How Dragon Quest’s Creator Invented JRPGs | Gaming News
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Of Slimes and Men: How Dragon Quest changed everything.
I think most of us have an informal mental list of people we wish they could meet, and I think that’s especially true in the entertainment and game industries. I’ll often hear Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima batted around in newsroom conversations, but for me, there’s no higher name in my pantheon of hero worship than Yuji Horii. And now here I am in an upstairs room at Anime Expo in Los Angeles, sitting across the table from him.
What Horii has done can’t be adequately labeled anything but genius.
I’ve told friends that the course of my professional life has been equally defined by my childhood encounters with Jesus and video games, and I don’t think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. As a former clergyman and current video game commentator, I’ve divided my adulthood between metaphysics and pixels, and both have proven worthwhile pursuits. One thing both fields hold in common, and perhaps the tie that most binds them in me, is that they are both intrinsically rooted in stories of trying, failing, trying again, learning, exploring, growing, and finally overcoming. They are stories of second chances and becoming better people.
Nowhere in gaming is this idea better expressed than in the RPG tradition, and nowhere is it more explicitly captured than in Horii’s Dragon Quest.
It’s been pointed out before that we tend to overstate the presence of genius in the world of entertainment, but what Horii has done can’t be adequately labeled anything else. Much as Warren Robinett did in the United States with Adventure, Horii took a type of game designed to be played on powerful computers using multi-input keyboards and converted the essential mechanics into forms viable on vastly-less-powerful hardware and functional with a controller interface. But his innovations only began there. Horii also took the western-born world of RPGs and instilled it with a manga-inspired aesthetic that made it something remarkably relevant to Japanese culture. He infused the cartoonish artwork and bright palettes of Akira Toriyama and the sweeping symphonies of Koichi Sugiyama into the RPG aesthetic.
“At that time we had RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima for the PC,” says Horii, through an interpreter. “Those type of RPGs were available on the PC, but thereafter, the Famicom, or what we know as the NES, really was a huge hit among the younger children and younger consumers. At that time, most of the games on that platform were action-oriented or action-based. I wanted to figure out a way to bring this kind of fun RPG to that platform, and that’s what we worked hard to achieve. We believe we were able to bring a relatively easily understandable and simple experience to the Famicom and NES devices. We were able to bring the RPG experience to the device.”
We really focused on ensuring people would be able to experience the fun of the story.
He discovered a kind of delight in the difficulty of the task. “Rather than find it challenging, I found it interesting and fun to think through how to make this happen.” The adaptive work required an enormous discipline and commitment to refinement. The hardware restraints would allow for nothing else. “Trying to figure out ways to include various aspects, elements, and features, and on top of that, to implement a story, the thought process was really interesting. I had a lot of fun and found a lot of enjoyment through that process.
“But of course there were a lot of struggles,” Horii continues. In this day and age of nearly unlimited development resources, it’s difficult to imagine storage limits so severe that even written text was a luxury, but that’s the challenge Horii faced. “We had to limit the number of written kanji we included in the game, and to make it a focus on the main character as well. There were a lot of ways we went around the space issue.”
Ultimately, the developers doubled down on two elements: a sense of compelling immersion through atmosphere and story integration, and a mechanical loop that drew players in. The story would serve as a guide: “I believed that by including the story it would become more accessible to consumers, a kind of rail when playing the game,” Horii said.
But he also wanted to make sure the players were always aware of a sense of progress. “We really focused on ensuring people would really be able to experience the fun of the story, but also how the players would really be able to feel they were becoming stronger through racking up experience points.“ These two expressions remain at the heart of the Dragon Quest experience today.
Getting Into It
Horii got into gaming in the early 80s, and found his road to development through an unusual path.
“Originally I wanted to become a manga artist. I had a love for stories early on. But then I discovered computers, and was impressed by the interactivity you get through them,” says Horii.
I believe it’s easier for humans to be determined to believe something if the goal is clear from the get-go.
His first game, Love Match Tennis, was a hobbyist project submitted as a contest entry: “I initially created it as a hobby. I had purchased my own personal computer, and I created that game for myself. I was playing that tennis game for enjoyment, and because it was so fun learning to program.” Using his mastery of Z80 machine language, he hacked together an impressive sports game and caught the attention of Enix.
Sitting in the interview listening to him describe this, I’m nodding to myself. I can identify a bit… my own humble career in video games began after being noticed by entertainment media outlets through a couple of game contest entries. It’s strange to feel like I shared a little something with a hero.
Enix set him loose on another game, The Portopia Serial Murder Case, an expression of Horii’s developing appreciation for how narratives in games require player agency.
“I found it interesting you can have that interaction while you are progressing the story, and that kind of evolved into Portopia. And then I discovered RPGs and that genre in general.”
Portopia became a hit and deeply influenced another of Japan’s great creators, Metal Gear’s Hideo Kojima, (indeed, parts of the Portopia ROM are contained in the source code of Metal Gear Solid V).
Encountering Dragon Quest was a defining experience for me.
From Portopia’s visual-novel storytelling design, Horii then turned his talents to a crunchier combat-oriented RPG. “Thankfully, I’m quite good at math and so I was able to calculate the damage counts and monster data myself.”
But even with the vast increase in mathematical complexity an RPG required, story remained a focus of his work. From the very first screen of Dragon Warrior, the Dragon Lord’s dark castle stands in the distance, access blocked by an impassable river but tantalizing the player to move forward, explore, grow, conquer, and discover the surprises waiting at the end of the tale.
“I believe it’s easier for humans to be determined to believe something if the goal is clear from the get-go,” he says.
Encountering Dragon Quest (and particularly its early iteration, Dragon Warrior) was a defining experience for me. Ever since first being exposed to Ultima III on the Apple II, I’d become maniacally obsessed with the idea of computer role-playing games: the commitment to detail and order, the relatively complex stories, the mysteries, the XP system as a metaphor for character growth, and a world that continually unfolded as my own skills and expertise developed.
Dragon Quest isn’t simple… it’s pure.
I knew even then that Dragon Warrior was a distilled experience. Its single-character vs. single-enemy combat was vastly simplified in comparison to older games like Ultima III or Wizardry, its scope less ambitious. But I found that purposeful refinement deeply compelling. Dragon Quest took the explore/fight/loot/grow loop of RPGs and boiled it down to a form that was more than simply accessible. As I said in my recent review: “Dragon Quest isn’t simple… it’s pure.”
Horii’s involvement in the US conversion was limited, as the localization was handled by Nintendo, and subcontracted to none other than future Nintendo president Satoru Iwata.
I was moved because there were a lot of people who brought it to our signing – the actual game cartridge.
“I was involved in the process in terms of providing advice here and there,” says Horii. “For example there was an instance where people wanted to change the package art, and so I raised the question of whether it would really be appropriate not to have Toriyama’s art for our overseas packaging.” The package art change was a marketing decision designed to appeal to perceived American aesthetic preferences. “My initial reaction was ‘I wonder why they would do that?’ But I was informed it would be better that way, so I kind of had to go along with it.”
Dragon Warrior was never a smash hit on NES, but a Nintendo Power giveaway guaranteed a large number of kids ended up playing the cartridge, enough that Dragon Quest II through IV also made their way stateside. The day I meet Horii, he’s just arriving from a very long session spent signing Dragon Quest memorabilia, including a number of Dragon Warrior carts.
“It was quite impressive, I was actually moved because there were a lot of people who brought it to our signing section – the actual game cartridge.”
Games Are Magic
Horii has purposefully chosen to return to a single-player, traditional JRPG epic.
More than three decades after his initial work on Dragon Quest, Horii is now observing the US release of his eleventh mainline Dragon Quest game to spectacular critical acclaim. When we spoke in LA, the North American localization of Dragon Quest hadn’t yet been reviewed by American critics, but Horii seemed humbly and happily optimistic, in no small part because of its very successful Japanese release last year, and perhaps still more by his faith in the unique situation that exists when building a new installment of such a venerable series.
Dragon Quest X was a successful MMO in Japan, but now in an era when many creators are doubling down on games as a service, Horii has purposefully chosen to return to a single-player, traditional JRPG epic. He refers to the game as “friendly,” pointing out that it’s something practically anyone can enjoy regardless of their familiarity with games.
“Really Dragon Quest 11 is essentially a culmination of 30 years of the franchise,” he says. “Within the development staff we have certain people who were very young when the initial Dragon Quests were released. They were perhaps in elementary school when they first played Dragon quest, or they may not even have been born back then. So various generations really came together to wholeheartedly put all their heart and soul into this work to bring it to life.”
Making games is joyful.
“And also the fact that it has been well received [in Japan]. It made both the existing fans happy and bought new players to the franchise. And in that sense it really serves as a new starting point for Dragon Quest as well. That’s what I feel most proud of when it comes to Dragon Quest XI.
I ask him about the joy that comes in spending a life making games. “Making games is joyful. It’s really fun to think of games and developing games. That said, creating games is a seperate story, and requires a lot of determination. I’m quite playful, and I like to bring in these playful elements within the game, and instill that in the player, so it’s kind of a tough process to implement all those aspects within the system.”
Yeah, for sure. Games are magic.
After a lifetime in the games industry, I ask him about what he dreams of doing. He laughs and tells me he’d love to see a Dragon Quest Land, a theme park dedicated to the series’ characters and traditions. I can’t tell if he’s joking or not… I’m not sure he knows either. He seems at ease with mirth and optimism, a smiling, friendly face, a sense of congeniality despite travel, international jet lag, and hours in a crowded convention hall signing autographs. It’s strange to meet our heroes for an hour, to listen to them share anecdotes, to see the gleam in their eyes at sparked memories. Mr. Horii doesn’t disappoint. His sense of vibrancy just feels so sincere and contagious. We’re past time in the interview, but I sneak in one more question at the end.
“Are games magic?” I ask.
His answer doesn’t disappoint. “Yeah, for sure. Games are magic.”
Jared Petty produces Red Dead Radio: The Red Dead Redemption Podcast, Hop, Blip, and a Jump, and Pockets Full of Soup. He’s a host at Kinda Funny Games and a frequent contributor to Tech. This was his favorite professional interview. Follow him on Twitter @pettycommajared and on Instagram @pettycommajared.