We're having a bit of a JRPG love-in this week in preparation for Ni No Kuni's release tomorrow, so we rather thought that for this week's BFTP we'd dig up one of the grand-daddies of the genre - a game to which pretty much every JRPG from 1987 onwards owes an enormous debt. A game called Dragon Quest.
Dragon Quest appeared in 1986, emerging onto the NES at a time when most games required a certain amount of dexterity and swift reactions. RPGs had been around for a little while, but mainly restricted to tabletops, home computers, and generally presented a more action-oriented affair. Epitomised by Nihon Falcom's Dragon Slayer series, which would in turn influence the likes of Ys and The Legend of Zelda, there were a number of titles offering up open-ended gameplay, some incorporated the top-down perspective that would become synonymous with JRPGs (largely thanks to 1988's RPG Maker), we already had stories involving damsels in distress, games and choose-your-own-adventure novels that gave us dialogue choices, a few even showed signs of turn-based tactical battling...but not all of those were video games, and none incorporated all of those features.
None, that is, until Dragon Quest showed up.
Of course, this is 1986, so everything was rather simple. Take the battle system, for example: While roaming around the world map, "A Slime draws near! Command?" Of course, there were only four commands for your one-on-one battles: fighting, running, casting a spell, or using an item. Battles were completely static, rigidly turn-based, and sorely limited in comparison to popular systems today.
Similarly, the story was fairly rudimentary. You played as a wandering stranger who arrives at Tantegel Castle, only to find the castle in disarray as a dragon has gone and snatched away the Princess Gwaelin. Being a heroic chap, you resolve to rescue the princess, defeat the Dragonlord, and restore light to the land of Alefgard. There were no real twists per se, but the game did subvert expectations slightly by making the princess' rescue a halfway event rather than the culmination of the endgame.Upon finally reaching the Dragonlord, you're given a choice between two endings: side with he Dragonlord, or face him in combat.
Th whole point of Dragon Quest was to instil a tangible sense of progression in the player and the main character. Therefore, eschewing the template set out by games such as the Super Mario series, Yuji Horii and his team delivered the fundamentals of an XP-related progression system that would see the hero become more powerful the more they fought, learning new spells at certain levels.
In many ways, this was one of the first times that the Japanese development industry looked West. Horii was a huge fan of games such as Wizardy and Ultima, and their propensity for casting the character as the player's virtual alter-ego, but did not want to replicate their complicated systems. Thus Dragon Quest was born.
"It was very different from PC RPGs," Horii told 1UP. "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."
As well as personal identification, the game needed to be accessible.
"At that time, the Famicom was very, very popular," Horii continued. "But to that point, games were usually played at the arcade, so they largely consisted of action games where the intention was to collect money from the user. So you always had a game over. But since Famicom was going to be the household console, we felt it didn't have to have something where you have to collect money and give players a game over screen. It would be okay to have a game which would last a very long time. There were some RPGs that were more for the core gamers, but we wanted to make ours accessible enough for normal people and enjoy the game."
Like Ni No Kuni, Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior as it was know in the US), was given some excellent localisation treatment by Enix. The three year gap between Japanese and American releases was used to good effect. As well as significant improvements when it came to the graphics, the US version replaced password-oriented saves with battery-supported RAM saves, the language was revamped to present a Elizabethan-esque pattern of dialogue. Perhaps sadly (possibly due to the "No sex please, we're American" regulators), the salacious humour contained in the Japanese version of the game was edited out.
Sadly, though, the three year gap pretty much killed the game in the West. A deal struck up with Nintendo Power helped the original game shift copies Stateside, but the fact was that by the time Dragon Warrior arrived, it already seemed dated. What had been inspirational in 1986 seemed less so three years on in a country getting busily stuck into the likes of Zelda II and Mega Man 2.
Of course, in Japan the franchise is still massive, constantly hitting the top of the charts whenever a new game is released, kept just fresh enough to warrant a purchase, but never forced into radical change because of the level of cultural significance it enjoys in Japan. The original is hardly the most enjoyable game to play through these days, our vision expanded by all of the cracking games that have emerged since Enix's RPG first went on sale. But the next time that you play a game that combines grinding for better loot, a storyline that branches off with multiple side quests, an incremental spell system fuelled by battle progression, a medieval setting, and a romantic subplot with dialogue choices, perhaps you'll give a nod to Dragon Quest. It might not occupy the lofty position in Western gaming culture that Square's Final Fantasy series has claimed, but we have so much to thank it for.