A bit of the way into Dragon Quest IX you'll catch the first of dozens of puns that've been sitting just under your nose for hours. Mine was making the connection between the town of Zere and a place called Zere Rocks: carved out of stone to resemble the town of Zere, Zere Rocks is literally rock and also a copy. What an ignorant dip I had been!


Owing in part to things like this, it becomes quickly apparent that what Dragon Quest IX has that a lot of its contemporaries have moved away from is its relentless, endearing charm. Enemy slimes bounce about with grins on their faces as you bludgeon them into goo. Your customizable characters can have their faces locked into permanent grins and sport pink mohawks. Some foes will waste an entire turn, just to admire you. And a big one: virtually every piece of equipment you put on is actually depicted on your character, allowing you to connect to your band of adventurers even more enjoyably. Did I mention that despite the joyful, irreverent writing of the localization, you'll get into this entire story without any of your party members ever even saying a word?

Most of the good times come due to the relatively little guidance you are given by the game in an era of bolded red text, hint blocks, and guidance arrows. After an hour-or-so prologue section that does the only hand-holding to be found in the 40+ hour main quest, you are left largely to your own devices, to explore as you see fit. The first areas will gently prod you away from going certain places before you had ought to, but as you move along you will find yourself able to tackle the world's vignettes in any order, mainly how you please. I was often reminded of Final Fantasy VI's World of Ruin: it's all out there on the map, now get to it.

That's not to say that the ninth iteration of a game series even older than Final Fantasy is buried in old traditions, though. Beneath the colorful exterior and the numerous series homages is a gameplay experience that sheds more of the frustrating old stuff than it clings to and feels more like the future of classic RPGs than the past.

All the monsters you'll need to beat up roam the screen, clearly visible for the first time in the series, making annoying random encounters during times of exploration something for the history books. An early-game warp spell ensures you can get where you need to go from just about anywhere with virtually no trouble, and it arrives at just the right time. Special respawning chests guarantee that if you're slogging through an old dungeon for one reason or another there will at least be a little loot for you to grab along the way. And if your entire party dies? That's half the money you haven't put in the bank yet, and back to an inn with a full heal for you—all your progress retained.


Most specifically, the battle system (where you'll spend most of your time) leverages an element I have come to appreciate as invaluable in RPGs designed to be played for a really long time: intelligent, adaptive AI battling options for your party members. As your characters grow and you begin to invest more skill points into their weapons and job-specific talents, you will find yourself with a variety of options for every character. Though it's enjoyable at first, or in moments of extreme duress, to manually poke through these, the addictive nature of the gameplay owes a lot to the brisk battle pace. Select something like "Fight wisely" to see your party do just that, evaluating their acquired abilities to make the best choices. Tell your mage to hang onto her MP in preparation for a boss fight by picking "Conserve MP" for her, while your martial artist "Shows no mercy" and pummels the enemy with attack skills instead of playing it safe.

You even get a few advantages by going the AI route: if a character is injured mid-turn, another party member will often bust out a heal spell you might have had no idea you'd need to set up before the turn began. Conversely, if you set up a heal spell for the turn and it comes out before your party members can act, you won't catch them throwing needless extra cure spells at players you've already patched up. Additionally, AI-controlled characters will even opt for multi-hit attacks when fighting highly evasive enemies, or toss out magical barriers or buffs in battles you might require them. Much as with the brilliant Final Fantasy XII, these options streamline the game as you go, and allow the quick skirmishes to continue without making you hammer the A button until your thumb falls off just to throw basic attacks at the computer.

It's all wrapped around a surprisingly deep job system, too, which allows your characters to forgo an overall "level" and maintain separate levels for any job you select. Skills and traits that you acquire with one job alter your character universally, which means that if you train up a priest and later make him a paladin you'll have some extra kick to your healing magic. Start off as a martial artist and fully develop the claw skill, and you'll be able to use claws even on jobs that don't permit that kind of equipment. There are hundreds of possibilities, and it would take probably forever to fully level every job on all of your characters to the max.

Tied into all of this are well over a hundred in-game quests, which will have you running the gauntlet from just finding a mushroom somewhere to questing around the world to beat up certain enemies with a certain job in a certain way. They run the gamut from so-easy-you-already-have-the-item to dear-god-just-kill-me, but are rarely so frustrating as to cause any sort of mental trauma. You can also mercifully remove a quest, or just decide to go after it later—freedom is the key here. The townsfolk who request your help often do so humorously, and the rewards are frequently worthwhile--it's the only way to unlock some of the advanced jobs and special skills for certain types of weapons.


Where do I even stop? Once you think you're finished with the game you can dig into the deep treasure map system, which will have you tackling a variety of hidden dungeons all over the world in pursuit of rare enemies and tough bosses, rarer gear, and even more rare maps. Depending on how devoted you are, you can seek out other players and exchange maps by wirelessly adding each other to your guest rooms. There is also a rich item creation system built in: discover recipes in special bookcases and then acquire the raw ingredients to cook up all kinds of equipment for your party to use.

I remember reading an interview with series designer Yuji Horii once, in which he said that he was getting bored with talking to the townsfolk in most RPGs. The charm of Dragon Quest, he says, is that every person is part of the puzzle. Every new town is a little mystery.

Dragon Quest IX ends up being kind of a little mystery of its own. The diminutive DS now harbors the first new Dragon Quest game on a Nintendo system since 1995, and it's easily the best JRPG to come out in years. Being portable only adds to the game's infinitely playable nature in a modern era of enormous television sets—handheld means it's always ready for a train ride or waiting room.

Bearing no grievous faults, the only things that the game could be conceivably be criticized for can often be chalked up to challenge—it's frustrating locating the entrances for most of the treasure maps, lacking the appropriate views with which to investigate your world short of traveling everywhere individually. Before you acquire resurrection magic, it can also get annoying to hoof it back to a church for a life spell every time a party member dies. The rate at which you'll have the resources to acquire new equipment also starts to slow to a trickle after the halfway point without some diligent planning. Most of these things are resolved merely by turning to a little online help in the form of maps or item lists—stuff you'd just trade via friendly word of mouth back in the pre-Internet days. (Horii said in today's Internet-age, he wanted to make this game harder in the late stages. Mission success.)

And even though my players are mute, I can't help but have gotten attached to the little jerks over the last month or so. There's just something about the Dragon Quest world that touches on a nerve long neglected in those with the RPG spirit. Exploring town wells, naming your party, fighting speedy battles, talking with humorous townsfolk, cooking up new equipment in the alchemy pot—just like the cartridge the game comes on, I think ultimately it all boils down to the little things.