Dragon Quest IV is nearly 20 years old. When it was originally released on the NES in February 1990, Gazza was the best player in the world, Radiohead were called On a Friday and Street Fighter II was yet to enjoy the grace of my dragon punching hands. If Gazza's Italia 90 heroics, Radiohead's Creep and Street Fighter II feel very old, there's a reason - they are. And so does Dragon Quest: The Chapters of the Chosen, the DS remake of DQIV.
It's inevitable of course. While the graphics have been sprinkled with 3D magic dust, the core gameplay has largely remained untouched. That means that random battles, perhaps the most annoying thing in the world ever! will unashamedly interrupt your happy go lucky exploration of the Dragon Quest world with nary a care for modern gaming tastes.
It's also rock hard, not because the enemies pose a particularly difficult problem, but because of the restricted saving - an archaic system that forces you, on the whole, to save only in town churches. While you can save while travelling on the world map, the game forces you to shut your DS off when you do so - making adventuring much more of a chore than it really needs to be because it's nigh on impossible to recover life and mana out in the field. When your party does get wiped out, and trust us, it will get wiped out, often, you will be revived at the last place you saved, usually in a church miles away. From there you have to travel all the way back to where you died, and face all those random battles all over again.
So it's got archaic saving and random battles, pretty much like every JRPG of the period (and, some would argue, pretty much like every JRPG nowadays, too). And yet I love playing Dragon Quest on my commute to and from work. Why? Because it's got charm.
Lots and lots of charm. And an excellent story. The Chapters of the Chosen title refers to the game's underlying structure. You play four distinctly different chapters each with four separate main characters under your control. The first sees you play as Ragnar, a soldier under the command of the King of Burland, a Scottish region in the north of the game world. You're charged with rescuing the kingdom's children who have mysteriously disappeared at the hands of a legion of monsters. Turns out the monsters were trying to kill the Legendary Hero, a man destined to defeat the Ruler of Evil, before he gets the chance to grow up.
Once you've completed that chapter the second chapter kicks in, which sees you play as the Russian tomboy Princess Alena, who longs to leave Zamoksva castle for adventure. Without wanting to spoil the story for you, there are two more chapters following this that both follow a similar pattern - different regional dialect, different main characters, different play style and different monsters.
The game's brilliance comes towards the end of the game, in the fifth chapter, where you finally get to control the powerful Legendary Hero, a character you first control when you pick your gender in the game's prologue, and the main characters from the previous chapters join your party for the ultimate, emotional showdown with the Ruler of Evil.
It's a quite stunning and unique approach to RPG storytelling, and one that still stands up today. It's concise, well thought out, intelligent and genuinely emotional. Modern day developers would do well to learn from this ancient artefact, now that it has once again been thrust into the limelight.
The compelling charm of the game isn't simply down to its story. The graphics, full of vibrant colour and wonderfully designed monsters, play a significant role, too. It wouldn't be fair to describe the game's aesthetic as cutesy, but it is definitely retro, despite the 3D makeover. Indeed the makeover almost goes by unnoticed. The battles - minimalist affairs that see you face side by side monsters from a first-person perspective - look like something from a bygone era, despite the redrawn sprites, and it's all the better for it. The map now extends across the dual screens, allowing you to rotate your viewpoint with the L and R buttons and spot treasure chests and doors you might otherwise have missed, but again, it's an unobtrusive addition. Yes, Japanese developer Arte Piazza has improved certain aspects of the game's graphics, but it's been astute enough to leave well alone where meddling hasn't been needed. For example, it feels odd at first that you can't use the stylus to select options from the game's opening menu, but it quickly becomes obvious that the developer has deliberately avoided the problem of stylus control implementation by simply ignoring it altogether.
And the soundtrack, a melancholy orchestral score from Dragon Quest legend Koichi Sugiyama, compliments the on-screen action perfectly, whether it be battling monsters or wandering about town talking to NPCs.
The combat is unmistakeably Dragon Quest. Anyone who's ever spent mana on spells Frizz, Sizz, Bang, Crack, Woosh, Zap and Whack will know what we're talking about. The combat never gets overly complicated - at worst you'll have to spend a few minutes making sure your party formation is correctly arranged so that members with low HP are at the back and tanks are at the front. There's unavoidable grinding required - if you find yourself facing enemies that feel too tough then you'll have to go back to an area with beatable enemies in order to gain experience and level up. But don't let this put you off. The battles fly by at a speedy pace by modern standards, ensuring the grind never feels anything but totally in keeping with the tone of this retro classic RPG.
If you're looking for a modern role-playing game on the Nintendo DS you might want to look elsewhere. The save system and random battles, gameplay elements that can't be helped in a remake of this kind, are guaranteed to annoy, and if you feel you can't put up with them, this won't be for you.
This will be for you if you fancy transporting yourself back in time to a land where gameplay was unforgiving but incredibly rewarding. If you can cope with the archaic gameplay elements you'll find a JRPG that shames many of its more modern cousins with its entrancing plot and bewitching charm. If you've never played a Dragon Quest game before and always wondered what the fuss was about, give this a shot and you'll soon understand.