History Lessons: Dragon Quest III

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After Phantasy Star, the early Dragon Quest games already seem outdated.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.

Dragon Quest II tasked players with finding and recruiting additional characters into their party in the early stages of the game, but this was handled in a rudimentary fashion. The two fixed recruits are defined only by their combat prowess, with barely any dialogue and only the most cursory role in the wider world. Rather than fleshing out its characters like Phantasy Star did, by giving them more personality and a stronger connection to the story, Dragon Quest III goes in the opposite direction by letting players create their own characters. Final Fantasy used a similar system, requiring players to pick four characters from a set of possible classes, no doubt inspired by Western-style role-playing games where designing a party of characters is a staple of the genre. But this only reinforces the sense that characters are just there to help fight. Sure, players can name them, but they will never have friends and family in the world, or any personal connection to the story. They’ll barely even have anything to say.

The exception is the protagonist, who has their own special class (Hero) and is the child of the famous hero Ortega from Aliahan. But even this young hero is a blank slate, largely silent throughout the game. Players can even choose if the hero is male or female, although I found the gender references to be inconsistent, with my female hero referred to as “Ortega’s son” as often as his daughter. That’s possibly an issue with the English translation, but I got the sense that the designers expected players to choose a male protagonist. After playing as Phantasy Star’s excellent female hero Alis Landale, it was a disappointment to find such lackluster implementation here.

Having a single lead character means that Dragon Quest III puts character creation into the game itself, rather than something that happens before starting like in Final Fantasy. Players can visit Luisa’s Place, the local eatery in Aliahan, to create and recruit characters into their party, reminding me of the inns in Might and Magic. There are a few characters pre-made, but players are free to make more, and can sign them in and out of the party at will. They can even shun the rest of the party and go alone, making battles much tougher but letting the hero take all of the experience rewards rather than dividing them up across the party. In practice, players will want to ensure their whole party gets enough experience from battles, so they can grow in power and so the magic-using members can learn vital spells to add to their repertoire. But having the flexibility to change the party around (something that is not possible in Final Fantasy) allows for some interesting design, such as occasionally requiring a specific class for a certain challenge.

Otherwise, party construction is very similar to Final Fantasy. Players cannot choose characters’ attributes or skills as they can in many Western-style role-playing games, instead simply choosing a class and whether the character is male or female. As in the earlier games in the series, these characters will automatically improve their attributes upon leveling up. Like Final Fantasy, there’s an array of classes to choose from, and it’s not possible to have them all in the party at once. The Hero is mainly a physical fighter, but does learn some useful spells, including a few that are unique to the Hero. Players can bolster this by recruiting Soldiers, Fighters, Merchants, Pilgrims, Wizards, or Goof-Offs to fill the other three slots in the party. I knew I wanted one more physical fighter, and opted for the Fighter over the Soldier. Soldiers are powerful but slow, and can use all the best equipment, whereas Fighters are fast and mostly fight unarmed, similar to the Black Belt class in Final Fantasy. Recalling the laborious process of saving up for better equipment in earlier Dragon Quest games, I decided a Fighter would be more fun since they are effective without needing much equipment. Also, I hoped their speed would help end battles quickly. Since I could choose male or female characters I decided to make an all-female party, and my Fighter, Zan, soon became one of my favorite characters. She always got the first attack, often able to take out weaker enemies before they even had a chance to act, and at higher levels was landing extra powerful critical hits with satisfying frequency. I rounded out the party with a Pilgrim for healing magic (and decent physical prowess too) and a Wizard for attack magic.

You’re probably wondering what’s up with the Goof-Off. Well, Goof-Offs are basically useless, but they have one key advantage: they can be upgraded to the powerful Sage class for free. In another similarity to Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest III lets players promote their characters to new classes once they’ve found a special location. In Final Fantasy this simply happened at a certain point in the story, and each class has its own upgraded version (for example, Black Belts become Masters). In Dragon Quest III the system is more open-ended, letting characters change their class to a different class while retaining much of what they learned up to that point. Players must have progressed in the story enough to find the location that offers this service, and a character must have reached at least level 20 before they can change class, but otherwise things are wide open. A Wizard could choose to become a Pilgrim, retaining all the spells they’d learned until that point and much of their gains in statistics (I think statistics are lowered by some fraction when changing class). But they would start over at level 1, which can be a major drawback. This means they must gain levels again in order to learn the Pilgrim’s spells. It’s possible to build a really powerful party this way, but at the cost of additional time spent leveling them up, and I didn’t have the patience for that.

There’s one exception, however, which is the Sage class. Players cannot pick a Sage at the start of the game, they’re only available when changing classes later. And they’re not available unless players find the Book of Satori, which means only one character can become a Sage. Except, of course, for Goof-Offs, who can become Sages without said Book, as long as they’ve reached level 20. What’s so great about Sages? Well, they can learn all of the Wizard and Mage spells, and are decent fighters to boot, able to equip most weapons and armor. They do everything, basically, which is quite tempting. But not tempting enough to convince me to ferry a useless Goof-Off around to get them up to level 20. Instead, I opted to change my Wizard, Maeve, into a Sage. Wizards have powerful attack spells that can turn the tide of battle, but they’re pretty useless at anything else. As a Sage, Maeve could also learn healing spells and could fight with weapons when needed. She did lag behind in levels compared to the rest of the party, but by the late game she was one of the most powerful characters.

In addition to the new class system, there’s a new day-night cycle, a first for the genre. When traveling on the zoomed-out world map, time will slowly pass, indicated by a changing color palette. After spending the night at the inn, players start fresh in the low light of dawn, but the bright sun of the day soon arrives. Later, the light fades into twilight and finally the darkness of night. Players encounter more (and tougher) monsters at night, but this turns out to make little difference when playing. The real effect of the diurnal cycle is to add new places to explore: every town and friendly location has a daytime and nighttime version, granting townsfolk new dialogue, opening new areas, and featuring new clues or secrets to find. While many locations only have small changes, it’s a nice detail, and often used to great effect. I particularly enjoyed a town that’s rather boring during the day but comes alive at night with a slew of entertainers, hawkers and swindlers. Players quickly find the means to switch between day and night at will, a sign that the designers recognized that the fun lay in exploring both the daytime and nighttime versions of each location, not in trudging across the world.

That world, however, is also new. The first two Dragon Quest games took place in the same world, although Dragon Quest II added several new continents — and relegated the original continent to a tiny facsimile — to make an effectively new world. This time around, however, the world really is a new world. And it’s clearly inspired by our own. The Hero’s homeland of Aliahan doesn’t have a clear corollary on Earth, unless it’s supposed to be some kind of oversized New Zealand, but once the adventure begins in earnest, players will find themselves visiting recognizable places like Romaly (Italy), Isis (Egypt), and Jipang (Japan). While the world of Dragon Quest III is still clearly fictional, this framing let the designers draw upon different real world cultures for inspiration. In their version of Europe, players will uncover a story of forbidden love between humans and elves, while Isis harbors a great pyramid full of traps to confound would-be grave robbers, and Jipang is plagued by a mystical Orochi. But it also means that the designers leaned into stereotypes a little too much. It’s mostly innocuous, like the residents of Eginbear (England) being snooty and not letting “commoners” into their castle, or the king of Portoga (Portugal) being quite excited about importing some pepper from Baharata (India). But occasionally things veer towards the questionable. The equivalent of North America, for example, is presented as a wild continent inhabited only by a small village of natives, and players are able to literally become colonizers. It’s all good-natured and friendly in the game, but knowing the history of European colonization of the Americas, it seemed a little oblivious.

So there’s a new world to explore, with a swank day-night cycle, and a party to construct from several different character classes, with the ability to change to new classes to boot. But structurally, Dragon Quest III feels very similar to Dragon Quest II. The world is constructed such that, in the early stages, players only really have one path they can follow, finding new location and more challenging enemies at a steady pace. But later in the game players will find a ship, at which point the world opens up completely and they are free to sail wherever they choose, looking for clues to a huge open-ended puzzle that must be solved before facing the final challenge. The early, land-bound stage lasts a bit longer than it does in Dragon Quest II, however, and it brought Final Fantasy to mind again because it was easier to see the path the designers had laid out for players to follow. Dragon Quest II used a more open landscape to create the illusion that I was choosing where to go, when in reality there was never really a choice. Here, I often found a literal path bounded by water and mountains, and what little wandering I was able to do merely uncovered paths that were closed to me until I moved farther along the prescribed route. I was soon itching to take to the seas, and irked when I thought I was about to get a ship but instead was assigned another task to do first.

Like Dragon Quest II, the game really shines after finding the ship, when players are faced with a world-spanning mystery to decipher. I found things a bit easier to solve this time around, but part of that is because I had a world map for reference. When I played Dragon Quest II, all I had was the manual, but it’s likely that the game came packaged with a folded map of the world as well, which would have made it a lot easier to find some of the smaller islands. When playing Dragon Quest III, I had such a map in digital form to accompany the game manual. I also discovered that the game manual contains a full walkthrough for the entire game, so there was no danger of getting irrevocably stuck. I wonder if that was done in response to players stymied by the tricky middle section of Dragon Quest II. Still, I suspect the open ended post-ship section of Dragon Quest III was deliberately made a little easier to figure out to prevent players from getting lost. But I admit I did refer to the walkthrough on a few occasions.

The battle system and user interface in Dragon Quest III are nearly identical to those in Dragon Quest II as well. But battles remain interesting because there’s simply much more variety. Like Dragon Quest II, characters don armor, a helmet, and a shield in addition to their weapon, but there are a lot more of each to purchase and find. And there are way more spells in the game, with classes like the Wizard and Pilgrim granted larger pools of magic points so they can cast spells more often. Magic provides a lot of strategic options during a fight, and I used magic for offense far more than I did in the previous game. There are sets of spells focusing on high damage to single targets, damage spread across a group of enemies, or damage to every enemy in the battle. On top of this, magic using different elements such as fire or ice can do extra damage to susceptible enemies, or shrugged off if the foe has a resistance to the element. Then there are a lot of more imaginative spells. One of my favorites is RobMagic, which can be cast for free and has a chance to steal magic points from enemies and transfer them to the caster. When there weren’t any good targets for my spells, I’d often have my Wizard, Maeve, cast RobMagic so she could recover some magic points. Sometimes this could even prevent enemies from casting their powerful spells, finding themselves without the magical reserves to do so. On other occasions, particularly during tough boss fights, I used magic to boost my party’s speed and defenses, while hampering the enemy. A powerful spell obtained later in the game grants another character a huge boost to their attack strength, and could turn my fighter, Zan, into an absolute beast. Combat is further spiced up with some new status effects. Characters can be inflicted with the “numb” status, which is basically a temoporary paralysis, or can become confused, randomly attacking allies and enemies alike. These, along with the poison and sleep conditions that make a return from the earlier entries, are classics that would appear again and again in later games across the genre, used to add some lingering consequences between battles when exploring dungeons.

Those dungeons reveal a greater confidence on the part of the designers. They’re still largely constructed from “double size” blocks as they were in Dragon Quest II, with certain areas only revealed upon entry to lend some mystery to navigation, but there are now a lot of single-block passageways mixed in and more effort spent on giving each locale its own character. Even the very first dungeon impressed me, as I uncovered subterranean passageways and secret exits that connected it to all sorts of surprising places, making it feel a part of the land around it in a way that dungeons in the earlier games never did. Other dungeons benefit from strong themes, like the pyramid mentioned above which is full of secrets and traps. As someone who played many of the Japanese-style role-playing games that were to come, however, I was most excited by the use of the vertical in dungeon design. Dragon Quest II had a little of this, but in Dragon Quest III I was often moving up and down floors, carefully positioning my party to drop down into previously inaccessible areas. Later locations even have tightropes connecting areas on the higher floors, with the party able to plummet from them at will in order to nab some treasure they’d glimpsed from a distance. This is an activity I recall from later Final Fantasy games as well as other Japanese-style role-playing games of the 90s, so I was pleased to find the first example of it. Technically Phantasy Star does something similar as well, but its first-person dungeons are very different beasts. The top-down exploration of Dragon Quest III is what I remember, and I expect I’ll be noting debts to this game in many of my future posts in this series.

As I neared the end of Dragon Quest III, I was already composing a paragraph in my mind about how it was the first Japanese-style role-playing game to use a world that had no connection to those of the earlier games in the series. This would become common practice, with the majority of the Final Fantasy games (for example) having no connection to one another in terms of narrative or setting, the only throughlines being a few iconic details (e.g. chocobos) and general design principles. Throughout the 90s it seemed that this approach was the norm, although I by no means played a representative slice of all the genre had to offer. But it turns out Dragon Quest III doesn’t quite commit to this, with a late twist revealing a surprise connection to the earlier games. It’s actually pretty clever, and ironically makes for a stronger link to the earlier games than Dragon Quest II managed to make to the first game. It also makes for a different ending structure. Where the wonderful open-ended exploration of Dragon Quest II narrowed into a linear and very tough finale, Dragon Quest III manages to retain some of that free roaming spirit as players ready their party for the final confrontation.

Overall, it’s a solid sequel to Dragon Quest II, improved in most ways and with a lot of new elements, but with nothing as transformative as the ship was for the second game. It has incrementally better art, better dungeon variety, more interesting combat, and the oft-mocked Elizabethan English dialogue is mostly gone. Dragon Quest III is a better game overall, but it still feels a lot like its predecessor, and after playing Phantasy Star it still feels like it’s lagging behind in many ways. I’m eager to see whether the next entries in the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series respond more directly to Sega’s challenger. But! It turns out I wasn’t exactly correct at the start of this post when I made the claim that Final Fantasy was the first competitor to Dragon Quest. There are a couple of other games that I’d never even heard of, let alone played, which predated Final Fantasy, and while they may not have been conceived as direct competitors to Dragon Quest, they sound like interesting examples of early Japanese-style role-playing design. So, I’m going to check those out next, before continuing onward with the big names. I promise that one day — perhaps a few decades from now — I’ll actually get through all of these.

If you want to check out Dragon Quest III for yourself, the usual caveats apply: it’s seen a bunch of re-releases, most of which involve new art, extra elements, characters, or locations, new translations, or other changes. If you want to play the original version, the best option is to use emulation, as I did. My emulation settings were unchanged from when I played Dragon Quest II, using the Mesen core for RetroArch. I’ve written details for setting that up in my earlier posts. Happy adventuring!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s