Manga Dragon Quest e no Michi
Length: 285 pages
From: TAKIZAWA Hiroyuki/Ishimori Prod./Enix, 1990

Great video games aren't just made; they're worked on, sweated over, tested again and again, subject to disastrous twists and turns, and finally released to an unrelenting public - then usually forgotten about after a few months. Games like Dragon Quest (known to us foreign dudes as Dragon Warrior) are the rare exception, selling millions and spawning even more successful sequels. However, especially in the US, not much is ever said about the people behind the projects. To us they're just a bunch of Japanese names that run across the screen after you save the world for the Nth time. What are they like? What do they go through?

Dragon Quest e no Michi (The Road to Dragon Quest), released both at the height of Dragon Quest's popularity in Japan and during a surge in game-related merchandise, aims to tell the reader a little about these people. The neat thing is that it's done in the manga (comics) format; Ishimori Productions produces a lot of one-volume manga like this that profile famous people and businesses, the idea being that the comics format makes information easier to impart and makes the characters come to life in a way mere text can't. It definitely succeeds in this, a history of the early years of Enix leading up to the release of their first major project.

The characters

HORII Yuji (b.1954) - Designer of the DQ series. After working several part-time jobs, enters Enix after placing in the finals of a game-program contest. Also designed other games, one of which, The Port Pier Serial Murders, is the first Famicom adventure title. If you see a real photograph of him, you'll probably notice that he has these big bags under his eyes - no doubt the result of one too many all-nighters.

NAKAMURA Koichi (b. 1964) - Main programmer for the DQ series. Placed in the same game-program contest while still in high school, and entered Enix part-time during college. His contest-winning game, the odd puzzler Door Door, came to be Enix's very first Famicom release.

SUGIYAMA Koichi (b. 1931) - Professional free-lance musician. Does a lot of music for Fuji TV and other stations, including the theme to a couple of Ultraman incarnations. Probably the most famous for his Dragon Quest scores, though. Everybody remembers the overworld theme from DW1. It said to the kids of the NES that their RPG quest was just beginning, and would probably never end.

TORIYAMA Akira - Character designer for most of the DQ series, Toriyama is responsible for the general look of the DQ series - from the cute slimes you kill about ten thousand of at the start to the gigantic end-of-game bosses. He was also responsible for all that Dragon Ball crap, but I'll forgive him. Came to know Horii while he was doing free-lance writing for the manga magazine Shonen Jump.

CHIDA Yukinobu - Producer of the DQ series, Chida is the dude who has to get all these weirdos to actually produce a game. That's probably why he has that Golgo 13 look about him; it probably put the fear of God into the programmers he held sway over more than once. Fortunately he is just as crazy about video games as his underlings, and his total drive to create the first console RPG is unrelenting.

The story

With the 1980s in Japan comes the video revolution - arcade games, the first consoles, and home computers all attract those with the desire to create. The fledgling game company Enix sponsors a national game programming contest in 1982, which attracts most of who will become the Dragon Quest staff. Nakamura places with Door Door and Horii does the same with a tennis game. The winners all use their prize, a trip to America, together and go to none other than AppleFest '83 in San Francisco. There they get to play Wizardry for the first time, and once he returns home Horii buys a Mac to play the famed RPG on.

The Famicom gets released, and Enix ports most of its current hot sellers over to the hot machine. While discussing what to release next, Nakamura and Chida agree that, although they'd love to release an RPG for the FC, the time isn't right yet as the console is still fully an action game field. So it's decided first to release The Port Pier Serial Murders on the console. It sells fairly well, and Sugiyama meets with the crew after writing a consumer response card for the game.

Designing DQ's game maps
After Horii convinces Chida and Enix that a console RPG is the best next step, work begins. Once the general scenario is done by Horii, Nakamura needs to make the game system. He and Chida decide on a combination of the full-screen map of Ultima and the battle and stats-oriented Wizardry screen, using windows to display info. Although Nakamura is originally against it (saying that non-coders can't make game music) Sugiyama is contracted to make the DQ music.

Work continues at a fast clip, and a release date in February 1986 is set. Toriyama sends the monster graphics in, and the Enix office works to the fanfares of Sugiyama's classical-inspired music. In the process, the game design undergoes constant transformation as everything from the amount of game tiles, to what NPC number 127 should say to the player, to how big the Yes/No choice window should be is debated on and altered. From the beginning, Nakamura and Horii aim for the top with this game - to be not only the first, but also the best RPG on the console market.

You have to REPROGRAM most of the game?!!
When the product nears completion and debugging begins, however, disaster strikes - the game is too hard at the start for RPG beginners (ie. the airhead secretaries at Enix) and too easy and boring near the end. This will require changing monster stats and code for nearly every part of the game to fix, and it's already February! After a heated argument, Chida pushes back the date a week, and everyone proceeds to not sleep for awhile.

Lots of bugs, lack of healthy food and several cases of mass panic later Dragon Quest finally sees release. It sells a million and a half copies, and the sequels sell even more than that. The crew, at the release party for Dragon Quest IV, are already talking about the fifth game. They are just as much adventurers as their game characters - once one quest ends, it's already time to start on the next journey...

That's the real charm of the book - it takes people who are semi celebrities in Japan and unknown everywhere else and makes them into real, believable people with common goals and the occasional arguments. The story is also filled with the sort of anecdotes that always occur in projects like this - Sugiyama and Nakamura have long conversations about old bagatelle and pinball games, Horii goes out for a break and plays Godzilla with some kids' sand castle, Sugiyama gets called with the news that the game is finally complete and plays the overworld theme on the piano for everyone via the phone as congratulation.

It's this sort of attention to personality that made David Scheff's Game Over an interesting book to read, and it's what makes this book a blast to go through. As a manga, it's not too hard to read for Japanese learners, and it's also filled with the things that make manga manga - people staring down each other so hard during arguments that lightning bolts shoot out of their eyes, and such. Out of all the DQ books Enix made around this time, this is probably the most interesting and most fun to read.