Square-Enix surprised all of us last month by unexpectedly dropping Dragon Quest I and IV into the iOS App Store. And, seeing as I recently upgraded from an ancient iPhone 4—purchased during those Caveman Times of 2011—to the new, shiny, 6, I decided to treat myself to a few of my favorite old-school RPGs. If you've been following the recent history of console games making their way to the mobile format, though, you might have guessed my little experiment ended in disappointment.
That said, Dragon Quest IV iOS barely squeaks by as "acceptable." Square-Enix has a history of putting old DS games on mobile devices, and this version of DQIV presents the excellent 2008 remake with minimal effort—good thing they're working with such great source material. The real culprit here? The original Dragon Quest: an RPG so basic, it should be impossible to screw up. Yet, without a great DS game to work from—its appearance indicates DQ1 iOS may be a port of an older mobile version—this classic RPG suffers in terms of control and presentation, making it an altogether unpleasant experience.
But it doesn't have to be that way! With iOS versions of Dragon Quest II and III on the horizon, we could be seeing another two installments of the series receive sub-par treatment in their mobile forms. And while Square-Enix will most likely do whatever they want regardless of my complaints, I'd still like to offer three ways ports of these classic games can shine on iOS.
Stop Hurting My Eyes
True, the original Dragon Quest isn't known for its stunning graphics. But it debuted in 1986, when standards were much different, and the game made effective use of its simple assets and a cast of cartoonish monsters created by Dragon Ball's Akira Toriyama. When it came time to remake the game for Super Famicom in 1993, Enix didn't bother to complicate its appearance: Dragon Quest kept the same, basic look, but with a few more pixels and colors to throw around.
DQ iOS, on the other hand, is a visually inconsistent mess that appears to be horizontally squishing the original image into the iDevice's portrait format, which ruins the integrity of its detailed pixel art. Instead of haphazardly shoving the image into a rectangle, why not treat the iDevice's screen as a window in which we're peering into the Dragon Quest world? It's not like these environments are insanely complex or anything—and, besides, they're designed to scroll. In its current form, the characters in DQ iOS look thin and sickly, and what should be simple, square pixels often dissolve into ugly, asymmetrical blobs of color.
Breathe Some Life Into Your UI
This has been an issue with most Square-Enix mobile ports, and the tradition continues as expected with Dragon Quest iOS. Again, the game presents its information with basic windows and fonts you'd find in the most utilitarian of apps. C'mon guys: This is a video game! Let's make it feel like one. Dragon Quest is incredibly simple, so why not have fun with it? Give me some colorful icons, a big, glowy HP bar, and, for Christ's sake, how about a font with some serifs? At least DQIV on iOS has the latter. While playing DQI, there's a strange disconnect when characters speaking in Early Modern English have their words rendered in the iOS equivalent of Arial. Simply put, when I sit down to play an RPG, it shouldn't feel like I'm booting up an app to pay my cable bill.
Virtual D-Pads Aren't the only Solution
Both DQ1 and DQ4 on iOS feature virtual d-pads, though this control method works much better in the latter, seeing as the DS remake on which it's based ditched the original's tile-by-tile movement system. Unfortunately, you still move the old-fashioned way in this version of Dragon Quest I, which can cause some major problems when trying to accomplish very simple objectives. Moving through a one-tile-wide doorway, for instance, feels almost like cracking a safe, as you hold your breath, gentle brushing the virtual controls this way and this that, hoping you don't overshoot the entrance to that inn or item shop.
Obviously, Square-Enix should eliminate the tile-based movement entirely from these ports, though Dragon Quest IV's setup still isn't ideal. While playing both of these games, I thought back to the DS' Dragon Quest IX, which allowed you to play through the entire game using the touchscreen alone—but didn't resort to virtual controls. Instead, you simply drew a line outwards from your character, which would create an arrow they'd follow until you lifted the stylus. But if you kept the tip on the screen, you could effortlessly steer your party anywhere by moving the point of the arrow towards your destination. Not the most complicated idea, but one that's rarely (if ever) been reused since.
Thankfully, you don't have to keep your thumb on this virtual d-pad at all times in DQI iOS (though this isn't the case with DQIV iOS), but it still takes up real estate on your screen with an icon that doesn't at all match the graphics underneath—and no, you can't remove it entirely. I think it's safe to say, at this point, no one likes virtual d-pads, and they're always used as the most obvious, low-effort answer to input on console-to-mobile ports. And we all know these games deserve much better treatment than what they've received so far.
[Editor's Note: I was unaware that Dragon Quest II actually came out in the app store yesterday--most likely because it's the 17th (!) entry that comes up in a search for "Dragon Quest." Please note that this article is only based on my time with Dragon Quest I and IV.]