Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest series saw four of its installments released on Nintendo’s 8-bit console, the NES (Famicom in Japan). The franchise’s popularity was immense in its native homeland, with the third title in particular codifying the Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) in the public eye. Taking note of the millions of copies sold in Japan, Nintendo and Enix put forth an impressive effort to translate each game in the hope of replicating that success in the West. Unfortunately, as there already existed a thriving RPG scene in the Western world long before Dragon Quest was even an idea, it was doomed to fall into obscurity.
The year 1990 marked the release of the Super Famicom, the 16-bit successor to Nintendo’s bestselling console. As fan demand for a sequel on this new platform was high, it naturally didn’t take long for Mr. Horii and the rest of Chunsoft to begin working on one. This project was completed in 1992, and continued the series’ stellar track record by selling nearly three million copies. Taking a look at the poor sales figures of the previous four entries in the United States and taking note of the high costs associated with the larger cartridge ROMs needed to fit an English translation, Enix judged such an investment would not have been profitable, thus it wasn’t localized. In the late nineties, JRPG fans decided to provide their own translation via emulation, but for the longest time, it seemed as though it would never see an official Western release.
Although it would eventually see the light of day outside of Japan, that it never made its way onto the Super NES is a bit of a shame because Mr. Horii has pointed to Dragon Quest V and declared it his favorite installment – a sentiment commonly echoed by its fans. It’s clear this game left an indelible impact on those who experienced it. What is it about Dragon Quest V that allows it to enjoy such a following – one which includes the author himself?
Playing the Game
Dragon Quest V is a JRPG that features turn-based combat. On the overworld and in dungeons each step the protagonist takes has a chance of instigating a random encounter with a horde of monsters. You select an action for each of your party members and each participant performs an action – their agility helps determine the order in which they act. Although there is a wide array of party members you can recruit, only four can participate in a battle at once. After a certain point in the game, the hero is given a wagon that can house four extra members who can act as backup. However, he cannot bring it with him into most dungeons, so the best opportunity to rearrange the party would be on the overworld.
Enemies can be grouped together or on their own. If you selected a group of enemies when determining the combatants’ actions for that round, that party member will attack a random monster in that horde. Some weapons are capable of dealing damage to each enemy within a group and others can hit every single one on the field. Because of this, there are a few situations when it might be a sound idea to hold onto weaker weapons capable of spreading damage when exploring dungeons while saving the stronger ones that can only target a single enemy for boss battles.
Although there does exist a universal storage space for items, only the ones on a character’s person can be used in battle. Including equipment, each party member is permitted to carry twelve items at once. It’s a strategically good idea to give medicinal herbs or other curatives to the fastest characters so they can use them in an emergency.
The player is encouraged to explore towns and interact with the world’s denizens. This is largely enforced by hiding useful items in barrels and vases, which can be broken by walking up to them and pressing the action button. In your searches, you may find golden coins called mini medals. They function as a secondary currency which can be exchanged for prizes in a certain place in the game. Unlike normal gold coins, they are primarily found in fixed locations, meaning you cannot farm them from monster encounters.
Where this game stands out from its predecessors is that you can recruit monsters into your party. After achieving victory, there is a random chance one of the defeated monsters will ask to join your party. The probability of this occurring is different for each monster, as some are far more enthusiastic than others. To help with this process, you are given a tome that will record every monster you’ve encountered. Each entry will include data such as their propensity to join your party, their stats, and what your level was when you first won against them.
Dragon Quest V wasn’t exactly the first game to allow the player to recruit monsters to accompany the protagonist in battle. In fact, the year 1987 saw two separate teams come up with the concept independently. In the West, Sir-Tech Software released Wizardry IV, a game in which you play as the first scenario’s primary antagonist. He was able to summon demons to aid him in his quest for revenge against the heroic forces that stole his mystical amulet. Meanwhile, the Eastern gaming scene saw a video game adaptation of Aya Nishitani’s novel, Digital Devil Story. The name of the game was Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, and it would mark the beginning of Atlus’s long-running, prolific metaseries of JRPGs. Similar to Wizardry IV, the two leads of this game were able to recruit demons to help them on their journey to save the world from a supernatural threat resurrected through technological means. So while Mr. Horii was not the first person to come up with idea, the popularity of the Dragon Quest series allowed the concept of monster recruitment to catch on with Japanese development teams. In the following years, new franchises such as Pokémon and Digimon would revolve entirely around the concept, becoming a subgenre unto itself.
Considering that Dragon Quest V was one the first prominent JRPGs to feature such a mechanic, it’s remarkable how gracefully it has aged. Not only does it succeed in giving the game replay value, it also allows players to come up with their own strategies, which is especially notable in a genre that would become known for its linearity and, in many cases, a fixed lineup of party members. I will admit that the recruitment process can be somewhat irritating because it’s left to chance, but it works well in practice. A beneficial side effect to when the odds don’t favor you is that it makes level grinding much easier. After all, if it takes one-hundred battles with a monster that gives generous amounts of experience points to get one on your side, your secondary benefit is a much stronger team easily capable of taking on the next boss.
I also think that, as was the case with the previous entry, the mini medals are an effective, organic means of getting players to interact with the environment. Although it sounds monotonous on paper, the newly introduced action button expedites these searches enough that they never weigh down the experience. It also helps that the rewards you can get from obtaining these medals include some of the most potent pieces of equipment in the entire game, so even if you’re not sold on the idea, perseverance is guaranteed to have a spectacular payoff. Similar to how recruiting monsters makes random encounter much more tolerable, the mini medals relieve the tedium of searching every nook and cranny of the game world. From a gameplay perspective, this is what makes Dragon Quest V stand out from its contemporaries; adding this extra bit of incentive goes a long way in getting players to accept mechanics they would have little patience for in any other situation.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: Due to the nature of this work, the following section will contain unmarked spoilers. If you wish to experience it completely blind, skip to the conclusion.
Dragon Quest V begins in a way that many would consider unusual for the medium: with the birth of the hero. After receiving his name, his mother falls silent. Six years pass and he is a young boy who has traveled the world with his father, Pankraz, for his entire life. Their voyage eventually takes them to a village where they meet one of his father’s old friends. The hero, having inherited Pankraz’s love of adventuring, does some of his own.
The narrative initially follows an episodic format where it comes across as a lighthearted, medieval-themed slice-of-life story. First, the hero defends a sabercub, a monster resembling a saber-toothed cat, from a group of bullies alongside the daughter of an innkeeper named Bianca. To do this, they venture to an abandoned castle rumored to be haunted and end up performing an exorcism, allowing the spirits to move on to the afterlife. A few days later, the hero discovers a fairy who leads him to a mystical land where he saves them from an eternal winter. Having accomplished this, his father leads him to a neighboring kingdom whereupon the king’s ill-behaved son, Prince Harry, is kidnapped by demons.
At this point, the tone of the game changes drastically. The hero and Pankraz embark on a rescue mission, getting separated due to the sheer number of monsters present. The hero is able to locate Harry, but before they can make their escape, they are stopped by a powerful demon sorcerer named Ladja who shows no mercy, nearly killing them. Though Pankraz quickly arrives and puts forth a valiant effort against Ladja’s lackeys, the cruel wizard holds a blade to the protagonist’s throat. Left with no other options, the protagonist’s father stands down, and is subsequently beaten within an inch of his life. He is then incinerated by Ladja, but with his last breath, he reveals to the protagonist that his mother is still alive and his ultimate motivation was to find her along with the legendary hero who will save the world from an ancient evil.
Ladja sells the hero and Prince Harry as slaves to an evil religion where, for ten agonizingly long years, they have been forced to help construct a temple in a remote region of the world. One day, with the help of a fellow slave, they are able to make their escape. It is here that the hero’s true journey finally begins.
There aren’t many games out there whose narratives follow the protagonist from childhood to maturity outside of the simulation genre, so attempting such a plot in the early nineties when the medium was in its primordial phase in regards to its storytelling was a commendable undertaking. One would think that, being one of the earliest endeavors, there would be some execution issues which later games would address and improve upon. Owing to its simplistic presentation, this is probably partially true to some degree in the original Super Famicom version, but even then, it holds up astonishingly well.
One of the most striking aspects of this game’s plot would be the hero himself. The trials and tribulations he goes through in the various stages of his life successfully make him a well-rounded, three-dimensional character – an impressive feat considering he never utters a single word. Instead, the beauty of the protagonist’s arc lies within the subtle details. He discovers, and wholeheartedly uses, his ability to rally monsters on his side shortly after escaping from the clutches of an evil cult when he could have just as easily shunned them for taking away ten years of his life. The antagonists do whatever they can to break his spirit, yet through sheer determination, he marches onward. |He begins his journey as a young boy traveling with his father. When it’s rapidly approaching its conclusion, he’s happily married and the father of two children.| The narrative rarely spells any of this out, and it’s because of these little touches that the hero of this game is one of my favorite silent protagonists.
Usually, it’s easy to scoff when any story begins with a parent of the protagonist dying because of how overdone it is, but it’s effective in the case of this game. The primary reason is that Pankraz did not exist solely to die in as dramatic a fashion as possible and get the audience to empathize with the hero, which is a rookie mistake made by countless authors. He is given plenty of lines and his character receives a fair bit of expansion posthumously. Indeed, you learn a lot more about him after his death than when he is alive, making it even more of a shame that such a great character is gone while accenting how bad things have become for the protagonist as a direct result of it.
Along the same lines, it was rare in 1992 to see a game fixated on pathos. Games that appeal to the player’s emotions became more commonplace by the late 2000s, so it’s a reasonable assumption that Dragon Quest V would fall short in some ways. However, this is a case where I think the master has yet to find a student capable of surpassing him; when it comes to pathos, Mr. Horii absolutely hits all of the right notes. The scenes are impactful because the narrative never goes overboard – everything that’s wonderful and horrific about it speaks for itself. The protagonist’s experience is downright brutal, yet the author knows when to give him a break, and it makes those good moments all the more heartwarming. Too many creators when attempting a plot like this are either unrelenting in beating the protagonist down or all too willing to dash any notion of subtlety – both of which make it difficult to care no matter how likeable they are. It’s true the narrative’s minimalistic nature can be explained by circumstance, as that’s how games were written in the early nineties, but it nonetheless complements the intended mood perfectly.
Drawing a Conclusion
Once the internet became widely used, gaming fans discovered the existence of many quality JRPGs that, for one reason or another, never left Japan. Petitions rallying for translations of these works often fell on deaf ears, understandably leading to a lot of frustration. Thankfully, unlike the fate that befell similar titles such as Live A Live and Treasure of the Rudras, Dragon Quest V was remade for the Nintendo DS, receiving an official localization in 2009.
It’s easy to write off the Dragon Quest series as formulaic, but that’s only true on a superficial level. In reality, the games show quite a lot of depth and imagination with each new scenario. If you want proof, look no further than this game, for it’s an underrated gem of a classic, and in my opinion, the medium’s quintessential pathos-heavy experience. I highly recommend the DS version because the graphical upgrade, superior presentation, and expanded script helped Mr. Horii’s forward-thinking ideas flourish to an even greater extent than in the original. I’m confident that once you try this game out for yourself, you’ll see why the creator himself acknowledges it as his favorite in the series.
Final Score: 9/10