The JRPG Canon #1 - Dragon Quest

Welcome to the JRPG Canon, the series where I play the first full cycle through the gameplay loop of a JRPG, to see what it's all about. If that sounds like sacrilege to you, check out the first post, where I make my case for why I'm doing it like this.

We begin our journey through the JRPG Canon at the beginning. As one does.

Dragon Quest

I know this and all of my screenshots say
Dragon Warrior, but I'm still gonna say
Dragon Quest the whole time.

I was planning on skipping this entry, because I've already played this game, and this series is about my journey to discover things about JRPGs, but this game is so important to the genre as a whole, I would be remiss to not talk about it, so that we have a base language with which to discuss the other games that come down the line. I'll also take the time in this entry to mention where Dragon Quest got its inspiration, in lieu of doing posts on those older games that don't have much in common with the main content of this series.

That means this post may be a bit longer than the others, so bear with me.

The History:

Dragon Quest was released in 1986 by Enix software, and was created by Yuji Horii, featuring art by then up and coming artist Akira Toriyama and music by Koichi Sugiyama. That's another thing I want to do, with this series, is credit the directors and designers of these games like we do directors and producers of movies. Creating a game is hard, and those who make these games should be celebrated for it, instead of just the name of the company. 

These Guys!

Horii-sensei had worked on a few games for the NEC family of computers, including the text-based adventure, the Portopia Serial Murder case. This was one of those old adventure games that would draw you a scene and a line or two of description, and you would type in what you wanted to do, to navigate the story. 

This game looks incredibly interesting, and a Rom Hack has been
completed for the NES version. Check it out!

When the NES launched, a port of Portopia was planned, and Horii simplified this typing-based interface into a command menu, similar to one he used in Portopia's sequel, 北海道連鎖殺人 オホーツクに消ゆ (Hokkaido Rensa Satsujin: Ohoutsuku ni kiyu) Or as a super rough translation: The Hokkaido Serial Murderer escapes to Russia.

Now while Portopia on the NES was not an RPG, it was a "proving ground" for one of the main concepts that we come to associate with RPGs, the command menu. Because if you trace both RPGs and Adventure games back far enough, you reach Dungeons and Dragons, and other Table Top games like it.

These games are brilliant because while there are rules, their main game piece is your imagination, so anything could be possible. Early Adventure games such as Zork took the "role playing" aspect of DnD, and mimicked the interaction between a player and a Dungeon Master, with the game describing the scene for you, and you entering what you'd like to do as a text reply.

Meanwhile games like Wizardry captured the dungeoneering and combat feel of the games, being all numbers and loot and fighting. There was a basic town in Wizardry, but the focus was on the dungeon, which is why it spawned the Dungeon Crawler sub-genre of RPGs. 

Pictured: Fun! Believe it or not!

So when Horii-sensei went over to America and saw Wizardry, and had already made Portopia, he saw an opportunity to marry the two, and have your town investigation, exploration and combat all united under this Dungeon Master Stand-in, the Command Menu. 

Finally, this brings us to..

Dragon Quest!  

Just looking at this picture gets the fanfare stuck in my head.

Horii-sensei loved Wizardry's battles, Ultima's exploration, and Portopia's emotional involvement, and married the three of them together into something he set out to be accessible to the average nintendo player, who because of Super Mario Bros.' success, was less computer savvy, and more of a casual gamer. He didn't want you to spend 100 hours doing rote fighting, and he wanted you to emotionally invest in your character, to see yourself grow with your character.

His main focus was to tell a coming-of-age tale about a hero that explores dungeons, and have the RPG elements be numerical ways to represent how far you've grown in this coming of age story.

The irony is not lost on me, however, that Dragon Quest doesn't really have a story, at least by today's standards. The King asks you to stop the dragonlord, and then you do. The end. It's not even brought up that the princess is missing except by one of the guards, so she's technically a side quest. The game has No characters to recruit, no backstories to dig into, just go kill the dragonlord. 

With this series being focused on the core gameplay loop of JRPGs, and why each game is fun, it's perfect that I'm starting with a game whose main draw is its impeccable core gameplay loop.

While Wizardry, and other CRPGs of the time focused on brutally hard gameplay, including permadeath, Dragon Quest was much more user friendly, and instead had no death. None at all. If you lost all of your HP, you blacked out, and somehow made it back to the castle, with half of your gold gone, ready to try again. This was user friendly in a way that served this coming of age story he sought the game to be. You were not one of many nameless adventurers trying to tackle an unforgiving dungeon, you were the chosen one, and you needed to prove yourself worthy of defeating the Dragonlord. So your story may have some set backs, but you always moved forward. You always gained experience.

Experience, oddly enough, is one of the numbers on your status screen. This number only ever counts up. In your story, you only ever make progress. 

That little E? It chronicles your journey so far.

You may fail a few times, but you always learn from your mistakes, and rather than just having the player learn from these mistakes, the character did too.

This is my FAVORITE thing about Dragon Quest, hands down. I love the simple math calculations, and the small numbers, and the exploration, but this right here, of removing the concept of a game over, is the best gift to gaming that Dragon Quest could have given. (it's a shame that only Pokemon and Shining Force use it, but those videos are coming down the line).

This choice influences EVERYTHING about the game. Which now, I will finally begin discussing.

The Game:

You start the game in the Tantegel Castle, where King Lorik informs you of your quest, and then you're off to the races. Except you're stuck in this room, and the only way out is through a locked door. So the game requires that you learn the basics of this game and its interface right off the bat. 

Dragon quest did Escape Rooms before they were cool.

Pressing the A button brings up the command menu, which lets you know the things you can do in this game. You can TALK to the King, who tells you of your quest to get the Orb of Light back from the Dragonlord and rid the kingdom of monsters. He also tells you to take whatever you need from the throne room. 

You can SEARCH the ground to find a treasure box, and TAKE the treasure boxes contents, some gold, a torch, and a Magic Key. If you TALK to the guard, he tells you that you have to use the key to leave the room, so you ITEM a MAGIC KEY on the door, and make your way into the castle. 

This is a surprisingly good "world 1-1" for this game. It doesn't teach you combat, but it teaches you how to explore, and interact with your world in a very elegant and cool way. 

Pro-tip: talk to this guy a lot.

After this, You can explore the castle, find out you need some more magic keys to fully explore, and get some basic lore backdrop from the NPCs. But with your limited resources at the start of the game, you quickly realize there isn't much to do but leave town, and explore.

It's important that there are locked doors here, that you can see have treasures behind them, because this concept of locked doors became super important, not only in dragon quest's sequels, but in most JRPGs. Finding your path, coming to a dead end, then searching for how to get past this dead end, is basically the entire flow of most games in the genre. 

Can you tell I'm googling these screenshots?

The first enemy you'll encounter, more than likely, is a slime. The slimes are incredibly simple enemies, and you can tell, visually, too. You smack them down, and get some experience for your travels, and keep pushing. The world map is designed so you have a choice on where to go, east or west. It also shows you that the DragonLord's castle is close, but you can't reach it, but it lies a bit to the east of you, so you know that's where you need to go.

You choose to go east, and immediately meet some harder enemies. These enemies will in turn smack you down, and for completely new players are likely the first time you see the "Death should not have taken thee, I will give thee another chance" screen. This gives you a goalpost to head towards, but also encourages you to try something else first.

Back in town, there is an NPC that says "Beware of bridges, there be harder monsters on the other side", which gives you some guidance on what to do next. Most other NPCs tell you to go east, for both the princess and the Dracolord, but that's across a bridge, so you'll explore west for now.

When you leave the castle once more, this time you head west, where there are more easily defeatable monsters, at a much slower difficulty ramp-up. It's with these more challenging encounters that you get a second set of lock and key style gameplay, where you intrinsically earn the keys needed to bypass the locks that these harder encounters represent.

On your return trips from the castle, when you return to get supplies, or stay at an inn, or be revived because you are like me and always underestimate how many herbs you need to get, you get better and better at the fights, due to level ups, new equipment, new spells, whatever. So the slimes that took 3 turns now take one, and the Dracky's that would take you down into critical health now barely make a dent in you. So getting back to where you were is not a slog of repeated content, but rather a chance to reinforce this coming-of-age story, with proof that you are better than you were before. 

On your way west, you see a cave in the desert, which beckons you inside. It's completely dark, except for your personal square, and even if you use a torch, you only get to see the 8 squares around you. This makes the dungeon feel even more like the Wizardry dungeons that inspired it. Since you can only see 9 squares, you can only ever see where there is a place to go, so you have to keep a mental (or paper, if you're so inclined) map of the place to find it.

This first dungeon doesn't have random battles, and is more mazelike than the other dungeons in this game. Horii-sensei knew that this dungeon shouldn't be dangerous, being the first one, but should be challenging otherwise, so it's a maze. This rules.

Navigating this maze grants you the Tablet, where Erdrick tells you how to complete your main quest. You know there are 3 major towns, with 3 major items to snag from them, and then you can cross onto the Dragonlord's castle and give him what for.

Along your travel to the West, you'll come across your frist town, Galenholm. As an aside, the towns in this game are called so many things in all the different translations of this game, that I can't keep them straight, so if I call something the wrong thing, sue me.

You stop and get your items at their MSRP, and talk to townspeople, who all give you tidbits of lore and gameplay. I should mention that there are no cutscenes at all in this game. If I remember correctly, talking to the king when you load up or die automatically happens, so you could stretch the definition of cutscene to count those, but even the climactic battle is no different than interacting with an NPC.

So each town, you do progress the story, but there is never a sense of "oh, this is where I needed to go" but more just learning things about the world which inform your decisions on where to go next.

It's in this second town that the core concept #2 of Dragon Quest comes into play. While all the items are at MSRP everywhere in the game, each Inn in Alefgard gets progressively more expensive. This second town cost me 30 gold to stay the night, but would have only cost 6 back in Tantegel. This makes you think "I wonder if I should just risk it and go back, or pay to keep going from here." This question of "Should I press on, or go back" is the core gameplay loop of Dragon Quest. It's what makes it fun.

I see this screen so much. I'm not good at staying alive.
If you go south and cross a bridge, the monsters here get very difficult. Even more so than the ones to the east earlier. So you think "Hey, I take out Dracky's and Ghosts like they're nothing now. I can probably take the scorpions to the east" so you head back that way, and eventually make your way to Kol, the second town. Which has a puzzle to get a Magic Flute, more items to buy, and another expensive inn.

After gaining a few levels, and a spell to help dispatch scorpions, you can head just south of this town to the first true dungeon of the game, a short transitionary dungeon to bridge the gap between two landmasses. In the dungeons, everything you've learned is put to the test. You keep up with your health, MP, and how many items you have. You keep a mental map of the dungeon's layout. And you also have this pressing question at every turn: "Would I be more boned to go back to town and re-stock, or press my luck and push through to the next town, knowing fully that I could lose half of the gold I've earned so far." It also has a locked door that you can't access yet, another thing to hold in your head later when you get magic keys. (Spoiler, this is where the dragon to slay, and the princess to save are, but you got a ways to go before that part)

And that, I feel, is enough of experiencing Dragon Quest to understand it. If you know the design impetus on why there's a world map, why there's no game over, what propels you forward, you will know what is fun for the game. For this series, my loose goal for each game is to play two towns, and the first dungeon (two if there's a tutorial dungeon, as there was here, and there is in many games). But I also have played JRPGs a lot, and can tell if I'm still in part of the ramp up.

Here is the part of the video where I would ask you if I've played enough. Did I not touch on a system that you enjoyed? Did I not actually finish the ramp up portion and am still in the tutorial?

Since I've already beaten Dragon Quest, I can already be the guy in the comments that says: "But you didn't!!"

I know.

I didn't cover how there are only three bosses in this game, two of which are just normal end game mobs put in early game places, with no stats different, and then the last Boss of the game.

I didn't cover how cool it is that you don't even have to save the Princess, but when you do, your sprite changes to be carrying her, so you literally carry her back to safety.

I didn't cover how great it feels to get your spells and thoroughly destroy the mobs that gave you trouble before, or the Victory Lap at the end of the game where you can go everywhere and see them thank you for saving the world, with no need for random battles.

The game takes about 6-8 hours on the iOS version, and you should take a day off and play it, it's really really good.

But for now, let's get to the part of the show where I talk about what I liked.

The Cool:

Like I mentioned earlier, not having a game over is brilliant. It sends you forward endlessly, and removes all of the horror stories we've had from other games, where we play so much, and then lose it all because you hadn't saved in a while. Or in the case of Final Fantasy Tactics, you didn't rotate your saves, and you soft locked your game in Riovanes castle, because you were specced into time mage for some reason.

Hope you aren't a beastmaster / time mage dual class, chump.

I also loved the small numbers in this game. It's easy to see that when a monster hits you for 5, and another one hits you for 10, you can feel the second one is stronger, because you only have 20hp. In other games, you tend to simplify the damage in your head anyways, and you know when someone does 2000 damage, and you know when they cross into 3000 damage, but in your head, they basically did 2 damage or 3 damage. So the numbers staying small do this for you, and get you focused on the game.

The Interesting:

In Dragon Quest, you have to select ALL of your actions from the command menu. Talking, inspecting, searching, taking, and using the stairs are all had a command in the list for you to use. This was a really cool solution to a problem they had (how to translate asking the DM to let you do something into a controller with two buttons), even though it wasn't the most elegant of solutions. Having to use a "stairs" command is so silly, but it's cool to see their problem, and how they approached solving it.

It's also crazy that the named plot bosses, the Golem and the Green Dragon are just mobs from later, without even a stat buff to them. (the remakes buff their stats, but the OG, the concept of a unique monster was only there for the DragonLord himself).

The Things to Learn from:

The menu, while a cool solution to that problem, is frustrating to actually use. Having to use a "stairs" command is just so silly.

For the longest part of my life, this is the thing I knew about Dragon Quest, so I never fully played it, and missed out. If I had to guess, I would think the long localization time for this game (DQ4 in Japan and DQ1 in america came out the same year) only served to highlight the shortcomings of this system, when the west had already had Final Fantasy, with its context sensitive A button.

All of the remakes removed this menu system, though. Stairs are automatic, you have a general "interact" button, and a menu where you do everything else. So if the command system is cumbersome to you, Horii-sensei agreed, and the remakes don't use it, so play it on the phone.

Seriously, like right now. Go get the phone version, and experience the pure joy that is Dragon Quest. Then download the 8 other dragon quest games available while you're at it.

Closing Thoughts

This is typically where I say my thoughts on the game, and if I want to go back and complete it after playing the core gameplay loop a few times, but since I've already stated that this game is a masterpiece, and have already beaten it, I will instead repeat my earlier sentiment.

You should definitely play this game. If you are reading this series, you either love to play JRPGs, or maybe want to see how they tick, or even want to make your own someday. This game is invaluable in learning why a lot of the things that define JRPGs came about, even if they are vestigial at this point, like the World Map, or intanced battle arenas, heck, even random battles themselves.

You should also play this game if my SEO is way off and you just ended up here after searching for a ketogenic muffins recipe because the algorithm thought you'd like it, and you've never played a JRPG before. The iOS version is cheap, more user friendly, and easier, and has the lowest barrier to entry in a JRPG. Even lower than pokemon.

And if for some reason you've made it to the end of this video, and you are thinking "but Sam, I don't want to play this game!" I leave you with the famous words of Princess Gwaelin:

But thou must!

Thanks for reading! If you have games you think I should try out, leave me a comment below. If you think I screwed the pooch on talking about Dragon quest, leave me a comment below. If you just want to say hello, leave me a comment below.

If you want to hear me talk about JRPGs with more of a focus on the storytelling, check out the Podcast at or by searching for RPG Bookclub in your favorite podcatcher.

Thanks for reading, I'll see you soon.

1 comment:

  1. I will read ANY article that praises Dragon Quest lol

    I got into the series itself pretty late, but seeing the promotional art always in Nintendo Power around the time they were releasing the DS remakes always had me interested as a runt. I don't think it's a coincidence how popular DQ11 has been with the Dragon Ball series at its height of popularity in North America. And what can I say other than I'm grateful that my friends are not only willing to play it, but have become just as into the koolaid as I am!