Dragon Warrior Monsters Made Catching ’em All Horrifying

Breed or die

The story is a simple one.

A girl is kidnapped in the middle of the night. A monster arrives to tell her brother that the only way to get her back is to follow him. Transported to a magical tree kingdom, the boy is informed that if he ever wants to see his sister again, he must enter and win the Starry Night Tournament: a famous, exclusive monster battling extravaganza. And the only way to ensure victory is to capture and breed monsters, forcing them to create new and more powerful offspring.

As this boy, you become a one-man monster mill. You are a breeder. You are too weak to fight on your own in this world. This is your only salvation. Your options are clear: breed or die.

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Welcome to the Monster Farm

Dragon Warrior Monsters (DWM) was the first game in the Dragon Quest Monster series, a spin-off of the original Dragon Quest series. Released on the Game Boy Color in 2000 in Europe in North America, it served as a bizarre introduction for many players to the world of Dragon Quest, an outrageously popular series in Japan with a much smaller following in North America at the time, a following that has grown substantially in the years since the game’s release. The growth is often linked to the release of Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King on PlayStation II in North America in 2005, the first English Dragon Quest game to drop the Dragon Warrior title.

Based on characters from Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation, which remained unreleased in North America until 2011, DWM is a monster catching and breeding game with some clear similarities to Pokémon — you collect monsters, after all — and the success of Pokémon is likely what lead to DWM’s North American release in the first place. But the monster collecting aspect originally springs from Dragon Quest V: The Hand of the Heavenly Bride, released in 1992 for the Super Famicom, four years before the first Pokémon title was ever released in Japan. Before Squirtle, there was Slime. DWM is more than a knock-off; it is something far stranger, less friendly, and more opaque than any Pokémon title

DWM offers the strange case of a world shaped by stories, myths, and monsters without context. With few of the original Dragon Quest games available in North America at the time of its release, the blunt nods to previous titles through level design, items, and boss fights registered only as fragments of some larger, untold story, one from a world half-remembered in a dream. The bizarre range of monsters, from dragons to slime monsters to killer robots, never provides any coherent sense of place or plot. It’s a recounting of the past through sound and image alone.

You are sent to defeat each dungeon, referred to as a Traveler’s Gate, but no reason is provided for why these monsters exist or are locked behind gates by the king. Each dungeon level’s design is randomly generated from a set of tile options. You plunge deeper and deeper into dungeons by finding a different hole in the ground that pulls you further from everything you know and trust, eventually throwing you into direct conflict with powerful monsters tormenting villagers, raging in casinos, or simply taking a nap in their luxuriously appointed dungeons. The monsters you bring with you are your only protection, and they are, at best, ephemeral. They are grist for the mill. One way or another, they will leave you.

Unlike in Pokémon, no one monster will ever accompany you throughout every single step of this journey, not even with grinding. There are level caps on your early monsters, and their stats are miserable. No one evolves. You have no friends. DWM is openly ruthless — your creatures are tools. They can always be replaced with something newer, stronger, faster and smarter. Again unlike Pokémon, you can steal monsters from other masters by throwing meat in their direction. And when your monsters run out of health points, they don’t faint — they die. They then follow you around in caskets until you find someone with the power to resurrect them.

In this world, death follows you. The only way to survive is to breed the monsters you have and hope for something better.

The Truth About Monster Eugenics

In a world full of references the player can’t understand, where death is real, the outside world is randomly generated, and every single creature is willing and able to create an egg with a zombie dragon or a sentient war mask, you are asked to create the perfect being. You become a eugenicist against your will. You run a monster mill. You even have a priestess on hand to evaluate and “bless” your eggs to change their gender before they hatch. You are a petty god creating four-armed lions by breeding robots with elephants, stomping through ethereal planes to battle warriors, priests, and the occasional merchant selling nothing but death and destruction.

You can fail, of course. You can make mistakes. Any male monster can be bred with any female monster — there are no limits on what you can throw into the breeding hole. Initially, you don’t know which monsters are rare. You may breed away a powerful great dragon into a simple drakslime, unable to reverse the process. The nightmare logic can lead you to breeding giant slugs with unicorn rabbits, barely blinking as they stare into each other’s’ eyes. You may even find yourself disappointed, resentful and angry with what you have created, a modern Frankenstein without any science to support your messy, frustrating — and often gooey — work.

“Breeding is the wedding of two monsters…”

The deed is conducted in the roots of this tree kingdom, in a place referred to as the Starry Shrine. The two monsters you choose enter this hollow beneath the tree, turning to face each other before one night of bliss, or something worse. You may have sent a two-legged Mad Pecker down there with a massive Spikerous, but don’t worry, nature finds a way. Once the parents are done making the beast with two or more backs (depending on the monster), they vanish, abandoning their progeny and you in the process. You are left to raise these creatures alone, a single parent barely getting by with the support of your friendly local monster farm.

More recent games in the series, like the abysmal Dragon Quest Joker, have toned down some of this material. You “combine” monsters instead of breeding them. + and – signs are used instead of male and female. Technology comes to play a larger role in how these combinations are created. No longer do two monsters enter a romantically lit cave beneath a tree to consummate their relationship before disappearing into the night and leaving only an egg behind. The rougher, wetter edges of DWM are buffed over and polished away, leaving something closer to a kinder, friendlier Shin Megami Tensei with more slimes and less blunt religious allegory.

At its heart, DWM offers nostalgia — prepackaged, half-remembered, and already fraying along its edges; a nostalgia most of its North American players couldn’t conceive of during the game’s initial release. The selection of monsters is cobbled together from six different games, a bestiary that could never exist anywhere else. Insignificant monsters coexist alongside former bosses, learning a selection of spells that are rarely explained to the player. The majority of the texts and memories the game refers to simply didn’t exist in English at the time. Even many of the names were simplified to meet the cartridge demands of the Game Boy Color. Sabretooth became MadCat, the Marquis de Léon becomes KingLeo.

Gentle Nightmare Logic and Unclaimed Nostalgia

It is this lack of context for villains, callbacks, and musical cues that forces you to create a narrative in its place. Where did these creatures come from? What do they represent? Who or what are they? What exactly is a White King and what did it do before it died and became a zombie? It is a game out of time, one presenting old ideas and concepts as if they were well-worn signifiers, instead of unknown glyphs and runes left for players to ponder. The act of interacting with DWM forces you to create the world and its story on your own.

The story you find is one of dream logic, filled with nightmarish creatures armed to the teeth and willing to die for you. Every journey is random within a set limit, a plunge into the unknown built into the very structure of the game. The only way you move forward is by descending deeper into the dungeon, deeper into the dream, beyond any hope of understanding. The only way to survive is to keep slapping random monsters together, hoping you unlock some powerful combination, one that pushes you closer to your goal. You cannot win if you do not play; and in this case, playing means breeding, culling the weak in favour of the strong, and making yourself into an ethical nightmare to survive the dream you’ve entered against your will.

The sequels for Game Boy Color — a pair released as Dragon Warrior Monsters 2: Cobi’s Journey and Tara’s Adventure — are better games with more monsters, a much more coherent plot, and a greatly expanded post-game. However, they lack the disorientation of the original, the nagging familiarity and unstable geography of the Kingdom of GreatTree. In the sequels, your goals are clear. You’ve done this before, and the mystery is not so great. There have been remakes of the Game Boy Color DWMs for the 3DS and smartphones, however, none of these have been officially released in Europe or North America. We are only left with the original cartridges and emulators if we want to enter the Starry Night Tournament again.

The tattered dream logic of the original Dragon Warrior Monsters is full of possibility and unknowns. Even the game itself hints that the entire experience may have in fact been just a shared lucid dream. In a world where combining two wild apes can create an elephant, anything seems possible. After winning the tournament and finding your sister, the world of monsters is not closed to you. There are always more Traveler’s Gates to enter, as they are never the same way twice. Even the music of these outer worlds suggests there is no escape, a gentle looping tune known as “Never Ending Journey.”

You are left with one truth at the end of your initial journey: that nothing ever really ends. Even if you breed away your precious Rainhawk into a sad Wingslime, you can create a new one — you just have to find the right parents and lead them underground. The Starry Shrine is always open. The monster farm never closes. That’s the promise of nostalgia.