Grotto Catch ‘Em All!: A Dragon Quest IX Summer

As the (hopefully) last heatwave dies down and the ice pop supply in my freezer begins to dwindle, I look back at the past few months of funemployment as a time of discovery. Because it was my first full summer in New York, I was able to check out the Bronx Zoo, Rockaway Beach, the Cloisters and so many other opportunities that make me overjoyed to live in the city. But it was also a time of discovery on the gaming front, thanks to the addictive magic of Dragon Quest IX. I spent a lot of time out-and-about, sure, but whenever I boarded a subway, my eyes would immediately become glued to the DSi. We’ve talked about this gem at length on the show, but it wasn’t until the waning days of summer that I began to fully explore its grottoes and dungeons.

“AngryJ,” fully decked out after 90+ hours of play

And when I say explore, I don’t mean consulting GameFAQs or a equivalent to learn how to get the best armor or where to find a high level map. I certainly could have, but I gradually learned that the beauty of DQIX is that it’s so much more fun when you let it take you in a million different directions at once. This may not be apparent in the 40 to 50 hours it takes to beat the main quest, and may even seem counter-intuitive to completionists. Though the story is nonlinear at points and tons of side stuff is available – alchemy, classes, quests – the teleport spell and little ship still don’t offer complete freedom. However, once you get the DQIX‘s airship-train, the entire world is at your fingertips. Suddenly, the game goes from a familiar-but-solid Japanese grinder to a Bethesda RPG in your pocket. Just incredible.

For the unitiated, this means always having something new to see or do. For instance, at one point, I found myself fighting mummies to convert their rags into some helpful knickknack. After a few successful attempts, I ended up with some extra feathers that gave me just enough material to complete a quest that had been nagging me for days. I returned to the village where I had received the quest and bumped into a new resident who needed some help distributing scarves to three different kinds of Sanguini. On my last run, I noticed an area that looked remarkably similar to a treasure map I had on me, and sure enough…

Well, let’s just say that it’s very easy to get carried away when playing. It was so refreshing just letting the game dish out rewards, and as you become more powerful, these rewards become increasingly enticing, too. Square-Enix was also smart to remove some of the ambiguity that plagues other games in the genre. I mean, how exactly would you figure out which stone was required to transform a Haunter into a Ghastly in Pokémon? Or how to get some of the hidden summons in recent Final Fantasy games? By telling me exactly what I needed to do, Dragon Quest IX had me spending more time on the D-pad and less on my laptop or player’s guide.

Though the series will likely never resonate over here like it does in its homeland, I also discovered that there is a pretty dedicated domestic audience that was eager to check out weekend community events. Both at GameStop and Best Buy in August, I talked to like-minded players that were thrilled to be able to swap battle stories and maps. No two characters looked the same, and DQIX‘s emphasis on personal freedom meant that comparing our accolades and accomplishments was almost as much fun as the game itself.

You can’t say Nintendo didn’t pull out all the stops. If frozen blue “slime” on a scorching hot day couldn’t win New Yorkers over, I don’t know what could.

Sadly, it seems the thrills couldn’t last forever, as a bogus temporary save killed many hours of progress on my cart. (I hate to say it, but that’s the gaming kiss of death for me.) But perhaps it’s for the best. With a hectic work schedule and a full slate of games on the horizon, I’m not sure how much time I have for Dragon Quest IX‘s whimsical, low-key world. I think I’ll wait to bust it out a year from now when the temperatures rise and my adventurous side kicks in. Hopefully, the rest of you discover it by then, too.

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