The Discreet Charm of Dragon Quest III

Dragon Quest III is a simple game. You spend much of it grinding for experience and gold so that you’ll be strong enough to pass over whatever wall you’re currently stuck at (or, alternatively, you spend much of it throwing yourself against said wall until it breaks). Although you can create your own party members, if you so choose, the parameters are strict enough that it doesn’t seem like you can derail things. At no point yet have I found myself asking the question, “Am I doing something wrong?” It’s just a matter of putting in the work.

One could describe this as tedious and single-minded, but it’s actually a little bit freeing, especially in the context of the inductive style which a lot of “big” 80s games were committed to. What I mean by this is how the game presents itself as an opaque puzzle-box to be played with in order to figure out what to do. The very first Legend of Zelda remains the best example of this: You’re supposed to spend hours poking around in order to make discoveries about what you should be doing.

DQIII is similar: at the beginning of the game, you’re told that it’s your 16th birthday and as such it’s now your duty to defeat the Archfiend (a common rite of passage for arriving at young adulthood, no doubt). And then you’re just set loose without any real sense of direction. You have to explore the world and talk to people in order to understand that you need a key which you can use to unlock a magic teleporter and then…

It’s an approach which evolved in a distinct way as the Dragon Quest franchise became more story oriented: The overarching quest becomes a justification for what is really a strung-together series of smaller quests with their own unique dramatic arcs. It keeps things down to earth and adds a lot of character, which can be refreshing in a genre which often gets bogged down in convoluted plots. But even this development misses something of the sense of discovery that an early Dragon Quest title has—that you’re the one who is making these connections and piecing things together as you stumble through the world.

Not what the version I’m playing actually looks like, unfortunately

And this is where the game’s simplicity comes into play. A lot of other RPGs of similar vintage have that sense of discovery, but it’s difficult for the contemporary gamer to arrive at that, because figuring out how to play the game well is its own challenge. This is definitely the case for the earliest Final Fantasies.

So it’s a fine thing to plug away at on a lazy evening. Square-Enix seems to agree, given how many times its gotten a re-release or remake. I do wish, though, that its current HD Nintendo Switch form had the sensibility to make use of the sprite art from the Super Famicom version. From what I’ve seen of it, it allowed Akira Toriyama’s designs to shine while still looking like an old-school RPG. There’s something slightly discomfiting and artificial about how smooth the game’s latest iteration looks. But then there are no umixed goods in this life…

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