In 1988, Enix and Chunsoft had a hit on their hands in the form of Dragon Quest III. Naturally because of this, the public wanted a sequel, and the creators obliged, releasing Dragon Quest IV: The Guided Ones in 1990. Enix, having learned their lesson from last time, wisely decided to release it on a Sunday. There was an urban legend that the Japanese government intervened by forbidding the creators from ever releasing any future Dragon Quest installments on a school day, but in reality, Enix themselves made the choice.
To place Dragon Quest IV in context, Nintendo was working on a successor to the Famicom, the platform on which the previous installments saw their initial release. NEC Home Electronics had launched the PC Engine to compete with them a few years prior while Sega followed suit with the Mega Drive a year later, a console boasting more processing power than their competitors at the time. When the Super Famicom was released later in 1990, it marked the end of an era. Does Dragon Quest IV manage stand as one of the Famicom’s final hurrahs before a new wave of consoles ushered in a new generation?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers. Skip to the conclusion if you wish to experience the game blind.
After inputting a name and gender for the hero, the player is thrust into a story involving a soldier of the Kingdom of Burland named Ragnar journeying alone to solve the mystery regarding the disappearance of the region’s children. Curiously, the character the player named seconds ago is nowhere to be seen.
This isn’t a mistake; rather than telling the story from a single perspective, Dragon Quest IV is divided into five chapters – each with its own protagonist. The second chapter stars the tomboyish tsarevna, Alena, as she goes off on a journey to compete in a tournament against her father’s wishes. The third chapter has the player assume the role of Torneko, an arms merchant. The fourth chapter features two sisters, Meena and Maya, a fortune teller and dancer respectively, as they seek vengeance on a monster who murdered their father. It isn’t until the fifth chapter that the player finally gains control of the protagonist.
The hero of this game is a resident of a small, nameless village that has gone unnoticed by civilization. They lead a peaceful life that is violently disrupted when a legion of monsters led by a demon known as Psaro the Manslayer razes it to the ground. As the sole survivor of the merciless attack, they must venture into an unknown world alone. Little do they know that their path with cross with seven others who share the same destiny…
The gameplay across all of the chapters is mostly the same. Whether traveling the overworld or exploring a dungeon, there is a random chance you will happen upon a monster encounter with each step. Combat functions similarly to previous installments. It is a round-by-round, turn-based fighting system where speed typically determines the order in which each participant executes an action. Enemies can appear in a group or individually. The number of enemies in a group is indicated by the number next to their name. If you select a monster horde, the character will attack one within that party at random unless they use a technique capable of hitting multiple targets at once. There are some weapons and magical spells capable of accomplishing this, so it’s occasionally worth weighing your options when upgrading equipment. That new sword may be more powerful, yet the old boomerang can hit all of the enemies at once.
Once you reach the fifth chapter, you are introduced to a new mechanic: the “tactics” option. The creators implemented a system in which your allies are controlled by the AI. There are six options to choose from that will influence their actions in combat. “Offensive” causes allies to forgo their safety in favor of launching an all-out attack; warriors will never defend and spellcasters will use their strongest destructive magic. “Defensive” encourages your brigade to fight conservatively; physical attackers will defend if their HP gets too low while mages will focus on using supportive and healing spells. “Normal” is, intuitively enough, a middle ground between “Offensive” and “Defensive”. “Save MP” and “Use No MP” both tell mages to be careful with their magic consumption. They will save their spells for dire situations if the former is selected while the latter option will prevent them from doing so entirely. Lastly, “Try Out” is a gamble; if it’s selected, your party members will execute random actions.
Although you eventually recruit eight characters, you can only have four participate in a battle. Everyone else takes up residence in a wagon. You cannot bring the wagon into most dungeons, so the place to swap characters would be the overworld. If you are in a location with the wagon present, the extra party members will jump out of the wagon in the event your front line falls in battle.
Mr. Horii stated in interviews that when creating the fourth installment, he wanted something for players go around collecting similar to the five crests in Dragon Quest II and the six orbs in Dragon Quest III. However, unlike in those games, he did not wish to force players to find these hidden items. Therefore, he introduced the mini medals. These trinkets are not required to complete the game, but obtaining a certain amount and presenting them to the king of a secluded castle will give the player rewards such as unique equipment or other helpful items. They are found within drawers, barrels, jars, chests, and other containers all over the world.
In the face of all these changes, how does Dragon Quest IV hold up? To start with, I think the mini medal system vastly improved the experience. Searching the world for artifacts often meant wandering around exhausting every single piece of NPC dialogue until you found a lead. Because Dragon Quest IV has a greater emphasis on its storytelling, the player is usually given a clear goal at all times, significantly reducing the amount of unproductive wandering a blind playthrough of any previous installment would entail. The mini medals strike a good balance between giving the player an incentive to explore the world while not actively punishing them for wanting to finish the game as quickly as possible.
One would think that originating in the 8-bit era would mean the plot is simplistic. This is true to some degree, but I believe Dragon Quest IV is when the series truly hit its stride in regards to its storytelling. With the original Dragon Quest, Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura invented the concept of a JRPG. Two installments later with Dragon Quest III, they cemented the JRPG’s place in culture, creating what is widely considered the genre’s blueprints. It was now time for Mr. Horii and Mr. Nakamura to create a follow-up to the series’ immensely popular third chapter. At this point, having firmly established the genre’s conventions, the co-creators saw fit to begin experimenting with them.
The most obvious result from this narrative shift is that the hero is the final character to join the party. Each member starts at level one, so the first order of business when the fifth chapter begins is to rally all of the characters introduced in previous chapters. Because characters retain their levels when the hero recruits them, it puts an interesting spin on what would later became standard practice when creating a JRPG. To wit, it’s common for the protagonist to hold their own before finally gaining an ally. This new character is usually weaker than the lead, so they need to rely on them in order to gain levels quickly. With Dragon Quest IV, it’s the other way around – monsters in chapter five become quickly become too powerful for the hero to handle alone, so they must depend on their more experienced allies until they are able to catch up.
The chapter system also touched upon an aspect that’s usually glossed over in contemporary games. It’s common in fiction for characters other than the protagonist have a backstory. They might discuss it in great detail and flashbacks might give us a glimpse of their past, but it’s usually not shown to the audience. In Dragon Quest IV, each party member effectively has their own fully playable adventure. They could very well be standalone stories, yet they benefit and complement each other by being set in the same universe.
Torneko’s chapter in particular provides an intriguing role reversal, as he’s a worker in a weapons shop who has a humble goal of starting his own business. He starts off selling inventory to NPCs while making modest pay and the player must help him amass a large fortune so that his family may move to a large city where his dream can be realized. A mundane concept such as this wouldn’t be out of place in a particularly thoughtful indie game from the 2010s, but seeing it offered in a 1990 title allows me to appreciate just how ahead of its time it was.
Dragon Quest IV is one of the medium’s earliest attempts to feature an ensemble cast, and the creators went about developing characters in a simple, yet effective manner. It’s as though they observed the popularity of the vocation system introduced in Dragon Quest III and decided to make a fully-fledged character using each class as a template. For example, Ragnar would be a typical solider character while Torneko is naturally based off the merchant class. There’s also Alena who subverts the fantasy princess stereotype by relying on her immense physical strength to defeat her foes rather than magic.
Another touch I enjoyed was the role the hero played in the story. It is stated in legends that they are destined to do battle against Estark, the demon king Psaro intends to revive. This would seem to be a straight example of a chosen champion being destined to restore peace to the world. However, in defiance of expectations, the protagonist and their cohorts end up accomplishing this task roughly two-thirds of the way into the plot; the rest of it involves dealing with Psaro’s machinations.
Speaking of whom, an analysis of Dragon Quest IV without discussing its primary antagonist would be a disservice. Psaro has the honor of being one of the medium’s oldest antagonists who is not defined by his insatiable megalomania. Instead, his motivation for exterminating humans is the result of his witnessing their cruelty and being led to believe they were responsible for killing Rose, an elf he had fallen in love with. An antagonist who has a deeper motivation than “take over the world because it’s there” is remarkable from such an old game – especially when one considers the modus operandi of his precursors. It’s often grating whenever a villain paints humanity in a negative light, whether they themselves are an example of the species’ follies or not. The reason it works in this case had to do with the fact that the narrative doesn’t go overboard, and he has a definable reason for his viewpoint. In other words, he doesn’t hate humans simply to serve as a mouthpiece for a particularly preachy author. Moreover, in a creative twist, it’s revealed one of Psaro’s subordinates had Rose murdered in order to drive his superior to the brink of insanity, making the whole situation far less clear-cut than one would assume.
Despite the many improvements Dragon Quest IV brings to the series, there are a few ways in which it hasn’t held up so well. The field command menu is still cumbersome to use. I’ll give the creators credit for finally bringing the “door” command back, but considering The Legend of Zelda only required players to touch entryways to enter them, it’s strange how they decided to cling onto a less friendly interface. Furthermore, although I praised the mini medals, it’s annoying having to select “search” in the menu just to look in a drawer. This wasn’t so bad in previous games when you only used the command to open chests or check the ground, but because there are items hidden in barrels and drawers among other things, it gets monotonous very quickly.
I also don’t like how I have such little control I have over the characters in combat. Automatic combat was likely implemented to expedite skirmishes, and on those principles, it’s a good idea. Where it becomes irritating is when they don’t execute the right actions in the moments when they matter most. One of the game’s prominent healers has no qualms chanting the instant death spell against bosses, who are immune to it, in lieu of saving one of his comrades with only ten HP left.
The flaw most people would likely have trouble with in this game concerns the level grinding. Every time a new chapter begins, the new protagonist will begin with zero EXP. This necessitates the player to fight multiple battles in succession in order for them to become more survivable. Enforced level grinding isn’t a problem exclusive to this installment, but one must repeat this process no fewer than five times to stand a reasonable chance. This could give the player the false impression that the game doesn’t truly begin until they reach the final chapter. Such an assumption isn’t far from the truth, as chapter five is the longest by a significant margin, but the first four take around ten hours to clear. I wouldn’t say Dragon Quest IV actually takes ten hours to get good, but it’s an interpretation from which I couldn’t fully escape.
Drawing a Conclusion
In the span of four games, the Dragon Quest series showcased an astonishing evolution from its humble beginnings. Even when playing the original NES versions of each game, it’s hard to believe in hindsight it could improve to the extent that it did in a mere four years within the same platform. In regards to its storytelling, Dragon Quest IV is almost uniformly a forward-looking work that stands out from its contemporaries, and it’s arguably the best JRPG of the NES era. Along with Earthbound Beginnings released a year earlier, I’m sure this title’s popularity went a long way in blazing the trail for other artists to craft intricate plots for their games in the coming decades.
Now the question is, with all of the advancements Dragon Quest IV made from its predecessors, are they enough to suggest playing it? I couldn’t recommend the original NES game because its interface is unwieldy from a modern standpoint. Fortunately, in 2007, it was remade for the DS under the name, Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen. If you are at all interested in checking this game out, this is the version you want, as it offers a more user-friendly experience. Indeed, for those wishing to get into the series, this wouldn’t be a bad installment to start with. Some of its pioneering storytelling techniques may have been improved upon by other creators and even in later chapters of the series, but it could still prove a worthwhile investment to anyone willing to give it the time of day.
Final Score: 6/10