The DS was, in my humble opinion, the perfect RPG system. The portability, the convenience of the double screens, the bright screens and non-distracting design of the console meant that it was super easy for me to just sink in and get lost in some fantasy world. I never had a GameBoy Advance SP with the backlit screen, so the switchover to the Nintendo DS was downright revolutionary. It’s funny now, looking back, that I was so impressed by the console when by many standards the original fat DS was basically a brick. The DSi however, still stands as a thing of beauty. The increased brightness meant that I was able to finally play my games even in bright sunlight. My original DS, which had once been seen as the pinnacle of portable gaming, was confined to the shelf while I became thoroughly invested in the world of DSi. At first, I just loved being able to play games I’d already experienced on the original DS in a whole new, ahem, light (sorry, it had to be done), but as time wore on, I was itching to sink deep into a story that would last for hours. That game would turn out to be Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, an ambitious DS game, and the first numbered title in the long-lasting Dragon Quest franchise since Dragon Quest VIII came out on the PS2.
The run up to the release of Dragon Quest IX was pretty exciting for me – I’d never played any other games in the franchise, but seeing previews in Official Nintendo Magazine and the reputation that the series had garnered online meant that I was practically chomping at the bit to start playing. I very rarely preorder games, especially back in the days of the Nintendo DS, but this was an exception. On release date I heard the little plop of the package landing through the letter box and rushed downstairs to grab it. The box art was beautiful, its bright colours luring me in. For many people, the joy of a new game begins when they see it booting up and the main menu loads onto the screen. For me however, it all begins with the box. The box art is a massively important thing in my book, to the point where I’ve sometimes considered buying a different version of a game just because I like the boxart more. Resident Evil 2 on PS4 is a great example – in Japan, the regular version’s artwork is pretty terrible, but the censored version is the same as the one used overseas. I was very tempted to buy the censored one just for the boxart. Dragon Quest IX‘s boxart had some nice character designs, a bright blue background, an enticing map along the bottom half. It really caught the eye nicely.
As good as the boxart was however, the main experience obviously comes when playing the game. And what a game indeed. Dragon Quest IX is a somewhat different experience when compared to its predecessors – the characters are much less defined because you are able to create them and design the class and loadouts. Some say that this makes it hard for the characters to be as interesting as the series’ other protagonists, but I got fully invested in creating and perfecting my party. In a way that hasn’t been matched by many other RPGs, I truly felt like this was my adventure. Character creation systems are obviously not that uncommon in Western RPGs, but they’re relatively few and far between in their Japanese counterpart, and while I enjoy WRPGs, they don’t have the same place in my heart as the turn based traditional Japanese style games do.
The world of Dragon Quest IX was great fun to explore as I progressed through the story, but what really drew me in were the multitude of side quests – often fetch quests in the vein of MMOs, but I’d never played any of those so it was a fairly new experience for me. I was desperate to track down all of the quests and complete every last one as they took me to hidden islands and caves around the world. The sense of progression was amazing – I constantly felt like I was moving forward, and seeing my characters level up to become ever stronger as I prepared to fight the final boss was brilliant fun. I’d often spend hours just fighting enemy mobs on the world map to enjoy the battle system or go hunting for metal slimes in the search for a fast way to rack up the experience points.
While Dragon Quest XI might have eclipsed the rest of the series in terms of popularity with its arrival on modern home consoles and Switch being viewed as somewhat of a homecoming for JRPGs in the west, my heart will always belong to my first experience with the franchise. With two highly regarded console titles either side of it (I’m excluding the Japan-only MMO Dragon Quest X), it can often feel like Dragon Quest IX is sorely overlooked, so I was extremely happy to see the outpouring of love it received when rumours started to abound that it might be getting the remake treatment for Nintendo Switch. We still have yet to see if there was any truth to those rumours, and given the time that has passed since they first leaked, it might be safe to say that they’ve amounted to nothing, I strongly believe that the original DS release would hold up strongly today for anyone who has a DS laying around and wants to scratch that Dragon Quest itch.