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The History of RPGs: How Dragon Quest Redefined a Genre

COVER STORY: 30 years ago, a small team of Japanese game designers changed the way the world looked at role-playing games.

Retrospective by Jeremy Parish, .

This article is the first entry of a series about the history and evolution of role-playing games, both in the west and in Japan. To kick off the series, we're looking back at one of the most influential RPGs ever made: Dragon Quest, which turned 30 on May 27.

Birth of a new genre

To fully appreciate the impact and importance of Dragon Quest, you need to look back to the state of console role-playing games prior to the game's debut in May 1986. In short, there was no such thing as a proper RPG on consoles. The genre thrived on personal computers, but had failed to cross over to dedicated, television-based systems. Dragon Quest broke a previously insurmountable barrier, bringing a genre that had been exclusive to expensive, complex computers to a more consumer- and kid-friendly platform — and one with much stricter technical limitations as well.

This isn't to say no one had tried to make RPGs work on consoles prior to May 1986. In fact, king of the genre Dungeons & Dragons had made its debut on Mattel's Intellivision back in 1983 with Treasure of Tarmin. Before that, Warren Robinett had made a strong early attempt at streamlining the essence of dungeon crawling to work with the Atari 2600's single-button joystick and 4K of memory back in 1979 with Adventure. That seminal Atari release helped inspire a number of similar proto-action-RPGs, including Exidy's Venture and Namco's Tower of Druaga. Both of those games had bravely attempted to transplant RPG concepts into the arcade, where three-minute play sessions were the golden ideal — a difficult fit for a genre whose quests could last for dozens of hours on PC. And Druaga, in turn, exerted no small influence over Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda, which had debuted a mere four months prior to Dragon Quest.

Still, all of these games took tremendous liberties with the core underpinnings of RPGs. Venture had more in common with Rally-X than with Rogue, and The Legend of Zelda was originally slated to star premiere action hero Mario. Dragon Quest stood apart by offering most of the elements PC RPG fanatics took as mandatory: Statistics, experience levels, random enemy encounters, turn-based combat, and a sprawling world filled with non-player characters to nudge the hero ever forward in his or her quest. Games like Druaga and Zelda had abstracted most of these elements or replaced them outright, with heroic progress measured through the acquisition of item upgrades rather than via earned experience points. Proper RPGs had been almost non-existent outside of Treasure of Tarmin, which involved a snappier rendition of the first-person dungeon-crawling seen in the likes of Wizardry and The Bard's Tale; its short quest to kill a Minotaur and claim its eponymous treasure could be completed in a matter of minutes, depending on the difficulty setting.

So, the question in 1986 wasn't whether or not RPGs would become a feature of game consoles; inevitably, someone was bound figure out how to make it work. The question instead was, how would it work? And who would be the one to crack the code?

The answer to the second question provided the solution to the first. The architects of the console RPG ended up being a developer called Chun Soft, working under the auspices of publisher Enix. The two companies had worked as exclusive collaborators since the developer's inception: Chun Soft had been founded by a teenage programmer named Koichi Nakamura, who won an Enix-sponsored amateur game design contest with his Mappy-esque platform action game Door Door. Nakamura used his considerable earnings to establish his own company, which he named for Door Door protagonist Chun. The studio's follow-up saw another aspiring game designer by the name of Yuji Horii bring to life a revolutionary graphical adventure game called Portopia Rezoku Satsuijin Jiken (The Portopia Serial Murder Case).

Portopia had been a fairly standard adventure game when it debuted on PC, sitting somewhere between Sierra graphical adventures like King's Quest and Infocom's text adventures in its execution: It used a text-based parser as players moved through scenic images hunting for clues. Horii's game had debuted around the same time that Nintendo launched its Family Computer console in Japan (which would be known as the NES when it launched in America several years later), and the quick rise to success of that platform inspired Chun Soft to port its computer games to Famicom. As an action-based creation, Door Door's conversion proved a cinch and ended up being one of Famicom's first third-party game releases; it became a massive success. Portopia, on the other hand, posed a greater challenge. While its text parser could have theoretically been designed to work with Nintendo's Family Basic keyboard peripheral, that would have limited Portopia's console version to the fraction of Famicom owners who also purchased the keyboard. And in any case, the full-sized Famicom Basic PC-style keyboard dwarfed the console itself and undermined the compact, streamlined nature of console gaming. Besides, if players wanted a PC experience, Portopia was available on PC already.

Many of Dragon Quest's design innovations came from Horii's breakthrough graphical adventure, The Portopia Serial Murder Case. [SOURCES: alvanista.com and vgmuseum.com]

Instead, Nakamura collaborated with Horii to reinvent the game for the Famicom's standard interface: A small controller featuring a directional cross-pad, two action buttons, and smaller chiclet-style Select and Start keys. The pair completely overhauled Portopia's interface design for console, removing the text parser while adding a windowed style reminiscent of the cutting-edge computer operating systems of the time, Microsoft's Windows 1.0 and Apple's Macintosh. Rather than using trial-and-error to determine the proper words and syntax necessary to solve Portopia's murder mystery as had been required on PC, Famicom players instead selected commands from a limited palette of terms that would branch into new options as players navigated the text menus. It was a fresh, new take on the graphical adventure, and the idea would be widely imitated — not only by other Famicom adventures, but also by Icom's MacVenture series and the entirety of the LucasFilm Games/LucasArts adventure canon. The directness of the interface helped make Portopia, Famicom's first adventure game, into a monster hit.

The huge popularity and sales of Chun Soft's Famicom productions gave the developer an enormous amount of latitude, and Nakamura and Horii decided to take advantage of that freedom by giving the Famicom its first proper role-playing game. "During that time, Horii-san was really into Ultima, and I was really into Wizardry," Nakamura told me in a 2011 interview. "So both of us said, 'Why don't we create a role-playing game?' We were really into RPGs at the time."

Like many Japanese game developers in the ’80s, Nakamura and Horii found themselves drawn to imported Western RPGs, even before those games had been properly localized into Japanese. Dutch expatriate Henk Rogers gave Japan its first homegrown hit RPG in 1984's The Black Onyx, but that wouldn't make its way to Japanese consoles — both Famicom and SEGA's SG-1000 — until 1988. Many other developers created their own crude attempts at RPG design as well, but always for computers, and rarely with anything resembling critical or commercial success. In the meantime, the RPG fans at Chun Soft found themselves ensnared by these foreign releases; the duo reputedly encountered Wizardry at an Apple computer expo in California and fell instantly in love with the genre and challenging mystery it represented.

"[With Wizardry], you don't know what kind of monster is going to appear," Nakamura says. "And the fact that your character becomes stronger and stronger, evolving as you play the game... that was a big attraction. And also the treasures and everything, and the map. I remember it being a 20-by-20 map, but I used to create my own 3D map on graph paper, just imagining what the dungeon could be like. That was fascinating to me."

With their shared love of Western role-playing, it only made sense for Nakamura and Horii to attempt to create their own take on the genre. And so Dragon Quest was born.

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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #1 kevinbowyer34 2 years ago
    Anytime I see a 15 minute+ article read on usgamer, I get flutters in my stomach. putting this one on the reading list for a slow hour at work tomorrow.
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  • Avatar for NeoRasa #2 NeoRasa 2 years ago
    This is a great piece, I appreciate your acknowledging how it's endeared for so long because of how it gives us equal parts of charm and menace (I think the same could be said of Legend of Zelda and lot the other great RPGs/action RPGs of the time).
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #3 riderkicker 2 years ago
    I wonder if Toriyama actually did the sprite work for the first games in the series, even if he was already deep in Dragon Ball at the time. If not, it's pretty cool that the pixel art actually resembles what he drew on paper. Final Fantasy now has the capabilities to make Amano's art a reality, but we will never see such a video game, especially when that ship has long sailed.

    I got into the series when I started emulating on my first actual computer, which was after 2000. I've been playing Pokemon for a while, but never got the Dragon Quest games mostly because I could only get one game a year when I was a kid. V was the first game in the series I ever played and my heart grew.
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  • Avatar for NarpasSword #4 NarpasSword 2 years ago
    Features/articles like this one are what make USGamer and it's team the best. This was a fantastic read! I look forward to the rest of the series.
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #5 TheWildCard 2 years ago
    Good stuff! Always good to read a big picture analysis of influential games.
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #6 Godots17thCup 2 years ago
    I always get a little song in my heart every time I see a new Dragon Quest article here, and this one didn't disappoint. Well done, Jeremy!

    I was one of those people that first became spellbound by the series when Square-Enix made their big North American push with Dragon Quest VIII. The bright colors, the cheery character and monster designs, the vast overworld, the endless puns, a sense of melancholy that often seems to be just below the surface, a straightforward storyline that could deal with heavy material without leaning too much on angst, cynicism or melodrama - the game won me over almost instantly. I found it very refreshing at the time and now that I'm replaying VIII for the first time since 2005, I still find it absolutely captivating.

    Every Dragon Quest I've played since VIII has managed to make me feel the same way while still feeling like its own distinct entity, and even though the series will likely never be the mega-selling institution here that it is in Japan, it has at least succeeded at turning me into a lifelong fan.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #7 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    Before I get stuck into the article, I'd just like to say that stuff like this is exactly why USG is the best games site I've ever come across. I literally read every article, and always point my friends in your direction.

    Edit: OK, finished - that was a real eye opener for me, not knowing much about DQ. Fantastic to see how things we take for granted evolved.Edited June 2016 by VotesForCows
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  • Avatar for IPA #8 IPA 2 years ago
    Parish is the only games journalist I read / care about anymore. This article is a fine example why.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #9 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    Great article as usual, Jeremy! Dragon Quest is a very important series for video games and RPGs, it deserves to this level of insight.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #10 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    "Holy crap! It totally hit me. I was from the legendary bloodline, but I wasn't the hero. My son was! All of a sudden I had this huge swell of emotion. For five seconds, this 16-bit JRPG made me feel proud to be the father of a son that didn't exist. Dragon Quest as a series is full of that kind of stuff. Little moments that really tug at your emotional heart strings in just the right way without being saccharine."

    Fraioli shares a similar sentiment. "Dragon Quest taught me that a JRPG need not be melodramatic or action-packed to have an effect on the player," he says. "It's a style of storytelling that I feel a lot of Japanese developers are losing sight of, and subsequently falling back on Akiba-focus-grouped flashy BS that is heavy on fashion and light on everything else. Dragon Quest has never been about the Big Bad Evil — they are all almost intentionally designed to be generic beasts — but about the smaller quests along the way that develop the world or characters.


    While I'm never the biggest DQ fan, the time spent with these has always had a strong effect on me. Sincere, full of brevity and empathy, and always in this "of all ages" language and tenor.

    So yeah, Japan aint the only country that could use a good dose of that.
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  • "Portopia had been a fairly standard adventure game when it debuted on PC, sitting somewhere between Sierra graphical adventures like King's Quest and Infocom's text adventures in its execution: It used a text-based parser as players moved through scenic images hunting for clues"

    That's actually exactly what Sierra graphical adventures were like through at least Kings Quest IV and the early releases in most of their series (original Heroes Quest / Quest for Glory.) It wasn't until later that they moved to the icons, so in the early days hunting for the right nouns and verbs was important just like in an Infocom game.
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  • Avatar for moochan #12 moochan 2 years ago
    Still need to play Portopia. Got a English back version but still never actually checked it out. I'm just happy SE is back to giving us DQ games. While still had over no Joker 3 and Rocket Slime 3DS I can't say no to 7 (favorite), 8 and of course Builders.
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  • Avatar for InsertTokenz #13 InsertTokenz 2 years ago
    Excellent write up Jeremy!

    I find it funny that despite really getting into JRPGs back in the 90's with the Final Fantasy series, I found myself growing distant from the sub-genre after the PlayStation 2 as most of the games coming out then didn't resonate with me (I think it had to do with the more "alien" or otherworldly style many of them took conceptually as opposed to being grounded in more relatable high-fantasy/sci-fi trappings). It seems almost poetic that it would take playing Dragon Quest IV,V, and IX on my DS to reignite my love of JRPGs all over again.

    Somehow staying traditional in style, yet usually offering up something distinct in nearly each entry, the Dragon Quest series hits a sweet spot with me the way Final Fantasy now has been less likely to do. I look forward to playing more Dragon Quest in the years to come!
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  • Avatar for garion333 #14 garion333 2 years ago
    Phenomenal article!
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #15 SargeSmash 2 years ago
    I always love writeups like this, especially when it's about my favorite RPG series. Thanks for the great article, Jeremy!
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  • Avatar for docexe #16 docexe 2 years ago
    Fantastic article, thank you. I especially appreciate how you detailed the context on which the game was released. I think we often forget it given how quickly technology advances in this medium, but it’s good to remember that classics like Dragon Quest were genuinely groundbreaking for a reason.
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  • Avatar for ghostsandgoblins #17 ghostsandgoblins 2 years ago
    Good article, thanks. I played Dragon Warrior once at a friend's house, but soon dropped out of gaming for awhile and missed this series. With Dragon Quest VII coming to the 3DS soon, I wanted to learn more.

    I played a ton of Treasure of Tarmin growing up. I also played a lot of D&D and thought the game was a pretty robust replication of the role playing experience for the time. It was really difficult on the hardest level. You had peripheral vision, and I remember being legitimately scared when I saw an enemy in the corner of my "eye" that I just knew was going to kill me. The suddenness of the death sound effect and quick switch to the map screen with the flashing cursor that resembled a tombstone was an excellent touch.
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