Dragon Quest at 35 – the history of a JRPG icon

Dragon Quest 35th Anniversary

Dragon Quest is a name that’s synonymous with Japanese role-playing games. Not only did it define the sub-genre 35 years ago, Dragon Quest also brought western tabletop RPG themes to Japan. The initial Nintendo Entertainment System release of Dragon Quest in May 1986 (titled Dragon Warrior in North America) combined the top-down presentation of groundbreaking RPG, Ultima, with the random battle encounters of Wizardry, and while the roleplaying genre existed before Dragon Quest, this influential series would create the blueprint for countless JRPGs throughout the decades.

West meets east

Dragon Quest franchise creator, Yuji Horii, set out to create an accessible RPG that didn’t require you to buy one of the expensive PCs that were available in Japan at the time. Simplifying a western RPG seemed counter-intuitive for the fan base at the time, with Dungeons & Dragons fans craving complex progression and storytelling systems, but Horii settled on a levelling system that was controlled by experience points gained after every battle, opting for a storyline that didn’t require players to follow the usual damsel in distress arc. With the help of legendary manga artist and writer, Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball Z), it was then combined with vibrant artwork to appeal to its audience.

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Needless to say, Dragon Quest was a runaway success. While it didn’t exactly find its footing overseas (perhaps because it was marketed as a western RPG), it sold over two million units in Japan.

Rock the Dragon (Quest)

Akira Toriyama is heralded as a figurehead and game-changer in the manga world. His character and monster designs are still used in the Dragon Quest franchise today, with his shonen art style linking his work here to the ever popular Dragon Ball series, and some overlap between his two works. Cure Slimes can be seen swimming in bodies of water while monsters such as Killer Tigers, Cyclops, and other familiar creatures also make an appearance.

Some of Dragon Quest’s core gameplay mechanics strike a nice balance between being challenging and forgiving. Inns and churches usually provide healing and revival, with save points allowing players to pick up their progress. Horii’s gambling habits have obviously leaked into the series mechanics too with challenging areas never being a guaranteed success. The key here is tension building and keeping players immersed. Dragon Quest never punishes players too harshly when they fall in combat, letting them keep their experience points and items intact, though they will lose a sum of money.

Over the decades, battles in Dragon Quest have evolved from first person dungeon crawls to more cinematic encounters thanks to 3D characters and environments. However, the series has always kept its core mechanics, switching from an overworld viewpoint to an intimate battle area, you still have an overlaid menu confirming enemy and player stats. From here can choose from standard attacks, magic abilities, items and in some cases various special powers depending on which title is being played.

Origins of the JRPG

With Dragon Quest, Enix and Chunsoft had a unique offering: an accessible RPG that could run on an affordable home console. Like most popular game series, their success would be endlessly emulated, and in some cases improved upon in the years to come. Series such as Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger took great inspiration from Dragon Quest.

Later instalments in the series made a point of adding to the Dragon Quest experience, with Dragon Quest II improving everything from character and spell counts to longer quests. Although the series thrived in Japan and stuck to its roots, rival series such as Final Fantasy learned to reinvent itself with every release to keep the franchise fresh and to appeal to overseas audiences. This approach culminated in the legendary Final Fantasy VII, which many argue solidified the popularity of JRPGs in North America and Europe.

Enix also published future Dragon Warrior titles overseas, but the franchise couldn’t catch fire with western audiences. Nintendo Power was giving away free copies of Dragon Warrior with magazine subscriptions, which raised the profile of the title somewhat, but was ultimately overshadowed by flashier releases. This became apparent in subsequent releases, as the 1992 release of Dragon Quest IV would be the last in the west until Dragon Quest VII almost a decade later.

Return of the (Cursed) King

One nugget of trivia many point to when discussing the influence of the series is the so-called “Dragon Quest Law”. Due to the unrelenting popularity of Dragon Quest in Japan, it is said that the Japanese government pleaded with Enix to stop releasing new Dragon Quest games on weekdays over fears of workforce productivity. Although there’s an element of truth, this has since been debunked as an urban myth.

Following a lengthy hiatus and the muted release of Dragon Quest VII in America, the franchise really picked up steam overseas with the PS2’s Dragon Quest VIII in 2005. Featuring full 3D cell-shaded graphics, it dragged the franchise kicking and screaming into the then-modern games industry. Although the series had tried to change things up with the addition of catching monsters in Dragon Quest V years prior, the 2D presentation of previous titles held the franchise back, at least in the eyes of western audiences.

Dragon Quest’s struggle with success overseas primarily comes down to its presentation, not only visually but sonically. Series composer, Koichi Sugiyama, has some amazing experience in creating grand adventure soundscapes, but that didn’t always translate well in-game, especially on older platforms that couldn’t deliver the depth Sugiyama strived for. This often resulted in grating/awkwardly presented midi overworld themes that didn’t sell the games’ overall tone at all. We’re looking at your OG Dragon Quest overworld theme.

Happy birthday Dragon Quest!

The series’ storytelling has never been a grand sweeping experience, and instead relies on the smaller tales of NPCs and various areas that stack up into one big adventure. Its simplicity is charming, players know what they will be getting and simply want to come along for the ride.

In terms of what could be coming up for the 35th anniversary – the first game released on 27th May 1986 – we’re still in the dark. Dragon Quest XII is in active development alongside a rumoured new Dragon Quest Monsters title. The franchise is no stranger to remakes and remasters, such as Dragon Quest VII and VIII for Nintendo 3DS, and there’s even spin-offs like Dragon Quest Builders that retell the first two games’ stories with new sandbox building mechanics. All of these kinds of projects would be a welcomed stop-gap while waiting for a new instalment to drop.

Dragon Quest isn’t a franchise that hops from one big new feature to the next or tries to keep up with competitors, and it instead thrives by staying true to its origins and ideals. Most monsters found in that very first game can be found in Dragon Quest XI, with series figureheads such as Horii still serving as the IP’s general director. While the series gradually changes things up, Dragon Quest will always find success due to its nostalgia for long time fans and accessible design.

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