This week's sad denouement for Nintendo's DS and Wii Wi-Fi Connection got me thinking about my favorite DS game experiences. Such a great system — and of the hundreds of games I played while covering its long and noble life, none grabbed me quite the way Dragon Quest IX did.
I don't know exactly what it was about DQIX that got under my skin, but I can go back to that game any time. I don't often, because a "quick fix" typically turns into a week or two of me neglecting my other gaming obligations — bad for business, when your business involves staying on top of new releases. I've probably poured about 200 hours into DQIX since the game launched in Japan back in 2009, and I even bought a second copy of the game so that I could play through the story again without having to delete my extensive save file.
It's strange to think of myself as such a Dragon Quest addict, because a decade ago I had zero interest in the franchise. I looked down my nose at it, sneering at it for being such a relic. Maybe that's just part of getting old; the things you once saw as tragically unhip suddenly become precious to you. Maybe DQIX just showed up at the right time to hit me right in the elderliness, seducing me with its wonderfully dated graphics and methodical old-school play mechanics. It was a massive handheld RPG that landed at a time when I'd been forced to accept how little room I have in my life to sit down with a lengthy console game, making its portability a boon for my fragmented schedule.
And yet, Dragon Quest IX didn't simply wallow in its own history. The core game was more or less quintessential Dragon Quest, sure, with a focus on resolving standalone stories throughout the world as a means to complete the larger primary quest. What made the game so addictive, though, were the many other things it offered on the side. You could, optionally, play this classic turn-based RPG as a cooperative multiplayer game. You could Street Pass with other fans to swap bonus content; the game contains an intricate system whereby you complete dungeons unlocked by secret maps, which results in new maps being generated, ultimately leading to spectacularly powerful dungeons with famous super-bosses at the end. And then there was crafting.
Crafting systems in video games are pretty much the bane of all right-thinking people, and yet I couldn't stop pursuing the one in DQIX. You can complete about 10% of the "Alchenomicon" (your list of items crafted through alchemy) without too much effort. I've completed more than 50%, and I'm convinced that someday I'll manage the rest, too. Even the pieces that require synthesizing several ultra-rare and nearly one-of-a-kind elements. Faith keeps us going.
The funny thing about DQIX is that I've never actually properly beaten the game, despite the time I've invested into it. I reached the final boss, and his second form stomped me. So I respecced my party with the intention of buffing them for another go-round, but that never really happened. Instead, I just kept wandering around the world, gathering resources. Occasionally, I'll step into a bonus dungeon and see how far I can delve before the randomly generated monsters within grow beyond my capabilities... but mostly, I'm just farming alchemy goods. Did you know that the respawn timing on gathering points is basically about the same as the amount of in-game time it takes to make a complete circuit of the game world? I can't help but feel like the developers deliberately designed it that way so that the obsessive-compulsive among us would find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of resource-hunting and crafting. Cruel.
Everything about DQIX's time-consuming side content should fill me with blind fury for embodying the exploitative, grind-inducing sort of game design that I detest. On the contrary, though, it creates a comfortable groove. When I need to play something stress-free and breezy, I can load up my DQIX save file and wander casually across the world. After a few hours, I've fought a few dozen battles, maybe leveled up a character, and gathered enough resources to inch my way further toward that goal of ultimate Alchenomicon completion — though clearly I still have a long way to go before I hit 100%.
That's fine, though. I know Dragon Quest IX will always be there for me. I can always jump back in and muck about for a while, or make a little more progress toward stomping some of those random grottos. All the famous maps made their way onto my cartridge, and maybe one of these days my crew will be powerful enough to destroy the creatures at the bottom of the famous Masayuki map. At that point, I'd even be strong enough to beat the game and unlock the other post-game content, too.
But I'm not stressing about those things. I'm sure someday I'll get the itch to properly complete DQIX, but for now I like not having to worry about taking it seriously. It's my little getaway, a game that can be as demanding or relaxed — as social or isolated — as I want it to be. And having unlocked all the DLC quests, I don't even need to stress about the loss of Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection. Well, at least not until I finish DQIX on my first and cartridge and start a fresh game on the backup cart, anyway....