Where to begin with the Dragon Quest games?
Image: Nintendo Life

It started with a simple question: Which Dragon Quest should I play first?

It's one of my gaming shames that I've never touched Square Enix's hallowed RPG series, and I've been wanting to dig into something really meaty for many months now. Sure, I've got about 30 unplayed RPGs ready and waiting on Switch (now organised in a neat 'Backlog' folder), but 3DS games have been on my mind of late, so it seemed prudent to snap up Dragon Quest VII and VIII before they skyrocket into silly money like the DS entries.

Dragon Quest XI is available on Switch, of course, and by all accounts it's an absolute belter. Thing is, I didn't want to start with the latest entry for fear of it 'spoiling' the others down the road. Once you've had all the mod-cons and experienced the game design wisdom the devs gained through years of mainline entries — not to mention innovations from elsewhere in the industry — going backwards in the chronology feels like just that: going backwards. Even if I were to fall in love with the series, who wants the next experience to be just more of the same, but not quite as good?

There's an entire banquet of delicious JRPG treats just sitting there waiting to be tucked into! I don't want to fill up on breadsticks and dip.

It got me thinking about this precarious and preemptive dance we sometimes do (at least I do) where we try to gauge opinions and jump into a series at the absolute 'Goldilocks' point — the perfect onboarding entry that not only gives us a solid overview of the series' trademark mechanics and/or characters, but also sets us up for further delights down the road. It's not necessarily a simple case of searching for the Best Dragon Quest Games and picking the front-runner.

It should be noted that the original Dragon Quest is easily available on Switch and might seem like a logical starting point; something tells me it's not the best jumping-off point for a series noob in 2022, though. For the discerning gamer (with access to various platforms) there are various factors to consider if you want to avoid bouncing off a video gaming institution like Dragon Quest. There's an entire banquet of delicious JRPG treats just sitting there waiting to be tucked into! I don't want to fill up on breadsticks and dip.

Dragon Quest
"Oh, it's an absolute stone-cold classic, solid gold. But whatever you do, don't play it first!" Okayyy...Image: Square Enix

It's something that's peculiar to long-running video game franchises thanks to the rapid evolution in technology and know-how that's come as the industry has grown. You compare it to film series, for example, and more often than not you're absolutely 'safe' to start at the beginning. Want to know if you'll like Marvel movies? Iron Man is as good as any other to test the waters with. With smaller franchises, it's even easier; you obviously watch the first Godfather or Toy Story or whatever. James Bond may be an outlier here, as the outmoded earlier movies don't have quite the thrills you'd expect from a modern action blockbuster, and sometimes it's better to stick to the early ones — hi Alien(s) — but on the whole the time investment for watching movies pales in comparison to working your way through every DQ or every Mario or every Zelda.

And time investment is only the half of it. Do you have nostalgia for 8-bit or early 3D? Are you happy to take historical context into account when you run up against dated game design, or are you just looking for a good ol' time? How patient are you, and how much time have you got on your hands? I know people who prefer to play through a series in chronological order... which is great for them — there's no 'wrong' way to play, after all — but would likely turn me off very quickly. I don't have the time for that.

There are so many long-running franchises these days. Where do people who've never played a Pokémon or a Final Fantasy or a Castlevania even start?

There are so many long-running franchises these days, too. Where the hell do people who've never played a Pokémon or a Final Fantasy or a Castlevania or a Fire Emblem even start? What's the best Zelda game to begin with? While it echoes back to past entries in certain ways, Breath of the Wild is such a departure for the series that it feels odd to recommend to series virgins: if they don't get on with the open world, that might colour their attitude towards the more traditional Zelda template; alternatively, they might think the Divine Beasts represent the series' dungeon design at its peak, which for me was the weakest part of BOTW.

Equally, there's no way I'd put The Legend of Zelda in someone's hands and say, 'Hey, if you don't like that, you don't like Zelda.' The kernel of exploration and wonder was there at the beginning, but it's unrealistic for someone playing it for the first time in the 21st century to 'get' that without a boatload of context. Likewise, Ocarina of Time has its dated elements, especially if you're not playing the 3DS remake. Majora's Mask is too multi-layered and convoluted for a series introduction. Wind Waker, maybe? It's got the timeless art style going for it — just so long as they don't get bored by the sailing.

Zelda Games
One slip and it's, "Nah, tried it — I don't like Zelda", and what a shame that would be — Image: Nintendo Life / Nintendo

And that's for a series with very few 'low points'. Even the 'worst' mainline Zeldas are better than most other video games. Without wanting to cast aspersions or ruffle fan feathers, I'd hazard a guess that more people would want to play Zelda II over, say, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric.

In fact, the only series that popped to mind that I personally would recommend people to start at the beginning would be the Sonic games — but I'm absolutely aware that I'm totally biased in that case. I've always preferred the 2D Sonic games and have run into problems with younger extended family members when they simply don't believe that old, pixel-y Sonic 2 could possibly be better than Sonic Forces.

That the latter game will no doubt have been the introduction to the Sonic series for some younger gamers is cause of great concern for crusty old'uns such as myself. That's not to dismiss my nephew's (misguided) distaste for pixels, which seems rich coming from someone who devours voxels so ravenously. If he doesn't like 2D, no problem! But surely we can do better than Forces as an introduction to the series, right? Sonic's had some cracking 3D outings — let's get a solid foundation down with Colours or something before we start juggling caveats.

Yep, it sure is a tough one. With Dragon Quest, I asked online if I'd made the right decision and the consensus seemed to be that, yes, VIII was a fine place to start the journey. Ultimately, trying to preserve the integrity of future experiences with the series is all a bit academic — given my limited free time I'll be lucky to get through even one entry, let alone multiple. Getting stuck into the one I've got and not worrying about the future is the best approach for me right now.

So that's what I did. Last night I sat down with my new 3DS game within arm's reach and proceeded to fire up my trusty console. By which I mean the Switch. And then I took another shot at escaping Hades.

Bahhh video games!!!

Got me again — Image: Supergiant Games
Is it a good idea to start at the very beginning when playing a long-running game series for the first time?

Let us know below which, if any, series you think newbies would benefit from starting at the beginning. And feel free to direct Gavin towards another Dragon Quest if you think it would be a better starting point.