Dragon Quest III Soundtrack (Nintendo 3DS), Koichi Sugiyama, 2017
While its predecessors had been immensely successful in their own right, it was really with 1988’s Dragon Quest III that the venerable franchise turned into a commercial juggernaut. The original NES game itself sold a staggering 3.8 million copies in Japan alone. Add in a few more million copies for the game’s various remakes and Dragon Quest III turns out to be the franchise’s most successful entry (it also spawned an urban myth about the Japanese government blocking future releases of Dragon Quest games on school days to curb truancy). The game itself didn’t revolutionise the JRPG genre, but developer Chunsoft still expanded upon the gameplay of the first two Dragon Quest titles with the introduction of a character class system. This feature would become a staple of future Dragon Quest games.
After Dragon Quest II’s music had been a marked improvement over its predecessor, Koichi Sugiyama returned for the Dragon Quest III soundtrack, further expanding its breadth and diversity. Sugiyama continued to move away from the template he had established on Dragon Quest I, now including a greater number of location-specific compositions (as opposed to using the same composition for each town / dungeon / castle etc.) The NES score’s quality remained somewhat patchy, but the soundtrack also featured several highlights such as the magisterial ending theme “Into the Legend”.
As previously, orchestral arrangements created and conducted by Sugiyama followed soon – first with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in 1988, then with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1996 and finally with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Other versions of the Dragon Quest III soundtrack abound. The 1996 SNES remake featured a score that was greatly expanded over the NES original, incorporating material from the orchestral albums. However, like the earlier Dragon Quest I & II SNES port, this remake suffered from poor sample quality that particularly gave a strings an unpleasantly hollow, glassy timbre. The 2000 Game Boy Colour port – different to the Dragon Quest I & II GBC remake – based its compositions on the NES game, not the orchestral arrangements. It improves on the NES original through its fuller timbres and remixing (prioritising melodies more clearly over the ostinato accompaniment), but still suffers from its uneven source material.
A 2014 release for mobile phones based its music entirely on the orchestral versions of the Dragon Quest III soundtrack, although its synth reproduction of the live performances was somewhat lacklustre. Finally, the 2017 Nintendo 3DS port managed to replicate the orchestral arrangements of the Dragon Quest III pieces convincingly enough (certainly outclassing the horribly encoded 2019 Switch version – there’s also the 2017 PS4 port, but no soundtrack rip seems available). In other words, at the time of writing the Nintendo 3DS version is the best representation of Dragon Quest III orchestral arrangements.
At the same time, Sugiyama’s work as presented in the N3DS game still sounds significantly less life-like than the orchestral recordings, although the woodwind solos tend to fare better than ensemble brass and strings. Is there much on the N3DS soundtrack that’s not already included on the orchestral recordings? It’s true that the N3DS score features material introduced on the game’s SNES remake that wasn’t present in the symphonic arrangements – and of course these compositions sound far better on the N3DS than on the SNES. However, none of these pieces are truly essential. The one stand-out is “Adventure 2”, already present on the NES score. Quoting Dragon Quest I’s overworld theme, it was originally a somewhat flimsy composition, but the N3DS arrangement turns it into a precious little gem, with its lead melody slowed down and turned into a dreamy, idyllic woodwind solo.
Still, if the N3DS score is essentially an acceptably downgraded version of the Dragon Quest III orchestral arrangements without much in terms of additional content, couldn’t we just stick with the symphonic suites? Essentially yes – there’s no reason why you would trade the live recordings for the N3DS port’s music. But what we are looking at here is music as it is used within the game – not as a separate album release (which is what the orchestral recordings are). In other words – the Dragon Quest III soundtrack has never sounded better within a game than it has on the Nintendo 3DS. As such, this port brings some of the best orchestral game music arrangements ever written back into the title that inspired them.
Indeed, Sugiyama’s arrangement of the original Dragon Quest III material turns an above-average score into a series of orchestral delights (with the odd letdown like “Gruelling Fight” and “Zoma’s Castle”). Of course, some of the NES compositions already held plenty of potential – foremost “Into the Legend”, which showed a staggering degree of melodic development that set new standards on the NES back in 1988. Sugiyama doesn’t have to try very hard to turn the already symphonically-minded piece into an orchestral showstopper that feels like the composer doing his take on the youthful vigour and swashbuckling bombast of John Williams’ Star Wars. “Castle Rondo” displayed Sugiyama’s usual knack for combining light-hearted yet regal melodies with elegant contrapuntal lines – a mix that works as well on chiptunes platforms as it does when performed by an orchestra.
One thing that sets the orchestral arrangements of the Dragon Quest III soundtrack apart from the two earlier symphonic suites are Sugiyama’s significantly more creative and colourful orchestrations. In fact, his original NES compositions had already laid the groundwork for such increased variety. Take “Jipang”, which sees Sugiyama successfully replicating traditional Japanese music on the NES, making clever use of pitch bends and chromatic harmonies. His orchestral take on the same piece skilfully mixes in Western instruments such as French horns – a heady stew of instrumental colours that is preserved on the N3DS release. Where Sugiyama’s originality really comes to the fore is on the experimental “Phantom Ship”, which brings together several disjointed musical elements into a surprisingly coherent, eerie whole. It’s a perfect springboard for Sugiyama’s symphonic take on the same material, utilising a plethora of acerbic timbres to bypass easy descriptions of style and genre.
In other cases, it feels like the orchestral arrangements unlock the potential dormant in the NES compositions – as if this was the way the pieces were meant to sound in the first place. On the NES, “In a Town”’s lead melody feels almost obnoxiously bouncy. Meanwhile, “Village” has a gently lilting tune that ultimately is too thin – and it’s overshadowed by an intrusive ostinato accompaniment. But listen to the orchestral takes on the same material and it becomes obvious just how much clever orchestrations can do for a piece of music. Sugiyama doesn’t change the melodic material much, happy to repeat it several times – but by cladding it in different instrumental colours on each occurrence, the melodies remain fresh and charming throughout. Meanwhile, “Village”’s initially overbearing accompaniment turns into graceful string accents benefiting from the kind of nuanced attack and dynamics possible in a live performance.
Ultimately, the orchestral arrangements of the Dragon Quest III soundtrack – reasonably faithfully reproduced on the 3NDS port – are not the apogee of Dragon Quest symphonic suites, but they mark the first time the franchise’s music (by and large) achieved true greatness.
Since an internet search for screenshots of the Nintendo 3DS version came up empty, the screenshots above are taken from the Switch port.
- 01 - Town Sugiyama, Koichi 2:31
- 02 - Rondo Sugiyama, Koichi 3:29
- 03 - Adventure Sugiyama, Koichi 2:57
- 04 - Village Sugiyama, Koichi 4:00
- 05 - Dungeon Sugiyama, Koichi 3:17
- 06 - Fight Sugiyama, Koichi 1:27
- 07 - Temple Sugiyama, Koichi 2:50
- 08 - Pyramid Sugiyama, Koichi 2:25
- 09 - Sailing Sugiyama, Koichi 2:33
- 10 - Jipang Sugiyama, Koichi 2:05
- 11 - Phantom Ship Sugiyama, Koichi 2:00
- 12 - Heavenly Flight Sugiyama, Koichi 3:59
- 13 - Adventure 2 Sugiyama, Koichi 1:35
- 14 - Into the Legend Sugiyama, Koichi 2:59