The developers at Chunsoft had their work cut out for them when it came time to craft a follow-up to their 1988 smash hit RPG, Dragon Quest III. The pioneering series had been a phenomenon across Japan from day one, but the public’s response to the third installment in particular bordered on frenzy. Widespread school and work truancy on its Wednesday launch date prompted rumors the Japanese legislature had drafted a law forbidding Dragon Quest’s publisher, Enix, from releasing future installments on weekdays. Like the supposed Space Invaders yen coin shortage a decade prior, this was just an urban legend. The fact that it seemed plausible to so many, however, speaks volumes to the game’s cultural impact. To this day, it routinely shows up at or near the top of many Japanese “best games ever” lists. It wasn’t just a tough act to follow, it was arguably the toughest.
The safe, obvious route would have been to double down on III’s most iconic gameplay feature: Its character class system. A fully customizable adventuring party had made for an exponential increase in strategy and replay value over the previous two entries, after all. Cut to 1990 and Dragon Quest IV finally ships with no character creation component whatsoever! Rather than staying the course and praying for lightning to strike twice, lead designer Yuji Horii and company opted to further their burgeoning saga through more thoughtful writing and an unorthodox story structure. A bold stroke indeed for the minds behind a franchise long noted for its hidebound conservative bent in relation to its contemporaries. Let’s see how it panned out for them.
Not being fluent in Japanese, I’m reviewing Dragon Quest IV’s official North American NES localization, Dragon Warrior IV, which suffered the misfortune of being delayed until late 1992. The 16-bit consoles were in their prime by then and relatively few were interested in shelling out a hefty chunk of change for a primitive looking 8-bit RPG in a post-Final Fantasy IV world. If you caught this one in its prime, you were likely a weirdo who got hooked on the series early and wouldn’t have missed an installment for the world. So, yeah, I played the hell out of it.
Admittedly, the broad strokes of Dragon Warrior IV don’t make it seem like much of a departure. A stock medieval fantasy world is threatened by an evil overlord and only a hero of prophecy and his/her loyal companions can stop him. This entails wandering the land in search of magic MacGuffins while vanquishing hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in menu-driven combat. Killing these monsters (all of which benefit greatly from adorable designs by famed manga artist Akira Toriyama) nets you the money and experience points needed to power-up your party. This in turn allows you to keep the Pavlovian cycle going when you inevitably encounter tougher baddies in the next area. Doing fetch quests to make numbers go up; such is the way of Dragon Quest. The fan base wouldn’t have it any other way.
This is where story structure and writing come to the fore. Dragon Warrior IV takes JRPG clichés which were already growing long in the tooth by the end of the ’80s and sort of inverts them. The result feels both fresh and familiar. Most notably, you don’t start out controlling the chosen one. The narrative unfolds across five distinct chapters, with the main protagonist not appearing at all until the start of the final one, many hours into the game. Before then, you’re introduced to all seven of the hero’s eventual allies. First up is Ragnar, a stalwart soldier tasked by the king of Burland with investigating an epidemic of missing children. Next is Alena, tomboy princess of Santeem, who escapes her castle with two helpful retainers in tow and sets out prove her strength to the world at large. After that is Taloon, the portly, middle-aged merchant and family man who takes up adventuring in order to get rich enough to buy his own shop and build a commercial empire. Finally, there’s Mara and Nara, sisters and powerful magicians hunting for revenge on the man who murdered their alchemist father. Only after you’ve completed all four of these preliminary adventures, some of which are virtually mini-RPGs unto themselves, does the world truly open up and the full scope of the quest reveal itself.
Similarly, the identity of the antagonist and the nature of his schemes isn’t immediately spelled out to you as it was in the previous three games. Vague whispers and portents are all you have to go on until much later, when he eventually does appear in the flesh to make his motivation clear. Yes, the villain has a real motivation this time. The writers didn’t just decide to make him an “archfiend” and call it day. That’s progress.
I definitely don’t want to oversell the storytelling here. This remains a terse NES RPG and there aren’t exactly reams of sparkling dialog provided to bolster its ambitions. Your party members only speak a handful of lines each over the course of the game and much of their personalities are merely implied. Still, there’s something to be said for leaving a few blank spaces for the player’s imagination to fill in, and walking a mile in each party member’s shoes can’t help but endear them to you at least a little. Moreover, a game doesn’t necessary need to be wordy to be clever. Take the opening to chapter three, in which you play through weapon merchant Taloon’s typical work day. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to actually be the poor schlub who gets to stand behind a counter all day, waiting patiently for random fantasy heroes to drop in and sell you the extra copper swords they looted from dead slimes? Talk about role playing! This sequence is hilarious and blew my mind as a kid. Here was a game unmistakably poking fun at itself by lampooning a common genre trope. These so-called fourth wall breaks are commonplace in media today, to the point where they’re as trite as anything they ostensibly call out. This wasn’t the case at all thirty years ago, making Taloon’s introduction one of gaming’s most memorable. It’s no wonder he became the breakout star of the cast and went on to star in the the first three installments of the Mystery Dungeon spin-off series.
Visually, there’s not much to distinguish Dragon Warrior IV from its predecessors. Crude, squat sprites waddling over unnaturally gridded terrain is the rule, interspersed with detailed close-ups of Toriyama’s wacky monsters during battle. The final boss fight is, fittingly, the highlight. Your adversary’s form contorts and mutates in various hideous ways throughout, the animation of which seems lavish in the extreme after so many hours spent staring at static portraits of foes. Much more impressive as a whole is Koichi Sugiyama’s sprawling soundtrack, which clocks in at nearly an hour. Sugiyama is a classically trained composer who had been working on major television and film productions for years before adding video games to his portfolio in 1985 at the tender age of 54. His unusual background (the average game composer circa 1990 was a twentysomething rock fan who’d played in a band or two in college) makes his chiptune work wholly unique. Consider the gobsmacking end theme, a ten minute magnum opus that seamlessly weaves melodies from every chapter together into a veritable NES symphony. It’s the most grandiose piece ever written for the system’s humble five voice sound chip, and I don’t consider that debatable.
Before this devolves into a total puff piece, I should probably mention Dragon Warrior IV’s most divisive element: Diminished player control during the game’s second half. See, the first four chapters play out like they would in any other RPG: You issue battle commands for each party member and they dutifully execute those commands. This goes out the window in chapter five, where you’re suddenly restricted to commanding the legendary hero alone and the other seven members of your team operate at the behest of the game’s A.I. Your influence over them is limited to selecting from a few broad tactical paradigms (Offensive, Defensive, Use No MP, etc). No matter what, the majority of your moves will be chosen for you from here on out. I’m torn on this feature. It’s offputting at first, no doubt, and you’re bound to taste defeat at least once or twice due to boneheaded calls by the CPU. On the plus side, removing a good 75% of the decision making and button pressing speeds things along and keeps time spent mindlessly grinding money and experience to a minimum. I suppose if this is a dealbreaker for you, you could try the 2008 Nintendo DS remake. It allows you full control from start to finish, though it also tacks a sixth chapter onto the main story which isn’t nearly as well-designed or satisfying as the rest in my opinion. Make mine the original.
Correcting for my middle school nostalgia as much as possible, I still love Dragon Warrior IV. By taking the usual “save the world” plot fans were accustomed to and rearranging it in a less front-loaded manner, Chunsoft carved out breathing room for mystery and allowed for a gradual raising of the stakes, all without alienating the faithful. Better still, the decision to focus on a playable ensemble with their own distinct backstories and goals added a much-needed human element to the proceedings and paved the way for even more fully-realized Dragon Quest characters to come. The loss of the mute, contextless custom heroes from the last game is a small price to pay for all that. Many, myself included, consider this the best turn-based RPG available for the NES. As for its fate at retail, the delayed American version predictably flopped hard. So hard, in fact, that Enix took an eight year hiatus from exporting Dragon Quest titles. The Japanese edition fared much better, to the tune of three million copies. This makes it the fourth best-selling Famicom game of all time, coming in right behind, you guessed it, Dragon Quest III.