Part of it is nostalgia. I won’t lie. I learned the game around the same time in my development as Final Fantasy II, when a very deeply-rooted lifelong love of RPGs was forming. In fact, the whole reason I played Dragon Warrior IV in the first place had to do with my wanting to play FF2 but being unable to. I didn’t own an SNES at the time, but still desperately wanted to play FF2 at home, so I went to Blockbuster and rented the most similar game I could find. RPG mechanics? Heroes joining and leaving the party? Lots and lots of text? Sign me up.
But looking back on my adventures through the DQ series with these old 2011 eyes, I still think DQ4 has a few unique properties that set it apart from the rest of the games in the series. Overall it’s just a friendlier game, far more willing to meet the player halfway in a few key spots that DQ games typically neglect. It does this by following three simple (and, as far as I know, unique to the DQ series) rules:
The first four chapters are good tutorials. DQ4 is split up into five chapters. Most of the game takes place in Chapter Five. The first four chapters are more prologue than anything, introducing the player to the heroes by sending them on little mini-adventures. These low-level adventures are not necessarily easy; this is still a DQ game after all. But each of them severely limits your range of action. In Chapter One, for example, your only action is “FIGHT”. That’s all the hero can do. Working your way through the chapter, you learn to recognize what battles you can win, and what battles are over your head. In Chapter Two you’re given control of some magicians. Nothing overwhelming, just a few spells each, so as to learn the ins and outs of the spellcasting system.
In every other DQ game I’ve played, the range of action is much broader. When you get killed by monsters (and you will get killed) you have to think: did I die because I made bad choices? Or was that just the dice coming up sour? DQ3, in particular, lets you build and customize your own party. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, even minor failures will reflect poorly on your decisions. It’s impossible to ever know what, exactly, you’re meant to do. Even DQ8, with its irreversible skill points and totally clueless alchemy system, has this issue. Some players like that sort of freedom, but I feel strangled by it. When I fail, I want to know exactly why, and I want to be able to succeed next time by changing that one thing.
In DQ4, because your choices are so limited for so long, there is never a question about what the problem was when you die. And because each of the first four chapters force you to focus on a different set of skills, by the time the game opens up “for real” you are more comfortable exploring those options. If you play half of DQ3 without a priest, and then get destroyed by a mid-game boss, the back of your head is thinking, “Did I lose because I didn’t have a priest? Should I train one up? Would it help?” In DQ4 you already know who your priests are because the game introduced you. You know what their strengths are and how best to apply them.
Linearity is your friend. DQ worlds are expansive. And they are open. A lot of the game is spent exploring the maps and deciphering NPC hints in order to figure out where you’re supposed to be. And again, a lot of players like this sensation. I, however, do not; it translates into frustration when I poke my head into a place I can’t survive yet, and get slaughtered. Which triggers all the second-guessing I mentioned above. Which makes me not want to play the game anymore.
And DQ4’s world is, indeed, expansive. But, again, the first four chapters are quite self-contained. Each one gives you only a small part of the world, and you are given a string of very clear goals. You never have more than one or two places you can reach on the world map. It’s very difficult to get your toes stuck somewhere you can’t get them out of.
By the time the game does open up, partway into Chapter Five, you’ve already explored half the map and have invested enough time into the game to want to stick with it. At least, that was my experience. I have vivid memories of getting “stuck” in Chapter Five by going somewhere I couldn’t survive. But instead of saying “this game is hard and stupid” and giving up, I refocused my energies. I revisited areas from the first four chapters, to see what was new. Those new things, attainable because they occupied familiar areas, opened up new leads. In tracking those leads down, I advanced in the game. In Chapter Five, half of the world is simultaneously familiar and unexplored. I found that to be a very encouraging sensation.
The hero has all the best spells. This, however, is the big one. After I thought long and hard about it, I decided my appreciation for FF games wasn’t because they “aren’t random”, as I stated yesterday. It’s something much simpler than that. Every FF game, going all the way back to FF1, has A Way To Win. Every single game has a foolproof strategy that will kill every boss, solve every dungeon and earn you the credits roll. Without exception.
Sometimes these strategies are not optimal. Lots of people win FF7 by spamming their most powerful summons, which is both a boring and inefficient way to beat the game. But they do beat the game. FF8’s Junction System is a cryptic labyrinth of numbers, data and terminology… but there’s a button you can push that lets the game do the thinking for you. Veteran FF5 players know how to break the game by using Chemists and Beastmasters and Blue Mages, but novices can win with nothing but Zenigage and Curaga.
DQ4 emulates this by giving the hero all the best spells. By the time the game gets really hard, really open, really confusing… your hero has the perfect healing magic. No matter what trouble you find yourself in, there is nothing you can’t handle by falling back on Healus or Healusall. Every turn. Thoughtless, mindless, but effective. You can win without buffs, without status spells, without the properties of obscure and expensive equipment. Put strong attackers on your front line, spam your Heal spells, and you will win. Without fail.
Final Fantasy always gives you an IWIN button. Dragon Quest nearly never does. If this sounds petty to you, let’s try and remember that we’re talking about RPGs here. It’s totally reasonable that the player wants a passive experience, wants to just navigate from cutscene to cutscene. I don’t think any RPG series quite encapsulates that sense of “I just want to let my eyes roll back for a few hours” like Final Fantasy does. (Hmm… maybe Suikoden.)
DQ4 nails it, though. That’s why I like it, and why it’s the best game in the series.
Well, that, and because Alena and Taloon. Those are pretty big reasons, too.