This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
The year 2000 was incredible for console RPGs developed in Japan. I'm sitting here looking at the list, and so many pantheon level games jump out at me. Final Fantasy IX, Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story, Front Mission 3, Valkyrie Profile and Super Robot Taisen Alpha (the first of the franchise's "modern" entries) all came out that year. There's also Legend of Dragoon, Sony's erstwhile attempt to piggyback on the success of SquareSoft. And as it happens, it hit the PSN this week.
The impending arrival of The Legend of Dragoon has brought with it a wave of nostalgia from some very vocal fans; and boy, they will not brook any criticism of their favorite game. Just look at what happened when 1UP asked why they should care about Legend of Dragoon: blanket proclamations that it's the PS1's most underrated RPG, and by the way, a true classic.
Was it though? Have we all somehow overlooked a true gem of a JRPG? I don't think so. I would take every one of the RPGs I listed in the introduction over Legend of Dragoon. I do, however, think that Legend of Dragoon has its place in RPG history.
When Legend of Dragoon came out, it somehow managed to look impressive and dated at the same time. It had all the pomp and circumstance of a 32-bit-era Final Fantasy, but the CG cutscenes and pyrotechnics couldn't hide the ugly polygonal models or often jerky animation. The battle system, meanwhile, was flawed. Healing spells were few and far between, and the only real way to recover HP was by blocking. There were no special attacks either, not unless you go into the Dragoon 'super mode.' Regular attacks consisted of a series of button presses that need to be accurately timed to extend the combo. Ultimately, the battles were long on style but critically short on substance, and took ages to complete.
I picked up Legend of Dragoon when it was released during the summer of 2000, and played quite a bit of the title. But I've already mentioned how busy that summer was, and I had bigger fish to fry. Legend of Dragoon ended up being forgotten as I moved onto Vagrant Story, and a little later, Valkyrie Profile. Those are the games I remember most clearly from that summer.
My sister, however, seemed to like Legend of Dragoon a lot, even managing to finish the adventure. She's never been able to adequately explain what about the game struck her, but one fan's comment about how it was pleasantly straightforward makes me wonder if I haven't misunderstood Legend of Dragoon's particular niche this entire time.
By the time Dragoon was released, I was well into the role-playing game genre. I had cut my teeth on Final Fantasy VI, and I was actively seeking out more esoteric fare. My sister, however, was a relative newcomer to the genre. For her, I imagine that the uncomplicated characters, tactile controls, and Power Rangers-like Dragoon transformations were appealing. Whether or not it was intentional, Legend of Dragoon seems to have stumbled into being the formative RPG experience for many young PlayStation owners exploring the limits of the platform's library.
For the nostalgic, it hasn't aged well. Awkward animation and plain polygonal models look even worse today. The timing-based button presses don't compare well to a contemporary such as, say, Grandia, which is also on the PlayStation Network. Mostly, it's an interesting curiosity now, and a reminder of an era when Sony still thought it was essential to develop high-quality console RPGs for its platforms. These days, Sony would barely consider putting Legend of Dragoon in its new Smash Bros. clone, let alone developing a full-blown sequel.
However, it's worth noting that my sister did eventually develop a taste for Japanese RPGs (and Metal Gear Solid), which persists to this day. I recognize that this is a "chicken and egg" situation, in that her personal tastes probably lead her to Legend of Dragoon rather than vice versa, but it would seem that it at least pointed her in the right direction. For her, and others like her, it was the first of many RPGs. And for that, I'm willing to believe that it deserves more credit than I first thought.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.