Buried on YouTube is a grainy video of a Japanese news broadcast. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, the footage is clear enough. It’s February 1988, and throngs of people are lining up for the new Famicom video game, Dragon Quest III. A man with a loudspeaker keeps one line orderly as it twines past trees and storefronts. Frantic shopgirls unbox dozens of copies. A nearby scramble crossing is jam-packed. It’s a video game launch so massive that it spawned a wild urban legend that used to pop up on old GameFAQs forums and schoolyards: The Japanese government had to step in and write a law mandating that future Dragon Quest games could only be released on the weekend to avoid civil disruption.
It turns out there’s no such law on the books. However, it is true that Enix was so concerned about the reports of school absenteeism and other issues that they would shift all future Dragon Quest release dates to the weekend. It’s a phenomenon the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in the West. Not even new Pokémon games ever caused that kind of upset among players in America. Yet, despite being a society-shaping phenomenon in Japan, the Dragon Quest franchise would never hit those kinds of sales numbers or reach anywhere near that level of popularity outside of its home country.
Figuring out why arguably the greatest JRPG franchise in history remains something of a black sheep elsewhere comes down to three reliable but annoying factors: Timing, marketing, and sexiness. Here’s how it happened.
Start the Battle Music
Compared to Final Fantasy (its closest historical counterpart), Dragon Quest was first out of the gate in both Japan and America where it was released in 1986 and 1989, respectively. The JRPG that formed the template for decades of games to come made a heroic effort to woo uncertain Western gamers. Dragon Quest publisher Enix even partnered with Nintendo Power magazine to give away free copies of Dragon Warrior (as it was rebranded for North American gamers). The developers even went to the trouble of streamlining the game’s save system into something more user-friendly than the original password states.
Yet, the most significant alteration that Enix made to convince Western gamers to give Dragon Warrior a shot involved the game’s signature art style. Aware of the American popularity of Wizardry and Ultima (both of which inspired the gameplay of the fledgling franchise), Dragon Warrior‘s North American marketing materials were redesigned to boast generic medieval fantasy artwork instead of the Akira Toriyama sketches that made Dragon Quest unique.
Today we can look back on that move with a bit of a wince. For Japan, the cute aesthetic from one of their biggest manga legends (yes, that’s the Akira Toriyama, creator of Dragon Ball) was key to its lasting charm. The simple slime Toriyama designed for Yuji Horii became the series mascot, while in America, we still give slime-shaped game controllers a funny look. Whether North American gamers would have been more receptive (or as receptive) to the game’s original art style at that time is one of those questions that will remain unanswered.
Still, the gamble worked. Dragon Warrior gave Enix a foothold as the NES continued to grow its market share. Rival company Squaresoft would launch its first Final Fantasy title one year later, and at that point, the two were still on fairly equal footing.
But the next franchise releases in both series started to upset the balance. When the next Dragon Quest was released in the West as Dragon Warrior II, it was harder than its predecessor, featured a new party system, and didn’t boast significantly improved visuals. Western sales numbers plummeted. Dragon Warrior II sold roughly 150,000 copies in the U.S. compared to the roughly 500,000 premium copies of Dragon Warrior that were sold in that region (not counting free Nintendo Power copies). Meanwhile, Dragon Quest II sold roughly 2.4 million copies in Japan. As for Dragon Quest III, the game that broke into Japan’s evening news, it sold less than 100,000 copies in the U.S. compared to the nearly 4 million copies of the game that were sold in its home country.
Even in its earliest days, the gap between the Dragon Quest/Warrior‘s popularity in Japan vs. the West was becoming clear. However, the next generation of console gaming would make it clear that Western gamers weren’t entirely opposed to the idea of falling madly in love with a JRPG franchise.
The ol’ Razzle-Dazzle
Final Fantasy developer Squaresoft waited until the release of the brand-new Super NES to give Western gamers the next taste of their JRPG franchise. 1991’s Final Fantasy II (what was actually Final Fantasy IV rebranded as such as to not “confuse” Western audiences over the missing releases) was a huge leap forward for the series. With its deep plot, rich cast of characters, and beautiful graphics, it felt like both a true next-gen title and a properly epic sequel.
Enix, meanwhile, elected to focus more on their power in Japan and spent most of the SNES era releasing partial franchises to America like the truncated Soulblazer saga (Terranigma, arguably the best of the trilogy, made it as far as Europe) and Tactics Ogre: a fantastic game hamstrung by scarcity and weak marketing. All the while, Dragon Quest remained dormant in the West. Dragon Quest V wasn’t released in the U.S. due to vague technical issues, and Enix wouldn’t release another Dragon Quest game for the SNES.
Some argue that the brilliance and growing complexity of the Super Famicom Dragon Quest titles would have won over Western gamers. Many consider Dragon Quest V to be the franchise’s finest hour. Yet, as the ‘90s swung into gear, it became clear that Squaresoft and Final Fantasy won the West partially by mastering the art of advertising to those gamers.
American magazines liked dynamic covers with high-quality art, and Square was only too happy to provide exciting Dungeons & Dragons-style cover art that jumped off the page. What about that Dragon Warrior giveaway in Nintendo Power, you ask? It was done to woo new subscribers by making the most of excess cartridges from a too-optimistic copy order. Although a 1989 issue of Nintendo Power included a Dragon Warrior strategy guide, that series didn’t get a featured Nintendo Power cover until Dragon Quest IX graced the magazine in 2010. All the while, Final Fantasy grew in the West in ways that even the series’ creators may have never been bold enough to predict.
All the while, Dragon Quest would remain a niche franchise in the West and an absolute powerhouse in Japan. Dragon Quest V sold 1.5 million copies in Japan in a single day. Had nothing ever changed, that gap would have almost certainly widened indefinitely. However, something did change, and it revealed quite a bit more about why that gap may have existed in the first place.
You Must Gather Your Party Before Venturing Forth
In 2003, after the delayed release of Dragon Quest VII dinged Enix’s corporate value and Squaresoft choked on its own hubris (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), the former rivals joined forces. Fortunately for Dragon Quest fans, the merger wouldn’t leave a negative impact on the beloved series. Quite the opposite.
Japanese fans were comforted by how little Square’s practices changed the core of the franchise. Its Toriyama aesthetic and familiar turn-based combat style were left untouched. The most noticeable changes were aimed at Western gamers. Specifically, Dragon Quest VIII’s 2005 US release got a huge boost from Square’s mastery of marketing.
For the release of that game, Toriyama’s style would be highlighted rather than buried. To many Western gamers, Dragon Quest had never looked so colorful and distinct. That stylistic push, along with a jaunty translation lauded by critics, a detailed set of 3D graphics, and the inclusion of a Final Fantasy XII demo helped Dragon Quest VIII receive the kind of global attention most of its predecessors did not. Western reviewers continued to ding the game for its simple graphics and out-of-date mechanics, though Dragon Quest VII caught significantly more flak on both fronts.
Mind you, that progress probably went unnoticed by Japanese gamers who collectively bought 3 million copies of Dragon Quest VII in three days. Of course, for many of those gamers, what our reviewers saw as hoary and old-fashioned, they saw as a comforting tradition.
That difference in perception may very well be the key to this mystery. While Final Fantasy continues to dominate sales outside of Japan (comparatively speaking), it’s been attracting more criticism in recent years for its attempts to incorporate a variety of modern concepts rather than embrace its genre traditions. In response, some Western fans have turned away from the series in favor of comfortable genre fare like the Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler franchises. In some ways, those gamers may have recognized what Japanese fans have known all along: Sometimes you just want a simple game. It’s a lesson you might be surprised to discover that Squaresoft never fully understood.
A New Era For Comfort Food JRPGs
A snazzy Square Enix 2022 press release reveals more than just the obvious, though, much like the best JRPG secrets, you have to look a little harder to find it.
While, worldwide, Final Fantasy’s franchise sales look impressive at 173 million copies sold so far, those numbers are significantly bolstered by the Western fans Square Enix takes time to thank in the release. Meanwhile, Dragon Quest, at 85 million copies sold so far, remains the biggest JRPG franchise in Japan (silly slimes and all). Despite Square’s best efforts, that’s never changed.
As mentioned above, everyone has theories regarding the staggering size of that popularity gap. However, some of the most interesting theories come from those closest to the game. In a 2017 interview with EDGE magazine, Dragon Quest executive producer Yu Miyake credits the gap between those franchises to very different ideas of nostalgia.
“It’s a topic we have been thinking about a lot internally: the question of why Final Fantasy is so much more popular than Dragon Quest in the West,” Miyake says. “One conclusion that we’ve reached is that it’s a question of historical timing. When the Famicom came out, Dragon Quest was the key game everyone was playing. But when the PlayStation came out, Final Fantasy VII was the game that everyone was playing.”
Miyake goes on to explore the reception of cartoon art in the West as opposed to Japan where such art is used to explore deep topics (see Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies as examples). Perhaps our tendency to link ‘cute’ art to childishness led Western gamers to prefer the cinematic style of Final Fantasy. Miyake’s point regarding Final Fantasy VII also feels like one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle. That game spoke loudly to Western gamers that would have never considered playing a Dragon Quest-like game (as well as traditional JRPG fans), and it would go on to shape a generation’s expectations for such titles.
As time goes on, though, signs of change keep appearing. 2017’s Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age enjoyed the series’ biggest Western release ever. A year later, the Nintendo Switch Definitive Edition of the game, which included the classic top-down 16-bit sprite mode from the Japan-only 3DS release, did almost as well. The latest Dragon Quest hero, the Luminary, is even a Smash Bros. contender, and his friend, Erik, brought his little sister along in the new spin-off game, Dragon Quest Treasures. It’s easier than ever to spot signs of Dragon Quest‘s influence, and it’s easier than ever to appreciate what the series has always strived to offer.
Well…it’s easier for gamers in the West, anyway. In Japan, they’ve known the power of a good, hearty RPG quest all along.