As many of you may know, Dragon Quest was one of the earliest console RPGs, and its eighth iteration is coming to American shores this November. One of the founding games of the modern RPG genre, Dragon Quest has been mostly silent in this part of the world for a long time, ceding almost two eras of games solely to Square Enix’s other big series, Final Fantasy. With such a long absence from truly standing in the lime light, RPG Land figured it’d be a good idea to toss together a bit of history where this bright new cel-shaded RPG is coming from and what they are talking about with there being seven games before it.

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Here’s where it all started

Back in the early 1980s, Enix scouted a pair of bright young designers from a programming competition they ran, bringing two glowing stars onto the stage: Koichi Nakamura and Yuji Horii, both individuals inspired significantly by the American RPG market of the time, represented in the primitive dungeon crawlers of Ultima and Wizardry. Working under Enix, Yuji Horii spent 1985 attempting to rebuild the historic RPG into something new–something that didn’t depend so much on rote copying of D&D mechanics and that anyone could get into. He wanted to build a game that integrated story and appealed to the imagination in a way that previous games simply hadn’t. Lucky for him, and for the series, he had a couple of very talented friends. Koichi Sugiyama, who he met through fan correspondence on one of his earlier games, was scouted to provide a unique orchestral score for Yuji’s new concept, drawing his cues from classical music and endowing the budding genre with an audio touch that has kept with it for two decades. Akira Toriyama, just breaching fame with his Dragon Ball series brought a charming touch to the monsters of the game that separated it from the old dour Dungeons and Dragons monsters of old. With this core team of four put together, Yuji set to work building what became the historic predecessor to the modern console RPG: Dragon Quest.

Riding on this wave, Yuji Horii and his companions became legends. Yuji was hailed as the first “Famicom Author” by Enix–a golden boy who could do no wrong as he worked to build up upon the creative base he established. Dragon Quest II was hurriedly produced and released at the start of 1987, featuring three heroes and following the story of that world as in the absence of the Dragonlord, a new evil sought to menace the lands, the children of the hero of old called together to fend off this menace and defend their kingdoms from Hargon the Sorcerer. Dragon Quest II featured the first gameplay of its kind with multiple player and enemy characters, building up off the one-on-one combat that its predecessor introduced. It also introduced the very first vehicle, a boat that you could ride around the oceans. We take our array of vehicles that have become standard, but they all started here. We also, technically, got our first bait and switch final boss in Malroth, the arch magus behind Hargon.

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Here’s where it continued

Released in Japan in 1986, Dragon Quest was an instant hit, one of the early games to crash right over the million sales margin and starting up a phenomenon that truly defined the modern RPG and provided a stable community for growth, copied soon by many other games such as the now famous Final Fantasy. A primitive game, by modern standards, Dragon Quest introduced a single hero, the son of Erdrick, played by the player as he navigated the simple story of the land of Alefgard beset by an evil Dragonlord and a princess kidnapped from her family. Descended from such heroes and with a stick in hand, you traveled out into the unknown world to seek out evil. It was here that many of the conventions that stuck with the traditional series were forged. The minimalist menu system, the face to face battles with enemies, the enemies and the equipment that has stuck with the series iteration after iteration appeared in good part here.

Gaining a Reputation and Facing Competition…

It was also around this time that the market started having actual competition around. Final Fantasy had come out. Phantasy Star was touching down on the Sega Master System. Dragon Quest was no longer the only player on the console RPG field. The RPG market of Japan was truly taking shape.

February, 1988. Dragon Quest III shook Japan. Continuing a tradition that had begun to define Dragon Quest, and has since then, the game built upon its traditional facets, holding to a lot of the previous design and refining it, while adding new mechanics on top of it. For Dragon Quest III, the sky was the limit, offering phoenix travel over a huge world map complete with the first appearance of Dharma Temple, the core of Dragon Quest‘s new class change system, something not seen in any other RPG series (that reached America) until the SNES era. It also brought player designed parties and the first appearance of the casino to the series, a minigame that has since appeared in every Dragon Quest. Here you played the story of Erdrick, the legendary hero talked about in the first Dragon Quest. He’s not quite a legend though when you meet him, just a young boy, the son of the adventurer Ortega, heading out to meet with the king. Charged with carrying on your father’s work against the Archfiend Baramos, you set forth to adventure, dropping by the local inn to recruit adventurers from time to time and build your own team to take on the demon. The journey takes you through many lands before finally sending you to Alefgard to conclude the very legend that Erdrick was known for in the first game. Through these travails you finish up what has since become rare in RPGdom, a complete trilogy detailing the adventures of all of the heroes involved.

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Dragon Quest III has been remade, with nice visuals like these.

Dragon Quest III did more than just hook Japan on it though. Dragon Quest in Japan is more of a cultural phenomenon than pretty much any game in the US, with the possible exception of Mario Brothers. Dragon Quest III made one critical mistake that changed the fabric of game history forever in Japan though: It was released on a weekday. This lead to anarchy for a day as millions called in sick, waiting in line just to get the game. Japan’s legislatures were not slow to act, enforcing a now historic law that bans Dragon Quest from ever being released in Japan on a weekday. This law is still in effect today, as each Dragon Quest entry is met with millions still copping out of a day of work.

Finally, in 1989, renamed Dragon Warrior due to American trademark issues, Dragon Quest hit America by storm, with one of the neatest marketing ploys in recorded history: Nintendo Power gave away free copies of Dragon Warrior with a year’s subscription, which was truly an awesome way to get introduced to the game. The game saw some updates on its way over, such as the character getting a fuller range of animated motion. It also picked up the faux British tones in localization that set the tone in American minds for it for years to follow. Unfortunately, the American RPG market at this time was small and largely situated on computers. Declining sales met each follow-up to the series until Enix America closed its doors after a brief period of publishing other games in the SNES era. Dragon Warrior IV was the last of the series to come over for a period of nearly a decade in 1992.

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Ragnar in Dragon Quest IV.

Dragon Quest IV hit Japan a couple years earlier though, in 1990, featuring more new advancements in using the RPG genre to tell stories. At sixteen named characters, it featured the largest cast of its time (only surpassed when Final Fantasy VI hit the SNES), and it took great effort to let the player know that a hero does not fight alone. Using a chapter-based story telling system, the game allowed for playing four stories of supporting characters solving their own local scope issues and adventures before finally turning to the hero who with their help would face off against the power of Saro. It featurs what is, to the best of my knowledge and searching, the very first transforming final boss in the history of RPGs as well as the first appearance of the mini-medals, a set of little medals to reward particularly exploring heroes which could be traded in for rare items to the Medal King. It also hosted a personal favorite in game music, “Homeland ~Wagon’s Wheels’ March,” which played once you got the wagon and began gathering up the party. This was also the last Dragon Quest to appear on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Finding a “Super” Home


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The beautiful PS2 remake of Dragon Quest V that America never got

Blasting onto the SNES, only in Japan, the Dragon Quest series continued in 1992 with Dragon Quest V, providing both graphical and interface improvements as well as a new way of telling the tale. With the leap to the SNES platform, an action button was included that allowed players to automatically do every action without going into the menu, while retaining the old style for those who preferred it. Taking a new tack on the tale, the hero of this game was not the legendary hero, but instead the prophet who would foresee him and guide him to his destiny. Introducing a variety of new characters through the monster capture and tamer mechanics that appeared in the game, including game mascot Slalin the blue slime, the hero was followed from his time as a small young boy in the shadow of his father through to guiding his own children to taking down the King of Demons, Milrath. This game was also the first of the Dragon Quest series to offer real post-game content with an entire extra dungeon available after beating the game and a hidden boss, Esturk, to challenge the battle acumen of the players further.

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Building Upon Greatness

Playing on the theme of imagination that was interwoven with the series, in 1995, Dragon Quest VI offered a world of dreams and reality. The hero traveled between the land of dreams and the real world as he sought to battle an evil menace that was taking over the world. Offering the most advanced incarnation of the class system so far, Dragon Quest VI allowed any character to be any class, alongside their own natural skills, letting the player truly shape their party. It also introduced the first class hierarchy ever in RPGs, as players could build up to super classes by combining the talents of multiple basic level classes. With airships, dream islands, boats, and demons, Dragon Quest VI featured a fantastical battle for both the dream world and the real world, culminating in eventually fighting the Demon Emperor Deathtamoor in his own dark world, a fearsome prison for souls built to feed off and trap them in circles of vice and suffering. Like its predecessor, Dragon Quest VI had plenty of post-game content, rewarding anyone who beat the game with a new character class and a new dungeon if they managed to get their party to master every class in the game. This hidden dungeon contained a number of fan references to previous games in the series and the terrible Dark Dream at the end. In addition to providing a challenge, particularly fast players who manage to beat Dark Dream in under twenty rounds, would get a bonus special ending, complete with watching Dark Dream trounce the last boss in a brutal drag down fight.

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Thank goodness this bit of dialogue made it into DQVII

Five years later, after tremendous rewrites and redesigns, the team finally produced Dragon Quest VII for the PlayStation, presenting one of the largest and longest RPGs ever to be produced for any console system ever. Following the journey of a fisherman’s son, Dragon Quest VII focused largely on exploring the world, the party traveling back and forth through time as they sought to rebuild it from its sealed status after the great war between God and Devil ages ago. Eventually, the game even stepped into messianic tones as you rescued the legendary hero, Melvin, and worked to resurrect God into the world you had forged through your actions. Needless to say, the game contains a tremendous amount of twists more than that, weighing in at over ten thousand pages of storyline and taking most players between sixty and a hundred and fifty hours to complete. It was also the first game in a decade to come back to American shores, featuring a dynamically rendered 3D world set with 2D characters and very smoothly animated 2D art in the fights. With hundreds of monsters to capture, dozens classes to build up, and dozens of cities to explore, Dragon Quest VII overwhelmed most with the sheer immensity of it. Additionally, having a huge delay in getting over to the American market, a truly immense amount of writing, and overall graphics that felt dated and didn’t really portray that well in still footage, helped contribute to an overall weak presence in its return here. To put it in words that I find still most appropriate to the scope of the game, though not mine, “I have four goals in life: a big house, a pretty wife, a fast car, and an end game save to Dragon Quest VII.”

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A new horizon lies before you. Will you take the journey?

A New Era

Finally, we now approach the crossing of Dragon Quest with the modern era. Throwing off style of old, Dragon Quest VIII shall be touching down this November here in the US. Teaming up with the Dark Cloud crew to bring the graphical level up to the type of high quality cel-shaded 3D models that many have come to expect in RPGs, the same core team stands ready to deliver another masterpiece. The version we’ll be getting will also see many changes from the Japanese version, including a British localization, a full orchestral soundtrack, updates to both sound and spell names, and Final Fantasy style menu system in order to make it more appealing to the American audience. Dragon Quest VIII is set to follow the story of a young guardsman, his castle transformed in a fairytale fashion, the people transformed into vines and thorns, the princess turned into a horse, and the king transformed into a little beast by the dark jester Dhoulmagus. Placed with your kingdom on the verge of destruction, you seek to save them from this wicked curse that has been placed on them, setting off into the world.

Essential Reading

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  • -Philip Bloom

    Philip Bloom is the owner and webmaster of Soulriders.org, an affiliate of RPG Land.