dragon quest v: hand of the heavenly bride

a review of Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
a videogame developed by enix / armor project
and published by enix / square-enix (et al)
for the nintendo DS, the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the super famicom
text by tim rogers

4 stars

Bottom line: Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride is “the friendliest game ever.”

We here at Action Button Dot Net love simple games, clean games. We love repetition if it feels good. We love games where everything is contextualized and weaved into one straightforward, perpetuity-aspiring flow. It is for these reasons — and in spite of our fundamental boredom regarding most Japanese role-playing games — that we cannot help loving the entire Dragon Quest series. Here’s a review of its absolute best installment to date, which we are calling one of the best videogames of all-time. If they make a better one than this, it will by no means make this one not great anymore. You can’t say that about many games these days.

It’s a fact that Dragon Quest games are the most guaranteed mega-hits in Japan. It’s perhaps a fact that, after the release of Dragon Quest III in 1989, Enix started releasing the games on Saturdays so as to prevent too many kids from skipping school. It’s another kind of fact altogether that the fundamentals of the games tend to change very, very little between installments. We said in another review that, in this world where “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is regarded as a law, in the Japanese games industry, they go one step further, to conclude “if it sells enough copies to pay off development costs and put at least one yen in the boss’s pocket, then it isn’t broken”. This remains true of Dragon Quest, except rather than merely put one yen in the boss’s pocket, each subsequent installment adds one more yacht to his private marina than the last game did. (Math question for those paying attention: how many yachts will Dragon Quest IX yield? And how many yachts does the boss have in his possession now? Answer: it doesn’t matter, because this is just a metaphor.) One might get snide and say that Dragon Quest games don’t change because their creators fear change; these people don’t play Dragon Quest. The amount of philosophical maturation occurring between Dragon Quest games is potentially mind-blowing. Make no mistakes: in the videogame industry, where the market research has concluded that sequels which add more stuff tend to do better financially than their predecessors, it takes a certain amount of determination to convince a corporate executive that you’re going to make a leaner game, and it’s going to be better. See, the creative people never run the show — the people who do run the show only care about numbers (they must play Dragon Quest lol); the creative people care about something different, and the hardest thing they ever have to do is make friends and influence people. It’s a good thing that comes naturally to all the people who count.

Yuji Horii is one of the men that counts in Japanese game development. He might even be the man who counts. The wisdom of Yuji Horii is as infinite as the winding roads of Tokyo, as deep and simultaneously as simple as the abundance of shops in one of the lower-middle-class Tokyo department stores on which he bases his game-design philosophy. It is a wisdom that can show you a great curry shop or recommend an obscure novel that goes nowhere and feels wonderful getting there. When he first made a videogame, he did it because he was interested in computers (and murder mysteries). When he produced his first masterpiece — the original Dragon Quest — he did it nearly accidentally. When Yuji Horii decided to pour his own personality into a videogame script, it probably wasn’t a conscious decision. It wasn’t even the only thing he “knew how to do”, or even something that “seemed right at the time”. It was, probably, something that happened more out of a perceived shortcoming than anything else. The games Horii had decided to build upon — early, western-developed PC RPGs like Ultima — had been written by deadly serious individuals who had no doubt read The Lord of the Rings through to completion a dozen times. What Yuji Horii found compelling about their formats was likely the pen-and-paper RPG feel — minus the pen and paper — the menus, the numbers going up, the feeling of ownership over every moment of the quest. When it came time to sprinkle a story into this, a magical thing happened, and somehow, the people inside the game ended up talking like normal human beings with believable quirks. It’d be bold (and reckless) to presume that this had been a bullet-pointed “pillar” of the game design. It’s more likely that, as the game production got underway, it started to make sense to give each character minimal dialogue with maximum impact. (Irony alert: when the game was released in the West, its English translation was littered with “thou” and “hast”, thick and posery.)

That brings us to the first accidental pillar of Yuji Horii’s game design: the non-player characters are the world. Far from the penguins telling us that we can press the A button to swim while we’re already swimming, the NPCs in any given Dragon Quest game are their own self-contained human beings, each painted with a single delicate brushstroke. They’re as simple as a woman standing in the middle of a town who tells your hero that her son is a guard at the castle, as intermediate as a soldier at the castle saying he’s worried about his mom back home, and as complicated as a man at one end of a bar who says the woman in the red dress at the other end of the bar looks lonely: in the case of the latter, if you talk to the woman in the red dress, she says that she’s tired of men asking her if she’s lonely. There you have it: a world made of people. When we press the Action Button, it’s not just to search drawers or pots, it’s to talk to NPCs, and realize that they are, in fact, people. That, nine times out of ten, what one NPC says doesn’t make any difference in the main quest is part of the point; that, one time out of ten, what one NPC says does make a difference in the main quest is the other part of the point.

Suffice it to say that Dragon Quest‘s personality had been something of an accident. Suffice it (again) to say that the personality was one of the reasons the game saw so many sequels: as Yuji Horii gets older, he only accumulates more world-wisdom with which to populate his imaginary worlds. That said, why was the game made in the first place? It had likely been something of a marketing decision, and something of a creative whim. Horii liked the pen-and-paper feel, he liked the idea of rescuing a princess from a dragon. We can imagine that he saw Dragon Quest as an opportunity to make a game where anyone can rescue the princess from the dragon, if they keep trying. In this way, we could go a couple steps further, and say that the heart of the game concept was to draft an answer to Super Mario Bros. that didn’t require the player to possess amazing hand-eye coordination. Hand-picked by Horii for the project were up-and-coming superhot manga artist Akira Toriyama and nice-guy composer Koichi Sugiyama.

Accessibility had been one of the chief goals, and though to play the original incarnation of the series today would perhaps make young gamers throw up in their mouths a little bit, at the time, it was actually more accessible because of all the abstractions. For example: 1986 was deep into the pre-Action-Button era. There was no one context-sensitive button for talking to people, investigating drawers, or opening treasure chests or doors. All of these actions required the player to open the menu (with the A button) and choose what he wanted to do. This was surprisingly effected, and no doubt blessed an entire three generations of future game fans with all the experience levels they would need to navigate menus in all games until eternity. For example, if you’re standing on a flight of stairs, you press the A button, open the menu, and choose “Stairs”. The player then walks up (or down) the stairs. If this sounds clunky, think about it for a bit: when faced with a flight of stairs, does it not cross your mind that “I have to climb up these stairs now”? Either way, the option was always right there in the menu when you pressed the A button. The interface would later be streamlined, so it might have just been a vestige of the text-adventures Yuji Horii adored; good game design or not, there’s no doubt about the “stairs menu choice” being at least wholly grounded in some kind of buried common sense.

Later Dragon Quest games would evolve to communicate the same kind of common sense more clearly. In Dragon Quest IV, for example, there’s a part during Torneko’s quest where an old man, standing outside his house, complains of his “old bones”, and asks that Torneko push him to the nearby church. “Just push me as hard as you can”. The player then gets behind the old man and moves. Surely enough, Torneko pushes the old man. You push him to the church. “Thanks a lot”, the old man says, and then gives you three gold pieces. An hour later, you’re in a dungeon where you need to push a boulder.

Isn’t that a lot . . . nicer than a penguin suddenly jumping up out of a nearby lake and screaming “You can push objects by leaning against them and pushing the control pad” just milliseconds before the pushable boulder comes into view?

Dragon Quest‘s creators had obviously noted that the likes of Ultima scared the living stuff out of most normal people. A goal of Dragon Quest was to make a more comprehensible game, if not a more interesting one. Narrowing the scope was definitely in order — Super Mario Bros. was a narrow-scoped game, and that didn’t stop it from being obviously ambitious. Why not start by reducing the number of characters in the player’s party from five to one? One man, going out to hunt a dragon. That’s what it came down to. Future RPGs — such as Final Fantasy — would up the character count so as to mask their shallowness by giving the player more stuff to organize. Dragon Quests, though they eventually grew to accommodate three and then four party members at any given time, somehow manage to never feel like stuff-organizing simulations. Especially when you’re organizing your stuff: it feels less like moving abstract things between abstract places and more like paying your real-life bills. Which, you know, is kind of satisfying (if not precisely the Greatest Feeling in the World).

The main thrust of a Dragon Quest game is that you are either trusted with some gargantuan task at the outset, or else you land immediately in the shoes of a character whose life or world (ie, surrounding characters) are compelling. You do what you have to do in order to complete the task, or see these people through the tunnel to happiness country. If you don’t find the surrounding characters immediately interesting, it’s probably not the right game for you.

Doing “what you have to do” usually entails fighting lots of monsters, gaining lots of levels, earning lots of money, and buying lots of new weapons / armor / items. The single-word term for this is “grinding”. Dragon Quest requires players to grind. The relevance and tactfulness of building a game designed around grinding has been in debate since probably the appearance of Dragon Quest III (with a party made up entirely of player-selected characters, grinding was essentially the whole game). Certainly, grinding produces certain pleasing brain activity in the right people: your character can do three damage on a Slime, Slimes have six hit points, it takes two hits to kill a Slime, Slimes give three gold, a club costs 60 gold, you kill twenty Slimes (which takes a total of forty hits), you buy a club, you can now do six damage a hit, killing Slimes in one hit, meaning you can earn sixty gold with just twenty attacks. Simply put: purchasing new weapons allows you to make money more quickly. Purchasing new armor allows you to take more hits before requiring a heal (or dying). Leveling up increases your characters’ statistics incrementally, making them innately stronger (though not as strong as a new weapon would make them) or thicker-skinned (though not as strong as a new piece of armor would make them). Mostly, leveling up increases hit points and magic points. This all sounds extremely boring on paper. It’s much (slightly) less boring in practice. (Proof that menus and numbers don’t necessarily prevent something from being the Pinnacle of Human Achievement: even Godhand uses a menu to configure fighting techniques, the effective damage of which is represented in numbers; these techniques are bought with money, money which can be won from a casino. So there.)

Back when Dragon Quest was originally released, there existed no set-in-stone laws regarding padding games out for length. In fact, Dragon Quest was probably the first Japanese game to hit upon the idea of making the player want and need to walk around in circles for a long time in order to progress. We can deduce quite brilliantly that the leveling-up mechanic was the core of the game precisely because the developers just wanted to make all of the players feel good about themselves. They wanted to afford every player the opportunity to slay the dragon, rescue the princess, receive new orders, and head out to exterminate the chief of the demon army. They wanted everyone to be a winner, though they didn’t want anyone to feel like the game was going “easy” on them. So they replaced “difficulty” with “trial”. There’s nothing wrong with that — well, fundamentally, at least. To be truthful, if a game developer today was this naive we’d select five of the similes from our growing, top-secret Google Documents list (“as expected and appreciated as the one time the garbageman took a dump in my bathtub”, et cetera) with which to mock it. We don’t mock the original Dragon Quest — and this is such a “mainstream videogame journalism” trend, though bear with us — because it was made in a purer time, amidst a growing horde of tough-as-nails, newbie-punishing action games (Megaman et al). It was one possible alternative, one direction things could go.

Final Fantasy, plopped out a year after Dragon Quest, sought a tougher crowd; it lacked the gentleness of Dragon Quest. Were we not informed that it was actually developed simultaneously with Dragon Quest, we would assume that Final Fantasy‘s developers had played Dragon Quest and found it “too forgiving”. Final Fantasy is, at least, more complicated than Dragon Quest, again, answering the ambition of any young boy who wants to be a scientist when he grows up because scientists use big words sometimes, and big words confuse people. In Final Fantasy, when you die, it’s game over. You have to reload from the last inn where you saved. In Dragon Quest, when you die, you awaken in the King’s chamber, with all of your experience points — and half your gold — intact. That is, money is a big part of Dragon Quest; taking money from the player is punishment. Some players might consider resetting and starting over, if it’s that big a deal. Most players won’t, because maybe the experience is worth more than the money. Wow. There’s that curry-shop-recommending wisdom: learn to deal with your losses.

To be blunt, none of this wisdom finds its way into any Final Fantasy games, or would-be Final Fantasy-killers. Final Fantasy went on to become middle-class high fashion, with computer-rendered cut-scenes and characters wearing inexplicable clothing. Dragon Quest went on to establish itself as a cultural icon on par with Disney, different as its installments always were with regard to graphic design; Final Fantasy went on to pay Disney lots of money so they could make a collaboration game-like thing that produced even more money. Final Fantasy is about getting bigger, louder, faster, and more obviously expensive. Dragon Quest is about making the player feel the world in new and nearly-exciting ways. The “nearly” is very important: a Dragon Quest is a long quest. Too much excitement too often would be exhausting.

Though their running times may grow, Dragon Quest games tend to slim between installments. Yuji Horii’s vision from the start (apparently) had only ever been to make the player feel like he’s going on a long journey. All games are lies, anyway: why not make it a charming one? The first few Dragon Quest games, perhaps, required too much endurance. This is precisely why we can forgive the “grind” of earlier installments: because, in the remakes, the fractions are significantly reduced. If you’ve ever played Dragon Quest IV for the Famicom, then you need only play the remake on the DS for a half an hour before you realize how breezy it now is. Enemies drop twice the gold and offer twice the experience points. Items are now three-quarters the price they once were. Selling back a piece of armor or a weapon yields you three-quarters its price in gold, where in the old version it had been half. This macroeconomic squeeze is purely for politeness purposes, and probably Yuji Horii’s idea: the game is portable now, you’re playing it in ten-minute bursts while riding trains or toilets. You might as well be accomplishing something in the context of the game every time you turn it on. This is why the action-based plan for Dragon Quest IX (later nixed because Square-Enix was afraid of their audience) makes so much sense: so many things about Dragon Quest were only ever placeholders to begin with. Why not cut out the menu-based battles?

With the world economy scrunched and booming, combat in Dragon Quest comes to feel all the more satisfying. You can tell these games are directed by a man with a love of gambling, of the ever-expanding psychological disparity between “experience” and “money”. You can spend (or lose) money, though you can never get rid of experience. Fighting a series of rapid-fire battles in a now-portable Dragon Quest, blasting the enemies with the strongest magic you can manage, wincing when your two strongest fighters target the same enemy in a group (they should have divided up, to maximize the effect of the magic), coming out victorious, though scarred, and then selecting “heal everyone” from your new and friendly macro-menu is the most weirdly visceral experience you can probably have with numbers and menus. (The colorful character portraits on the top screen might have something to do with it.) You come to feel like a smokingman in a pachinko groove must feel: only you have no chance of losing any money.

This is crucial: Yuji Horii understands full well that the game doesn’t “lose” when the player wins. Games cannot lose because they are not alive.

Perhaps the best example of this comes from the slot machines in Dragon Quest V for the Super Famicom. The first time you use the first slot machine in the game, you’ll win. Maybe not a jackpot, though it’s a definite win. You’ll get something. Yuji Horii made it this way because, well, why not? Why not make the player’s first experience with the slot machine a pleasant one? If a casino in Las Vegas advertised a slot machine that everyone wins on their first pull, they’d probably draw in a ton of people, though how many of them would stick around to lose back all of the money they won? Not too many — you’d get too many non-gamblers, free of the “maybe I can win more” disease, making one pull and walking out with their earnings. The casino would go bust overnight. In a videogame, that’s not going to happen. The videogame has nothing to be afraid of.

“The game doesn’t lose when the player wins”. It’s a fundamental — if seldom spoken — rule of single-player games, and it lies at the core of every Dragon Quest. Adhering to this rule alone does not guarantee success, of course. The game has to play with the player a bit. Trick them a bit. Rub their shoulders a bit. Dragon Quest is always careful to play nice with the player. At the very beginning of Dragon Quest VII, you can enter a castle and see a door behind a staircase. You can’t unlock the door. A text message tells you you need a key. After getting your first key, you might remember to come back. If you do this, a different message tells you the key doesn’t fit. Immediately, whether you’ve played one of these games before or not, you realize that there exist several keys. Each time you get a key, you come back and try to unlock the door. It keeps telling you you need a different key.

Eventually, you unlock the door — during the game’s ending.

Dragon Quest games are frighteningly stuffed full of these things.

This kind of attention to detail and playful mystery, coupled with the sense of “ownership” over the world, is what makes every Dragon Quest an experience worth coming back to for so many millions of people. Now let’s talk about why Dragon Quest V is the best of them all.

It’s shamefully uncomplicated. Dragon Quest V is the best Dragon Quest because its story is the best, the most affecting, and the most immaculately in-tune with the game mechanics (laid out above) that had formed the series’ roots. Also, because the main character is wearing purple.

And not just any purple — a delicious, deep, dark imperial purple turban and cape, over an off-white martial arts gi that shows off his rippling muscles. On the box art, he’s carrying a gnarled brown wooden staff. Akira Toriyama! Marry us!

Thinking about describing Dragon Quest V‘s plot makes us want to jump right back into it and play it all over again. (Which we just finished doing yesterday.) Every single significant plot point hinges precariously on one mystery-fragment that manages to miraculously manifest itself in the actual context of the game as a game in addition to as a story. If you remember the “door behind the stairs” thing we talked about a few paragraphs up — it’s like that. Dragon Quest V‘s plot is made up entirely of things like that.

The very beginning shows a king pacing outside a room. He simply moves left, right, left, right several times: we realize he’s pacing, and nervous. No full-motion-video required. He suddenly bursts into a door. A woman is lying in a bed. A wizard-like man stands over her. He holds up a baby. It’s a boy, the doctor says. The king recommends a name. The screen goes blank. A name entry screen comes up. We enter a name. Let’s say, “Billy”. The screen fades back. The queen says, that’s a nice name, dear, though I think we should call him “Billy”. The king holds up the baby. Yes, Billy. A wonderful name. A pause. “Dear?” Another pause. “Doctor!!” A black circle closes on the little baby. The music cuts. The game’s sole digital voice sample, that of a baby crying out, echoes.

In a flash, we’re a little boy in a purple turban and cape in a small wooden room. Our big tough dad wakes us up. You had a dream that I was a king? your dad says. That’s hilarious! Come on, let’s go get some fresh air. You go outside. It turns out you’re on a boat. Your dad goes to talk to the captain. You wander around, talking to everyone on the boat. They all tell you that your dad is a great man. Some say that your dad helped them out when they were down. Some say that your dad has been continuing this journey ever since you were born. Some say, it must be great — you’re finally going to see your hometown for the first time in your life. Some say your dad must feel good about going home again. Some say that you look a lot like your father, that maybe you’ll grow up to be strong like him someday. When you enter the captain’s cabin, your dad and the captain are having a serious adult conversation. The captain announces that the boat will land soon. On the dock, you meet a pretty little girl. There’s some weight in your introduction to her.

Eventually, it’s you and dad, dad in the lead, walking over the wilderness between the lonely little dock and the town in the hills. At last, five minutes in, and we’re Dragonquesting. Only it’s subtly different, this time. Some Dragon Quests occasionally offer the player the support of a much stronger ally. However, most Dragon Quests start with the player alone, saving up to buy a Copper Sword. In V, we’ve got dad — his name is Pappas — who is a murdering machine. If Billy’s HP stoops low, Pappas will cast a heal spell. The man is invincible, though only within the context of fighting those enemies between the dock and the town. This is a very important moment in understanding why Dragon Quest V is spectacular.

We get to the first town. Dad is talking with an old man. The old man is delighted to see dad. The old man tells you you’re growing up, that you’ll be tough like your dad someday. Everyone keeps telling you that. Dad tells you to go outside and play. You meet a little girl. You become friends. You have a couple of childish adventures together, out in the wilderness, without dad’s help.

Billy can’t read, so if you approach a sign board and press the action button, all the game does is tell you that Billy can’t read. That‘s role-playing. You and the little girl get into a little trouble at a haunted castle. You rescue a killer panther kitten from a couple of bully kids. You name it Bolongo (or whatever you want).

Eventually, dad says we have to go somewhere else. You go somewhere else. And then somewhere else. Dad is still strong. People keep telling you that your dad is great, that he saved their life, that you’ll be like him someday. Real-world hours later, dad is talking to the king of some country far from where you started. Billy meets an arrogant prince named Henry. It turns out Pappas was hired by the king to be Henry’s bodyguard. Henry finds the situation ridiculous and runs away from home. You and dad go to the dungeon near town to find him. It turns out the king’s suspicions were correct: someone was indeed trying to kill Henry. In the struggle to escape, Pappas throws himself in front of the demon warrior. The familiar battle screen emerges. We watch the demon warrior make quick and gruesome work of Pappas’s amazing hit point total.

With his dying breath, Pappas tells Billy that his mother is still alive, and that Billy must find her by any means necessary. Billy and Henry are then captured by the demon forces and set to work, as slaves, building a tower to heaven. FOR TEN YEARS. One day, after growing Hot and Tough with years of rock-building, they seize a chance to escape, and the adventure begins: the hero must get back to civilization (which we will find partially ruined), we must gather information as to whatever it was Pappas was searching for, and we must find the hero’s mother, whom he must have thought about every day for ten long years.

Dragon Quest V‘s prologue is ingenious even today. Using both dialogue and game mechanics (hit point / damage numbers) it establishes the short-lived character of Pappas as a figure of monolithic importance and greatness, and subtly indicates to us that our hero will be like him someday — if he levels up and equips the right items. Even so, we get an unsettling impression that leveling up and equipping items won’t be enough to be as great as Pappas. Something . . . else has to happen. Dad is a great guy, so great he can only exist in fiction; his greatness is so absolute that there’s no way he’d ever let you die, much less learn from your mistakes. Furthermore, the box art shows the hero as a full-grown man. Obviously, something is going to happen. (The box art for the PlayStation 2 version actually shows Pappas’s silhouette in the sky over the hero’s silhouette.)

“Growing up” is the theme of Dragon Quest V. It’s a poignant theme, and one amazingly seldom tackled in videogames. You’d figure it would have been tackled in a prior Dragon Quest game — what with how the games are so insistent on making you love numbers and the way they increase. Other RPGs of the time — Final Fantasy IV, et al — were experimenting with comic-booky storytelling of the most convoluted variety. Surely, Dragon Quest IV had been the first ambitious game in the series, plot-wise, in that it opened with a short introduction of the main character and then slipped straight into telling four stories, one at a time, of people searching for the Legendary Hero. It was a cute concept, though each of the chapters was a little bland (except of course for aspiring merchant Torneko’s quest, where you can work at a weapon shop to earn 100 gold a day instead of fighting to earn it). The final chapter — with all the characters brought together — was a lot longer and more conceptually interesting than the previous four, especially because when you meet Torneko, it turns out he’s now extraordinarily wealthy, and becomes your party’s benefactor.

A simpler way of putting it: Dragon Quest IV had been about gold, and Dragon Quest V is about experience points.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. After five years of making games with experience points in them, the Dragon Quest team managed to make a game that grafts the play mechanic seamlessly (okay, so there are seams, though they’re cute, like seeing Pappas’s total HP next to your own in that first battle) onto the theme, structure, and flow of the game. This, coupled with all the hallmarks of its series and a plot full of genuine mysteries and matter-of-fact casual revelations, makes it the best of its breed, and one of the better games ever released. It’s a shame that players of the day found it too “easy” — resulting in the tough-as-nails and slightly generic Dragon Quest VI — though its message was certainly felt in the realm of Japanese role-playing games. Just maybe not in the right way: Final Fantasy‘s way of one-upping Dragon Quest V‘s simple, character-driven fairy tale was to make Final Fantasy VI into a meandering (and admittedly beautiful) opera with no central character and hardly a plot. Because of its pretty graphics, Final Fantasy VI became the RPG to ape, and — the few-and-far-between Dragon Quests aside — it’s been all fairy boys, zippers, pleather, eight-foot swords, and missile-punching ever since.


In the course of the game’s plot, your character loses his father, grows up as a slave, escapes, finds his hometown in ruins, quests a bit, meets up with his killer panther — now fully grown up — gets married (to one of two (three, in the remakes) female characters), has children of his own, and continues his quest well into his adulthood, with his own child at his side. The plot is reflected very sweetly in game mechanics, throughout, in that your party at any given time is made up entirely of characters you have known their entire lives: your panther, who you met when he was just a cub, Prince Henry, with whom you served years as a slave to a demon king, your wife, who you met (perhaps only briefly) when you were just children, your children (who are, well, your children), or any of the various monsters you’ve charmed and trained on the way.

We can’t not mention the monster-capturing system of the game: it’s great. It preceded Pokemon. Only, unlike Pokemon, catching monsters isn’t the whole point of the game. Most types of monsters can be lured to your side, though there’s really no surefire way to do it. You just have to fight a lot of battles, and maybe a monster will offer to join you when a fight is done (he’ll only have one HP remaining, though, so be sure to heal him before putting him in the front line). The pachinko-like chance of it all is, quite frankly, what Dragon Quest is all about. You can equip monsters with weapons or items and use them just like any other fighter. Some monsters have magic spells. Some monsters are awesome. Some are only awesome if you level them up. Anyway you slice it, it’s a cute little system, it’s wholly optional, and there’s no reason not to enjoy it. It’s absolutely essential — thematically and systematically — in this, the “best” of Dragon Quest games, because we need to feel our hero becoming a father-figure, a leader, and also because we need to want to enjoy battling countless foes, equipping innocent monsters with holy spears and having them thrust away mathematically at the armies of darkness. If ever you’ve wanted to enjoy battling in Dragon Quest — if you’ve ever been interested in maybe getting started playing video poker, for example — look no further than Dragon Quest V.

design by reroreroThe DS remake (being released this year in English as “The Hand of the Heavenly Bride”) is the perfect occasion to experience this gem again, or for the first time: breezier battles, portability, a couple of tasteful extras (a new possible bride, a dungeon, a customizable town), and quite frankly beautiful 3D graphics — the use of the top screen hardly feels like a gimmick when you’re rotating the delicious town maps in infinite circles as you enter and exit quaintly tiny or even more quaintly huge buildings. In short, the DS brings out the best in the game; the everpresence of character portraits on the top screen during a battle lets you admire the gusto behind Akira Toriyama’s character designs (again, the hero’s purple outfit is spectacular, and the killer panther Borongo is an amazing bit of graphic design, the anti-Hello Kitty, yellow and big-eyed, fanged and spotted, with a red mane, the perfect complement to his master’s turban and cape and staff), and the quality of the music — weirdly lodged halfway between the Super Famicom midi originals and the exquisite orchestration of the PlayStation 2 remake — makes the depth of these, Koichi Sugiyama’s bar-none best compositions, shine. In short, being portable makes this game everything it’s supposed to be: it’s something you can take with you. Shigeru Miyamoto once said that games should be like “playgrounds” that you can go back and visit whenever you feel like it. The Dragon Quest games are all playgrounds, and V, with its deep play mechanics and deceptively complex story that can be interpreted in different ways as you level-up in the Real World, is one of the playgrounds you’re least likely to ever outgrow.

–tim rogers


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