV.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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