What’s so good about Dragon Quest games?

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There’s no nonsense to them. Keep in mind every other JRPG is a Dragon Quest clone, and has to contrive something to set itself apart from Dragon Quest. Draon Quest is, therefore, the fundamental game that everything else is a deviation from.

And there is a certain purity and wholeness to it, as an experience. It’s balanced for a certain sense of immediacy: all that matters is right now.

For the most part, the game realizes where its abstractions are and that they are abstractions. Although it’s mostly just statistics, fighting means something in and of itself: the stronger you get, the further you can safely explore. The larger your world becomes. It’s a barrier you must butt heads with if you want to grow. Nothing to glory in; it’s just a fact. This is compared to most RPGs where you fight to make it easier to beat upcoming bosses, or to level up for the sake of levelling up, or where fighting appears to be the whole point, for whatever reason, rather than a mere fact of exploration in dangerous places — and where you move forward to get to the next area and forward the plot and finish the game.

Its simplicity and its honestness really drive home how most other JPRGs have missed the point — by slapping on extra systems, extra layers of complexity just to make themselves different, trinkets, fetishes, by taking literally things that were abstract for a reason (like the numbers, or the concept of an “overworld”), by putting the focus on petty issues rather than practical ones.

When it comes down to it, Dragon Quest is about growing up, maturing, seeing the world. Experience has meaning, because the more experience you have the broader your world becomes. Money is practical because it allows you buy tools to help you in your travels.

You will constantly be hitting your head against your limit and being forced to go home, rest, recuperate. The next day you go out and hit the world again, a little wiser, a little stronger. Maybe today you’ll see something you never saw before.

That’s more or less the focus of every game. DQ8 makes it more clear by making trees trees, making mountains mountains, giving you a horizon and putting things on it to inspire you to go out and look for them. You will still keep having to go home. Stray too far, too quickly, and you will get in over your head and you will be in trouble. And you might just get killed. Yet that danger just adds all the more excitement to every day’s travel.

Curiously, if you can get around the interface issues (like having to choose “stairs” from a menu every time you want to climb them), the original Dragon Warrior has hardly dated at all. Again, that’s just a matter of the game’s fundamental simplicity. It’s like playing Super Mario Bros. or Asteroids. They’re all complete, as far as they go. Not as complex as current games, but so what. What’s complexity other than complexity. Compare that to Final Fantasy 1, which is pretty much unplayable by current standards. It just doesn’t know what it’s doing, or — more importantly — why it’s doing what it does.

When it comes down to it, playing Dragon Quest is a meditative experience. In Dragon Quest, things just Are. When you play, you just Are. It’s a game about Being. There’s no real goal; anything that the game might throw at you is a MacGuffin, really. Something to get you out the door. It’s a joyous game, a little melancholy, all about the patterns of life and change while always remaining the same. It’s happy simply to exist, and do what it does because that’s what it was put there to do. No ambition. No glory. No drama. Just a quest. A quest after dragons.