When the original PlayStation launched in 1994, it helped usher in a golden age for Japanese role-playing games. Led by the blockbuster Final Fantasy VII, developers managed to craft thrilling new experiences that merged the turn-based gameplay the genre was known for, with a technology-fueled cinematic approach to storytelling that lured in huge new audiences.
But among the biggest hits of the time, there's a glaring absence: Dragon Quest. DQVII was a hit in Japan, but it didn't launch until 2001 in North America, well into the PlayStation's life, and it suffered for it. Though the series has long been a staple in Japan since its inception in 1989, it has struggled to garner much of a global audience — and series executive producer Yuu Miyake believes missing that early PlayStation window is one of the major culprits.
"Right when PlayStation was really popular in the West, there was no main Dragon Quest game," he tells The Verge. "There were four and a half years between VI and VII, and that was right when the original PlayStation happened. I think if we had put out a game at that point it would've been like Final Fantasy VII. But we missed the boat on that."
There are other factors, of course, and the struggles of Dragon Quest outside of Japan have been well-documented. For one thing, the first impression wasn't great. The series debuted on the NES in North America three years after its Japanese launch, which made it look dated. It didn't help that the game featured a disappointing localization that made it read more like a fairy tale than an epic quest. "It failed spectacularly," says Miyake, who started working on the franchise with Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2.
The game's look has also been a friction point. The series features a cutesy art style — courtesy of Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama — that can make it look like a kids game to some audiences, but Dragon Quest also has complex systems and storytelling that are better suited to adults. "For a kid to play it's a little bit advanced," says Miyake, "and then an adult looks at it and thinks 'Oh, this is just a cartoon, it isn't for me.'"
But while the series missed a prime opportunity on the original PlayStation, another window for success appears to be opening. September 4th will see the North American debut of Dragon Quest XI, which will be coming to both the PS4 and Steam. (A Nintendo Switch version is also in the works, but there's no timeframe for when it might launch.) And over the last few years developer Square Enix has been attempting to prime the global market to make DQXI a hit. There are multiple Dragon Quest games on mobile, including ports of some of the best-regarded classics, as well as spinoffs aimed at introducing new players to the franchise, most notably with the Minecraft-style Dragon Quest Builders.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the Western market seems to be more open to franchises that were once seen as intrinsically Japanese. Series like Persona, Yakuza, and others have had breakout success in recent years.The darkly quirky action / RPG Nier: Automata has sold 3 million copies, for instance, while Monster Hunter: World sold 7.5 million units, becoming the best-selling title in franchise history. World in particular, was designed with Western tastes in mind, with a seamless open world structure meant to appeal to players in Europe and North America.
It worked for Monster Hunter, but DQXI won't feature such extensive changes. Aside from a new localization, some redesigned menus, and the addition of voice acting, the North American version of the game will be largely the same as its Japanese counterpart. But Miyake believes that a combination of a more knowledgeable audience, greater franchise awareness through spinoffs and mobile releases, and a market that seems eager for Japanese games could make DQXI the Dragon Quest that breaks through internationally.
"We can finally make it the era of Dragon Quest," he says.