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Remembering Blue Dragon, the spiritual successor to Chrono Trigger that everyone wanted and nobody played

Remembering the other great Akira Toriyama game that doesn't get the attention it deserves from under the shadow of one of the all-time RPG greats.

Shu, from Blue Dragon, eats a big egg and sticks his tongue out – overlaid over a composite of characters from Akira Toriyama.
Image credit: VG247

For a certain type of person, Blue Dragon was one of the most exciting releases of 2007. The first game from Final Fantasy-creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s new studio, Mistwalker, would be his first collaboration with Akira Toriyama since 1995’s Chrono Trigger, as well as featuring music from FF mainstay Nobuo Uematsu.

It also faced the burden of being one of the first big JRPG’s for the Xbox 360 (a console with virtually no presence in Japan), showcasing what wondrous new things could be done with the genre with all of this bleeding-edge technology.

The result was, basically, a Solid Six Out of Ten that everyone moved on from very quickly in pursuit of the flashier things on the horizon. Ostensibly billing itself as a big new Dragon Quest, the game was thuddingly traditional, even compared to that franchise’s first foray into fully 3D open worlds with 2004’s Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King. It was every bit a PS2 JRPG that just so happened to be on a console with a HDMI port.

Blue Dragon was certainly the last thing I was expecting to think of when the news of the death of Akira Toriyama broke - being a minor footnote in the works of one of the most prolific pop culture artists to ever live. It didn’t stop me from immediately installing all three discs on my Xbox and giving it the attention it deserved to get, nearly two decades ago.

A young male protagonist in Blue Dragon summons a massive blue bull.
Not a load of bull. | Image credit: Mistwalker

In hindsight, Blue Dragon is surprisingly forward-thinking in how it modernises certain aspects of traditional turn-based RPGs while maintaining much of their appeal. Enemies don’t respawn in dungeons until you leave, letting you peruse every nook and cranny for treasure in peace as you get to fully absorb the levels and their music. There are no random encounters – monsters are slow enough to avoid entirely and dim enough to be led into opposing factions, making the resulting fight significantly easier as the two groups ignore you to duke it out.

You’ll have regenerating MP surprisingly early on, enabling your party to sustain itself more or less indefinitely. You unlock fast travel in this faster than just about any other JRPG ever made, removing any stress about missing treasure or exploring too far from the safety of a town.

After a week of having my arse served back to me on a silver platter by Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth’s real-time combat - having a big, proper Enemy Turn Order plastered to the top of the screen was a real breath of fresh air in Blue Dragon.

It was also nice, after years of big RPGs offering you fewer and fewer ways to develop characters, to play with what is essentially a carbon copy of Final Fantasy 5’s peerless job system - which lets you mix and match skills from across several archetypal JRPG classes. Temporarily turning your mage into an assassin so you can give them the skill that retains an assassin’ss agility (hence, letting them fire off buffs or debuffs before the enemy has a chance to act) will do incredible things to your brain if that’s the sort of sick, mechanical s**t you’re into.

An airship in Blue Dragon carries the cast through a misty canyon.
The game is packed with that unmistakable Toriyama charm. | Image credit: MIstwalker

The big draw for fans of the genre at the time were, of course, the monsters. And there’s a veritable platter of bread-and-butter Toriyama creature designs here - a real greatest hits roster of Wee Guys. The very first monster you encounter is literally called the Poo Snake, and it’s a big pink turd with Mickey Mouse gloves and a spear - and this is only one example from a varied ecosystem of poop-based organisms.

A poo snake – a snake, made of poo – in Blue Dragon.
A poo snake. A snake, made of poo. | Image credit: Mistwalker

There are gorgeous, bulbous robots with grabby little claw hands; creepy-crawlies with gurning cartoon faces and hideously long tongues; bright red dinosaurs covered with teeth and talons. Big fat angry rats. So, so many sentient poops. The main villain is an evil Yoda wearing Vegeta’s armour with a cackling frog creature on his shoulder. It’s all very, very good.

Ignoring the hostile creatures, your own party will become home to one of the all-time Toriyama Wee Guys - Marumaro, a chubby little imp boy with a devil cape and a devil-horned pot on his head. Visiting his home-town of constantly dancing Wee Guys with pots and pans on their heads is a real highlight, due in no small part to the game’s other strong point: the town and village design. Aside from complimenting Toriyama’s designs perfectly, they’re rich with detail and opportunities to interact with all of those wonderful Wee Guys - from the sheep people to the tiny old men.

Similar to how Toriyama’s main interest in Chrono Trigger was the chance to draw things other than fantasy, there is a swathe of mechanical delights on display in Blue Dragon. If you’re a fan of Toriyama’s vehicles, you owe it to yourself to take a proper look at these full 3D renders of exaggerated subterranean tanks and egg-shaped spaceships. It's a proper realisation of some of his best vehicle concept work.

A woman in a bandana and blue top leans in close to a small yellow guy with a horned pot on his head, possibly for a smooch.
Is it about to get steamy in that pot? | Image credit: Mistwalker

Blue Dragon may not be home to Toriyama’s best work (and it might be home to some of Uematsu’s weakest, if we’re being honest), but it’s proof if any was even needed that his B-material would be the highlight of any other artist’s career. These creatures are so deceptively simple in design but are such a delight to see in motion, to the extent that they can easily justify the trip back to play the damn thing, alone.

Blue Dragon is available to download from the store on any modern Xbox RIGHT NOW - a true testament to just how seriously Microsoft took their handful of attempts to have big, exclusive JRPGs.

Blue Dragon doesn’t get anywhere near as much retroactive love as Mistwalker’s far more serious follow-up, Lost Odyssey, but it has a Saturday-morning cartoon charm that makes for an extremely breezy and accessible entry in a genre that can be intimidating to get into.

Also one of the poops has a crown, and I can’t think of a better way to honour Toriyama than smiling to yourself whilst looking at one of his cute little turds in all his kingly glory, doing a daft little dance. It's what the man would have wanted.

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