Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 85, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Even with its online features no longer available, Dragon Quest IX is still worth your time.
I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Dragon Quest isn’t a Nintendo series, even if the franchise got its start on Nintendo machines with Dragon Quest in Japan on the Famicon, and Dragon Warrior on the NES in North America. That’s where this all began, but it’s not where it stayed. Now there are 11 main series games on a variety of platforms, remakes, a shocking number of spin-off series, and tales of how Dragon Quest release days in Japan are national holidays where school and work are canceled so everyone can dive in.
If only, right? I wouldn’t have had to skip classes to play video games I had been waiting for if I just got the day off to enjoy them.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, though, is a Nintendo game within a non-Nintendo series. Nintendo published the game in North America in 2010, the first main-series DQ on a Nintendo system since Dragon Quest VI released on the Super Famicon in Japan, and it has remained an exclusive on the Nintendo DS since.
Have you played a Dragon Quest game before? If so, you know what you’re getting into each and every time. If not, here’s a brief explanation: the battles are turn- and menu-based affairs, where you choose from pretty standard options of attacking, using magic or a skill, or escaping. There are also abilities to defend to increase your defense on a given turn, or to try to pump your character up, eschewing a physical attack now to perform an exponentially more powerful attack in a later round. The combat is pretty simple, but you’ll have to learn to wring the most out of your skills, spells, and exponential attacks in order to defeat the tougher enemies in the game and continue to progress.
There is also something Dragon Quest does that keeps you invested in the combat, as simplistic or mindless as it could get. It basically tricks your brain into being on edge: there is a slight delay in between your performing of an attack or spell and the result of said attack or spell. It creates this anticipation for each move, and when the game decides to stretch out that little delay, oh man. Even better when what awaits at the end is a critical or a defeated enemy. Do not ask me which part of your brain this impacts, but it does just that, and to great effect.
There are some slight changes to gameplay and approach, or how a narrative plays out, but they are, on the whole, developed in such a way that if you were only familiar with the releases of 25 years ago, you’d be able to pick up and play a modern one no problem, with the reverse also being true. They might be published by the same company that produces Final Fantasy titles, but they didn’t used to be in the pre-Square/Enix merger days, and back then, enjoyment of one series didn’t guarantee enjoyment of the other. They were serving different audiences and preferences, where crossover enjoyment wasn’t a given. That hasn’t changed even with Squaresoft and Enix becoming Square Enix, and if anything, the gap has only widened as Final Fantasy opens up and modernizes itself more and more, following the leads of other series rather than being a center of innovation like it used to be.
DQ games are challenging, but not unfair — you can’t afford to skip combat or you run the risk of falling behind in your leveling, but you aren’t necessarily overwhelmed with enemies or in need of grinding XP to keep up, either. You do, however, need to talk to basically every NPC you find along the way, or else you’ll miss out on whatever your next direction is supposed to be. Dragon Quest IX might have released 25 years after the initial DQ game, but that much had not changed in the series’ approach in that time.
Sometimes, all of that familiarity and knowing-what-you’re-getting plays as a positive, since Dragon Quest games, even new ones, can feel like slipping on a comfortable t-shirt you’ve had for ages. Other times, though, main series DQ games can feel like a slog, because you’re too familiar and are looking for something a little newer to stimulate your brain. It’s for this reason that I’m often into the Dragon Quest spin-off series (like Monsters, which is DQ’s attempt at a kind of Pokémon-esque monster capturing game, only with monster alchemy and entire parties of recruited former foes) more than some of the main series titles, as they have all of the familiar trappings of DQ but with entirely new gameplay elements.
DQIX, I’m pleased to report, falls more in the former camp for me, and in large part due to how you end up building out your party. You get to customize them all, as the game was meant to be played either offline by yourself or online with friends and strangers. So, back when the servers were live, if you wanted to, you could adventure around with other living, breathing DQ players and the player avatar they created. Or, if you wanted to play offline — which you don’t have a choice about 10 years after release — you could recruit other created characters into your party, ones you had total control over in terms of looks, class, and what kind of skill allocation they ended up with.
What really helps Dragon Quest IX along, though, other than the turn-based battle structure that underpins the entire franchise, is that the story is engaging. It sticks around just a little too long for my tastes, pacing-wise, as it shoves in twist after twist in the back-half of the game, but overall, it’s an RPG yarn worth spinning.
You’re a fallen angel — no, not that kind of fallen angel, you just literally fell from this game’s version of heaven after a celestial quake. Whereas before you were a Celestrian guardian that humans couldn’t see, whose good deeds and assistance created a kind of thankfulness-based energy source to power the heavens above (called “benevolessence,” because unsubtle portmanteaus are an RPG staple), now you’re, for all intents and purposes, a mortal who can more directly assist the other mortals. Mostly by walking right up to them to get additional information and/or quests. You had to give up your wings and immortality to be able to pester people for directions, but hey, at least the game is less vague about what you need to do now.
You’re still hoping to collect this energy, but now it’s so you can get back to the game’s version of heaven and see what’s going on there following the quake that sent you plummeting to the surface. It turns out that ancient evil is trying to arise once more, and that someone you thought you could trust isn’t all that trustworthy at all! Unless they are! Unless they aren’t! This is the part where the twists go a little overboard, if you couldn’t tell, but still. I enjoy the story and the world it takes place in, even if the game probably should have narratively wrapped up earlier than it does. Ah, well. They can’t all be DQV.
While the battle system remains turn-based and almost exactly like the DQ of the even older days of old, enemies are not fought through random encounters: they’re visible on the map, and can be run from. See, DQ evolves sometimes. This might not seem like a huge deal, but it really does help with the pacing, especially in an RPG like this one where battles are so necessary to your progress, but sometimes you just want to get to your goal and achieve it, you know? Don’t skip too many battles, though, as DQIX was designed to be the most difficult DQ to date. Series creator Yuji Horii said as much, with the idea behind it being that Dragon Quest games were now being released in an era where people could always just look up something they were stuck on using the internet.
The freedom to customize your party members’ classes, to play this Dragon Quest game you want to play rather than simply the way other Dragon Quest games are pre-set, helps this remain playable and replayable even if you might sometimes miss the archetypal chatter and conversation that pre-made characters bring to the table in those titles. It’s okay, though. Your little non-battle pal that flies around with you and does a lot of the talking is both sassy and overconfident and hard to fully trust, so they fill a few potential archetype voids.
Is Dragon Quest IX the best Dragon Quest game out there? I honestly don’t even think it enters the discussion, which in my own opinion involves just DQV and DQVIII, with V the clear winner. However, it’s the best Nintendo-published one that qualifies for this list, as it is A Nintendo Game and not a game Nintendo-published re-release on its own hardware years after its initial release. That’s not a knock on the game, either. It’s more just me pointing out that, if you want to experience a Dragon Quest game for the first time, you might want to seek out V or VIII instead of IX. If you’ve played and enjoyed both of those and want something a little different, with a little more challenge, then DQIX is out there waiting for you. Even if you now need to play it by your lonesome instead of with friends.
This newsletter is free for anyone to read, but if you’d like to support my ability to continue writing, you can become a Patreon supporter.