Dragon Quest II is generally thought of as one of the weaker entries in the Dragon Quest series. While it’s an important game in its own way, that way is mainly as the transition between the JRPG-inventing Dragon Quest and the landmark Dragon Quest III, which essentially every JRPG since has tried to live up to, and which is the Japanese analog to Super Mario 64 in terms of speedrunning prestige. Because of what came before and after it, Dragon Quest II tends to get lost in the shuffle.
Recently, I played through the Game Boy Color version of the game, as part of the collection titled “Dragon Warrior I & II” in the US (The short version for the Dragon Warrior name is “There were once trademark issues in the US with ‘Dragon Quest’; those issues no longer exist”). I had played through the NES version as a kid, then tried the GBC version about 12 years ago, getting stuck just after acquiring the Princess of Moonbrooke. More recently, the game has been released for Android and iOS, and those versions are closer to the GBC version than the NES original.
The design of old-school games, and how they try to give you a tutorial without labeling anything a tutorial, intrigues me. In the case of Dragon Quest II, this comes in the form of how your party is composed. You begin with the Prince of Lorasia, a brute who can use no magic whatsoever (In contrast to the do-it-all nature of later Dragon Quest main characters, the Prince of Lorasia is closer to the Soldier-type class of the later games). After traversing a dungeon, you’ll acquire your first ally, the Prince of Cannock, who is a balance between combat and magic (And infamously does neither of them well in the second half of the game. In the GBC version, some adjustments were made to make Cannock not complete trash–his weapon selection is a good deal better than in the NES version, and the spells he can cast both in and out of battle cost a bit less when used in combat). And a bit further on, you get your second and final ally, the Princess of Moonbrooke, who is an amazing sorceress who is almost useless in terms of attacking in battle. Almost. In that way, the game introduces magic to you little by little, and the tactics you’ll use in battle require varying levels of adjustment depending on the character and the enemy formation you’ll be fighting–Lorasia will do almost nothing but “FIGHT”, but the other two characters will need to adjust their actions depending on the situation at hand.
Yuji Horii, the main architect of Dragon Quest, has mentioned he was influenced by the Wizardry series of games. That comes through a bit more clearly in Dragon Quest II, primarily in terms of battles. Much like in the first 5 Wizardries, any battle can potentially be your last. Especially in the late game, monsters appear in large groups, and can call allies, use powerful spells, or have attacks which can hit your entire party. Encounter a formation with 3 or 4 of such an enemy, and it’s very possible you’ll die regardless of your level.
Another thing that Dragon Quest II picks up from Wizardry is how surprisingly useful “indirect” spells are. Particularly on bosses and in the endgame, Increase (Raises your party’s defense power) and Defense (Lowers the defense power of enemies) are your friends. Again, this is even more true in the GBC version, where their effectiveness is increased (Beware, though, this also applies to when enemies use them). Sleep and Stopspell are also valuable spells to allow you to get in precious attacks without being assaulted by enemies.
The Dragon Quest team took a lot of the feedback they got in response to Dragon Quest II to make Dragon Quest III. Once of the most common criticisms of DQII is that there are several points where the game tells you, more or less, “have fun!” without so much as a clue about where to go next. Indeed, my playthrough 12 years ago ended when, after getting the Princess, I unsuccessfully failed to act on a hint that just said “There’s a tower somewhere where you can get a Wind Cloak.”. The game doesn’t tell you where that tower is, and the route to it isn’t the most intuitive. Still, this time, thanks to remembering where the tower was after looking it up all those years ago, I pushed through. And while it’s true that Dragon Quest II isn’t the most linear game, especially after getting the boat, there are enough scraps available (And crucially, you can get an in-game World Map in the GBC version) from townspeople to be able to piece together what you have to do to advance in its second half.
The World Map is a bit cruel in one aspect: There’s a point where you find something by sailing north from your location. The issue is that the location is already pretty far north on the map, meaning you end up finding the item on the far SOUTH of the world.
Beyond that, while the game isn’t as bad as the first Dragon Quest in this regard, there is a difficulty spike where you’ll be forced to do some level grinding. Precisely where that difficulty spike occurs varies depending on the version of the game you play, but suffice to say that it occurs either at or near the endgame. Even in the GBC version, and even with valuable knowledge that a first-time player is unlikely to have (Notably in how some items can be used in battle), I needed to stop and get some levels in the endgame.
Still, overall, I enjoyed my recent playthrough, probably more than I thought I would, if I’m being honest. I was surprised at how short the game actually is when you get down to it, but I found the non-linear nature of the second half to be a positive, not a negative. Further, I may have gotten lucky, but I found I “stumbled into” the more-or-less intended sequence, in part thanks to the World Map. I’d say it’s worth playing, especially with the availability of the somewhat easier version for mobile devices nowadays. This is especially true if you like your RPGs not to hold your hand, or not to be quite 100% linear.