Everyone can agree that Dragon Quest isn’t as internationally popular as the Final Fantasy series, but it has played one of the most significant contributions to the establishment and growth of Japanese role playing games (and to some rules and regulations of releasing games in Japan). While many gamers today see that both Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are released by the same company, SquareEnix, that wasn’t the case prior to the 2000’s with Square being one entity, and Enix being another. So before this historic merger, Dragon Quest made its debut in May of 1986 through Enix for the Famicom (as well as the MSX and PC-9801) in Japan, and would make its North American debut three years later as Dragon Warrior on the NES. Since then, it has had numerous sequels, remasters and spin-offs on mostly Nintendo and Sony consoles. So how did this series start? Read today’s Editorial Tuesday to find out!
The Beginning of a Saga and a Genre
Since we all know that Dragon Quest’s initial parent company was Enix, who were the team members behind it? That would be main designer Yuji Horii (who happens to be a former writer for Shounen Jump’s Famicom column), chief programmer Kouichi Nakamura, main composer Kouichi Sugiyama, and the character designer happens to be Mr. Dragon Ball himself, Akira Toriyama, so the game could be more marketable in Japan. Horii and Nakamura were fans of the Western RPGs of the time such as Wizardry and Ultima, and after attending an Apple expo in the eighties, they thought it would be great to make their own RPG that could appeal to a wider audience. Dragon Quest took inspiration from Wizardry’s first-person battles and Ultima’s overhead exploring presentation, and simplified it.
In addition, the signature slime creature mascot (which you can equate to the chocobos in Final Fantasy) were inspired by the slime creatures in Wizardry, but they were given a simpler and cuter design. Through Dragon Quest, Horii wanted to tell a coming-of-age story that gamers could project themselves into and felt that its leveling system (secret: depending on how you name your character, it could affect how they level up) could best represent that. It resonated with Japanese gamers and even before the first game was released, they were already planning a sequel!
A Hit in Japan
The game was a sleeper hit in Japan thanks to Horii’s promotion through Shounen Jump, and it became a staple franchise in Japan for gamers of all ages. It followed up with a sequel with a story that takes place a hundred years after the original, and just took what was already done and dialed it to over 9,000! The team originally wanted a multi-party system in the first game, but limitations at the time prevented that from happening, but they were able to bring it into its sequel for a more intense fighting system. Despite the sequel’s notorious difficulty, it still became a big success in Japan. With the success of its sequel, came a third game, which takes place long before the first game to complete the Lotto, or Erdrich Trilogy in the West. As the series progressed to its fourth installment, it introduced new elements such as customizable job classes and traveling via sea or air (obviously taken from its then rival, Final Fantasy, while Final Fantasy also took some elements from Dragon Quest in some of its installments) while still being faithful to the original game.
Toriyama admitted in interviews in the Dragon Ball Daizenshuu books that he enjoyed Dragon Quest to the point he couldn’t get any work done, and his own wife took his games away from him so he could concentrate! And if that doesn’t sound crazy enough, when the third game debuted in Japan on February 10, 1988 on a weekday (which was a Wednesday), there were reports of over 300 school children apprehended for truancy (along with some reports of assaults and attempted theft by children), along with working adults calling in sick to the point that national productivity allegedly dropped a few percentage points, and it resulted in the Japanese parliament having to have a meeting on the issue. As a result, Enix would make it a policy to release a new Dragon Quest game on a weekend or national holiday, but that changed when the the tenth game was released on August 2, 2012, which was a Thursday. Due to the Japanese parliament meeting on the matter, it created an urban myth that it was illegal for certain games to be released on a weekday.
English Release and Changes
Dragon Quest wouldn’t get its Western release until shortly before the fourth game got released in Japan, but considering how it was a success in Japan, Enix and Nintendo were hoping it would follow suit in the US. Due to trademark issues with a tabletop RPG known as DragonQuest, it was released in North America as Dragon Warrior. As opposed to promoting the game through Akira Toriyama’s artwork, the box art would emphasize on a Western style painting reminiscent of Frank Lanzella’s fantasy works to represent Western notions of fantasy novel covers, and Western RPGs such as Ultima. Its initial retail debut was a struggle so in order to sell copies of the game, Nintendo Power had a promotion where if you applied for a subscription, you could get a free copy of the game. It helped boost new subscriptions, keep present subscribers, and inspire Enix to release the remaining NES sequels to North America.
In addition to its promotional changes, there were some graphical and technical improvements. Due to the developmental progress of technology and techniques between the Japanese and North American debuts, the sprites to the North American release were tremendously improved. While saving in RPGs today are a must, the original Japanese versions to the first two games used a password system but the US release of Dragon Warrior thankfully included battery storage to allow saves. Along with these improvements, there were also some changes for localization reasons. While the original Japanese dialog, name attacks and some names were reminiscent of the comedic nature of Shounen titles of the eighties, characters spoke in Elizabethan English to better reflect its fantasy setting for an English speaking audience.
Another notable change which happens to be a staple in the Japanese releases is a promiscuous town woman who offers to give the character a pafu pafu, or rub the characters face with her breasts (Dragon Ball fans might get the reference). In the North American version of the first release, she instead sells tomatoes but in later releases, the pafu pafu is used with slimes rather than her breasts (if in the event the player gets a pafu pafu in the Japanese game, the screen fades to black as the text in Japanese pretty much implies what is going on). Other changes include removals of religious references, so as opposed to going to priests to heal or save in the Japanese version, players would go see kings and they were called the House of Healing from the fourth game.
For Super Famicom to PlayStation
As the industry moved onto the Super Famicom, the first three games got re-releases on that console in the mid-90s along with two new releases, V and VI. Lots of Dragon Quest V’s praise stems from how it presents a fresh take to the coming of age story that is prevalent not only in the series, but just to the genre as a whole. As opposed to playing within a certain time period, you play the lifetime of the Hero and his crew. In addition, you can choose who he marries and have children with his chosen wife!
Then with VI, which would also become the best selling game of 1995 (and when it was released, its retail price was the equivalent to $100USD due to how much memory the cartridge used), you play as a group of amnesiacs who not only have to regain their memories, but once again save the world! A lot of hardcore fans say it’s the Final Fantasy V for the Dragon Quest series due to how it uses a class system. Unfortunately, the West would not get any releases of V and VI. As for why they weren’t released outside of Japan, it was because Enix thought it would cost too much money. So why did it cost too much money? It was because at the time, at 4MB (yes, 20 years ago, 4MB was a HUGE deal! So don’t cry if you think 64GB on your new iphone isn’t enough!), translating it would consume more memory meaning more money to create more space. Plus, translating it would also take time and by the time the game was released in Japan, it was at the end of the Super Famicom’s lifespan and felt it was time to move onto new consoles.
5 years later, Dragon Quest VII made its debut for the PlayStation (with its predecessors also getting re-releases for that console), and would get a Western release in 2001. However, it was initially intended for the Nintendo 64’s 64DD add-on, but like Square with Final Fantasy VII, they felt that the CD format was more convenient with how they wanted to make the game. Even when it got a release for a rather advanced console at the time, the presentation of Dragon Quest remained faithful to its first release with first person turn based battles, slimes, etc. If you need tips on how to win a battle, you can interact with your party members in and out of battle!
The game was an instant hit in Japan as usual and skyrocketed the stock of both Enix and Sony! And thanks to the CD format of the PlayStation and the popularization of Japanese RPGs off the coattails of Final Fantasy VII, it got an English release. However, it still retained its Western name of Dragon Warriors (but SquareEnix managed to trademark the Dragon Quest name in 2003). Thankfully, Enix encouraged its localization team to keep it as faithful to the original Japanese version as much as possible. If any of you collectors still happen to have a copy of Dragon Warrior VII, the instruction manual has an advertisement for the Dragon Warrior IV remake. But due to the third party development team going under, it was consequently cancelled.
After Dragon Quest VII, the series went all over the place with a home console. The eighth game found its home for the PS2, IX would end up on the DS, with X originally released for the Wii, and XI going multiplatform with the exception of the Xbox One. Previous releases would also get re-releases for present consoles and mobile devices by creating and maintain fan bases in Japan, but keeping a cult audience in the west. In addition to its main series, it has numerous spin-off titles such as their Monsters series, which debuted for the Game Boy at the end of the 90s. And just recently, they debuted their Builders series. Try to think of it like the old school Super Nintendo classic, ActRaiser, where you have to rebuild a world that was destroyed by demons. Or for you youngsters, think of it as Minecraft for Dragon Quest. And upon the writing of this article, its sequel is schedule to be released on December 20, 2018.
In addition to its games, the series is a multimedia success in Japan. In case you didn’t know, it even has a manga series and two anime series. So if you’re someone who enjoys Japanese RPGs, a lot of hardcore fanatics will probably recommend the Dragon Quest series, even more so over Final Fantasy. Despite the Final Fantasy series rapidly evolving the past few installments, Dragon Quest has mostly remained strong with its original foundation. The fact that they believe in the old thought of whatever’s broken, don’t fix it (well, at least not too much. Just tweak it) shows one reason out of many why it has a unique sense of longevity.