By Jonathan Wojcik
Dragon Quest Monsters IIWith Sprites from Dragon's Den
While it's never quite taken off in the West to a great extent, the Dragon Quest franchise has been a massive phenomenon in Japan since 1986, with characters and creatures designed by the legendary Akira Toriyama (best known in the U.S. for the Dragonball universe). Having even featured monster-training mechanics almost a decade before Ash and Pikachu, it was inevitable that the series would try its hand at a full-blown monster-focused spinoff series, and Dragon Quest Monsters has continued to enjoy steady success...in Japan, anyway. More on that later.
Gameplay in the DQM series has both advantages and disadvantages over the big "P:" a party can consist of only three monsters, but basically anything, whether an elemental dragon god or a bumblebee, can be trained into a competitively viable powerhouse. Some would say this kills variety, but monsters are still differentiated by skillsets, strategies, and how those final stats are actually distributed. The franchise still enjoys a competitive metagame over in Japan, where some monsters have proven to be more popular and tougher to beat than others, but unlike certain other games in the genre, there's hope for you no matter which three critters are your personal favorites. This should be how things work in any good mons game, especially the one where I want nothing more than to fight with a two different dead cicadas and a bag of garbage on the same team, and I forever curse that this isn't the case.
DRAGON QUEST: +10
I must admit, however, that I never really got the chance to play any of this series myself. I couldn't afford that many games, so...yeah, when it came down to this or Pokemon, I really needed that Gloom fix, and from the third game onward, the Monsters series actually began - and I need to collect myself a moment, here - dropping monsters. Taking out monsters, in a monster collecting game. For many years, the second title would continue to boast the most varied bestiary, but was only available on either Gameboy Color or a Japan-only Playstation remake, the rest of the series a mere shadow of its glory days. At least insofar as how many mollusks were in it.
Nonetheless, I bought the illustrated strategy guide for this one back when it was new, and it continues to be one of my favorite "monster manuals" to flip through for inspiration. Despite never playing the game, its bestiary has been with me for fifteen years now, water damaged and falling apart, and its time to pay it back with a look at a choice selection of its denizens. We'll be drawing mostly from the beautiful Playstation remake's sprites, and if you've never taken the time to check out the monsters in this series as a whole, you're totally in for a treat. I promise. Let's get this show on the road:
Created by breeding a "plant" monster with a "material" monster, the lovely Amberweed boasts stumpy, pebbly rock limbs and an eyeball surrounded in crystals of dried sap,
So how positively precious is this happy little cicada nymph erupting from the soil? There's no "adult" cicada in the game, just this little bug-mole cutie, and that's fine by me. A cicada spends most of its life like this anyway, so why should the flying, screaming adults get all the love? As darling as those are, I've always felt they're at their darlingest when they're under the ground, clutching at tree roots with their little shovel-arms.
There are just a handful of monster "families" in these games, and "birds" are one of them. Birds that get pretty damn weird, and this isn't even the most extreme example. The concept of a limbless, eel-like aquatic bird is one that feels kind of obvious, considering how many other vertebrates have evolved serpentine forms, but it's not one I've really seen all that often.
A "devil" type monster, and actually one of the few in the class that I really like. I've seen a lot of monsters totally covered in eyes, but they don't often distort a quadrupedal beast into a sort of slug-maggot-sea-lion. I'm inclined to see the two stalked eyes as the "main" eyes, but you can really pick whatever pair you want, they're all great choices. How about those giant ones on its shoulders? Spooky!
More fun with multiple eyes, the Darkcrab's skull face is fairly scary looking, but its true eyeballs are considerably more adorable. It really hopes you'll pay more attention to the skull, but it's really just a big dopey cutie-patooter. It's also a "zombie" type monster, rather than either the aquatic or arthropod based groups, both of which feature crabs of their own. It's possible to have an all-crab team with no repeat types! Crabs everywhere! Crabbapalooza!
A classic DQ monster, Goopi is of the "material" monster family, and while it's nothing but a faceless pile of mud forming itself into a hand, it's that simplicity that makes it so memorable and iconic. It's just so fun to think of having a monster pal who's just this slimy little creeping hand, even moreso because there's utterly nothing more to it, not even an eyeball or two. It doesn't need them. Goopi is a perfect angel.
Did I mention the monsters in this game can talk? And that there's a pool of randomized "personalities" determining their dialog and vocabulary? No lie, you can end up with a mud hand that calls you its "homie."
It wouldn't be Dragon Quest if dragons weren't a fairly large family of their own, and they come in a bewildering array of scary, scaly beasties, though only a couple are weird enough to make it here. I like how this poison-based dragon is pretty much just a dolled-up giant salamander, a media darling of Japanese wildlife!
A member of the "beast" family, which is basically where they shove all the mammals and humanoids, Superten seems to be channeling some of the goofier Ultraman kaiju, or maybe it's just supposed to come across as a cutesy space alien? It's unique, whatever it is, and its gimmick is apparently that it constantly dances.
Another mighty peculiar bird, Kitehawk's whole anatomy is just a pair of wings with giant eyes - if those are indeed real eyes - and a bunch of feathers trailing like squid tentacles. Or maybe they ARE tentacles, it's not really any clearer in the official artwork. Of course I also get a bit of "Mothman" vibe from this thing.
As floored as I was when Pokemon finally unveiled a terrifying, haunted tree monster, Dragon Quest beat them by over a decade with a far creepier outcome. Ghostree's humanoid hands, skeletal face and ring of knobbly feet are all about as unnerving as a big walking piece of wood can get without being carved into some horrible dummy.
Eyeder is one of the "insect" types, which is just as well, since the "insect" category includes annelids and mollusks anyway. Eyeder is very alien looking, and quite a bit like something out of a tentacle hentai. I'm not just saying that because it has tentacles; I've seen enough tentacle monsters in my day to know there are some design tropes particularly common to them.
I like the notion that this monster is an "eye spider," even though it has soft tentacles instead of legs. It acts like a spider. I think it can even spin webs in-universe.
On one hand, it's a shame the English translations don't go for portmanteaus or puns like they do in Pokemon. On the other hand, it's good to know exactly what you're getting right in the label. From its art alone I'd never guess this screaming bone monster was supposed to be an "evil wand." Maybe it would be cooler if it wasn't, and it really was just a screaming bone monster. I don't know. I like its design either way.
Probably one of the scariest fuckers in the series, a skull spider is a common concept that can easily turn out boring, but those incredibly long, knobbly legs, devilish horns, huge tusks and striking color scheme make the Skularach especially memorable among the Craniaranea.
There are several carnivorous plants with big, toothy maws on offer, but the Maneater, another classic creature to the whole series, still looks the coolest. Its petals are clearly inspired by the giant carrion flower, Rafflesia arnoldi, and I love how its pink trunk ends in a bunch of sucker-tipped toes. Most of its color scheme calls to mind plants without chlorophyll, a cool motif only broken by the presence of some green leaves.
Of all the game's undead, Rotraven is one of the most decrepit looking, with only a tattered half-coating of filthy feathers clinging to its grimy bones and a ghoulishly absent-minded stare in its fleshless face. That's not at all how a bird's wing bones work, of course, but we can forgive Rotraven for apparently having fingers. It just looks too cool to criticise.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking Bombcrag is nothing but a rock with a face slapped on it. GOOD. There's nothing wrong with that. There never was. I love monsters that are just faces on things. If a rock with a face on it isn't your style, some other things with faces on them in this game include a tidal wave, a bag, a cloud and a sword!
Lipsy is nothing but a slug with big, fat lips and comical little arms. It's a slug that smooches things. There's little else I can say about it, but I have it here just so I can prove to you later how many slugs are in this game. I think my favorite thing about Mons games is how they're seldom afraid to revisit an animal basis, even with a style so different they almost clash with one another. You'll see!
Gross! Would Pokemon ever have a rotting dog corpse with an eyeball dangling out of its socket? I should certainly hope so, with Dragon Quest having already set a precedent. "Putrepup" is such a wonderfully cutesy-poo name for something so grisly.
I did say earlier that "birds" in this game get pretty weird. Look at this thing. It's not even a bird at all. It's a curled-up organic trumpet with antennas, feathery frills and at least one creepy little eye peering out of its snail-like body. Is there even another eye on the other side? How does this thing eat? How does it reproduce? It's not even categorized with the proper birds, either, but with the "materials," though that's a little arbitrary, because why isn't Kitehawk a material? HMMM?
I mentioned that there are like three crabs in this game. There's also a few lobsters. We're not looking at all of them, but "cancerman" here is the water family's crab, and I really dig its single eye, jagged underbite, huge limbs and looming stance.
Completing a trio of horribly decomposed animals, I'm always a fan of skeletal fish creatures, and I like how this one is clearly the skeleton of some sort of winged piranha. You know, there's a movie about flying piranhas, but it would have been far better if they were also skeletons. I'm also glad that "Putrefish" makes one of the game's few honest-to-goodness portmanteau names.
My time on the internet has made so many inoccuous things more awkward. A dragon blowing up like a balloon is a highly specific set of things fetishized by enough people that there are entire webcomics devoted to the subject. Why? I don't know. I do know that on its own merits, I think an inflatable one-eyed dragon is just a cool, weird monster concept, and the cork in the end of its tubular tail is both an amusing and kind of disgusting detail, like it's just bloating up on its own pent-up digestive gases. Also that it's tail is an extension of its colon rather than its spine. Lovely!
I'd be remiss if I didn't include at least one "slime." Dragon Quest's smiling, teadrop-shaped oozes are its most iconic mascots, and boast their own expansive family in the monsters games...though they do kind of all look a whole lot similar to one another. I wanted to show you Rockslime, however, just so you can admire that, technically, this game has TWO monsters that are just rocks with faces, only one is a cyclops and somehow it's a slime even though it's made of solid rock. Adorable.
I don't really know why this one is part of the "zombie" group. I guess it's a ghost, though it feels a little more like "devil" material. In either case, a pink, balloon-like, explosive monster with a grumpy fish face is innately lovable, and the target on its belly is a nice touch for something that presumably aims to be ruptured as a part of its battle plan.
I feel like earthworms are under-represented in a lot of gaming bestiaries. Worm monsters are abundant, but often based on more "menacing" worms, more leech-like, or some knockoff of the sandworms from Dune. Not enough people appreciate a big, slimy pink nightcrawler for a monster basis. Somehow, just slapping a happy, fanged mouth onto one manages to be so incredibly frightening.
Another fun "material" monster without too many bells and whistles, this one's nothing but a creepy mirror with a frame like a demonic skeleton. Really eerie. It would have been obvious to have some kind of entity in the mirror, or emerging from it, but I definitely prefer how it's only reflecting some ominous, reddish void, leaving us to appreciate the skeletal-framed mirror itself as the monster.
I know I keep praising the "simplicity" of these monsters, but really, aren't you kicking yourself for not already thinking of a big clump of snakes with an eyeball in the middle? It's beautiful. It's flawless. It's basically just two things put together one way, but it's immediately rad as hell, and the particular style of eye they went with is perfect for conveying a truly intense, unholy gaze.
I'm a sucker for almost any monster with just a dark hole for a face, and I'm a particularly big fan of bagworms, although "Saccer" isn't actually a bug type; it's one of the "beasts," so it's actually some kind of mammaloid, or perhaps a goblin-like creature, that happens to live the same lifestyle as a bagworm, and that's a lifestyle I can definitely get behind. Just wrap me in sticks and dirt and let me poke my head out to eat peanut butter cups.
If Ghostree wasn't quite your style, there are, of course, a handful of other tree monsters available. The strangest by far is Wingtree, a one-eyed rotten tree stump with bat wings. That in itself is a completely silly concept, but with its roots hanging down like squiddy tentacles and its green mossy color scheme, it's basically a Cthulhu head. A wooden Cthulhu head. Tell me you still don't love this bestiary to pieces yet.
I include Angleron for two reasons: one, it's the kind of straightforward, toothy anglerfish that Pokemon is still sorely missing, and two, it's *so* straightforward that this "monster" just actually literally exists on our planet, basically exactly as we see here. That just makes me so happy. What a beautiful world.
"Duckkite" may have "duck" in its name, but we all know a platypus when we see one (just ask Psyduck and Golduck)...not that any Earthly platypus soars through the air with gliding membranes, or glares down at the world with pure, distilled hate in its beady little eyes.
How darling is this short, squat little mantis in a spooky black cloak? Sickler really wants to be taken seriously, with its disproportionately large blade-arms and sinister red eyes, but it's not fooling anybody. Not when it's only two feet tall and has to waddle everywhere it goes. You could say I'm a real stickler for sickler! HA HA!! HA!!! HAHAHAHAHA!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!
I don't know what this bug type's design is really going for, but I definitely like it. It just feels completely alien, or maybe a little Cambrian, almost reminding me of Opabinia with its five eyes and cute little trunk. I suppose Pyuro's ass might function to communicate, like a peacock's tail, or maybe it sucks on plant juices with its face end and ends up looking just like a flower?
A terrestrial lobster that tunnels with its claws is one of those monster concepts that feels so plausible, it's surprising it hasn't been done more often. Its blocky, almost mechanical looking claws and mouthparts are a fun touch, adding a little "construction equipment" vibe, I like how far apart its eyeballs are and especially its vicious-looking teeth. It's a cute monster, but also looks pretty dangerous.
A tiny little pitcher plant with a big, huge tongue is a great concept for a plant monster, and I adore the placement of its reptilian eyes. It's like a stretched-out, upside-down alien face! This is one of those designs that begs to be one of the mascots to a series, something that can really easily stick in your memory...but then, that's sort of true for almost everything we've looked at here. That's Akira Toriyama for you; he injects a unique flavor of fun into damn near everything he's tasked to design.
You don't see a lot of plant monsters in just a "seed" state, unless they eventually sprout into something else. Monsters in this game, however, do not "evolve." this one-eyed, tentacled seed remains a one-eyed, tentacled seed, which raises a lot of neat questions. Is this just some monstrous, demonic plant that takes years, maybe centuries to sprout? Maybe it only germinates when there's enough EVIL in its environment, so until then, it does it best to spread its own mayhem and suffering.
SUCH a cutie. One end of this slugapillar is a tentacle-rimmed, lamprey-like mouth, while the other is a more pathetic, toothless maw with what are either ridiculous beady eyes or nostrils. Obviously the idea here is that you'll see the more laughable, mewling worm-baby face first, only to be caught off guard by its tooth-lined anus. Or maybe that's the real head, and the "face" is the butt? Maybe not, because in recent 3-d titles (more on that later...sigh) this is apparently their reaction to getting hit:
THOSE were your eyes, Taileater?! All this time?!! ALL THESE YEARS?! I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS, TAILEATER. DO FRIENDS LET FRIENDS THINK THEIR NOSTRILS ARE THEIR EYES FOR FIFTEEN YEARS?! I swear to god, if that happens to me one more time in my life...
...Or is this just somebody's photoshop? I can't tell. I found it on a Japanese blog.
As mammals ourselves, we like to regard other mammals as the base measure of "cute," even though us mammals hold the record for greasy, slimy bodily secretions and bodily odors. That's why it's always so fun when a mammaloid monster emphasizes utter grodiness, like Tonguella here, just some sort of scuzzy, sagging, hairless mix of sloth, mole and aardvark whose claim to fame is just its awful slobberiness. I also appreciate that the tongue is bright blue, like a skink!
My favorite thing in the "zombie" category, Mudron is...well, I don't know what Mudron is. All we know about it is that it's something dead and it is all about mud. It lives in it, it spurts it from its ears, it runs it through its fingers like it worships the stuff and we can safely assume mud is literally coursing through its veins. Its occult robes only add to the intrigue, and that totally inhuman, blobby face ties the whole thing together. Was this the follower of some demented mud-god who slowly transformed into a half-sludge, undying abomination? Or is it just a very soggy, flabby bog mummy?
I love everything about Droll. It's one of the "insect" types, and your first instinct is that it's based on a slug or a snail, but its eye stalks are really the only thing it has in common with a gastropod. The rest of it is just a bulbous, alien head, simultaneously phallic and yonic with just one too many pinkish, meaty folds between its smacking red lips and shiny helmet-like cap. It's just plumb yucky is what it is, like it HAS to smell horrible and it's probably always wet for no reason. best of all are the nubby limbs - so nubby it can only conceivably move in a wet, greasy penguin-shuffle. I love you, Droll.
What did I say about this series and its eyeballs? We've seen a half dozen monsters emphasizing a single big eye for a "body" by now. Darkeye, however, is the one most oriented on the concept, and has been a part of the series since its beginning. They're part of the "devil" family, and I think what I love most about them are those grotesque little "roots" opposite their worm-like tentacles. Darkeyes are alternately seen anchored to floors or ceilings by these growths! It seems like they're meant to be a sessile, sit-and-wait predator, and in some games, there are parasitic variants inside other giant monsters!
I was pretty happy when such a perfectly scuzzy fly made it into the second game, something I've waited nearly two decades now for a certain Gamefreak series to get around to, and sorry, Venonat doesn't count because it stops being at all fly-like as soon as it evolves. A true fly should only have one pair of wings, but the rest of Belzebub is unmistakably Dipteran, and I like the overall pleasing middle ground it finds between insectoid and anthropomorph. Have I neglected to mention you get a lot of these monsters by cross-breeding? You can make a Belzebub by breeding - what else? - a member of the bug family with any member of the devil family!
MY BABY. Giant snails and slugs are pretty much always an instant hit with me, but there's something especially pleasing about Dragon Quest's specimen. I just adore that mindless, slobbering stare and ragged upper lips on this big banana slug, yet another monster that's been with this series since its beginning. For me, my top favorite is really kind of a toss-up between this one and Belzebub, though Droll comes pretty close.
Breaking my usual formula, we are not ending on my top favorites. We're past those now. We're going to end on some of the overall wackiest creatures in this game. If the success of Street Sharks taught us anything, it's that there's nothing in this world badder than a shark with huge, muscly arms and legs. At least, that's what we all thought, until Axeshark came along with his humongous giant axe. There isn't even any good reason for this bastard to have that. He is already a walking shark with fists. He can probably uproot a tree with his bare hands and then bite it in half. Throwing an axe into the mix is pure overkill. It's almost like he uses it just to taunt you, just so you can die knowing you weren't even good enough to get his teeth dirty. Piss off, Axeshark! You're not clever!!
RATHER A WHOLE LOT OF CEPHALOPODS:
I decided to cheat just this once and stick a bunch in one entry, because any game with six completely unrelated, totally different cephalopod monsters is truly something special. First we've got the Hoodsquid, whose polka-dotted hood is probably supposed to communicate a bandit motif, but to me it just says "little girl sick of being pursued by wolves, also now a giant squid." We've also got the Octogon, which takes advantage of some similarities between the shape of an octopus and the shape of an elephant, which we've seen before in a mons game. There's also the down-to-Earth Kingsquid, for your vanilla giant squid needs, the mischievous Octokid, the possibly related Octoraid, and the Octoreach, which looks a bit more like an echinoderm and feels like something out of the deep-sea abyss.
That's six different cephalopods in a game where you can raise any three monsters, and can even train more than one of the same species. The number of possible cephalopod-only teams is quite staggering.
Almost every monster we've looked at is fairly bizarre, but there's still something distinctly nutty about Whalemage. It's not as simple as an anthropomorphic whale wizard, no. Its own flesh forms a "cloak," its baleen is its beard, and its tail stocks out the top of its head. The physiology at work here just defies all rationale. Did Whalemage begin as just a whale, or a human wizard? Maybe both, and then they merged together, cloak and all?
Lest you foolishly presume that only sharks get all the axeion, meet Battlerex, a "dragon" that's actually a dinosaur. With an axe. I think it might even be a bigger axe than Axeshark's. This is a mons game with six cephalopods, three or four things you could describe as slugs, two rocks with faces on them and two apex predators with axes. Land and sea! The ultimate rivals! I just don't know why Battlerex's artwork in the book is so much fuzzier and excessively shaded than everything else. Yeah, it really looks like this. Maybe Axeshark tried to sabotage it. THE CAD!
Pokemon fans love to complain whenever a pokemon is based on something "dumb" like a keychain or a mirror instead of something "creative" like a red fox or a different red fox, but deep down, they wish Pokemon got as bizarre as stacks of demonically possessed dishes. I'm guessing they just hurl themselves at you and shatter in your face, which is PRETTY threatening and painful, but hopefully they can regenerate themselves. Are their numbers constant? Are there always nine? Do they have one mind, or one per plate? The game only allows you to give a monster one nickname, and it doesn't really seem to fair to rob all these perfectly nice plates of their individuality like that. I name EACH of my plates, thank you very much.
How can you not fall in love with Beanman? He may only be a beanpod with a spear and wooden shoes, but the bored look in his huge eyeballs adds so much personality. Beanman doesn't really look like he wants to be here. Beanman's heart doesn't seem like it's really into the whole spear-wielding business, but he's got a job to do, and he may as well do it. It's not like a bunch of beans have many more exciting options in life. I guess that might be his problem to begin with. "Why couldn't I have been born an Axeshark?" thinks Beanman. Maybe you can be the one to show him his true worth.
Yeah, one of the monsters in Dragon Quest is a grotesque, fat kangaroo (or is it an aardvark?) that just always holds a skull at you. That's it. That's Skullroo. Roo with skull. I have no complaints.
NO MERCY FOR THE WEAK.
THE FINAL TRAGEDY
We're out of monsters I'm willing to scan, edit and strain to say something interesting about, but we're not out of the woods. Maybe you've really fallen in love with one of these goons. Maybe the gameplay sounds like a nice change of pace. Wouldn't it be grand if Dragon Quest Monsters were given the same loving treatment as more recent Pokemon titles? Like expanded gameplay and a lively, vibrant virtual world packed with fun and whimsy?
Well, it was.
Dragon Quest Monsters 2: Cobi's Journey and Tara's Adventure for the Nintendo 3DS dropped in Japan way back in 2013, boasting a staggering EIGHT. HUNDRED. AND THREE. MONSTERS. Every last one of them brought to life with unique animations and gorgeously textured models, populating their colorful world as interactive NPC's even well outside random battles or scripted events. A living, breathing monster world to put even Gamefreak's latest offerings to shame.
There are creatures drawn from every corner of the series, as well as heaps of brand new faces. There are monsters as outrageous as squadrons of sentai heroes, possessed pirate ships, a Slime-themed Death Star with orbiting space fighters, an entire demonic metal band on an entire demonic stage, and you better believe even more cephalopods. Some monsters - including MY BABY - have even been upgraded to giants occupying up to three entire party slots, which is fair, because now you get four party slots for battle and can carry up to eight around with you. Eight! That's TWO more than a pokemans team!
Add in the high fantasy adventure setting, epic supernatural villains and what I already said about the more equalized metagame, and this reboot is basically everything battle-monster lovers still yearn for on a Nintendo console. Want to play it? Want your friends to play it? Want to pit your European Axeshark against a Japanese Battlerex over wi-fi? Yeah? Sound like a good time?
Well, that's just too freaking bad, NERD. "Dragon Quest" games see release outside Japan only once in a blue moon, and with their consistently disappointing sales figures in the United States, there are no plans in sight to give this one any official translation, so unless you're multilingual and can afford to import a copy, you're not unlocking the key to a 3-d Beanman's heart any time soon. And if you are...you're going to be doing it all alone, with nobody to swap funny 3-d Taileater anecdotes with because your country statistically hates Dragon Quest for no particular reason.
So we don't end this on a saddening note, let's just look at Gophecada again.