Innovation & Design

The Coming Dragon Quest


On August 11th, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra held a concert entitled "The World of Dragon Quest." The concert was conducted by Dragon Quest music composer Koichi Sugiyama. The songs performed had been selected from the first eight games of the series via a survey conducted months earlier. On the 19th, Mr. Sugiyama will conduct the Aichi Symphony Orchestra in a "Dragon Quest I-VIII Best Selection" concert in Nagoya.

This is the 20th time these concerts have been held, since 1986, the year the first Dragon Quest was released.

In an interview before the concert on the 11th, Sugiyama mentioned how delighted he is that people have loved his music since the Famicom era, and how flattered he is with the orchestra members' apprecation of the games. Yet he also slipped out some juicy information: "[Series producer] Yuji Horii is really busy at the moment on Dragon Quest IX, and I'm really looking forward to what kind of game he's making this time, as a gamer." Perhaps Mr. Sugiyama was not authorized to say this; he is, however, 75 years old, so let's cut him a break.

Dengeki Online is reporting this as rock-solid confirmation that a ninth Dragon Quest title is in the works. I wouldn't doubt it. Dragon Quest is the biggest game series in Japan; it is a cultural status symbol, enchanting adults, children, men and women. Dragon Quest VIII saw the series moving into gorgeous 3D in a way that actually enhanced the feel of exploring a world. IX will almost definitely be in 3D as well, perhaps with a few of the tiny problems of Dragon Quest VIII ironed out.

Horii was one of the first game designers Nintendo president Satoru Iwata approached with the prototype Wii controller. Horii contributed a video interview to Nintendo's Tokyo Game Show 2005 Wii press conference. In it, he talked about making games accessible to a greater market, and cutting to the essence of "fun."

At E3, it was announced that Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors (a game in which the player waves the Wii wand like a sword), will go on sale alongside the system at launch. The game is seemingly very similar in structure to Dragon Quest Kenshin, a standalone game of baffling depth, which consisted of a light-detecting sword that plugged into a television's AV ports.

Dragon Quest IX for Wii?

It's seriously possible that the new Dragon Quest game will be for the Nintendo Wii. Satoru Iwata seems to be taking all the right steps in creating his own new field of entertainment; that he befriended Yuji Horii more than just deeply enough to get him to tape a video soundbite for a press conference is highly possible.

If the next Dragon Quest game were to be announced for Wii at Tokyo Game Show, the news would be staggeringly huge.

Interestingly, it would also pit Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest against one another for the first time in a very long time. Even since before Square and Enix merged, even when, in the minds of the fans of their two great series, they were "rivals," there has always been a gentlemanly agreement between the companies, by which they don't release major titles too closely to one another. When Square said they'd wait for Dragon Quest VII to release before releasing Final Fantasy VII, they were politely told to go ahead. By the time Dragon Quest VII came out, Square was releasing Final Fantasy IX, and had announced Final Fantasies X and XI.

When Final Fantasy XII and Dragon Quest VIII were in simultaneous production, Enix told Square to go ahead and release Final Fantasy XII first. The game ended up delayed for two years, during which Dragon Quest VIII was released. Now, in 2006, Final Fantasy is still synonymous with big pop songs, flash, and bang (and sometimes fizzle, as in the case of the movies and the casual fans' attitude toward XI), and Dragon Quest is the very symbol of classical music, clean-hearted adventure, and wholesome family entertainment. We've slogged through long years and many online battles between Japanese fans of both series, in which Dragon Quest was sworn to be more "hardcore" and Final Fantasy was said to be "for girls," or how Dragon Quest was "for kids" and Final Fantasy was very nearly high art, though I think they've reached the light at the end of the tunnel and can see that videogames, in general, tend to be kind of ridiculous. The two series are now, perhaps, free to be clearly judged on a case-by-case basis.

If Dragon Quest IX is on the Wii, however, it will mark the first time in, well, history that the two series' major titles appeared on different platforms. Final Fantasy XIII has already been announced (as TWO games) for the PlayStation 3. An announcement that Dragon Quest IX is for Wii will tear fans of both series in half. It will force them to ask, which one do you love more?

With Square and Enix's friendly rivalry in the past firmly in mind, it's not hard to see why they would go ahead and put both series on the PlayStation 3. Horii has commented that "graphics can't get that much better" than Dragon Quest VIII, and as long as the Wii is slightly more powerful than a PlayStation 2, it would be "enough" for Dragon Quest IX. Hopefully it will be powerful enough to render the terrain textures so that they look like Akira Toriyama's manga landscapes -- seriously the only thing I found missing from Dragon Quest VIII's illustrious presentation.

Dragon Quest series spinoffs have appeared on platforms aside from the main series for a long time. The Dragon Quest Monsters series appeared on Gameboy Color during the development of the smash-hit Dragon Quest VII for PlayStation, for example. So this could mean that Dragon Quest Swords for Wii is just a one-shot thing. Whichever way the coin turns up, Yuji Horii is a real benevolent genius about how he handles his brand.

If the casual Japanese gamer were to hear that Dragon Quest IX would be available on Nintendo Wii, and the Wii would be much, much cheaper than the other consoles, that would be another victory for Nintendo. Or, well, it'd be victory for everybody.

If both Dragon Quest IX and Final Fantasy XIII are for PlayStation 3, however, then the PlayStation 3 will absolutely not fail to install itself in at least three million homes in the period leading up to the release of Dragon Quest IX. It is most probable that, in that case, Final Fantasy XIII would be released at least six months ahead of Dragon Quest IX. Dragon Quest is the type of game to sell systems -- the question is, though, is it the type of game to sell a system that's nearly $700? Perhaps not alone. Perhaps if it had the help of Final Fantasy XIII. Which, um, it would.

Still, one of the many complaints originating from Japanese consumers is that the numbers in the titles of PlayStation 3's big games are getting too high. Ridge Racer 7, Tekken 6, Final Fantasy XIII, Metal Gear Solid 4, Resident Evil 5. Dragon Quest IX would add another big number to that pile.

There's always the chance that the Wii might NOT be able to handle the tiny visual jump Dragon Quest VIII wants to make over Dragon Quest IX. Yes, Yuji Horii said that the graphics in VIII were very, very close to what he always dreamt they should look like. With 1080p high-definition visuals and the Cell processor, Yuji Horii would perhaps, very simply, be able to "complete" the visual presentation of the series. The fans who didn't find Dragon Quest VIII too amazingly impressive might finally see the light: as the game aspires to look like a cartoon with character designs by Akira Toriyama, it wouldn't need to be animated in too lifelike a manner. Dragon Quest is a series that relies on players' imaginations, to a great extent. It's rumored that the next title will feature voices (the Japanese version of VIII was silent, unlike the English version), so if this step is being taken at last, it seems that Yuji Horii, Japanese gaming's last great traditionalist, is finishing up his own quest. He's tightening the last few elements into place, and that might mean he's willing to put the game on the most expensive console. And I tell you, those scrunchy, hard-edged lines in the landscapes (and, I suppose, a few other things, too) would propel Dragon Quest right out of the Uncanny Valley and into superstardom. Right now, it's just a question of whether or not Horii wants to perfect the audio/visual presentation right away, or if he wants to take his time, like he'd been doing.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the original Dragon Quest's publication. So this Tokyo Game Show would be a wonderful occasion to announce something.

(Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy; Square will likely re-release each game in the series in a new gold-plated case for $500 each, and probably release another Final Fantasy VII spinoff.)

The fans also lie in wait of a Dragon Quest Online announcement. In fact, in last week's Famitsu, in a poll asking the question "Which online game do you most look forward to?", "Dragon Quest Online" topped the results by a landslide. It seems that gamers have not forgotten Horii's announcement that he was interested in making such a game -- way back in 1998.

Renaissance or armageddon

Thinking back to what Yuji Horii said last year at Tokyo Game Show about originality, it now seems a little more plausible that Dragon Quest IX might NOT be for the Wii, after all. He said in later interviews that he was interested in starting a new series. It seems quite likely that he'd use the Wii for something new. This would certainly be in the spirit of Hironobu Sakaguchi's call to arms last year when he split with Square to form Mist Walker, and create new franchises for Xbox 360. The Japanese games industry is on the verge of either renaissance or armageddon.

Game news is quiet this week, though this little slip by Sugiyama really helps me look forward to Tokyo Game Show with a little bit more excitement. It's just four weeks away, and all is calm in this week's Famitsu. Japan, fortunately, tends to understand that rumblings in the press prior to a press conference is kind of silly. One of the reasons Tokyo Game Show will not explode as E3 did is because the Japanese industry's public relations departments are not foolhardy enough to turn the entire year into one big trade show.

So let's start a list: "Questions Vital to the Japanese Videogame Industry, which Will Hopefully be Answered at Tokyo Game Show":

1. Dragon Quest IX for which system?

I'll list the others as they come to me.

For the meantime, let's go to Horii's personal website (http://www.pluto.dti.ne.jp/%7Eyubon/index.html) and click on the link that says "Secret DQ9 information!!" A panel appears!! It says, "Enter password." I enter a password!! . . . There's a 404. Again and again and again.

It seems that this is a joke. This coming from the man who let the player always win the slot machine in DQV the first time through the game. Yuji Horii is a heck of a guy.


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