Dragon Warrior VII
Developer: ArtePiazza, Heartbeat
Based on: Fighting alongside God, sleeping for thousands of years, still not finishing this game.
Article by MNicolai | October 6, 2008
One of my deepest fears is that at any moment, somewhere in depths of Hollywood, someone is pitching a sequel to a movie that doesn't need one. I blame Highlander II: The Quickening. The first movie explicitly states "there can be only one," yet still they made another one. Fortunately, game sequels aren't like movie sequels...or at least they're not supposed to be, anyway. Too often, game designer get caught up in the metrics of other media, mimicking the methods that television and film producers use to dazzle audiences and distract viewers from their own crumminess. But no; as software products, game sequels should be called "versions," or "updates."
No one understands this better than the creators of the Dragon Quest Series. Changes between installments occur so trivially as to be nearly unnoticeable, a gradual tweaking of elements that has resulted in a sublime sophistication. Each game follows a similar progression: wander the countryside, explore dungeons, and battle dangerous monsters until you are strong enough to reach the next area. The enormous popularity of the series in Japan demands that changes be rationed carefully lest Square Enix risk alienating its fanbase. The franchise remains successful by balancing fidelity to its roots with the drive to deliver a fresh and compelling experience each time. Its stalwart spirit is comforting, because you know exactly what you're in for each time, right down to the simple sound effects that have survived since the 8-bit era.
I have no doubt that Enix would have been just as happy to have published Dragon Quest VII for the Nintendo 64 as for its much-ballyhooed target platform. Dragon Quest has thrived in part due to the glacially slow changes between installments, so there was little that the boosted storage capacity of CD-ROMs had to offer this entry. In fact, the optical media may have even been a detriment -- the Sony Playstation wasn't exactly a powerhouse when it came to sprites. And while most publishers abandoned cartridges because the expensive memory made it difficult to price games competitively, Dragon Quest is the 800-pound gorilla that could charge an assortment of body parts and still sell millions of copies in a few weeks' time. But the N64 could not match the runaway success the PlayStation, and all that storage capacity must have gone to developer Heart Beat's head. Dragon Warrior VII (as the game was called in the U.S.) is a too much of a good thing -- a bloated, uneven wreck that is nevertheless far more charming than any of it contemporaries.
And it starts out so beautifully, too...in a matter of speaking. Almost every reviews inflicted on the game at its release fault it for having poorer visuals than the DQ games released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Perhaps their confusion is because the load times between screens are almost imperceptible -- you could almost swear you were playing a cart, which simply didn't happen in the PS1 era. So while it was difficult defending the rough graphics back in 2000, the game has managed to age rather gracefully. The CGI cut-scenes, though...well, there's no defending those.
Dragon Warrior VII begins in a small fishing village located on the only island in a world covered by ocean. The Hero and his friends discover a temple that can send them through time by collecting shards that can be pieced together to form the picture of an island. Traveling into the past lets your party visit other islands, all of which met with a terrible fate. By intervening in history you can save each island from destruction, which makes it available to visit in the present. And exploring the restored islands reveals more shards which your party can use to jump from island to island, striving to put right once went wrong* and gathering stronger allies who would not be available otherwise. Chrono Trigger unfolds in a similar fashion, but here the results are more tangible as your once-empty map begins to fill. You can even build your own town populated by the immigrants you discover around your increasingly expanding world. Unfortunately, the effect is spoiled by the adventure's sheer length. After a while -- a long while -- I stopped caring about the towns and people I was saving, and the entire affair began to feel like a terrible grind.
The 3D environments help keep the pace from fizzling too quickly, as they're cleverly designed to emulate the simple pixelated tiles of previous generation yet rotate freely through 360 degrees of motion. This interjects a small amount of puzzle solving into the dungeons, as some things cannot be seen from all angles. Returning side-quests such as the casino, the beauty contests and the monster-catching help break up the monotony, but at the 40-hour mark the bloom is off the rose. Unfortunately, the full game is over 100 hours long.
I remember very clearly, about 85 hours in, the day I turned on Dragon Warrior VII and the overworld music made something in my brain snap. I very calmly put the controller down, powered off the system, returned the discs to their case, got on my bike, rode to Funcoland, and promptly traded it in.** I wasn't angry. I like to think that I've never gotten angry at a game outside of some spirited cussing; I've never thrown a controller in frustration or knocked a console to the floor. But this game, which should have been so comforting and familiar, was just a cruel lesson in diminishing returns. And it came at a time in my life when I needed a victory, no matter how small or inconsequential.
Replaying this game has made me think about why I play games and what I get out of them. I didn't have exposure to a wide selection back then, but I was able to beat every game I came across given enough time. It was something I thought I was good at, and it became something that defined me. When I met a game that I knew I couldn't overcome, my world was turned upside down. I wouldn't be satisfied to simply stop playing it -- after all that lost time, I needed to banish these discs from my home immediately. It's a little shameful. Pushing the plastic buttons failed to provide the shallow, Pavlovian ego boost I desperately needed. Instead of an easily surmountable challenge, it was just one more thing in my life I wouldn't finish.
But I can't stay mad. Especially since after all that, I can't really say it's a bad game. Upon replaying recently, it I was struck by how similar it looks to the current Dragon Quest remakes for the Nintendo DS. Given Square Enix's penchant for remakes, it gives me hope that we'll see a similarly improved version someday. There is a great game here -- like a fine wine, it needs a little time to fully ripen. Just...not too much time.
* And hoping each time that the next leap... would be the leap home.
** For a copy of Final Fantasy Chronicles and then I NEVER PLAYED VIDEO GAMES EVER AGAIN