Nintendo Finds Success in the Retro

Dragon Quest V exemplifies Nintendo's better days

Now that the Wii has become the console where innovative control ideas go to die (or at least to inspire a glut of half-baked mini-games from fly-by-night developers looking to cash in on an ill-advised trend), Nintendo's former core demographic has retreated to the shores of the DS, a handheld system with a touchscreen gimmick that doesn't instantly overwhelm developers with the uncontrollable urge to slap waggle functionality on their backstock of PS2 rejects.

Hardcore gamers are nothing if not nostalgic, and Nintendo's developers are responding to the influx of gamers looking for a deeper experience than your average Wii [insert mundane activity] title provides with a back catalog in one hand and a Japanese-to-English translator in the other. The DS is swamped with remakes of once-obscure Japanese-only titles, and the starving hardcore market couldn't be happier. And no single developer has ridden the remake wave more prolifically than Square Enix (formerly competitors Square Ltd. and Enix Corporation), developers of the venerable Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series.

Backstory time! Dragon Warrior, Enix's NES port of the turn-based RPG grindfest Dragon Quest, was probably my first proper role-playing game. Failing to realize that including such a time sink of a game with a year's subscription negated the need for further purchases, Nintendo Power upped the ante on their subscription pack-ins for one magical winter moment. I think I cried a little that Christmas morning, forever cementing the knowledge in my forbears' minds that they would never understand me.

While Enix's limited stateside success made the Dragon Warrior translations into an also-ran when compared to Square's Final Fantasy line, the Japanese response to early Dragon Quest releases turned the series into the sword-and-sorcery offspring of Dracula, the Pied Piper, and Keith Richards—an unkillable, multi-generational cultural juggernaut that reared its head every few years and threatened to steal an entire nation's population on release day.

Gaming scholars tell legends of those times with a kind of quiet awe. Sure, Microsoft prides itself on a few midnight-release-worthy Halo sequels, but when was the last time anything starring Master Chief inspired rumors that a national government was going to ban weekday releases for fear of nationwide truancy?

I'm too old now to cry over a game's release, but I still applaud a good remake when I see one. Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, originally a Japan-exclusive Super Famicom game, is seeing its third updated release (the first in handheld form) on the DS.

Dragon Quest V is almost a Spaghetti Western in medieval form. The story follows the perennially unnamed, always silent generic Dragon Quest hero through a life cycle more suited to the liner notes of a Led Zeppelin concept album than a 17-year-old video game. In between bouts of your typical SNES-era RPG fare, the hero's mother is kidnapped, his father is murdered before his eyes, he's enslaved for nearly a decade, his wife is also kidnapped, and he's turned to stone and loses another decade of his life, all in the name of sculpting not him but his son into a legendary hero destined to save a race of vaguely angelic beings from an equally vague race of demons.

This is what happens when you worship dragon gods, people.

It's a revenge quest from the idealistic days before God of War turned everyone with an infected hangnail into a brooding, deicidal maniac, and a veteran of a earlier era in which high-falutin' ideas like limit breaks, gender-neutral main characters, and swords the size of Massachusetts were disdained in favor of simpler concepts like getting married, raising a family, and cultivating a small army of allied monsters. (Another gaming urban legend names DQV's monster recruiting as an inspiration behind the Pokémon series.) Despite the doom looming over them at every turn, the three generations of DQV heroes go about their business with a chipper, "can do" spirit instantly recognizable to the 16-bit RPG fanboys who compose the game's target audience.

To properly exploit the remake trend without riding it into the ground, developers must skillfully update the source material without losing the original feel in the revamp. This is tricky in DQV's case, considering that it's already a PS2 remake of a Super Famicom game running on a modified PS1 engine modified for the DS.

If anything, Squeenix plays DQV's upgrades closer to the chest than it has to be. DQV utilizes the DS' two screens in the expected ways, displaying maps, menus, and the occasional bit of extended scenery up top, but touchscreen controls are right out, and the half-sprite/half-polygon graphics, although enjoyable in their own right, can be jarring when their integration causes a scene to lose its fluidity.

But so what? If a disoriented character sprite is enough to ruin the experience, then you're in the wrong genre anyway. DQV is a deep, charming little time waster, the kind American gamers missed too many of the first time around, and if that's what the DS is going to end up being for, I'm all for it.