There is one franchise that could be regarded as arguably the first iteration of the console RPG, contributing to the reason why Role playing games are as popular as they are today...ironically this series is widely unknown to the gaming world of the west.
Most of us know of Final Fantasy, Sky Rim and I bet some of you are familiar with Phantasy Star or even Y’s, but 30 years ago on May 27th a game was released in Japan that would become a national obsession.
A game which spawned a series that sold over 64 million units and changed every game in the genre that followed. That series was DRAGON QUEST.
So...I'm sure you heard all about this monumental game's 30th Anniversary back in May...right?! No? Well, you are not alone as, yet again, Square Enix decided to not focus any of the anniversary campaign in North America. So I feel it is my duty to educate and inform the many RPG fan's (or video game enthusiasts in general) who, by no fault of their own, just don't appreciate the impact Dragon Quest had on the genre and games in a whole.
To say Role Playing Games have come a long way is a bit of an understatement. Since the inception of tabletop “Dungeons and Dragons” type games, players envisioned their adventures using mostly their imaginations, a set of dice and the all important Dungeon master. It wasn’t until the early days of Computer gaming that such titles as Wizadry and Ultima showed how the genre could thrive in the new world of electronic gaming, but in particular Ultima 3 was the main influence to all RPG’s that followed.
Although quite primitive, being able to see a sprite representing your hero or an enemy moving on screen was a game changer. The Role Playing genre exploded in popularity across North America, but the computers of the day were still very expensive, and excluded the average player who could not afford them. The phenomenon spread overseas to Japan, and a virgining video game producer by the name of Yuji Hori became obsessed with the Apple PC games.
The freelance journalists passion for the medium had translated in to several popular murder mystery video games he produced in the early 80’s such as “The Portapia Serial Murder Cases” on the NEC PC 8801. Seeing the potential for the RPG genre, Hori sought to simplify the controls for the then complicated interface of such games as Wizardy and Akalabeth, to make it more accessible to a wider audience. Yuji teamed up with an incredibly popular Manga artist Akira Toriama, creator of the very successful Dragon Ball series, to help flesh out the characters for his new game to help stand out among the many Dungeon and Dragon type titles dominating store shelves.
Hori’s timing seemed perfect, Nintendo’s new Family Computer or” Famicom” (Nintendo Entertainment System in North America and Europe) was selling like hot cakes, it felt like the perfect platform to get the game into as many homes as possible.
Combined with simple controls the most in depth story found on the system at the time, 1986’s Dragon Quest on the Famicom became an instant hit. The premise behind the game was quite simple, using the now standard, “the princess has been captured, fight your way to her and save her” story line....painfully uninspired but a perfect vehicle to showcase the addictive gameplay.
It uses a “turn based” combat system, simply put, your character and the enemy or “monster” you are fighting takes turns attacking each other. Taking cues from Ultima 3’s overworld, you travel the world map from town to town, encountering random enemies along the way, this is what gamers refer to as “grinding”, with each mini battle on the overworld your character levels up which allows you to be able to take on more powerful monsters as your stats increase, allowing you to travel deeper into the world and ultimately facing the final boss. The difference between Dragon Quest and other role playing games were the monsters themselves. Cartoonish style monsters in the game had mass appeal, but none more than the Slime.
The simply designed, drop of slime with large eyes and a smile quickly became the series mascot, which continues to this day with countless products featuring the cute ambassador. The combiniation of light hearted story lines, beautiful character designs, iconic music produced by famous conductor Koichi Sugiyama, and accessibility produced a huge hit for Enix. Hori and Toriama were quick to start work on the sequel which would release a year later to even more success.
The series would come to be known as the originator of the turn based fighting system, and coined the phrase Japanese Role playing game, or JRPG. Many copy cats followed suit, Square’s Final Fantasy being the most popular, and the future of the genre seemed unstoppable, Nintendo’s library quickly became filled with titles that looked to cash in on the Role Playing craze in Japan.
By 1989 Nintendo was looking for their next big seller to keep up sales momentum in North American markets. The legend of Zelda, released a year earlier in 88, found huge success on the NES and Nintendo of Japan thought Dragon Quest, already on it’s third title in Japan, would be a perfect fit due to the runaway popularity in their home country. Much work went into the English translation and graphical tweaks of the original game to ease the transition for North american gamers.. The game was released as Dragon Warrior, due to copyright issues, to a lukewarm reception ultimately leaving Nintendo scratching their heads. Even though graphics had been improved, they still showed their age as the game was, by this time, 3 years old. Dragon Warrior failed to meet Nintendo’s expectations and barely made a dent in the landscape of North American gaming . A surplus of copies had been produced, leaving Nintendo with a large amount of unsold carts. To help ignite interest, a copy of the game and detailed Strategy guide was given away free with new subscriptions to Nintendo Power...it didn't work as well as Nintendo thought, which subsequently lowered the company's support for the sequel already in the process of being translated to English
The sequel to Dragon Warrior, released in 1989 in North America was a vast improvement in gameplay and graphics, but still didn’t manage to sell enough copies to warrant a large media campaign and was quickly forgotten. In Japan Dragon Quest 3 was breaking sales records, and anticipation for the fourth tile was at a fevered pitch. Nintendo of America saw releases of the 3rd and fourth title to low sales, finally deciding to abandon the Dragon Warrior series for home consoles in 1992.
The continued success in Japan saw huge sales for Dragon Quest 5 and 6 on the Super Famicom.With the success of 5, Enix decided to re-release parts one and two on the same cart using the same engine as Dragon quest 5 improving graphics vastly and tweaking the gameplay and story elements. By this time Dragon Quest had captured the hearts of the small country of Japan, and new releases from the series had many workers and students calling in sick to feed their Dragon Quest addiction.
The story and graphics had finally caught up with consumers expectations which ramped up production of their first foray into the compact disc format with the release of the largest game yet in the series, Dragon Quest 7 on the Playstation in 2000. The game was an instant hit and was the highest selling game for the Sony in 2001, achieving a “Greatest Hits” release. Acting on the momentum of strong sales Dragon Quest 6 saw a port for the Playstation in Japan which brought better sound and graphics, it sold well and it seemed like the company could do no wrong.
By this time, Video games had begun to garner more respect in North America, Sony realised this and released a slew of JRPG’s overseas, the genre quickly began to dominate the Playstation’s North American library. Dragon Quest had all but been forgotten in our market since Dragon Warrior 4 on the NES and Sony decided it was time to reintroduce us with the release of Dragon Warrior VII in 2001. The game sold much better than it’s predecessors, and interest seemed large enough to warrant a large North American release when it came time to develop Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2.
Dragon Quest VIII was the game changer Hori was looking for. Produced by Level 5, makers of the Dark Cloud series, the title sold like gangbusters, but this was mainly due to the genius idea to include a demo disc for the next Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy had cemented its popularity with the best selling FF VII on PS1, and since Square and Enix had merged to become Square Enix the chance to bundle two of their hottest IP’s together for the new release was hugely successful. The story, voice acting and gameplay was the most polished role playing game to date, the game was praised by reviewers and sales were impressive. It seemed like the future was bright for the series. Many thought the next game in the series would follow soon as North American gamers had jumped on the JRPG bandwagon, but news for the next home console release never seemed to come. Years went by and western fans seemed to lose hope for another console version with no new announcements.
Spinoff’s for the series sold well, mostly on handhelds like the Gameboy and Gameboy Advance, introducing the genre to wider audience. Ports of the original NES games, and new iterations such as Dragon Warrior Monsters sold steadily leading into Nintendo’s newest handheld the DS. Square Enix focused heavily on portable versions due to High sales and the lower cost of development. Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker released on the DS in 2006 introducing handheld gamers to a 3D portable version for the first time. The game was a huge success and was translated and released in North America the following year.
Nintendo saw re-releases of older games in the series remade for DS with stellar sales. Realizing the potential of Nintendo’s powerhouse handheld, development for the new game in the main series, Dragon Quest 9: Sentinels of Starry Skies, would be for the DS only, leaving console owners scratching their heads. The only game in the series to get a full version for the handheld, Dragon Quest 9 seemed like the death nail for the hopes of home console owners. Most fans gave up on expectations for a home version of the next game in North America, but announcements for Dragon Quest X for the Wii in Japan reignited the spark, and fingers were crossed on any news for the Western version, which never came.
It seemed like Square Enix forgot about North America, and the MMO version of Dragon Quest was confirmed to be a Japan exclusive. Many petitions and sites sprung up with many fans banding together to let SE know we still wanted the full Dragon Quest experience, but fell on deaf ears. To this day North America has not received a home version for the main series, and most gave up on any hopes for the future. The seventh generation of Consoles was ignored in the west, but some good news surfaced for the eighth generation with an english release of DRagon Quest Heroes for the PS4 and PS3. Dragon Quest XI was also announced for the PS4, but no news on translation to English. Dragon Quest Heroes sold well enough to warrant development of the sequel in Japan, but still no word on if XI will make it’s way across the pond.
Dragon quest is still referred to as the "genesis" of console RPG’s. It’s steady popularity speaks volumes to the cultural impact the series has produced. In Japan, Dragon Quest has become the unofficial video game mascot for the country. Promotional tie in’s from Dehumidifiers to Dragon Quest versions of Toyota vehicles show the strength of the series in Japan, and we can only hope that one day the popularity will transfer over seas.
Until that time, Dragon Quest will continue to inspire future generations through it’s cult like following, and has earned the respect of video game enthusiasts world wide.