Final Fantasy, Pokemon, and Chrono Trigger: all of these games are considered titans of the RPG genre. However none of these games would exist without a game that is often overlooked in the US, and that game is Dragon Quest.
Dragon Quest was the brain child of Akira Toriyama, Koichi Sugiyama and Yujii Horii. Akira Toriyama was the character designer for Dragon Quest. You might know him as the creator of Dragon Ball Z. His art style brings a cute and approachable feeling to Dragon Quest that truly makes the game different than other RPG’s in the genre both in 1986 and now. Where most games give you a dark and serious tone with its creature design, Toriyama created a cute and child like world that is able to bounce from serious to goofy and not feel dissonant. His monster design paved the way for creative and iconic monsters in RPG’s in games such as: Mother, Pokemon and Undertale.
Koichi Sugiyama was already a famous composer before his time with Dragon Quest. Originally a composer for musicals, commercials, pop artists and anime Sugiyama was interested in pursuing video games as his next project. After Sugiyama sent in a fan letter detailing his love of a PC shogi game he was invited to Enix during the 1980’s and was brought on as a games composer. Sugiyama was the first video game composer to use a live orchestra to record his video game music. He wrote 8 distinct melodies for the game composed in this order opening, castle, town, field, dungeon, battle, final battle and ending songs. This order went on to be used a template for future RPGs in the genre. And his composing style created a classic and epic feeling that is still felt in modern Dragon Quest games today.
Finally we have Yujii Horri. Yujii Horii is a Video game designer and writer that is best known as one of the writers behind Chrono Trigger, the creator of the first visual novel and the video game designer behind the Dragon Quest series. Horii wanted an RPG that fused the top down gameplay of Ultima with the combat from Wizardry. If you don’t know those games then that’s okay. Both of these PC games started in the United States and evolved from Dungeons and Dragons. When creating Dragon Quest Horri wanted to fuse the gameplay popularized by American PC gaming with Japanese character building and dialogue choices that he developed in the first visual novel Portopia Serial Murder Case. Portopia had dialogue options, and menu navigation that would later become staples of the RPG genre.
Dragon Quest combined ideas together from various games from both America and Japan. Horri was inspired, Ultima and Wizardry, two games he saw in America during his trip to Apple Fest in 1983. He fused those two gameplay mechanics with ideas that he had developed during his creation of Portopia. Ultima utilized an over-world map that the character could traverse that created a sense of space and evoked a sense of adventure. While Wizardry gave the player a first person perspective to battle creating a sense of personal involvement and an authentic battle experience. The original Dragon Quest game took these two concepts and had them work in tandem. The player character would navigate an open world and that would cause a first person battle that the player would fight using menus.
The combination of those mechanics was instrumental in the creation of the RPG genre and helped create the current landscape. The first Dragon Quest featured gameplay and narrative elements that are still being used today. It features an open world, non-linear progression, dialogue choices and many more. One stand out is the bad ending system. A common feature in Shin Megami Tensei games are a “bad ending” where certain choices throughout the game can cause you to have a game over screen where you fail to save the world. This narrative gameplay mechanic started in Dragon Quest. In Dragon Quest 1 before your encounter the Final Boss asks you to make a deal and offers you half of the world. Accepting his offer causes a game over and the screen to go red. This gameplay emphasizes narrative and player choice that affects the world. This philosophy would go on to be one of the pillars of RPG story telling.
Dragon Quest is no doubt one of the greatest game series of all time. Toriyama’s art style helped make the game feel fun and lighthearted. Sugiyama’s classical score helped fill the world with a sense of wonder. Horii’s game design paved the way for RPGs as a whole and popularized gameplay features that would truly push forward video games as a medium. Dragon Quest is the exact mixture of these great things coming together and that is why it resonates with so many people and helped create a genre that I love.
Editor-at-Large of OK Beast. Jersey boy living in Tokyo, Japan. My brand is existential dread. I commit anime sin so you don't have to.