Dragon Quest brings two things to mind: gelatinous blobs and Koichi Sugiyama's stubbornly unchanging musical cues.
Baaa-ba-ba-ba-baba-baaaa signifies a jubilant levelling up. Do-do-do-dodododooo says night has passed in an inn. Organ music way beyond this writer's onomatopoeic ability confirms a save and tells heroes everything is going to be alright. The long-serving maestro describes these sounds as punctuation - musical turns of phrase as engrained as the mother tongue. Just how do you celebrate a franchise so rooted in the national psyche? It seems you make like Nintendo and cram a load of old games on a disc.
At least Square Enix don't have the gall to sell us a 1993 compilation as a 2011 compilation. Unlike Nintendo's Mario All-Stars debacle, Squeenix gather three games for the first time: Quests I to III. Together they form the Loto trilogy, so named for its legendary hero, as opposed to the amount of money the games have raked in. And like any decent curator, they bolster the exhibition with curios - the Dragon Quest I + II compilation and Dragon Quest III remake for the Super Famicom. If this was a 'best of' album, these would be the acoustic and live concert covers inevitably bunged on the end of the playlist.
The Famicom trio are a befuddling mix of welcoming visual tropes and impassable language barrier. Legions of golems, bats and cucumbers beckon like a well-worn pair of slippers, but try inserting a foot and you'll impale it on the spiky katakana stowed away inside. Could the Japanese alphabet be any pointier? Knowing the vulnerabilities of a Slime only helps if you can work out how to make a sword go into it.
If anything, struggling through these Japanese oldies shows us how user friendly the series has become. Our DQIX import review was far less hassle.
Even with the game's +9 tongue of incomprehensibility it's still possible to extract a history lesson. In the course of three games the series goes from dipping its toe in the RPG waters to creating a splash that still ripples today. Dragon Quest's single-hero-on-monster combat evolves into a proper party system in II, before III really starts showing off with character classes, a freeform overworld and a day/night cycle. Admittedly, watching an 8-bit sunrise over a wall of blue 'ocean' pixels is hardly dawn at Lake Hylia, but credit where it's due. That these ideas seem so unimpressively common is in part owed to Dragon Quest.
But games need to be more than history lessons. Or at the very least, they need to be history lessons fronted by flamboyant Schamas or Starkeys. With quirky characters obscured by squiggly characters, Dragon Quest drones on with no narrative drive. Removing the story frees up brain cells to scrutinise drab dungeons, limited item selections and a shockingly bad interface. Dragon Quest I is public enemy number one: you have to input the direction you want to talk in, for crying out loud. And there's another option for using stairs. Y'know, just in case you want to stand on some stairs without climbing then. That's a step too far. Or not.
It's amazing any of this nonsense ever caught on. Japan's sacred cow is more a bull in a china shop. Enix admit as much in their Super Famicom remakes, where stair climbing is automatic and people know to talk to the people they're standing right next to. Extra 16-bit oomph also de-uglifies those mid-'80s experiments - though Dragon Quest III, with its Chrono Trigger-ish looks, makes the I + II compilation look rough.2 DQIII also gains a bizarre dream sequence prologue in which you control the game's antagonist as he wanders around setting dogs on fire. Hey, George Lucas: this is how you update a beloved childhood favourite.
Eminently more playable, the Super Famicom offerings still feel a little backwards. Coming after the DS remakes of Quests IV to VI, the 25th Anniversary Pack has been beaten to the punch - the Zenithia Trilogy was free to pursue boundary-pushing storytelling exactly because the Loto Trilogy had done the heavy lifting. While our DS remakes gallivant around with their multiple character strands and history-spanning epics, their poor old grandfathers sit wheezing in the corner. They fought in the war for you, ingrates!
Treat this boxset as a retirement home for three games that don't fit the modern world (nor the modern world's televisions). They gather to reminisce about the old days and stare misty eyed at their childhood photos, or in this case, galleries of concept art, design documents and manual reprints. By their simple inclusion such baubles elevate this 'celebration' over Mario's birthday bash. Despite not understanding a word of it, the love that emanates from the package is loud and clear. Mario's earlier games are sprightlier at 25, but Dragon Quest throws the better bash.
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Comprehensive, if incomprehensible. A jolly celebration of games way past their prime. Stick with the recent DS offerings instead.
- Toriyama's timeless monster designs stand out
- Good for collectors
- Fleetingly pleasant walk down memory lane
- A lot of ugly blockiness
- RPGs have had 25 years of much-needed improvement