The miracle of life is a beautiful thing, especially in 16-bit. Opening a story with a birth isn’t exactly uncommon, but it does have a certain weight to it— it’s a statement. “This story starts from the beginning.” As far as game introductions go, Dragon Quest V juices everything it can out of its Hero’s birth. The tension is palpable as the player’s father, Pankraz, anxiously awaits the birth of his son. There’s value to a slow burn, and a more methodically paced plot works well considering the story ultimately takes place over the course of 26 years, chronicling an entire generation of the main character’s life. Such bold framing requires a delicate narrative touch, but that doesn’t mean the game is slow. Between excellent level design, a monster recruitment system that predates Pokémon, and a wide breadth of optional content, Dragon Quest V asserts itself as one of the most impressive RPGs of all time.
Originally released for the Super Famicom in 1992, Dragon Quest V is an important entry in the series for a number of reasons. For starters, it was the franchise’s first foray into 16-bit, and despite being an early Super Famicom title, DQV stands out as one of the most dense RPGs on the console. Not just that, V’s release would mark the last time that Chunsoft would work as the primary developer of a mainline Dragon Quest, with Heartbeat taking over development for VI, III’s Super Famicom remake, VII, and IV’s PlayStation remake. Not only that, Dragon Quest V sees the first directorial change in the series as Chunsoft founder, Koichi Nakamura, transitions into a supervisor position, leaving the director’s spot open for future Heartbeat founder, Manabu Yamana.
With an experienced dev team four games in and a new director bursting with ideas, it’s not difficult to piece together why Dragon Quest V was such a monumental title for the Super Famicom. This isn’t even considering Yuji Horii’s script for the game, arguably his best-written work. Covering roughly thirty years of a single character’s life is going to be compelling through concept alone, but Yuji Horii’s writing in Dragon Quest V has a layer of emotional maturity that even some of the best written modern games lack.
This isn’t to say the first four Dragon Quest games are poorly written by any stretch of the imagination, just that they’re understandably on the light side when it comes to the narrative given when they were released. Dragon Quest is charming, but its story doesn’t go beyond that; Dragon Quest II strives for more narratively but is bogged down by poor pacing & a lack of play-testing; Dragon Quest III finds a nice middle ground between I and II, but opts for a very traditional Hero’s Journey (which does have its place;) and Dragon Quest IV’s framing is the allure of the story, not the plot itself.
With Dragon Quest V, it’s possible to enjoy the story just for its writing. Although the Super Famicom original never left Japan, the game did see a Nintendo DS remake in 2008, followed by a worldwide localization in 2009. As if that weren’t enough, the Nintendo DS remake actually lifts narrative elements from the RPG’s 2004 Japan-exclusive PS2 remake that greatly expanded both the Super Famicom version’s gameplay and story. The DS remake would later be ported to mobile devices, but for all intents and purposes, Dragon Quest V’s definitive version is based off the DS remake.
It’s one thing for a remake to improve upon its base game to the point of replacing it, but it’s another when the title being remade was already one of the best entries in its genre. The Super Famicom version’s issues mainly stem from a forced party of three instead of four, and rather uninspired villains. While the latter is par for the course (save Psaro the Manslayer from DQ IV,) the former is a bit more suspect. It doesn’t hurt the game and is clearly in place to ensure that players vary up their party as much as possible, but that’s not exactly something audiences need to be forced to do in a game with dozens of recruitable party members.
The PlayStation 2 remake is the title actually deserving of praise as far as making Ladja a better antagonist and lightening up combat restrictions go, but the game features 3D models which, while nice, aren’t the best reimagining of the 2D sprites. On the other hand, the DS remake bases itself visually off of Dragon Quest IV’s PS1 remake, keeping the game’s aesthetic closer, generationally and stylistically, to the Super Famicom original’s art style. More importantly, the DS remake features even more new content in the form of a new bride, bolstering the game’s already alluring marriage system.
It’s not unusual for Dragon Quest V discourse to center itself almost solely around monster recruitment and marriage. While recruiting monsters has a natural appeal (especially those designed by legendary Dragon Ball mangaka Akira Toriyama,) getting married and starting a family isn’t exactly an RPG staple. At the same time, Dragon Quest V’s pacing is quite unlike other games, let alone the ones that predated it. The story itself is divided into three distinct chapters: the Hero’s childhood at the age of 6, his time as a freed slave 10 years later, and his life as a father 8 years after the end of the second chapter. It’s basically Dragon Quest’s love of vignettes framed through different eras of life instead of town associated story arcs.
While the game itself does still follow the series’ established formula of going to a new town, dealing with a mini-arc, and moving on, the framing allows the story to make better use of these seemingly independent narrative beats while also keeping the plot focused. The passage of time also adds a sense of reality to the experience. Characters age, towns change, and how the Hero interacts with the world is directly related to how mature he is narratively. Not just that, it’s refreshing to see an RPG protagonist set out on a goal and not wrap up all his loose ends in what logically could only have been a month or two.
It really can’t be stressed enough just how much of a boon it is that Dragon Quest V takes place over the course of 26 years. A good chunk of time is indeed skipped, but the story is never afraid to linger. In any other RPG, playing as the 6-year-old Hero would take place in a half hour to hour-long prologue with restrictive gameplay. While monster recruitment is admittedly locked until after the first time skip (Dragon Quest V’s childhood takes a good few hours to get through) it isn’t a one and done deal. Rather, it has its own set of mini-arcs, all culminating in one of the most agonizingly tragic moments in the series.
Above all else, Dragon Quest V is a story about the rawness of life. The Hero’s father, expectedly, dies before his eyes, but Pankraz’ death goes beyond a father figure dying. He’s a genuinely fleshed-out character by this point in the story. Not just that, he’s the closest thing the plot has to an active protagonist. The Hero has his own adventures, but the prologue frames itself as Pankraz’s journey— which it initially is. After a surprisingly tense impossible to win boss fight, audiences are forced to sit back and watch as their father, through actual gameplay, lets down his guard and allows himself to be killed in order to save his son.
Dragon Quest V almost makes the audience think that Pankraz will be able to get himself out. He’s managed to live this long, why die now? But that’s the nature of life and where Yuji Horii’s writing shines. The script doesn’t pull punches when it comes to drama. Pankraz isn’t killed offscreen or in passing, he’s vaporized to nothing in front of players’ eyes. Pankraz isn’t just the Hero’s father dying, he’s the audience’s. It’s fitting that the prologue opens with a birth and closes with a death, introducing all parties involved— player or otherwise— to the circle of life.
Thematically, the circle of life rears its head up a few times, to the point where it appears as both a usable and item you can equip near the end of the game. Life is so general a theme that it’s almost fruitless to analyze as a broad concept, but Dragon Quest V’s 26 years end up more or less covering a definable generation of life. It isn’t as if the circle of life is the defining theme of the story, either. Rather, Dragon Quest V is ultimately about the merits of individual heroism.
The Hero, despite being referred to as such, isn’t the hero. That title instead belongs to his son, a character who only appears in the last act. This doesn’t stop the Hero from acting a hero, however. In typical DQ fashion, the protagonist will resolve virtually every town’s problems before the credits roll. Unlike II through IV, however, the Hero spends a good chunk of his journey as the only human in the party, much like the original Dragon Quest. While the player will always have a full party mid to late game, thanks to monster recruitment, the lack of spotlight given to human party members places more emphasis on the player’s individual actions.
More importantly, this style of game design helps immersion quite a bit. Since the Hero is by default alone, it’s not unusual for players to put the main story on hold to hunt for monsters. Dragon Quest V is story-driven to the point of being the most linear Chunsoft developed DQ game, but it never suffers for it, entirely because it loads itself with so much optional content. Monsters will be recruited just by playing the game naturally, but the fact that players can stop the plot dead in its tracks to goof off is a big reason why DQV is such a charming game.
There’s often an impulse to place strict emphasis on story in the RPG genre, but it’s for the best that Dragon Quest V resists here. The gameplay loop works because, like life, there’s time to stop and smell the roses. Should a player choose to map the overworld before they make any meaningful progress, they’re free to do so. Anyone tired of the main plot is welcome to sink hours upon hours in the genuinely addicting Casino. Those just eager to move on with the plot are welcome to comfortably power through as Dragon Quest V features the least amount of grinding of the Chunsoft games.
Dragon Quest V is the rare RPG that caters itself to any play style, all without compromising its own design. All things considered, it’s almost unrealistically ambitious for 1992. A turn-based RPG that features fully-fledged monster recruitment, the passage of time over the course of 26 years, and marriage that results in two kids? That’s a lot for an early Super Famicom game, but Chunsoft managed to pull virtually everything off seamlessly. By the time ArtePiazza began developing the PS2 remake (and later DS remake,) there wasn’t much that was in need of fixing or updating. Perhaps even more impressive is the level of conceptual depth Dragon Quest V has in comparison with its Famicom brethren.
Dragon Quest V is more sophisticated when it comes to game design. Its overworld alone puts virtually any other RPG overworld at the time to shame. Where most overworlds of the era featured maps that were fairly freeform and easy to travel once in late-game, Dragon Quest V keeps things complicated for as long as humanly possible. Like other entries in the series, the first half of the game sees the Hero traveling from continent to continent, each one serving as a pseudo stage of sorts before the plot moves on. Where Dragon Quest V differs especially is how it presents transportation.
The flight based vehicle which allows players to freely traverse the overworld isn’t obtained until basically right before the end of the game. Until then, the audience has to make do with a Ship and Flying Carpet. While the last act makes it easier to move the Ship just about anywhere, the second act actually locks players into the center of the map, gating progression in a rather clever manner.
As if that weren’t enough, the second “vehicle,” the Magic Carpet, can’t pass over rough terrain, meaning that players need to use the carpet strategically to traverse. The game itself also uses its world design in order to inject some rare moments of non-linearity. The only time Dragon Quest V doesn’t tell players where to go is when the map is at its most open, encouraging player-driven exploration. Slowly chipping away at the overworld over the course of an entire generation also lends greater weight to the idea that the Hero is globetrotting the entire world. It makes more sense to see the entire world over a course of 26 years than the average SNES RPG’s 26 hours.
Monster recruitment is almost deceptively simple when it comes to gameplay depth. On a surface level, there’s not much to it. The last defeated monster randomly joins the party, and not every monster is recruitable. Once they’ve joined, however, each unique monster type has its own level caps, max stats, and spells. Not just that, different monsters learn different spells at different points. RNG heavy by design, monster recruitment naturally leads to each player having their own personalized party. Party members themselves might not be as individually customizable as in Dragon Quest III, but the depth of party composition at play more than makes up for it.
Being able to make a new party on the fly thanks to the monster system keeps Dragon Quest V’s combat fresh throughout. Even without monster recruitment, dungeons are layered with optional areas and secrets, more so than previous entries. Not just that, dungeons are smarter designed in general, making use of the Super Famicom’s hardware in order to deepen the exploration that’s so inherent to Dragon Quest. Dragon Quest V hits that sweet spot between NES and SNES dungeon design where dungeons err on the side of short while also branching out in a way that keeps dungeons engaging without making players feel lost.
If there’s a single arc that best showcases Dragon Quest V’s qualities, it’s the wedding arc. Around midway through the game, the Hero, now an adult, finds himself tasked with completing a series of challenges in order to marry the daughter of a wealthy noble and get his hands on the Zenithian Shield. Narratively, that’s the only context given to the Hero’s mindset. From there, it’s up to the players to complete the challenges via gameplay and earn their marriage, but things aren’t so simple. The Hero’s childhood best friend enters the picture, complicating things romantically.
At this point in the story, it would make sense for the Hero to romantically pursue his childhood best friend, Bianca, and that is indeed what the story seems to push for, but the fact of the matter remains that players don’t need to follow through with this. If audiences find themselves smitten with Nera, they can reject Bianca’s advancements. The story doesn’t suffer for it and Nera herself grows as a character, forging a relationship with the Hero through party chat. Not just that, Nera’s sister, Deborah, declares herself a last-minute marriage candidate mere seconds before the player is tasked with choosing a wife, adding another layer to the decision.
In the grand scheme of things, the choice of wife doesn’t affect the greater narrative, but it does subtly influence the pathos of the story. After getting married, players are going to spend a good few hours with their wife, getting to know them and training alongside them (especially if Nera was chosen.) Party chat slowly develops the couple’s dynamic for all three wives, but each wife has her own arc. Bianca is the blandest of the three post-marriage, seeing most of her development before the wedding, but both Nera and Deborah grow extensively after marrying the player, and in their own, unique ways.
The choice of the wife also affects the hair color of the Hero’s children, how they reflect on their mother, and how they address the player’s relationship with their wife. Dragon Quest V opts for smaller, personalized changes stemming from marriage, and that’s frankly for the best as it allows the story to proceed as is without any of the three wives causing a narrative domino effect by being chosen. This approach also means that players who take the time to get to know their wife through party chat will end up connecting even deeper emotionally with the inevitable tragedy that plagues the Hero’s marriage.
Regardless of the monsters recruited, the wife married, or the optional content completed, More than one of the best RPGs ever made, Dragon Quest V is a title that anyone interested in the artistry of the medium needs to play. In general, the fourth generation was an incredibly important and creative time for game development, but Dragon Quest V is so forward-thinking— so ambitious— that it stands out in a vast sea of culturally important video games. Few games understand the importance of interactivity, immersion, or connecting emotionally with its audience as well as Dragon Quest V. An RPG about life in every sense, Dragon Quest V is a work of art.