The New Dark Age of Dragon Quest

The New Dark Age of Dragon Quest

As the classic RPG series marches on in Japan with no sign of overseas versions, fans need to face facts: Dragon Quest may be dead in America.

Considering it remains one of Japan's best-selling franchises, Dragon Quest has never really gained much traction in the West. And at this point, I increasingly doubt it ever will. For all intents and purposes, its creators seem to have given up on making it a viable export.

Over the past two years, no less than four Dragon Quest games have launched in Japan (a fifth is on the way before year's end) with no sign or hint of any kind of localization to the West, save a stray, and possibly erroneous, preorder listing on a European Amazon branch. The previous generation saw a sort of renaissance for the series in America in particular, with a couple of high-profile releases and a number of spin-offs and remakes dipping their toes into the turbulent waters of the West. But since 2011's Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2, Japan's favorite RPG series has fallen silent overseas.

At this point, U.S. Dragon Quest fans are nearly five games behind their Japanese peers. While remakes comprise many of those releases, one truly remarkable release numbers among the missing as well: Dragon Quest X, the series' first MMO -- and, prior to the game's recent move to PC, the world's first Nintendo-exclusive MMO as well. In its way, DQX represents a remarkable slice of video game history, but Western gamers may never get to experience it.

Dragon Quest's history outside Japan has always been rocky, and DQX certainly wouldn't be the first game in the series to go unreleased in America. In the beginning, the franchise couldn't even retain its original name here due to copyright issues. Furthermore, the '80s localization gap caused the it to arrive in America a full three years after its Japanese debut, and by the time it made its way over it looked painfully dated (despite having been tweaked with a number of improvements over the Famicom version).

Fortune smiles upon thee, America. You got an RPG.

Nintendo elected to publish the first Dragon Quest itself under the name "Dragon Warrior," likely hoping it could use its clout and reach in America to reproduce the surprise success the series had experienced in its homeland. Yet while all the proper factors seemed to be in place -- Dragon Quest had launched during the peak of the Famicom boom and succeeded in large part due to heavy promotion in a popular comics magazine, while Dragon Warrior debuted at the height of NES mania and received massive promotion to millions of kids through Nintendo Power -- it never happened. Only a couple of years later, Nintendo gave away copies of the game for free to magazine subscribers -- copies, one assumes, that were left over from an overly optimistic production run.

Sure, Dragon Warrior was a modest success in the U.S.; historical sales reports peg it at about half a million units units. But that was merely a third of the game's Japanese sales and didn't seem proportionate to the massive amount of coverage and promotion it had received. Not surprisingly, then, Nintendo let the U.S. publishing duties for its sequels revert to creator Enix, who sold fewer copies of Dragon Warrior II, III, IV combined than Nintendo had of the original Dragon Warrior. At the same time, the series soared to stratospheric success in its homeland, with Dragon Quest III peaking at a staggering 3.7 million copies -- figures exceeded at the time only by NES heavy-hitters Mario, Zelda, and Tetris.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when the series went next-gen on Super NES, even Enix chose not to localize the games. The company brought over a number of good (Robotrek) to excellent (Soul Blazer) 16-bit RPGs, and Nintendo even pitched in to take up publishing duties on Enix RPGs from time to time (Illusion of Gaia). But Dragon Warrior V and VI (along with roguelike spin-off Torneko's Big Adventure) remained in limbo. Eventually, Enix shut down its U.S. operation altogether, seemingly killing any chances of further localizations. American Dragon Quest were ushered into a dark era.

Back before roguelikes were "hip" and "with it."

The series got a second chance at life outside Japan in the PlayStation era, though. Enix published the second Dragon Quest roguelike, Torneko: Last Hope, in the U.S. despite the long odds against it; according to comments made on the Something Awful forums by one of the game's editors, Doug Dinsdale, Last Hope only saw a U.S. release because the localization team was so passionate about it they agreed to work for a substantially reduced rate. It didn't do particularly well at retail, but Enix went ahead and brought Dragon Warrior VII to the U.S. as well. Despite looking like a first-generation PlayStation game being released almost simultaneously against the stunning PS2 blockbuster Final Fantasy X, DWVII managed to sell in the six-figure range here.

Between that minor success and Enix's merger with long-time rival Square in 2003, Dragon Quest powered its way into the PlayStation 2 and DS eras. Thanks to heavy marketing (and perhaps the inclusion of a Final Fantasy XII demo in the package), Dragon Quest VIII performed about as well as the original Dragon Warrior had, and Nintendo's active promotion of Dragon Quest IX ensured that adventure didn't stray too far behind despite the move from PS2 to DS meant the series' visual quality took a significant hit.

A successful release, somehow, even despite Stella.

Still, even then, the series' localization prospects remained dicey. Square Enix was evidently willing to deal with weak sales for Dragon Quest spin-offs in the beginning as an attempt to build the brand, but when modest sales proved to be the rule rather than the exception, they slowly backed away. Rumor has it that the most recent two Dragon Quests to see release in the U.S. -- the Dragon Quest VI remake for DS and Joker 2 -- were completely written off by Square Enix as untenable risks, and they only saw the light of day because they had already been localized, which allowed Nintendo to swoop in and publish them with minimal fuss.

Perhaps that's why we haven't seen any follow-ups here in the U.S.; Square Enix has, by all accounts, given up on making Dragon Quest a major force in the U.S., so once its localization backlog was cleared the cost of bringing new games over here grew too high for Nintendo to stomach, either. (Both Square Enix and Nintendo have declined to comment on the current state of the series or to grant us access to any of the franchise's development staff for insight.) While the series sells moderately well here, companies like Square Enix have become too large to subsist on a catalog of minor successes; they aim for massive hits every time. This state of affairs has swept the industry at large over the past generation. These days, few major game publishers care to worry about games that will sell in 50- to 100-thousand copies.

Slime tanks, AKA the reason video games were invented.

This disinterest in moderate success has left the door open for smaller companies with fewer resources and less overhead to sweep in and set up shop catering to a comparative niche audience -- the Xseeds and Atluses of the world with the Ys and Persona games -- but that doesn't do any good for Dragon Quest. After all, the series may not sell to Square Enix's satisfaction, but it still has tremendous cachet, and the company regards it as a premium brand. That means the licensing fees to bring it stateside would put it out of reach of smaller publishers who might otherwise be satisfied with the small but reliable sales figures Dragon Quest can create. Whatever profits someone like Aksys might be able to scrape out of Dragon Quest would almost certainly be mooted by Square Enix's exorbitant royalty demands.

Honestly, it's difficult to imagine a positive outcome to the situation. As the games industry continues to lock itself further into the AAA rut, publishers continue to polarize game releases into big-budget affairs or indie titles. For a handful of classic Japanese brands like Dragon Quest, there's just no place in the West; they're too big to be indie, but too niche to match the success of the big names. As a huge fan of Dragon Quest, nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong about this... but recent history isn't on this series' side.

What We're Missing

A U.S. release for Dragon Quest X? Even candy-striped ogres approve!

Dragon Quest X (Wii U)

If any Dragon Quest is likely to make its way West, this would be it. Square's previous MMO -- Final Fantasy XI -- is reportedly the company's most profitable game ever, and the potential for the latest Dragon Quest to duplicate that kind of popularity surely must be a heck of a carrot for Square to chase. The DQX team has mentioned plans to make the game an ongoing concern for the next decade, so it should certainly have legs.

The fly in the ointment? DQX was designed for Wii (which is dead and buried in the West) and Wii U (which doesn't have enough of an install base to make localizing something as resource-intensive as an MMO worth the trouble). Thankfully, the game's recent PC conversion improve its chances of making its way overseas. Well, maybe. Square Enix is much more likely to handle the publication of a PC MMO, but if they really have completely abandoned the series, that leaves the game in the hands of Nintendo... who seem unlikely to promote a former Wii/Wii U exclusive on PC.

Considerably prettier than the first time around.

Dragon Quest VII (3DS)

The second most likely contender for eventual localization is the 3DS remake of Dragon Quest VII. On PlayStation, the original game made its way west as Dragon Warrior VII and inspired the most mixed reception of any title in the series. For everyone who loved its vignette-based story structure, someone hated its dated graphics or overly vague design. Thankfully, the remake fixes those issues, tightening up the structure and greatly improving the visuals. Some of the charm of the original story sequences has reportedly been lost, but nevertheless this remake would seem to have plenty of potential for success. Unfortunately, the game's script is massive, which could be a significant impediment for localization.

Gotta catch 'em all.

Dragon Quest Monsters 1 & 2 (3DS)

On the less likely side of things, these remakes of the first two Dragon Quest Monsters games appeared in the U.S. under the name Dragon Warrior Monsters, so plenty of fans here have fond memories of them. However, after the abysmal performance of Joker 2, it's hard to imagine anyone would want to take a chance on this particular sub-franchise again. Never mind that Joker 2 was hardly released under optimal circumstances -- the DS was fading quickly in the U.S. at the time thanks to piracy and the increasing traction of the 3DS -- but for corporate bean-counters, numbers are numbers.

Avast! Slimes ahoy.

Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime 3 (3DS)

Realistically, the least likely candidate for U.S. localization would be the third Slime Morimori Dragon Quest game (the second of which came to the U.S. under the name Rocket Slime). A charming action RPG revolving around the series' de facto mascot, the Slime, Rocket Slime 3 is a little bit Zelda, a little bit ship-to-ship combat a la Assassin's Creed. Unfortunately, this one launched in Japan two years ago, so the prospects of us seeing it at this point are pretty slim.

Dragon Quest: Monster Parade (browser)

OK, actually, the game we're most likely to see is this cheap-looking free-to-play browser game. Square may have abandoned its mid-tier market in favor of chasing large-scale hits outside of Japan, but it's not shy about churning out this sort of thing. Well... better than nothing? Maybe?

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