Dragon Quest finds itself more in the news these past few weeks than it has in almost half a decade thanks to a series of grilling interviews Executive Producer Yuu Miyake and Mobile Producer Noriyoshi Fujimoto faced at PAX Prime. The two men were met with a whole host of unexpected fandom and seem to be almost caught off-guard with the amount of information they shared.
Thanks to these interview though, we now have a better look at how Square Enix views its longest running series in its relation to American audiences. Fans have been clamouring for localizations of nearly half a dozen games for years now, especially a Dragon Quest VII remake on the Nintendo 3DS and the MMORPG Dragon Quest X. As expected, the producer duo revealed that Square Enix is worried about the series' spotty history of success in the West.
So worried in fact that it might just have to pass up future localizations on traditional gaming platforms.
Indeed, Dragon Quest has never been the biggest hit outside of its homeland of Japan, and despite Bravely Default shattering all of Square Enix's expectations of the American JRPG scene earlier this year, translating such massive games might prove far too costly for it to consider.
Risk always plays a factor in Japanese companies choosing which games it will release in the West, and Dragon Quest has always been the riskiest of them all. However, its general absence to the American public has been an overstated misconception ever since the series was created.
Only two games in the series' main timeline were not released in a timely fashion when compared to the Japanese release dates, and the rest are home to wonderful localizations that have pushed boundaries for what to expect from video game translations.
With that, let's take a quick look at Dragon Quest's history in America and speculate as to why it has never fully caught on with the gaming public.
A Slime Draws Near
For all intents and purposes, there wasn't a bigger RPG series on the Nintendo Entertainment System in America than Dragon Quest, at the time renamed Dragon Warrior. Unlike Final Fantasy, which only saw the English localization of one of its three Japanese Famicom counterparts, all four original Dragon Quest games were brought to America during the lifespan of the NES.
The original Dragon Quest was developed by Chunsoft and published by Enix in Japan in 1986, back when its graphics, size, and RPG engine were practically cutting edge. Right away, we see that the publication in America, handled by Nintendo, was doomed from the start when it was released a whole three years later in 1989.
This ancient looking game, which only received a minimal graphical overhaul and heavy religious censorship for its American debut, had to compete with comparisons to far more advanced games like Mega Man 2 and Bionic Commando during its initial run. NES games evolved far more rapidly than games do nowadays, and three years showed a lifetime's worth of evolution and understanding of how games work.
Remember also, the RPG hadn't taken off yet on the console scene and many gamers were used to pushing buttons to make characters jump and attack as seen in games like Legend of Zelda, not using a controller to toggle a menu.
What is this nonsense!?
Still, Nintendo promoted the game heavily, with a brand new package art that scrapped Akira Toriyama's classic design, and shipped units all around the country expecting it to see the same level of success the series saw in Japan. It was wrong, and many of those unsold copies wound up in the collection of gamers via a free giveaway when they subscribed to Nintendo Power.
Check out the gallery for the major differences in box art. Half the fun of the Famicom Dragon Quest games in Japan is taking Akira Toriyama's provided art from the manual and books and using it to fill in the cracks of the 8-bit graphics with your own imagination. Naturally, American and Japanese gamers had a very different gaming experience because of this.
The following year, newly formed Enix America stepped in to publish Dragon Warrior II, Dragon Warrior III, and Dragon Warrior IV in the footsteps of their predecessor despite the looming threat of the Super Nintendo and bigger success Final Fantasy. None found any success, and the original NES carts for Dragon Warrior III, released in 1991, and Dragon Warrior IV, released in 1992, now fetch a pretty penny with the original shipments becoming something of a rarity.
Nowadays, many American fans overlook this era of the series' history mostly because it was so overlooked at the time. Dragon Quest was released way too late in America and that all but doomed it from the start.
The sole bright spot on their releases though was that each sported a silly faux-Elizabethan English translation to give it more character. Younger fans on today's gaming scene dismiss these localizations outright for being severely dated and tacky, but these localizations were milestones in that translators actually tried to breathe life into the language of a video game.
Keep in mind the standard for video game translations in America in this day and age was horrible Engrish with immortal phrases like "Congraturation. This story is happy end," "A winner is you," and "Someone sent us up the bomb." The faux-Shakespearean might not capture the silly puns and charming sense of character that appear in Dragon Quest's Japanese scripts like today's translations do, but hey, at least they tried to give it some character of its own.
Some might even argue Nintendo succeeded in pushing forward RPG translations just in time for the genre to see a small boost on the superior powers of the Super Nintendo.
Where Are My Dragon Quests!?
With the release of the Super Nintendo in 1991 in America, the RPG genre already had a decent hold in America. Final Fantasy IV, shortsightedly released as Final Fantasy II in the West, was a pretty big hit thanks to its groundbreaking storytelling and graphical fidelity.
Enix America also continued publishing its own games as well, churning out wonderful games like ActRaiser, Soul Blazer, E.V.O.: Search for Eden, RoboTrek, and Ogre Battle over the course of its Super Nintendo career. Sadly, the sales figures for these great games never showed results, and Enix America suffered greatly during this 26-bit era. It was forced to turn to Nintendo again to publish Illusion of Gaia before finally closing shop in 1995 and ceasing all American business for a few years.
The closure doomed the release of the exceptional Terranigma, which did make it to Europe, but even more significantly, it left Dragon Quest V and Dragon Quest VI unpublished in America, the only two games in the main series to not see their original forms released for foreign audiences.
Rumor has it that Dragon Quest V was set to be released at some in time point before the closure, but the reasons behind the ill fate of this scrapped localization remain a mystery to this day.
It's a shame too because Dragon Quest V is the sentimental favorite of many Japanese gamers for so many reasons. Chunsoft closed its successful run developing the series with this title, the story is a gorgeous tale of love and human survival, monster collecting proved to be a precursor to the Pokemon series, and even Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii states that it is his favorite of the bunch.
Had it comes to America, it certainly wouldn't have hurt Dragon Quest's image. Its graphics are pretty tame and primitive compared to the later Super Nintendo greats like Chrono Trigger, but one could argue it came only a few levels shy of a contemporary release like Final Fantasy IV. It also has a much better interface than the NES games, showing an understanding of what works and what doesn't, and as mentioned before, the story is one of the best you'll find on the Super Nintendo.
Dragon Quest VI is a whole other beast though. Often seen as the oddball of the series, it was developed by a new team at a studio called Heartbeat, and it definitely features Akira Toriyama's most insane and liberal use of his established art style. The game's cast reeks of an artist cracking under the pressure of Dragon Ball Z's Buu Saga, which was in full weekly publication at the time, and its dose of weekly new, wretched character designs clearly impaired his judgement.
Bunch of weirdos… One too many Kamehameha blasts to the brain can do this.
Some point to the game's classic job system as a redeeming feature, one American gamers would not get to truly experience until Final Fantasy Tactics released in 1998. It also sports a dark and light world like Link to the Past, minus the vast visual differences.
Regardless, it was very clear that Enix had no intention of re-living the nightmarish failure of "Dragon Warrior" on the Super Nintendo. In addition to these two main games, it also passed up the chance to release vastly improved remakes of Dragon Quest I, II, and III, all of which could have given the series a whole new legacy in the states.
All can be enjoyed through the fan translation scene, and all should be enjoyed through the fan translation scene as it is the only way to experience the authentic versions of these tragically overlooked and overstepped classics.
Sadly, The RPG genre continued to grow and mature without its founding member Dragon Quest to accompany it. The likes of Lufia, Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Final Fantasy gave rise to a whole generation of RPG fans in America who might not have heard of their grandaddy series.
This RPG success carried over and exploded into a new generation of consoles, one in which Dragon Quest had very little foothold to play a major role in.
Blame 4 Million Japanese People? Or Blame Our Ignorance?
In 1996, the Sony PlayStation had successfully wrestled control of the video game industry from Nintendo with the aid of a little game called Final Fantasy VII. You might have heard of it.
RPGs were all the rage all over the world, and dozens of Japanese companies were excitedly pushing out anything from their backlog which could have been a success. Of course, this over-enthusiasm led to the destruction of many classic Japanese developers, but their sacrifice fed into what was undoubtedly the high point of the JRPG history in America.
Enix's Japan branch too chugged along and published a handful of great games like Tri-Ace's Star Ocean: The Second Story and Valkyrie Profile. Little did Americans know though that it was sitting on a time bomb of a success… in Japan at any rate.
Dragon Quest VII launched in Japan in the summer holiday of 2000 and blasted through its original shipments. All in all, it closed its run with 3.78 million units sold, one of the highest individual games in the series. With all this buzz and excitement around JRPGs in America, naturally it was finally time for Dragon Quest to carry that success across overseas, correct? Ehh… not so much.
Dragon Warrior VII launched in America the following October to lukewarm reviews and poor sales. Critics raised on Final Fantasy VII and the new generation of RPGs found it to be horribly archaic and grind heavy, the product of old NES developers run amok with the seemingly infinite powers of the PlayStation's disc space.
The 120 hour playtime and the long dungeons make sense given the stiffness of the monsters in battle and simplicity of the game's overhead sprites. The lack of animation left plenty of remaining space on the discs to make just the most downright tiring, brutal and punishingly long game imaginable. Indeed, developers Heartbeat and ArtePiazza's development took so long to localize that its simple graphics had to contend not with the likes of Final Fantasy VII or VIII, but rather Final Fantasy X!
Yes! The very same! The PlayStation 2's monster hit, you know, the one that showed the world exactly what the PlayStation 2 was capable of… it launched two months after this poorly timed game. I mean… 2001? Really?
Dragon Quest VII, for all of its slow pacing, graphical shortcomings and wayward direction, is not a terrible game. We just didn't understand at the time because we overlooked the series' NES era and were denied the series' Super Nintendo era. Japan embraced it for its adherence to these traditions, but in America, we were ill-equipped to handle it.
Most Americans at the time were the generation of "Johnny Come Lately" RPG fans who only recently jumped aboard the genre and had the likes of Xenogears and Chrono Cross to compare it too.
It's a shame too because the localization, while still not up to today's standards, was quite good and told a wonderful story of rebuilding a damaged, ruined world, something that Enix might have had its own ambitions of doing with this unfortunate release.
Enix saw better success with the releases of the Dragon Quest Monster 1 and 2 on the Game Boy and Game Boy Color. Pokemon clones to the bitter end, they enjoy a cult following in America for those who looked to branch out from Pokemania and find the next best thing to feed their monster collecting withdrawls.
Surprisingly, Enix also released the second game in the Mystery Dungeon spin-off series starring Dragon Quest IV's loveable merchant Torneko. Torneko: The Last Hope didn't help the series' image much and was released to awful reviews thanks to our ignorance of Roguelikes at the time.
The only Dragon Quest game that did not get a release in America on the PlayStation was a remake of Dragon Quest IV using VII's engine. While seemingly insignificant the time, it would prove vital to the success of the series two generations later. More on that soon.
So while the Super Nintendo era is sad for straight up skipping over the releases of two games, the PlayStation era is even more tragic due to Enix actually trying and failing miserably to make Dragon Quest work in America. Even when JRPGs were at their absolute peak on foreign shores, all seemed lost for the wayward franchise. Its old school charm simply was not what RPG gamers were looking for in this age of science fiction, mecha robots, dimension bending cat villains, and sexy police officers battling a mitochondria rebellion.
Luckily, the magic of the PlayStation 2 and a new up and coming RPG company gave it a chance for a new beginning.