The monsters are cute, for starters, devoid of the baroque stylings of their Final Fantasy brethren, and they’ve made a consistent appearance in every game since the original – to the point where they’re now mandatory for a true Dragon Quest experience. A lot of the monsters’ charm comes from Akira Toriyama’s exuberant, happy-go-lucky art style, but their silly, pun-based names (Meowgician, a magical cat; Hell Niño, a violent cloud) shouldn’t be discredited, either. Looking beyond the superficial though, the simple variations of each monster’s color palette, the addition of prefixes and suffixes to some of their names, and their location in different environments across the world creates the most believable ecosystem I’ve seen in a game
Starting knowledge: Monsters in Dragon Quest IX are categorised into families, similar to the type differences found in Pokémon without the rock, paper, scissors mechanic in place. Slime, Beast, Dragon, Bug, Bird, Plant, Material, Machine, and Zombie all house distinct monsters with various strengths and weaknesses that determine not only what they’ll look like, but how they’ll behave when they spot you out on the field. For example, the Demon family are usually melee-based attackers with high HP and strength, the Slime family is home to the series most iconic monster design and pose little threat to our Hero’s wellbeing, and the Material family take shape from various materials like stone, iron, and cloth – influenced in large part by the Japanese folklore of Tsukumogami; inanimate objects that have come to life. From these groupings, Level-5 created a cast of surprising diversity, even displaying basic biological concepts in the process.
Let’s look at the biological process of natural selection first. The Sacksquatch, one part of the Material family, lives on the grassy plains of Dragon Quest IX’s Angel Falls where the availability of fresh water and bountiful forests encourage a bark colored, sandbag-like creature to inhabit. If we extrapolate that the Material family of monsters are birthed from the folklore of Tsukumogami, we can posit that they don’t need to produce energy by eating or photosynthesis. They simply exist. Having been made from what looks like a stuffed bag of sorts, the Sacksquatch dribble a strange, grey bile from their mouth and, should they be disturbed, attack any predator who attempts to use their bodies as makeshift pillows. Nearing the end of the game, you stumble across the Bagma, a variance of the Sacksquatch colored a deep magenta with lava spilling out of its body, in a volcanic environment. Here, the extreme heat and diet has not only resulted in a different appearance, but granted the Bagma the ability to cast Fire spells, a markedly different attack compared to the Sacksquatch’s ability to toss sand at predators.
Diving deeper into the menagerie, the Guini genera under the Beast family is home to a variety of different monsters that demonstrate the biological process of metamorphosis. The Teeny Sanguini, a small bat-like monster with cow-patterned fur covering its body, is the basic monster type. After a certain amount of time, the Teeny Sanguini matures into the Pink Sanguini, shedding its cow-patterned fur for an alluring pink color while maintaining the shape of its previous form. At the end of the chain is the Genie Sanguini who, at first, is simply another palette-swapped variant of the Teeny Sanguini, until we glance over the game guide and get this fascinating little tidbit:
“Little Sanguinis who were supposed to mature into Bloody Manguinis, but grew into these loveable lumps instead.”
Suddenly, we leap from the simple and endearing monster design of the Sanguini to the demonic-like Manguinis. The once tiny wings of the Sanguini burst into monstrous, Satan-like wings and their cute smiles are replaced with gaping maws and sharp, pointy teeth. Their new form is much more aggressive than their older one, frequently attacking in groups. They’ll later transform into the Bloody Manguini and Boogie Manguini, growing ever more stronger and dangerous in the process.
And what analysis of Dragon Quest would be complete without mention of the humble Slime? The little, onion-shaped sweetheart comes from the Slime family, one of the biggest and most consistent monster families in Dragon Quest history, and their designed chain of command gives us a glimpse into a monster hierarchy, and an inspired twist on the wolf pack mentality. The most basic Slime is the weakest monster in the game, dropping a measly amount of money and EXP upon defeat, and essentially exists to facilitate easy level ups in the earliest parts of the game. Throughout the series, new genera have cropped up around this simple creature such as the Bubble Slime, a melty glob of green goo; the Jelly Slime, a jellyfish-like creature; the She-Slime, because every creature needs to breed; and most importantly the King Slime, a gigantic Slime with a crown on its head. From the beginning of the game and almost right up until the very end, new and stronger Slimes are periodically introduced to reflect your growing strength. They are the yard stick of Dragon Quest.
Of particular importance are the “Metal” variants of Slimes. Typically found in caves and other underground environments, the various Metal Slimes are a timid and rare group. They follow almost the exact same chain of command seen in the normal Slimes, but are distinguished by their chrome appearance and the absurd amount of EXP they drop when defeated – sometimes even eclipsing the EXP drops of the strongest bosses. The only caveat to the Metal Slime’s boundless EXP is their high speed stat, which allows them to escape a fight well before you even get a chance to attack. Their special stat balance – high evasion, low HP, heavy resistances – often results in the player forming specific hunting groups and tactics to take them out, which is a drastically different tact compared to how you approach a regular Slime. And on a mechanical level, there’s something deeply humorous how the beginning and end of any one Dragon Quest game is bookended by you fighting the same cute, little creature but in different colors. There’s a deep self-awareness, or maybe a wry wink that Yuji Horii knows how many Slimes you had to defeat at the beginning of the game, and all the Liquid Metal Slimes you’ll be chasing down at the end of it.
More often than not, games come wrapped with incredibly detailed main characters at the expense of diversity in enemy design. I understand this is often the case of splitting resources to focus on one thing over another, but taking the time to detail an enemy the player will be fighting countless times is beneficial to the experience. Adversary should be memorable, it makes a journey mean something when you can remember what you were fighting. There’s no doubt the appeal of Dragon Quest IX’s monsters comes from Toriyama’s illustrations accentuating their personalities, but equal importance should be placed on Level-5′s decisions on how, why, and where all these creatures live and interact with each other. The monsters in Dragon Quest IX are not the Locusts of Gears of War, or the Darkspawn in Dragon Age; conglomerate blobs of ugly faces and indistinguishable bodies. They’re celebrated individuals that are placed in environments in which they belong, where the interplay of different species and genera are elaborated upon, and it helps establish a world that feels inhabited. That Level-5 achieves this with cute monster design is simply a bonus.
A big thank you to Steven Throup for providing the illustration of Sackquatch and Bagma on such short notice. You can find other illustrations by him on his Tumblr