If there is one genre that I hold particularly close to my heart, it is definitely the traditional JRPG. Some of my earliest gaming memories are of going round to a friends house and seeing the Final Fantasy games on PS1 which absolutely blew me away. The idea that a game could take you away to another place that had a huge story and cast of characters was something completely otherworldly to me and I’ve loved the genre ever since.
Despite it essentially inventing the genre of turn based console RPGs, I’d never actually played a single Dragon Quest game before and so last year I decided to pick up the very first game on the Google Play Store. Dragon Quest is a bit of a strange series because despite it’s massive success in Japan and there being no less than 11 games, it’s not all that known or popular in America and Europe. It makes even less sense as the art and character designs are done by Akira Toryama, the creator of the Dragonball franchise, which you’d imagine would mean it has a massive appeal over here. It’s only really been in the last few years, with the successful launch of Dragon Quest XI on the PS4 and later Switch, that the series has gained some recognition outside of a cult audience.
Never one to make things easy for myself, I decided that I wanted to see what the series was all about but decided that I’d start it from the beginning. After all, what better use of my time than to commit to playing 11 extremely lengthy old school RPGs?
So last year I beat Dragon Quest 1, which was essentially the most basic old school JRPG that it’s possible to even imagine. You play as a singular hero the entire way through the game, known only as the descendant of the legendary hero Erdrick and you never expand beyond a party of one. The game is essentially completely linear despite you being able to explore the world map and grind to your heart’s content but there are no secrets or optional areas to find. You just go from A to B while making sure that you do enough grinding to be able to cope with the monsters in the next area.
It’s essentially “grinding – the game” as the entire game is basically spent getting EXP to enable you to make it through a cave or tower and finally reach the final boss. There are some pretty mean difficulty spikes as well, so you really do need to commit yourself to the grind in order to make progress.
Luckily my brain appears to be completely immune to the boredom of grinding and as it was on mobile, I was perfectly content to sit watching something on TV or listening to music whilst my thumb’s muscle memory took care of the battles. Weirdly, I actually ended up quite enjoying my time with the game as it was so brutally simplistic that it was nice to just enjoy a game that wasn’t crazily complicated or melodramatic. It’s just a simple game about a young hero getting stronger and defeating the bad guys.
It’s definitely old school and bare bones but I’d recommend it for anyone looking to check out the roots of the genre or even just spend some time playing something beautifully simplistic.
Dragon Quest 2 on the other hand is a different beast all together and this year I dived into the sequel.
Chunsoft, the developer, clearly wanted to increase the complexity of the game and bring in more influence from early 90s PC RPGs like Wizardry as almost everything has been made more intricate.
Set 100 years after the original, you now play as the Prince of Midenhall and while similarly being sent on a quest to defeat evil, the story now contains a few basic twists and turns which jazz everything up a little. There is now a cinematic prologue that introduces the villain, the evil sorcerer Hargon, and you get to adventure with two companions who you discover throughout your journey.
As the party is now expanded to three characters, the complexity of battles has now also been increased. You can fight against multiple different enemies and different types of enemies at the same time which, while it seems absurd to say in 2020, wasn’t actually a feature in DQ1. On top of this, the three characters all have different specialisations to utilise. The prince of Midenhall is a physical bruiser who hits very hard but doesn’t get any magic, the prince of Cannock can use basic spells but isn’t as strong as Midenhall and the princess of Moonbrooke is a powerful spellcaster but hits like a wet cloth.
All of them need to be leveled up in order to get stronger and the higher levels give you powerful magic which is required to beat bosses and win difficult battles. Once again – grinding is the order of the day and there is literally nothing you can do to avoid it as you will have to get much stronger to progress. Yes it now has some more story to digest but this is very much 20 hours of grinding for EXP and gold in order to get strong enough to progress to the next area.
One element that has been massively addressed from the original is the linearity of the first game. About half way through DQ2, you return to the land of the original game and confront the grandson of the villain from the last game, presuming him to be commanding Hargon the sorcerer. In a nifty little twist, the new Dragonlord is actually a reformed character and helps you out by giving you a boat and directing you to find 5 crests which will allow you to beat the evil wizard.
This causes the rest of the game world to completely open up and you can tackle the rest of the quest in virtually any order you see fit. It’s actually really cool that they took such a freeform approach to the adventure and exploring new lands feels as massive and daunting as I’m sure it did in 1987.
A slight issue with this free roaming approach is that everything is way too cryptic and without a walkthrough, this game is almost impossible. The language of modern video games hadn’t really been established in 1987, so some items you need to progress are either locked behind really obtuse puzzles or are hidden in extremely absurd locations that I’m not sure anyone would be able to find on their own. The Fire Crest for example is just sitting behind the fire tower on the floor, except that it’s invisible so there is no way you’d know it’s ever there without either looking it up or literally clicking on every pixel in the game. You also really need to be careful about remembering which doors are unlocked by which keys, as there are some story required items hidden behind doors in the first few areas of the game. You likely won’t get the key to open these until 15 hours into the game so you’d better hope you remember them!
On top of this the game also has a few other odd quirks of it’s old school design. Annoyingly, each key and story item takes up one of your limited inventory spaces so by the end of the game, you basically cannot have any items. Hopefully by this point you’ve gotten so powerful that you don’t need items any longer but it’s certainly quite strange to be walking round with pockets full of keys and crests and no potions.
Also the addition of the quick save option in the remakes is an absolute godsend. In the original you could only save by speaking to certain priests although for some reason there is not one in each town. I don’t actually think I’d have been able to finish this game without the option to put it down and pick it up at any time. It really made the grinding a hell of a lot more palatable knowing I wouldn’t have to trek back to a save spot when I’d finally had my fill.
So I had a surprisingly good time with both games with DQ2 being the slightly more frustrating but more complex experience. I’m not 100% convinced that playing these games is the best introduction to the series as some elements are so archaic that I’m not sure many people without my patience for obtuse retro mechanics could put up with it. I’ve heard that DQ5 and 8 are considered the best places to jump into the series so we’ll have to assess that when we get to them. Overall though, I had a good time with them and it was fun to go back to a more simple style of game after all the complex and modern games I’ve been playing recently.
Apparently DQ3 forms a final part of what’s known as the “Erdrick trilogy” so I’m excited to see how that rounds out the 8bit Dragon Quest games. I must be a sucker for more punishment, bring on more grinding!