We all know who the kings of the JRPG throne are. Final Fantasy, Tales, Pokémon, they’re all at the tip of the tongue. However, when you ask someone what’s the greatest JRPG series of all time, they’ll seldom mention Dragon Quest. This is for good reason – after all, the series only made the international jump outside of Japan and the US in its eighth main installment in 2005. Since then, Square-Enix has been remaking the titles for Nintendo’s handheld consoles, the Nintendo DS and 3DS, introducing the games to a whole new generation in Japan and overseas. Yet, still, DQ hasn’t attained the same international success as their contemporaries. The original Dragon Quest – known as Dragon Warrior in America – was one of the stalwarts of its genre and even somewhat inspired the Final Fantasy series.
The main premise of the Dragon Quest games mirrors that of many other JRPG videogames. You play as a designated hero who must save the world from some superpowered threat with the help of a ragtag bunch of party members. Usually, the hero is a mute, and his/her name is decided by the player, not the game script. But another thing that is unique to DQ is its cartoony, anime look.
In fact, that may be the source of its lack of popularity in the West, says Square-Enix’s Yu Miyake in a 2016 interview: “Mature gamers look at it and feel like it’s a kids game. When you actually play the game, it’s a little complicated for children to play, but it’s kind of been a hurdle for grown ups to get into it.” As likely as this is, it’s also a big shame since the series’ cartoony visuals – brought into existence by Dragon Ball artists Akira Toriyama – are actually a large part of what gives the games their signature charm. Toriyama’s art give Dragon Quest a unique, colourful identity, while bringing to the table stories that are relatively mature in nature.
To many of those who have played Final Fantasy, the battle system in DQ can seem rudimentary in comparison. No limit breaks or summon spells to be found here, you have ‘Attack’, ‘Magic’ and the ‘Psyche Up’ option to buff up the damage of your attacks. There’s no waiting on the ATB bar – there is just the traditional turn-taking commonly associated with the genre. But the real element that the series thrives upon is strategy in these battles. Much of the battling relies on the teamwork of your characters, knowing when to attack, when to buffer your teammates’ attacks and how to work your team effectively overall.
As the game stories progress, the battles do indeed become more complex to play and this is aided, in part, by an ever-increasing difficulty. Perhaps not a turn-on for some gamers. But the mature stories, ranging from ‘childhood to adulthood’ to ‘corruption’, as well as the unique monsters and memorable characters draw many more in, especially in Japan.
Another key cause of Dragon Quest’s lack of popularity in the West is Square’s lack of effort in localizing the games. The long-running games company only started localizing the series in Europe with Dragon Quest: The Journey of the Cursed King which was released in 2006, 2005 in the US. This meant that many players missed the first eight games in the series. While the US did receive the first four games for the NES, they did not receive the DQ games released for the Super Nintendo, skipping an entire console generation – which meant that finding dedicated fans for the series would be hard.
The SNES was also the console generation where the US received FFII (IV in Japan) and III (IV in Japan), which meant that JRPG lovers had found their home with Final Fantasy. Then there was the series stalwart that was FFVII, which received a release in Europe as well as the US, and proved to be a critical and commercial success in those territories. This release as well as its successors stabilised the franchise, making it a household name in the West, putting it to the top alongside franchises such as Pokémon and Mario. The continued success of Final Fantasy, often bearing a relatively mature visual style to DQ, has ensured its popularity and has more than likely overshadowed DQ, even as the remakes and new games cross over to our shores. Simply put, Dragon Quest hasn’t had much time to establish itself.
Given the series’ questionable success in the West, who knows whether the next game in the series, Dragon Quest XI, will receive a Western release. The fact remains that Dragon Quest is a highly overlooked franchise and deserves more attention than it does. As with any truly great JRPG series, the games are fun and engaging with rich storytelling and diverse mature themes that far defy the series’ cutesy art style. If you haven’t checked out a Dragon Quest game yet, then you would be wise to do so. You won’t regret it.