Other History Lessons posts can be found here. This post makes many references to the entries for Dragon Quest II, Final Fantasy, and Phantasy Star. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
If you’re just tuning in, I’ve been (slowly) playing through the early Japanese-style role-playing games. I started with Final Fantasy, since that’s the one I played most as a kid, but then realized that I needed to back up and play Dragon Quest and Dragon Quest II, both of which appeared first. These two games set the conventions of the Japanese-style role-playing genre, but competitors soon appeared. Final Fantasy, which also ran on Nintendo’s Famicom (rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States), was the first on the scene, letting players make their own party of adventurers and offering a linear path through the game that was easier to follow than Dragon Quest II’s open structure. But a mere two days later, Sega released Phantasy Star for their Master System console. I went into that one without really knowing what to expect, and it was a revelation. Not only is it far more technically impressive than anything on Nintendo’s Famicom, it was way ahead of both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy in terms of how the genre would evolve in the years to come. Phantasy Star features a colorful cast of characters with their own personalities and motivations, a well realized setting, and the seeds of a stronger story to drive events, all of which would become staples of the genre (including the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series). Even the science fiction elements that would become popular in the Final Fantasy series (the minimal hints in the first Final Fantasy notwithstanding) were in Phantasy Star first.
After Phantasy Star, the early Dragon Quest games already seem outdated. So now that developers Chunsoft had a chance to see how other designers interpreted the genre they started, how would they respond in their next Dragon Quest game? Well, it turns out they didn’t have too much time to adapt. Dragon Quest III released in February 1988, less than two months after Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star, so it was nearly finished by the time the team could see what other studios were up to. I should note that I’m playing the North American version known as Dragon Warrior III, which didn’t appear until 1992 and — unlike earlier entries in the series — actually had some significant changes from the original Japanese release, most notably a large increase in experience rewards from fighting monsters, which makes character leveling faster. Structurally, however, it remains similar. When doing research for this post, I learned that lead designer Yuji Horii had a policy of removing any features that had been used in other games, so it’s unlikely he would have wanted to copy anything from Final Fantasy or Phatasy Star even if there had been time to do so. But the team must have arrived at some of the same ideas independently, because Dragon Quest III has clear similarities to one (and only one) of its rivals. It’s not Phantasy Star.