Dragon Quest IX: Defenders of the Sky - Nintendo DS
The strongest evidence as to why Playstation 3 is struggling in Japan at the moment is not the news that last week, for the first time, sales of the Playstation 2 surpassed those of its successor. Neither is it because Virtua Fighter 5 has only sold a disastrous 50,000 copies despite near single-handedly resurrecting Japan's arcade scene this year with its popularity. Nor is it even that, as Parappa the Rapper's creator Masaya Matsuura argued this week, the machine is simply too big and cumbersome for the Japanese home (remember how the country scorned the original Xbox for being so huge).
Rather it's this: Dragon Quest IX is to be released on the Nintendo DS.
Dragon Quest is the biggest videogame series in Japan, a boast it has maintained for over twenty years. As such it is the twelfth best selling series in the world - an extraordinary statistic when you consider its poor performance and erratic, intermittent appearances anywhere outside of that country. When we say it's big in Japan, we don't mean in the sense that Grand Theft Auto is big in the UK. The closest cultural parallel we can think of to describe the populace's expectation for a new mainline Dragon Quest game is the rush of Brits to pre-order a new Harry Potter book. In Japan, Dragon Quest is furiously mainstream in the same way that J K Rowling's childlike fantasy reaches far beyond just the genre or medium's fans.
As such Dragon Quest games are always, but always, created for the most mainstream (in terms of sales) system in Japan. Nintendo DS is that system and, in snatching the next major Level 5-developed Dragon Quest from the PlayStation family, the DS has demonstrated its domination.
As well as this undeniable significance, the choice to move the main sequel to one of the most popular game series in the world over to a handheld is near unprecedented. Eurogamer asks Yuji Horii, the series' inimitable creator, if there were any other factors in making the choice? "Well, I want the next Dragon Quest game to be one which can be played by a group of friends together," he explains. "To support that vision we would need to create a bespoke network infrastructure. Doing this from the ground up would be a difficult, time-consuming and expensive undertaking. With the Nintendo DS we have a ready-made framework so we can dedicate our main resources into making the game as good as it can be."
As all the core Dragon Quest games are renowned epics, Eurogamer wonders how the team are managing to squeeze a comparably sized experience into the tight memory restrictions of a DS cart? "It's a challenge," admits Horii, "but we're dong everything we can to make the experience of the size and scope which Dragon Quest players have come to expect. I came to videogames from Manga - I've always just wanted to tell stories and this core aim will be central to this game too despite the emphasis on being able to play with your friends." Details of Dragon Quest IX will continue to remain vague until the Tokyo Game Show, or perhaps, earlier if Nintendo host another one of its Japanese shows this summer.
Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors - Nintendo Wii.
In the meantime Nintendo has managed to score a double coup with the forthcoming spin-off title, Dragon Quest Swords, which is coming to the Wii. Slated for Japanese release on July 12th the game is a rare Square-Enix's first release on a Nintendo home console - only its second since the heady Super Nintendo years (with FF Crystal Chronicles the other, of course). A first person perspective, on-rails RPG, it's also a sequel to the Japanese only Kenshin Dragon Quest - a TV plug-in game which used a little plastic sword for its controller peripheral. As such it's an obvious move to take a sequel over to the Wii.
So obvious, in fact, that originally the game was intended to be a Wii launch title. But, for one reason or another, the game has been pushed back repeatedly. Now nearing completion we were able to get some brief time with the game, hacking and slashing our way through a dense forest using just the Wiimote to control everything.
At the start of the demo we were asked to pick between two Akira Toriyama designed characters (a girl and a boy) to control and, by holding down the B-button our character moved forwards through a set path (much like Time Crisis or Panzer Dragoon). Every now and again we spotted a treasure chest hidden in the undergrowth and would pause to point, click and open it. Whenever there's a fork in the road we were given a Choose Your Own Adventure style binary choice of which direction to take.
Battles cropped up regularly as we walked along the forest path and these interruptions formed the core interactivity in an otherwise straight and narrow experience. When attacked, various numbers of cute creatures shuffled into view and the game switched to a stationary battle mode. While enemies were far away we had to block their ranged attacks with the shield (now assigned to the B-button) - positioned by pointing it at different angles towards the screen. Conversely, when they were close, we could slash at enemies using the Wiimote like a sword in a variety of different movements.
Inexplicably, rather than tracing and translating your exact movements onto screen, your sword's strokes were limited to a set palette of move animations. The on-screen representation of your movement would display the pre-defined stroke which it most closely resembled - a few variations of horizontal, vertical or diagonal hits. This makes sense from a technical perspective and often the enemies organised themselves into neat straight line formations for easy group slashing. But by not having the game replicate your exact moves the illusion of total control was immediately broken for us in one of game design's most basic sins.
Likewise there were a few issues with the Wii's accuracy in sensing strokes. We found ourselves having to exaggerate movements for the system to accurately pick them up. It's possible to lock onto specific enemies using the A-button, useful for targeting something in one of the corners of the screen, but even so, having your moves simply more accurately picked up would have been preferable.
Magic and special moves could also be used and these required more complex sword movements to pull off successfully (for example by tracing a figure of eight shape on screen). We were poisoned by an enemy a couple of times, but a quick visit to the inventory and the subsequent application of a heal herb soon cleared the ailments.
The short time we spent with the demo presented a mostly fun, if shallow experience. Queues of fans awaiting to play the game at over twenty different booths throughout the Square-Enix Party weekend demonstrated Dragon Quest and its spin off titles' continued domination in the country. Whether Swords is able to evangelise the series further afield to Western players (most of whom do not have any benign nostalgia toward the series) seems perhaps unlikely. However, along with spin-off titles like Dragon Quest Heroes (which our own John Walker liked very much indeed) the game will certainly raise awareness of the wider series in Europe. We're hoping that the final product will be enjoyable enough to pique interest in the Dragon Quest name, certainly ahead of the ninth game in the series when it eventually arrives on the DS.