Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Videogame Solipsist: Dragon Quest IV

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (DS)
While the rest of the world is going crazy in anticipation of election results, I thought I would spend today's update escaping into the simple, charming fantasy world of Dragon Quest IV. Because to me, that's what good RPGs have always been: pure, escapist delight.

Games journalism has bloomed to include genuine critical discourse, and so a lot of it has had to do with history and context to help us understand how we've gotten here. Through venues like 1UP's Retronauts podcast and the exhaustive work of Hardcore Gaming 101, we've reached a better understand of videogames as both an entertainment medium and an artform. As a nerd who grew up loving RPGs even before they were popularized in 1997 by Final Fantasy VII, it's been fascinating to see the retro/critical collective fill in the gaps on the two biggest console RPG series's going: Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.

Though things were even more sparse in Europe, America got both series in an odd fashion and missed several key titles in both. It was only in 2006 that we finally, officially, got every numbered entry in the main Final Fantasy series, while we've still yet to see Dragon Quest V and VI in the U.S. Thankfully, they are coming via the Nintendo DS in the next year or two.

The story of the Dragon Quest franchise, especially as it pertains to the U.S., has been better told elsewhere. Mainly I want to focus on the gap in America's view of the series. Growing up, I did play the first Dragon Quest game (released here as Dragon Warrior) and despite its age I thought it was an interesting game. I wasn't savvy enough to realize it had taken several years to be released here so I assumed its archaic-look and fool was purposeful. Besides, I didn't get around to playing it until I was currently obsessed with the Shining Force games on Genesis, so...

Like many people, then, I ignored the series, missing the American releases of II, III, and IV. Technically I suppose I didn't even know they existed since I didn't play the first one until around 1994, but...whatever. Sadly, Enix closed up shop in the U.S. after releasing a handful of terrible RPGs on the SNES and deciding Americans didn't like the genre. The next Dragon Quest we got would be VII, but I think it bears dwelling on the fact that the majority of this country never played DQ II, III, and IV so we didn't exactly know we were missing V and VI. VII, of course, did little to change our mind about the series: it was a SLOOOOWWW, archaic, and boring-ly translated jRPG. I think Shane Bettenhausen said it best on the Retronauts episode about the Dragon Quest series, that it was a mechanics heavy RPG with visuals that were an "abortion."

It's depressing that we re-entered the series with VII since it is, arguably, one of the weakest entries in the series. It would be like judging the Final Fantasy series by Final Fantasy II. The remainder of the Dragon Quest series was much more focused and had far better balance, pacing, and scenario writing. This is what I discovered with Dragon Quest VIII, along with most of the people who were interested in the series but passed on VII. And the more I've played of Dragon Quest IV, the more I understand why the Japanese are so crazy for this series. It's got nothing to do with ambitious (some would say, pretentious) storylines, bleeding-edge graphics, or ever changing gameplay systems like the Final Fantasy series and everything to do with sheer charisma and old fashioned story telling.

Dragon Quest IV is an incredible achievement, both in its original NES incarnation and now on the DS. The way you play the various 'chapters' before controlling the main hero character of the game is a fascinating concept that I wish more RPGs would have borrowed. In the game's most infamous and unique chapter, you play as a merchant trying to make money, flipping the tables on the entire RPG genre convention of shopkeepers. Now you play the normally anonymous shopkeeper while a succession of heroes (and maybe even some villains) comes in, makes their transaction, and leaves. At the same time, the chapters have little ties to the other characters therein, as well as overlapping areas of the game. In the second chapter, you visit some of the same areas you will, later, as the merchant, for instance, and when playing as the merchant you hear about the fighting tournament you participated in during the previous chapter. The only thing that comes close, as far as I remember, is the 'Trinity Sight' scenario system of Suikoden III (which is secretly one of the best PS2 RPGs). But that was played on a much larger and more ambitious scale. And it had duck-people. Aaaanyway...

Really, I love Dragon Quest IV (and by extension, VIII) for the aforementioned charm and old fashioned story telling. There's just something about the feel of the game, from the gorgeous 2D graphics to the animated-with-plenty-of-personality sprites to the phenomenal soundtrack and wonderfully retro sound effects to the imaginative and clever new translation...all of it works for me, plain and simple. The gameplay may not be ambitious, the battle system may not have as much depth as certain Final Fantasy titles, but that's OK. Nothing about Dragon Quest IV, in this day and age, is attempting to be revolutionary even if, for the time, it was an amazing game. The story line may be simplistic and cliched by today's standards, but you can boil almost anything down to the same few stories. Hero save the world, the end. The important thing it that it's told well, and Dragon Quest IV manages to do that.

I will confess that I was more excited to play Dragon Quest V and VI than IV mainly because they were the contemporaries of Final Fantasies IV, V, and VI, which are the console RPGs I most associate with moving the genre forward during the 16 bit era. From what I've read, they're just as charming as Dragon Quest IV but have deeper gameplay/character building systems, too. Yet in playing Dragon Quest IV, I've really come to appreciate it as its own entity as well as an important touchstone in the jRPG genre. I feel as though history has been re-written again. Final Fantasy IV is often touted as the point where story began to be emphasized in console RPGs while also being the first true "next gen" RPG...but Dragon Quest IV would be an even earlier example. It's not the story that it tells so much as how it's told; the characters and the scenario writing are miles beyond the characters and scenario writing of its then-contemporary Final Fantasy III. I suppose if we really wanted to split hairs, Phantasy Star I, which pre-dates both, had an ambitious story and characters even earlier...but whatever.

Dragon Quest IV is a really great game, and anyone interested in retconning the history of console RPGs as they think it happened should check it out.

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