I have said it before, and I’ve said it again: American gamers need to pay more attention to Dragon Quest, Japan’s all-time favorite RPG series.
Of course, maybe I’m blinded by my own nostalgia on this one. Back in the days of the original NES, I played the first entry in the series near-constantly. I played it after school. I played it on the weekends. I played it when my grandparents were visiting from another state. There was something about it, something about the exploring and the leveling up and the scrimping and saving to buy new equipment, that struck a chord with my young self.
And then it was gone. I was a young kid with no money, so I couldn’t purchase the three subsequent sequels to the game, and since each was met with a colder and colder reception Stateside they were difficult birthday presents to find. Then, in 1995, game publisher Enix closed its North American offices, confining the fifth and sixth games in the series (usually considered to be two of its stronger entries) to Japan. Young Andrew actually wrote a letter to Nintendo asking what had happened (for the record, I received a very kind response explaining the situation, though this did little to mollify my abandonment issues).
In the early 2000s, Dragon Quest games slowly began to trickle back to the States, aided by Enix’s 2003 merger with Square to become Square Enix. Perhaps it was just the long absence of this childhood favorite from my game playing diet that makes me devour the present-day entries so voraciously. Or maybe, they’re really good (if staunchly conservative) games, and you should pick up and play one if you even suspect that it might be up your alley.
The core gameplay of the series is the same as ever: you’re the hero. You travel from town to town, righting wrongs and fighting monsters, exploring the world map and doing some mild level-grinding in between. The battles are where most of the game takes place, and they too remain the same – turn based, very traditional fare for a Japanese RPG.
Dragon Quest IX’s “new” additions to the series are small but transformative. Most significantly for the game’s single-player mode, random battles have been mostly eliminated – monsters can now be seen on the world map and in dungeons and can usually be circumvented if you wish, though they’ll sometimes decide to rush you. This makes exploration of the expansive world map and the maze-like dungeons a less frustrating affair than in the older games.
The other major addition is one that I was sadly unable to experience – much has been made of the game’s four-way local multiplayer. Other Dragon Quest players can hop into your party with their primary characters to battle, collect items, and even help you further the story (though this will have no effect on their single-player adventures). The most impressive bit technologically is that all of the players can split up and explore separately, completely independently of one another. If the host player needs help with a boss battle or something else, he or she can call all of the other players up and have them appear on the spot instantly. It’s a very good system, at least on paper, and I’m disappointed by my inability to partake.
Most of the other bullet-points on the back of the game’s box are new twists on series mainstays – the job system’s complexity is deeper than it was when introduced in the third game, but nowhere near as complicated as it was in the sixth and seventh games. It’s a good fit for the DS’s more casual audience. Also making a reappearance is the alchemy pot, a device which allows you to combine individual items into better ones.
While the eighth game in the Dragon Quest series focused on specific characters and did quite a lot to get the player attached to them emotionally, the ninth game takes a different tack. You’re the Hero, but your companions are all custom-built (or randomly generated, if you’d like) people with no speaking roles. The emotional payload is actually delivered by the non-player characters – in each town you visit, the people living there are having a specific problem. Solving the problem, and often, bringing people closure, isn’t going to win any awards, but the typically colorful Dragon Quest characters and excellent localization keeps things interesting and engaging all the way through.
Most of the series’ strengths can also be considered weaknesses by some – its familiar gameplay is comfortable (every game plays the same). It changes small things but never upends its conventions (it refuses to innovate, is inadventurous). Dragon Quest sticks to its roots while all of the series and games it influenced (Pokémon, Final Fantasy, and, in fact, most JRPGs) have moved on to newer, shinier battle systems and more melodramatic theatrical storytelling. Like most Dragon Quest games, it’s not going to rock your world or change the way you think about video games, but it’s solid, it’s fun, and it’s pretty reliable about it. If you like RPGs, do it.
Square Enix’s Dragon Quest IX is currently available for the Nintendo DS for $34.99.