In 1990, Nintendo of America’s in-house magazine Nintendo Power offered a unique promotion. New subscribers to the magazine would get a free copy of Dragon Warrior, a fantasy role-playing game from developer Enix. It was a game that had already proved to be a huge hit on the Famicom, the Japanese version of the NES, and Nintendo was hoping to kickstart something similar in the US. The undertaking was unprecedented; employees reportedly worked a week of 19 hour days, preparing brochures to be sent to prospective subscribers. As a reward, some of the workers were given t-shirts. In block letters, it read: “I survived the 1990 Dragon Warrior mailing.”
Despite giving away thousands of copies of the original game, the series never took off in America the way it did in its home country. 30 years later, Enix — now known as Square Enix, after merging with rival Squaresoft — is still fighting largely the same battle in the States. The Dragon Quest series (it was initially called Dragon Warrior in the US due to copyright issues) has been a steady commercial presence in Japan. Its iconic blue slime mascot may not be as huge as Mickey Mouse, but it isn’t far off; the character is featured everywhere from special edition consoles to ice cube trays, and to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the series is getting its own attraction at Universal Studios Japan.
But the franchise is largely a niche in the rest of the world. 2009’s Dragon Quest IX, one the most popular entries in the series to date, sold 5.3 million units worldwide over its first year, more than 4 million of which came from Japan alone. (The series has cumulatively sold more than 70 million units worldwide.) The most recent main entry in the series, 2012’s Dragon Quest X, hasn’t even been released outside of Japan.
Despite this, Square Enix continues to make efforts to broaden the appeal of the beloved series. Most notably, the company has developed multiple spinoffs designed in part to introduce new players to the colorful fantasy world of Dragon Quest, while also slowly bringing older Dragon Quest games to widely-used platforms like smartphones and the Nintendo 3DS. In 2015 the company released Dragon Quest Heroes, an action-heavy take on the formula, and followed that up with the Minecraft-like Dragon Quest Builders last year. This week sees the release of Dragon Quest Heroes II
“Overall awareness for Dragon Quest is still fairly low in regions outside of Japan,” says DQH2 producer Ryota Aomi. “So the biggest task we have on hand is to introduce Dragon Quest to those who have never heard of the series and encourage them to get to know and play Dragon Quest Heroes II. We need to continuously undertake this challenge for future titles in the series.”
Aomi believes that the series failed to make a good first impression during those early years. “The Japanese text in Dragon Quest is extremely appealing, but I feel that the first few localizations of the games did not fully capitalize on and draw out this aspect,” he says. (Later games feature charming localizations, complete with an almost overwhelming number of silly puns.)
The series also has a measured pace that requires patience. Heroes slowly make their way through epic adventures, steadily growing more powerful over time. “It's like climbing up a steep mountain — you have to keep climbing, climbing, climbing, climbing, and then at the end you finally get to the top of the mountain, and you see the beautiful view,” explained series creator Yuji Hori in a 2011 interview. It’s a far cry from the action-heavy games that tend to dominate sales charts in Europe and America.
The steady stream of spinoffs is meant in part to combat this, and offer styles of play that could potentially lure a new audience to the franchise. Dragon Quest Builders, for instance, takes the incredibly popular freeform creation of Minecraft, and blends it with the world, characters, and storytelling that are intrinsic to Dragon Quest.
“Our target was a global audience,” Builders producer Noriyoshi Fujimoto explains. As of last December, the game had sold 1.1 million copies worldwide, though it’s unclear how many of those sales came from the US specifically. (Square Enix says that Japan was still the top market, but sales were also strong in places like Korea and the US.)
Something old, something new
By merging Dragon Quest and Minecraft, Square Enix hoped to tap into two markets. On one hand, the structure of a Dragon Quest had the potential to introduce Minecraft-style gameplay to new players in Japan. Meanwhile, the open nature of Minecraft was meant to make the Dragon Quest universe more appealing to the West. “When we initially started developing the concept, sandbox-style games like Minecraft had yet to gain popularity in Japan,” Fujimoto says. “We found that consumers were avoiding this genre despite the high level of freedom because they had a hard time understanding what they needed to do without a clear objective. It is extremely fun to have the creative freedom to build, so we developed a game with objectives that blend sandbox with RPG elements and allow players to enjoy the story.”
The same is largely true of the Dragon Quest Heroes games. Much like Builders, the idea was to merge the Dragon Quest formula with a very different type of game. Heroes takes the familiar world and characters of Dragon Quest and combines it with the action-focused gameplay from the Dynasty Warriors series. (It’s the same idea behind Nintendo’s 2014 Zelda spinoff Hyrule Warriors.) Thematically, it’s nearly identical to the main line of Dragon Quest games. You’re still a hero in a vast fantasy realm, fighting skeletons, golems, and cute blue slimes. But instead of the comparatively slow turn-based combat that defines Japanese RPGs like Dragon Quest, Heroes features massive real-time battles similar to what you’d see in a movie like Lord of the Rings. “In creating an action game, we can appeal to players who don’t typically have the opportunity to be exposed to the Dragon Quest franchise,” explains Aomi.
He says that the team was thinking about the global audience for Heroes’ sequel from the very beginning. “During the planning and development phase for the Japanese version of Dragon Quest Heroes II, we were conscious about releasing the game overseas,” he notes. “We carefully calculated the threshold to ensure players unaccustomed to Dragon Quest would still be able to enjoy the game. In other words, we did not design the game based on the assumption that players would have prior knowledge of Dragon Quest.”
Like Builders, the original Heroes sold around 1 million copies worldwide. But while neither game was a massive commercial success, they helped contribute to the overall awareness of the franchise — or at least that’s the hope on the creator’s part. It’s a tactic that has proven viable in Japan, where new DQ games are released regularly. And globally, it continues to be a long initiative. “In Japan, various Dragon Quest games are released yearly and we are able to generate constant buzz for the franchise,” notes Fujimoto. “If we are able to do the same in the overseas market successfully, we believe that it would naturally tie into people picking up and playing the game rather than just knowing that the game exists.”
And just like three decades ago, Nintendo is helping out, though not to the same extent as it originally did. Nintendo has published several Dragon Quest games for the Nintendo 3DS in the West, most recently with a port of DQ VIII: Journey of the Cursed King in January. Meanwhile, Dragon Quest Heroes, its sequel, and DQ X and XI are coming to the Nintendo Switch (though none have been confirmed for outside of Japan yet) — in fact, Square Enix was one of the first developers to support the platform, announcing DQ XI when Switch was still known by the codename NX.
Grinding it out
It’s unlikely Dragon Quest will ever be as popular in the US as it is in Japan, where an urban legend persists that new entries are released on Sundays so that kids won’t skip school to buy them. But the hope is that by increasing the visibility of the series — through releasing a combination of ports and spinoffs, in addition to the main DQ games — Square Enix will be able to make Dragon Quest a more globally prominent franchise.
After decades of searching for a magic bullet to make the series stick in the West, it may ultimately boil down to persistence. “If we could pinpoint the defining obstacle to the series becoming a global hit overseas,” says Fujimoto, “we would gladly take on the challenge.”