Happy 30th Anniversary – Dragon Quest

Nintendo Power aggressively promoted Dragon Quest (renamed Dragon Warrior in the West to avoid copyright infringement with an existing tabletop RPG called DragonQuest published by TSR). Three issues featured multi-page articles on the game such as this two page preview (in the issue covering May and June), an in-depth look at the game in the next, and tips and tactics two months later. One unique thing that dramatically set these articles above many others were the incredible illustrations by the then-uncredited Katsuya Terada to give the game a more ‘western’ feel.

Today, thirty years ago, Dragon Quest was released by Enix in Japan and quickly snowballed into a cultural phenomenon.

It’s simple design and mechanics would serve to inform later JRPGs on the NES such as Square’s Final Fantasy in 1987 (1990 for NA audiences). In the same way, it was also Western titles such as Sir-Tech’s Wizardry and Richard Garriott’s Ultima series (both of which found ready audiences in Japan when they came over) that would also serve to inform Dragon Quest’s design by providing inspiration for its designer, Yuji Hori.

Although Japanese audiences had already been exposed to RPGs such as Wizardry, Ultima, and especially Black Onyx which was designed by Henk Rogers and released in 1984 on the PC-8801 becoming one of the very first RPGs created specifically for Japan — and which became rather popular in its own right. But as Henk Rogers notes on seeing Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy soar to even greater heights than Black Onyx, according to an article covering Black Onyx by Simon Parkin at Medium:

“I was flattered on one hand,” says Rogers. “But I also realized that I didn’t quite understand the Japanese aesthetic and way. These games were quite different to mine, and just struck a more effective cultural chord.”

The differences were enough to make Dragon Quest hugely popular in Japan as well as give it a unique personality of its own that spoke to everyone from kids hoping to be adventurers to grandparents and adults. In a world of arcade games and ports demanding the most from everyone’s reflexes, Dragon Quest’s methodical pacing and turn-based combat immediately made it accessible to anyone that also wanted to participate in a grand adventure without having to worry about a high score.

Nintendo Power's approach to their promotion of Dragon Quest in North America (as Dragon Warrior) also took into account that no one knew what an RPG was and that this might be their first as you can tell from this two page excerpt.

Nintendo Power’s approach to their promotion of Dragon Quest in North America (as Dragon Warrior) also took into account that no one knew what an RPG was and that this might be their first as you can tell from this two page excerpt. It tried to explain all of the elements that players could expect from this new experience and how it was different from other games.

The magic Yuji Hori and his team at Enix had conjured up created a viral sensation that would lead to an urban legend years later, around the time Dragon Quest III was released, that Japan supposedly passed a law requiring future installments to be released on holidays or non-school days. What’s absolutely without doubt is that Japan’s wild fascination with the game has led to fans lining up for days to snag a copy and kids skipping class to do the same. Stories tell of Intel back in the early 90s removing id’s Doom from their PCs because of the lost productivity reported. Imagine that but on a national level in Japan among their schools.

RPGs were often found on PCs in the West, something that Japan hadn’t quite had the level of exposure to until a few made it over there and found success. After Black Onyx helped pave the way, Dragon Quest on the wildly popular Nintendo Famicom seemed like a perfect match. And it was, eventually selling roughly 2 million copies.

Akira Toryama's art style comes to life on Dragon Quest's box...

Akira Toriyama’s art style comes to life on Dragon Quest’s box…

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...which was westernized for its release as Dragon Warrior. Personally...I kind of prefer the Japanese version.

…which, like many other marketing decisions for other games, was replaced for its release as Dragon Warrior proving that even arcade flyers weren’t the only victims. Personally kind of prefer the Japanese version. Incidentally, Satoru Iwata, who would later rise to become one of Nintendo’s presidents, aided in directing the release of the game in North America.

Yuji Hori began work on the game in 1985 after working on another game, The Portopia Serial Murder Case, which had a wide release on Japanese PCs as well as the Famicom. Elements of Wizardry, such as the battles, and Ultima with its top-down perspective appealed to him but the games were also heavy in crunch — a typical feature for many Western RPGs at the time owing largely to the fact that they were primarily created on PCs and catered to the strengths of the hardware.

But Hori wanted to simplify things by creating an RPG from the perspective of someone that had never had a chance to play one before. All of those details found in the CRPGS he saw were fine, but they could also create an intimidating barrier to players. He wanted another approach, one that encapsulated the essence of a CRPG but without that kind of pressure. The result was Dragon Quest.

The adventure begins! The familiar theme set up for the entire series started right here on the title screen.

The adventure begins! The familiar theme set up for the entire series started right here on the title screen.

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Time to name our new hero! Save games were called "adventure logs".

Time to name our new hero! Save games were called “adventure logs”. It was also a solo adventure — just one hero against the Dragonlord’s evil.

The premise is that you’re the last descendant of Eldrick (Loto in the Japanese original), a legendary warrior who battled terrible evil long ago and banished it with the aid of orbs of light, saving the land of Alefgard from ruin. Now that darkness has returned and, generations later as his descendant, it’s up to you to stop it once again.

Dragon Quest managed to distill the complexity of RPG controls down to the Famicom/NES game pad thanks to a series of menus and turn-based combat. The familiar CRPG staples are all there — random encounters, dungeons, NPCs, spells, stores, and a land to save from nefarious baddies. That it all came together so well is a testament to Hori’s team which included longtime collaborators such as the famous manga artist (Dragonball Z), Akira Toriyama, who defined the look of the game both for the original packaging back in Japan as well as the illustrations in the manual and music composer, Koichi Sugiyama, whose work has defined the familiar audio cues and atmospheric sound that give every Dragon Quest game that special quality.

The quest begins as the king lays out doomsday for you and gives you a few parting gifts. He 's also the guy to talk to if you need to save your game. The only guy that can do that, actually, so there's a lot of walking around involved.

The quest begins as the king lays out doomsday for you and gives you a few parting gifts. He ‘s also the guy to talk to if you need to save your game. The only guy that can do that, actually, so there’s a lot of walking around involved.

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Good ol' stores. Elizabethan English was used in the translation so if the top-down view hasn't given you Ultima flashbacks yet, there you go.

Good ol’ stores. Elizabethan English was used in the translation so if the top-down view hasn’t given you Ultima flashbacks yet, there you go.

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Despite all of those wonderful interactive options, using the menu could be a clunky experience. Simply running into stairs won't take you up to the next area, for example. You had to choose "stairs" to actually use them. Or take to open chests. Still, it worked really well in giving players a lot to work with.

Despite all of those wonderful interactive options, using the menu could be a clunky experience. Simply running into stairs won’t take you up to the next area, for example. You had to choose “stairs” to actually use them. Or take to open chests. Still, it worked really well in giving players a lot to work with.

One of the unique things about Dragon Quest that helped it stand above the CRPGs it took after is that it used the Famicom’s resources to provide a full, musical soundtrack present throughout the game and which changed depending on the situation such as providing a combat theme for fighting to a separate track for being on the overworld map. Although these early sprites were primitive with only two frames of animation for walking around, the game was dense with options that action-oriented games didn’t have from being able to talk to NPCs (as opposed to shooting them for points) to growing more powerful by fighting more and more monsters.

When it was localized for the West (and would become renamed as Dragon Warrior to avoid stepping on copyright toes with a tabletop game by the name of DragonQuest), the game also underwent quite a few changes. For one, it dropped the password save feature from the Japanese version in favor of a battery backup (there’s only one save location in the game, the king at his castle). Sprites were also changed and some of the more saucy text present in the Japanese game were removed from the NA release.

This was "walkabout" mode in the game where you, well, walked about talking to NPCs, exploring, all that good stuff.

This was what the game called “walkabout” mode where you, well, walked about talking to NPCs, exploring, all that good stuff.

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A red slime draws near! Time to fight. This was the "combat" mode of the game. It was turn-based giving you a chance to decide what to do next. As you level up (the king will tell you how many points were needed for the next level), you grow more powerful and eventually learn magic. A curious tidbit about this game is that the stats upgraded are determined by an algorithm based on the name you chose for yourself.

A red slime draws near! Time to fight. This was the “combat” mode of the game. It was turn-based giving you a chance to decide what to do next. As you level up (the king will tell you how many points were needed for the next level), you grow more powerful and eventually learn magic. A curious tidbit about this game is that the stats upgraded are determined by an algorithm based on the name you chose for yourself.

Despite Dragon Quest’s wild success in Japan, it didn’t quite hit the same levels of excitement outside of the country — at least not as much as The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy would. Those same cultural hooks Henk Rogers suggested enabling Dragon Quest to soar beyond Black Onyx didn’t quite pull the same weight with gamers on the NES when it arrived on the system in 1989.

By the time it hit, NES audiences already had been exposed to The Legend of Zelda and its sequel. Sega fans also had gotten a taste of RPGs with the phenomenal Phantasy Star on the Master System in 1988 (1987 for Japanese audiences). And Western CRPG developers were also getting their feet wet by licensing ports of games like The Bard’s Tale and Ultima III to the NES. Dragon Warrior didn’t stand out as it initially did back home when Famicom RPGs were a rarity in ’86.

Thanks to a battery backup, Dragon Warrior was able to save your progress for later. If you chose to quit the game, it also generated these instructions for doing it safely. Windows must have learned the same thing from the game because it always nags me in the same way about USB devices.

Thanks to a battery backup, Dragon Warrior was able to save your progress for later. If you chose to quit the game, it also generated these instructions for doing it safely…

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And once you've done all the steps, it's time for rest until next time.

History hanging on the fate of a tiny battery. And turning off the NES the right way.

Still, it performed modestly well, if only partly because those same fans that fell in love with the RPGs that were coming out on the NES wanted to add another adventure to their dungeon shelves. Then in late 1990, Nintendo ran a promotion where if you purchased a subscription to Nintendo Power you would also get a copy of Dragon Warrior which helped to significantly boost sales of the game — and bring in a ton of new subscribers, especially since after 1990, Nintendo Power would shift from being a bi-monthly magazine to a monthly one.

Dragon Quest is still going strong and releases continue to be a huge event among Japan’s faithful as well as fans everywhere else around the world. Lines still wind their way outside of stores in Japan as a new generation of players prepare to battle slimes and fight fearsome monsters in a new quest rung in by the series’ familiar jingle. The series has come a long way from a single adventurer rising to fight a terrible evil with only two frames of animation and shows no signs of stopping as one of the oldest, and most charming, series out there.

Yuji Hori and his team wanted to introduce more people to RPGs. After thirty years of success, I think he did a pretty good job.

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