The Dragon Quest franchise is one of the longest running and most important JRPG franchises of all time. Its effect on the entire genre of video games cannot be overstated. The original Dragon Quest on NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) essentially created the JRPG, without it, there would be no Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Pokemon, or any of the other great JRPG series. But what is the history of this groundbreaking game?
RPG, of course, stands for “Role Playing Game,” meaning that you take on the role of a character in the game and try to accomplish specific tasks as that character would. These games became popular in the early 20th century, with games like Jury Box, The Sealed Knot, and early war games. In 1974, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax developed Dungeons & Dragons and became massively popular.
In traditional tabletop (or pen and paper) RPGs, the group of players would create their players and stats through dice rolls. The Dungeon Master (DM), would follow the standard rule book and develop a quest for the players. All of this play was by voice. The DM would instruct you on the size, shape, and contents of a room, vault, or dungeon, and the players would imagine it (or draw it out). They would then tell the DM what they (as their character) were doing, then roll the dice to see how successful they were.
To say the least, this style of play was time-consuming and very intimidating for newer players. So throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, some computer students started making the first computer-based RPGs on their school computers. Eventually, some of these games would get published. The first popular computer RPG was Wizardry. Later, Ultima was published. These RPGs were a far cry from the RPGs we know today. Early RPGs only had text, and you had to type commands to play (i.e. “pick up,” “throw ___,” “eat ___,” etc.) You had to look in the game’s instruction manual to find these commands. Despite being rather cumbersome, these games were still popular in the early home computer gaming era and have a lot of influence across the ocean.
In 1975, Yasuhiro Fukushima founded a tabloid company that advertised real estate called Eidansha Boshu Service Center. Seeing the popularity of video games and the great fiscal opportunities, he decided to reform it to a video game company. He renamed it Enix (now it is known as Square Enix). In order to attract the best talent, he held a video game design contest and offered the winners 1 million yen in prize money. One of the winners was a Shonen Jump editor named Yuji Horii. He came to work with Enix and started developing games professionally. One of his early successes was The Portopia Serial Murder Case. This was a “visual novel,” a game in which you use menus to play the game.
With the success of Portopia, Horii wanted to make RPGs accessible to everyone. RPGs at that time were mostly text-based and the visuals were very archaic – usually wire framed and often no to little color. Text and information boxes took up a majority of the screen’s space.
After pitching the idea, Horii, through his connections at Shonen Jump, got famous manga artist Akira Toriyama, the creator of Dragon Ball. He submitted many designs for the game in his singular style. Classically trained music composer Koichi Sugiyama approached Enix about composing music for video games. Sugiyama was a well-known TV music composer and saw a lot of possibilities for music in video games. Enix welcomed him with open arms.
Horii wanted the game to have a more popular appeal to regular gamers. Personal computers were still prohibitively expensive and the market was still rather small. Horii did not want to make it for arcades either because he wanted to make a large difficult game where you would have to die and restart many times. He knew that kids would quickly grow impatient with a game that would continually require them to shell out many quarters to continue playing. The Famicom (NES) seemed like the perfect answer – it had broad support, a large install base, and a legion of game-hungry kids and adults. But he had one major problem, the controller. The Famicom controller only had a four-way gamepad and two input buttons, and of course, the select and start button. So he had to figure out a way of playing RPGs without having to type in commands.
While the solution may seem simple today, it was revolutionary. Give players a limited amount of commands in a list and let them use the D-pad and buttons to choose the correct one. This was world-shaking! I think to understand this, it is best to relate the situations to the development of the iPhone. At first, it was strange. But it totally changed the way we use our phones. Dragon Quest was to RPGs what the iPhone was to phones.
Horii also developed the basic leveling system that all game players know today. You fight other enemies and gain experience which makes you stronger. You will level quickly at first and find it more difficult to level up the higher the level you get. Dragon Quest’s map was also one of the first truly open world games. You could go anywhere on the map from the beginning of the game, but the game would help you to stay on track with bridges. Basically, you cross the bridge and die. The bridges were a sign that the enemies in the next area were going to be more difficult.
Unlike many RPGs and JPRGs today, the original Dragon Quest never held your hand. It would give you contextual clues and hints in dialogue with NPCs (Non-Playable Characters). You had to explore and talk to everyone to figure out where you were supposed to go next. The game was also surprisingly open-ended for its time. Aside from the map being open from the start, you could also play the dungeons in any order (just keep in mind you are going to die… A LOT). You could also beat the game without saving the princess. (EAT THAT, MARIO!)
Horii used a very basic fantasy-based story template. You are a lone warrior who comes into a kingdom to find that the lovely princess has been kidnapped by the evil Dragonlord. While attacking the castle, the Dragonlord also made off with the Orb of Light, which keeps evil creatures at bay. Our hero promises to rescue the princess, return the Orb of Light, and slay the Dragonlord. The townspeople laugh at your claim because you have no weapons or armor and don’t seem like a great warrior. But the king can see your greatness and knows that you are a descendant of the great warrior Erdrick (Loto in Japanese).
In the bowels of the castle, our hero finds a tablet inscribed by Erdrick himself that outlines what you have to do to defeat the Dragonlord and become a great hero in your own right. You must collect all of Erdrick’s armor and weapons in their hiding places throughout the land. Once you have collected these, you can go on to the Dragonlord’s castle.
Like I said before, the game was very open for its time. It even had a multiple ending… kind of. SPOILERS BELOW (for a 30-year-old game). Once you battle through all the dungeons and arrive at the castle, Dragonlord gives you the option of joining him. If you do the right thing and choose “no,” you battle him, but you can choose “yes” as well. If you choose the dark path, join the dark side, go team Dragonlord, the game ends. Yes, the hero is put to sleep and the game ends right there. The North American version gives you another slap in the face. In that version, if you choose “yes” the game deletes your save and all your progress, meaning you have to play the game all over again. (WOW! Such a jerk move, but so brilliant!)
Once you defeat the Dragonlord, save the Princess, and return the Orb of Light, the king offers you his kingdom in return for your service. And our hero is all like, “It’s cool, I’m gonna bounce and take this hot little honey with me and start my own kingdom. Peace out!” (Attention: Not actual in-game dialogue.)
This sets up the events of the sequel and following games.
When it was released in May of 1986 in Japan, the early reception was lukewarm. Early console gamers had never really seen a game like this. So, once again, Shonen Jump stepped in to help. They began promoting the game and explaining how to play it in their magazines. Soon, the game became a mega hit, spawning a number of sequels and inspiring nearly every other game developer.
The game was localized and brought to North America in 1989, but it got a massive overhaul. First, the name had to go. The name Dragon Quest was already owned by another tabletop RPG, so the name was changed to Dragon Warrior. Every following title, until the 8th entry, would go under this title in America. The graphics were also improved. In the original Japanese version, the game character could not turn. This was changed. Also, a save chip was included in the game’s cassette. The original used a password system to save your progress.
There were a few things the game had to change to be more acceptable to stricter Americans. There were some religious references that were removed from the American version. But most famously was the “Puff-puff” lady. In the Japanese version, there is a lady who offers to sell you “Puff-puff.” “Puff-puff” is a Japanese onomatopoeic phrase to insinuate rubbing one’s breasts on another’s face (you figure that one out). This was totally removed from the American version, and instead, the woman was selling tomatoes. But the “Puff-puff” lady would be in nearly all the following Japanese Dragon Quest games causing continual problems for American censors.
Despite these many improvements, the game did not sell as well in America. In fact, the game sold so poorly that Nintendo’s game magazine (Nintendo Power) went so far as to offer free copies of the game with any new subscription to the magazine. Being that the game sold for $50 dollars and a magazine subscription was only $20, it was quite a steal. So thousands of people signed up for the magazine just to get the free game. This really helped Dragon Quest’s sequels to be more popular in the States. This was a double win for Nintendo because it gave them a base of consumers that would be likely to buy the sequels once they were released in America and because Nintendo Power used to be nothing but a giant ad for Nintendo but was now in thousands of more homes.
Despite all of the following titles being a moderate success in America, in Japan, Dragon Quest is still incredibly popular. You can show nearly any Japanese person the Slime character (a very basic enemy), and they will know what it is and from what game series it is from.
While I myself am not the biggest Dragon Quest fan (I lean toward Final Fantasy), I have to stand and take my hat off for Dragon Quest. It created my favorite game genre. Without it, we would not have some of the greatest games ever made. It deserves more attention and respect. If you were to play the original today, it may seem unplayable. The game is super grind-heavy (meaning you have to repeatedly battle enemies for hours on end) and the movement and gameplay are clunky. But we can’t judge the game by our standards today. It’s like trying to use an old Apple II. It is not easy to use, but you can see in it the precursor for everything we know of personal computing today. If you have never played a Dragon Quest game, go and try one of the newer additions. They are well worth your time and they continue the classic style of JRPGs that has sadly fallen by the wayside in most of today’s JRPGs.