Dragon Quest debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System 34 years ago in Japan on May 27th. It’s mistakenly confused for being the first JRPG, but it’s actually the most influential. It’s a series of turn-based role-playing games where the player takes control of a medieval hero who typically has some sort of destiny to save the world by defeating a malicious evil. It’s one of the oldest stories that cultures all over the world can relate to, and in my opinion, is part of its appeal. The series is so beloved in Japan that the developers themselves decided to only release their games on Saturdays, due to people all over the country skipping work and school just to play them. Dragon Quest VII on the original Playstation was so hyped in Japan it even pushed back the release of Final Fantasy IX.
Looking back at early entries now, it must seem insane. They’re so “old” and “simple”, but they modernized the role-playing experience at the time, simplified it for all audiences, and immersed players in a charming and exciting world. The iconic command menu was created to simplify command prompts from PC RPGs. They were essentially lines of code that the player needed to remember and enter with a keyboard to do basic things like talk to people, open doors, use an item, cast a spell, etc. Dragon Quest‘s command menu boiled all of those commands down to the necessities and used the limited buttons of a controller to make the experience more fluid and approachable.
The NES limitations stirred the imaginations of many players, while Akira Toriyama’s official art gave the audience an idea of what the games looked like. Combined with Horii’s very involved writing, of which he wrote every word down to each line of NPC dialogue, and Sugiyama’s beautiful and whimsical compositions, an inviting and compelling adventure series was born.
The original Dragon Quest on the NES was a gem that simplified the experience of JRPG’s on PC, which was also influenced by western RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry. A truly magical series introduced to the world by series creator, Yuji Horii, Dragon Ball artist Akira Toriyama, and composer Koichi Sugiyama.
Horii wrote columns for Weekly Shonen Jump, the same magazine that publishes Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto, and many more iconic manga series. Horii was plenty experienced with storytelling and how to condense that information into exciting tales for younger audiences. He also had experience with game design, as he had worked on a few PC games in the early 80’s. Making Dragon Quest was practically inevitable for Horii—an RPG for the NES that simplified the genre for a home console, featuring charming and simple designs by Toriyama that translated perfectly to sprite art.
Toriyama had no idea what a role-playing game was at the time, but was quick to try new things. Yuji Horii would provide Toriyama with information about the game’s scenario and give him sketches of monsters to re-imagine in his own style.
An often forgotten member of Dragon Quest’s legacy and especially its early years is programmer and game designer Koichi Nakamura. Nakamura met Horii when they both entered a programming contest held by Enix—originally called Eidanshu Boshu Service Center. Before changing names, the company was a struggling tabloid publisher that advertised real estate. They decided to pursue game development in 1982 and staged a contest in an effort to find games they could publish. Horii entered the contest anonymously but was overjoyed to see his entry, Love Match Tennis, win one of the thirteen spots.
As a columnist and reporter, he went out of his way to speak to as many people, players, and employees as possible—including the teenage programming prodigy Koichi Nakamura, who entered with his puzzle game, Door Door. The two didn’t start working right away, but would reunite in college at the Tokyo University of Electro-Communications where they made games in Nakamura’s apartment. After the release of NES in 1983, Horii would start a section in Shonen Jump titled Famicom Shinken, dedicated to news, tips, and cheats on NES games. At age 19, Nakamura would start Chunsoft and continue working on games, and Horii continued his interests in games as a writer while also playing western RPGs on an Apple II computer. Horii was determined to work on an RPG for Chunsoft and persisted after joining the company to work on other titles.
The final member of the dream trio behind Dragon Quest is legendary composer Koichi Sugiyama. Sugiyama is not only the lead composer for the franchise, but the world’s oldest composer for video games. Sugiyama had already composed for film, TV, and anime, and was open-minded in creating music for a fledgling new medium when approached by Horii. His songs were recorded by a full orchestra—the first in video games to do so. They were then converted to MIDI to work with the NES sound chip. Both renditions of his music nonetheless captured the charm and character that fit the worlds of the franchise no matter the situation; whether it was fighting monsters, exploring a town, navigating a dungeon, or flying through the air. Like many iconic classical songs, they fit the media they accompanied like a glove, enhancing the experience.
Dragon Quest has persisted as a legendary series for multiple decades now, but hasn’t always succeeded in the West. Many people probably haven’t heard of it, instead comparing it to its hometown rival, Final Fantasy, or the equally iconic Chrono Trigger—which also featured art by Akira Toriyama and was supervised by Yuji Horii. North America wouldn’t even receive Dragon Quest V and VI on the NES and SNES, respectively. Instead, we’d later receive the Nintendo DS remakes including a remake of IV, which didn’t have party chat—a staple feature that allows you to talk with your party members at any time and was omitted from the English localization.
Why the series has never taken off in the West could most likely be attributed to it sticking to its classic medieval roots and turn-based combat. Another reason could be that the first four entries received delayed localizations, making it appear that the series was lagging behind Final Fantasy—especially when the original Dragon Quest was localized in the West three years after its 1986 release in Japan. Nonetheless, the franchise has persisted. The only mainline entry not yet localized is the Japanese exclusive MMO, Dragon Quest X.
We’ve still received every other mainline entry in some form, with the most recent entry in Dragon Quest XI receiving a stellar Switch port. This generation alone has also been historic for the franchise. It’s received a fighter in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, various spin-offs coming to multiple platforms such as the Builders and Heroes games, ports of Dragon Quest 1-3 on Switch, multiple mobile games, a movie based on Dragon Quest V—Dragon Quest: Your Story, and various projects based on the hit manga: Dragon Quest: Dai no Daibouken, which is receiving a new anime, mobile games, and a new action RPG for modern consoles in 2021.
Now has never been a better time to be a Dragon Quest fan and there are so many good points of entry for newcomers. Here’s to many more fantastic years with the iconic franchise!