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History Lesson: Dragon Quest creator Yuji Hori

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 2nd Feb 2014 at 10:00 AM UTC

Asked about his influences in an interview in 2010, Yuji Horii replied: "I really like Dexter."

It's not hard to see why the creator of Japan's most influential RPG series is a fan of TV's favourite serial killer.

Sure, Horii doesn't drive around at night hunting and offing evildoers, but there's a shared meticulousness to their work, a carefully structured approach based on an established code.

Dragon Quest games are measured, controlled, precise: that it was the first video game series to be adapted into a ballet, one of the most technical and exacting of all performance arts, is no surprise.

Gaming wasn't Horii's first love, however. "Originally I wanted to be a manga artist, but when I was making manga I first met up with the technology of computer games," he said.

"I loved the fact that it was interactive, that you do something and you get feedback. I thought that an interactive story where you get feedback and reward from everything that you do would be interesting."

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After graduating from Waseda University, Horii worked as a freelance writer before creating a game, Love Match Tennis, for a programming contest run by the Enix Corporation. Then came the game that would make him famous: 1986's Dragon Quest.

"There were a few role-playing games out back then on PC, such as Wizardry and Ultima," Horii remembered. "Since the Famicom was a home video game console it mainly offered action games. I was hooked on role-playing games back then and I was thinking it would be a good system for role-playing games."

Despite the limitations - with just 64KB of game data to play around with, several elements had to be trimmed down - the RPG and the Famicom proved to be perfect partners.

"We were still able to pull it off so that the essence was still there," said Horii. "And through word of mouth almost everyone in Japan gradually became aware of Dragon Quest."

Horii's genius was in making a traditionally complex genre more palatable for a wider audience. "I was aware of how interesting role-playing games were back then, but there was such a steep learning curve that [making RPGs for the general populace] was something we really focused on."

To achieve this, Horii decided the core mechanics of the RPG needed a major overhaul. "We had clear objectives: other role-playing games at the time had players go wherever they pleased, but we dared to make scenarios starting the character out with various linear objectives," Horii explained.

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"Once the players had built up their character's strength, they could venture out on their own with more freedom. I think this order of gameplay was good for the series."

It was. A huge success in its country of origin, Dragon Quest might not have been the first turn-based RPG in Japan (Henk Rogers' The Black Onyx predated it by two years), but more than any other game it established the template that the Japanese game industry has, for the most part, rigidly stuck to for more than a quarter of a century. Indeed, Horii is credited with the idea of introducing spendable Magic Points for spells and the like.

Throughout the series, Horii has promoted the importance of the wider cast. Anyone who's played multi-stranded fourth entry Chapters Of The Chosen in particular will know how skilfully he can weave together several disparate characters and plotlines.

"In most role-playing games, the story is advanced through conversations between the main characters. In Dragon Quest, everyone in the town creates the story, it doesn't neglect one single line. There's really nothing else like it."

After a brief sojourn into Sonyland, Dragon Quest returned to Nintendo with a bang in 2009's Sentinels Of The Starry Skies.

Horii had always seen Dragon Quest as a useful communication tool ("Human beings love other human beings. They want to use video games as a means to interact, and Dragon Quest gives us lots of material to facilitate that") but DQIX took that idea one step further by allowing players to co-operate in wireless multiplayer games, as well as using the DS's Tag mode to share treasure maps.

So popular was this concept that a real-life Patty's Pub (an inn featured in several DQ titles) opened in Toyko's Akihabara district, giving players a place to meet and obtain rare maps.

Horii's most recent outing was Dragon Quest X, an attempt to connect Wii and Wii U players in a persistent online universe - a logical next step, but still quite a departure for such a traditionalist franchise.

Yet, Horii's "fundamental belief that the players' time belongs to the players" ensured traditional mechanics remained. "I don't want to rush players," Horii once explained. "Until you press that button, the world is on hold: for that reason the turn-based system based on entering commands is a good choice in the sense of operability.

"All you have to do is push the A button."

Hip, Hip, Horii

Yuji Horii and Dragon Quest go together like Mr T and bad raps about mothers - without one, the other can't happen.

Impressively, Horii has stuck by the entire series from the first game's release in 1986 all the way up to 2012's Dragon Quest X. Here, then, is our timeline of the main Dragon Quest series and the innovations Horii introduced in each.