The lights are on
In the West, series like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are about as big as a game can get, but in Japan, few franchises stand taller than Square-Enix’s Dragon Quest. First released in 1986, Dragon Quest is credited with establishing the basic template by which many RPGs would be made. Dragon Quest and its successive spin-offs have had such an enormous impact on the market that the series is arguably more significant than western-appreciated brands like Final Fantasy.
Enix’s monumental RPG not only introduced a number of RPG features to the world, but it is also the first game in history to have a soundtrack performed by a live orchestra. In Japan, nearly every entry in the series has seen anime, toy, and manga adaptations. Meanwhile, Dragon Quest has only ever achieved moderate success in the West. What are we missing? To examine this question – and in anticipation of the release of Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation on DS on February 14 – we take a retrospective glance at the series’ history.
Dragon Warrior – NES – August 1989The original Dragon Quest was released in Japan in 1986, but it took nearly three years to migrate west. When the series finally did arrive, its title had to be changed to avoid a trademark conflict with Simulations Publication’s pen-and-paper RPG Dragon Quest. While the Japanese took to Dragon Quest almost immediately, American audiences didn’t know what to make of the series. Dragon Warrior was one of the first encounters westerners had with a Japanese RPG, and its individuality worked against it.
Despite poor U.S. sales, Dragon Warrior established many elements that have made the series what it is. Players fought random turn-based battles, explored dungeons, and took on the role of a hero who gradually powered up throughout his journey. Players also fought many of the series’ recurring monsters for the first time, included slimes, which would become Dragon Quest’s mascot. Dragon Warrior offered an experience that any gamer would be familiar with today, but back in 1986 it was almost too novel.
Dragon Warrior II – NES – December 1990Dragon Warrior II was released in Japan in 1987 under the title Dragon Quest II: Akuryo no Kamigami (Pantheon of Evil Spirits). The game's story centers on the prince of Midenhall, who is ordered to stop an evil wizard after he destroys Moonbrooke Castle. This entry is notable for being the first game in the series where players could control a party of multiple characters – the first Dragon Quest focused on a single hero.
Dragon Warrior III – NES – June 1991As we’ll see, crazy subtitles persist in the Dragon Quest universe. When it released in Japan in 1988, Dragon Warrior III was called Dragon Quest III: Soshite Densetsu e… (And Thus Into Legend…). While Dragon Warrior III ended the story thread for the original Dragon Quest trilogy, it is actually a prequel that takes place before the first game. The title proved so popular in Japan – selling nearly 4 million units – that news reports began to circulate that children were skipping school to play the game. An urban legend quickly formed, claiming that the Japanese government outlawed future Dragon Quest titles from releasing on school days. There is no such law, but publisher Enix recognized the effect its series had on the Japanese youth and started releasing successive entries on the weekend. Meanwhile, in the U.S., gamers were still too busy playing Mega Man 3 and Commander Keen to take notice.
Dragon Warrior IV – NES – October 1992Called Dragon Quest IV: The Guided Ones in Japan, Dragon Warrior IV differed from other entries in the series in that it broke the game into five distinct chapters, each focusing on a different protagonist. Since the rest of the player’s party became NPCs in the final chapter, Dragon Warrior IV featured an artificial intelligence system called Tactics, which allowed players to develop strategies that would guide their teammate’s actions. Truly ahead of its time, Tactics can be seen as a kind of precursor to Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system, which was still fifteen years out.
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