Games | Nintendo DS | Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Sky

Article by Jeremy Parish? | June 13, 2011

Video games change at a prodigious rate. A contemporary movie or rock song is largely the same creature as a similar work from two decades ago—maybe a little louder, a little slicker, a little glossier, but still essentially unchanged. A contemporary video game, however, is almost completely nothing like a game from 1991. The medium has evolved dramatically in a short time.

That’s the way of things; change is simply the nature of any young medium that seeks to strike a balance between the creative and the commercial. You may not personally like all the changes the past 20 years have bought to gaming, but they’ve been a necessary part of the growth process as the medium finds its voice. And even the most curmudgeonly fan can take satisfaction in the recent movement toward creative equilibrium as indie and retro-style works push back against the notion that big budgets and hyperrealism are foregone requirements of greatness. Somewhere between the chunky pixels of Space Invaders and the impossible detail of Uncharted 3 is gaming’s ideal state, and the industry gets closer to finding that balance with each passing year.

In the meantime, transformation and upheaval will continue to characterize the medium. It’s not always pretty, though, and few things are more painful for the long-time game fan than watching a beloved franchise being twisted, Brundlefly-like, into an agonizing, unnatural new shape by market forces. Maybe Castlevania is stagnating on handhelds, but does that mean it should be turned into a callow God of War?/Devil May Cry clone? Probably not. Tomb Raider languished for a miserable decade before being suitably modernized, and even that newfound sense of relevance only lasted for a game or two. Time for another reboot, then. Bionic Commando fell short of a proper revitalization thanks to amateurish level design and GRIN’s perverse determination to defile the legacy of Capcom’s line-up of mid-’80s heroes. Ultimately, that series was resuscitated only to be taken out behind the woodshed with a gun to its head. And the less said about Sonic the Hedgehog the better.

Thankfully, while these missteps are common in the industry, they’re hardly a universal rule. Plenty of classics continue to thrive in the modern era -- and in 2010, no legacy franchise shone more brightly than Dragon Quest, whose ninth numbered installment brought the series firmly into the world of modern game design and tropes without compromising the essential quality that defines Dragon Quest.

Dragon Quest IX is an unabashed trend-hopper, gleefully co-opting popular ideas from its biggest competitors. Here’s what makes it great, though: DQIX does all of this on its own terms. The new elements introduced in DQIX feel like a logical, organic evolution of the Dragon Quests that have come before. While the game owes a tremendous debt to Monster Hunter Portable and World of Warcraft, you never get the impression that Yuji Horii, Armor Project, and Level 5 were plucking random components from the Capcom and Blizzard playbooks and forcing them into a Dragon Quest context with no regard for whether or not they actually worked there. Instead, DQIX is the sort of game you get when its creators decide it’s time to add a new feature to the series -- in this case, multiplayer cooperation -- and find a way to properly integrate it into the innate mechanics, making it into a natural expression of the game’s heritage.

The genesis of these features was an iterative process; in fact, gamers were given a rare glimpse into just how much Armor Project is willing to experiment with the series’ mechanics when the first version of the game was revealed to be something akin to a multiplayer action RPG. Long-time fans were outraged, and the next showing of the game presented something far more traditional in style. Outside observers clucked at the developers’ meek conservatism and opined that the action-driven take on the series probably would have sold better outside Japan. Yet ultimately, regressive design proved to be the right choice, as DQIX managed the clever trick of feeling like a classic Dragon Quest game while simultaneously offering a game experience quite unlike any other.

This sets DQIX apart from so many other reboots, sequels, and modernizations, whose creators lack a proper sense of perspective about what made the classic works being updated genuinely great in the first place -- or, more likely, draw pay from publishers who see a brand name that used to sell millions, look longingly at the earnings of modern best-sellers, and say, “Turn that old property into something like those new ones and make us rich, or we’re shutting down your studio.” The problem with this particular approach is that even accounting for the fact that, say, Konami almost certainly gave Mercurysteam a mere fraction of God of War’s budget to work with, the impetus for change is external rather than internal. (Plus, even when the developers manage to pull off these impossible demands, the publisher is probably going to shut down their studio anyway. The current console generation has proven nothing if not the fact that publishers are greedy, two-faced assholes.) Thus new formulas and formats are foisted upon formerly vital franchises, as if great games are simply a set of interchangeable controls, visual styles, and grizzled heroes that can be swapped out as the need arises: plug-and-play game design.

If it were that easy to recreate and rework a classic like Castlevania, though, people would remember 8 Eyes, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Kenseiden, and Vampire: Master of Darkness with the same fondness as they do their inspiration. But what made Castlevania great wasn’t just its moody visual style, or its peculiar controls, or its horror-movie ambiance, or its chiptune-gothic soundtrack; its contemporary imitators built around one or two of those elements never equalled Konami’s masterpiece. Castlevania thrived on all those features, but also on the way they joined together into a rhythmic exercise in twitch skill, memorization, strategy, and improvisation. The game was hard, but not impossible; it was stiff, but a deft player could still make his movements through the game flow gracefully. Games that duplicated this sense of integration and fluidity -- Ninja Gaiden, for instance -- were far more compelling than games that simply aped Castlevania’s aesthetics.

Sadly, the latest Castlevania, Lords of Shadow, suffers from the same mistakes as its forebear’s imitators: it fails to recapture the graceful flow of the original game’s play. Combat is focused on protracted sparring with enemies, forcing players to chip away at foes -- scrubs and bosses alike -- in cramped arenas until prompted to press a button that lets the game perform a cool-looking finishing action for them. Lost is the brisk-yet-methodical pacing of the classic titles, along with the sense of accomplishment borne of conquering evil of your own volition.

Like many modern takes on classic series, it was designed not around a natural inspiration intended to expound on the best components of the original games, but rather by looking at other people’s successes and thinking of ways to dress them up with the trappings of a beloved franchise. This approach leads to a sort of bland sameness across games that should by all rights be wildly different. Reskin Castlevania: Lords of Shadow with the aesthetics of Bionic Commando ’09 (or vice versa) and no one would be the wiser: whip, bionic arm, what’s the difference? It’s a surly guy with a dumb plot twist using a wire to swing around and kill things either way. Dress up Dragon Quest IX in another RPG’s clothing, though, and no one’s going to be fooled. It’s still undeniably Dragon Quest, regardless of the specific details.

DQIX’s advances are deceptively veiled. The game doesn’t seem remarkably different from previous chapters in the series, and in fact on some levels appears something of a throwback. The visuals are about as detailed as you can get on the DS, but they’re far less beautiful than Dragon Quest VIII’s smooth, anime-like graphics. The story, too, seems like a regression; while the standard mute hero is once again in effect, the burden of relaying the plot and building character doesn’t fall to his (or her) party companions but rather to a non-combatant tag-along named Stella. DQIX regresses even further here and takes a page from Dragon Quest III -- from way back on the NES circa 1990 -- by emphasizing a class-change system around a team of player-made generics. These DIY heroes offer much more customization than DQIII’s thanks to the built-in face editor (a sort of build-your-own-Akira-Toriyama-character device) and the fact that every piece of gear you equip is uniquely reflected on whomever wears it. Still, this sort of customization is new only to the Dragon Quest milieu -- it’s certainly nothing radical in the grand scheme of RPGs.

Radical upheavals aren’t the point of DQIX, though, and its new inventions fit neatly within the context of such overtly traditional game mechanics rather than supplanting them. You’re given a host of roll-your-own companions because the entire game beyond the three-hour mark is free to be played with a team of other players’ characters. While I somewhat doubt anyone in the world has actually played through the entire quest with their friends, the option exists. The multiplayer isn’t quite drop-in-drop-out, because that sort of convenience just wouldn’t be Dragon Quest; this is, after all, a series that still requires you to visit churches to save your progress. It should hardly be a surprise that you’re similarly required to visit a pub in a specific town to send your generics packing if someone else wants to jump in to your quest mid-adventure. Once you’ve jumped through the hoops necessary to open your game to other players, though, DQIX does some remarkable things with multiplayer.

Players bring along their own stats, gear, and experience, and they’re free to travel anywhere in the world that the host can reach. Players don’t have to travel together, and they can enter enemy sorties at any time—via random encounters that can be spotted and avoided on the world and dungeon maps, EarthBound-style—either separately or together. A lone warrior in over his head can summon friends regardless of their current location, though said friends can choose to ignore the call depending on just how much of a friend they really are (and whether or not they’re already engaged in combat of their own). Multiplayer offers a host of perks beyond the fact that you can have up to four protagonists in a single mighty party, too: you gain experience bonuses for every extra player you’re exploring with, and a team of four heroes (or heroines) will on very rare occasions be able to perform powerful group attacks.

The biggest advantage to co-op play—though admittedly a corny sentiment to express—is simply the experience of joining up with friends to battle through swarms of tough foes. In keeping true to the Nintendo philosophy, DQIX eschews online multiplayer for the local experience. In fairness, you can already smell the smoke coming off the poor DS’s circuits from the strain of the game as it is; trying to handle the added complexity of online play would likely cause the system to melt into a puddle of overworked silicon and plastic. The local approach works well for the game regardless, thanks largely to DQIX’s unique take on cooperative role-playing. The series’ traditional turn-based play is retained (the only hint of its abortive action-based iteration being the dramatic camera swoops and pans around the scattered party members during battle), but with room for multiple players to participate. The developers even relaxed some of the series’ normal restrictions for co-op play; when slain, a player can wait to be revived by a friend in their current location or return to the church for resurrection as usual. But there’s no monetary penalty for reviving while questing with friends, making co-op play the ideal way to dungeon-dive for the cash grind.

A turn-based multiplayer RPG isn’t completely a new invention -- Serpents and Swords for NES allowed something similar 20 years ago -- but it’s so uncommon that you can easily write off previous iterations as mere anomalies. Once Secret of Mana brought cooperative play to the action RPG milieu, the notion of teaming up to navigate menu after menu became instantly quaint. DQIX may not have created the multiplayer turn-based battle system, but it definitely owns it. Here, each player queues up an action for a given round, and these commands are only executed once the entire team has made a selection. It’s essentially business as usual, but now there’s a need for coordination between players—not to mention a sense of camaraderie and mutual relief when a desperate battle becomes a narrow triumph as a round of commands plays out.

There’s a second aspect to DQIX’s multiplayer, though, and by far it’s the one that’s had more impact on the game’s sales and ultimate legacy. Fun as cooperative play is, the lack of drop-in-drop-out convenience makes collaborative adventures something of a chore, especially given the play patterns typical of portable systems. When a device encourages quick 15-minute play sessions, five minutes of setup just to get rolling seems like an onerous chore. But the game’s alternate communications mode, while not entirely seamless, is far less of a burden than co-op questing and requires a minimal investment of time from other players... and its rewards are potentially much greater, at least in the material sense. Plus, you don’t actually have to interact with anyone in person. It’s all the conveniences of online multiplayer without the prospect of a foul-mouthed teen from Alabama questioning your sexuality and parentage over voice chat.

Taking a page from Nintendogs and Square Enix’s previous DS masterpiece The World Ends With You, DQIX makes extensive use of the DS’s passive communication features. Tag mode still requires players to stop in at the Quester’s Rest, the same as co-op play and alchemic gear development, but once there you simply close your DS and let it chatter away to anyone who happens to pass within 30 feet of your system. The downside of this feature is that you can only exchange data with people whose own systems are broadcasting a DQIX tag as well: not an issue if you happened to be in a populous Japanese city at the height of DQIX mania, but something of a burden for anyone else. If not for nerd-dense events like Comic-Con and Penny Arcade Expo, most American players would still be at half a dozen tags. And that would be a shame, because then they’d be missing out on a significant portion of the game’s content.

Through Tag mode, Level-5 effectively transformed DQIX into an endless, MMO-style experience. Tagging another player seemingly does very little at first; your Quester’s Rest simply houses their hero’s avatar, who recites a greeting and boasts about their levels when prompted. Eventually, you’ll collect enough friends that the inn will experience a few expansions, ultimately resulting in the addition of a basement fountain that serves as a spawn point for items and alchemic ingredients.

The real benefit of tagging requires a bit of effort on the guest’s behalf, but once that initial investment of time has been made the benefits spread to potentially hundreds of thousands of people. Throughout the world of DQIX are a handful of treasure maps which lead to grottos filled with monsters and loot. When beaten, the grotto will spawn a new, potentially superior map. By repeatedly challenging these grottos and building up their party’s power, a player can eventually generate deep dungeons packed with high-level monsters and commensurately impressive treasures to be uncovered. Many of the most powerful creatures in the DQIX bestiary can only be encountered in these super-grottos, and certain ultra-rare alchemic components appear only once or twice in the game unless you stumble across them while seeking such treasures. The game occasionally generates maps that can be exploited by those eager to farm experience or willing to go to ludicrous extremes to generate treasure, and the famous Masayuki and Kawasaki Locker maps that became so highly coveted among Japanese power-players have propagated around the world -- even into my own game.

This “hidden depth” approach to DQIX makes it one of those rare RPGs that can be enjoyed on every possible level. Addicts can potentially delve into the game’s impossibly demanding post-game, filling out their alchemic index and bestiary while exploring each facet of the game’s weekly downloadable content. Meanwhile, inexperienced players will find it as friendly as any previous Dragon Quest, filled with discrete story vignettes and good-natured humor, with just enough drama and betrayal to keep the plot moving. As ever, the possibility of a party wipeout isn’t a loss but rather a brief inconvenience. Familiar Dragon Quest touchstones remain intact, from the meek Metal Slime to the Dharma Temple (here renamed the Alltrades Abbey as part of the game’s polarizing English localization).

Incidentally, the latter feature enables a class-change system unlike that of any other RPG: anyone is free to return to the Abbey and change jobs at any time, but their character level is dependent on their current class; switch from Priest to Wizard, for instance, and you’re back to level one (though in making the reverse transition, you’ll revert to whatever level you’d previously reached in the Priest class). While one class can’t use another’s magic spells, practically every other skill you’ve learned carries over when switching vocations. This includes passive traits, meaning you can easily buff your physical stats as a Gladiator before jumping over to a mage class, bolstering those normally fragile roles with a couple hundred extra hit points at level one. And this is a game where 100 hit points means something.

Like everything else about DQIX, the vocation system seems ideally suited to encourage compulsive play. It doesn’t quite reach the exquisite heights of Final Fantasy Tactics’ addictive Job system, but it comes close. Add to this the fact that every piece of gear your party equips is reflected in their appearance, and it becomes clear that DQIX is an attempt to distill the compelling customization of MMOs and Monster Hunter into a more classic style of RPG -- and RPGs don’t come more classic style than Dragon Quest. But despite the seeming disparity of these two very separate game concepts, DQIX works beautifully, because—again—the expanded elements are extensions of the series’ core tenets. The gear-forging is simply an enhanced take on Dragon Quest VIII’s Alchemy Pot, all the way down to the interface’s music; the class system is an evolution of similar features from Dragon Quests III, VI, and VIII; and even the tag system debuted before DQIX as an overlooked feature of Arte Piazza’s Dragon Quest IV remake. DQIX really brings nothing to the table that could be considered a radical innovation in and of itself, but it’s a masterpiece of harmonic design in the way it unites these features.

The Dragon Quest series has a poor reputation among most American gamers, a product of its flaccid showing in the U.S. until now. The original game arrived here a couple of years too late for gamers here to have the proper context for what it really pioneered, and it’s been struggling to keep up ever since. It didn’t help that we missed two of the best installments of the series when Enix decided to localize second-rate RPGs like Brain Lord and Robotrek in the place of DQV and VI; and DQVII? was something of a misstep in general, incorporating the wrong elements of its contemporaries (drawn-out plots and agonizingly padded pacing) in a wrapper that looked tragically dated by the time it finally launched. DQVIII put things back on track, though, and DQIX, I think, finally does the series justice in the U.S. Granted, its sales here have still been just a fraction of what the series enjoys back in Japan, but DQIX had a strong presence in “best RPGs of the year” type discussions for 2010, ranking right up there with the likes of Mass Effect 2 and Fallout: New Vegas. And ahead of Final Fantasy XIII. Quite an inversion of where things stood a decade ago.

This newfound respect may not be reflected in the sales charts just yet, and honestly it probably never will be. But for the first time since the original Dragon Quest was fobbed off on us as Dragon Warrior, the series has a genuine fanbase now -- a host of gamers beyond the tiny, dedicated niche that’s clung to the franchise through thick and thin. The best part is that this newfound fanbase was drawn in by a game that played to the series’ endemic strengths. That’s the sort of fandom that has longevity: an enduring throng of admirers perfectly appropriate to one of gaming’s most consistent dynasties.

Dragon Quest IX

Developer: Square Enix (Level-5/Armor Project)
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. Release: July 9, 2010
Format: Nintendo DS

Based on: A quarter-century of constancy married to millions of units of monster-hunting trendiness.

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