Dragon Quest has never been quite the sensation in North America as it is in Japan, and part of the problem has always been the difference in release schedules. The original Dragon Quest, released in May of 1986, is one of the most influential titles in history for helping originate the existence of the genre we now know as the Japanese Role-Playing Game. By the time it was released in North America in August of 1989 (as Dragon Warrior, due to licensing issues abroad), though, Japan was just six months out from Dragon Quest IV. The first wave of JRPGs that Dragon Quest had inspired weren’t far behind for North American audiences, either, with the second wave just behind those, arriving with far more speed.
There’s nothing wrong with the first few Dragon Quest games despite their relative simplicity—you can politely describe them as “of their time”—unless you hate random battling until you can afford the best gear in a shop. (In which case, even more modern Dragon Quest titles might not be to your liking.) But consider that it took until 1991’s Final Fantasy IV for Squaresoft to create something in their key franchise that would hold up through the decades thanks to its massive leaps forward in both gameplay, storytelling, and characterization: Dragon Quest is no different, in that the golden age of JRPGs brought on by the Super Famicom/SNES was where it hit that next level in all of the above.
Whereas in the first few games of the series—as Trevor Strunk details in his book, Story Mode: Video Games and the Interplay Between Consoles and Culture—Square focused on player control and their freedom in developing a narrative in their play, by Final Fantasy IV, they had converted to a structure involving deeper narratives that the developer themselves controlled. And the shift worked: despite releasing so early in the SNES’ life, Final Fantasy IV (or II, for the North American elder millennials in the room) sold a then-best for the franchise 1.84 million copies, including 340,000 in North America, where JRPGs weren’t nearly as popular. To this day it’s considered a landmark release for how it iterated on JRPG structures and what was possible in videogame storytelling. (All figures courtesy VGSales.) Final Fantasy V, despite a dip in quality and a Japan-only release, sold 2.45 million copies, and the jewel of the SNES trio, Final Fantasy VI, sold 2.55 million in Japan and another 450,000 in North America, making it the franchise’s first 3-million seller. Final Fantasy VI’s systems and structure would still be considered ambitious today: in 1994, they were mindblowing.
Enix and Dragon Quest did not have a Final Fantasy IV moment. Or, more accurately, they did not have a North American Final Fantasy II moment. The original Dragon Quest/Warrior sold 3 million copies worldwide, but Nintendo of America also famously gave away a ton of those copies in order to secure Nintendo Power subscriptions. Dragon Warrior II, now published by Enix instead of getting that Nintendo boost, sold just 150,000 copies despite selling nearly one million more copies than the original did in Japan. Dragon Warrior III sold 95,000 copies in North America; it took four years and one month for that game to leave Japan, whereas North America had to wait just four months for Final Fantasy IV to reach its shores, still in very modern shape. Dragon Warrior III released there the next year, on the aging NES, looking ancient in comparison in a number of ways.
Dragon Quest IV would also show up internationally, again in 1992, but it was still over two-and-a-half years on from its Japanese release and was once again on the NES, which wasn’t any younger in October than it had been in July: it sold just 80,000 copies in North America, despite 3.1 million sales in Japan alone. Yes, more than Squaresoft’s pre-Playstation peak with Final Fantasy games, despite effectively being sold only in Japan.
Dragon Quest V, released 30 years ago on September 27, 1992, was the chance to change all of this—to attempt to release a Dragon Quest title closer to its original date, on the hardware that was already becoming well-known for JRPGs, to show off the kind of ambition that Enix was capable of that kept them more than competitive with then-rival Squaresoft in Japan. Dragon Quest V was so feature-packed that in some ways it’s wild to consider that it was released all the way back in 1992. It’s a multi-generational affair, spanning 30 years: the game begins at the protagonist’s birth, then shifts a few years into the future, where he’s old enough to wield a sword following around his battle-hardened and powerful father in a quest you’re not sure of the details of. After all, you’re a mere child, simply going where your father goes. Another time jump follows after around four or five hours, and this time, you’re an adult, your father now lost to you, but not before he could speak to you of the connected quests he could not accomplish in his own lifetime—to find your missing mother who yet lives, and the legendary hero who is needed to do battle with the gathering forces of evil.
Now you’re suddenly in charge of everywhere you’re doing after being shown the ropes over the first few hours of the game. New systems emerge—you now can recruit monsters to battle alongside you, which also means you can collect a small army of them to swap in and out depending on your needs—and you’ll find yourself meeting prospective wives, who double as prospective mothers of your children. There are slight story differences depending on which wife you end up choosing, and their personalities are certainly distinct: regardless of which you choose, she will end up bearing you twins, one of whom is the legendary hero your father was searching for decades prior. So yes, another time jump is imminent. A grade schooler with a sword following in his father’s footsteps is one thing; an infant wielding the legendary Zenithian steel against the forces of evil is another.
Dragon Quest V also features time travel, a flying fortress, the medal collection system that would remain a staple of the series from that point forward, and its monster recruitment served as the basis for the spin-off Dragon Quest Monsters series, which is both successful and full of quality in its own right. It was the ambitious, expansive, obviously excellent game the series needed if it were to keep up with Final Fantasy in Japan and begin to chase it abroad, but it only got the chance for the first of those: Dragon Quest V wouldn’t release in North America until 2009, on the Nintendo DS, as Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride.
Why it was never localized for the SNES was shrouded in some secrecy for a time, but over the years, hints and evidence have emerged. In a 2014 interview at Gaming Moe with Robert Jerauld, a producer for Enix of America in the early ‘90s, he recalled that it was deemed “ too expensive” by Enix of Japan to localize Dragon Quest V—in fact, they were so sure it was never happening that the planned Dragon Warrior V in North America would have actually been Dragon Quest VI in Japan, but the closure of Enix of America kept that from occurring, despite it, per Jerauld, actually being localized and ready to go. What made Dragon Quest V more expensive to localize than the four preceding NES titles, and the other SNES one that did get the localization treatment? Apparently, it was something in the game’s programming itself that was causing problems.
Per a Enix newsletter written by “Rob” at the time of a potential Dragon Quest V localization, there were “programming problems” that were keeping Dragon Warrior V from releasing that year, and also made it so that it was likely that it would “never see the light of day in America. Not in the English form, that is.” What those problems were, exactly, were unearthed by the unofficial translators of the game years later, and shared with the outlet that interviewed Jerauld after its publication.
In short, Chunsoft had made Dragon Quest V work without error thanks to the programming equivalent of a whole lot of duct tape, which also happened to be load-bearing and unable to be easily removed or altered. The unofficial translators kept breaking the game and rendering it unusable as they were working on it, and until additional translator/programmer help was brought in, that project also stalled for a time. It’s pretty easy to envision a scenario where Enix would look at North American sales for past Dragon Quest games and the hours and money that would have to go into making this localization both figuratively and literally work, and deciding to just see what studios like Quintet were up to and focus on that instead.
And so, Dragon Quest V didn’t release on the SNES, and with the closure of Enix of America in 1995, the finished Dragon Quest VI didn’t make it stateside, either. Dragon Quest VII would sell 177,000 copies in North America on the Playstation against over 4 million in Japan, but Dragon Quest VIII would mark the true start of North America’s interest in the franchise, courtesy 430,000 sales in its original Playstation 2 format. In 2009, Nintendo of America would once again publish a Dragon Quest game with the DS-exclusive Dragon Quest IX, giving the series its first brand-new North American million-seller that wasn’t aided by a mass cartridge giveaway.
While Dragon Quest V did release on the Nintendo DS, based on the Playstation 2 Japan-only remake from a few years before, it sold just 1.57 million copies total: not exactly the earth-shattering figures of the SNES’ and Playstation golden age. We’re in something of a JRPG renaissance now, however, and Square Enix—which has controlled Dragon Quest since the two former rivals merged decades ago—is finding success with its HD-2D remakes of games, to the point they felt comfortable with an international release of cult classic Live A Live. An HD-2D remake of Dragon Quest III is coming, even if there’s no word on when we can expect it to actually release—could Dragon Quest V be far behind with its own HD-2D remake? Will it finally get the moment it deserves in the spotlight?
It won’t—can’t—because the moment where it could have been the game that helped make Dragon Quest hugely popular in North America, too, is now three decades past. JRPGs are having a renaissance, but other than in select cases, they aren’t the system-moving titles they were in the heyday of both Square and Enix. Still, there’s hope. The internationally released and multiplatform Dragon Quest XI was praised by critics and has sold a franchise-best 6.5 million copies as of Square’s 2021 report, with around two-thirds of that coming from Japan instead of the usual three-quarters or more split. It’s hard not to imagine what could have been if Dragon Quest had gotten the kind of boost Final Fantasy did decades ago, but what mostly matters now is that Dragon Quest V is given the chance to shine, when JRPGs and Dragon Quest both feel less niche in North America than they did even at the time of the DS remake. Hey, if Live A Live can suddenly be a success in the market—its July re-release has already outsold the original’s lifetime total—why not another game that merits praise for its ambition and influence on the genre as a whole from the same time period?
Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.