Retrospective

How the Most Innovative Dragon Quest Game Took a Huge Risk That Totally Paid Off

Sentinels of the Starry Skies wanted a Western audience — and it got one.

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Square Enix
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Courage means different things to different people. Most associate it with valor in combat, individual acts of heroism, or the goodest doggos. The truth is: courage exists anywhere risk emerges — and few things are riskier than disappointing gamers. So it was with a great amount of courage that Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii decided to court Western audiences with 2009’s Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. Despite the fact the series had always been a powerhouse in Japan, Horii wanted to bring more action, more customization and, hopefully, more fans to the series.

Dragon Quest IX released in Japan on July 11, 1999 for the Nintendo DS. If you want to play it today all you need is… a Nintendo DS. Without an official port, it's difficult for players to experience this sweeping RPG epic. It has all the hallmarks of your standard Dragon Quest game: a deep, immersive story set on a sprawling map with tactical turn-based combat and intricate class and party mechanics. It also breaks away from some long standing series’ conventions to introduce players to a new type of DQ game.

The largest departure in Dragon Quest IX centers on the main character. There isn’t one. At least, not one like the heroes in previous entries. This time, players were able to design and name their own characters, a level of customization the series had never seen. Beyond that, players could customize members of their party as well, thanks to a deep skill tree and combat system. There are 12 different vocations (aka, classes) to choose from that each offer unique attacks and abilities. There are even weapon-specific attacks characters can learn.

Combat is tough but fair, with plenty of the grind you’d expect from an RPG. For many players, the customization alleviates some of the grind. It’s easier to care about characters you’ve got a stake in, so leveling up your favorites feels like far less of a chore than being saddled with a party member you despise. The same holds true for your main character, who is revealed to be part of an ancient angelic race tasked with collecting magical golden figs from a sacred tree and, well, it only gets more complex from there.

Customized characters were a familair concept for RPG fans, but a first for the Dragon Quest series.

Square Enix

Customized characters and hero’s journey narratives are pretty standard RPG fare. So what makes Dragon Quest IX so special? The talent. It marked the return of legendary animator Akira Toriyama to the series. For the uninitiated, Toriyama is most widely known as the creator of the DragonBall series but was also integral to the design of the first few Dragon Quest games. The iconic slime, for example, is a Toriyama creation. In a letter to fans during development, he cited his enthusiasm to return to game character design and that shows in the DQ IX monster roster (looking at you Cruelcumber).

Toriyama wasn’t the only Dragon Quest icon to return for DQ IX, either. Composer Koichi Sugiyama came back to deliver one of the best scores in the franchise. Tracks like “Are You A Loser?,” “Heaven’s Prayer,” and “Swirling Desire” have become fan favorites. Like Toriyama’s aesthetics, Sugiyama’s music gave DQ IX a sense of authenticity that made longtime fans happy while also showing new players exactly what makes the franchise a standout in a crowded genre.

Toriyama’s whimsical designs are found in every facet of the game.

Legacy talent aside, Dragon Quest IX delivered a technical innovation that was a series first: multiplayer. Players were able to invite friends to join their parties in-game, regardless of level. This meant if you were stuck on a particularly tough boss and didn’t feel like grinding on metal king slimes to get your level up you could just invite a friend with better stats to do the dirty work. (This may sound familiar to anyone currently struggling with Elden Ring’s indomnitable DLC.)

Horii’s gamble paid off. Dragon Quest IX quickly became the bestselling entry in the franchise, moving more than 5 million units in its first two years. An impressive feat considering it was only available on a single platform.

Critics loved the game too, with near-perfect scores celebrating the return to form for the series alongside its innovations. It even spawned a legacy outside the franchise. The chat system in the game proved so popular it inspired Nintendo to go on to develop StreetPass. Maybe now Nintendo will find the inspiration to develop a proper port so that new generations of fans can understand why Dragon Quest IX is one of the series’ best games.

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