Twenty years ago, I got my first Nintendo game. For my 11th birthday I had begged for and pleaded to have and longed after Dragon Warrior (I had also pleaded for a Swiss army knife). All of the boys in my fifth grade class had been playing it. Because back then, two seemed like everybody. My best friend’s older brothers were playing it. So, of course, I had to play it. It was entirely new to me. I loved fantasy. I didn’t know that it had come out in the US way back in 1989. Because three years for a child is an eternity. And from 1992, ’89 is waaaaaaaay back.
So it came as a surprise to me when I opened my birthday gift packaging and found a Nintendo cartridge labeled Dragon Warrior IV. Four. 4. There were four of them. After the vague initial disappointment of not getting exactly what I wanted (kids are brats), I settled in to play with the video game and my new pocket knife.
I did not stop playing. The first day I sat down with the game, eight hours evaporated. Or, they did for my parents. Me? I accompanied Ragnar on his quest to find the missing children of Izmut village, and learned that Princess Alena was so much more of a badass than any princess Disney ever portrayed; heaviest hitter in the game.
I learned the art of grinding. If there is anything that the Dragon Quest/Warrior franchise is good at, it’s requiring players to grind for days on end in order to survive a single boss fight. For weeks I sat with it, picking at it, amassing power in game, and learning the score by heart. It was very good music.
All that time indoors, staring at pixels on a screen and manipulating controllers with my thumbs. And where does that leave me today? There is not one hour of the time I spent playing that game which I’d like to claim back. I can say that of some films I’ve seen. I can say that of a very short list of books I’ve half-read and then discarded. But I can’t say that about Dragon Warrior. Even as an adult, I enjoy returning to these worlds, wandering through them, even if the path is linear. And I still love the music: I wake to Dragon Warrior IV’s battle theme every morning, and with each text from my love, my phone levels up.
Dragon Warrior was the first game that was really mine. As much as I loved Thexder, as deeply as I enjoyed Arkanoid and Ms. Pac Man, as dear as The Oregon Trail was, these games all belonged to my father, or were installed on a shared PC. I had to ask to play. But Dragon Warrior? Dragon Warrior was all for me. It made gaming mine. The door it opened looked out on years of green 1-up mushrooms, vast future-scapes of radscorpion-filled deserts that had me looking for new water chips, lazy afternoons leaning on the sound string quartet, attempting to disprove that my character— with her fine pistols and jaunty suede jacket— was the second coming of an elf named Nasrudin, and hours engaged in exploring a volcanic island once held entirely by nomadic dark elves. These were all adventures as fulfilling as curling up with a good book. These were tales that taught me to think about strategy, timing, and above all, inference. But most importantly, I learned about message and medium.
Because most of these later games I loved were rich stories— plots with beginning, middle, and end. The best of them had morally challenging quests and brought up difficult questions which didn’t have easy black and white answers. I learned that a tale should fit the method of telling. The epic sweep of these games made the player feel important, but these were not the only tales that could be told in this medium.
Because of that eleventh birthday gift and the hours conversing with the Zenithian Dragon, I want to see what tales I can coax from a bunch of pixels.