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The Gateway Guide to Dragon Quest: Where Should I Start?

Don't know where start with Square-Enix's long-running RPG series? Let us break you into the whimsical world of Dragon Quest.

Analysis by Bob Mackey, .

Since 1986, Dragon Quest has been an RPG institution in Japan, with each highly anticipated release garnering more attention and hype than our annual Calls of Duty or Assassin's Creeds.

The series has a much different status in America, though. While Dragon Quest gradually gained a respectable following in the West, we non-Japanese fans have often suffered through long fallow periods. After spending most the '90s without seeing a single US release, Dragon Quests new and old started making it to our shores once again, and by 2011, every main entry in the series finally saw an American release—an intimidating amount of games for anyone new to this brand of RPG. If you don't know where to start with Dragon Quest's 30-year history, read on, and get ready to sacrifice dozens of hours on the altar of grinding.

What is Dragon Quest?

In 1986, game designer Yuji Horii created Dragon Quest thiin an attempt to boil down complex computer RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry into an easier-to-digest format. This stood as an absolute novelty to console enthusiasts of the time, who had never assumed their underpowered hardware—built to replicate single-screen arcade games—was capable of providing such an epic experience. But the true draw of Dragon Quest comes from an underlying philosophy of Horii's that feels much more at home in 2015 than 1986: sink enough time into the game, and you'll inevitably reach the end. While the series offers a healthy challenge throughout, it also puts up several safety nets that prevent any unfair setbacks: Dying simply means losing half the gold you have on-hand, while retaining all experience points earned before kicking the bucket.

While Dragon Quest has changed in various ways over the decades, these time-tested RPG mechanics have remained at its core. And even if you haven't had much experience with the series, it's likely you've played one of the several games to borrow heavily from its many ideas. If you've played any amount of Pokemon, for instance, Dragon Quest shouldn't feel too unfamiliar; both of these RPG brands retain their 8-bit roots, even if they've grown a lot prettier over the years. That's essentially Dragon Quest in a nutshell, but if you'd like a more in-depth discussion about the series' history—and have 90 minutes free—check out our Retronauts episode about this very subject.

Where to Start

While some Dragon Quest games are loosely connected, you don't necessarily need to start with the first two games—in fact, it's not really recommended. The original Dragon Quest may strike you as a bit too simple, while Dragon Quest II features some pretty unfortunate difficulty spikes, along with a total lack of guidance.

If you'd like to experience the series in its most basic-but-playable form, Dragon Quest III comes highly recommended. It's still an extremely straightforward Dragon Quest game, but one that also offers some degree of customization. When the game begins, you immediately assemble a party of adventurers with roles so basic it shouldn't take many battles to figure out how to use them best. What follows is a sprawling, charming adventure that should give you a taste of what Dragon Quest has to offer, but in a very simple circa-1988 package. While its Game Boy Color port is just fine, that may not be the best way to play this entry in our modern age. Thankfully, it's also available on mobile devices, with III being the first port of this type to not turn out absolutely fugly.

Dragon Quest IV also provides a good starting point, and its episodic nature may make it a little more digestible for some. Part IV breaks itself up into hours-long chapters, where each one has you take control of a unique assemblage of characters in what amounts to a string of mini-RPGs. Dragon Quest V is a good place to start as well, especially if you like the party-building idea found in Dragon Quest III, but want some added complexity. In V, you essentially build your party as you would in Pokemon by recruiting monsters after battle. V offers a lot more than this, though, by centering on a story that sees your hero grow from doughy baby to world-saving adventurer by the game's finale. If you're interested, both of these entries are available for the Nintendo DS and mobile devices.

Finally, if the old-school graphics of Dragon Quest put you off, you should consider starting with Dragon Quest VIII. In terms of mechanics, it's a step down in complexity from the job systems featured in part VI and VII, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. And it's definitely the best-looking Dragon Quest game to date, with its sprawling, cel-shaded world and characters still holding up over ten years after its original release. The only downside? Dragon Quest VIII is a long game—we're talking 100 hours or more, here—so you may want to go with a shorter entry if you haven't yet made up your mind on the series. Dragon Quest VIII has a mobile port, but, for the time being, the original PlayStation 2 version remains the ideal experience. A 3DS port will also be launching later this year.

Advanced Dragon Questing

If you've already had a taste of Dragon Quest, or prefer a more complex take on its traditional design, the series offers some installments that go beyond the basics. The most mechanically rich entry definitely has to be the Nintendo DS' Dragon Quest IX, which takes the party-creating idea last seen in Dragon Quest III and really runs with it. If you're looking for an RPG with in-depth character customization, you've found it: Each of the four members of your party can be pushed through multiple job paths, retaining the skills they've learned after switching to a new one.

The biggest draw, though, lies in the vast, vast amount of items available through IX's crafting system. Since the greatest weapons and armor can't be found in stores, don't be surprised if you spend hours tracking down the right parts for some glorious new set of gear (that's always reflected on your character's model). And since this is the first multiplayer Dragon Quest, if you've got a friend with 80-or-so hours to kill, both of you can steamroll through the main campaign, or delve into random dungeons for rare rewards. If all of these details sound like the recipe for a winning RPG, currently, the only place to play Dragon Quest IX is the Nintendo DS.

The two Dragon Quest games we haven't mentioned so far are definitely the most hardcore of the series—though not always for the best reasons. Dragon Quest VI introduces a new job system to the series, one that offers nine distinct classes and eight ranks within them—along with seven "hybrid classes" gained from mastering previous ones. There's a lot of complexity to speak of, but unfortunately, Part VI doesn't give the player nearly enough information about them, making planning ahead with the help of Internet resources an absolute necessity. Of course, don't expect to see this system in play for the first 15 or 20 hours. VI isn't a well-paced game, and the central conceit—traveling back and forth between two different worlds—just adds more aimless wandering to the equation, since said worlds aren't very distinct from one another. Still, it's a big, beautiful Dragon Quest, and if you can get beyond its problems, VI makes for a worthwhile adventure. Currently, you can play the English language version via the mobile port, or on the Nintendo DS.

Finally, we have Dragon Quest VII. Even though it contains all the essential elements of this RPG series, it's definitely a bad place to start. In terms of design, it really feels like an expansion of Part VI: The same job system returns, with even more added complexity, and the game's pace is often glacial. While RPGs are known to have their slow starts, VII forces you to wait between 3-5 hours before even fighting your first enemy, and the job system doesn't make itself available until around the 25-hour mark. And the many technical shortcomings certainly don't help these problems go down easier: VII is a downright ugly game, clearly meant to release on the platform years earlier, and programming limitations ended up neutering what could have been a fine localization.

Even so, VII's premise remains one of the best in the series: You begin the game on your world's sole island, and end up restoring the rest of the planet bit-by-bit by heading to the past and righting what went wrong. Thankfully, there is a 3DS port that fixes many of VII's unfortunate issues, and it will launch in North America this summer. Until then, the only way to play Dragon Quest VII in English remains the original 2001 PlayStation release, brought over here under the title "Dragon Warrior VII."

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Comments 28

  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #1 cldmstrsn A year ago
    This will definitely help our friend Andrew Mayes on his way to loving Dragon Quest!
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #2 Lord-Bob-Bree A year ago
    There are some good side games, too! The Monsters series is a fun way to get your Pokemon fix that I can't recommend enough (mechanically, I'd recommend Joker), and the Torneko games started the idea of mystery dungeon games. I've heard Rocket Slime is good, too, but I've yet to play it.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #3 bobservo A year ago
    @Lord-Bob-Bree I thought about writing up the spinoffs, but we could honestly do an entire article on those.Edited October 2015 by bobservo
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  • Avatar for beardochris #4 beardochris A year ago
    Good job with the article. It comes oddly enough just a few months too late for me, since I just finished playing IV, V, and VI for the first time, but I completely agree with your suggestions. Interestingly enough, I found DQ as a series to be much more accessible than any of the more recent Final Fantasy games from the perspective of someone who loved the SNES era FF games.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #5 SargeSmash A year ago
    I can see Dragon Quest VII taking 100 hours (because it did!), but I got through VIII in 75, including the post-game content. Now, I didn't beat down that boss multiple times... but if you don't dawdle too much on some of the side content, it's not so bad.

    As in the other thread, I think it's Dragon Warrior III and IV that I'll always have a soft spot for. I started with the original, but yeah, it hasn't aged very well.
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  • Avatar for Ghopper101 #6 Ghopper101 A year ago
    We need that VII 3DS release. It's the perfect portable DQ game.
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  • Avatar for Xemus80 #7 Xemus80 A year ago
    My first foray into DQ came with DQ8 on PS2, which I basically bought for the playable FF12 demo; I was pleasantly surprised when DQ8 ended up being so good. (And probably better than FF12, if I had to compare the two.)
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  • Avatar for andrewmayes78 #8 andrewmayes78 A year ago
    @cldmstrsn I was about to ask, "Aw, did you guys write this article just for me? You shouldn't have!"
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  • Avatar for themblan #9 themblan A year ago
    I can't wait for Dragon Quest on NX.
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  • Avatar for ChairmanYang #10 ChairmanYang A year ago
    While I like the idea behind it, this is a disappointing article. It doesn't talk about differences between versions (if someone's starting with, say, DQ4, should they go with the NES, DS, or mobile versions? And why is the mobile DQ8 not the best place to play? And so on) and is pretty shallow on details about which game to start with.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #11 TernBird A year ago
    I've always wanted to get my hands on Dragon Quest V, after Jeremy Parish talked it up as one of the best DQs on 1Up.com. Sadly, that game was printed in criminally small numbers (because DQ sells badly).

    Someday...
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  • Avatar for TrustyPanda #12 TrustyPanda A year ago
    @Lord-Bob-Bree Rocket Slime is brilliant! It's worth tracking down.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #13 bobservo A year ago
    @ChairmanYang This article is meant to be a broad overview of the series for newcomers, and lists the preferred version of each game. For the record, the mobile ports of IV, V, VI are based on the DS games and practically identical. I sincerely hope no one thinks I want them to track down the extremely expensive original releases!Edited October 2015 by bobservo
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  • Avatar for link6616 #14 link6616 A year ago
    @bobservo Are they really that expensive? I mean, they didn't go down in value much, but I managed to get DQIV (US version) for about $30, and it seems the current average is closer to 40.

    Which is expensive as far as DS games go, but still well within any person's budget who already considers new 3DS games an option.

    Money and value are of course very people dependent, but when I hear "expensive" I tend to think "more than the new price for a game out now"as the minimum. And this is pretty solidly in line with your average new 3DS game.

    But price is just a really strange issue overall... (any also my views on prices are double skewed because I've only lived in Japan and the Australia, where 50-70 is more the standard new handheld game price)Edited October 2015 by link6616
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  • Avatar for link6616 #15 link6616 A year ago
    I just looked up the cost of Dragon Quest V on DS now... That's certainly more than I expected.
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  • Avatar for ChairmanYang #16 ChairmanYang A year ago
    @bobservo I would like to mention that the mobile version of DQ4 is as probably definitive, as it has the party chat feature missing from the DS version.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #17 bobservo A year ago
    @link6616 I should have clarified: I meant the original NES carts.
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  • Avatar for ErrorCode1337 #18 ErrorCode1337 A year ago
    Excellent post@bobservo! After listening to the respective Retronauts episode on the topic I was tempted to shoot an email your guys' way to ask the best way to get into the games. I love JRPGs and have never so much as held a copy of DQ, but my very limited free time makes me reluctant to get into such a massive series. These days a single basic 40 hour RPG could easily take me until the end of the year to finish with my schedule. Fortunately I think I'll take your advice and start with checking out III to see what all the fuss is about.Edited October 2015 by ErrorCode1337
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #19 TheWildCard A year ago
    Man after waiting so long for the DQ VII remake I hope it's actually a good one.
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  • Avatar for Yortralient #20 Yortralient A year ago
    This topic is just what I've been considering lately. I've never played through a Dragon Quest game before, but I would like to. I'm thinking I'll start with one of the DS games. Thanks, Bob.
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  • Avatar for mnicolai #21 mnicolai A year ago
    @Lord-Bob-Bree Rocket Slime is wonderful, highest recommendation for DQ fans.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #22 riderkicker A year ago
    @SargeSmash I spent 50 hours in Dragon Quest VII on the PS1, but gave up when the grind got too much for me. (Un)lucky for me the memory card also erased itself soon after. :\
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #23 riderkicker A year ago
    I definitely recommend the Retronauts v3 DQ podcast, because the Live episode wasn't as in-depth as it was just Jeremy Parish and Marty Sliva.

    I'd have to say play IV or V, because they are the tops storywise. VII is interesting, but was a waste of the PS1's capabilities.
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  • Avatar for Hero-Protagonist #24 Hero-Protagonist A year ago
    My first Dragon Quest game was Mistwalker's incredibly derivative Blue Dragon.

    I remember the lukewarm critical response at the time and the comparisons to Dragon Quest, luckily for me the DS remakes were on the horizon and I started with IV and I haven't looked back since.
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  • Avatar for capedconstable #25 capedconstable A year ago
    The only one I have ever played was Rocket Slime which was amazingly awesome! I will have to get some of the early games and play them as I love old school rpg's and Dragon Quest is the only series I have not really dove into yet. Thanks for the guide Bob.
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  • Avatar for Woogity #26 Woogity A year ago
    @TernBird Actually Dragon Quest V was reprinted a couple years ago and the price has dropped. You can still get it brand new for less than $30.
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  • Avatar for grayholiday #27 grayholiday A year ago
    I picked up DQ IV and V for DS a few months back, but haven't touched either one. After reading this, I think IV would be the perfect place to start for me.

    Today Square Enix announced that Dragon Quest Builders is coming to the West this year. I'm looking forward to that one more than VII, VIII or XI!
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #28 Godots17thCup 8 months ago
    You know, I'd be really interested to see a similar guide for just the Dragon Quest spin-offs. There's such a rich and interesting history there, though the bulk of them are admittedly harder for the average Western player to get their hands on than the mainline series.
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