I have a confession to make. I've not actually played Dragon Quest IX. Well, that's not technically true - I did spend a few minutes on it, back in September. It looked very nice. So why has it ended up as my game of the year?
Because for the last six months, since Nintendo belatedly brought the game to European shores, I've heard about almost nothing else from my eight-year-old son. He's obsessed with it. Besotted. Immersed in a way that adult brains can't hope to match. Every conversation somehow comes back round to Dragon Quest IX. He's abandoned Cartoon Network in favour of walkthrough videos on YouTube. He'll randomly quiz me on things I have no way of knowing, like how many magic points you need to cast Ka-Frizz. He'll re-enact his favourite attack moves, and patiently explain the exact recipe needed to craft the Agate of Evolution.
He's finished the entire game several times over, keeps going back for more, and I've not helped him once. Obviously that says a lot about his skill, but it also speaks highly of the game design. Enabling kids to tackle a mountain like that, and reach the peak single-handed, is worthy of applause. I loved Red Dead Redemption and swooned at the intelligent blockbuster scope of Mass Effect 2. And yet, without playing it for any length of time myself, Dragon Quest IX has impressed me more than any other game in 2010.
Kids are easy to distract but difficult to inspire, and that's the crucial point of difference for something like Dragon Quest IX. There will always be adequate movie tie-ins and not-bad platformers, and that's fine. Grown-up gamers get to pass our time with generic shooters and third-person action games in between the good stuff, and it's no great tragedy that kids should do the same, provided they learn to recognise the difference. As a vocal supporter of quality kids gaming I've been helping to develop Megaton.co.uk into something that taps into this distinction. Dragon Quest IX, it turns out, is the perfect example.
Because this really doesn't look like a kids game. It's a full-on JRPG, based on a dense and complex ruleset and offering non-linear exploration of a vast world. There's no handholding. No mercy. No breadcrumb trail. According to popular wisdom, kids should run screaming from it. The fact that they don't should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the success of Pokemon. Kids love complex games, so long as there's an easy way in.
But then, as I said, I've not really played Dragon Quest IX. That's why I've asked my son to write down the things he likes best about the game...
There are 307 types of monster in the game.
This seems like a simple observation, but it cuts to the heart of what makes a truly great kids game. The fact that he knew, off the top of his head, how many monsters there are, speaks volumes. Children, especially boys, love facts and trivia. It's in their nature. I guarantee that my son not only knows the name of every single one of those three-hundred-plus monsters, but their strengths and weaknesses and possibly even their starting HP too.
It's the same compulsion that Pokemon taps so ruthlessly with its "gotta catch 'em all" mantra, but it can be found in more traditional playground pastimes like Top Trumps, in arguing over football results and team rosters, in the way a pre-school child can probably list dozens of dinosaurs by their correct paleontological genus before they can write their own name. Kids collect. Whether it's something tangible like stickers, or just a vast mental database of cool information, it's the secret behind every childhood craze. Dragon Quest IX not only understands this, it makes it a central pillar of the gameplay.
It's very funny because there's a faerie called Stella who's always making up jokes!