Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen

Developer: Arte Piazza
U.S. Publisher: Square Enix
Original U.S. Release: September 2008
Genre: RPG
Format: Cartridge

Based on: The principle that sometimes simpler really is better, and that things which are not broken don't require fixing.

Games | Nintendo DS | Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen

Article by parish | November 17, 2008

The gaming Internet's newest viral whim appears to be the term "neo retro," which has been tossed about with abandon lately. The meme as a whole is probably best embodied by the recent GameSetWatch piece "Neo-Retro - Movement or Passing Fad?," which neatly (if unintentionally) encapsulates everything grating about the term. Certainly the name itself is an uncomfortable etymological trainwreck, but beyond that is the folly inherent in trying to boil the subject matter down to an either/or paradigm when in fact the recent resurgence of retro-styled games is neither a movement nor a passing fad.

Not that I blame author Nayan Ramachandran; I've made the same mistake myself. And with the best of intentions! But I've come to realize that the aesthetics and mechanics represented by games like Mega Man 9 and Contra 4 are not a bandwagon, not a flash-in-pan trend, not a shocking revolution. They're simply an expression of the larger, mainstream games industry coming to realize what smaller and more independent creators have known for years: the design of older generations of games may have been limited as a matter of technological necessity, but those technological handicaps resulted in unique gameplay wholly different from modern games. And this "dated" gameplay remains every bit as fun -- and just as valid -- as any 3D blockbuster on any current-gen console.

For many people, in fact, those older styles of gameplay are more fun, because you can play them without having to master arthritis-inducing controller layouts, without being forced to deal with 3D. This was the very foundation upon which Nintendo designed the Wii remote, although the company seems to be following up on the Wii's streamlined hardware design with software that's simple-minded rather than merely simple. Still, the fundamental thinking behind the Wii's design is correct, and is absolutely borne of the same philosophy as the games that have prompted all this talk of "neo retro." There's a place for complex game design, but there's also a place for less demanding approaches -- and sometimes, simpler is better. That's why Klonoa? is just as fun now as it was ten years ago, while Banjo-Kazooie? is a tedious eyesore. Cave Story will be a blast on WiiWare, just like it was insanely good on PC four years ago.

"Neo retro" is the wrong name for this school of game design, you see, because there's nothing neo about it. Countless indie designers and portable game publishers have been making "retro" games as if the 16-bit era never ended; it's only now that the colossi of the industry are starting to notice these tiny little iconoclasts scurrying about their feet. All the hand-wringing about blue oceans and hardcore gamers and how much Wii Music may or may not suck can be tiresome, sure, but it's also a welcome sign of maturity for the medium. It's a process of soul-searching, and it means that gaming is growing up, that gamers are starting to look beyond the traditional bleeding edge of technology for their good times. That old-style games like Mega Man 9 are becoming more prominent is simply a reflection of publishers seeking to meet the demands of gamers, who are increasingly coming to realize that the best games of yore stand up to more than just a nostalgic backwards glance.

It's fair to say that gaming in 2008 is just about where the rock industry was in 1974, when punk rock burst onto the scene. You don't think it's just a coincidence that people keep clamoring for "the Lester Bangs of games journalism," do you? Gaming is maturing, changing, and this transformation deserve to be chronicled as was the music industry's coming of age. (Of course, we'll never have a Lester Bangs per se, because the entire creative process behind a game is totally different than that of a rock album. But that's another screed altogether.)

Back in the '70s, rock was deadlocked in a constant battle of comeuppance. Each year saw new technical advances and more ambitious production, and publishers continued to consolidate their control of the creative process. Psychedelia begat Sgt. Pepper which begat prog rock and Let It Be's Wall of Sound which begat the likes of The Dark Side of the Moon and Tales From Topographic Oceans -- each in turn adding new layers of production and complexity to the previous year's model, sacrificing musical vitality for carefully-constucted audio. And while few would claim that The Dark Side of the Moon is garbage, it was the sort of masterpiece that didn't appeal to everyone. Some people just wanted to rock out, you know? So those people calmly made T-shirts declaring their hatred of Pink Floyd, wrote a few songs, donned leather jackets, and screamed their way to revolution three chords at a time.

It's also not a coincidence that Grasshopper Manufacturing's logo proclaims that "Punk's Not Dead" -- No More Heroes is very self-consciously styled in the punk tradition. It's not really punk, though, because Goichi Suda is more Brian Eno than Sid Vicious -- his work is less edgy and raw, more esoteric and inventive. Plus, the man is best buddies with Hideo Kojima, for crying out loud; if gaming has a Dark Side of the Moon, it is Metal Gear Solid 4, and Johnny Rotten wouldn't have been caught dead having dinner with Roger Waters. No, punk is someone like Braid's Jonathan Blow: a fan of reactive design, creatively in love with the medium, and honestly a bit tiresome if you actually pay attention to his endless manifestos.

Like punk, the unrelated clump of games that tend to be categorized loosely as "neo retro" is collectively about stripping away the excess, stripping away the pretense, and boiling the medium down to its basics. They're reductivist but not regressive; these games continue to build on all that's come before. Mega Man 9 could never have been created in 1993, because it incorporates design concepts inspired by a decade of 3D games -- the spinning platforms in Tornado Man's stage, for instance -- and plays on gamers' familiarity with the Mega Man series to fake them out. Retro Game Challenge could never have existed in 1993, because the context necessary for the game's overarching "fake history of gaming" motif didn't fully exist yet. Aquaria couldn't have existed in 1993, because no one designed graphics like that back then, and the Metroidvania genre wasn't yet codified. Even though these games are built on dated technology, they employ modern design concepts. They employ minimalism not as a means to cynically capitalize on nostalgia but rather because that style of visuals and mechanics speaks its own distinct vocabulary, one that simply can't be voiced through the likes of God Of War.

So what does this have to do with Dragon Quest IV? Nothing, at least not directly. DQIV isn't "neo retro," it's just plain ol' retro. The original version of the game dates from 1990, and the DS rendition is a remake twice removed, based largely on a PlayStation recreation that never made its way to the U.S. This new version -- subtitled Chapters of the Chosen -- is largely the old game with a few interface tweaks, some revamped (and then downsampled) visuals, and a handful of new elements to keep it feeling somewhat more contemporary than an RPG of its vintage really should.

Those new additions are fairly minor -- a streamlined menu here, a bonus wi-fi town sidequest there -- and the bulk of the game's improvements are visual. Even those are restrained, a far cry from Matrix's DS remakes of Final Fantasy titles borne of the same timeframe. Frankly, Chapters of the Chosen works better for the modesty of its embellishments, and its exceptional balance of old and new makes it a definitive example of why "dated" game styles so often work. DQIV is an addictive, entertaining RPG that quietly impresses at every turn precisely because it rarely strays from the boundaries of 8-bit design.

It lacks the tedious exposition of modern RPGs, yet it offers more clearly (and entertainingly) defined characters than many modern games thanks to its chapter-based structure that puts players in the shoes, boots or sandals of its secondary protagonists before getting to the main story. Plus, each stand-alone portion of the game also feeds into the overarching plot by painting an outline of the villain's scheme, and occasionally pausing to let us know by proxy that, yes, this Psaro dude is bad ass. The narrative is minimalist by nature, but it more than does the trick; Psaro only puts in a couple of cameos before the final showdown, but they're sufficient to create a fully fleshed-out character with real, if misguided, motives.

And the game's new (well, "new") look doesn't exactly push the boundaries of the DS hardware, retaining a essentially fixed top-down viewpoint while exploring and a first-person perspective in combat. The 3D elements have a weird, distorted look, as though Arte Piazza were trying to mimic the PlayStation's lack of Z-buffering on the more capable DS hardware, and sprites are recycled with abandon. Despite the superficial tweaks to make the source material look more contemporary, Chapters of the Chosen is still a work created with a limited palette. Those limitations work in the game's favor. The game sequesters itself firmly in the 8-bit milieu, and then excels within that context. Battles may play out in the series' traditional turn-based, face-off-against-your-foes style -- a step backward from Dragon Quest VIII?'s dynamic camera work -- but the pacing is brisk as a result. And more impressively, each formerly static enemy is gloriously animated, with some of the most detailed and fluid spritework ever seen in a game.

All of these disparate threads come together in the game's final battle, a sincerely epic showdown with Psaro that perfectly demonstrates the benefits of keeping things simple. While Psaro's evolutionary transformations would seem mundane in a current-gen RPG, they're impressive within the context of the more subdued environment of DQIV. In his own modest way, Psaro humbles your typical RPG final boss by shifting through a total of seven different forms, initially disintegrating beneath the dismembering fury of the heroine's party before restoring himself with far more powerful versions of his hacked-off bits. It's a brutal battle, thanks in large part to DQIV's skill distribution -- there's no single character who possesses all the abilities necessary to counter or neutralize Psaro's powers, so the party makeup often varies from round to round. And even with a little luck and plenty of tactical thinking, any team that hasn't engaged in a few hours of level grinding will find the battle brutal to the last round, but nevertheless winnable.

What really makes the fight memorable is the way that the game breaks its own rules to show that this last encounter is serious business: as Psaro mutates and evolves, DQIV breaks away from the static first-person perspective through which every prior battle has been viewed to pan around your foe's transforming body, zooming in on each grotesque step of his transfiguration. Psaro isn't the first enemy in DQIV to reveal an alternative form, but he's the only one to do it in such a way. It's a small detail, but it beautifully encapsulates the potency of conservative design.

If indie creations are video gaming's punk rock movement, Dragon Quest is its Robert Fripp: virtuosic, but intensely aware of the potency of discipline. And it need prove nothing to all the upstarts, because it's already paid its dues and proven its merit.

Of course, Chapters of the Chosen does make one significant concession to modernity: the optional sixth chapter of the game, in which Psaro can find redemption. In 1990, it was perhaps unthinkable that a video game villain could become a hero, but Psaro's story is revealed in such a way that the absence of such an option nowadays would be even more unthinkable. And besides, chapter six is pretty much a "take that" to Sephiroth. Since both heroes look the same -- sullen, silver-haired, clad in black, with heavily-armored shoulders -- and have the same general motives for their desire to annihilate humanity -- girl problems, basically -- you can hardly blame the Dragon Quest crew for wanting to differentiate their o.g. nihilist from the off-brand Final Fantasy knock-off.

What, seriously? This just makes Sephiroth even more annoying.

That's just silly infighting, though. What's important is that Chapters of the Chosen is a great RPG by any measure -- a classic RPG that proves that well-crafted gameplay is always fun, and that there's merit in self-restraint. The industry at large may have lost sight of that fact ten, twelve years ago, because it's ever the way of publishers to pursue the shiny, the new, the trendily profitable; but the buzz around "neo retro" suggests that they're slowly wising up to what smaller developers have known all along. The Dragon Quest remakes exist outside that continuum, but that doesn't make the lessons Arte Piazza has to offer through its remakes any less valuable.