“Dragon Quest”‘s Epic Struggle to the Top in America

The Dragon Quest Series of RPGs is one of the most influential and popular series of RPG’s in gaming history. With ten main numbered installments (XI is coming on Nintendo Switch soon) spanning 30 years across various platforms including original NES, SNES, Playstation and Nintendo DS, various spinoff series including Dragon Quest Mystery Dungeon, Monsters, and Monster Battle Road, and small universe of companion manga, anime and novels, this series has been a mainstay of RPG gaming. It has huge influence, affecting either the gameplay or design of every major RPG that has come since its original 1986 release, including Final Fantasy, Earthbound, the Tales series, Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, the Lufia series, Breath of Fire series, and Fire Emblem series. It has a world wide following, having sold over 65 million units world wide and holds 6 (yes 6) records in the Guinness Book of World Records, including  “Best Selling Role Playing Game on the Super Famicom”, “Fastest Selling Game in Japan”, and “First Video Game Series to Inspire a Ballet”! It is a cultural touchstone in Japan, and often considered as its “national game”.

So why, despite its world wide fame and near legendary cult following in Japan, exceeding even that of Final Fantasy, has its simple, elegant, yet constantly changing framework of gameplay, captivating story telling, and beautiful animation and art design failed to consistently top American charts and hearts? Surely the solid writing of famous writer and direction of Yuji Horii (he freakin’ wrote Chrono Trigger!) art of Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, the sonorous tones of famous television composer Koichi Sugiyama, the solid publisher name of Square Enix, the granduer and drama of storied heroes and characters like Loto (Erdrick), Bianca, Arlena, and of course Yangus from VIII,  and a Slime mascot with cuteness to rival Pikachu, would be more than enough to win over an American audience who are obsessed with all the things this series has helped influence? Yet while Dragon Quest has a solid but moderate cult following in America, it has consistently fallen behind in sales numbers, popularity, and cultural proliferation. What is America missing? How is this possible? Here are some possible reasons:

Name Switch and Sporadic American Releases

Better late than never!

The marketing on this game and its release cycle has been wildly inconsistent over the years, which makes it hard to get a series stuck into the cultural consciousness and on the forefront of people’s minds when they think “RPG”. Orginally released in America as “Dragon Warrior”, it received 7 releases under the Dragon Warrior title before officially being rebranded into its Dragon Quest Japanese namesake with the release of Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, for the PS2 in 2005 (later for the 3DS) with Level-5 as the developer. In that time, all games were called Dragon Warrior, and there were several dropped releases, false rumors of release, and skipped entries that were later re-released on portable and digital dowload. So confusing! This kind of treatment would make it hard for any series to get a solid traction in a market, hence Dragon Quest fell behind more consistent and high profile releases like Final Fantasy, Xenogears, Tales series, and Star Ocean.

It’s not Dragon Ball Z

Not Goku and not Pilaf.

Many players who are not familiar with the series in America, but know Dragon Ball Z (because who in America hasn’t at least heard “Kamehameha”) see the art style and immediately recognize Toriyama’s work, and then instantly relegate it to cartoonish anime with simple battle menus (which is not an entirely inaccurate description, despite how awesome lots of us consider that to be) and move on to something more complex, or dark, or bloody, or action packed. Again, the American RPG palette has different tastes that Japan. It’s a cultural thing as well as a marketing thing.

Simple Style, Gameplay, Characters and Childish Vibe

Part of Dragon Quest’s appeal is its young warm, welcoming and cartoonish art style, ease of gameplay, and familiar plots that make it easy for new players, especially kids (hook ’em when they are young!) to access and enjoy. It’s not an intimidating series to start. For repeat players, it’s instant, blissful nostalgia. But it is these very endearing traits, like an old familiar robe, that are also its weakness: it is worn and it is the very similar from installment to installment. The Tales series suffers from something similar, but not as egregiously as Dragon Quest. As players grow and mature with the series, and as new players who have experience with more involved and complicated stories, intricate battle and stat systems, and tortured, complex and dynamic characters search for new games to play, especially with an American view point, they may pass over it in favor of something more “grown-up”, which is sad, but a completely valid act and a valid critique of the series.

The Future of Dragon Quest

DQ XI looks amazing on PS4!

Yet with all these hangups, Dragon Quest continues to journey on, and its popularity in America is finally starting to grow and progress. While it will never have the cultural, financial, and industry impact that it has had in Japan, nor enjoy the success games like Final Fantasy has in America, it will continue to grow in the hearts and minds of American RPG games because despite all its flaws of simple, relatively unchanged art style, gameplay, story elements and subject matter, it is a solid series and entertaining, with well executed and enjoyable games. Already the newer iterations are picking up steam and increasing in popularity: Dragon Quest IX sold over a million copies outside of Japan and Dragon Quest X’s experiment with online MMORPG gameplay (akin to Final Fantasy XI) is set for finally getting an American release (it has of course already topped out in Japan) and Dragon Quest XI is slated for Japanese release this year and soon after, an American release, and  the trailers look fantastic! While what these games do may be nothing new under the sun, what they lack in innovation they make up for in mastery of long wrought RPG skills honed over decades of experience, experience that forged the way for other RPG series to grow and move forward. Without Dragon Quest, there would not be a Final Fantasy, a Tales series, a Xenoblade as we know them. So try one out as an innocent, semi guilty pleasure ( VI, VIII and now X are particular favorites of mine) watch one of the animes or read a manga offshoot, and take a JRPG quest all your own!