From Dragon Quest to Chrono Trigger: The Video Game Art of Akira Toriyama

Dragon Quest turned 30 this week, so we're celebrating the man who created the JRPG's visual style: Akira Toriyama!

Like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest has been a vital part of Japan’s great RPG legacy. There have been many great creators who have contributed to the game’s 30-year history, but perhaps most striking is the man behind Dragon Quest‘s visual style. Fans of Akira Toriyama undoubtedly know him best from his work in both manga and anime. His main creation, Dragon Ball, is nothing short of a masterpiece.

From Dragon Ball‘s debut in Weekly Shonen Jumpmagazinein 1986 to its latest anime series, Dragon Ball Super, Toriyama has been dazzling his audience with epic quests, mystical artifacts, and martial arts. His magnum opus has lived on to inspire millions of fans and creators. 

The same could be said of Toriyama’s video game work, which occupies a distinct corner of his career. Through several collaborations with both Square and Enix (before the holy merger) as lead artist, Toriyama shaped the art style of many legendary JRPG titles, including Chrono Trigger and the Dragon Quest series, which proved to be his most lasting success. 

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Although some of his earliest video game work, 1986’s Dragon Ball: Mystery of Shenron and 1991’s Famicom Jump II: Strongest Seven, was largely based on his already popular manga and anime work, Toriyama did design boss monsters for both titles.

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In Mystery of Shenron, which was only the second game based on the popular manga, he created Kurilien, a four-armed alien villain who resembles Goku’s best friend Krillin. The monster is even wearing Krillin’s signature Orin Temple outfit. And, if you hadn’t noticed already, their names are pretty similar. Kurilien, who proves to be a very easy enemy to defeat, works for Monster Carrot, a villain that appears in both the manga and anime as well. Unfortunately, Kurilien would never make it out of the video game and remains absent from all other Dragon Ball materials. 

Luckily, there’s concept art of this one-off villain, courtesy of the Japanese strategy guide:

In retrospect, I guess Krillin really didn’t get it so bad on Dragon Ball.

Famicom Jump II: Strongest Sevenwas an RPG created by Bandai and featured seven main characters from the manga in Weekly Shonen Jump. Naturally, Dragon Ball‘s Goku was a centerpiece of the game. (The first game in the series featured both Goku and Toriyama’s Arale Norimaki from the Dr. Slump manga.) Toriyama also contibuted some additional art work for some of the boss monsters in the game. 

Toriyama’s big break in video games came in 1986 when he was hired by Enix to produce the artwork for 1989’s Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in North America until 2005’s Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King due to copyright issues) for the Famicom. One look at the art and character designs of Dragon Quest, which still benefits from Toriyama’s work today, is all you need to recognize the artist’s undeniable influence on the series. His signature chibi style seeped its way into every corner of the game, as Toriyama designed strong and courageous heroes that were small in stature but with oversized heads. Remind you of anyone? This lent the series a lighter tone and a bit of humor. Just look at the epic cover art for the game:

The dragon’s round body, horny snout, and short wings are almost absolutely based on Giran, a minor character from Dragon Ball

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Although Enix hired Toriyama to create the art so that game would appeal to a larger audience, Enix America felt that the North American localization of the game needed a more serious and Medieval tone. Released as Dragon Warrior in 1989 for the NES by Nintendo (under the director of the late Satoru Iwata), this version of the game was stripped of all of Toriyama’s art in favor of a much more classic dragons vs. knights look. Here is the cover art for this version:

Just a bit different, right? Sprite designs based on Toriyama’s artwork were also changed for the North American release as was all of his art in the game’s manual. In fact, even the whimsical writing from the Japanese version, which one could compare to Dragon Ball, was scrapped in favor of a strange Elizabethan English full of thees and thous. What arrived in the U.S. was a very serious Arthurian-like game that was sure to capture the attention of hardcore Dungeons & Dragons fanatics. 

Unfortunately for Dragon Warrior, another fantasy JRPG was just on the horizon in 1990: Square’s Final Fantasy. With a similarly serious tone, Final Fantasy didn’t allow Dragon Warrior to become quite as popular as its Japanese counterpart. It wouldn’t be until Square Enix claimed the Dragon Quest name and unleashed all of Toriyama’s original concepts in North America that the game would truly come into its own in this side of the world. Hidden within the Medieval Dragon Warrior was a game full of humor. 

The Dragon Quest series continued this cycle of localization, systematically stripping North American releases of Toriyama’s artwork and visual tone until 2001’s Dragon Warrior VII for the PlayStation:

The latest game in the Dragon Quest series, a spin-off called Dragon Quest Heroes, continues to benefit from Toriyama’s artwork. Dragon Quest X, the latest main installment, also has Toriyama designs and is the only game in the series that hasn’t been released outside of Japan. 

Interestingly enough, Toriyama also helped develop the official Dragon Quest manga and anime based on his art style. The first manga was serialized from 1989-1996 in Weekly Shonen Jump, the same magazine that published Dragon Ball, and was written by Riku Sanjo and drawn by Koji Inada. The first anime aired on Fuji TV from 1989-1991. This part of Dragon Quest history probably deserves its very own article, so I’ll leave you with the first episode of the anime series:

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In 1995, Toriyama solidified his place in video game history with his work on Chrono Trigger for the SNES, as part of a JRPG “dream team” that also included Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy, and Yuji Horii, the creator of Dragon Quest. Square, the developer of the game, was at the peak of its golden age at the time, having released what many fans consider to be the definitive JRPG, Final Fantasy VI, only a year before. And Chrono Trigger, which is very often regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time, certainly did not disappoint.

Like in Dragon Quest, Toriyama’s designs made way for humor, once again establishing his signature art style in a JRPG setting. Crono, the main character of the game, could easily slip his way into a scene on Dragon Ball Z, which introduced older versions of Toriyama’s classic characters. Cronos seems to have been cut from Toriyama’s matured aesthetic. The artist also designed the game’s monsters, vehicles, and different eras.

Both Sakaguchi and Horii recognized Toriyama’s ability as a storyteller, seeking his input during the writing process, as well. Toriyama helped the writers develop the theme of time travel, something the artist had tackled quite heavily in Dragon Ball, and several humor sequences throughout the game. Again, humor allowed Chrono Trigger to set itself apart from Square’s other big franchise, Final Fantasy, which has often been a more solemn affair. 

With Chrono Trigger, Toriyama was also able to stretch a few different muscles that his work on Dragon Quest hadn’t quite allowed, primarily the way his aesthetic has often fused the fantastic with science. Dragon Quest was a much more deeply-rooted fantasy series, but Chrono Trigger continued the experiment begun in Final Fantasy VI, nurturing a steampunk aesthetic. Toriyama’s art is all the better for it:

By the way, that robot dude on the left is simply named Robo, and he’s from the year 1999 in-game. The frog knight on the right is (you guessed it) Frog from the Middle Ages. Moving on…

Although the 1999 sequel to Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, did not bring back Toriyama for art duties, he was hired by Square to create special anime cutscenes for the game’s PlayStation re-release that same year. Check them out below:

Toriyama continued to work for video games, contributing character designs for 1996’s Tobal No. 1, a fighting game developed by DreamFactory and published by Square. Since the game was released on the PlayStation, it was the first game to render Toriyama’s art in three dimensions. And the results are…well, see for yourself…

Tobal No. 1 hasn’t quite aged well, sure, but at the time, it was a graphical marvel, a testament to what polygons could do at 60 fps and 600×400 resolution. The art in the game’s manual will surely put things in perspective for you, though. It’s really good, old Toriyama in top shape:

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Tobal No. 1 would get a Japan-only sequel, Tobal 2, in 1997, but Toriyama would not take part. In fact, he didn’t work on a video game series (other than Dragon Quest) again until 2006, when Sakaguchi and Microsoft Studios asked for his help on a new JRPG series called Blue Dragon.

Sakaguchi had left Square in 2003, after his first (and only) feature film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, bombed at the box office. He decided to start his own studio, Mistwalker, and begin work on a new IP. Although Blue Dragon hasn’t quite proved to be as successful as Sakaguchi and Toriyama’s other collaboration, it has garnered many positive notes. The game even spawned its very own manga and anime series from 2006-2009. 

It’s not really Toriyama’s most notable work in video games, and often looks a bit recycled, the recognizable art style finally catching up with him. While there are some distinct differences in Blue Dragon‘s art design—cleaner-looking characters and a unique approach to the monsters—the game’s look doesn’t quite hold up against Dragon Quest or Chrono Trigger

Nonetheless, Toriyama’s contributions to the world of video games are remarkable. It’s hard to imagine that Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger would have been as successful without Toriyama’s aesthetic, something born out of the pages of manga and seeped into the most popular RPGs in the world. It’s enough that he’s influenced us with his writing and drawing on Dragon Ball, but gamers have plenty to thank him for, too. 

John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek US. Chat with him on Twitter! Or check out all his work at his website.