GAMES - News
15:00 - 14th April 2013, by NEO Staff

WAY OF THE DRAGON

If you haven't heard of Dragon Quest, then frankly, you should have. In Japan Dragon Ques isn't just a game - it's a phenomenon. If you're serious about Japanese culture, shouldn't you find out what all the fuss is about?

The original Dragon Quest was released by Enix in Japan in 1986 for the Famicom, or NES, as it was known in Europe. As videogame plots go, it couldn't get much more familiar - the villain, known as King Dragon in the Japanese original, has kidnapped the princess of Tantegel along with a magic artefact called the Orb of Light. As the descendent of a legendary hero, you set out to defeat King Dragon, reclaim the princess and the Orb, and restore peace to the kingdom. Though, even then, it was a recognisable formula, Dragon Quest is considered the first RPG to appear on console. Something about the world and the gameplay struck a chord with Japanese gamers - perhaps it was touches like when, before the final battle with King Dragon, you're offered the chance to stay your hand and become joint ruler of the world with the bad guy you've spent so long hunting down. It's a Streets Of Rage style bluff, of course - choose 'Yes', and the rascally dastard kills you, which is no more than you deserve, really.

Seven sequels and a clutch of spin-offs later, the eighth official DQ outing, appeared in Europe as Dragon Quest: The Journey Of The Cursed King. The North American and European releases have undergone significant tweaks and improvements, including the revamp of in-game controls and menu screens, and shifting from a text-based interface to a graphically based one. More importantly, new abilities have been added to some of the player characters, with souped-up battle animation graphics to boot. Sound-wise, the original midi soundtrack has been rerecorded with full orchestral arrangements, and a slew of voice talent has been drafted in to record in-game dialogue, all of which was text-only in the Japanese original.

The game mechanics are straightforward and will be almost instantly understandable to anyone who has played a Squaresoft/Enix RPG before - wander around the map with your party in tow, engage in random turn-based battles, push the plot onward by heading to your appointed destinations or indulge your fancy in a shed-load of quirky side-quests. The few newbies out there needn't worry - Dragon Quest has always been designed with a broad age group in mind, and the game eases you into the ins and outs of combat and travel very gently indeed.

"First of all, it's the simplicity of the game that accounts for its appeal," says Yuji Horii, who has worked as Dragon Quest designer since the beginning. "The first game was playable by everyone, and people who played it talked about it, so it spread by word of mouth." Certainly, no one could accuse the Dragon Quest series of overcomplicating gaming - it's this very accessibility that ensures the franchise's continued popularity 20 years on.

"I remember when the first game came out, I was at primary school," says Ichimo-san, of DQ developer Level-5. "Kids would come into school and go, 'How far are you? Have you reached this bit yet? Ah! I'm at a higher level than you!', and so on. Everyone was talking about it, and so everyone wanted to be a part of it. There was just a buzz around school."

"It's also the feeling of going on a journey and exploring," adds Horii-san. "People enjoy that."

The character design for Dragon Quest: The Journey Of The Cursed King (DQ8) is courtesy of Akira Toriyama, creator of little-known anime curiosity, Dragon Ball. Yes, that was sarcasm there. Toriyama-san's distinctive style is immediately apparent in DQ8's broad, often freakish cast. The graphics seem to push the Playstation 2 to its limit. The lighting, for example, is gorgeous, complete with superb camera glare effects as the sun moves across the sky and day turns to night. The characters are presented in a hybrid 3D cel-shaded style that really makes you feel as if you're inside a cartoon.

The basic plot sees you, a brave and rakish castle guardsman, travelling with the eponymous cursed king, who has been turned into a troll (à la Cid, the unfortunate cursed oglop-king of Lindblum in Final Fantasy IX) and his daughter, who, rather handily, has been transformed into a horse. You are hunting down the wicked Dhoulmagus, a jester who has apparently pinched a magical staff and, in doing so, unleashed all sorts of mayhem upon the kingdom. This being an RPG, you quickly accrue a motley bunch of sidekicks, all of whom can kick ass and take names in a conveniently diverse variety of ways.

With the British localisation, the developers had the additional task of finding voice actors to bring these characters to life. "We auditioned the British voice actors for the game," Ichimo-san explains. "We were looking for performers who could really capture what we thought each of the characters ought to sound like."

One character they had particular fun with was Yangus, a tubby but hard-as-nails reformed thief, who in the UK version is played by stand-up comedian and character actor, Ricky Grover. "We auditioned three or four actors for the part of Yangus, but he was the one that was just spot-on. He really brought Yangus to life. When we were doing the recording, Ricky flew in from Spain to record his part. He loved the character so much - he felt they had so much in common. They're both ex-criminals, they're both dyslexic, and they even look a little similar. Ricky said he'd never seen a video game character he could relate to before. He was everything we could have hoped for."

"At its heart, Dragon Quest is a game you can play any way you like," Horii-san concludes. "We want players to be able to wander around and play the game in their own style. You are the hero."

Also available in the UK is Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie for the Nintendo DS - but Japanese punters can currently enjoy Dragon Quest X, which was released last summer and is a MMORPG for the Wii and Wii U consoles.

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