Last time, we covered the first turbulent decade of Dragon Quest in America. If releasing the series far too late in the NES lifespan in America doomed the series, skipping out on the Super Nintendo era completely sealed its fate.
Americans didn’t “get” Dragon Quest VII when it was launched in America due to the negligent generation before, and its old-school roots couldn’t compete in a generation with far more modern and advanced RPGs on the PlayStation. All terrible situations, and none of them did any favors for the wonderful series’ reputation in the West. What was it going to take to ensure Dragon Quest could secure a mainstay place on the American market?
How about the powers of the best selling video game console of all time, the PlayStation 2?
A Glimmer of Hope for Better Days
From the days of the PlayStation, Enix ceased its pattern of multiple main Dragon Quest releases within a gaming generation, sticking to all resources being poured into one special game. Dragon Quest VII led into Dragon Quest VIII on the PlayStation 2 in November 2004. Naturally, it was met with universal praise in Japan and sold multiple millions of units.
The air was different this time around though for American fans waiting for this new game. The most telling of changes was that Enix simply no longer existed as it had merged with longtime rival Square to form Square Enix. For its part of the equation, Square brought with it a unique look into how to market JRPGs towards American audiences, something Enix never could quite get a handle on.
And promote this game the new entity did. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King was released the following year in November 2005. Square Enix cast aside the dreaded “Warriors” moniker and finally gave the series the proud ability to stand on its true namesake, Dragon Quest. Square Enix sold this authenticity to JRPG gamers, and they ate up every bit of it.
Perhaps this had something to do with its success as well, but Square Enix also included a highly anticipated demo of the incoming Final Fantasy XII.
Regardless of whether it was the heavy promotion or the genuinely good quality of the game, Dragon Quest VIII proved to be a success for Square Enix. Gone were the comparisons to Xenogears and Chrono Cross and gone were the complaints of Dragon Quests’ old-school nature.
Fickle RPG fans were tired of space operas and dimension-bending, jocky oddballs populating the genre, and by and large, they were on the breaking point with convoluted plots getting in the way of adventure, a total reversal of the RPG atmosphere from just a few years earlier. Final Fantasy X, Xenosaga, .hack… Whatever happened to a nice classic sense of adventure like we had in the good old days?
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the King delivers just that. This lush tale is home to a huge sprawling world with gorgeous landscapes that committed to the scale of the classic NES map, and its story plays out in Dragon Quest’s traditional simplistic and episodic nature.
Never before had a game so closely danced between the balance of “really new” and “ really old.” Enix made a smart move by hiring up-and-coming RPG developer Level-5, at the time famous for the Dark Could games, to get the job done.
80+ hours is a long time for any JRPG in this this or any day and age, but Dragon Quest VIII is one of the few from the last decade that gamers can just totally lose themselves in. It’s like playing an anime with professionally voice-acted characters and never a moment of bleak, boring downtime. Fun adventure from beginning to end with plenty to see and do. It’s one of the few games of its kind that has the content to justify its massive play length
Also met with universal praise was Square Enix’s newest localization. The “thou arts” of the NES Dragon Warriors games and the robotic, literal translations of Dragon Warrior VII were officially a thing of the past. Dragon Quest VIII put serious time and effort into translating all the silly puns, goofy word plays, and culture bending dialects that scatter throughout the Japanese translations.
Proof that a good localization can actually improve a game.
Square Enix’s script is about as charming as they come, and it provided a foundation which future Dragon Quest localizations would be able to build on. And build on Square Enix did with the next generational shift. Only, Dragon Quest didn’t migrate to the PlayStation 3. It followed the trends of Japanese gaming and made a leap to the Nintendo DS.
How did this decision play out in the West? Well, we’ll let you decide…
Success At Last!!
Square Enix wisely avoided any further releases of Dragon Quest games on the PlayStation 2, despite having two unlocalized Mystery Dungeon spin-offs and a remake of Dragon Quest V. The series’ fragile success with Dragon Quest VIII was either make or break with another huge hit, and that is where Square Enix aimed to take it.
Building on the success of Dragon Quest VIII, Square Enix carried the franchise onto the Nintendo DS in America, sticking to its newfound ability to market the franchise and give it proper localizations. For the entire span of September 2006 to September 2011, Dragon Quest’s popularity in America peaked with the successful releases of seven well received games.
The ball got rolling a year after Dragon Quest VIII hit American shelves when Square Enix made a surprise announcement that the second game of the Rocket Slime spin-off series in Japan would get an unexpected localization and a release in America. Many scratched their heads at the uncharacteristic decision, but once gamers got their hands on it, they discovered that Dragon Quest Heroes Rocket Slime is in fact a really solid game.
Even the series producers exclaimed surprise that it was a hit seeing as though they were aiming for the ages of 8-10 with this release, aiming for the new generation of handheld gamers. Instead, the average gamer in America who bought Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime was 25 years old, proving that silly slime puns and epic Slime Tank battles do not adhere to demographic boundaries.
This stunning success led Square Enix to publish Dragon Quest Monster: Joker the following year, a much harder and angstier version of the Pokemon clones from the Game Boy Color days. It too saw a minor surprise success and further cemented Dragon Quest’s new found home on the Nintendo DS.
By the time 2008 rolled around, Square Enix and Level-5 were knee deep in development of Dragon Quest IX, and it no doubt wanted to make sure that Westerners accepted it to an even further extent than they did for Dragon Quest VIII. Luckily, Nintendo DS sales were off the charts and remakes were inbound to keep up the momentum.
November of 2008 saw the release of a Dragon Quest IV in America. Developers at ArtePiazza has based it on the unlocalized PlayStation remake from nearly half a decade earlier, only the Nintendo DS’ powers made it feel like a much more lively experience thanks to animated monster sprites. Square Enix’s Dragon Quest VIII localization heavily inspired this game’s dialogue, and overall, it saw a very welcoming success as a warm up for what was to come.
Somewhere in here, it also localized a horrible Wii action game called Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors. We don’t like to talk about that one though.
This Golden Age of Dragon Quest peaked in 2008 and 2009 when Japan’s sentimental favorite Dragon Quest V had a remake released in America to very warm reception. Limited shipments pushed its value up on the secondhand market, meaning only a few have enjoyed this release, but by and large, the emotional tale of Dragon Quest V is the best regarded remake on the Nintendo DS.
While not an overly large financial success, the upward push that its critical reception provided was all Square Enix needed to make Dragon Quest IX a huge hit round the world. Indeed when it launched in Japan, Dragon Quest IX destroyed the floodgates of the unfathomably huge Nintendo DS fanbase and became the best selling game in the series’ history with another 4 million copies sold, half of them in just two days.
Not wanting to mess this launch up, Square Enix turned to its old friend Nintendo to help push and market Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies all around the world. With their powers combined, it became the first game in the series to break the 1 million units sold figure beyond the borders of Japan.
Champagne bottles popped, executives celebrated, dogs and cats lived together peacefully, and an enormous number of gamers globally traded maps and items though Dragon Quest IX’s unique multiplayer elements.
Even the Guinness Book of World Records acknowledged the game’s enormous success by reporting 117,577,073 interactions between games within Japan alone in May 2010, meaning if every person in Japan owned a copy of the game, they’d have connected with another player at least once. The American figures were no doubt dwarfed by Japan’s, but again, 1 million units sold for a Dragon Quest game outside of Japan is a reason enough alone to celebrate.
Like Dragon Quest VIII, IX was left in the capable hands of Level-5 for its sophomore outing with the series. Again, much like Dragon Quest VIII, it is a both very forward thinking and traditional game at the same time. Sounds impossible, but it holds both Dragon Quest’s unique old-school charm and the highly innovative asynchronous multiplayer and procedurally generated dungeons.
When combined, the old and the new create an infinitely replayable game with completionists clocking in at around the 530 hour mark.
My stint with the game from this summer vacation still hasn’t come to an end, and even hours after wrapping up the story, I’m finding it next to impossible to move on from it. I just want to live in this wonderful world forever. The Nintendo DS never had a solid contender for my favorite game in its library, but now Dragon Quest IX is taking serious swipes at Mass Effect 2 as my favorite game from the previous generation of gaming hardware.
Alas, the success of Dragon Quest IX was short lived. In 2010, the Nintendo DS’ market share began to be ravaged by pirates and Mod Chips. Little money was to be had from making games that would could downloaded for free and played on the go mere days after release. Because of this, Square Enix began treating the Nintendo DS with a passive attitude as it prepped for the impending launch of the Nintendo 3DS.
I suppose it was nothing short of a miracle, but both the Dragon Quest VI remake and Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2 were released in America in 2010 and 2011 respectively, but not with the same gusto as before. Dragon Quest VI’s script felt like a rush job for the sake of completing the remake trilogy, but as I mentioned before, it has always been an oddball of the flock.
For that matter, it’s even harder to fathom a reason for Joker 2’s localization other than Square Enix just wanted to be nice to its Dragon Quest fans one last time.
Neither game reached the success that previous years saw, and when it comes to corporate number crunchers making decisions, less sales means less reasons to localize. Dragon Quest never recovered from this two year dip, and for all the wonders it granted the series, the decline and death of the Nintendo DS brought those happy days to a tragic close.
Darkness Settles Once Again
And thus we find ourselves today. It’s 2014, a full three years after Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2 was released in America, and it seems like nothing has changed from the days of old. Those peak years are but a forgotten memory, and Dragon Quest continues along steadily in Japan with American fans hopelessly sitting by, wishing it could get involved.
Over these three years, a total of five games have been released in Japan, and no signs of a single one of them coming to America have been concreted by Square Enix. A Dragon Quest VII remake on the Nintendo 3DS remains the main point of contention between Square Enix and its fanbase, but other nostalgic fans also point towards 3DS remakes of the original Dragon Quest Monsters 1 and 2 and a third game in the Rocket Slime series as other victims of this new found dark age.
That’s not even mentioning the main series release of Dragon Quest X, an MMORPG which has seen a release on the Wii, Wii U, PC, mobile phones, and the Nintendo 3DS in Japan.
Sadly, the Nintendo 3DS’ and Wii U’s region-locking take this exclusion a step further by not even letting fans import the games to play them. Three years on the outside looking in, and yet it seems so much more tragic than the Super Nintendo and PlayStation days because American gamers finally got to experience to full extent of Dragon Quest’s magic. Two mediocre successes was all it took for cold, shrill, heartless business decisions to tear us down from an all time high.
Let’s not forget that Dragon Quest XI is in development somewhere in Japan at this very moment, and Dragon Quest Heroes: The Dark Dragon was just recently announced for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. A third originalDragon Quest Monsters game is also in the works, bringing the total to three further points of contention that are bound to get fans riled up against the publisher.
Did the non-Japanese Dragon Quest fanbase, the one which bought a million copies of Dragon Quest IX, really just up and vanish into thin air after just two years? Does Square Enix honestly think that?
Recently, Square Enix has decided to refocus the Dragon Quest series in America, but rather than its traditional fanbase found on the Nintendo 3DS and home consoles, it has flocked to a new audience in the mobile market.
Dragon Quest VIII was the first game to be released for smartphones and tablets in the West, but fans of the PlayStation 2 release have described it as a half-hearted attempt. Choppy animation ruins the immersion, and the port strips it of the very same voice acting and expansive landscapes that made it stand out back in the day.
Premium priced at $25, it is a lesser product than the $10 it could be as a PS2 Classic on the PlayStation 3 store. Not a message you want to send fans really. Despite my grumbing and the lack of anything official announced, I doubt Square Enix will leave this as the “definitive” version of the game. History has proven it loves porting and remaking its biggest series, and we might very well see an HD re-release on the PlayStation 4. It wouldn’t be unlike Square Enix to do.
Dragon Quest IV also has been ported to smartphones, but it seems to have escaped such criticisms. However, this is because there is less to screw up. It’s a much smaller game, and the sprite based graphics should translate nicely onto undedicated hardware.
Recently at PAX Prime, Executive Producer Yuu Miyake and Mobile Producer Noriyoshi Fujimoto confirmed they were trying to build a fanbase on mobile phones with the release of “revamped” versions of the first three games. It is unknown how well these mobile ports will do with the new audience, especially the young mobile gaming generation who will cut their teeth on the first Dragon Quest game and never want to play another one again after seeing how barebones it really is.
News like this makes me want to challenge Square Enix to prove that smartphones are not the future for Dragon Quest. I would love to see these three “revamped” versions launched side by side on mobile phones and the Nintendo 3DS, and I would love to see the sales figure comparisons. Can’t be too hard of a port.
Who flocks to them more do you think, a young generation and massive non-gaming audience who has never heard of Dragon Quest, or the sentimental fans of old who are starving for just about anything from their beloved franchise?
Luckily,both Miyake and Fujimoto seemed genuinely interested in seeing Dragon Quest succeed in America. They claimed that fan input led to Final Fantasy: Type-0 being localized as an HD version on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and while they made no promises, anything is possible with the five, soon to be eight, unlocalized Dragon Quest games. Fans just need to make their voices heard to they can convince their superiors.
If you’ve liked what you’ve read from this two part series, or you are just a disgruntled Dragon Quest fan like myself, make sure your voice is heard. Quite a few of the series’ executives are on Twitter, and there are so many other social outlets these days to get your point across. Keep it civil and let Square Enix know that there will always be room for this monumental series on traditional gaming hardware in America.
Where to Begin?
If you are new to Dragon Quest and are not quite sure where to start, here are a few pointers on how to approach the franchise
Dragon Quest III – Those wanting to start from the beginning might find a lot of trouble getting into the “grind heavy” first two games. Dragon Quest didn’t become the phenomenon it is today until the third game was released, and its easy to see why with all of its revolutionary ideas. The best way to approach this game is through the fan translation scene now that the Super Famicom remake has aged flawlessly over the years. It’s a fast, satisfying look at Dragon Quest and a perfect place to get acquainted with the simplest of its old themes.
Dragon Quest IV – While not quite as emotional as Dragon Quest V or as grand as Dragon Quest VIII, Dragon Quest IV is easily the most approachable for a newcomer through a more legitimate channel. The Nintendo DS version is home to a wonderful story that will teach you enough about the series’ tropes, and experiencing it will allow you to enjoy Dragon Quest V and VIII that much more once you finally tackle them.
Dragon Quest IX – Yes the big king of them all is the most popular for a reason. You might not get a sense for Dragon Quest’s stereotypical heroes, considering all of the protagonist and supporting characters in this game are customizable avatars, but for a game that is both traditional in its storytelling and RPG mechanics and forward thinking in tinkering with social interactions behind the scenes, you really can’t find a more approachable game out there.
Just a fair warning, Nintendo shut down the Nintendo DS and Wii Wi-Fi systems not too long ago, rendering Dragon Quest IX’s revolutionary multiplayer ideas totally useless. It sucks, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying what is otherwise still a masterpiece of the JRPG genre.