Each section here, I’m linking to a more detailed description of the game, if I have written one.
Dragon Quest, as a series, feels to me a bit like a game where the journey is the point of the game. I think the main reason why I say that is that the series tends to spend a lot of time on sub-plots in various areas as you’re advancing the main plot. Final Fantasy, in comparison, tends to have the main plot be what you’re chasing for most of the game. In Dragon Quest games, you might be searching for a missing kid, which eventually has some relation to the bigger picture. I suppose a good description of what’s afoot is that the scope of each individual area is on a more personal level. While the plot may be dark in some of the games, the “canon” name for most of the later heroes and heroines is the number of the game, which shows a certain lack of interest in a deep commitment to immersion in the story.
The first Dragon Quest is a simplistic early RPG. Largely, exploration is hindered by your level and equipment. While you could walk to the last continent from the start of the game, you simply cannot survive long enough to get there. Dungeon areas are small and basically look like they were laid out on graph paper. There’s three bosses in the game. One’s kind of a puzzle boss (a golem you have to keep asleep.) The rest are more ordinary enemies. The game pacing feels very slow to a modern player, but there is a rhythm to the battle commentary and the music that is charming.
Dragon Quest II came out in 1987. It is a far more ambitious game and attempts to add characters to your party. Unfortunately, the implementation of it is kind of awkward, since your party ends up with major level imbalances. The game has a much larger world, but it can be awkward to trek across so much land from town to town. There are more dungeons, but a lot of them simply don’t have much in them. All in all, it feels a bit like people trying to make everything bigger, fancier, and more complex. However, because it’s such a large change, it’s also awkwardly done.
Dragon Quest III came out in 1988, and again, the series has some major changes to it. For the first time, you can play as a female main character. You can also create your party, and any level imbalances are due to your own levelling choices and not forced on the player. There is a day/night cycle which does not have major changes to the world, but is amazing for the era. In each area, there’s sub-plots. So, for example, your starting area has you working to open a gate. The next area has a king who lost his crown, and so on.
Dragon Quest IV (1990) feels a bit more traditional than Dragon Quest III. You have a chaptered story structure. In each chapter, you have a set character who usually starts at a low level. Party members have AI controlling them, which is unusual for the era. The plot has some holes in it, but the stories are pretty dramatic. In the DS remake, heavy accents were added for each region in the game, which makes it easy to tell where a character is from. Unfortunately, it does make the plot feel a bit more like a bad costume drama. Dragon Quest IV is one of the first games that had a serious emphasis on playing around in the casino to earn prizes. Another feature of the game was the first non-traditional mission. In one chapter, you are a merchant trying to buy your own store, and it’s centered purely around making money.
Dragon Quest V (1992) and VI (1995) have only recently been released in the US. VI in particular is a gorgeous game, with lovely sprite work. Most people say that V has a better plot, but VI is a more complex and beautiful game to play. V’s plot follows a young man into adulthood, and VI begins with your defeat and talks about alternate dimensions.
Dragon Quest VII (2000) was in development for a long time, and it shows in the final game. The game is very slowly paced. While the plot has flashes of brilliance, the sheer amount of time it takes you to find that brilliance can make the game feel annoying. It is important to understand that the design of the game is literally to explore an area, then go to another version of the same area, and explore the area again. The graphics are kind of clunky 3D and it really does feel like a port of a SNES game. This unfortunately takes away a bit of the grandeur. For example, you launch a ship with stunning music, it slides out the port, and about 12 tiles away, the water tiles stop due to being the edge of the screen.
Dragon Quest VIII (2004) feels like a movie in action. The US translation added a bit of lag to the menus, but it’s really not that bad. In the game, you have an unusually good translation, compared the games that came before it, and this makes the game feel even more polished. One unfortunate side effect of the better graphics is improved fan service. While some players may enjoy the fact that your female companion has animated jiggling and clothing that gets more revealing as you choose different outfits, it is kind of annoying that the game feels the need to be so ham-handed about it.
Dragon Quest IX came out in 2010. It’s a DS game, with creatable parties, much like Dragon Quest III.