February 15, 2012 by zseawright
The Epic of Dragon Quest
Once upon a time, role-playing games were an obscure genre. With the video game crash in 1983, it seemed it would stay that way. However, one man had a vision. Yuji Horii worked at the Japanese game developing company called Enix. A fan of the RPG genre, he lamented that while they were gaining popularity in all their forms in the West, they were still not widely played in Japan. Building off an earlier title of his own design, in 1986 he created Dragon Quest. Credited as one of the games that helped beat the crash, it is also one of the most influential video games in history, and has become unprecedentedly pervasive in Japanese culture.
The story of Dragon Quest is as simple as it gets: the princess has been kidnapped and you are the brave knight descended from a legendary hero who must rescue her from the demonic dragon Dracolord. At the time, Dragon Quest was the only game that allowed for open-world, non-linear environments which were laid out in a grid. Your avatar is a voiceless young man who journeys across a vast kingdom and back while a sorrowful yet mystic simple tune plays, finding towns where you can get clues on where to go from the townspeople, buy armor, or rest at an inn to heal. While traversing mountains, fields, and forests in the over-world, every step you take a chance that you may run into monsters, a triggering a turn-based battle where you can fight, use magic, use an item, or run. If this sounds familiar, it is because Dragon Quest ended up becoming a template for most RPGs up through the 16-bit era, and many of its conventions can still be seen being used in games today, including the Final Fantasy series which became much more popular in the United States.
It should be no surprise that such a successful and influential received several sequels. Dragon Quest II kept the same gameplay but gave you party members in the form of your two cousins. The formula was the same and you could even visit the land of the first game, the hero being your ancestor who left after the first game to start his own kingdom. The story had expanded greatly and while your character was still a mute, your cousins had their own characters and story arcs. Dragon Quest III expanded the quest immensely, with three main quests and the first use of a day and night system in an RPG. You could create your own characters using various different types of warrior who would follow your hero and help him fight. These characters were even given “personalities”, a system which affected how they should be used beyond just what their abilities were. The final plot twist of the game reveals that you are the legendary ancestor of the hero in the first game, tying all of the games together perfectly, creating one long story, an epic that spanned generations. Dragon Quest III became an immense hit and is what truly brought the series national acclaim in Japan.
It is often joked about that Enix’s practice of releasing Dragon Quest games on weekends being the result of a law passed by the Japanese government requiring them to do so in order to keep truancy rates and people missing work at a minimum. In Japan the mascot of the series, a blue drop-shaped creature called a Slime, is more prevalent than the image of Mickey Mouse in the US. This phenomenon is ascribed by many critics to the consistently simple gameplay and grand, epic story that each game gives. While the stories have evolved over time, becoming more and more intricate with each game, the gameplay has largely stayed the same aside from a transition to three dimensions from a grid system. Better graphics have allowed more intricate cut scenes, as well as orchestral remixes of music from the original three games. The latest installments, Dragon Quest IX and X, focus on online interaction and multiplayer, though again the gameplay is essentially the exact same: you traverse a vast kingdom or world on a quest to destroy evil, traveling either along or with companions traversing dungeons, fighting monsters to earn experience points and gold, and looking for the best armor and weapons to do the job. No matter how long the series goes on, this simple system stays the same with very few innovations to the core gameplay. While this may have some drawbacks, it keeps a charming simplicity to these games that makes the games fun while focusing on the overall quest and the story. It is not hard to see why these games have achieved their popularity.
The story of Dragon Quest’s creation is as enjoyable as the game itself, with a man wanting nothing more than to introduce a genre to his home country and ending up creating a massive phenomenon and essentially creating the genre. The simple gameplay means anyone can pick up and play without worrying about a learning curve and enjoying the personality of the townspeople and get lost in exploring the world, finding towns and taking on optional quests between traversing dungeons and saving the day. Just as the hero saved the world from destruction and misery, Dragon Quest saved and redefined an entire genre of video games.