DRAGON QUEST V / Enix / Super Nintendo
Apparently Dragon Quest V Mania just swept Japan a couple of months ago, as a remake of the game came out on the Nintendo DS and PS2 with a little bonus content. While Dragon Warrior put up some decent numbers here in the West - thanks largely to major Nintendo Power hype for the first game - it never garnered the sort of obsessive widespread popularity that it has in Japan, where release day for new titles is a cultural event that people still skip work and school en masse for.
I'll have to chalk this one up to East-West cultural stuff that I just don't understand from a distance, because Dragon Quest has been astonishingly formulaic throughout it's life - and it's a formula that I find to be really tiresome and even kind of shallow in a lot of ways. Take Dragon Quest V as an example - this was one of the near-launch titles for the SNES, and yet it looks more like an NES game than a 16-bit title. Very little has been changed from the 8-bit formula of the first four games. The monsters in battle now actually have minor attack animations beyond flashing (sometimes), the graphics are on the whole *slightly* better and more colorful, but otherwise, this is nothing that couldn't have been pulled off within the parameters of the last three Dragon Quest games on the NES.
Japan seems to have a great appetite for endless very minor variations on some familiar, popular franchise. Again, major cultural gap here, but I can only speculate that perhaps in a society so tied to the concept of tradition, and so frenetic and competitive, the constant repetition with the adding or changing of only very minor details is comforting. Maybe. I am big honky round eyes, so take that for whatever it is worth.
None of this is to say that DQV is a bad game. It takes the solid DQ formula and executes it better than any prior game in the series except perhaps the immediate prequel (DQ4). Personally, I like this one better, as it is a little more gentle at the outset - your character begins the game as a small child, and initially your kickass warrior father is travelling with you, providing as a buffer against the monsters and source of infinite healing. The theme of dividing the game into more self-contained segments is continued from DQIV, but this time there is a "generations" theme (akin to Phantasy Star 3, but more linear here, yet better executed) instead of a conglomeration of random characters who converge into superstar party for the final showdown. I liked this approach a bit better than DQ4, as it establishes the main character more solidly and gets you a little more attached and invested in the story, whereas with DQ4 you played as all these colorful characters with cool backstories for the first 3/4 of the game, then when real main character finally shows up, he's this wimpy elf who you hardly spend any time with comparatively.
One thing I generally like about the DQ games, but didn't like here, is the open-endedness of the story and the non-linearity of how you proceed. Though the DQ stories seem awfully sparse sometimes, and character development tends to be minimal, at least they don't dump a truckload of melodrama on you with hours upon hours of exposition and cutscenes (and no parties full of fruity fashion boys either). Unfortunately, in this one - and perhaps it was just a problem with the unofficial translation, to be fair - the game is a little *too* vague on the details, often dumping you off with little to no idea of how you are to proceed with the story. I wouldn't mind this so much, except that the game has the usual jacked-up encounter rate that the series is known for, you don't get a warp-between-towns spell until fairly far into the second segment of the game, and there's a whole lot of turf between said towns. This leads to tons of wandering around and fighting needless battles while trying to figure out what the hell it is you are supposed to be doing at the moment.
The one aspect of the game that *has* taken an appropriate step forward here given the new technology is the soundtrack. Series mainstay Koichi Sugiyama uses the SNES's powerful sound chip well here, particularly focusing on it's ability to render very nice sounding strings, brass and woodwinds. And while we are on the subject of evolutions and compliments, this is the first game in the series to allow you to "capture" monsters in random battles, who then can become active members of the party, even levelling up and learning new abilities.
Oldschool RPG fans and Dragon Quest fans will love this one, I'm sure, and should not take the Meh rating too much to heart. The game is designed to appeal to you and hits all those points well. Thing is, I rate based on how *broadly* appealing a game is - not simply how well it caters to the predilections of a particular genre, or subset, or even an entire culture. Mass Japanese popularity aside, I feel it is not much better than mediocre in a lot of aspects, and will probably put people who haven't acquired the taste of similar games to sleep. The battle system is totally recycled from the first four games, the encounter rate is tediously high, the story is OK but not particularly well-written or insightful or engaging (and tends to fall back on fantasy cliches), really the only truly outstanding quality here is the music.
* Gameplay Video