It’s no secret that I generally prefer retro games to new games. Part of it is economic: new games are pricey. Part of it is nostalgia. I love the games I played as a kid because they remind me of simpler times. And part of it, maybe a small part, is that in some ways old games were just better. But I digress. The point is, I like old games, and Dragon Quest, created by the legendary Yuji Horii, is a classic series that I hold in very high esteem.
Unfortunately, Dragon Quest has petered out a bit in recent years. Dragon Quest IX, released in 2010, was a handheld game with an irritating focus on multiplayer that resulted in a lackluster single-player experience, especially when compared to its predecessor, one of the best-looking games on the PS2. Dragon Quest X is an MMORPG which was never released in the US, but which has been out in Japan since 2012. In many ways, the last “true” DQ game was Dragon Quest VIII, all the way back in 2005. Square has confirmed that Dragon Quest XI is in development, but it could be several years before it comes out stateside. I’m not holding my breath.
Fortunately, there are twenty years worth of Dragon Quest games that still hold up pretty damn well, considering how old they are. And thanks to Sqare Enix’s penchant for remaking their old 8- 16-bit titles ad nauseum, we have new and improved editions all of the first eight games, many of them available on mobile. And–best of all for an unrepentant cheapskate like me–they’re super cheap. When I saw that the mobile edition of the original Dragon Quest was on sale for only a dollar recently, I couldn’t resist.
This game was such a huge pain in the ass when I was a kid. My first experience with the game was a mixed bag. It throws you right into the midst of a fantasy with kings and treasure chests and magic keys, but as soon as you step outside you get beaten half to death by Slimes. I got killed before I could even reach the second town, and I realized just how many hours of pointless grinding the game required. It didn’t take me long to say “screw this noise.”
Fortunately, the mobile remake (based on previous GBC and SNES remakes) fixes nearly all the problems the original had while keeping the quaint charm. You’re still a solo adventurer with an inventory limited to eight slots, and you can still only warp to the castle. That’s as it should be. The difference is now you can save anywhere, the enemies give way more gold and experience, and the dungeons have been reworked with different treasures and floor plans. The game still requires grinding, but it’s a much smoother experience so you feel a greater sense of accomplishment. You start as a lowly peasant in leather armor with only an oaken staff to defend yourself, but you’ll be hurling fireballs at Dragonlord in no time!
Since the game is so much easier you have more time to appreciate the game’s charming atmosphere. The dialogue has been reworked to be a have more depth, but they kept all the thees and thous (and honestly threw in a lot of extra olde timey tics that weren’t necessary). To be honest, they didn’t need to do much cleaning up, because the NPCs in the original conveyed all their thoughts pretty cogently. The music has been rearranged, but it’s still Koichi Sugiyama’s soundtrack. I’m still amazed at the depth and complexity Sugiyama put into such an early 8-bit soundtrack–like how the music seamlessly grows more foreboding and complex as you descend the dungeons beneath Charlock Castle. The graphics have also gotten a facelift, but here again they’re essentially cleaned up versions of Toriyama’s superb original designs. The original game felt like a fully-realized world, if a bit on the tiny side. The remake does a phenomenal job of balancing the difficulty and making the atmosphere the focus. My one knock is that they took out “But thou must!”
I was a bit worried about the mobile interface, but it works fine. The touch controls are responsive enough and the shape of the screen allows for a large field of view. I don’t think I could play a platforming game with these controls, but for a turn-based RPG they get the job done.
After blasting through Dragon Quest in a few days, I turned my attention to the sequel. Dragon Quest II (now with a new subtitle: Luminaries of the Legendary Line) is a much more complex game than the original, with triple the party members and a world map about ten times larger than its predecessor. While the original only had four-ish dungeons, the sequel has around ten. There’s equipment and spell diversity among party members, not to mention a ton of sidequests and an extremely open-ended structure during the second half. Despite the complexity, the NPCs do a surprisingly good job of pointing you in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Dragon Quest II also exceeds the original in difficulty. The Cave to Rhone (now Rendarak Road) was a nightmare for many young gamers, containing nigh-unstoppable enemies and maze featuring invisible pitfalls and looping passageways. Fortunately, Square Enix has taken pity on us. Enemies give greater rewards, spells are more powerful, and you can warp to any previously visited town (including a shrine just before the final dungeon). Here again, you’re free to enjoy your trip through a rich fantasy world without worrying about grinding your face off. This remake is just as good as the original’s–even better, since there’s so much more content.
If you’re a fan of JRPGs, I can’t recommend these remakes enough. Dragon Quest laid the foundation for future JRPGs with its well-planned scenarios and high production values in terms of music and art design. The JRPG seems to be dying off in favor of more action-oriented games. That’s not bad; just different. But for old farts like me who don’t like things that are different, loving remakes like these are much appreciated. They’ve given Dragon Quest III the same treatment, and you can bet it’s next on my list.