A slime draws near! Command?
For this year’s Honorable Mention, let’s take a look at the grandfather of all Japanese RPGs. Dragon Quest, sometimes called “Japan’s national game” for its popularity, longstanding status as a classic, and its influence on the genre and industry.
What made Dragon Quest such a smash hit, more than any other factor, was its simplicity. RPGs up until this point were usually over-complicated in every respect. This was fine for those who were already fans of the genre because they were hardcore, long-time players who had been playing tabletop RPGs such as “Dungeons & Dragons” their whole lives. But for everyone else, the genre was simply unplayable. This is why it was so impressive for the Ultima series to achieve semi-mainstream success–RPGs only had niche appeal. The designer Horii Yuji was motivated to create Dragon Quest for two reasons: one, to simplify the RPG and give it mainstream appeal, and two, to introduce the Western-style RPG to Japan. Dragon Quest simplified everything in the game, from the interface to the inventory to the very structure of the game itself. The ending castle where the antagonist lives is visible from the very first town and castle.
There are, in fact, only five towns and five castles in the entire game; only ten magic spells, and a very small array of weapons and armor. The whole game can be completed in 90 minutes if you know what you are doing, but 4-8 hours if you are new to RPGs or relish the exploration. To a beginner this would seem like an epic quest, and the game does its best to make you feel like you are really progressing and becoming a powerful warrior. Of course, it also introduced one of the worst characteristics of RPGs: grinding. The way that RPGs work is that the player gains XP, or Experience Points, from defeating enemies. After gaining enough XP the player will level up, and their stats such as HP (Health Points) will increase, making them stronger and more capable of taking on greater threats. Thus, once the player character reaches a certain level they can progrees through the game, and so on and so on until finally being able to confront the final boss and pass the game. But the designer of DQ, Horii Yuji, intentionally made leveling require a great deal of tedious enemy-hunting, referred to as grinding or level grinding (think of the term “the daily grind”). His reasoning was that having to put in all that work made the reward of progression more satisfying. And unfortunately, most RPGs followed this example. Grinding is such a waste of time and energy that it alone is usually enough to make an otherwise great RPG ineligible for a Games Appreciation spotlight. Keep that in mind going forward, please.
The controls were simplified partially to make the genre easier to understand, and partially because the Famicom controller only had eight buttons. Horii stated, “There was no keyboard, and the system was much simpler, using just a controller. But I still thought that it would be really exciting for the player to play as their alter ego in the game. I personally was playing Wizardry and Ultima at the time, and I really enjoyed seeing my own self in the game.” The interface was perhaps a bit too simplistic. Doing pretty much anything required opening a menu and then selecting the appropriate action–even opening doors. Fortunately the Super Famicom remake allows you to open doors with one press of the R button. The Super Famicom version also features updated graphics and sound. The baroque/classical-sounding soundtrack by Sugiyama Koichi is able to really shine with the SFC’s enhanced sound chip. Have a listen.
The music and art were instrumental in getting sales off the ground at first, but once Dragon Quest took off, it became a smash hit that many Japanese gamers consider(ed) synonymous with Japanese RPGs. DQ‘s influence on the genre is difficult to overstate. It laid the foundation that nearly every RPG would follow even unto today. The top-down perspective, the medieval setting, major quests and minor quests intertwining, a plot twist near the ending, an incremental use of magic spells, and so on. Miyamoto Shigeru, creator of Mario and Zelda, even said that the success of DQ made creative writers more important to game development in the industry as a whole. Although the next year’s Final Fantasy eventually far surpassed DQ in popularity and perceived importance, it’s still true that DQ laid the foundation upon which it was built.
Here is a short playthrough of the first few minutes.
And here is an introduction to the RPG and a walkthrough that I wrote for DQ. I wrote it in May 2011, so please forgive the rough writing style. Also, this was meant to be the first in a long series which would guide new players (I initially had my parents in mind) through the wonderful world of RPGs, and let’s just say I wrote it before I really knew what I was talking about. The walkthrough is pretty solid, though. If you plan to play DQ, I recommend using this.
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