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."