Wednesday, February 11, 2009

why you should give dragon quest a chance

acres of unspoiled JRPGDragon Quest V for the DS drops on the 17th. This is a big deal for the series’ North American contingent, who up until just a couple of years ago had to content themselves with huddling around a handful of fan-translated Super Nintendo ROMs, rubbing their hands together for warmth.

Dragon Quests V and VI never made it to our shores upon their original Japanese releases in the early 90s. This was due in part to the substandard sales of the first four games, released with steadily decreasing fanfare to the NES throughout its lifespan. The first game, renamed Dragon Warrior for legal reasons, famously sold so poorly that copies of it were given away with issues of Nintendo Power. However we got it, my family owned a copy of that first game that I played from beginning to end over and over again. It was my first RPG, and one of my very favorite games for a long time. I learned it inside and out, and have been hooked on the series ever since. The rest of the country failed to follow suit. Enix’s American branch folded, and following 1992’s Dragon Warrior IV we didn’t see a mainline Dragon Quest game in the States for nine years.

That was a long time ago, though. Enix merged with Square in 2003 to become Square Enix, and thanks to Square’s robust localization department the US was hit with a relative deluge of Dragon Quest games. They’re still not selling through the roof, but they’ve obviously been doing well enough to merit continued release – Dragon Quest V is coming! and this is the perfect chance for you t0 repent of your sinner’s ways and give the series a fair shake.

To start, a good ol’ sweeping generalization – any RPG fan will find something to like in Dragon Quest. The games can be pretty straightforward for people who don’t like complications – they’re mostly linear, and if you’re the kind of gamer who likes to follow the trail of crumbs straight to the end of the game, occasionally stopping in a town to upgrade your equipment, you can do that. Most of the games offer treasure troves of extras for obsessives, though – some have deep job systems, some offer rewarding item creation mini-games, and all offer a plethora of side-quests for the more intrepid explorers among you. Dragon Quest strikes a satisfying balance between the melodramatic cut scene-heavy Final Fantasy and the meticulous detail-heavy micromanagement of your Disgaeas and Phantom Braves.

RPG fans might even find more to like here than in other RPGs – Dragon Quest is relentlessly traditional, and even when Dragon Quest VIII moved the series into the (then)modern age graphically, the gameplay has stayed true to its roots. It’s refreshingly down-to-earth and free of pretension. Final Fantasy IV features a band of princes and princesses being mind-controlled by the main character’s secret brother who is himself being controlled by an evil being sealed by an alien race in the center of the moon, which can only be reached by riding a massive lunar space whale spoken of in legend, and the games have only become steadily more melodramatic since. I like Final Fantasy IV just fine, but even for a video game that one’s a little crazy. Dragon Quest keeps things just a little closer to the ground, featuring everymen and women (and the occasional prophesied heavenly hero) wandering the globe searching for magic mirrors and whatsuch. Over the top theatrics have no place in Dragon Quest, and if that means they miss out on some admittedly cool villains it also means that they don’t suffer from anything too terribly embarrassing.

The series’ traditional and simple leanings help foster a warm, familiar feeling, one that I’ve found to be remarkably consistent across the franchise. The colorful English-language translations foster this intimate feeling – non-player characters are lively and occasionally hilarious, and the localizations of the games have been consistently excellent. Dragon Quest is a welcoming franchise – they’re games that pull you up a chair by the fire, stick a mug of hot chocolate in your hands and cover you up with a fuzzy blanket. They’re great comfort games – the pajama pants and ratty XL t-shirts of the digital world.

Maybe I just feel that way because of my history with the series? But I think even newcomers could quickly come to enjoy Dragon Quest as much as I do. If you’ve ever played and enjoyed Earthbound, that game’s battle system was lifted directly from Dragon Quest. If you’ve ever been entertained by Pokemon or another monster collecting game, the idea was introduced in Dragon Quest V, which allowed the hero the recruit vanquished monsters. If you’ve ever delved deep into the job system of Final Fantasy Tactics, know that Dragon Quest III was one of the first console games to implement such a mechanic, allowing players to switch their characters’ classes while keeping some of the skills and abilities obtained beforehand. If you liked the Super Nintendo epic Chrono Trigger, game designer Yuuji Horii and artist Akira Toriyama have both been involved with Dragon Quest since its inception. The original Dragon Quest beat the first Final Fantasy to the NES by about a year, pioneering the console RPG as we know it. It’s a massively influential series that has been overlooked for too long by American gamers - they’ve got more character than any other RPG on the market right now, they’re endearing, and best of all they’re finally coming to us in a language we can read. Dragon Quest V drops on the DS next week, and Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2 can be had for a song on Amazon – I am sorry but you really don’t have an excuse anymore.

Stay tuned for next week’s review of Dragon Quest V. Did I mention that it’s coming out next week?