Review: “Dragon Quest” for iOS

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Dragon Quest box

In 1975, Japanese businessman Yasuhiro Fukushima founded a company called Eidansha Boshu Service Center. It published tabloid magazines that advertised real estate. However, after failing to establish its own chain of stores, Fukushima refashioned the company to focus on gaming software and renamed it Enix. This was in 1982. To find talent for his company, Fukushima created a competition called the “Enix Game Hobby Program Contest.” The contest, modeled after manga competitions, was advertised in computer and manga magazines and offered a prize of one million Yen to the winner. The top winner was an editor for the manga magazine Shonen Jump, Yuji Horii, whose tennis game Love Match Tennis became Enix’s first release.

During the development of another game called The Portopia Serial Murder Case, Horii and his colleague Koichi Nakamura came across a RPG called Wizardry at a Macworld Conference & Expo. Horii became a fan of the game. After finishing Portopia, he decided that he wanted to create a similar game to Wizardry, with the goal of bringing the Western RPG to Japan. A second major inspiration was another RPG called Ultima. While Horii and Nakamura enjoyed the dungeon crawling and statistical nature of RPGs, they realized most gamers would not. He wanted a game that didn’t require being a hardcore gamer; specifically, he wanted to a make a game that the player could play without knowledge of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG, which had been used for years in Japan as a template for homegrown games. He decided the NES was the ideal platform for the game, so that, unlike arcade games, players wouldn’t have to worry about spending money if they died. He simplified the mechanics so the game could be played with a simple NES controller, with a greater emphasis on storytelling and emotional involvement. Manga artist Akira Toriyama, famed for his series Dragon Ball, produced the game’s artwork and well-known television composer Koichi Sugiyama composed the music. The result was Dragon Quest, released in 1986.

At this point, you may be wondering , “Why spend so much time on the background of a game almost thirty years old?” Because, put simply, Dragon Quest is one of the most important games in history. Bits and pieces of it had been seen in video games before, but never woven together so expertly. Its random battles and top-down perspective became the norm for console RPGS for years. Obtaining better equipment, major quests intertwining with minor subquests, an incremental spell system, use of hit points and experience points, and a medieval setting are elements that can be found in countless subsequent RPGs. In short, Dragon Quest set the template for almost every console RPG that followed – including a game published two years later by a failing company called Square, with a title that reflected its staff’s belief that it would be the last game the company would ever make: Final Fantasy.

Of course, both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were great successes, at least in Japan. Dragon Quest, rebranded as Dragon Warrior in the United States, sold poorly and its sequels even worse; Enix was eventually forced to shut down its U.S. offices. Final Fantasy and its sequels, however, sold spectacularly outside Japan. Square merged with Enix in 2003, forming Square Enix, ensuring the continued longevity of both series. Since then, both series have seen their early entries remade many times for many different systems, so it was inevitable that both have also worked their way onto iOS. With such a legendary game finally available to a wide audience for the first time in decades, how does it play?

Pretty damn well, actually, though many are sure to gripe. It must be said that they would not be unreasonable to do so. There is nothing remotely new about any of this game. The game’s mechanics are, in this day and age, downright archaic. The “save the princess, save the world” storyline is beyond bland, though Horii is careful to throw in a nice mid-game twist. Unsurprisingly, it’s very short and can be completed in under ten hours. It also retains the unfortunate portrait mode-only layout of the iOS releases of Dragon Quest IV and VIII. Honestly, however, these disadvantages are curbed by this being an iOS release. The simple gameplay and storyline are fine – ideal, even – if you’re only playing the game for fifteen minutes at time waiting for the bus.

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The game has some distinct advantages even beyond that. Firstly, its gameplay, while simple, is rock solid. The menu-based combat is easily navigated even by beginners. There might not be much to the “grind and level up” system, but it works. Secondly, Akira Toriyama’s monster designs remain charming even now. It’s a delight to encounter the first incarnations of such classic enemies as the Slime (by this point the mascot of Dragon Quest) and the Dracky. Thirdly, Koichi Sugiyama’s music is perfect. In the days of Dragon Quest‘s original release, video game music was extremely simple; the NES only had three tracks for melody and accompaniment. Therefore, a soundtrack that featured memorable melodies was essential, and Sugiyama delivered. The Dragon Quest theme is an unofficial national anthem of sorts in Japan, and live concerts of its music have performed almost yearly.

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The game’s controls are fine. The virtual stick moves only in four directions like the original NES controller; its size can be adjusted in the menu. There is a quicksave option if you don’t have time to reach a save point. The game has been extremely simplified from the original Japanese release in lots of little ways – for example, you no longer have to select which direction you’re facing, or select “Talk” when you want to talk to a character. The monsters drop more gold and EXP than the original, lessening the need to grind. The game retains the Elizabethan English dialogue of the original release, but in a more effective translation (some of the original character names remain changed, however – for example, the legendary hero Loto is still named Erdrick in this release). Luckily for today’s gamers, the graphics and music of this version of the game have been updated (this is a port of the Japanese phone version of the game, itself a remake of the Game Boy Color port of the SNES remake). The graphics look far better than the original NES release, though they aren’t quite up to snuff with the best games of the SNES eras.

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Dragon Quest still a very involving game and I enjoyed every minute of it. Square Enix seems to have realized the limitations of the game and has released it for a modest $2.99. Given how addictive the game remains, it’s money very much well spent. Here’s hoping SE continues to release these classic games for modern audiences to enjoy.