Franchise Festival #95: Dragon Quest

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be “gooing” in-depth with the history of Dragon Quest. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Note that spinoffs will be covered in Franchise Festival #96.

Be sure to stick around for the end of the article, or skip straight to it, as USGamer Staff Writer and Dragon Quest super-fan Nadia Oxford was kind enough to offer her thoughts on the series in an interview. Frankly, she has more insight on it than I do! You can find her on Twitter at @nadiaoxford or on her consistently-engaging weekly podcast, Axe of the Blood God.

I have endeavored to cite all specific sources below, but would like to highlight the following as especially helpful:

Table of Contents

Dragon Quest (1986/1989)
Dragon Quest: Luminaries of the Legendary Line (1987/1990)
Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation (1988/1991)
Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (1990/1992)
Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (1992/2009)
Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation (1995/2011)
Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past (2000/2001)
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (2004/2005)
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (2009/2010)
Dragon Quest X: Awakening of the Five Tribes (2012)
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (2017/2018)
Interview with Nadia Oxford


Rebellious student Yuji Horii came of age during Japan’s tempestuous 1970s, when a year-long lockout at his high school gave him time to deepen his love for manga and begin an amateur writing career by age twenty. His work was already being regularly published in the nation’s papers by the time of his graduation in 1976. While a motorbike accident ended his artistic ambitions, Horii would only amplify his writing output over the following half-decade.

Koichi Nakamura, eleven years Horii’s junior, was a similarly precocious high school student. His unofficial port of Taito’s arcade shooter Galaxy Wars (1979) for the Tandy TRS-80 kicked off an exceptionally productive period around 1980 in which Nakamura raised money on a paper route, bought a PC-8001 personal computer, and developed coding tools that were sold through a programming journal. Bootleg PC-8001 ports of Space Panic (1980), Scramble (1981), and River Patrol (1981) followed in swift succession. By 1982, Nakamura was ready to try his hand at a historically significant original creation.

Koichi Nakamura’s Door Door (1983). Source: MobyGames

During roughly the same period, a young Japanese startup called Eidanshu Boshu Service Center was struggling to get off the ground. The real estate-oriented tabloid company had been founded in 1975 by architect Yasuhiro Fukushima and soon introduced a subsidiary aimed at trading and brokerage. Unfortunately for the company, though fortunately for video game enthusiasts, its rising fortunes were reversed by a commercially disastrous attempt to expand its reach from a regional to a national audience in 1982. Facing a need to diversify its business, Eidanshu Boshu replaced the trading and brokerage subsidiary with one oriented around the increasingly popular world of video games; the company’s newest arm was called Enix, a portmanteau of ENIAC (the United States Army’s pioneering 1945 computer) and phoenix.

Yuji Horii’s Love Match Tennis (1983). Source: Giant Bomb

Enix would provide the platform for Horii and Nakamura to finally break into the wider video game industry with a national competition held in December 1982. Though neither took the top spot in Enix’s inaugural Game Hobby Program Contest, both fledgling developers were considered winners; Horii’s Love Match Tennis was visually stark but featured impressively endearing characterization for a rudimentary sports game developed single-handedly in fewer than six months, while Nakamura’s puzzle-platformer Door Door was picked up by Enix as its first title for the Nintendo Famicom. The subsequent sales of Door Door allowed Nakamura to start a studio called Chunsoft, named for the protagonist in the game which made it possible.

Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken was an unassuming project, but it opened a lot of doors. Source: MobyGames

Horii’s next project was published by Enix based on the overwhelming popularity of all titles in its 1982 contest. Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Case,” 1983), a PC adventure game that sees the player navigating an open world from a first-person perspective and solving puzzles in a non-linear fashion, would be hugely influential in shaping the nascent visual novel genre for the following decade. The process of converting it to the Famicom would be a similarly important inflection point in the professional evolution of Horii and Nakamura, as the two worked together for the first time in an effort to fully redesign Portopia’s keyboard-based interface for the Famicom’s comparatively simplistic gamepad.

A fateful trip by Horii and Nakamura to San Francisco’s AppleFest ‘83, provided as a reward by Enix for the winners of the Game Hobby Program Contest, had set the stage for a collaboration between the two rising stars. Both were introduced to the role-playing game (RPG) genre being pioneered in the West by Sir-Tech’s Wizardry (1981) and Origin Systems’ Ultima (1981) and became convinced that this type of game would be huge in Japan. Bullet-Proof Software’s The Black Onyx (1984), Namco’s The Tower of Druaga (1984), and Falcom’s Dragon Slayer (1984) confirmed their suspicions over the next couple of years, but none of these titles made the leap from complex keyboard-based personal computers or short-form arcade experiences to the more consumer-friendly Famicom console. Under the supervision of Enix producer Yukinobo Chida, Nakamura and Horii (representing his own newly-formed studio, Armor Project) assembled a team at Chunsoft to produce what the two visionaries correctly believed would be the genre’s first mainstream blockbuster.


Dragon Quest (1986/1989)

With Nakamura single-handedly programming the game and Horii designing its world and writing its script, only a few additional hands were needed. Classically-trained composer Koichi Sugiyama, who was already famous in Japan through his contributions to musicals, pop music, film, and television shows during the 1970s and 1980s, became involved when Enix received a questionnaire filled out by Sugiyama in response to a shogi title it had published on the PC-8801. Amused that its software had attracted the attention of this 55-year old celebrity, Enix reached out to ask if Sugiyama would be interested in composing soundtracks for their games. He took them up on their offer and wrote Dragon Quest’s overture in only five minutes. This began a decades-long partnership between Sugiyama and Enix that, while often productive, would turn into something of an albatross around the neck of the Dragon Quest franchise in the 2010s as international audiences grew aware of Sugiyama’s nationalism and homophobia.

Dragon Quest‘s Slime was inspired by Wizardry‘s Creeping Crud (left), but it took Akira Toriyama’s iconic design (right) to make it into a mascot. Source: MTV, Dragon Quest Wiki

Less problematic is the involvement of artist Akira Toriyama. Toriyama had recently found popularity through the publication of his Dr. Slump comics (1980-1984) in Weekly Shonen Jump, a hugely influential manga anthology, and was working on a new serial called Dragon Ball (1984-1995) when Weekly Shonen Jump editor Kazuhiko Torishima suggested that he apply to create characters for Enix’s upcoming Dragon Quest game; Torishima had become aware of Dragon Quest through Horii himself, as Horii was contributing a Torishima-edited column to Weekly Shonen Jump during the mid-1980s. While Toriyama had no interest in video games, he successfully applied for the position of character designer on Enix’s upcoming title at the urging of his editor.

Horii’s vision was supported by Nakamura’s programming, Sugiyama’s music, and Toriyama’s art. With the assistance of a handful of others, Chunsoft’s core team developed Dragon Quest in little more than a year. The game was published by Enix in Japan on May 27, 1986.

The Dragonlord’s Castle (lower-right) is visible from the starting location of Tantagel Castle (center). Source: MobyGames

Players name and control the apparent heir to a great historical hero (Loto in the original Japanese version, Erdrick in the North American localization) as they explore the continent of Alefgard. The Kingdom of Tantagel’s ruler assigns the player character two primary goals – rescuing a princess and defeating the sinister Dragonlord – though only the latter is actually required to complete the game. Its plot never features any further twists or turns, but Dragon Quest’s willingness to undermine genre expectations delivers an early example of Horii’s fundamentally playful approach to game design.

Gameplay consists of a unique blend of mechanics drawn from Ultima and Wizardry: the player character navigates environments from a top-down perspective in the style of the former while battles are experienced from a first-person perspective like the latter. Towns and dungeons feature a relatively close perspective and characters with whom the player can interact, while an overworld fills in the distance between places of interest with a tiled map where players are frequently beset by enemies. Combat is turn-based and makes use of a menu system like the one designed by Nakamura for Portopia’s Famicom port rather than the text parsers common to contemporary computer RPGs

Enemies approach the player one-on-one, following the rules of martial arts cinema. Source: Mr. Gentleman

As the player character defeats enemies by using attacks to reduce their hit points (HP) to zero, he accumulates experience points and gold. Accumulated experience points eventually cause the player character to level-up, automatically improving attributes like strength and agility while conferring new spells to use at specific level intervals. Battle spells allow the player character to inflict damage or status effects on his opponent during combat and field spells alter how the player character moves around the overworld, allowing him to escape dungeons or return to his starting location at Tantagel Castle. Though the overworld is almost entirely open to player exploration from the start, the presence of powerful monsters in certain regions force the player to increase his or her character’s level and buy stronger equipment to progress. New regions featuring tougher enemies are elegantly signaled by bridges linking pieces of the continent.

Dragon Quest is challenging, but Horii and Nakamura designed it to be much more accessible than its genre predecessors. Customization is limited to the player character’s name and no other party members can be created or recruited throughout the adventure. Enemies challenge the player character one-on-one, so the player does not need to select a target in battle. In stark contrast to the punitive death systems of Ultima and Wizardry, losing combat in Dragon Quest simply returns the player character to their starting location with a reduced amount of gold; since all experience points are retained, the player character grows consistently stronger through repeated failed attempts at exploration.

Columns written by Horii and illustrated by Toriyama in Weekly Shonen Jump proved pivotal to Dragon Quest‘s popularity. Source: Mr. Gentleman

In spite of their efforts, however, the original Dragon Quest was initially greeted with a collective shrug by Japanese consumers. The massive install base of Nintendo’s Famicom hardware had not instantly translated into the country’s first mainstream RPG hit as Enix had expected. Lest the game flop without notice, Horii began promoting it using a series of freelance articles in Weekly Shonen Jump illustrated by the increasingly popular Toriyama. These articles raised awareness of Dragon Quest among manga enthusiasts and led to 2,000,000 sales, definitively establishing Enix’s new intellectual property (IP) as one of the most commercially successful video games of the decade. In contrast to prior RPGs, which had been designed to appeal to niche genre enthusiasts, Horii and Nakamura had finally produced a highly accessible crossover hit that could be enjoyed by anyone with a television and a Famicom.

Nintendo of America picked the project up for localization in North America in an effort to duplicate the success of its own action-RPG, The Legend of Zelda (1986/1987). The studio changed the game’s name to Dragon Warrior, as Dungeons and Dragons publisher TSR owned the rights to the Dragon Quest name in North America, and applied an Early Modern English tone to its dialogue. The passwords of the original Dragon Quest were replaced with a more standard “save” system in the style of contemporary PC RPGs through the inclusion of a battery-powered RAM component on each cartridge, while the game also received a mild graphical overhaul. Sadly, localization took three years and North American audiences largely ignored the now-aging piece of software in favor of recent titles featuring more immediately appealing visuals and mechanics. Nintendo of America would eventually opt to give unsold copies away for free as a cross-promotion with Nintendo Power magazine in 1990.

The port for smart devices and the Switch retains the gameplay and overall look of the original while modernizing its sprites and quality of life features. Source: Nintendo

Dragon Quest’s enduring popularity in its home country, on the other hand, ensured a steady stream of re-releases over the following two decades. The worst of these is a poorly optimized contemporary port for the MSX personal computer in Japan that scales back sprite detail and is unable to scroll without stuttering. More successful adaptations include visually-enhanced versions of the game released for the Super Famicom in 1993, Game Boy Color (GBC) in 1999/2000, and Japanese mobile phones in 2004; in addition to modernizing the graphics, these versions also integrate quality-of-life features like saving the game outside of Tantagel Castle and having access to a bank where the player character can store gold or items. A Japan-exclusive Dragon Quest 25th Anniversary Collection next bundled the game with Dragon Quest II and Dragon Quest III, as well as digital reproductions of development material and strategy guides, on the Wii in 2011. The latest remake at the time of writing in July 2020 is a touch-based version produced for smart devices in 2013/2014 and ported to the Nintendo Switch worldwide in concert with the Switch version of Dragon Quest XI in 2019.


Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line (1987/1990)

Thanks to a 1987 interview with Yuji Horii and a 2014 interview with Koichi Nakamura, both translated from Japanese to English by website shmuplations, fans have a candid window into the development of Dragon Quest II. Production began around the time of Dragon Quest’s May 1986 publication and involved all four core members from the preceding game. Programming was again led by Nakamura, though his work was heavily augmented by a team of three additional Chunsoft employees. Horii sought to integrate design elements, especially multiple playable party members, which had been cut from Dragon Quest due to time and memory constraints.

Though their efforts were largely successful, cramming the creation of an epic RPG into only six months proved to be exceptionally challenging and numerous changes were made as the project progressed. A lack of cartridge memory forced Chunsoft to abandon planned still image cutscenes giving a closer look at major plot points midway through development. A tragic ending, in which the player character is assassinated by the sister of a deceased ally who blames the player character for her brother’s death, was likewise abandoned because it didn’t fit the series’ relatively whimsical tone.

Party members follow the hero while exploring. Source: Wikipedia

Six months into development, playtesters determined that Dragon Quest II was virtually impossible to complete. Nakamura’s programming crew had not accounted for the fact that the player would be fighting multiple monsters using only a single character during the earliest hours of the game, so combat encounters rapidly became out of sync with the player character’s skill level. The game was delayed for one month to allow Chunsoft to radically reconfigure its difficulty. In recollections of the era, Horii describes collapsing from a stress-induced stomach ulcer at the end of this process while Nakamura describes this time as the hardest period of his career. Even so, Dragon Quest II launched on the Famicom in January 1987. In contrast to the tepid response which had greeted its predecessor, Dragon Quest II’s highly anticipated release date saw fans lined up for blocks around Japanese retailers in a bid to be among the first to buy Enix’s newest RPG.

Players take on the role of the Prince of Midenhall, a descendant of legendary hero Erdrick, as they attempt to halt the machinations of evil wizard Hargon a century after the events of Dragon Quest. While most contemporary RPGs featured the player creating their own party, Dragon Quest II requires party members to be assembled as the player explores the world. This highly influential decision resulted from Horii’s concern that players might be overwhelmed by assuming control over multiple party members when the prior game had only featured a single playable character. Allies include the Prince of Cannock, a fighter/healer hybrid on his own quest to defeat Hargon, and the magic-wielding Princess of Moonbrooke.

The tradeoff for multiple enemies in battle is the omission of background environments. Source: World of Longplays

With the addition of multiple party members comes the addition of multiple enemies during battles. Players assign actions to each of their party members at the start of a turn and then watch as their party members and enemies attack in a sequence determined by each combatant’s speed attribute. As in Final Fantasy, which would be released later in 1987, the defeat of an enemy by one party member before another party member completes his or her assigned attack on the same target results in a missed attack. This discouraging combat mechanic would result in the game gaining a reputation as one of the series’ most challenging entries.

The most conspicuous change to navigation, aside from a world double the size of that in the previous game, is the franchise’s first vehicle. This boat allows the party to visit regions not linked by bridges once it’s acquired, facilitating more focused early-game exploration and enhancing the adventure’s sense of scope. A miniaturized version of Dragon Quest’s Alefgard even appears as one of Dragon Quest II’s continents!

The Game Boy Color version improves the color palette but shrinks the overall screen space. Source: World of Longplay

Dragon Quest II came to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in North America three years after its Japanese release, though poor sales of its predecessor caused Nintendo to pass on publishing rights; Enix opted to handle localization in-house. 2,400,000 copies sold in Japan again failed to translate into international success, however, and poor sales of the North American version have made it one of the console’s rarest titles. Happily, negative Western reception did not forestall the game’s re-release on the MSX, the Super Famicom, the GBC, mobile phones, the Wii, smart devices, andthe  Nintendo Switch over the following thirty years. With the exception of the MSX version, which suffers from the same issues found in that platform’s port of Dragon Quest, all later remakes feature the improved graphics and quality-of-life enhancements found in remakes of its direct predecessor.


Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation (1988/1991)

Much of the core staff remained the same between Dragon Quest II and Dragon Quest III, but director Koichi Nakamura’s proportion of programming responsibilities was scaled back to roughly 10% of what it had been in Dragon Quest. He was succeeded as chief programmer by Ken Naito. Strong sales for Dragon Quest II prompted Enix to grant Chunsoft and Armor Project a year-long development period, resulting in the most mechanically complex series entry yet. Dragon Quest III was released on the Famicom to a rapturous reception in February 1988.

The protagonist is a man or woman from the country of Aliahan tasked by their king with slaying archfiend Baramos. While the plot initially seems unrelated to the events of the two preceding titles, a late-game twist establishes Dragon Quest III as a prequel to Dragon Quest. The protagonist is revealed to be the legendary hero of Dragon Quest and Dragon Quest II, as Erdrick is a title bestowed on them rather than a given name and the player character descends into an underworld which will later become the land of Alefgard.

Note the similarity of Dragon Quest III‘s map to real-world geography, bonus continent excluded. Source: DQ Shrine

Its overworld is otherwise entirely distinct from that of its two predecessors. Though Aliahan is an entirely fictional continent seemingly inspired by the mythical land of Mu, the remainder of the game’s locations map roughly to real-world geography. Among many others are the towns of Jipang and Baharata, which represent Japan and India, and the icy island of Greenlad (Greenland). In contrast to Dragon Quest and Dragon Quest II, regions are gated by impediments like key-based doors. This carries the game further away from the open-ended design ethos of Ultima, but allows for a more carefully-crafted difficulty curve.

A day/night transition while exploring the overworld would return in later series entries. Source: World of Longplays

Gameplay is more refined than either previous Dragon Quest title, as the mechanical sparsity of Dragon Quest and the frustratingly high difficulty level of Dragon Quest II have both been resolved by extensive playtesting. The opportunity to create up to three allies at Patty’s Place in the starting town of Aliahan prevents groups of enemies from mobbing a single player character in the early hours while allowing players to go solo if they prefer a challenge. Enemy AI programming is correspondingly enhanced, with some monsters behaving intelligently and others behaving foolishly; some particularly unskilled opponents even attempt to cast spells after their magic points (MP) have been fully depleted.

Dragon Quest III’s most significant mechanical contribution to the franchise, aside from a day-night cycle that impacts the likelihood of encountering certain monster types and the presence of NPCs in certain locations, was the introduction of character classes. While Square’s Final Fantasy pioneered this Dungeons and Dragons-based trope in its inaugural 1987 entry, the complexity of its implementation here made it a staple of the genre. Characters created at Patty’s Place begin with one of seven so-called vocations – warrior, martial artist, mage, priest, merchant, or gadabout – and can then be assigned new vocations once they reach Level 20 and the party visits Alltrades Abbey. The character returns to Level 1, reducing their overall attributes, but they retain skills learned during their prior vocation. For the first time in a Japanese RPG, the player can mix and match skills to create characters with highly specialized hybrid roles.

Dragon Quest III‘s Super Famicom remake is the best-looking version, as it improves the level of detail without the discontinuity introduced by more recent remakes’ high-definition sprites. Source: World of Longplays

Like Dragon Quest II, Dragon Quest III was localized in North America by Enix late in the NES’ life cycle; a 1991 release doomed the game to obscurity outside of its home country. Though Super Famicom, mobile phone, Wii, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo 3DS versions remained locked to Japan, GBC and smart device remakes were respectively released in North America in 2001 and 2014. All remakes enhance the original title with new character classes, gambling minigames, bonus dungeons, improved graphics, and a personality system. The latter mechanic, which impacts character attribute growth, is determined for the hero during an introductory quiz featuring moral dilemmas but can be modified through the acquisition and use of books found throughout the world. The most accessible version of the game at the time of writing is a Nintendo Switch port of the smart device remake published worldwide in September 2019.


Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (1990/1992)

In a herald of things to come, Dragon Quest IV was the product of a longer development period than any prior series entry. It retains the look and feel of its predecessors, as it is still bound by the limitations of the 8-bit Famicom, but its storytelling and structure are noticeably more ambitious. It’s also the series’ first title to have no connection with legendary hero Erdrick.

The player instead inhabits a different character throughout each of the game’s first four chapters: Chapter One features soldier Ragnar attempting to solve a child abduction mystery in his home Kingdom of Burland; Chapter Two depicts martial artist Princess Alena’s journey to prove her strength in a tournament; Chapter Three, in one of the most surprising and avant-garde sequences of any contemporary RPG, sees the player guiding a merchant named Torneko as he establishes aa successful storefront in the city of Endor; and Chapter Four follows sisters Maya and Meena as they unsuccessfully seek to enact vengeance on their father’s killer. All four stories are linked by similar rumors that draw the characters into a fifth chapter revealing the rise of a new legendary hero.

Torneko, known in the original English localization as Taloon, goes on a brief quest oriented around commerce rather than battle. Source: World of Longplays

The game’s final section is its longest, and serves as the most conservative narrative in the game. Players name and control a male or female hero who, after a tragic attack on their hometown, assembles and leads a party of adventurers from the preceding four chapters against Psaro the Manslayer. Even this comparatively traditional chapter is deepened by its exploration of Psaro’s motivations.

An interest in characters’ internal lives was one of the guiding principles during Chunsoft’s development of the game. According to Yuji Horii in an interview conducted around the time of game’s release and translated by

In DQIV, the NPCs in town are not simply messengers who exist to convey some information to the player. Each one is living their own life, with their own personal drama. Also, while the protagonists of the previous Dragon Quest games were all essentially avatars of the player, in DQIV they have their own individual stories and drama. In earlier games it was fun progressing towards the final goal. That is still here in DQIV, but the human relationships that are interwoven into the main quest are now a large part of the game’s appeal, too.

This articulates in-game through main characters pursuing their own goals, townspeople with unique movement patterns and quirky dialogue, and even the series’ first friendly monsters. From its fourth entry, non-hostile monsters would become one of the franchise’s most recognizable elements and influence other RPG series like Pokemon and Monster Rancher. The implementation of these characters is limited in Dragon Quest IV but would be heavily expanded in later series entries.

Cutscenes remain low-key by the standards of the 16-bit era, but are quite impressive for the Famicom. Source: Mr. Gentleman

While its exploration and battle mechanics are little-changed from those of Dragon Quest III, a couple noteworthy elements have been added. Players have no control over their allies in battle during the first four chapters, but Chapter Five introduces a tactics menu that lets players broadly define the goals of their party members’ AI. Mini medals found by poking around the edges of the world can be exchanged for useful items once the party encounters the reclusive Medal King. This feature, which encourages exploration of environments that might otherwise seem somewhat empty, would recur in all later core series entries.

Similarly, Dragon Quest IV offers the debut of the franchise’s famous casino. Earlier titles’ rudimentary minigames, like a lottery in Dragon Quest II and an underground monster battle arena in Dragon Quest III, pale in comparison to the variety of content on offer in Endor’s gambling hub. The player can bet money using slot machines, poker, and even a full reprisal of the aforementioned monster arena to win monetary rewards. Like friendly monsters and the tireless search for mini medals, the casino would become one of Dragon Quest’s most iconic staples in the decades ahead.

At last, fans can fulfill their twin loves of Dragon Quest and slot machines simultaneously! Source: BCSBuster

In spite of its ambitious scope, several proposed ideas did not make it into the final game. The world map was not any larger than that of Dragon Quest III, while the relative complexity of dungeons was scaled back, as Horii believed that players had grown tired of endless exploration and preferred depth to breadth of content. A notebook menu function that would have recorded NPC dialogue for later reference was likewise cut due to memory constraints. Horii, Nakamura, and the rest had finally reached the limits of what they could accomplish on 1980s hardware.

Dragon Quest IV launched in Japan on February 11, 1990. While it fell short of its direct predecessor’s sales, it was still a massive critical and commercial success. A North American localization followed on the NES two years later and was again met with widespread disinterest by Western audiences.

Dragon Quest IV‘s Android and iOS ports feature a profile orientation and touch controls. Source: Mr. Gentleman

Remakes are fewer in number than those produced for the Erdrick Trilogy but are more interesting. Heart Beat, a now-defunct studio which would develop the sixth and seventh entries in the Dragon Quest series, developed a remake featuring 2D sprites exploring polygonal environments for the PlayStation in 2001. This version was lauded for its integration of an additional chapter but was never released outside of Japan. A Nintendo DS adaptation based on the PlayStation version, enhanced with the ability to chat to party members and control their actions in the final two chapters, was released in Japan on November 22, 2007 and across North America and Europe the following September; party chat was unfortunately cut from all versions besides the original Japanese release. Happily, a definitive smart device port of the DS version with party chat intact finally made its way to worldwide audiences in August 2014.


Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (1992/2009)

As the series’ first title released on the Super Famicom, Dragon Quest V represents the most extensive update to Dragon Quest’s presentation so far. Character sprites and environments are more colorful and detailed than had been possible in any preceding entry. Combat is similarly backed by an image of the surrounding environment for the first time since the series debut. Even so, Chunsoft’s lack of experience with Nintendo’s newest hardware means that the game fails to exploit the platform’s famous Mode 7 pixel-scaling technology.

As a boy, the protagonist befriends a sabrecat cub that grows and travels with him throughout his adventure. Source: World of Longplays

Like its visual design, Dragon Quest V’s mechanics represent a relatively minor step forward as Horii believed that only small updates should be made to the series’ gameplay in order to avoid alienating its increasingly passionate fan community in Japan. Allies can now be assigned individual AI routines, rather than being subject to a full-party goal, but combat otherwise plays out as it had in the final chapter of Dragon Quest IV. A wagon again trails the player character on the overworld to shelter allies who are not part of the immediate four-character battle formation. The most significant alteration to combat is the addition of monsters who join the party after being defeated, leveling up alongside the player character and making use of skills which had only been available to enemies in earlier Dragon Quest titles.

By Dragon Quest V, the battle system had taken on more or less the interface it would use throughout the rest of the series. Source: Gamasutra

In contrast to its highly traditional gameplay, Dragon Quest V’s plot is one of the most emotionally resonant tales that the medium had yet produced. Players take on the role of a child as he is born, grows into an adult, undergoes profound personal hardship, and starts his own family with one of two potential brides over a period of three in-game decades. The episodic nature of Dragon Quest IV is expanded upon with most towns in Dragon Quest V offering a unique small-scale conflict to resolve. This is naturally set against a backdrop of epic adventure, in which the player character seeks to defeat the mysterious Order of Zugzwang and restore floating castle Zenithia to the sky, but its unprecedented scale and believable interpersonal relationships make it unique among the Super Famicom’s multitude of enduring RPGs. Five years after he had initially sought to explore darker themes in Dragon Quest II, Horii had finally managed to integrate pathos to a franchise best-known for its whimsy; this elegant hybrid of lightheartedness and maturity would come to define the series in its later titles.

Arte Piazza’s PlayStation 2 version of Dragon Quest V is a fascinating one-off for the series: a fully 3D remake that maintains the largely top-down appearance of its 16-bit titles. Note that the character models, while an effective reinterpretation of their 2D sprites, lack the personality of those in Dragon Quest VIII or Dragon Quest IX. Source: ZetaMage

Following its characteristically positive reception in Japan on September 27, 1992, Enix opted for the first time not to release a Dragon Quest game overseas. In 2004, a fully 3D remake developed for the PlayStation 2 by Arte Piazza and Matrix Software likewise failed to make it out of Dragon Quest’s homeland. It seems that Enix had finally decided that the costs of localization were not worth the poor sales that had inevitably greeted each new series entry in North America. Western fans would be left waiting for a 2008 Nintendo DS version, using the 2D/3D hybrid engine of that platform’s Dragon Quest IV remake, to receive an official English-language localization a year after its Japanese release. A lightly-enhanced port of this remake was later made available to worldwide audiences on smart devices in January 2015.


Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation (1995/2011)

During the development of Dragon Quest V, Koichi Nakamura decided to step away from the franchise that he had co-created. Yuji Horii’s longtime collaborator felt that he had done all he could do with the series and was ready to begin producing new IPs. The result was a highly influential new Dragon Quest spinoff starring Dragon Quest IV merchant Torneko – Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon (1993, better known in the West as Mystery Dungeon) – which kickstarted the home console roguelike genre in Japan by reviving mechanics originally popularized by 1980’s Rogue. Nakamura’s studio would later become known for visual novels like 428: Shibuya Scramble (2008/2018) and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (2009/2010).

While Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon borrows its player character and monsters from Dragon Quest, its gameplay has little in common with the core franchise. Source: Habib Jackson

IP-holder Enix subsequently hired Heart Beat, a small studio founded in 1992 by former Chunsoft employee Manabu Yamana, to begin production on the series’ sixth entry shortly after the publication of Dragon Quest V. Though Heart Beat’s first official credit would be Dragon Quest VI, Yamana had already directed the North American localizations of Dragon Quest III and Dragon Quest IV. The continued involvement of Yuji Horii, Akira Toriyama, and Koichi Sugiyama ensured a high level of continuity following Chunsoft’s departure. Neither a troubled development cycle that saw Enix delay the project by a full year, an uncharacteristically expensive retail price needed to offset the high production costs of its non-standard 4 MB cartridge, nor the 1994 release of next-generation consoles kept Dragon Quest VI from receiving rave reviews and massive commercial success when it launched for the Super Famicom in Japan on December 9, 1995.

The protagonist in the last of the series’ loosely-linked Zenithian Trilogy is a young amnesiac from the town of Weaver’s Peak. In the early hours of the game, the hero discovers a Dream World that exists parallel to his own. Over time, he gathers a party of fellow adventurers – including humans Carver, Milly, Ashlynn, Nevan, Terry, and Amos as well as dragon Lizzie and slime Goober – in an effort to save both worlds from demon king Murdaw. As in Dragon Quest III, however, completing the main quest reveals that there are even more dangerous forces at work behind-the-scenes.

Dragon Quest VI‘s overall look is reminiscent of Square’s Chrono Trigger (1995), which was itself a rare collaboration between the creators of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Source: MobyGames

Its story is not the only element shared in common between Dragon Quest VI and its 1989 forerunner. The vocation system finally returns after being absent for Dragon Quest IV and Dragon Quest V, though it is subject to several new wrinkles. While characters join the party without a defined vocation, they can each take on a new role once the group makes its way to Alltrades Abbey. Each vocation alters attribute growth rates, teaches the character new skills or spells, and often gives access to a vocation-specific special power. Special powers include the merchant’s ability to generate extra income from battle and the monster master’s ability to randomly recruit defeated monsters. Characters who change vocations retain their attributes and learned skills/spells but not the vocation-specific special power. Once a character has achieved a sufficiently high rank in two or more career paths, he or she can be assigned an advanced vocation; as an example, a character who has fully trained as a martial artist and priest can then become a paladin.

Dragon Quest VI’s gameplay features a handful of additional refinements that make it the most mechanically-rich series entry so far. Horii’s notebook function, planned for but unable to be implemented in Dragon Quest IV, finally makes its debut here as a spell called Remember; this concession to convenience was necessary, as Dragon Quest VI was also the longest adventure the franchise had yet produced. A bag carried now with the party can be used to store items once each party member has filled his or her available inventory space. Wells can be explored, offering optional bonus items or combat encounters. Even the use of skills and spells is made more player-friendly, as a brief description now pops up prior to their use in battle.

Dragon Quest VI‘s battle sequence features lush backgrounds taking up the entire screen. Source: Gamasutra

Visual presentation may be where Dragon Quest VI made the greatest impact on its series, however. Dragon Quest had never been known as a particularly pretty IP and its continued presence on the Famicom long after competitors had moved on to the Super Famicom and Sega Mega Drive/Genesis suggests that a high level of graphical polish was not among Chunsoft’s top priorities. Even Dragon Quest V looked less impressive than many of its 16-bit competitors, especially the increasingly baroque designs of rival RPG juggernaut Final Fantasy. Heart Beat, however, introduced numerous improvements to Dragon Quest’s visual palette that brought it into parity with other games of the era: sprites are twice the size of those in Dragon Quest V, environments are much more richly detailed, exclamation points and other thought bubbles appear over characters’ heads to indicate emotion, and monsters finally express themselves through simple animations in combat. Dragon Quest had finally moved past the 1980s.

Players can rotate the camera 45 degrees to the left and right of its standard top-town perspective in the DS remake of Dragon Quest VI. Source: heorotlina

Unfortunately, the dawn of the 32-bit era and comparative costs of translating such a verbose game made an English-language version an unappetizing prospect. Enix once again opted not to produce a version for North American audiences. This disappointing if understandable decision was finally reversed in 2011 when a Nintendo DS remake, originally released in Japan in 2010, made its way to audiences around the world. The 2D/3D remake features many of the same enhancements which had been found in its two direct predecessors and, like them, was followed by a port to Android and iOS devices in 2015.


Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past (2000/2001)

Heart Beat would again take the lead on development of Dragon Quest’s seventh core title, supported as ever by the leadership of Horii, Toriyama, and Sugiyama. Manabu Yamana was again director. Development shifted to the PlayStation from the Nintendo 64DD by January 1997, making Dragon Quest VII the series’ first title not published for a Nintendo console. Horii’s key reference point for the game’s scenario was the eerie atmosphere and puzzle-solving of Cyan’s Myst (1993).

Challenges associated with retaining the series’ high level of quality control in spite of Dragon Quest VII’s sheer scale – its story and world are both more extensive than those of the already-massive Dragon Quest VI – resulted in its 35-person team delaying the project several times. Anticipation was so high in Japan that Square delayed its own Final Fantasy IX (2000) in order to avoid the two releases coming into conflict. Its gargantuan 70,000-page script would not keep Enix making the surprising choice to localize it for North American audiences, making it the first Dragon Quest game in eleven years to be released outside of its native country. The game finally launched in Japan on August 26, 2000 and in North America on October 31, 2001.

Dragon Quest VII‘s polygonal environments are generally less detailed than the sprite landscapes of its direct predecessor. Source: MobyGames

Players step into the shoes of a young boy in an isolated fishing village. While the boy’s home island of Estard is evidently the only landmass within a vast, empty sea, a map discovered by his father suggests that this has not always been so. Dragon Quest VII’s glacially-paced introductory sequence then sends the hero and his friends Kiefer and Maribel back through time, where they confirm that the sea was once populated by myriad islands with their own peoples and cultures. It is only through the acquisition of hidden stone tablets and resolution of each island’s unique conflict that the party can restore them to existence in the present. Though it is presented as an overarching quest, Dragon Quest VII’s narrative eschews the epic adventures of earlier titles in favor of slow-burn episodic storytelling.

Battle backdrops are also now polygonal, though they can’t be rotated. Source: World of Longplays

The series’ first-person combat remained unchanged during the five years which separated Dragon Quest VII from Dragon Quest VI, but a change in platforms and format produced another major leap forward in its presentation. CD technology permitted Heart Beat to include pre-rendered cutscenes and polygonal environments, though character and monster sprites remained resolutely 2D. In another instance of the ongoing tension between Horii’s efforts to evolve the series and the inherent conservatism of Dragon Quest fans, the initial reaction to these graphical improvements among Dragon Quest’s audience was skepticism; it was only upon playing the game, and discovering that traditional gameplay elements like turn-based combat and a vocation system remained intact, that fan concerns were mollified.

While the core trifecta of Horii, Toriyama, and Sugiyama would continue to work on the series, Heart Beat disbanded following its work on this game. Contemporary interviews cited exhaustion among the team members, rather than poor sales, as the reason that they moved on from Dragon Quest. The localization of later entries corroborates this interpretation, as Enix seems to have considered Dragon Quest VII a commercial success in North America.

The 3DS remake is a vast improvement on the original, but being able to see enemies while exploring may be its greatest enhancement. Source: Nintendo

A fully polygonal remake for the 3DS in 2013 by Arte Piazza, under the leadership of Noriyoshi Fujimoto, would be fully re-localized and published for North American and European audiences by Nintendo in 2016. This version maintains the beguiling narrative of the original while integrating quality of life features like an in-game radar that speeds up the process of finding hidden tablets. Additional bonus content, like tablets which open up access to challenging dungeons, were made available through the 3DS’ internet and Streetpass features. By sanding away some of its rough edges, Arte Piazza produced the best version of one of Dragon Quest’s most idiosyncratic entries.


Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (2004/2005)

To fulfill Horii’s desire to move his series into full 3D for the first time, Enix hired Level-5 to develop the next Dragon Quest game based on the beautiful cel-shaded graphics that this Sony-affiliated studio had produced for Dark Chronicle (2002/2003, Dark Cloud 2 in North America). This visual technique, pioneered by Sega’s Jet Set Radio (2000), utilizes flat shading on textures to imitate the look of a comic book rather than the environmental lighting and comparatively smooth outlines of traditional polygonal models. It would be the perfect fit for translating Toriyama’s iconic character designs into three dimensions for the first time.

Dark Chronicle is one of the PlayStation 2’s most beautiful games. Source: Polygon

The player-named protagonist in the series’ eighth outing, a castle guardsman, is the only person left unscathed by a spell cast on Trodain Castle by the sinister jester Dhoulmagus. He joins King Trode and Princess Medea, respectively transformed into a troll and a horse during the game’s introduction, in an effort to track down Dhoulmagus and break the curse. Over the course of his adventure, the hero also recruits thief Yangus, sorceress Jessica, and warrior-mage Angelo. Though Trodain and Medea serve only as NPCs who travel with the party and offer colorful commentary on events, the three other party members can be controlled by the player or assigned AI routines in battle.

The popular party chat feature, which made its debut in Dragon Quest VII, reappears in Dragon Quest VIII. Source: World of Longplays

Two new combat features make their debut in Dragon Quest VIII. The intimidate command can scare away lower-level monsters, while the Dragon Ball-inspired tension command allows characters to patiently up a tension gauge in order to unleash stronger attacks on subsequent turns. Dragon Quest VIII’s random encounters are otherwise mechanically similar to those of earlier series entries, as the selection of attacks and targets are carried out using a traditional menu, though the execution of combat techniques is now viewed from a dynamic 3D camera perspective.

It is difficult to convey how exhilarating Dragon Quest VIII‘s massive world was at the time of its release. Source: World of Longplays

Dragon Quest VIII is noteworthy for being the first series entry to omit an overworld map. Lest this seem like a scaling back of ambition, however, Level-5 opted to produce an entire world to-scale. This projects a dramatically larger scope to the hero’s adventure, as towns and dungeons are represented in their true size rather than the abstraction of classic 16-bit and 32-bit tiled overworlds. In the manner of Dark Chronicle’s “kitchen sink” approach to game design, Level-5 also added an item-crafting alchemy system and a skill upgrade mechanic that allows players to manually enhance their characters’ proficiency in weapon types and gain new abilities.

Dragon Quest VIII‘s 3DS port adds spunky new party member Red. Source: Nintendo

Dragon Quest VIII was instantly lauded as a modern classic and sold 3,000,000 copies within only three days of its Japanese release in November 2004. An enhanced edition of the game, featuring the franchise’s first voice acting and an orchestral score, was released in North America one year later; Enix’s purchase of the Dragon Quest name in 2002 made this the first English-language release under the series’ original title. The 2003 corporate merger of Square and Enix also finally made a multilingual European localization financially palatable, resulting in Dragon Quest VIII becoming the first series entry to be published in Europe on April 13, 2006. Dragon Quest had finally achieved the international success that Horii had long sought. A largely faithful remake, developed in-house by Square Enix, would make the game accessible to a new generation of players when it was released on the 3DS in 2015/2017.


Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (2009/2010)

The period of 2007 to 2017 saw smart devices and portable consoles like the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and DS overtake home consoles as Japanese audiences’ preferred method to engage with video games. At the same time, the rising costs of game development made sprawling RPGs for high-definition home consoles like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 a particularly fraught financial prospect. Surprisingly, a 2016 speech by Level-5 CEO Akihiro Hino rejected the notion that these market trends were the primary cause for Enix to produce its first Dragon Quest title designed from the ground up for a portable console; Hino instead revealed that the success of Level-5’s Professor Layton puzzle games was the decisive factor in convincing Horii to let his studio develop Dragon Quest IX as a DS exclusive.

The hero can be customized more than any prior Dragon Quest avatar. Source: Nintendo World Report

Whatever the cause for Dragon Quest’s return to Nintendo hardware, development was well-underway under the direction of Jin Fujisawa by 2006. The game went through a handful of prototypes, including an action-RPG version that abandoned the series’ menu-driven turn-based combat, before settling into a recognizably traditional form. This change was partially driven by fan disapproval of the new combat mechanics after a public preview event and Horii’s interest in delivering the series’ first multiplayer experience.

Once the player inputs their commands – using the touch screen if they prefer – battles play out from a third-person perspective. Source: Nintendo World Report

Its single-player mode is a reliably engaging episodic adventure featuring an angelic Celestarian hero tasked with protecting the human village of Angel Falls and then, following a major early-game event, working their way back to their heavenly home. The hero is joined by up to three party members created by the player for the first time since Dragon Quest III. Though these party members lack defined personalities, the player is able to heavily customize their appearances and assign vocations that determine their attribute growth and abilities. Random encounters with monsters are omitted in favor of enemies that the player can choose to engage or avoid.

Multiplayer can become pleasantly chaotic. Source: saigancat

Of course, Dragon Quest IX’s multiplayer elements are what truly set it apart from all prior series entries. Inspired by Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: Wild World (2005) and the potential for children to play together with parents who had been fans of the series for two decades, Horii insisted on the inclusion of asynchronous and real-time multiplayer elements. With regard to the former, nicknamed Tag Mode, players can receive treasure maps or download and add to their party hero characters from other players who they pass while their DS consoles are in Sleep Mode; with regard to the latter, a cooperative mode lets up to three real-world players join a host’s game instance when nearby. Guests are free to either explore and complete goals independently or journey alongside the host. Tag Mode was spectacularly popular in Japan, leading Enix to set up a dedicated Dragon Quest pub in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. Like all internet-based features on the DS, however, this functionality became inaccessible once Nintendo shut down the platform’s servers in 2014.

Dragon Quest IX sold 5,000,000 copies following its July 2009 launch in Japan and July 2010 launch in North America and Europe. The game’s popularity in the West, while still less ubiquitous by far than the reception it received in Japan, seems to have vindicated Square Enix’s decision to partner with Nintendo for promotion and distribution overseas. At the time of writing, all Dragon Quest games since the series’ ninth entry have been published on Nintendo consoles.


Dragon Quest X (2012)

Planning for the Final Fantasy XI-inspired Dragon Quest X began during the development of Dragon Quest VIII. Art and music were still respectively handled by Akira Toriyama and Koichi Sugiyama, but Yuji Horii took on a more distant role for this project than he had on any prior title; Jin Fujisawa, who had worked alongside Horii to tidy up writing on remakes produced by Heart Beat and Arte Piazza in the early 2000s, became the game’s lead writer. Dragon Quest X would be the series’ first entry developed using Square Enix’s proprietary Crystal Tools software rather than a unique game engine designed from the ground up by an outside studio.

Fujisawa was simultaneously assigned the role of director on both Dragon Quest IX and Dragon Quest X, so much of the foundational work on the latter between 2005 and 2010 was handled by a small team that included Yosuke Saito and Naoki Yoshida. Saito represented studio Orca, which had been hired by Square Enix to support Dragon Quest X based on critical acclaim for the experimental action-RPGs Drakengard (2003) and Drakengard 2 (2005/2006) that it had produced under former name Cavia. Square Enix employee Yoshida was best known at the time for his work on arcade spinoff Dragon Quest: Monster Battle Road but would later become an industry celebrity for his central role transforming the disastrous Final Fantasy XIV (2013) into A Realm Reborn (2014).

While it remains menu-based, battles are now viewed from a fully third-person perspective. Source: heorotlinea

Fujisawa returned to direct Dragon Quest X full-time after the 2009 Japanese release of Dragon Quest IX. Square Enix’s internal staff and contractors at Orca worked to fulfill Horii’s vision of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that, unlike its contemporaries, allowed players to complete the game alone if they preferred and eschewed the Skinner Box-like addiction mechanics typical in this subscription-based genre. Positive reactions to its 2011 beta test confirmed that it successfully replicated the traditional appeal of Dragon Quest within a persistent online environment, and the game launched for the Wii in Japan on August 2, 2012.

The prologue ends with one heck of a bummer. Source: heorotlinea

Its premise at first seems no different than any single-player entry in the franchise, as the human hero and their vaguely medieval town of Tenton are introduced at a leisurely pace during an offline sequence. This character is soon killed in an attack led by the villainous Nelgel, however, and their soul is allowed to inhabit a recently deceased body elsewhere in the world of Astordia. The player’s new customizable avatar belongs to one of Astordia’s five tribes: stocky Dwarves, agile Elves, massive Ogres, cute Puklipos, and water-dwelling Weddies. Once they have chosen a new form and vocation, the player character begins an intercontinental adventure to acquire six Key Emblems and defeat Nelgel. In the style of other MMORPGs, expansion packs have extended the story and even added a playable Dragon tribe over the eight years since Dragon Quest X’s initial release.

If want to hang out on the beach with wacky characters, this is the game for you! Source: heorotlinea

One of the game’s most compelling features, appropriately for a franchise known for its accessibility, is its willingness to conform to players’ interests. Players who wish to adventure with others can find friends or strangers online to make up for the skills that their vocation lacks. Others, like the notoriously shy Horii himself, are able to rent up to three AI-controlled versions of characters created by real-world players to support them in battle for 72 hours. Though the game typically requires a paid monthly subscription, children are eligible to play for free during a two hour window each day. If the player prefers to simply relax, he or she can use Astordia’s beach area or a customizable house to socialize with friends.

Environments are even more open than those in Dragon Quest VIII. Source: Project COE

Given that genre staples like Final Fantasy XI (2002/2004) and World of Warcraft (2004) were hugely successful in North America, it’s surprising that Dragon Quest X has never been localized overseas. Western fans have intermittently been able to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to play by spoofing Japanese internet connections, though the always-online nature of the game means that Square Enix has generally been able to prevent these workarounds. With each enhanced port to new platforms – including the Wii U, PC, Android, iOS, PlayStation 4, and Switch – rumors have suggested that a worldwide launch might be imminent. Sadly, Dragon Quest X still remains unavailable to English-language players eight years after its initial release.


Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (2017/2018)

Yuji Horii returned to the role of lead scenario writer for Dragon Quest XI. The game was directed by Takeshi Uchikawa and, as ever, supported with the art of Akira Toriyama and the music of Koichi Sugiyama. Horii’s guiding principle for the series’ eleventh core entry was the return to a lengthy single-player experience in which players could become fully immersed. During development, Square Enix made the unprecedented decision to produce two unique versions of the game for release on the same day in Japan.

The primary version, which would be localized around the world on the PlayStation 4, PC, and Switch, is the franchise’s first high-definition entry. Built on Unreal Engine 4 and taking its visual cues from Dragon Quest VIII, the game sees players guide their protagonist around a vast, open world rendered to-scale and challenge monsters roaming the environment. Battles are depicted from a third-person perspective unless players choose a setting that retains the traditional first-person point of view.

Every town in Dragon Quest XI is so lovely that you want to stick around. Source: Kotaku

Dragon Quest XI’s 3DS port, which Square Enix opted not to localize outside of Japan, is a genuinely bizarre package that contains two distinct iterations of the game within a single piece of software. The first is a full adaptation of the PlayStation 4 version reproduced using low-resolution 3D graphics and chibi character models in the style of Dragon Quest IX; the second is a sprite-based top-down version which pays homage to the series’ 16-bit titles. At the end of the first two hours, during which both are displayed simultaneously across the 3DS’ top and bottom screens, players choose which of the two versions they’ll continue to play; even after making a decision, however, the player can toggle between the two at churches or camps.

The 2D and 3D versions of a game depict the same space from very different perspectives. Source: revenantkioku

The story remains the same in all iterations of Dragon Quest XI: players take on the role of the Luminary, a hero destined to save the world of Erdrea from sinister sorcerer Mordegon. Following the revelation of his origins when he reaches age 16, the Luminary assembles a party composed of thief Erik, mages Veronica and Serena, entertainer Sylvando, fallen king Rab, and martial artist Jade as he journeys to the floating sacred tree Yggdrasil. As is often the case in the franchise’s more narrative-heavy entries, a major plot twist midway through the adventure reorients the party’s goal and ups the stakes significantly.

The gameplay of Dragon Quest XI likewise varies little across its multiple versions, though a handful of differences are present. Battles play out in the series’ traditional turn-based style in spite of the third-person combat perspective available on the PlayStation 4. Players have the option to move their characters around the battlefield, which remains a distinct environment from the exploration area, but this has no tangible impact on combat. The ability to jump and fire a crossbow at targets hidden around the environment in the PlayStation 4 version is omitted from 3DS version. Similarly, monsters roaming the overworld in Dragon Quest XI’s 3D iterations are replaced with random encounters on the sprite-based version. An expanded interpretation of Dragon Quest VIII’s alchemy system, in which players improve or create weapons and armor using a Fun-Size Forge when making camp at designated locations around Erdrea, appears in all versions of the game.

For the first time in Dragon Quest history, battle sequences are downright flashy. Source: Kotaku

Dragon Quest XI‘s Western release on the PlayStation 4 and PC in September 2018 was met with the best overseas sales in the series’ thirty year history. Press reviews were equally positive, with Kotaku’s Tim Rogers citing Square Enix’s newest title as one of the best games of all time, though critics noted that its visual splendor was undermined by Sugiyama’s idiosyncratic decision to include a MIDI soundtrack rather than the orchestral score to which fans had grown accustomed. An enhanced Switch edition made the 16-bit interpretation available in the West for the first time, integrated an optional orchestral soundtrack, and added new difficulty settings when it was released worldwide on September 27, 2019.


The towering stature of Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura’s creation has only grown in the decades since its 1986 release, with each new entry greeted as a major event in its homeland and an entire genre tracing its lineage directly back to the world’s first mainstream Japanese RPG. Though its reception in the West has often been less certain, due partially to Enix’s inconsistent localization practices, the late 2000s and 2010s finally saw Dragon Quest gain the international recognition that its creators had long sought. Emotionally resonant storytelling, iconic audio/visual presentation, and Horii’s tireless dedication to accessibility for fans of all ages and skill levels have secured Dragon Quest’s place as one of the medium’s most enduring franchises.

Interview with Nadia Oxford

What is your personal history with the Dragon Quest franchise?

I can’t remember the exact year I played the first Dragon Quest; if someone held a gun to my head, I’d say 1990. My older brother brought it home one day on a loan from a friend of his, and I fell in love immediately. I’d always been a sucker for dragons and goblins and fantasy stuff, so Akira Toriyama’s playful monster designs resonated with me immediately.

I eventually played Dragon Quest II and III, which further cemented my love for the series, and for RPGs in general. Dragon Quest III was a bit of a life-changer; it inspired me to write my own “novel,” which is a horrible thing scribbled on newsprint in fading pencil.

I’ve been a staunch Dragon Quest fan ever since, though my patchy console acquisitions caused me to fall on and off the series a few times. Now I’m here for good. (Just try and move me!) A couple of years ago, I got to meet Yuji Horii and tell him how he inspired me as a writer. That’s one bucket list item crossed off.

Why do you think the original Dragon Quest crystallized the nascent JRPG movement upon its 1986 release? What did it do that predecessors like Tower of Druaga, Hydlide, and Dragon Slayer failed to accomplish?

Believe it or not, the original Dragon Quest went through a bit of a struggle to get recognized in Japan. A well-timed promotion in Shonen Jump helped get the game in front of audiences, and if vaulted from there.

Shonen Jump was a good choice of promotion platform, as Yuji Horii engineered Dragon Quest to emulate manga as much as possible. The average ’80s American wouldn’t know Akira Toriyama from a hole in the ground, but no doubt his bright, iconic monster designs popped out for Japanese players. I believe those eye-catching monster designs helped vault Dragon Quest above its competitors at the time, as well as its simplicity. Something about Dragon Quest feels smoother and more “open” than other Famicom RPGs from the same period. The AI does most of the heavy lifting. You’re not responsible for any stat balancing or calculations. Your only concern is fighting monsters and getting strong enough to beat the Dragon Lord.

What are your thoughts on the series’ trademark conservatism – has this been a boon or an obstacle to its success in the three decades since its original release?

I believe Dragon Quest‘s conservatism is a big draw, but I also believe Square Enix is a master at tinkering with said conservatism. When you play a game like Dragon Quest XI, it feels traditional rather than “old.” Yes, Dragon Quest sticks to its menus and turn-based combat, but it adds modern conveniences like avoidable enemy encounters. Even systems like the ability to pep up or build tension help freshen up the fights.

I don’t really want to see Dragon Quest drift away from its menus and turn-based combat. I think Square Enix did something brilliant with Final Fantasy 7 Remake‘s battle system, but that’s not what I play Dragon Quest for. I play Dragon Quest because it’s so proficient with the old ways—it gives me the RPGs of my childhood, but not before it applies some touch-ups and a new coat of paint.

Most series entries have been updated over time – the first three Dragon Quests reappeared on the Game Boy Color and mobile devices, while Dragon Quest IV to VI were remade for the Nintendo DS and Dragon Quest VII and VIII were remade for the Nintendo 3DS. Which versions do you believe to be the best?

The Nintendo DS remake of Dragon Quest V is excellent. Dragon Quest V was absent from the West for a long time, but when it finally arrived, man, what a presentation. It’s a must-have for your Nintendo DS. (Which I’m sure is lonely by now.) The mobile port of Dragon Quest V is basically the DS game put on phones and tablets. If you can’t get the DS version, it’s a perfectly fine means of playing the game.

The Game Boy Color port of Dragon Quest III also deserves some praise. By the time it was released, Dragon Quest was slowly clawing its way back into relevancy in the West. Getting to play Dragon Quest III for the first time in years reminded me of why it was such a great game to begin with. Also, the monsters are animated extremely well (it was the first time Westerners got to see the Dragon Quest menagerie move around), and I’m disappointed we haven’t seen said animations in subsequent re-releases of Dragon Quest III.

Dragon Quest V was chosen as #8 on USGamer‘s Top 25 RPGs of All Time list in 2019. Do you see this title as representative of the series more generally, or is an outlier that stands out as superior to its predecessors and successors?

Kat [Bailey, Editor-in-Chief at USGamer] and I picked Dragon Quest V for the list because it does so many things so well. It’s not necessarily better than other Dragon Quest games so much as it’s the probably the most ambitious of the bunch. When you think about everything Dragon Quest V offers, it’s pretty mind bending—especially when consider it was a Super Famicom game first and foremost. Its story, which spans three generations, is simple but packs a lot of quick, emotional moments that hit hard. (And the older you get, the harder they hit.) You can get married and recruit monsters to fight alongside your wife and kids. Dragon Quest V just radiates a sense of family that’s not present in many other games.

What is your favorite core series entry? How about your favorite spinoff?

For my favorite core series, it’s a tie between Dragon Quest III, Dragon Quest V, and Dragon Quest XI. Sorry for taking the coward’s way out; I just love the games for different reasons!

For my favorite spin-off, I am wild over Dragon Quest Builders. Dragon Quest Builders 2 was my favorite game in 2019. When they announce Dragon Quest Builders 3, look for me on the ceiling. I’ll be clinging to it, trembling with joy.

What would you like to see Square Enix do with Dragon Quest in the future?

More of what it’s doing now, frankly. Dragon Quest XI was so big, ambitious, and beautiful that I didn’t find too much wrong with it. All I want is for Square Enix to continue walking that careful line between innovation and nostalgia. If they keep it up, great things are bound to keep happening for Dragon Quest.

Please be sure to check out Nadia’s work at USGamer, on the Axe of the Blood God podcast, and on Twitter – it’s consistently great!

What do you think about Dragon Quest? Which is your favorite entry? How about your favorite monster? Are slime puns as funny for you as they are for me? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #96: Dragon Quest Spinoffs – July 31
  • #97: Steamworld  – August 14
  • #98: The Sims – August 28
  • #99: Heroes of Might and Magic – September 11
  • #100: Tetris – September 25

Please also be sure to check out the Franchise Festival podcast, where I’ve been going in-depth with the history of the Legend of Zelda series twice a month alongside my co-hosts Spencer and Hamilton. It’s available online and wherever you get your podcasts!