PlayThings: Dragon Quest’s Heavenly Packaging

You can tell a lot about a game by the stuff that comes with it

Bringing you the latest instalment in our Playthings news series, examining the fascinating stories behind the played videogame objects from our Playthings exhibition and beyond.

On 27 May 2021, the Dragon Quest series turned 35 years old. Just in case you mark the passage of time through pop music: at the same time Dragon Quest was released in Japan on 27 May 1986, the UK’s number one single was ‘The Chicken Song’ by Spitting Image…er…

Created by mastermind Yuji Hori, Dragon Quest was originally released on the Nintendo Famicom, a console designed by Masayuki Uemura. On his latest visit to the UK, Uemura-sensei came to speak about his amazing story at the NVM in February 2020! 

Dragon Quest was a revolutionary phenomenon that took the complex fantasy role-playing systems seen in Wizardry and Ultima, and distilled them into an accessible menu-based system. This command-led, turn-based battle system was so compelling that it’s barely altered in 35 years.

But this is PlayThings, so in order to pay homage to the series on this special anniversary, I want to talk about the packaging of one of my favourite games of all time: Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King. Yes, I said the packaging. 

At the back, there is an advert for Kingdom Hearts 2 that states, “the story continues in late 2006”. Oh my, how little we knew then.

Dragon Quest VIII was released on the PlayStation 2 in Europe on 13 April 2006. In Japan, the game had been released seventeen months earlier on 27 November 2004! It was developed by Level-5, masters of the JRPG genre and renowned for their work on Dark Cloud, Dark Chronicle, and Rogue Galaxy.

Within its large and colourful cell-shaded open world, and the first of the series to present itself in a fully realised 3D environment, DQVIII stands as one of the best examples the best example of a PS2-era JRPG.

As exploring the world of DQVIII is a whimsical joy, looking at the game’s comprehensive packaging is also filled with a similar sense of wonder. In particular, the packaging for the European release provides a fascinating glimpse into the past. Inside a single copy of the game, we are treated to a large manual and two additional pamphlets that situate us firmly in 2006. 

But first, let’s consider the cover box art. The European cover of DQVIII is a tour de force of Akira Toriyama illustration. In just one still image, the famed creator of the Dragon Ball series produces a wonderful scene of character artwork that conveys adventure and questing to the player.

The additional materials are intriguing relics of the past. Consider the manual: remember these?! In a land before in-game tutorials and online instruction pages, this miniature book conveyed to the player everything they needed to know before venturing into the game. In-depth tables and statistics detail how battles can develop, and list the different spells and abilities that the player can utilise. To add context to the game, there is a small textual prologue and a description of each of the game’s main characters. Similarly to the box art, Toriyama-sensei’s illustrations also feature on every page, adding to the unique identity of the game-world. This manual even hints at upcoming releases. At the back, there is an advert for Kingdom Hearts 2 that states, “the story continues in late 2006”. Oh my, how little we knew then. Looking back at this manual from 2021, this manual is a love-letter to classic videogame manuals.

The two additional pamphlets are also really interesting. There is a pamphlet for the Piggyback’s ‘Complete Official Guide’. All of the juicy details that did not make it into the manual are alleged to make it into this separate book. A physical manifestation of the GAMEFAQs – and precursor to the YouTube Let’s Plays – this guidebook is signalled as an expert guidance through the entire DQVIII experience. The pamphlet does not mince words in regards to the guidebook’s quality: “Revealed: All secrets, side-quests and minigames”, “CONCISE, COMPREHENSIVE, COMPLETE.” Despite that, I’m still drawn to the perfect illustration of Munchie the hamster.

To really hammer home the 2006ness of this packaging, we turn to the final pamphlet – and your chance to WIN A PSP…if you can time travel. This pamphlet is a striking egg yolk yellow orange hybrid, replete with silhouettes of Dragon Quest’s infamous Slimes. Again, the text description of the PSP seems oddly familiar to our 2021 eyes, “The PSP allows you to take your entertainment wherever you go giving you the chance to immerse yourself in 3D gaming, watch a full-length movie, view your photos, listen to music or even browse the internet via the wireless connection!”. As I gaze to my left and see my smartphone, I am amazed at how ahead-of-its-time the PSP was.

Yet, although there is the opportunity to win one of three PSPs, as advertised on this pamphlet, perhaps the runner-up prizes are more tantalizing: Ten lucky runners up could win the fabled SLIME CONTROLLER. I think I know what I’d want sitting on my coffee table fifteen years on.

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