Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were the biggest and most influential RPG series on the NES. There were other popular ones, but if you were making a RPG in those days, you were probably watching what Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest were doing.
Dragon Quest II came out in January of 1987, and Final Fantasy II came out in 1988. They’re both considered to be flawed games. Final Fantasy II’s flaws are largely due to a highly experimental levelling system. Dragon Quest II’s flaws feel a bit more like fumbling attempts to handle a more massive world.
Dragon Quest II feels awkward in how it is designed. You have a limited inventory that quickly fills with keys to open various types of locked doors and quest items, leaving you struggling to throw out various battle spoils to gain room for items in the late game. You can easily go up and down stairs and most dungeons provide an escape item or a quick exit. Ships can only be summoned via saving and resetting in a location, or sailing to that location. More towns have places you can save your game, which is a nice feature. Certain enemies are vary unbalanced, and can cause a swift death to the unwary.
Your party members are forced to have a level difference between each member, since you must hit a certain level to easily obtain said party member. This means that the princess will always be weaker than the prince, and that they will always be weaker than the hero. Armor and weapons, for the most part, are very expensive (in the NES version) and largely useless. There’s very few upgrades for certain party members. On the other hand, your world map music changes as you get party members so there is a feeling of progression.
You have some almost ridiculous treks – take the Moonbrooke to Rupugana walk. This is shown in the map below, also created by x_loto. It uses the Japanese town names, so they may seem unfamiliar. There is a nice bit of fan service in that the first game’s area is included in the map in the upper left corner. It’s the set of islands to the right of Rupugana.
The dungeons, if you know the routes, are very quick to complete, and if you go off the correct path, you frequently get useless rewards (this is changed in remakes.) A particularly bad example is the Full Moon Tower pictured below. Please click the thumbnail to see in more detail. This map was created by x_loto, as credited in the image. As you can see, the peak of the tower has nothing but an empty chest. In a remake, it’s a very nice defensive item.
Dragon Quest I has a very gear and level based progression in the game. You can search dungeons in depth to gain a few prizes, but mostly, dungeons exist to gain a destination, or to obtain something. Most dungeons in the game feel a lot like someone scribbled simple walls and damage floors on graph paper due to the square nature of the tiling. In Dragon Quest II there’s larger dungeons with slightly more realistic designs. Unfortunately, there’s also a bit more of an aimless feel to the exploration.
In the end though, it feels like Dragon Quest II is designed to be a journey. You explore because you’re amazed by the size of the world and to become stronger. The level differences don’t matter because you’re amazed that you have another party member. The lack of rewards are irrelevant because you are thrilled to see what’s there. At least, one assumes, that was the theory. This is one game where I think that the age of the game is a detriment. Modern remakes, for example, provide more rewards for exploration and adjust the difficulty levels. It’s hard for a modern player to play Dragon Quest II and have that same sense of wonder without feeling like the game wants to force a mindset.