What’s so good about Dragon Quest games?

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.

Author: Azure

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5 thoughts on “What’s so good about Dragon Quest games?”

  1. I get this weird feeling that we’re sort of the same person when it comes to looking at games, only you direct most of your attention at Japanese/Eastern games, and I direct most of my attention at Western games.

    Much of what you say about Dragon Quest versus later JRPGs parallels, for instance, Wing Commander 1 versus later military space sims, and Privateer versus, say, Freelancer. To wit:

    Privateer wasn’t the first open-ended space sim, but both it and Wing Commander exhibit a purity of design compared to their successors. They are both games (plausibly) created from a design logic that asks what the *experience* of the game should be like, without overt reference to other games or other logics of “how games should be made”. For instance, when you compare Privateer to Freelancer, you notice how much more handholding the latter does, and on multiple axes. There are tooltips constantly explaining things to you, for instance, whereas Privateer had none. There is a bar chart displaying exactly what other factions think of you, whereas this was only discernable in Privateer through the experience and degree of hostility or non-hostility. Your access to new sectors is arbitrarily limited by NPCs who have keys, and they determine when you are “ready” to go on to a new one, whereas in Privateer, you were initially confined only to one, and that was simply because you didn’t have the requisite jump drive yet. There are dozens of other relevant differences.

    Freelancer’s creators intended to create a “true” successor to Privateer (many of the developers were the same), but they overrode the original game’s design logic with another one imported from OS/productivity software design (I’m certain this is Microsoft’s doing, as is the GUIness of Fable), on account of an excessive concern with accessibility. The end result being that they just plain mucked up the experience. Their first mistake, essentially, was that they were basing their design off another *game*, rather than its intended experience. Their second mistake was that they tried to shoehorn usability techniques that were never intended for games into it.

    I could go on about Wing Commander and nearly all the military space sims that came after, but I think you get the point.

    Anyway, I’m very much fascinated by the games that exhibit this purity to their design logic, where that’s one of (re)creating a “non-game” experience, the details of a being/existence. What that sort of being is concerned about, what causes it concern, and so on and so forth.

  2. That’s probably a big reason why I’ve been so lit up lately by early videogames — Centipede, Asteroids, Tempest. For the most part, they aren’t based on other videogames. They’re just trying to capture some idea, some feeling, some concept. And they use whatever control scheme, presentation, structure they need to do it.

    After Super Mario Bros., things fell into a really easy template. The ideas it introduced and cemented were so appealing and ready-made that it was easy to just hang onto them. Standard control scheme, standard control device, standard concept of a game world, of a set of goals, of an avatar, of the player. And we’ve never quite broken free. If anything, we’ve just pulled tighter over the years, and slapped on more patronizing crud to walk the player through, in fear that under all of this nonsense we’ve piled on top, someone somewhere might not “get it”.

    Videogames have become hopelessly inbred. Inbred and isolated. It’s like some scary redneck community, where any time a stranger comes in — any new blood wanders in — everyone pulls out a shotgun.

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