I’ve never really cared much for the Dragon Quest games. Sure, I’ve dabbled in various entries over the years, but for one reason or another, I’ve always bounced off after the first few hours.
Recently, however, I’ve been captivated by Dragon Quest XI, a quiet little miracle of a game that has managed to wring more affection from my charred and jaded grown-up heart than any JRPG since Final Fantasy IX—a series that I have, up until this point, much preferred.
Which is weird, considering the newest entry in the Dragon Quest series is basically identical to the last one, and the ones before that.
That yesteryear spirit is something Dragon Quest XI has been knocked for in some reviews, and the reasons they cite are the same I might have given if you’d asked my opinion about any previous game in the series. Beautiful, but clunky. Charming, but slow. It works, but in spite of its obvious flaws. And goodness, it’s so stale! It barely even tries to innovate!
But now I think that assessment is completely off-base, and it’s me who’s been wrong all along. Dragon Quest‘s “flaws” aren’t flaws at all: they’re signature flourishes that make it what it is. And what I once took for a lack of innovation, I now see as a monastic, lifelong dedication to perfecting a single recipe.
In other words, Dragon Quest is the Bob Belcher of RPG’s. And Final Fantasy is Jimmy Pesto.
Food Court Feud
If you haven’t seen the show, Bob’s Burgers is a delightful animated sitcom about restaurant ownership and family. Run by swarthy patriarch Bob Belcher, the titular restaurant is an old-fashioned joint that serves the best burgers in town—and nothing else.
Tragically—and hilariously—Bob’s humble burger hut struggles to compete against the gaudy, ever-changing attractions of rival restaurant Jimmy Pesto’s Pizzeria, which is always poaching customers with tacky fads like karaoke or margarita nights. Few episodes of the show are complete without at least one scene where Bob’s fortunes are contrasted with Jimmy’s, most often via the two screaming at one another from opposite sides of the street.
Likewise, you’d be hard-pressed to find any discussion of Dragon Quest that doesn’t use sister series Final Fantasy as its primary counterpoint, and it’s not hard to see why. Once the dueling flagships of competing studios Square and Enix, now companion products both developed under the same roof of the merged Square-Enix, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are about as different as it’s possible for two extremely similar things to be.
But while Final Fantasy has enjoyed wide success in the West, Dragon Quest has never broken through at quite the same scale. That disparity makes for an easy narrative—Final Fantasy is the hoppin’ pizza joint where all the cool kids hang out, and Dragon Quest is the place down the street with flaking paint and tablecloths that haven’t changed since the 80s.
In many ways, that comparison is one that Final Fantasy‘s creators have actively cultivated. As a series, Final Fantasy is wildly experimental—like the Mario or Legend of Zelda franchises, each new entry offers up aesthetic and mechanical riffs on the original:
Final Fantasy but steampunk!
Final Fantasy but sci-fi!
Final Fantasy in a military academy!
Turn-based combat! Real-time combat! Isometric squad-based combat!
And on, and on, and on. Each new game strives to shatter the mold established by the last and reinvent not just the series, but the entire genre—which is probably why it’s often had such mixed success, and why the most recent entry, Final Fantasy XV, infamously spent a tumultuous decade in development.
Despite that, however, fans and reviewers tend to give the series a pass on its failures and award it an A for effort. After all, how can you criticize someone for innovating too much?
Well, there’s a reason we have a phrase for it.
Flavor of the Month
Innovation is good. We all like innovation. But sometimes, I think, we like it a little too much. This is particularly true in videogames, where the seductive allure of Something New is a constant and often treacherous siren song for players, critics, and creators.
That’s probably because the search for innovation does often go hand-in-hand with artistic achievement. In a medium that has existed in a furious state of perpetual evolution for almost its entire existence, Something New is a firmly-planted flag that boldly declares “this thing is worth your attention, please stop what you’re doing and talk about it”.
But prioritizing innovation above all else can often lead to misguided outcomes, whereby we award greater buzz, acclaim, and financial success to games that innovate solely for the sake of doing so, rather than those that just aim to be GOOD.
Which brings us back to Dragon Quest.
Yuji Horii’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers
If Final Fantasy is Jimmy Pesto’s Pizzeria, then Dragon Quest is Bob’s Burgers—a simple place, run by a humble craftsman, who spurns the allure of faddish novelty and seasonal menus, and instead just makes one thing really, really well.
That craftsman is Yuji Horii, the writer and director of every Dragon Quest game since the very first. And under his leadership, the series has progressed in exactly one direction—inward.
The first Dragon Quest was a turn-based RPG with cute art by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, about a party of three allies who unite to save a Euro-medieval fantasy kingdom from a vaguely evil overlord. The newest Dragon Quest is… pretty much exactly the same thing. Oh, but now it has eight party members.
Common criticisms of Dragon Quest aren’t entirely unreasonable. Dragon Quest games are almost never anywhere near as gripping as their flashier siblings, which is probably why I and many others have bounced off of the series in the past.
Now, though, I think I finally understand that the two just have fundamentally different goals.
Like an appetizer plate at Jimmy Pesto’s, Final Fantasy relies on razzmatazz. The narrative structure of a Final Fantasy game hinges on an onion-skinned series of blockbuster sci-fi and fantasy plots which act as lenses on one another, ala Star Wars. Deadlines loom. Threats lurk. Pressures squeeze and feed into one another. Kefka is rising, Meteor is coming, and Queen Brahne’s fleet is headed for Cleyra right now.
A Dragon Quest game, on the other hand, unfolds more like a novel, or a season’s of children’s animation—a series of familiarly-shaped one-off adventures that take their time to reveal the world and drill down on the main characters before even bothering to introduce the main threat.
Final Fantasy wants you to feel hooked by the throat—like you have to keep playing through every shocking twist and turn of the most exciting epic of the year. Dragon Quest just wants you to feel cozy and welcome, like you can stop by any time and expect exactly the same thing they’ve been serving for past 30 years. Oh, but now it’s got sesame seeds.
Where Final Fantasy’s endlessly-changing array of creators riffs and remixes on the works of those who came before, Yuji Horii and his family are still making the same game they’ve always made. Nowhere is this better exemplified than the series’ mascot, the Slime, a monster with a design that’s hardly changed in over 30 years and has even taken center stage in several spinoff adventures.
So yes, Final Fantasy is alluring and exciting, always changing, capitalizing on novelty—the perpetual newest, hottest taste sensation.
But Dragon Quest? Dragon Quest will always be the best burger in town.