Game-related ramblings.

History Lessons: Dragon Quest II

Other History Lessons posts can be found here. For some context, you may wish to read the post about Dragon Quest and the post about Final Fantasy first. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

My very slow quest to play through the early Japanese-style role-playing games continues. I semi-accidentally started out of order with the first Final Fantasy game, before realizing that it was predated by not one, but two of the Dragon Quest games. Deciding it was foolish to limit myself to the Final Fantasy series only, I then played the first Dragon Quest, and have now moved on to the second. As with the first game, Dragon Quest II appeared in Japan first, released in January 1987 for the Japanese Famicom, before being localized for the Nintendo Entertainment System (a rebranded Famicom) in North America in 1990, under the name Dragon Warrior II to avoid trademark troubles. This English-language version is the one that I played, and while there are some minor changes, it’s largely the same game as the Japanese original.

That original managed to appear before any of Dragon Quest’s imitators, nearly a year ahead of Final Fantasy. This was an impressive turnaround by developers Chunsoft; in fact, Dragon Quest II was originally scheduled to release in 1986, but was pushed back to January 1987 to fix some balancing issues. Still, it’s release meant Chunsoft were able to firmly establish themselves as the progenitors of the Japanese-style role-playing game, taking inspiration from older classics such as Ultima and Wizardry and introducing the genre to a wide audience in Japan. The first Dragon Quest sold well in Japan, but the second cemented the series as a massive hit.

As before, I played the game through emulation. Like its predecessor, Dragon Quest II exists today largely in the form of remakes — often the same remakes, with the games bundled together — which feature updated graphics, interface, and extras such as new characters or locations. As far as I can tell, the only place one can buy the game as it originally appeared is Japan, as part of the Dragon Quest 25th Anniversary Collection for the Wii, although even that release alters the saving system. Given my historical interest, emulation was the only option. I largely followed the same procedure as before, but this time I used the Mesen emulator core with RetroArch as recent reports indicate it is the most accurate emulator now. But honestly, players sticking with the NestopiaUE emulator will be fine.

You may have noticed, when discussing the remakes, I mentioned that some have additional characters. In Dragon Quest II players are no longer limited to a single hero, in what is arguably the biggest change from the original. Set a hundred years after the first game, the descendants of the original hero now reside in different kingdoms across the sea. Apparently, a hundred years was enough time for a new evil wizard to arise, and when said wizard attacks Moonbrooke castle, the prince of Midenhall is sent out to find his two cousins so they may band together to stop the threat. Players therefore begin with a single playable character (I named mine Carlos), but it’s not long before the full party of three is assembled. The enemies aren’t resting on their laurels, however. While fights in Dragon Quest were strictly one-on-one duels, in Dragon Quest II the enemies attack in packs, which makes combat much more interesting.

Groups of monsters are staples of Japanese role-playing game design, but they way they’re handled here is different than what I’m used to. When fighting a group of, say, three slimes, the player can’t target individuals within the group. I often wanted to concentrate my damage on one enemy in order to eliminate it, but my characters would end up hitting different ones, slowly whittling down the whole group. But sometimes, fighting three slimes actually entails fighting a group of two slimes and a separate single slime, in which case the loner can be singled out and eliminated quickly. When there’s more than one type of enemy in the fight, the different types are always separate from each other, but each can come in one big mob or several smaller gangs, lending some tactical variety to the combat.

Further tactical decisions stem from the three party members. In the first Dragon Quest, the hero is adept at both swordplay and magic, but I rarely used magic during combat because it was more efficient to just attack. But with three party members facing off against packs of enemies with different dangerous abilities, magic is critical. One character in particular specializes in magic, with poor fighting skills; another is a mixed fighter and caster, while the starting hero can’t use magic at all and acts as a front line fighter. In the late game especially, they must work as a team to support each other with appropriate spells, often by healing and buffing the fighter or strategically eliminating certain enemies while he handles others. These battles are a huge step forward compared to Dragon Quest’s simple fights, and already have most of the hallmarks of classic Japanese-style role-playing combat that would appear again and again in the genre.

Outside of combat, Dragon Quest II feels very similar to its predecessor. There are small improvements to the interface, such as the removal of the “stairs” menu command (stairs are used automatically when walking into them) and lumping the old “open” command, which was used to open treasure chests, into the “search” command. Characters can now equip a helmet and shield in addition to a weapon and armor, and each party member can carry items, expanding the total inventory size. Unfortunately, these inventories are not shared so the player must laboriously trade items between characters through menus to get the right equipment to the right people. And “laborious” is still the best way to describe the menus, despite the incremental improvements. Talking to townsfolk still requires bringing up the menu and then selecting “talk”, rather than using a contextual button press as would become standard. Casting a spell outside of combat requires pulling up the menu, choosing the “spell” option, choosing which character will cast the spell, choosing which spell they will cast, and choosing the target… one mis-press and the player must cancel the entire action and start over. It’s still a long way from the more streamlined interfaces that would come later.

But there are some other welcome changes. Keys are no longer used up each time a door is unlocked, instead becoming critical story items that allow the player to repeatedly open certain types of doors and access new areas. Dungeons no longer require torches or other light sources to navigate, nor do they rely on the limited viewing range of said light sources to generate navigational challenges. Instead, dungeon size is increased by building the maps out of 2×2 size blocks, and the dungeons make liberal use of areas that are only revealed upon entering them (the same system used for building interiors) to make exploration more interesting. At first I wasn’t convinced that the new style of dungeon would be as challenging and fun, but the later ones are ticky indeed, with intentionally confounding layouts full of traps and hazardous areas, and of course tough battles. A few in particular are highlights, but they are generally fun to tackle, and feel distinct from one another. Compared to the original, they are more sprawling and threatening, and certainly a step forward in dungeon design.

There were apparently some graphical improvements as well, but it looked about the same to me. Only when comparing screenshots directly to the first game do I see some small improvements in tile graphics. This may be because I played the North American version, which arrived three years after the original Japanese release. Publishers Enix (now part of Square Enix, after merging with the Final Fantasy developer in 2003) handled the North American port themselves, and it largely features the same updates as the North American port of the original game: a battery backup save system rather than password system, sprites for characters facing different directions, and a few changed names and dialogues. I assume that some graphical upgrades were normalized across the two games for their North American release, so I mostly just noticed the new art for enemies, which is nice but similar in style to the first game. I did miss the colorful landscape backgrounds of the battles in the first game, replaced here with a simple black background that I presume was needed to accommodate the larger groups of enemies. The North American version also retains the same Elizabethan English script that was so divisive in the first game, but which I rather liked. The opening story scene is also expanded, starting off a tale that has a similar fairy tale feel of noble heroes battling evil. I was pleased to see that there was no cliched damsel in distress this time; instead, the princess in Dragon Quest II is a playable character, joining the party to fight alongside the others. There are still some gender stereotypes in play, however, as she is focused on magic and is “not strong enough” to use most weapons and armor. Still, a step forward from the first game in which the hero had to literally carry the princess back to safety.

That was my overall impression of Dragon Quest II as I played: very similar to the original, with a set of improvements that are incremental rather than transformative. Like the first game, I was given some direction at the start but had to piece together clues from townsfolk on where to head next, including tracking down some hidden secrets. But soon I’d assembled the team and was really starting to enjoy the expanded battles. I was ready to pronounce the game a successful iteration of the Dragon Quest design, with few new ideas but good execution on the ones it had.

Then I found the ship.

When writing about Final Fantasy, I discussed how its vehicles were one thing that made it feel different to Dragon Quest. Turns out the Dragon Quest series had a ship nearly a year earlier, and unlike the ship in Final Fantasy that can only dock at specific ports, the ship in Dragon Quest II can land anywhere. Until this point my wanderings had been limited by terrain and coastlines, but no longer. I could go anywhere in Dragon Quest II’s huge world, whenever I wanted. I might find monsters I couldn’t handle yet, but there was nothing to stop me from trying. Most players will likely sail to the land of Alefgard first, where the first Dragon Quest was set. The manual and promotional materials for Dragon Quest II were quick to brag that players could revisit this land, but it’s a bit disappointing in practice. It’s drastically miniaturized compared to the first game, and only has a few points of interest. A fun novelty rather than a meaningful place to explore. It even plays familiar music from the first game when disembarking there. If anything, the sparse arrangement of that music reinforced the newfound confidence that composer Koichi Sugiyama had when composing the new music for Dragon Quest II, which features impressively layered melodies given the limitations of the audio hardware. The music uses every voice of the synthesizer, such that when talking to townsfolk the sound that plays as text “prints” into the conversation window (a sound that, honestly, is pointless) interferes with the music, because it temporarily “steals” one of the voices to make the sound. An interesting quirk of the system.

After visiting the fun-size Alefgard, I found I had very little direction on where to go next. I just set out on my ship, seeing what I would find, loosely guided by the low-detail map given in the manual. I stumbled across islands, new continents, several different towns, and even some secrets in the middle of the ocean. Slowly, I pieced together some hints about what I must do. It’s similar investigative work to what had come before, but the ship changes the feel completely. With the whole world at my fingertips, I unraveled a grand mystery that dwarfed the scale of anything I’d faced so far. Following all the leads, locating various hidden items, and interpreting some of the vaguer clues made this part feel more like an adventure game than a role-playing game. It’s remarkable, and a stark contrast to the linear path through Final Fantasy.

In fact, I suspect that if I’d played Dragon Quest II when I was younger, I never would have figured it out. There’s a lot to solve, and it’s surprisingly tricky. Playing now, I was determined not to look up any solutions, which meant I did a lot of wandering around and revisiting places I’d already been. I did solve most of it myself, and each revelation was immensely satisfying. But eventually I broke down and looked up answers on two occasions. Both times, the solution was something I’d already thought of but hadn’t sufficiently explored, and I felt silly for not having managed it on my own. My thinking process was also hindered by a set of clues which I thought were essential, but turned out to just be a guide to a powerful but optional item. Nevertheless, it was great to see all the threads slowly converge as I got ready to face the end of the game.

To keep things interesting after the mysteries have been solved, Dragon Quest II opts for highly difficult final areas. I alluded to this above, but later-stage dungeons are absolutely devious, and the battles are no joke either. The upside of all the wandering I’d done earlier was that my heroes kept gaining experience and earning gold, so I didn’t have to spend too much time “grinding” for better equipment. Still, the later areas in the game were a stiff challenge, and when I was ready to face the final villain I was sorely under-powered. Only later, when researching things for this post, did I learn that Dragon Quest II is considered one of the hardest games in the series, and the endgame difficulty balance was one reason for the short delay on its original release. While playing, I was simply reminded of the end of the first game, which also saw me stuck battling monsters again and again to power up enough to survive the final castle. Here, I stubbornly pressed on when I probably shouldn’t have, but I was emboldened by the escape spells my characters had which could return me to safety quickly if things went bad. I also realized that the punishment for having all of my heroes fall in battle — losing half my gold — didn’t matter anymore, because I didn’t have anything left to spend money on. My characters would keep their experience even after being defeated, so why not try to head for the big baddie? If I died, I’d just try again, stronger. This ended up feeling a little like a cheat, because there are certain battles that only happen once, not respawning even after my party was killed. I only realized this after saving and returning to the game in a later session, because fully quitting out of the game will reset those fights. I think the designers intended for players to have to run the gauntlet, winning each tough battle and defeating the final boss in a single run in order to win. But I found if I won the first battle and fell to the second, I could return (after losing half my gold) and tackle the second battle straight away. Even doing this, I had to take several cracks at the final villain before I was able to win, and honestly the victory caught me by surprise. It felt like I was supposed to keep grinding for higher level characters before having a chance at winning, but I was glad I scraped by without having to spend too much time leveling.

The ending drags a bit, then, but overall I really enjoyed the game. Exploring the wide open world on my ship was the definite highlight. The huge, world-spanning puzzle that I had to work through in this part of the game felt markedly different from the highly linear storylines I’m used to in the genre; a trend which I’m now convinced started with Final Fantasy. I have vague memories that later Dragon Quest entries converted to more linear designs as well, but I guess I’ll find out when I get to them. I can understand why they might have, since I often felt at a loss as to what to do next in Dragon Quest II, and I imagine many players would have given up rather than wander around hoping to stumble upon the way forward. But it was more satisfying to work through these puzzles than it would have been to follow a prescribed path. I hope the Dragon Quest series — or some of its imitators — kept that spirit alive.

If you want to give Dragon Quest II a try, there are a lot of versions available, most of which feature redone graphics and other changes. For example, the version available for Android clearly features newer graphics, and has difficulty tweaks to make it easier than the original. The only way to play the game as it originally appeared (other than tracking down an original cartridge, or ordering the Japan-only 25th Anniversary Collection) is to use emulation, as I did.

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2 Comments

  1. WSTZ - James

    Another great write up Walt!

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