I don’t mind vilifying a game created solely to make money, but I don’t feel big and mighty criticizing a game made with good intentions. Thus, I take no pleasure in this review. For this release, the developers of Dragon Fantasy remade every single tile and sprite in the game to upgrade the graphics from NES to SNES standards. That kind of dedication and tedious passion doesn’t speak of greed. After all, I doubt anyone’s purchasing decision hinges upon a difference of 8 bits. Although the developers are also at work on patches and other improvements, hard work doesn’t always yield fun.
Dragon Fantasy begins with the tale of Ogden, a hero who lost his hair to a dragon he slew at the age of sixteen. Now much older, he rescues cats from trees and pretends to be the royal guard until some sort of evil dark lord arrives and captures the king-to-be. While certainly an amusing character concept, Ogden is thrust into bland situations with generic dialogue that violates the “scrap the first thing that comes to mind” rule of narrative design. Sometimes these situations try to be funny while others seem to echo narrative tropes of the past: Dragon Fantasy resides in an awkward nook between homage and parody. The enemies attempt to emulate the whimsy of a Mother game, but most of the quests and scenarios are hackneyed and devoid of humor; not exactly “love letters” to the genre.
When it comes to gameplay, however, Dragon Fantasy knows exactly what it is: a traditional JRPG from the NES era, complete with excessive grinding, poor balance, and a turn-based battle system too simple for its own good. Combat is as simple as it can possibly be — there’s not even a defense option — and at times (including the whole of Ogden’s episode), the player controls just one character, making each battle essentially identical. Each experience level gained contributes quite a lot of strength to the heroes, but this is a double-edged blade: without grinding, you’re not ready for a dungeon, and you’re going to die, lose half of your pathetic sum of money and return to town disheartened. Grinding isn’t by nature evil, but it is when the combat is this boring. Fetch quests, a lack of clear direction, and a high random encounter rate contribute to Dragon Fantasy’s overall atmosphere of tedium and repetition.
Episode one is the most poorly balanced and also the dullest, because Ogden is a lone adventurer. Episode two tries to remedy this, but most of the game’s problems remain. Episode three has a more non-linear quest that some will find appealing, and episode four is an extended Minecraft reference. Dragon Fantasy gets a little better as it goes along, but that didn’t convince me to finish every episode.
Some people might enjoy the aforementioned upgraded graphics, but the gratuitous use of nauseating colors like sickly violet and bright orange make some areas difficult to behold. The most and the least amount of creativity can be seen in the monster designs. Some are creatures never before seen, while others have made more appearances in RPGs than anyone cares to count. The music has also been upgraded to match the 16-bit graphics, but I found both the old and new music soporific at best and distracting at worst. There’s also an option to turn off the enhanced graphics and sound, although I’m unsure why anyone would do so except for comparison purposes.
Ogden encounters an amusing enemy called the “Obligatory Ork” who “feels obliged to appear.” This became a striking symbol of the game’s faults. Many of Dragon Fantasy’s gameplay mechanics were included not because they are well designed and fun, but because they are part of the past and are thus obliged to appear: fetch quests, random battles, skinned monsters, NPCs who welcome you to town, and treasure boxes containing the expensive weapon you just bought in town. Dragon Fantasy is an unimaginative and dull adventure from days when we only imagine games were better. Even fans of retro JRPGs should put Dragon Fantasy pretty low on their to-play lists.