Will the latest ‘Dragon Quest’ pass the test?

by Kazuaki Nagata

Hitting store shelves Saturday, the long-awaited new installment in the “Dragon Quest” series, one of Japan’s most successful video games, has industry watchers on the edge of their seats to see if the latest title can live up to its reputation.

The pressure is on “Dragon Quest 9,” a role-playing game that runs on the Nintendo DS hand-held console, to become the best-selling title in the series, and observers are eager to see how it stacks up against other recent popular titles.

Square Enix Co., publisher of “Dragon Quest,” has not disclosed its sales projections for the latest release, but analysts expect between 3 million and 5 million copies to be sold on the domestic market.

Koki Shiraishi, a video-game-industry analyst at Daiwa Institute of Research, said he expects the new game to sell around 4.5 million copies and become the biggest-selling in the series.

” ‘Dragon Quest 7′ sold 4.11 million copies and is the best-selling in the series so far. Since the new one for DS apparently has more potential, it will exceed the seventh,” Shiraishi said. “Sales might reach 5 million or 6 million, but I’m quite sure it will be the best-selling in the series.”

A million sold is considered the industry benchmark for success, although this criteria depends on various factors, including the size of the game developer.

Only three DS game titles have sold more than 5 million copies in Japan, according to Ascii Research Institute.

Shun Tanaka, a chief analyst at SMBC Friend Research Center who tracks the video game industry, said he sees “Dragon Quest 9″ selling somewhere between 4 million and 5 million copies.

“With just sales in Japan, I think it is hard to reach 5 million,” he said, adding that the Nintendo DS has lost some momentum recently.

The first “Dragon Quest” debuted in 1986 for Nintendo’s Family Computer, a landmark game console that completely redrew the industry landscape. It is known as Nintendo Entertainment System overseas.

“Dragon Quest” is generally regarded as a pioneer in the establishment of role-playing games for home video machines.

Such is its popularity that fans line up for hours outside game stores to buy the latest in the series as soon as it’s released.

Analysts say “Dragon Quest” won over gamers with its innovative style when it first came out.

For one thing, players could give the protagonist any name they wanted. Many chose their own, which enabled them to feel a kinship with their avatars, Yuji Horii, the creator of the game, said in an interview with Nintendo President Satoru Iwata posted on the company’s Web site.

Among the famous illustrators to produce the game are comic artist Akira Toriyama, who wrote the popular “Dragon Ball” comic.

Masashi Morita, senior analyst at Okasan Securities Co., said he is curious to see how well “Dragon Quest” does against recent popular products, including “brain-training” games, one of which has sold close to 5 million units.

The previous title, “Dragon Quest 8,” was released five years ago, and since then the competition in Japan’s video game industry has gotten only fiercer as the number of devices continues to proliferate.

“If ‘Dragon Quest’ loses to recent popular titles, I would feel that the video game industry has changed,” Morita said. Others, however, insist that sales of “Dragon Quest” and other titles cannot be compared.

Because this is the first time the latest of the “Dragon Quest” series release is available for the Nintendo DS hand-held device, analysts have expressed interest in seeing how the new game will look and perform on the hand-held platform.

For the first time in the series, a multiplayer function will allow gamers to connect by wireless network with other DS users.

Morita said he is eager to see how the multiplayer function will pan out.

“As for ‘Dragon Quest’ or regular role-playing games, it is something people play alone. From that point of view, I am interested in finding out how well it succeeds in making the game more fun,” Morita said.