Yuji Horii’s 1986 effort, Dragon Quest, would go on to sell more than two-million copies. In doing so, it introduced the role-playing game to a whole new audience. Naturally, it didn’t take long for fans to start asking for a sequel, and this time, the creator was one step ahead; plans for Dragon Quest II began one month before the release of its predecessor. Despite the warm reception Dragon Quest enjoyed, the development team was confident they could create a game to surpass it in every way. Much of the personnel who worked on Dragon Quest remained for the sequel’s creation as well; Akira Toriyama handled the concept art while Koichi Nakamura, the president of Chunsoft, would serve as its director and lead programmer.
The team was divided into two groups: one handled the programming and the other focused on story development as well as the monster designs. When asked by the producer for a deadline, Mr. Nakamura set it for early November of that year, but the project was hit with a brief delay. During playtesting, the team determined that their product was excessively difficult, necessitating them to make minor adjustments to the game’s balance. Luckily, this hurdle was easily overcome, and the mid-December marked the completion of the final version. After rushing to Nintendo to create physical copies, Dragon Quest II was released in January of 1987, and it too successfully moved over two-million units. Undeterred by the relative failure of Dragon Quest in North America, Enix themselves published the game overseas in 1990. Initially, it was localized as Dragon Warrior II, but as time went on, the series reverted to its original name, and the game eventually received the title, Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line.
Analyzing the Experience
One-hundred years have passed since the descendant of the legendary hero, Erdrick, slew the evil Dragonlord and restored peace to the land. Now, a new threat in the form of an evil wizard named Hargon has arisen. His forces destroyed Castle Moonbrooke, killing its king and cursing its princess. One lone soldier makes his way to the kingdom of Lorasia. With his dying breath, he informs the monarch of the attack on his country. With no one left to turn to, the king requests his son to travel the world and defeat Hargon.
Dragon Quest featured an interface that fashioned itself after the complex keyboard layouts typical of contemporary Western computer RPGs. As the Famicom controller had far fewer buttons to work with, the menu was heavily simplified, only featuring eight options whereas its inspirations often mapped a different command to each key. For Dragon Quest II, the field interface has been simplified further, excising the “stairs,” “door,” and “take” commands. Shortly after gaining control of the hero, the player will discover that ascending and descending stairs is now an automatic function and the “search” command actually opens treasure boxes rather than helpfully informing you of their existence.
Although Dragon Quest was overwhelmingly popular in Japan, the developers had their reservations about certain mechanics. Specifically, they felt that the battle system was tedious, as there were only two participants in any given conflict: the protagonist and a monster. This did indeed make for an exceedingly monotonous experience where the player and the monster they were fighting would just trade blows every round, occasionally pausing to heal when their character’s HP got too low.
To encourage players to think strategically, random encounters can pit them against more than one monster. When selecting the “attack” command, you must then choose a monster on which you are to direct the offensive maneuver. The number next to the monster’s name indicates how many of them are grouped together. For example, in the above screenshot, the hero has the option of attacking the dragon fly, titan tree, or one of three basilisks. Because of how the basilisks are grouped, he can elect to attack the single one in the center of the screen or one of the two on the right. If the latter option is chosen, he will attack one of the two at random until one of them has fallen. At that point, the surviving basilisk will always receive the brunt of his assault if selected in the next round.
Mr. Nakamura has stated in interviews that the Wizardry series was the primary inspiration for Dragon Quest. Observing that one could control the actions of six different characters in battle, he wished to implement something similar when it came time to create the sequel. Technical limitations made this task difficult, but they were able to afford the hero companions in the form of his two cousins who share his legendary lineage. They are the Prince of Samaltria, a nation that borders Lorasia to the north, and the Princess of the destroyed kingdom, Moonbrooke. The hero is the strongest, hardiest character and has the largest array of equipment available to him, but he cannot use magic. The princess is physically the weakest, but this is offset by her incredible magical prowess. Lastly, the prince takes the middle route, being stronger than the princess while making up for being weaker than the hero with his ability to use magic. Together, they form what could be considered a typical JRPG party, though in hindsight, it’s atypical for the protagonist to be the bruiser incapable of using magic.
When fighting certain enemies, you must take caution, for some of them can poison your characters. If this happens, the afflicted party member will steadily take damage with each step until their HP reaches zero or they’re cured. There are three methods of curing poison. The first is to use an antidote herb, which can be purchased in most item shops. The second is to cast the “antidote” spell. Finally, you can go to a church where the minister will purge the poison for a small fee. Incidentally, the church is also the place to go when any of your characters have fallen in battle. There are also cursed pieces of equipment that cannot be removed without benediction. Using them is inadvisable because once equipped, they cause its bearer to randomly waste turns in combat.
As you may have gathered by now, the development team went into this project seeking to improve every aspect of their original game, and the effort they put forth to accomplish this shows in the final product. The dungeons have a more comprehensive design, and they’re all well-lit, meaning you no longer need torches to navigate them. There are also more save points, so you don’t have to journey back to Lorasia every time you wish to end your current session. I also appreciate how much easier it is to navigate the world, as the “return” spell now transports your party to the last place you saved. This is especially good because the world is absolutely enormous. This is demonstrated quite well when you visit the region in which the original Dragon Quest was set only to realize it takes up about one-tenth of the entire world map.
Regrettably, as nice as these additions are, Dragon Quest II, much like its predecessor, has not aged gracefully. Despite the laudable attempts to rebalance their game before shipping it, they ultimately weren’t enough. At the start of the game, monsters can kill the hero quickly, forcing you to grind several levels to stand a reasonable chance. Even after the party is assembled, you must then repeat this process every time you reach a new area with stronger enemies lest you find yourself facing insurmountable odds.
As annoying as it was in Dragon Quest, the rest of the game became trivial for those with enough patience to reach the highest level. In Dragon Quest II, not only does the maximum level require much more EXP, thus making it unlikely for even the most persistent players to reach it, but I suspect the developers’ efforts to refine the difficulty didn’t extend to the endgame, for it is absolutely relentless. To reach the last dungeon, you need to go through a cavernous area littered with hidden pits and multiple dead-ends. What’s worse is that the enemies are powerful to the point where they can kill off any of your characters in a few blows. One has a spell capable of slaughtering your entire party, and nothing at your disposal can block it if it’s successfully used. If you die before reaching the save point, you must go through the cavern again, navigating its convoluted layout while hoping none of the monsters decide to use their best techniques.
It’s also annoying how characters will waste their action if the enemy is defeated before their turn comes to pass. This means you have to keep in track of the relative amount of health each enemy has along with your characters’ damage output, and spread your attacks out accordingly. It doesn’t help when a character scores a critical hit, a random occurrence that magnifies the damage dealt, thus killing the monster before the others have a chance to react.
The rest of the game leading up to the final sequences doesn’t fare much better because the interface is still cumbersome to deal with. You have to bring up the menu for each and every point of interaction, including talking to NPCs and using healing spells. In fact, the removal of the “door” command makes using keys even more tedious than it was in Dragon Quest. The original game required players to buy magic keys to open every single door whereupon they evidently disintegrate into nothingness upon use. In Dragon Quest II, there are three different keys that open corresponding doors of the same shape, and they can be used an infinite number of times. While this may sound like an improvement on paper, in practice, it means having to forego three slots in order to hold the appropriate keys. Each character is allowed to hold up to eight items, which includes weapons and armor. When I reached the game’s final sequences, my characters had six, four, and three items equipped respectively. Along with the three keys and other essential items, this meant I only had about five free slots I could use for restorative items. The princess can learn a spell that unlocks doors, but there are also many places in which the door is invisible from above; the only way you would even know they’re there is to use each key on a wall you think might house them. It’s to the point where I question how anyone was able to complete this game without a guide.
The story itself is pretty standard for its time. There’s a big bad guy terrorizing the land, and it’s up to a group of heroes to stop him. There is something of a twist at the end when it’s revealed that Hargon is a pawn for a powerful demon who serves as the true final boss. In an era when games didn’t usually feature complex storytelling, this is fairly forward-looking, but these days, it’s difficult to appreciate just how stunning it was. It doesn’t help that fighting said demon is, like the rest of the endgame, unbelievably frustrating. He can restore all of his HP whenever he feels like it, boiling the confrontation down to praying the AI cooperates with you.
Even if the narrative is rather sparse, in a strange way, the extreme difficulty playing this game entails helps lend a sense of comradery among the protagonists. It would take a truly tight-knit group to survive the trials and tribulations the forces of evil throw at them. The hero is silent while the prince and princess don’t have much dialogue once they’re recruited, so giving them simple motivations and letting their actions speak for them allows players to fill in the blanks themselves. It’s a basic plot, but there is another dimension to it that arises from experiencing it firsthand.
Drawing a Conclusion
Like Dragon Quest before it, Dragon Quest II is a tough recommendation. It does have its rightful place in history for further cementing the JRPG genre, but it seems as though it took just as many steps backwards as it did forward from its predecessor. It’s arguably the first JRPG to have a genuinely epic feel with its excellent score, grand sense of scale, and improved battle system. I also have to once again applaud the localization team’s efforts. The nineties marked the time when creators in the medium began improving their storytelling capabilities, and these solid translations went a long way in conveying this radical shift in design philosophy. Unfortunately, it’s understandable why it was doomed to failure; it suffers from such glaring balance issues, you’ll likely begin to openly wonder if it’s worth seeing it through to the end. Furthermore, mere months before its overseas debut, a then-fledgling company named Squaresoft released Final Fantasy, which managed to improve on many of the conventions established by Dragon Quest and its sequels, making them largely obsolete.
In the event that you wish to play this game for yourself, you would do well to try the Super Famicom or Game Boy Color remakes. In these versions, characters will attack a different monster if their previous target is vanquished first and there is a contextual action button to expedite the gameplay. Moreover, they come bundled with the original Dragon Quest, so if you’re interested in following the series from the beginning, they will provide more streamlined experiences for newcomers than that of the original NES version. Otherwise, you’re honestly not missing out on much should you decide to pass on this one.
Final Score: 4/10