In the mid-eighties, unbeknownst to Western hobbyists, the Eastern scene was quickly developing an interest in RPGs thanks to the Dragon Quest series created by Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura. The first two installments were tremendous successes, selling around two million copies apiece, so when Enix announced a sequel, the anticipation was higher than ever. Dubbed Dragon Quest III: And thus into Legend…, it was released in February of 1988 – a little over a year after its predecessor’s debut.
It is almost impossible to overstate exactly how ecstatic the Japanese fans were for this new chapter. So great was its popularity that over one-million units were sold on the very first day. As its release fell on a weekday, the police ended up arresting nearly 300 students who skipped school to purchase a copy. Some of them, mostly high-school students, even dispensed with the whole notion of purchasing it legally by mugging small children on the way home from the local game store.
As was the case with the game that came before, Enix made efforts to publish Dragon Quest III in the West in 1992, hoping it would match or surpass the staggering 3.8 million copies sold in its native homeland. Called Dragon Warrior III in the official NES localization, it met with the same tepid reception of its predecessors. Western gaming fans had no idea of the sheer impact this game, which would eventually be known as Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation, left on their counterparts across the Pacific Ocean.
Analyzing the Experience
When Archfiend Baramos threatened to destroy the world, a hero named Ortega set out on an expedition to end his reign of terror. He was never heard from again, and it is rumored he perished in battle against a dragon. Some years have passed since that fateful day and the child of Ortega has reached their sixteenth birthday. They are summoned to Aliahan Castle by its monarch, and the child is given the task of travelling the world to slay Baramos in their father’s stead.
Dragon Quest III retains much of the gameplay found in its predecessors. The six-command exploration interface from Dragon Quest II remains unchanged. Every interaction is carried out through this menu, which includes opening doors, taking to NPCs, and searching the tile your character in currently occupying.
Combat is also functionally similar to that of Dragon Quest II. You input a single action for each character, and a round is played out. Speed typically determines the order in which each participant gets to carry out their order. When selecting a monster to attack, keep in mind how they are grouped. Identical monsters could appear individually or as a collective – the number of which is displayed next to its name. If you select a group, the character will attack one monster within it at random. However, there are certain weapons and spells that can circumvent this limitation. For example, whips attack all enemies within a group while boomerangs target every monster on the field. A battle ends once all members on one side of the conflict are unable to battle.
You would do well to err on the side of caution, for some monsters can inflict status ailments on your characters. In addition to poison, they are also capable of immobilizing, confusing, sedating any of your party members. Confusion has the potential to be especially harmful because affected characters will not respond to any of your commands, and can even attack their comrades. It should also be noted that if your entire party is paralyzed, you will automatically lose. However your loss comes about, you will be transported to the last area in which you saved while half of your money is forfeit.
It was evident when playing the original Dragon Quest that Koichi Nakamura and Yuji Horii took many cues from classic Western computer RPGs. More specifically, the co-creators were heavily inspired by Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series when they discovered it at a Macworld Conference & Expo. When developing Dragon Quest II, Mr. Nakamura wanted the player to command entire party of characters, but technical limitations made implementing this idea difficult. In the final product, one could only control up to three fixed characters.
For Dragon Quest III, the development team was able to overcome these setbacks by allowing players to fully customize their party. You accomplish this in Aliahan’s tavern, a popular haunt for would-be adventurers. Here, you can create, recruit, or dismiss characters as you so choose. When creating a character, you can determine their gender and class. The former is an aesthetic choice while the latter determines their abilities. From the onset, there are six classes to choose from: warriors, fighters, priests, mages, dealers, and jesters. Warriors are physically robust, being able to both deal and receive high amounts of damage. Like warriors, fighters are limited to physical attacks, but they’re notably faster and their equipment isn’t nearly as expensive. Priests have mostly average stats across the board and they specialize in healing and defensive magic. Mages are frail, but their offensive magical prowess is a force to be reckoned with. Dealers, like priests, have well-balanced stats, but they can’t use magic. In exchange, having one in the party will often increase the amount of money obtained upon completion of a fight. Jesters have almost nothing practical to bring to the table, for they are weak and unable to use magic. Half of the time, they even waste their turn with a completely unproductive action such as telling jokes or staring into space. Last but not least would be the hero of this game. They strike a good balance, being a capable fighter with several excellent equipment options while also possessing an arsenal of powerful spells only they can learn. This includes the strongest healing magic, which is capable of fully healing all party members’ HP with a single casting.
Dragon Quest was the game that created the concept of the Japanese RPG (JRPG for short). Dragon Quest II existed in an intermediary phase of sorts for the series. Making the monster encounters complex was a definite step in the right direction, yet the lack of balance meant only the most doggedly persistent players would see the credits roll. Dragon Quest III accomplished what its predecessors tried but ultimately failed to accomplish by firmly establishing the JRPG as something more than a passing fad.
This is primarily because Dragon Quest III is a significant improvement over the series’ second installment. There are many reasons why this is, but to begin with, the endgame of Dragon Quest II was an affair that didn’t require any degree of skill on the player’s part as much as it did luck. Among other things, the final boss could restore all of his HP whenever he wished. In Dragon Quest III, the learning curve is comparatively forgiving, and the spikes in difficulty are less extreme. There are no monsters you can’t handle as long as you remember to level up and upgrade your characters’ equipment whenever feasible.
Allowing players to create their party was nice touch as well. Not only does the character class system go a long way in adding replay value, it’s actually quite a bit more advanced than it appears on the surface. Unlike Final Fantasy in which party members were permanently locked to their starting vocation and corresponding prestige class, Dragon Quest III is a bit more flexible. Once a character reaches level 20, you can take them to a location known as Dhama Temple where you can change their class. Utilizing this mechanic, you could wind up with a warrior capable of using healing spells or a resilient mage. If you meet the right circumstances, you can access the sage class. The sage learns both sets of spells learned by priests and mages while having better equipment choices than either. Normally, one would need a special item to become a sage, but jesters can become one for free, thus justifying their place on your team should you decide to take one along. The only character who cannot change classes is the hero.
There are many minor modifications which make enhance the experience. I appreciate that a bank has been added to this game. In Dragon Quest and its sequel, there was nothing preventing you from losing half of your money upon defeat. Granted, by the time enemies posed enough of a threat to effortlessly defeat my characters, money was practically worthless, but there were still a few times in which I made a lot of progress only to happen upon a fatal encounter, thus forcing me choose between keeping the levels I obtained or soldiering onwards with crippled finances. In Dragon Quest III, this was a far less common occurrence because whatever money is stored in the bank remains untouched. The only bank in the game happens to be in Aliahan, but you now choose which city to warp to with the “return” spell, making backtracking far more manageable.
Another aspect I enjoyed is the design of the world map. It’s a little difficult to grasp when playing it, but examining the shape of the continents reveals something familiar about them.
That’s right – the world of Dragon Quest III bears a passing resemblance to the real-life planet Earth. Consequently, this game occasionally provides its own spin on real-world historical events. The king of Portoga asks the hero to journey to the eastern end of the continent to a town called Baharata to retrieve one of their famous black peppers. As a reward, the party is given a ship. It’s analogous to the seafaring expeditions commissioned by European royalty to find routes to India, and the locations of these fictional counterparts enforce this interpretation. It’s an interesting idea, as it’s a quick way of informing the player that each community has its own culture while working within the Famicom’s limitations. A dialogue-heavy narrative simply wasn’t possible on such a system; even PC games at the time saved space by printing plot details in an enclosed booklet.
Furthermore, when traversing the overworld, day will eventually turn to night. When you visit towns after the sun has set, shops close, nightclubs are open, and NPCs are often in entirely different areas – usually sleeping or relaxing after a hard day of work. At the time, it was the closest video games came to creating a world that’s truly alive – one in which unimportant characters have their own schedules and each town has a set of daily operations.
Despite all of these advancements, Dragon Quest III hasn’t held up so well in a number of ways. The most glaring problem would be the interface. It’s annoying having to select a key to open locked doors, and because each character can only hold up to eight items at a time, this barely leaves room for anything else. It is somewhat alleviated by the fact that you can now store items in a bank, but it’s still annoying having to journey back to Aliahan every time an important object is needed to advance the plot. Even when a mage learns a spell to unlock doors later in the game, you still have to go through several menus to select it. In The Legend of Zelda, a title released a year earlier, you need only touch the locked door with a key in hand to open it.
A flaw which became apparent after experiencing the countless games Dragon Quest III inspired is that there are few boss fights to speak of. Most dungeons are completed once you’ve recovered the important item alluded to by the townspeople in a nearby settlement. Capping a challenging dungeon with an appropriately difficult monster to fight lends a satisfying sense of closure this game consistently lacks. Instead, a majority of the challenge comes from the random encounters, which is usually a matter of using the exact same tactics for each enemy configuration and making it to end before your healers deplete their MP.
Dragon Quest III stands out from the typical JRPG by boasting a surprisingly non-linear design. Once you’ve obtained a ship, all but the final areas can be explored. It’s a nice change of pace, but sometimes, it can be pretty difficult to determine what to do next. It is a fairly organic method of getting players to engage with the material, but it also means quite a lot of one’s initial playthrough without a guide is going to consist of aimless wandering.
The story itself is standard fare for the genre. There’s yet another bad demon terrorizing the land and you must lead a brigade of brave, noble warriors to defeat him. Anyone remotely versed in fantasy tropes can predict how most of the scenarios will play out. Despite the bare-bones plot, there are flashes of brilliance – especially once Baramos is defeated.
Shortly after the hero returns to Aliahan, a powerful demon named Zoma attacks the castle guards and subsequently opens up a large fissure leading to his realm: a world of perpetual darkness. Baramos was nothing more than Zoma’s lackey, and the former’s failure prompted the latter to make his existence known. Now, the hero must journey to the Dark World and defeat Zoma before he can conquer the hero’s dimension as well. When the hero and their companions reach this enigmatic world, astute players will be shocked once they examine its layout.
Specifically, they’ll learn the Dark World is, in fact, Alefgard, the setting of the original Dragon Quest. To place this in the proper context, the uninformed fans in 1988 travelled the entire world to slay this demon, helping many people, felling multiple monsters, and retrieving numerous magical artifacts to fulfill this mission. For even those good enough to clear Dragon Quest II, there was no reason for anyone to believe the true ending had yet to come or that a second world even existed.
After acquiring a powerful sword, the hero is able to slay Zoma, but he warns them that evil will return and they will not live long enough to stop it. The fissure linking worlds then closes, trapping them in this unfamiliar land. As a reward for their bravery, the king of Tantegel bestows upon the hero the land’s most prestigious title: Erdrick. Dragon Quest III turned out to be a prequel to the original two games this whole time. The hero will leave behind their sword and armor so their descendants can fight off the forces of the Dragonlord and Hargon many generations later. This is one of the medium’s oldest plot twists, and its popularity ensured many other artists would use the work as a style guide, relaying to them just how powerful a game with thoughtful storytelling can be.
Drawing a Conclusion
It’s not surprising that Dragon Quest III failed to garner praise in the Western gaming scene. By the time it was localized, not only had the Super NES been released a year prior, but one of its first games happened to be Final Fantasy IV, which helped pave the way for stories featuring complex character arcs on top of being more visually striking. Understandable though the circumstances may have been, it’s a shame Dragon Quest III isn’t as respected in the West because to an even greater extent than the series’ debut entry, it’s easily one of the most important games in the medium’s history for serving as the blueprints for how a JRPG should be made.
Even keeping all of this in mind, it’s actually held up reasonably well for such an old effort. Fans of the genre who are completely unfamiliar with the series might find this installment a good starting point. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a difficult proposition for those used to modern RPGs whose creators proceeded to build and improve on the foundation this game established. It’s also unlikely to change the mind of anyone who outright dislikes the genre, as many of its more tedious elements are very much present here. For those curious enough to want to try this game, I recommend either the Super Famicom or Game Boy Color remakes over the NES original because they provide more streamlined experiences. Whether you decide to try out the game or pass on it, the next time you play a quality RPG, regardless of its cultural origin, know there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be enjoying it in the first place if it weren’t for Dragon Quest III.
Final Score: 5/10