For nearly half his life, Yuji Horii has been obsessed with giant dragons and cute blue blobs. In 1986, he partnered with composer Koichi Sugiyama and artist Akira Toriyama — best known for creating Dragon Ball — to design a new role-playing game for the Famicom, the Japanese version of the NES. The goal was to streamline the game, making RPGs approachable for even casual players, while still retaining the feeling of going on an epic quest. The result was Dragon Quest, which went on to become a blockbuster in Japan and one of the country’s most iconic and best-selling video game series.
Next week will see the debut of Dragon Quest XI in North America, a title that marks the series’s 30th anniversary. Horii is now 64, which means that the series has been an ever-present factor in his adult life. Outside of a few notable exceptions, including the iconic Super Nintendo RPG Chrono Trigger, his career has been almost entirely devoted to Dragon Quest. Not only is he okay with that, but Horii also doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon. When I ask him about it, he mentions Sugiyama, who is 87 and still composing new songs. “Looking at him, I think I can still go strong for another 20 years or so,” says Horii.
When it launches outside of Japan, Dragon Quest XI will be available on both the PlayStation 4 and PC. It’s a massive production, with lush worlds to explore, a myriad of complex systems to master, and plentiful voice acting. It’s a far cry from the original game, which had fewer than 10 people working on it. During that time, Horii had to tackle many different aspects of the game’s creation himself. Among other duties, he wrote the story, drew the maps, and helped come up with ideas for character designs. As the series continued and moved on to new, more powerful platforms, his role steadily began to shift. He became less hands-on, focusing more on the big picture.
But he says that, despite the long years and changing role, his love of Dragon Quest never really wavered over that time. “There has never been a moment where I felt tired of working on the game.” Part of this, he says, is due to the ever-changing nature of game development. While the first few entries in the series came out on the Famicom, eventually Dragon Quest expanded to more powerful devices, and it often took advantage of that. Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2 introduced cel-shaded, 3D visuals that made it look like a cartoon come to life, while Dragon Quest X, which never launched outside of Japan, was a massively multiplayer game.
“There has never been a moment where I felt tired of working on the game.”
For the 11th installment, Horii had a somewhat contradictory goal in mind. “It’s essentially a culmination of the series,” he says, “but I also wanted this game to serve as a new starting point, too.” The idea was to craft an experience full of references and moments that longtime fans could appreciate, but without making it unwelcoming for new players. In the Nintendo 3DS version of the game, which is exclusive to Japan, players even have the option to switch back and forth between modern visuals and classic Dragon Quest pixel art graphics. “I believe we have always strived to maintain the good aspects [of the series] while actively incorporating the new,” says Horii.
In North America, the game will only be available on the PS4 and PC, and that decision was an attempt to appeal to a slightly different audience. For all of its breakout success in Japan, Dragon Quest has yet to become a household name outside of its home country. There are various theories as to why. Some blame poor timing, others localization issues. Series executive producer Yuu Miyake thinks that for Western audiences, the contrast between Toriyama’s colorful art and the game’s complex role-playing systems can be too much. “For a kid to play, it’s a little bit advanced,” he told me back in June, “and then an adult looks at it and thinks, ‘Oh, this is just a cartoon. It isn’t for me.’”
In order to better serve Western audiences, there have been a few changes. For one, the focus on more powerful platforms like the PS4 and PC is meant to showcase the best version of the game possible. And since Dragon Quest XI has a much larger focus on story than its predecessors, the North American release will also include the addition of voice acting. The idea is to offer an experience that feels like a modern, big-budget game, but still retains the elements that make the series unique. “I hope Dragon Quest XI becomes a new starting point for the franchise overseas,” Horii says.
After three decades of Dragon Quest, it’s hard for Horii to imagine a life beyond the series. That said, as his role has become more custodial over the years, he’s managed to amass a team of directors and producers who he trusts to manage the ship in his absence, whenever that may be. It’s a very different feeling from when he first started Dragon Quest. Back then, he wasn’t too worried about longevity. “It took me about 10 years to get a sense that the series may potentially last,” Horii says. “It had never occurred to me that it would continue for 30 years when I initially started developing the game.”
Dragon Quest XI launches on September 4th on PC and PS4; stay tuned for our review later this week.