2022-Jun-14: Dragon Quest: Where It All Began

Dragon Quest saw four releases on the NES, which beats out even the mainline Mario series by a game. Westerners would then miss out on the Super Nintendo installments and meet back up with the series for Dragon Quest VII on the Playstation. From then we got them all (except for Dragon Quest X, which is an MMO... for some reason). We'd also see re-releases of the missing V and VI on the Nintendo DS, as well as a smattering of remakes all across the series. It's pretty storied!

I'd never played them and I set out to change that. Over the past few months, in the scant brief moments I had between moving activities, I'd been plugging through the first three on stream. They form a trilogy, so that just seemed appropriate.

Dragon Quest (1986)

The original Dragon Quest formed the basis for what we'd come to understand as a JRPG on consoles and served as the prior art for everything that followed. There were prototypical takes, but DQ has the honor of being the game that coined the term. Being the first, however, it was... clunky.

Interacting with things in early DQ games is a painful affair. There's no "Walk up to thing, push A" here. You have a menu, and that menu includes things like Talk, Search, and Stairs. In a newer JRPG stairs would just activate when stepped on and the action button would be contextual; not here. Fortunately newer remakes polish this out while retaining most of the flow of the early games.

The original DQ has about four text boxes of story: the evil Dragonlord is in a castle across the river, the Princess is gone, there's legendary armor from a past hero strewn about you need, that's about it. That's all you need though. What it lacks in story it also lacks in complexity, but that's not necessarily a bad thing either.

With that you're tossed out into the world to find the legendary Loto (or Erdrick, depending on which localization you're playing) gear, rescue the Princess, and smack down the Dragonlord. You don't get any direction and you can go anywhere right from the start, though going the wrong way would quickly see you defeated by out of depth enemies. Alas, the best thing to do is stop and grind for three to five levels.

Dragon Quest is both a very low level, and very grind intensive game, which can make for a frustrating combination as power increases are both few and far between. Combat is also extremely simplistic: there's only one character, only ever one foe in combat, and your choices are to fight, run, or cast a spell. Spells in combat boil down to heals, harms, an attempted silence, and an attempted sleep (neither of which will work when you need it). That's it. Most fights embody slugging it out with the monster until you need to heal and if you die, you need more levels or gear.

Gear is a linear affair. As you reach towns further afield, better more expensive gear becomes available. Only the best gear is found in the world: the Loto stuff itself. Though you don't actually technically need Loto's gear, or to rescue the Princess. All you really need is the ability to get to the Dragonlord's castle, and that comes from assembling the Rainbow Drop that you create from three items and talking to an NPC at the very south-east corner of the world. One of those items though is hidden on a specific out of the way tile of the world map that the Princess guides you to, and Loto's gear is just the best gear you can get. If you know what you're doing you could skip them.

Still, what else are you going to do besides explore the entire world or grind... or more accurately explore the entire world and then grind? Depending on how fast you are at finding things and scouring the world and its dungeons, you may need to stop and grind several times, but you'll absolutely need to to finish the game. Even getting everything and delving every one of the game's dozen or so dungeons, you'll be left woefully short of the level needed to defeat the Dragonlord. Expect a lot of grind on the same monsters to finish this one off.

The main gimmick of the Dragonlord is that it's two fights back to back. Otherwise it's just a pretty basic enemy with the ability to hit pretty hard and sometimes use a breath attack. It has no special mechanics.

Once you finish the Dragonlord, you get another mainstay of the Dragon Quest series (at least the early games): you're left free to roam the entire world without monsters to harass you, should you wish to do so. NPCs just say generic things like "You're the hero!" but you can. When you're done, you can use the Return spell to return to the starting town to finish the game. It's cute, albeit not super deep.

In 2022 DQ is a flat, hollow experience, devoid of commonplace JRPG features and filled mostly by needing to meet level checkpoints to survive in places. In 1986 this laid the groundwork for the entire genre. I'm fairly down on it here through the lens of all the other RPGs I've played in my life, but this was ground-breaking stuff back in the day, and it holds up fairly well today if you just want a world to explore and a chill experience with monsters to bash. I enjoyed it, honestly.

If you want any indication of how wildly successful DQ was, look at the absolute flood of DQ clones that came out on the NES in subsequent years.

Dragon Quest II (1987)

Dragon Quest II would land just six months later and represented a massive step forward in the art form. Present is the ability to battle multiple foes at once and a party of three instead of one. Dragon Quest II plays quite a bit like Final Fantasy IV in that your party is set, has specific stats, spell learn sets, and roles, and things start fairly linear before opening up. Dragon Quest II also introduces a fairly engaging, evolving story.

DQ2 takes place quite some time after DQ1. The hero of DQ1 departs on a journey and finds a larger continent beyond the lands around Tantagel. There he and the Princess start a new civilization that grows to encompass the entire world. Generations pass and evil returns and it's up to the direct descendants of the hero to stop it. This wasn't really derivative back then, though it may sound such now.

You have the Hero, who is a souped up red mage capable of doing a little of everything, a Paladin or D&D Cleric trope character who is a durable healer, and a Mage. These characters have their own identities and stories and stay with you for the entire game with no party member changing or class changes.

Probably one of the most interesting introductions of mechanics in DQ2 is that of group targeting. You can have multiple foes, and even different kinds of foes in a battle, but you don't target them individually. You target a group and your characters will attack an effectively random member of that group. If you'd played Final Fantasy first, this may seem archaic and obtuse, especially since Dragon Quest also flexes the "Ineffective" gimmick of Final Fantasy: attacks queued up on a target that was already slain will just whiff. You can then have weapons and spells that hit entire groups or even all enemies, but those come later on.

The first third of the game plays extremely linearly: you go from town to town, cave to cave, following the hints of NPCs as you search out allies to join your party and solve small-scale problems towns have which conveniently open the path forward to the next location. It's a pretty good sequence to get you acclimated with the game and equipped with a decent set of gear and spell options before opening up; and when DQ2 opens up, it really opens up.

After you've walked around half the world, you get a ship and gain complete world access. From here your goal changes from reaching the next town and finding the next problem that needs solving to finding the five crests strewn across the world. Like DQ1, you're given almost no guidance in how to go about this. Unlike DQ1, you actually need to do this, and will need to go practically everywhere to do it.

As a cheeky little side bonus, one of the places you can go on the ship is the land of DQ1, and even the Dragonlord's castle. His descendant is there, and is actually a pretty decent guy.

The crests are hidden in towns, in shrines, on the world map, at the bottoms (or tops) of dungeons. There's a wide variety of things you need to go to gather them. Much like in DQ1, the probably more direct path here is to explore the entire world and figure out what is where before executing on any real plans to try to accomplish anything. NPCs give you a lot of useful hints, most barriers will outright tell you what's needed to bypass them either directly or indirectly via nearby NPCs. Once you know where everything is, a path for doing it all should snap together.

Your reward for gathering all five crests is a charm that lets you into the final dungeon. The actual dungeon is in an inaccessible valley in the middle of the world that you have to render accessible with the collection of an artifact at the end of a chain of clues that lasts half the game. So really the "open ended" part of the game is two parallel plots involving the artifact and the crests and they unify only at the very end.

Once you reach the final area (the valley of Rhone), you will likely hit a massive bump. It feels like the game is just missing a ton of content here. You suddenly go from comfortably on-level to woefully behind, getting murdered by even wilderness monsters, say nothing of the foes inside the final dungeon. Grinding for 5+ levels here is pretty expected, though that should reward you with a powerful all-target spell on the mage character and make progression easier on top of of the numerical bonuses. I'm not sure what happened here; someone in my chat implied that budget and time concerns led to them scrapping a chunk of the game but not adjusting levels to compensate.

Fortunately "5+ levels" isn't nearly as bad here as it is in DQ1. I believe I finished the game in the 30s instead of level 20 flat. You also have a shrine with a resurrection NPC, inn, and save point right next to the best grinding area in the game. As an additional bonus, if you actually get to the area around Rhone and are missing crests, NPCs nearby will give you very direct hints on where to look. I'd equate them to the interleaves from the early Might & Magic games: by the time you get them you should have accessed where all the solutions are, and these just point you back the right way if you missed something.

I found DQ2 to be immensely enjoyable. The open world "Just wander and find stuff" segment is surprisingly well orchestrated with an interleaving mesh of clues and hints pointing you from place to place so it's unlikely you'll ever end up completely stranded and unsure of what to do. For such an early game it was extremely well executed, planned, and paced (with the exception of Rhone's level curve).

Dragon Quest III (1988)

Dragon Quest III comes a year after DQ2. I moved from the Gameboy Color to the SNES for this one. The Super Famicom version is probably one of the better versions to play with the exception of the fan translation patch being kind of rough around the edges. It wasn't enough to ruin my enjoyment but there's some massive technical glitches to be worked around.

DQ3's main contribution to the growth of the series is the addition of a class system. Like Final Fantasy, you can create a custom party of four characters (though one must be your hero), and assign them classes. There's a pretty wide array of those classes available, from the boilerplate Mage, Priest, and Warrior to more diverse things like the Merchant and the Jester. You can also change your party up at any time by visiting your home town so if you get 15 levels in and find you don't like having a Jester, you can replace them with a Mage.

DQ3 also offers a multi-classing system that resets a character to level 1 but keeps their spells and half of their stats. By changing classes at the right time, you can make powerful hybrid characters who can cast spells from both trees of magic. There's also the Sage: a master of all trades class that can only be accessed via class changing and a one-time special item. One character being re-classed to Sage is a gimme; they're so powerful they're sure to make whichever character you swap better. The rest you can take or leave. You really have a plethora of choices in what to do and very many approaches are valid.

DQ3 follows the same general process of DQ2: About half the game is a linear romp, and then you get the ship and the world opens up with a MacGuffin hunt to reach the end of the game. This time you're hunting six orbs to resurrect a legendary phoenix that can carry you to the big bad's reinforced mountain fortress. The start is a little rough depending on the team you pick, with Mages getting pasted rather easily in the early levels, but that's a problem with every RPG with a class system. I did have to grind a fair bit before the first real boss of the game.

One of the more interesting tidbits about DQ3 is the overworld either is, or is a close facsimile of, real-world Earth. You start on an island that isn't there on the globe, but then quickly warp to Rome (which they call Romaly), travel west to Portugal (Portoga), down to Egypt (Isis), and eventually through Japan (Jipang), India (Baharata), and New York (New Town). It's a neat little thing that probably clicks for most players in a cute "Oooooh!" moment when they get it.

You get access the Dharma Shrine and class changing about half way through the game, but must be level 20 to utilize it. For me, that was near the end of gathering the six orbs. I did find out, at least as far as the manual recommends, I spent the entire game sharply under-leveled. However I did fine, with some specific spikes of trouble when entering a new area. At a couple of points I probably should have stopped and grinded for half an hour, but things felt smooth enough to not need that until near the end of the game when I eventually did grind for about 90 minutes. I suspect I was supposed to blindly wander the world longer than I did, but prior knowledge of the game and note-taking obviated a lot of the wandering.

Once you have all six orbs and find the location to use them to summon the phoenix, you fly to an inaccessible castle in the center of the world. Here you have a showdown with the big bad guy, defeat him, purge the world of evil and are able to freely wander just like DQ1 and DQ2. Upon returning to your starting town, though, the game throws a curve ball: in the middle of the celebration, a new, bigger foe appears and threatens you. This also opens a pit in the middle of the world. Falling down this pit takes you to the world of Aelfgard: the world of Dragon Quest 1. The rest of that world as present in DQ2 is not there, somehow. I'm not sure how that works.

Here you essentially retrace your steps from DQ1: you gather the Staff of Rain and Stone of Sunlight, you get Loto's Token (renamed here to the Sacred Token) and go to the shrine at the south-east to forge the Rainbow Drop. You create a bridge to the castle in the middle of the land and find not the Dragonlord, but Zoma: an evil demon obsessed with inflicting suffering and destruction on mankind.

In defeating Zoma, this underworld of Aelfgard becomes sealed off from the surface Earth-like world. You, rendered unable to return, are welcomed as a champion of Aelfgard and granted the title of Loto. It's here that it's revealed that you are the Loto (or Erdrick) of DQ1 and it's your gear that the hero of DQ1 gathers (which is made funnier by the fact that my hero was wearing essentially a fursuit at the end of DQ3). DQ3 is a prequel.

It's a cute end to the trilogy and wraps it all up neatly, canonizing the party of DQ2 and their victory as finally purging the world of evil once and for all.

System and mechanic wise, DQ3 is a dream for the time it released. Multi-classing, a deep spell set, robust buff and debuff system, and some massive QoL spells like the ability to warp to any town on the map at will set it apart as a milestone JRPG. Progression wise it felt like a small step back from DQ2. There's a couple of bumps where the game expects you to wander a lot, and if you stumble upon where to go (or know the game already) you just end up out-leveled by the content. But DQ is all about grind at some level, so that's to be expected. There also isn't a "Town of Hints" like DQ2 had. You get some clues on the location of orbs in the form of a town you actually build yourself, but not all.

But still, it's an amazing RPG that is probably one of the top three on the console. Maybe DQ4 is better; I haven't gotten to it yet.