OK, so, over in Japan they have this neat franchise for the Nintendo Famicom called Dragon Quest. North America's gonna love it, so let's localize the first installment of the series (so what if it's already dated by contemporary technology standards?), spruce it up a little bit, change the name to Dragon Warrior, and print a heck of a lot of copies in preparation for the massive sales we're going to see. Sound good? Great. Let's do it. There's no way that this could not go perfectly to plan. Unless, of course, North America doesn't quite take to the game. Then we'd have to unload the surplus copies with magazine subscriptions. Then someday in the future GameSpite can chronicle the sad state of affairs.
Dragon Quest had proven to be a genuine phenomenon in the land of its birth. By and large, successful Famicom games had translated into NES hits with nary a snag, so there was little reason to think the success of this role-playing game wouldn’t carry across the Pacific as well. It even had a few built-in bonuses! Americans already loved RPGs, whereas Dragon Quest had been instrumental in introducing the genre to Japan. To sweeten the deal, Nintendo and Enix worked together to tweak the American version of the game, improving its graphics and streamlining the interface to fall more into line with its sequels, already available in Japan.
And yet, Dragon Quest was hardly the runaway success Nintendo was hoping for. The company clearly had high expectations for the game, taking it in beneath the umbrella of a first-party release while promoting it heavily in Nintendo Power. The game was heavily modified to improve on the weaknesses of the rather rough original release of the game; a battery back-up replaced Japan’s arcane passwords, and the game’s English script was the most involved localization work yet seen on NES, patching a rudimentary classical English style into what had been workmanlike Japanese text. Certainly the game was no flop, but Nintendo definitely overestimated its appeal... not to mention the proper quantity to manufacture. Though not quite a debacle of E.T. for VCS proportions, Nintendo eventually ended up giving away copies of the game -- presumably tens of thousands -- with new subscriptions to Nintendo Power. Certainly a better fate for those carts than forming a fascinating new stratum of the New Mexico bedrock, but quite the ignominious end for what should have been the next big thing.
Knowing what we do now, the original Dragon Quest probably wasn't the best way to introduce North American audiences to the franchise. I think enough time has passed now that it's not fair to blame the continued mainstream disinterest in the series on that subpar brand launch twenty years ago. Maybe, for whatever reason, the Dragon Quest world just doesn't appeal to American audiences. I know that it's never done much for me. Like everyone else eligible at the time, I received my free copy of Dragon Warrior via Nintendo Power. I did my best to get into it, but I hit the wall when the difficulty spiked and gave up in frustration after several weeks of making zero progress. While I have revisited other games from that era that I could not complete at an early age, I've never had a need to return to Dragon Warrior. But hey, it was free.