By Request: The Anatomy of Dragon Quest

By request of Alois

Consider this The Anatomy of Dragon Quest Part 0. To be continued… someday.

— FLASHBACK: 1986 —

The world is a simpler place, especially for video games. There’s only one console worth noting on the marketplace, “genres” basically break down to “shooting game” vs. “non-shooting game,” and “free to play” means someone set an arcade machine to play without requiring a coin drop. Yes, it’s a milder and gentler time.

And it’s a time in which consoles and role-playing games have never properly intersected. Yes, there have been some glancing blows ranging from Adventure to Tunnels of Doom, but — to my knowledge — never a proper attempt to bring a legitimate turn-based RPG to a game system. Enter Chun Soft, Yuji Horii, and Enix, who had recently graced the world with one of the first-ever graphical adventure games, Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (The Portopia Serial Murder Case). Somehow, they managed to take this grand PC adventure game and squeeze it into a Famicom cartridge in the very early days when Famicom carts were impossibly tiny.


(For more on how they even began to manage this feat, I strongly recommend checking out I Am Error, which breaks down the graphical and interface tricks, advantages, and compromises involved in the conversion.)

Having accomplished this mad feat, I suppose it made sense for Horii and company to be the ones to take things to the next level and convert an RPG to the console. Except, unfortunately, they didn’t have a computer RPG under their belts the way they did an adventure game. So they made one up from scratch.

Dragon Quest was heavily inspired by dungeon crawlers like Wizardry and The Black Onyx, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the game. It eschews the first-person perspective in most areas of the world, going instead with a false overhead perspective that renders the world with bird’s-eye-view tiles but presents the characters and other interactive objects as if they’re facing you. (In the original Famicom rendition of the game, memory limitations meant that sprites could only face you; there was no back side to the hero.) In this way, it more closely resembled Ultima III… as did the structure of the game with its open world, gated only by the ferocity of the monsters that appeared once you crossed over a bridge to a new landmass.


To create Dragon Quest, Horii and Chun Soft basically asked themselves, “What is the bare minimum that qualifies as an RPG?” They stripped the playable party down to a lone hero. They created enemy mobs that only appeared for one-on-one battles. The rudimentary leveling system based player stats on the hero’s name, and magic spells appeared in a fixed linear progression. There were no character classes besides how your name-based stats railroaded you to play. The quest revolved around rescuing a princess, acquiring some legendary artifacts, and defeating the evil Dragonlord. The available gear followed a similar linear progression to the spells. Dragon Quest was not a complex game, even by the standards of contemporary RPGs (which, being on computer systems, could afford to sprawl across the luxurious storage capacity of diskettes — even multiple disks!). But it was the most game Chun Soft could possibly cram into a Famicom cart in 1986 without going all procedural generation on us.

And, really, that was just the right approach. Chun Soft would have badly misaimed their project if they’d tried to kick off console RPGs with something along the lines of The Bard’s Tale; the role-playing genre may have been fairly well established by the time Dragon Quest launched, but that was on PCs. The Famicom audience was different — a mass market, and far younger than the average PC game fan. Stripping the genre to its basics wasn’t simply a matter of technical necessity, it was a reflection of the needs of the Famicom audience. A solo protagonist, one-on-one battles, a simple plot, and greater graphical representation for exploration: The perfect fit for elementary kids discovering RPGs for the first time.

The entire first room of the game acknowledges this. It demonstrates the fact that the game’s creators understood, hey, the people playing this — they’re going to be like eight years old, they’ve never even heard of an RPG. They think video games are about running to the left or shooting a space ship or getting a home run. They don’t understand dialogue and inventories and using items and leveling up.

So the first screen of the game wastes no time, leaves nothing to chance. The game begins with your hero being lectured to by the king, who gives you a rundown of the scenario — save the princess! the Dragonlord is a jerk! — and tells you to take the treasures in the room. This isn’t just generosity; it’s mandatory. The throne room is locked, and you can only leave (and thus only begin the game proper) by opening the chests scattered throughout the throne room until you find a key, then use that key with a menu prompt to unlock the door. And it’s clear you need to pass through the door — you can see a stairway in the hall outside. This is every bit as smart as the first chunk of Super Mario Bros. 1-1, though much less subtle in its tutorial functions. Everything you need to know about the game outside combat is right here: The functions of movement, of dialogue, of exploration, of using items, of the economy, of climbing stairs.


The castle spills into a town, where you engage in more dialogue, can buy items to equip — though only one item for now! — and generally learn the ropes. Villages explain the workings of the world and game mechanics to you, drop hints about later story developments, and encourage you to gear up properly to take on the world.


To reach the first town, you actually have to leave the castle and venture across a field. There’s a small chance you’ll encounter combat en route, but it’s pretty unlikely. You emerge from the castle onto what is clearly a map of the kingdom. You can only see a tiny slice of the map, but it’s enough to convey the point. The nearby town is the only accessible destination from here.

But ah, across the water. There’s another castle. It’s a more foreboding castle, despite using the same icon as the one you’ve just exited. It’s surrounded by mountains and strange dark land rather than the verdant fields and forests of your side of the river. You’ll need to reach this castle eventually, it’s clear, but it looks intimidating. In fact, it’s the game’s final destination. Again, Dragon Quest lays it all out.


And once you do find yourself dragged into combat, what do you find but a game interface deliberately patterned after Portopia? It offers the same windowed first-person view, with the same expository text running along the bottom, and a similar inset menu window featuring command prompts. The exact mechanisms of the game might not be immediately obvious, since you don’t directly control any characters in this scene, but once you press the D-pad you’ll notice the command cursor moving about. Press A and you’ll trigger the currently activated menu item. It all comes together, eventually.

And your initial opponents are either slimes or red slimes — neither one particularly powerful, and both easily defeated even if they jump you before you have a chance to arm yourself. It’s a slow, low-stress, thoughtful start. A great starting point not just for a game, but for an entire genre.

Images from iheartdragonquest, vgmuseum, and romhacking

One thought on “By Request: The Anatomy of Dragon Quest

  1. I was just reading your open world post on USgamer and thought it was interesting how these articles overlapped. Once RPGs started cropping up in bulk, plenty stopped paying attention to the fundamentals laid out by the trendsetters: obtuse mechanics or level design, opening combats where you can easily die depending on the monster you battle (frankly I’d rather not have opening grinds at all, but if they must exist…), and so on.

    I guess it just goes to show that the trendsetters set trends for a reason!

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