[In this editorial, Christian Nutt explores why the Dragon Quest franchise is such a mega-hit in Japan, examining the history and appeal of one of video games' most enduring properties.]

I've set myself a strange task. I'm going to make an attempt to answer one timely question: Why the hell do Japanese people like Dragon Quest so much?

This is an obvious question, because the series is, enduringly -- since the days of the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System -- the most popular series in Japan. It debuted in 1986 to over a million in sales, and only got bigger from there.

Not many series of that vintage have that level of currency. It might be industry evolution in terms of audience and gameplay design.

Or it could be the fact that the way the business is run has changed so much over the years but remained more static in Japan -- the big names that helped launch it are still big names, after all. But there are few series with that heritage outside of Nintendo's first-party lineup that can make that claim.

Analyzing DQ's Popularity: By The Numbers

The latest game in the series, Dragon Quest IX: Protectors of the Starry Sky, launched this month in Japan, and has already topped three million copies sold in the country alone. Its predecessor, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, sold over three million copies in its home territory, but less than a million in North America.

Square Enix's other major franchise, Final Fantasy, continues to perform very well in North America. The company shipped 1.5 million copies of the most recent entry, Final Fantasy XII, in its first week on sale. After this year's E3, Final Fantasy XIII, releasing early next year in North America, clocked in at number four for overall purchase intent, according to research firm OTX.

Although it hasn't yet launched its North American PR campaign, Dragon Quest IX doesn't even show up on the purchase intent chart. When it comes to DQ, I don't think most people outside of Japan, including gamers, really understand its appeal. And that's fine, but there can be a tendency to assume there's nothing to get. It's easy to imagine that the popularity of the series is just some inexplicable culturally Japanese phenomenon that's not worth wondering about, like anime body pillows or Hard Gay.

I mean, let's look at it like this. The (debatably reliable) VGChartz pegs Dragon Quest V's sales in Japan (for the Super Famicom) at 2.79 million, which sounds reasonable to me. The DS remake of that title was Square Enix's top-selling game in its last fiscal year, selling over a million (counting Europe and North America, this time.)

And what about the last time it was re-released? Japan-only, again, it sold 1.3 million copies in two days on the PlayStation 2, in 2004. It not just sells, but it keeps selling, over and over, as it is continuously remade and rereleased.

The Japanese do love their Dragon Quest. Despite laughably bad graphics for its time and a late launch on the PlayStation several months after the PlayStation 2 arrived, Dragon Quest VII went on to sell 3.78 million copies in Japan.

If you really want to get to the heart of the game's populist appeal, this commercial, for the Japanese release of 1990's Dragon Quest IV, goes straight to it. I don't think I need to say much more.

Analyzing DQ's Popularity: The Cultural Question

I think that this portion of the discussion is both interesting and, to an extent, a red herring. It's always interesting when games cross over into full-blown cultural phenomena. And of course, it's especially interesting if you work in marketing, because you'd slit your wrists to get your hands on the special sauce that powers Dragon Quest-size popularity and dedication.

One key point of the series popularity no doubt rests in the fact that Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama has provided the games' art from the get-go. Series creator Yuji Horii got to know Toriyama while working on ridiculously popular boys' manga mag Shonen Jump, and roped him in. Consequently, probably thanks to Toriyama, Shonen Jump started to (and, in fact, continues to) promote Dragon Quest heavily.

This no doubt led directly to sales. The games' 8-bit heyday was concurrent with Dragon Ball's massive popularity in Japan, a phenomenon that didn't begin till the '90s in the U.S. and was completely mistimed for DQ's Western releases -- pretty much every single one. You didn't see Toriyama art on the cover of Dragon Warrior, did you?

The music has always been supplied by known composer Koichi Sugiyama. His work is well-regarded, and not just in games -- in fact, Sugiyama was 55 when DQ first hit shelves, with a background in film. The popularity of his work with DQ however, led to symphonic concerts and, thus, to the eventual boom in arranged game soundtrack CDs and live shows.

While Horii may have not been much of a name when the series began, his Port Pier Serial Murder Case game sold well and is regarded as a classic by fans. And he had to have picked up something of the art of hitmaking writing for Shonen Jump. The publication has been an enduring engine of popularity for manga/anime franchises for decades now, birthing winners like Naruto and Bleach as well as Dragon Ball.

The best Nintendo of America could do was translate the game into faux-Elizabethan English three years after its Japanese release and give it away free to Nintendo Power subscribers when nobody bought the damn thing. (Check the amusing NP scan linked here -- when your best marketing is telling people how popular a game that won't be out in English for four years is, you've got problems.) Talk about a contrast in fortunes.

This discussion is a red herring, in my opinion, because you can sit back and say, "Oh, well, Dragon Quest is popular because of marketing; because of celebrity; because it became an institution in the '80s and everybody's still lazily buying the games."

But this doesn't hold up to examination very well, at least not as the sole or primary reason for the franchise's continued success. Momentum needs to be maintained for 23 years of multi-million sellers; bad entries kill game series all the time.

It's worth nothing that the Japanese were not initially ecstatic about the idea of Dragon Quest on Nintendo DS. Even now, post-release, many players are dissatisfied. It's impossible to know how well these voices represent the majority of players -- although I guess "not very," it possibly lends some credence to the "it's just cultural" argument. But...

...It's Actually Good, Is What I'm Saying

Yes, there are cultural influences at work that did not play out at all in the West. But though I've seen willful ignorance on the part of people who should know better ("People just like crap!"), there's a gameplay side to the equation too. It can't simply be ignored with a harrumph that dismisses the series' seemingly blockheaded adherence to its 1980s roots.

After all, 53.9% of gamers polled by Japanese game bible Famitsu in 2006 didn't like the decision to move to action-based battles for the first time in the series' 20+ year history. Notably, that decision has since been reversed, and DQIX shipped as a turn-based game.

If there's one thing people who dislike Japanese RPGs can't comprehend, it's the appeal of turn-based battles. But it is enduring. I could rhapsodize about them, but I'll spare you; it's enough to acknowledge that this is something gamers actively like; it's not just a byproduct of lazy designers.

When I reviewed Dragon Quest VIII in my former life as an enthusiast critic, I think I finally hit on the series' appeal first-hand. The game is tough but, ultimately, fair. You can progress through any obstacle as long as you keep trying.

Contrary to the way huge numbers of games are designed these days -- notably including the other big RPG series, Final Fantasy -- you're not expected to pretty much keep pressing forward, always seeing new content. with DQ, you'll either have to back your way out of a dungeon (even multiple times!) to resupply and try again, or you're going to die and get sent back to town -- removing choice from the equation. The series' extremely methodical pacing suddenly makes more sense in light of this. It's the core of its accessibility.

This is how the game is deliberately designed; it's not just a relic of the past. This is something I instinctively understood and liked very much when I encountered Phantasy Star for the Sega Master System as an 11 year old in 1988. That game began my love affair with the genre, after all, and despite its extreme difficulty, I eventually beat it. This is the promise that Dragon Quest makes to the player: you will eventually win.

I'm not the only one who gets it: the redoubtable, pretty lovable, but somewhat unreliable Tokyo-based game critic and creator Tim Rogers sums up the series' evolution thus:

"The amount of philosophical maturation occurring between Dragon Quest games is potentially mind-blowing. Make no mistakes: in the video game industry, where the market research has concluded that sequels which add more shit 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."

Dragon Quest is simple in every way. The art, provided by Toriyama's Bird Studio, is bright and iconic. The turn-based battles give players time to think, and reverse mistakes through canceling acts before committing to them (i.e. push B to cancel before you finish making all of your choices). They also allow for strategic comebacks in later rounds of combat. The game's structure -- town, field map, dungeon -- is quickly comprehensible, and compartmentalizes danger.

But there's one really big factor, something at least as important as simplicity and rewards for sticktoitiveness.

Whereas I think most Westerners don't get it, Tim gets it. Far better than I can manage, and at greater length, he spells it out in his review of Dragon Quest V. DQV is one of the games that comes up often in debates over which is the series' finest entry. I'll shamelessly steal his insight again:

"...the non-player characters are the world... 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."

"A world made of people" is not really a gameplay design that came into vogue in the U.S. until MMOs gained popularity, and in that case it means something completely different. You could probably argue that, albeit in a different way, that's what The Sims is going for, and what it achieves, and why it's so popular. Has this started to make sense yet?

1UP's Jeremy Parish, another big fan of the fifth installment, puts it like this:

"Dragon Quest V is the most moving video game I've played in ages. That might seem an unlikely claim, especially given the vintage of the material... the squashy, big-headed sprites who pantomime their way through DQV's world of lumpy polygons and goofball accents tell an arresting and affecting story that lends an actual sense of purpose to the countless battles you'll fight against all those grinning slimes."

I think this deeply humanistic facet of Dragon Quest is even less well-understood than the fact that its gameplay is both genuinely enjoyable and well-liked. Remember, in Dragon Quest IX, you're cast as a guardian angel sent to right wrongs.

So There It Is

These are games that are humanistic, accessible, populist, and driven by the power of respected and famous pop culture creators. When looked at it from that angle, is it any wonder the games are this popular? Just look at the cross section of people who picked up the latest one. Dragon Quest is a game anybody might want to play, presented in a format that's inviting. Its success as a series is both deserved and really, pretty easy to understand.

[Dragon Warrior screenshot courtesy of GameFAQs. Dragon Warrior box scan courtesy of The Video Game Museum.]