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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.