It's a good time to be a Dragon Quest fan. I'm old enough to remember when a new Dragon Quest game coming West wasn't a sure thing. It took years to get our hands on localized versions of Dragon Quest V and VI. We still don't have Dragon Quest X (please, Square Enix?). Now, we're practically drowning in new and remastered Dragon Quest content. Alongside the release of the excellent Switch port of Dragon Quest XI, we've gotten our hands on Dragon Quest Builders 2 and a number of other side games and other ports over the last few years.
One set of games that we've consistently missed out on, though, is the first three Dragon Quest games. Sure, we got the original versions on the NES and Gameboy Color remakes, but we haven't seen much in almost 20 years. All three were remade on the Super Famicom, but we didn't get those. We didn't get the Wii ports. We didn't get the PS4 ports. All three have been available on iOS and Android for some time, but if you're anything like me, that's not an ideal way to play Dragon Quest. Now, finally, alongside the release of Dragon Quest XI S, these three classics have returned to home consoles on the Nintendo Switch. I got a chance to play all three, and while there are certainly some issues with all three ports, they are undoubtedly the best localized way to play these games.
While all the games were released separately, they have some common traits. First, these are all almost straight ports of the mobile versions with minor modifications/improvements. Screen size was adjusted to fit a widescreen TV, the graphics look a little cleaner and brighter, and the UI was adjusted to match playing the games with the controller. Otherwise the games are presented here exactly as they are on your phones.
This alignment with the mobile ports means the quirks of those versions, for good or ill, are all present here. A lot of the outdated mechanics in the original versions, like having to go into your menu to ascend stairs or open doors, are gone. The difficulty of all three games has also been modified to more modern sensibilities, but like almost all NES games, you'll still need to stop and grind with some regularity to survive. The two most important additions to these ports as opposed to the originals, though, is a quick save function and a world map. Make no mistake, these games are still challenging, with long dungeons, challenging random encounters, and the ability to go to high level areas of the world early, leading to a quick death. The quick save function is a godsend, preventing you from starting back at the save point and losing half your gold when you die. Similarly, the world map keeps you from wandering to places you don't need to be yet. You still need to talk to every NPC along the way to figure out where to go, and even then it can be difficult to navigate, but the map kept me on track much better than earlier iterations of the game.
The other really nice feature of these ports is the soundtrack. This might be a surprise to those who have only played Dragon Quest XI, but Koichi Sugiyama's scores were excellent in the early days of Dragon Quest. The score to Dragon Quest I is appropriately haunting to the only adventure you are taking, the world map theme is rousing in Dragon Quest II, and, like the rest of Dragon Quest III, almost every track is iconic. The soundtrack has been upgraded from the original chiptune sound, and while I have some nostalgia for the original tracks, they all sound excellent and are a true upgrade from the original.
The only significant downside to these ports is the graphics, particularly with the first two games. They remind me a lot of the much maligned "upgrades" to both Final Fantasy V and VI on both PC and mobile. In both games, the sprites are oversized and out of proportion with the rest of the map. The colors are so bright they can be jarring, and when you move, the screen jitters. This wasn't as big a problem in the mobile versions, as the larger sprites and colors made sense in that medium, but blown up on a big screen TV in HD, or even in handheld, it's not particularly pleasant to look at. Dragon Quest III improves on this issue compared to the first two games, though. The sprites are more appropriately sized, the colors are more balanced, and the screen jittering isn't present. It still looks like a mobile game, but the look translates much better to Switch than the first two games.
There's a reason these three games are often sold as a package: this is a trilogy which follows a warrior, Erdrick, and his descendants as they fend off various threats to save their worlds. With Dragon Quest I, the story is as simple. You play a descendant of Erdrick. The wizard, Dragon Lord, has stolen both the orb of light, which is meant to fend off monsters, and the princess of the Kingdom of Alefgard. You are tasked with defeating the Dragon Lord and saving the princess. That's it. The story is actually refreshingly simple and straightforward — those who are looking for an epic narrative should surely look elsewhere.
The simplicity of the story is matched by the simplicity of the gameplay. The loop is simple: grind against some enemies, find a key item to open up a new area, and then move on to the next. You only control the descendant of Erdrick throughout the game — there are no additional party members. Similarly, you only face one enemy at a time in battle. The world map is small, but you still need to talk to NPCs along the way to find out where you're going. The game is still short at only 6-8 hours, and the difficulty rebalance has made this game go by even quicker. Dragon Quest I was the first RPG released on consoles in Japan, and for that alone, it's likely worth playing for anyone with an interest in the history of the genre and this seminal series. The joy of seeing Akira Toriyama's early designs alone is worth it.
Dragon Quest II fares significantly less well in 2019, even with the adjustments in this port. Similar to the first game, the story isn't doing much. Set 100 year after the events of Dragon Quest I, you play as a descendant of the descendant of Erdrick (it doesn't get much more original from here). A nearby castle has been attacked by the evil wizard Hargon, and you set out on a quest to stop him after making a quick pit stop at two local kingdoms to solicit your cousins for aid.
As the first RPG that I ever beat as a child, I'll admit to having some nostalgia for this game, but frankly, almost nothing about it holds up. Released less than a year after Dragon Quest, the design philosophy behind the game seemingly was to make the world bigger, give you more tools, yet make the game even more difficult — mention the word "Rhone" to anyone who has played this game, and you'll likely induce a shudder — and give you even fewer signposts directing where to go. You'll find yourself wandering the world map for long stretches of time, and even if you're using a guide, you're likely to miss NPCs you need to talk to before finding them and triggering the next event. Many of the new features here would be used to better effect later, like an actual party of characters to use in battle, ship travel, and a much larger world map, but ultimately, Dragon Quest II is an example of a game where ambition far outstripped design, and even a rebalanced difficulty curve and a few other features in this port don't make this game worth playing for anyone but a hardcore Dragon Quest completionist or if you're particularly interested in the story tie in between this game and Dragon Quest Builders 2, which serves as a semi-sequel to this game.
The real gem of these ports is Dragon Quest III. To start, the narrative is a significant upgrade from the previous two games. The game opens in the town of Aliahan with you, playing "The Hero," the song of the legendary hero Ortega, awakened by your mom to go meet with the king for the first time. The king asks you to go on a quest to slay the demon lord Baramos, who everyone believes killed your father and is threatening to destroy the world. It sounds pretty similar to the first two games, but there are a few key differences. To start, this is the first Dragon Quest game to focus on each town and tell an individual story in each of those places. The stories are often quite engaging and affecting. Even better, there is a neat tie in to the first two Dragon Quest games that I won't spoil for those of you who haven't played it yet. Needless to say, playing the first game will make the narrative of this game even more impactful.
The place where Dragon Quest III totally outshines the first two games, though, is the gameplay. Its most distinct feature is that this game features a robust, if somewhat simple, job system. At the start of the game, you're given the option to create your own characters or take pre-made ones. You can reassign classes as you level up, and while you go back to level one, many of your stat upgrades and skills are maintained from the previous class. Compared to current job systems it's not anything too fancy, but it allows for a large degree of customization that is a blast to play around with. Additionally, while the game is perhaps even more open than the previous two, there are a lot more signposts making it much more clear where to go. In all ways, from the story to the gameplay and even the graphics in these ports, Dragon Quest III is the best of these three games. It's a true classic.
Even with the new coat of paint on Dragon Quest I, II, and III, these are NES games at their core. You will grind. You will get lost. You will talk to every NPC. You will die. A lot. For those of you who don't have patience for those mechanics, you should stay away from all three of these games. If you happen to have a Gameboy Color lying around, some might prefer the look of the GBC games as well. But if you're new to Dragon Quest and you want to see where it all started, two of these games are worth picking up. Dragon Quest I is a short history lesson that might not entirely hold up, but is worth the short time investment. Dragon Quest III, on the other hand, is perhaps the first great turn-based RPG, and should be experienced by anyone who still has the patience for a little bit of a grind. For less than $20 for both games, it's worth the price of admission.
Go ahead and give Dragon Quest II a pass. Don't do that to yourself.