On Sept. 16 Dragon Quest VII will have its remake finally released on the Nintendo 3DS in the United States and Europe. Then, Oct. 11 will be the stateside release of the franchise’s interpretation of Minecraft, Dragon Quest Builders. At some nebulous time later this year Dragon Quest VIII will also be ported to the 3DS. After many games not leaving its native Japan, this is a huge year for Dragon Quest. And not too far away is the release of Dragon Quest XI for the 3DS, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo NX. That one is planned to come out in 2017 in Japan, and hopefully, the rest of the world won’t have to wait too long for DQXI. A lot is happening with this series and just in time for Dragon Quest’s 30th anniversary. It is an exciting time to be a fan of the legendary role-playing games.
But what the heck even is Dragon Quest? It’s been many years since the last numbered Dragon Quest release here in the West (Dragon Quest IX in 2009). Some gamers may have forgotten, while others may never have even played a DQ game before. So we’ll dig into the RPGs with this Crash Course on the history of Dragon Quest.
What is Dragon Quest?
Dragon Quest is a long-standing Japanese role-playing series created by Yuji Horii. It began with Dragon Quest in 1986 on the Famicom/NES, and it was one of the very first Japanese RPGs. The game took inspiration from early pioneer Western RPGs like the Wizardry series. Soon enough, Dragon Quest became one of the most popular games on the Famicom, inspiring a host of imitators, including the more straightlaced Final Fantasy series. DQ quickly became one of Japan’s most popular franchises ever, and still sells millions of copies in Japan-only. In America, early Dragon Quest games were known as “Dragon Warrior” due to licensing issues, which didn’t go away until 2005.
There have been ten total mainline Dragon Quest entries that appeared on most Sony and Nintendo platforms that you could think of. These include nine single-player games and one MMO, alongside a sprawling galaxy of side games and spin-offs into different genres, including the recent Dynasty Warriors clone, Dragon Quest Heroes. Many games in the series weren’t released in the West, most famously the Wii/Wii U MMO Dragon Quest X.
On top of new titles and spin-offs, Square Enix has been slowly remaking the older games in the series, though releases have been inconsistent. The upcoming remake of Dragon Quest VII, for example, came out three years ago in Japan. Some remakes of Dragon Quests I through III have never been released at all, except for some spotty mobile ports. This treatment shows what a difference there is between the small Western fanbase and the massive Japanese phenomenon.
Of all the JRPG franchises, Dragon Quest holds a special place in its home country as the beloved granddaddy of the entire genre. Think of Dragon Quest as being to JRPGs what Mario is to platformers. The basic conventions of JRPGs such as level grinding, dungeon crawling, collectible monsters, Job Systems, and parties of unique characters all were first popularized by Dragon Quest. Any new, fully-numbered release can be counted on to be a major event, certain to be one of the biggest sellers of the year in Japan.
What Makes Dragon Quest Special?
Dragon Quest games feature characters and monsters designed by Akira Toriyama. While Toriyama might be best known as the author of the timeless martial arts series Dragon Ball, he also has a notable silly side. You can see that humor in his designs for various Dragon Quest monsters. Take the series mascot, the happy little blue drip, the Slime. Or take ever more wacky incarnations of Slimes, like Metal Slimes, Slime Knights, King Slimes, and Drake Slimes (not to be confused with the rapper). Stare deeply into the innocent eyes of the Slimes. That goofy expression is what this series is all about.
While JRPGs are known to fall into self-serious melodrama, Dragon Quest is more about pure gaming with unobtrusive stories. Typically Dragon Quest games will feature a villain trying to destroy the planet, but the developers keep a bright, joyful world full of puns and humorous accents. As the decades go on, these games have stayed true to their roots. The primary focus of gameplay is still the traditional JRPG cycle of finding the next town, grinding through the next dungeon, and defeating the next boss. They’re positive adventures for all ages, staying very familiar but remaining fun.
Ultimately, Dragon Quest knows what it wants to be and seems to have little interest in changing. Long after they became popular, DQ made the leap to 3D graphics in the PS2 era with Dragon Quest VIII. But even then the art style has remained the same, translating the silly sprites into equally silly polygons. The series is so traditional that still decades later it has stuck to turn-based battles (even in the MMO). The biggest innovation for DQ has been removing that constant annoyance of JRPGs: random encounters. While Final Fantasy has been all over the map since Final Fantasy X, changing from one game to another between major installments, Dragon Quest is comfortable in its happy place.
There are just far too many Dragon Quest games to summarize. But these exceptional titles might help you understand what this series is all about:
Dragon Quest IV (NES, SNES Japan Only, PS1 Japan Only, DS, Mobile) – Dragon Quest IV is a perfect starter JRPG. It features short chapters involving separate characters across the world. The player gets a significant taste of every member of the party in solo stories. Then everybody joins together to defeat the evil Psaro the Manslayer, one of the most iconic villains in Dragon Quest lore. The cast includes figures like Torneko Taloon, a fat merchant who’d go to star in his own game, and Maya and Meena, a pair of attractive young mage twins.
Dragon Quest V (SNES Japan Only, PS2 Japan Only, DS, Mobile) – Before the monster collecting of Pokemon and Yo-kai Watch, there was Dragon Quest V. This is the very first major JRPG to feature collectible monsters for use in battle. Taking advantage of Dragon Quest’s many recurring and iconic monsters, Dragon Quest V has a huge selection of potential allies. Yes, that includes the Slime and all its various incarnations. This game also is notable for giving the player a chance to choose a wife, creating an entire playable nuclear family to help in saving the world.
Dragon Quest VIII (PS2, Mobile, 3DS upcoming) – Dragon Quest VIII still is a high-water mark for the series. It is the last major single-player release on consoles. It showed just what a massive open traditional RPG could look like in the PS2 era. DQVIII is set in a vast world full of cel-shaded wonder. The game features a fully-voiced cast of memorable characters in a massive story that can easily take 80 hours to complete. The cast includes cockney bruiser Yangus and the alluring Jessica who uses her feminine wiles to distract monsters in battle.
Dragon Quest IX (DS) – Dragon Quest IX was made to build a wider multiplayer audience for the series. It removed random encounters for enemies to instead appear on the Overworld. The plot is one of the weirder ones, where the protagonist is an angel working to serve humanity. When their wings are literally clipped by evil forces, they must walk among the humans to help save them. With a party of player-generated characters their new party must avert disaster from a celestial threat. The Job System also is a huge part of the game and plays better than ever. Dragon Quest IX contains massive (and massively hard) post-game content that will keep you playing long after the rather lengthy campaign.
Here’s Hoping the Quest Never Ends
Hopefully, this crash course in Dragon Quest has raised your interest in the iconic series because the coming months are full of new opportunities to give it a try. Square Enix has been trying for years to translate this charming series for Western gamers. Can they finally pull it off? It’s hard to imagine the series overtaking Final Fantasy or Persona with stateside JRPG fans, but maybe it can at last find its place outside Japan with the many new games finally on their way.