There has been a recent article about Yuji Horii published on Yahoo News about Dragon Quest and the future originally published here. My friend James has translated the entire interview in English you can read here!
The “Dragon Quest” series is now loved by fans in Japan and around the world. [Yahoo] spoke to the creator of the series, Yuji Horii (age 67), about the roots of the series, the secrets behind its creation and the future of Dragon Quest.
2020 marks the 35th anniversary of one of [Horii’s] masterpieces, the NES version of Portopia.
It’s been quite a while, hasn’t it? The game was originally released for the PC in 1983 and ported to the NES in 1985.
It’s not part of a series like Dragon Quest, but strangely enough, it doesn’t feel like it’s been long since it was released.
In 1986, Dragon Quest was released and became so popular that it was called the “national RPG” [in Japan].
In the early 80’s, adventure games where the player performs actions while the story progresses were popular. But if you got stuck in solving a puzzle, there was nothing for the player to do. With RPGs, you can play by leveling up.
At the time there were RPGs like Wizardry (1981), but as they had so much freedom many people didn’t know what to do. The Famicom (NES), released in 1983, was groundbreaking in that it allowed you to play games at home that you would play at a game centre.
I [Horii] thought, “If you could play RPGs on the NES, people would be hooked. So I decided to create an RPG on the NES and approached Enix (now Square Enix).
Q: “The Dragon Quest series was full of groundbreaking ideas that had never been seen in games before, such as vocations and marriage events. How did you come up with these ideas?”
Horii: “I’ve always been a bit paranoid (laughs). I’ve always had an active imagination, like going to a deserted island by myself, or going back in time. I like to imagine all sorts of things. Nowadays, the development staff [who work on Dragon Quest] has increased & more and more things are left to others, but in the old days, I used to decide not only the scenario, but also the monsters, the items for sale in the shop and the prices. I’m a gamer myself, so I enjoy thinking and deciding things like that. Ever since I was a child, I was always thinking about what I could do next to surprise people.”
Q: “I heard that you are from Awaji Island, Hyogo Prefecture. What was your childhood like?”
Horii: “When you hear the name Awaji Island, many people think of it as ‘a rural area surrounded by mountains and the sea’, but I grew up in a prosperous shopping street on the island, so I don’t really feel like I grew up in the countryside. If I walk 5 minutes from the shopping street, there are mountains, and if I walk 10 minutes, there is the sea. I grew up near both nature and man-made things. Behind my house there was a bookshop, where I used to read every comic I could find, such as Shonen and Boken-oh.”
Q: “Is that [comics] your starting point as a game creator?”
Horii: “In terms of encounters with stories, I think I can say that my starting point was the manga I read at a bookshop. I loved manga so much that I joined the manga club at university. Every day I was offered various part-time jobs in the manga club. I was helping with the writing in the sports section, and I realised that writing was easier than drawing. Drawing is hard, but I thought I could do it if it was based on a comic, so I started writing comic stories.”
Q: “How did you get involved in game design from there?”
Horii: “When I was about 26, I bought a computer for about 100k yen, thinking that the age of microcomputers was coming. The instruction book that came with it was easy to understand, and I became addicted to programming. I liked maths, so it was fun and I learned quickly. I was also a gamer, so I started to make adventure games like Portopia. I also got the chance to write a page introducing games for Weekly Shonen Jump through my contacts in the Manga Club. The editor in charge at the time was Kazuhiko Torishima (the model for Dr. Mashirito in Dr. Slump). Torishima also liked games, and we talked about them whenever we drank. Torishima was also the editor for Akira Toriyama, the mangaka who created Dragon Ball. One day, Torishima told me that Toriyama was hooked on Portopia and wanted to participate in the production of the game. Later I found out that Toriyama hadn’t said anything about that (laughs). As an editor, I think I was trying to inspire him.”
Q: “How did you meet Koichi Sugiyama, the music composer of the Dragon Quest series?”
Horii: “Enix was looking for people to fill in a questionnaire for a Shogi game, and Sugiyama sent in a postcard. When Senda (the first producer of the Dragon Quest series) found it, he said “Isn’t this a composer?” and that’s when I called Sugiyama. I did not plan to commission Toriyama nor Sugiyama from the beginning, it was just a chance meeting. I was surprised when I heard his songs. The classical music surprised me. I wondered if it would fit the game, but as I listened to it, it became more and more familiar to me. Sugiyama said, ‘There’s no music that you listen to for as long as game music. I think classical music is the one genre that doesn’t lose its appeal.’ And I thought, ‘That’s exactly right’.”
Q: “At the time of its release, Dragon Quest was a new and groundbreaking game. Were you confident in Dragon Quest?”
Horii: At the time, RPGs were a very manic field, so there were thoughts that it would be too much of a hurdle to suddenly bring them to the NES. In anticipation of this, I actually used the game introduction page of JUMP-which I was in charge of, to say ‘This is how RPGs are played! It’s so much fun!’ (laughs) I’d already done a lot of writing on RPGs in JUMP, so I thought it would be easy for people to understand.”
Q: “Did you decide on all of the in-game scenarios before starting development?”
Horii: “We only have a brief idea of what we’re going to do before development. Such as ‘the hero is like this, and he’s going to defeat the demon king’, but the details are decided gradually. At the first meeting, we started by deciding how to allocate the memory. We decided how much data to put in the map and how much to put in the monster battles. Then we drew a map, put NPCs on the map, numbered the NPCs, wrote the dialogue and so on & then gave it to Chunsoft (now Spike Chunsoft Co., Ltd.), who was in charge of programming.”
Q: “Game systems have changed over the years. How did this affect the development of Dragon Quest games?”
Horii: “In 1, we had a very limited capacity of data, so we had to cut out a lot of the things we wanted to do, like changing vocations. In 2, the capacity doubled, so there was more to do. By the end of the Erdrick trilogy, with III, I felt I had done everything I wanted to do-so with IV, I had a lot of ideas about what to add. There was a lot of pressure on me because the Erdrick trilogy was a social phenomenon and expectations were high [for Dragon Quest].”
Q: “What was the most difficult part of the series for you to create, was it IV?”
Horii: “No, actually. Actually, it was VII. As it was on a CD-ROM, we didn’t have to worry about capacity anymore; we made the world so big that we couldn’t finish the development, and the release was delayed for two years. I think it was also difficult for the players too because of the longer playing time (laughs).”
Q: “Games have changed over time, from cassettes and CD-ROMs to online and smartphone-based games. How did Dragon Quest deal with the challenge of offline and online play?”
Horii: “I think it’s good to have both online & offline. There are times in our lives when we want to be alone, and times when we want to be with others. That’s why I don’t think offline games will ever disappear even if online games become more popular. Japanese people are very caring people, so if you join a party with them, they won’t be able to stop caring and they will get tired. That’s why we came up with the idea of a support character system for X. When a player logs out, you can borrow their character and adventure with them. By making it so that you know you’ve borrowed and lent to each other, you can have a lighthearted human interaction even when you’re playing solo.”
Q: “Where do these genius ideas come from?”
Horii: “I don’t think of myself as a genius. I come up with all sorts of things, I just think that I’m childish. My curiosity has not waned at all at my age. I play Animal Crossing and I watch most of the TV dramas that are on. I think I have almost every video game console there is. I also thought the anime Demon Slayer was really good. With the Corona pandemic, people who didn’t normally watch anime have started to watch it,-and I think more and more people found it refreshing to see that demons (bad guys) have good sentiments. This idea has existed for a long time, but it must be interesting for people who encounter it for the first time.”
Q: “Can you tell us about any other media works that interest you?”
Horii: “I’m addicted to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch. The reason I’m hooked is because of the paraglider. I think it’s a game that encourages cheating, such as how to fly around without running into monsters (laughs). It was fun to see how you could get the most out of the game with the least amount of effort. Even in the world of DQ, cheating is tolerated (laughs). I thought it would be nice to have a unique monster to raise experience, so I introduced Metal Slimes. They’re very hard to defeat, so it takes to defeat them but it isn’t really that different from the time it takes to level up normally.”
Q: “How do you feel about the fact that Dragon Quest has become such a popular game both in Japan and overseas?”
Horii: “The best entertainment for human beings is to experience another life. Not only in games, but also in novels and films. You become emotionally involved with the protagonist and experience yourself as you never have before. I hope that DQ will always be a game that provides such entertainment. The first trilogy was so popular that it became a social phenomenon, and I felt that it was walking on its own & it felt surreal. I didn’t really feel that I had made it. The people who came to interview me were all older than me, and I thought, ‘I’ve made something extraordinary’. Now, the people who come to interview me are younger than me, so it’s much easier to feel pride now (laughs).”
Q: “What does the future hold for Dragon Quest?”
Horii: “We also think it would be interesting to incorporate AI into the personalities and conversations of the companion characters. It would be great if the companions you adventure with could be AI, and grow up to become your friends. We want to continue to offer new and exciting games under the Dragon Quest name.”
Q: “Could you please tell us about some of the “surprises” you are thinking of bringing to life?”
Horii: “One day, I would like to create a ‘Grave of the Hero’ in the real world (laughs). I want to make it so that everyone can enter the tomb as a hero. It’s a “grave + database”, where you can store your memories of your life in the grave. When people visit, they can see the data that I have prepared, and they can learn that this person lived a life in a certain way. For example, if your great-grandfather talks to you as a hero.”