Thank goodness the next Dragon Quest game is coming to Nintendo DS to revive its sagging sales in Japan. Wait a minute...
Shortly after the release of the wildly popular Dragon Quest VIII for Playstation 2, speculation turned to which console would host the next iteration of the series. Many assumed that, since both the seventh and eighth titles in the series were released on Sony platforms, the next title would logically wind up on Sony's Playstation 3. However, in December 2006 Square-Enix threw everyone a curve ball when they announced that Dragon Quest IX would be released not for a home console, but instead exclusively for the handheld Nintendo DS. They assured everyone that it was not a spin-off game, but truly a legitimate sequel to DQVIII. This makes Dragon Quest IX: Defenders of the Skies the first "main-line" Dragon Quest game to appear on a handheld platform.
In retrospect,the decision made perfect sense. The Nintendo DS is a sales juggernaut, especially in Japan (where, coincidentally, the Dragon Quest series happens to be arguably the most popular video game franchise in history). Square-Enix stated that they wanted DQIX to reach the largest possible audience, and the largest audience these days is definitely owned by the Nintendo DS. As of April 2007, Nintendo's dual-screen gem has amassed worldwide sales of over 40 million units with no sign of slowing down. With this in mind, combining the most popular gaming platform with the most popular game seemed to be a no-brainer and a match made in heaven.
However, not everybody felt that way initially. Fans raised concerns about the DS' ability to deliver a world the size and scope of a typical Dragon Quest title. DQVIII took most people somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 hours to finish, so there was some skepticism as to whether or not a sequel could be properly done on a small DS cartridge. Couple this with news reports stating that developers were instituting action-based battles instead of traditional menu-based battles, and diehards worried that DQIX would be nothing more than a scaled-down, dumbed-down version of their favorite series.
To date, Square-Enix has done its best to address these concerns. They have promised a full-length adventure (one would think at least 30-40 hours of gameplay minimum), and the proposed action-oriented battle system has been scrapped in favor of a return to menu-based battles. Most importantly, Level 5 (creators of DQVIII) are back at the development helm, guaranteeing that the level of quality won't drop a bit. Yuji Horii is once again spearheading the effort, with Kouichi Sugiyama providing the soundtrack and Akira Toriyama (of Dragonball Z fame) providing character design.
But don't take this to mean that DQIX will simply be a portable rehash of its predecessor. Level 5 has announced that this will be the first game in the series to be playable online, allowing up to four gamers to adventure cooperatively using the DS's Wi-Fi capabilities. It's not yet clear if this online component will be a multiplayer version of the main story or an adventure unto itself, but we do know that players will be able to explore the world independently if they so desire. This means that while two players might be taking part in the same online game, one could be buying weapons in a shop while the other could be fighting monsters in a cave north of town.
Multiplayer combat will be turn-based, just like the single-player mode. The DS's top screen displays the battle and is shown to all players, letting everybody keep track of how their party is doing. Commands are selected individually by each player, with everybody being informed of everybody else's moves. There has been talk of being able to "discuss" moves with the other players in your party ahead of time, indicating that DQIX may have Voice-Over-IP capabilities similar to those found in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl.
In both multiplayer and single-player mode there are no more random battles. The tried-and-true "random monster encounter" model that has been a series hallmark has been replaced with something a little more dynamic. You will now see monsters roaming around the overworld map, entering battle with them on contact. This means that you can choose to avoid enemies if desired, a welcome change for those that feel that random battles are a little archaic.
Graphically, DQIX will push the DS to its limits. The cartoony presentation of the series is a perfect fit for the lesser capabilities of the DS hardware, with screenshots released thus far looking great even when compared to DQVIII on the PS2. Environments are large, colorful, and detailed, and Toriyama's wacky monster designs are back with a vengeance. The DS' dual screens are put to full use, with a world map on the top screen and overworld action/character management taking place on the bottom.
Player characters will be more customizable than ever. Gone are the days of simply naming your character and accepting whatever appearance the game gives you. From the outset, DQIX players will be able to choose their character's gender, height, weight, hair style, skin color, and facial features. In addition to that, equipping your character with different armor and weapons will alter their in-game appearance, and the act of equipping will be easier than ever thanks to a drag-and-drop interface using the DS's stylus and touchscreen.
As for DQIX's story, little is known at this point. A trailer released in January 2007 (below) shows a majestic city in the sky with a single fruit-bearing tree at its top. At the end of the trailer a single fruit falls from the tree and plunges downward into the clouds. The same fruit is featured in the game's logo, leading one to assume that the tree and its fruit are likely a critical aspect of DQIX's overall plot. Whatever the case, you can be sure that DQIX will be grand in scope and worthy of its lineage.