There is a great divide in the world of console RPGs. It’s not just a matter of combat systems or story presentation, but rather a very real divide between the East and West. Gamers in North America can probably list a small handful of RPG titles by heart, following those titles over the years.
In Japan, though, an entirely different crop of games are held in high esteem. While some of these series transition between one region and the other successfully, other series tend to be popular in one area and a bit more obscure in others. Dragon Quest is one such series, one that is wildly popular in Japan but that is only known among hardcore RPG fans in North America.
- Dragon Quest I
- Dragon Quest II
- Dragon Quest III
- Dragon Quest IV
- Dragon Quest V
- Dragon Quest VI
- Dragon Quest VII
- Dragon Quest VIII
- Dragon Quest IX
- Dragon Quest X
- Dragon Quest XI
Like so many great things in the world of gaming, Dragon Quest started with a contest.
The contest in question was sponsored with Enix and brought Yuji Horii and much of what would become the initial Dragon Quest team to the United States. It would be here that Horii would first encounter the Wizardry series and be inspired to create something in that same vein.
Horii’s original goal was to bring the RPG genre to Japan. He’d observed games like Wizardry and Ultima and believed that they could be made on consoles and in a manner that the Japanese public could digest. While the games themselves would use Western games as their templates, they’d be quite Japanese in nature. It would take the help of a manga artist to bring to life the series’ signature style and a great deal of work to create a game that was far different than anything that had been seen before.
Horii himself didn’t necessarily know if Dragon Quest would be a hit. While sci-fi was popular in Japan at the time, sword and sorcery fantasy wasn’t quite as easy a sell. It was as surprising to him as anyone else when the game became a hit, as something within the story and the mechanics spoke to a very wide audience.
The games never reached the same level of success in the West. The series, called Dragon Warrior in the West for copyright reasons, was lost in a sea of other games. It did have quite the cult following, with numerous players importing the games that were never localized in English. Dragon Quest became an international sensation, albeit one that would have to wait decades to get the world-wide following that many of its fans felt the series truly deserved.
Creation and Design
If there’s a secret behind the design of Dragon Quest, it’s definitely Yuji Horii. The man still playtests all aspects of the games, and it’s still his genius that is the major impetus for everything that changes within the series. It’s gotten to the point where his suggestions are implemented even if it is not obvious how they will actually work in the game. There are few series that still have such an important creative figure, but Horii doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
A great deal of the design in the game is centered around being accessible. While some of the entries in the series have a deserved reputation for being almost sadistically tough, it’s never that hard to play the games at the beginning. Some of this is definitely reflective of the state of the genre when the first game was released, as most players had never encountered an RPG before. As such, players tend to be quite powerful early on and have to deal with their challenges rising to meet them instead of the other way around.
There’s also the music, which has always been an important part of the game. The series of eight melodies has mostly set the tone for RPGs on consoles, and there are often live performances of the themes. The music is a vital part of the construction of the game, something that has become as important for this series as graphical improvements are for other games. While many Western players might overlook some of the music in favor of the stories, it’s safe to say that the games would be neither the same nor nearly as beloved without the thought put into the score.
Dragon Quest I
Released in 1986, Dragon Quest is in many ways the prototypical JRPG. Created to appeal to a wide audience that might not understand the mechanics behind RPGs, this game featured a relatively simple plot and a few memorable characters. The game established most of the themes that would carry across the rest of the series.
Interestingly, players in the West would never see the game published as Dragon Quest. In order to deal with a possible trademark issue, the game was released as Dragon Warrior in North America. While the game was wildly popular in Japan, it was a great deal less popular in North America. The game remained as a relatively obscure title, albeit one that would influence many games that would be published in the next several years.
Dragon Warrior would gain popularity years later in the form of hacked ROMs on the PC. Most players and critics have acknowledged that the game has some very serious shortcomings, but that its attention to detail and its script really did help to set the tone for the rest of the genre. It’s one of those rare gems that’s hard to find now and generally tends to fetch a fair price on the open market.
Dragon Quest II
Published by Enix in 1987, Dragon Quest II picks up a hundred years after the original game. Now following the prince of Midenhall and his cousins as they go on a quest to defeat an evil wizard. The game is thematically tied to both the first and third entries in the series and was actually in the planning stage before the first game was released. Given that sequels were fairly uncommon in that era, it was a risky gamble that ended up paying off.
Like the first game, Dragon Quest II was far more popular in Japan than it was in the West. The game was, however, much better reviewed in both regions than the first game. It was found to fix most of the original game’s issues and was praised for its story. It is also widely considered the most difficult entry in the Dragon Quest saga, most notably for its final boss fight.
Dragon Quest II has been ported several times, with a very successful port over to the Gameboy. Most of the ports have been incredibly successful, allowing a much wider audience to become familiar with the world of Dragon Quest and the basics of the series itself.
Dragon Quest III
The final game in the Erdrick saga and chronologically the first game in the series, Dragon Quest III is the culmination of all the ideas that were originally meant for Dragon Quest II. The prior game had been limited due to the cartridge size for the series, which meant that several prominent ideas had to be abandoned or ported over to the new game. It wasn’t necessarily the biggest jump forward in terms of design, but it certainly represented a perfection of the original developer’s vision.
Dragon Quest III sold incredibly well. It was a cultural phenomenon, to the degree that over three hundred truancy arrests were made on the game’s release day. It wasn’t nearly as popular in the West, of course, but most of the remakes of the game have sold incredibly well. It’s something more than just a simple game – it’s the pinnacle of NES-era RPG design.
Dragon Quest III is the best-regarded game in the series, coming in just behind Final Fantasy VII and X on lists of the best console RPGs ever made. Even in North America, where the game was poorly regarded, most reviewers consider it one of the more important games ever released on the NES.
Dragon Quest IV
Released by Enix in 1990, Dragon Quest IV was a very different sort of Dragon Quest game. It was also a game that showed the true split between Japanese and Western gamers – while an important title in Japan, it would spell the end of the series for North American gamers until 1999.
Dragon Quest IV split its game into chapters, introduced a new AI system, and was as much of a radical departure from the first three games as one could get while staying within the same series. It very much seemed to take what worked from the first set of games and tried to innovate as much as possible to replace everything that was left.
The game was the fourth best-selling game on the Famicom, coming in behind the series’ third game. It was also voted one of the best RPGs of all time and racked up the awards during the years it was released in Japan and in the US. As was typical for the series, it did not sell particularly well in the United States and troubles within Enix would lead this to be the last time the Dragon Quest series showed up in North America for several years.
Dragon Quest V
Dragon Quest V was another departure for the series, now one that clearly wouldn’t be sticking to any established formula. The game was the first released on the Super Famicom and the first to eschew an English-language release. Instead of following the usual kind of plot, it would follow thirty years of a hero’s life. The hero could have monsters join his party during random encounters, setting an entirely new tone for the series.
The game was, of course, incredibly popular. While it would have been easy for the game to coast on the popularity of the series as a whole, the amount of work put into the title is actually quite impressive. The story isn’t quite as memorable as in some of the other games, but it was still fantastic by the standards of the time.
If the older games set a template for RPGs, this game set a template for modern gaming. The monster collecting aspect is a direct antecedent to games like Pokemon. The collection aspects of the game are precursors to both collectibles in general and achievements in future games. A great deal of the structure of gaming as it exists today can probably be traced back in some small way to Dragon Quest V.
Dragon Quest VI
Strangely enough, Dragon Quest VI is perhaps the first game in the long series to feel like an incremental improvement. It was very similar in terms of game play to the fifth game, albeit with improved graphics. It also brought back the job system from the third game, which further helped to cement the game as a Dragon Quest “type” of game. Where the game really innovated was in its story, allowing for several story beats that would later be picked up on by later games in the genre.
The game was generally praised in Japan, but mostly for how it hewed closer to the systems set up by other games. Dragon Quest wasn’t necessarily an innovator any longer – it was praised for being much like A Link to the Past and Final Fantasy V, though with a story that tended to stand on its own merits. The game would clearly have a huge influence on rival company (and later owner) Square.
There was a North American release planned for the game, but it never happened. By this point, the Japanese RPG market looked dead in North America and no one was willing to take a gamble on bringing the insanely popular (and profitable) series overseas.
Dragon Quest VII
Released in 2001 in Japan, Dragon Quest VII was an immediate success. It was the best-selling game of the year on Playstation, despite the fact that the game was very similar to all that had come before. Released after several delays, the game was so popular that it actually caused Square to move the release date of Final Fantasy IX in order to avoid the competition. The game was a juggernaut, albeit one that was finally starting to show its age.
In 2001, the game was localized in the United States as Dragon Warrior VII. This would be the final Dragon Warrior game, as Enix was finally able to secure a trademark on the Dragon Quest name in the United States. The translation was an absolutely epic undertaking, one that caused the localization team in its entirety to take a sabbatical after release.
The game was more financially successful in North America than any other entry in the series had been, but reviewers tended to be hard on the series. Without the beloved pedigree the series had in Japan, American reviewers felt no need to hold back on the aging systems or the fact that the game was incredibly slow.
Dragon Quest VIII
Released first in Japan in 2004, Dragon Quest VIII was a game of firsts. It was the first Dragon Quest game to have cel-shaded graphics, the first to have fully 3D presentation, and the first to eschew the Dragon Warrior title in North America. Despite all of this, the game clung tightly to the Dragon Quest formula and spent a great deal of time updating itself to compete in a more modern setting. The game was a major success in Japan and it is regarded there as one of the greatest RPGs ever published.
This was the first game in the series to receive a substantial amount of praise in the English-speaking gaming press. While the game play was still simple, it seemed to fit the new mold of the series. There was a great deal of attention paid to the stellar localization in both the United States and Britain, and critics on both sides of the pond were incredibly fond of the visuals of the game. While there were some notes that the story structure felt a bit dated for 2005, it seemed that the vast majority of English-speaking reviewers and gamers were very satisfied with the product.
Dragon Quest IX
Dragon Quest IX saw the series moving from traditional platforms over to the handheld DS, which helped drive the series forward in terms of innovation. The handheld device was perfect for a game series that more and more players were considering simplistic, and the lowered expectations allowed the excellent entry to blow many skeptics away with its tight pacing and excellent new features. Instead of being a lesser entry in the series, it helped to breathe new life into a series that was now on the precipice of entering its fourth decade on the charts.
Dragon Quest IX is largely remembered for being the first game in the series to feature a multiplayer component. This, alongside the addition of Nintendo Wi-Fi functionality, helped to turn a series that was best known for its single-player merits into something that could become a social phenomenon. While perhaps not the deepest entry in the series, it was nonetheless incredibly successful. It was the most anticipated game of its year in Japan and sold quite well upon release. The move over to a handheld system was nothing short of revitalizing for a series that had defined console role playing games.
Dragon Quest X
One of the truly unique features of the Dragon Quest series has been its ability to embrace change. While there have been a few long-standing features of the series, it’s jumped forward with technology and made a case for staying relevant no matter what else changers in the world. If IX’s jump to handhelds had been a big change, Dragon Quest X’s move to a multiplayer-only MMORPG was immeasurable. The only game in the main series to work in this manner, it was absolutely unprecedented at the time and marked another turning point for the beloved series.
Reviews for the game were mixed in both Japan and North America, though they were largely popular in both cases. Reviewers tended to praise the fact that the game was relatively welcoming to new players, but tended to have problems with the amount of grinding that was necessary to move forward in the game. There were also some notable issues with the lack of guidance available in some parts of the game, including figuring out how to deal with some of the game’s tougher monsters. All in all, though, most reviewers found the game to be quite good.
Dragon Quest XI
Dragon Quest XI will be, in many ways, a return to form for the series. While it will be released on the Nintendo 3DS, it will also make its return to the Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch. The game will be heavily based on older entries of the series, with a theoretical basis in the first trilogy of the game. The story is unknown, but most signs point towards developers trying to capture a very traditional Dragon Quest feel. It’s a game that is meant to hearken back to the heyday of the games, especially for those who have moved away from the series.
Even though the release date for the game is coming soon, there’s relatively little known about the actual game. It does seem to have a very nostalgic vibe to it, purposefully moving away from the last two entries in the series. That’s somewhat odd, especially as the last two entries were very successful. This may be the typical movement of the series attempting to adapt to a new audience, but it does seem like Dragon Quest is accepting its place as something of a throwback in a Japanese RPG market that has evolved quite a bit since the last major entry in the series.
It’s hard to quantify the effect that Dragon Quest has had on the world of gaming and RPGs. The easiest thing to say, of course, is that it gave birth to an entire genre. Role playing in its current state on consoles owes everything to Dragon Quest. Without these games, there would be no Final Fantasy, no Mass Effect, no Witcher. The game did more to translate the feeling of games like D&D to the consoles than anything else had at that point. Without Dragon Quest, there’s a good chance that the fledgling genre would never have gotten the start it so desperately needed.
While not necessarily as popular outside Japan, the game also did quite a bit to show the effectiveness of a brand identity. For good or for ill, Dragon Quest never really moved away from its core premise. While Mario and Zelda have changed over the years, Dragon Quest has mostly gotten new coats of paint. Iterative games like the Call of Duty series probably owe quite a bit to the series, as well.
Regardless of what other games owe to Dragon Quest, one thing is for sure – the series deserves its place as one of the most important RPGs of all time.
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