Before Square Enix came to life in 2003, the companies of Square and Enix were direct competitors in the field Japanese role-playing games. First out of the gate was Enix’s Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in North America for seven games to avoid a trademark conflict with the completely separate DragonQuest) in 1986, released to huge critical acclaim. The following year saw Square hoping to capitalize off this with Final Fantasy, which is credited for saving the company from impending bankruptcy. These two developers would then spend the next several years trying to best each other on the Japanese market. The two series sold incredibly well within their home country’s borders, but neither was able to entirely take over international audiences.
That completely changed in 1997 with Square’s astronomical success Final Fantasy VII. With an unprecedented $45 million budget, FF VII redefined what a quality JRPG should look like in this new era of three-dimensional worlds. It was a huge technological marvel, and suddenly the public’s gaze was turned to Square’s flagship series to see what would come next. The timing was horribly unfortunate for Enix, who didn’t have a new Dragon Quest game from 1995-2000. That exact period saw the releases of Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy IX as well, giving Square a triple punch of massive PlayStation hits. By the time Dragon Quest VII roared onto the scene, it was already too late. Final Fantasy was the global JRPG powerhouse, and Dragon Quest was the delightful series that many international audiences overlooked.
This, of course, doesn’t mean Dragon Quest isn’t a legendary success. Quite the contrary actually! It may have not grabbed international audiences with the same fervor as its past competitor, but it’s one of Square Enix’s dominant franchises. Some if its games are considered the finest ever made (Dragon Quest III and VIII especially), and within Japan the whole brand is huge. The franchise’s creator, Yuji Horii, was also one of the prominent minds behind Square’s epic Chrono Trigger, and Dragon Ball‘s Akira Toriyama has done the artwork since the beginning, so the talent is clearly stacked. The recent success of Dragon Quest Heroes is proof of the popuarlity as the game is completely different than any of the main series. As much as people regularly follow the critically praised numbered titles, they’re more than happy to buy any of its similarly branded property.
Dragon Quest’s influence on gaming is more far reaching than most people think. It’s likely a side-effect of Final Fantasy’s greater popularity over a longer period of time. If your first experience with JRPGs came from Final Fantasy, it’s reasonable to believe that this titanic brand was the trendsetter. It is what made many features popular on a global scale after all. Yet Dragon Quest is where so much of this first began. The inaugural ‘86 game is considered the first console RPG, and it’s what inspired Hironobu Sakaguchi to make his own series. This was the beginning of a virtual trend that took ideas from Dungeons and Dragons and brought them to a new era. From this moment on, Dragon Quest continued hitting on big ideas first. Changeable job classes? Dragon Quest III. Monster collecting? Dragon Quest V. Two world setting? Dragon Quest VI. The whole list is actually pretty lengthy.
The franchise is especially known now for remaining steadfast in its design, something that is praised and criticized in equal measure. Toriyama is still the principal artist, so appearances are mostly unchanged. Combat has remained the usual turn-based style it started with, except now protagonists are visible on the battle screen. The overall story for each game is never really complicated either. The praise for this largely stems from nostalgia as people who loved the games that are now many years old can pick up the latest entry without re-learning everything. There’s no hurdles for people to face, which is honestly great in its own right. There should be games out there that don’t scare people away if they haven’t stuck around for a while.
What’s treasure is trash to someone else though. These exact points are what others use to continually criticize the games, and it’s easy to see why. For all the flak Final Fantasy gets for changing up its formula, it’s those exact changes that have kept things unique and exciting. You can’t find that with Dragon Quest. The main characters aren’t nearly as engaging or dramatic as you’d find in other franchises and for a while your protagonist didn’t even have a name outside of “Hero.” The graphics have remained habitually behind the times until only very recently. There’s still that distinctly medieval setting as well, something most competition moved on from many years ago. In the end, one person could look at a new Dragon Quest entry as an exciting way to first jump into the brand or jump back into it, and another could roll their eyes at the thought that it’s all “more of the same.”
Interestingly enough, it is Dragon Quest’s general resistance to change that can allow games like Dragon Quest Heroes to exist. Enemies re-appear across different entries, like the blue Slime that’s the brand’s official mascot, and similar character design makes it believable that these characters from all titles could exist together should a game call for it. Dragon Quest Heroes is that game and it takes characters and enemies from across the franchise and puts them all together. Final Fantasy, with its wildly different locales and very few repeating features, could only do a similar idea with its main characters (and has with the fighting game Dissidia: Final Fantasy). I can’t imagine how a Dynasty Warriors style game could work in the Final Fantasy brand. Dragon Quest, however, is totally believable.
Just like many self-described JRPG fans, Final Fantasy got to me first. Dragon Quest has unfortunately been mostly overshadowed because of this. The only entry I have ever owned is Dragon Quest VII (still have it too), and that’s because I was the only one among my siblings who could figure it out. My brother bought it knowing how popular the franchise was, but it didn’t offer much in the way of direction. They were actually on the verge of selling it when they noticed I had played at least 20 hours and planned to continue. Clearly, I had figured out what they couldn’t, and was thoroughly enjoying the game. Unfortunately I have yet to finish but I do plan to finally make those next steps soon. I’d highly recommend getting the remade version of this game too. The original edition sells for over $100 new and it looks so much worse than what’s available now. Hell, the game even looked pretty bad back in 2000. It’s insane to think that Final Fantasy X, with its massively detailed world and fully voiced characters, came one year after this 2D sprite journey.
To be perfectly honest, Dragon Quest has done its own thing for decades, and it’s clearly working out very well. So what if Final Fantasy got mainstream attention first and took what Dragon Quest started and made it more popular. Who cares if the series has remained mostly unchanged in design or gameplay. The popularity of Dragon Quest Heroes at Square Enix’s New York Comic Con booth throws out any idea that this brand isn’t widely recognized. Dragon Quest is massive and it’s a genre trendsetter that still thrives to this day. It already made history too. What else is there to do but keep going and have fun with it?
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.