We first published this in March, 2018, but we are re-promoting it as part of a new initiative on IGN where we spend a whole month exploring topics we find interesting in the world of video games (and hope you will, too!). April is our Urban Legends month, when we’ll take a look at the bizarre, eerie, untold, and otherwise unexplained phenomena within the gaming community.
I’ve been told the story more than once, and always in the same way. Every time a Dragon Quest game is released, thousands of children will be caught playing truant, and as many grown workers will take a sick day, leading to a measurable drop in productivity across Japan. Don’t forget, there’s no such thing as mandated sick pay in Japan – people were losing money to pay money for a game, just to play it on launch day.
The story continues that this phenomenon became so predictable that the government was forced to step in. The “Dragon Quest Law” was passed – Enix’s games now had to avoid a weekday release and arrive on a Saturday instead. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how popular this series had become – a simple RPG turned legitimate cultural phenomenon.
Like most good stories, it isn’t true. Unlike most stories, however, the truth is almost better.
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The untrue part of the story is really only that the government had to create a law – and that’s only because it never had to. The developers, feeling bad for having created a nationwide issue, essentially created the Dragon Quest Law for themselves.
“Basically,” explains series executive producer Yuu Miyake, “it was the general accepted practice in the industry was to have games shipped out on a Thursday, but there were kids who would skip school to go and buy the games. So we arranged with Nintendo to have Dragon Quest released on a Saturday as a special exception to that.”
It’s a tradition that continues to this day – the latest game, Dragon Quest XI got its own Saturday release, over 30 years after the first game arrived.
Dragon Quest has become an implacable piece of Japanese culture, not simply a game nor even, to use a phrase that makes me a feel a bit sick, a multimedia franchise. Its release is a cause for celebration, hobby shops have entire swathes of space given over to its merchandise, and Luida’s Bar, the restaurant opened as a limited-time celebration of Dragon Quest IX, is now entering its eighth year of business. I’m also fairly sure the old rule that you’re never more than 6 feet away from a rat in London applies to Slime plushies in Tokyo.
That’s down in major part to Yuji Horii, the series’ primary creator, writer and, as Miyake puts it, “head of the fans”. It’s perhaps not a surprise that it would be Horii who became key to the operation – you can trace his drive for success from well before Dragon Quest was conceived. In 1982, Horii was a games writer for Shōnen Jump magazine. Sent out on assignment to report on an Enix game design competition, he decided to secretly enter his own hobby project – a simple tennis game. Looking at the rest of his career, it seems almost inevitable that his game was named among the winners, and Horii had to find a way to report on his own victory.
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In the process he met another winner, programmer Koichi Nakamura – they would go onto create Dragon Quest together after Horii became infatuated with early computer RPG Wizardry. In trying to refine and simplify that game’s style for less powerful ‘80s consoles, while adding a grand fantasy storyline, the pair essentially invented what would go on to be called the JRPG.
As one of the earliest console games to offer thoughtful strategy as opposed to reflex-based action, the first in the series sold incredibly well in Japan. Come Dragon Quest 3 in 1988, it had reached another level. Horii recalls going out personally to see the huge lines of people waiting to buy the game – it’s probably not a coincidence that it was around this time that the Dragon Quest Law was suggested.
In the process, Horii himself has become a part of the myth – the man who created the JRPG, who changed video games, and influenced Japanese culture as a whole. As a marker of his importance, I’ve signed legal documents forbidding me from mentioning where his office is located, for fear of it being mobbed.
It’s a popularity that’s never quite translated to the west, no matter how good the reviews are. When I ask why a series as superficially similar as Final Fantasy has seen so much more success in the west, Miyake tries to give a reasoned response about the relative popularities of NES (where DQ first flourished) and PS1 (where Final Fantasy hit the mainstream) in each region, but Horii jumps in with a blunt response befitting of the man in charge: “It was basically down to the fact that Enix weren’t putting as much much effort into overseas promotion [as Square].”
To me, it’s almost more satisfying that Dragon Quest remains a little mysterious to us while it remains seismic in its home country – how else would we have gotten that urban myth in the first place?
Over three decades on from the original game, some of those children who cut class to play the NES games are now working on the series, while entire new generations wait until the weekend for a chance to play. “There is a lot of pressure,” Horii explains when I ask what it’s like to release games that mean so much to so many people. “I’m always having to think about how we’re going to surprise the fans next.”
Horii spends our entire interview downplaying his importance, countering every time I mention his cultural impact with a laugh and a rebuttal. But when I ask about what it’s like to see his work become a piece of his own country, he finally, just for a moment, acknowledges his place as the man behind the myth:
“I really just had this desire to make games that people would like and give enjoyment to people, and as a result of that, it’s become what it has. Sometimes I look back and think ‘wow, I really am something special’.”
“Oh you do think that?” jokes his producer.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s Executive Editor of News, and he didn’t get to mention that Horii’s office is done up like a castle. It’s very odd. Follow him on Twitter.