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MayoeruHitori

Welcome to my blog.

Where have we been? Where are we going?

TIMELINE

1980s:
- Early eroge largely consist of still art (what we call pixel art now), very short dialogue/narrative elements, and some primitive interactive elements, while spanning many genres.

1990s:
- The point-and-click adventure game, which has its roots in 1980s video games, establishes itself as one of the most popular genres of eroge. Many games emerge which have interfaces that are visually similar to those of most point-and-click adventure games, but with gradually differing gameplay. These games are all collectively called "adventure games" or "ADV" in Japanese. The general style of having an interface which consists of a rectangular text box at the bottom of the screen, and a collage of visual elements meant to serve as a guide for what the main character sees, is also called "ADV". In other words, ADV becomes a genre that embodies a style of presentation.
- The non-adult game company Chunsoft puts out Otogirisou, a kind of illustrated story in which pictures are placed in the background as visual aids while the full narrative is conveyed as overlaid text. This style of presentation is called a "novel game" or "NVL" in Japanese. The gameplay of Otogirisou purely consists of the player making choices on where to take the story, similar to "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, a simple yet powerful narrative tool which would prove influential to ADV as a whole.
- Two major eroge brands that specialize in ADV, elf and Leaf, create popular games like Doukyuusei and To Heart. These games stand out from their competitors by the way they utilize talented artists and writers to focus on the personalities of charming heroines, rather than treating pixel porn as what matters and the characterization as an afterthought. This character-centric evolution is called a charage (character game) and encompasses both NVL (like Kizuato) and ADV. And with the release of YU-NO and Kamaitachi no Yoru, two ADV/NVL games that have well-written stories, the term scenarioge (scenario game) becomes more popular.

1999:
- Kanon is released by Key. It's the first time a large number of players became very emotionally moved by the story of an eroge, or any ADV at that. Even someone like Baba from Visual Arts, who was just a businessman without much personal interest in ADV, became interested after Kanon. Aside from inventing the nakige (naki game, which means "crying game") genre, it awakened in players a desire for longer scenarios as necessary to deepen their attachment to the heroines. But its most significant role is being the first major moege (moe game) at a time when the term "moe" wasn't even very well known.

2000:
- The doujin NVL Tsukihime comes out, and its quality lets it rank among the very top, if not at the very top, of both scenarioge and charage. See Popular Views on What Defines the Chuuni Genre for more info on the influence of Type-Moon's works.

2000-2006:
- Now that Kanon and Tsukihime have come out, it seems like a dam bursts and a flood of popular and influential ADV/NVL are released. There are comparatively fewer in 2001, with the most notable ones in my mind being Kiminozo and Kazokei. But in 2002 you have Ever17, Higurashi, Kusarihime, Baldr Force, Hello world, Da Capo, and others. And every year after that just has more and more top quality ADV/NVL. The biggest year is 2004, which sees the release of both Clannad and Fate/stay night (successors to Kanon and Tsukihime, respectively).
- Around the middle of the decade, the term "visual novel" is invented among English speaking fans of these games, and basically refers to any game which has an ADV/NVL-style interface and a strong and constant narrative. Since the rest of the world directly bypassed the early history of Japanese eroge and ADV/NVL, they didn't bother with the origins of these styles of games, and just chose a term which seemed to more naturally describe the most famous and representative ADV/NVL. Since then, the term "visual novel" has been recognized by the Japanese too, although the broader Japanese playerbase still commonly thinks that VN is synonymous with "adventure game". In any case, the term is excellent and I like it.
- Over the course of this decade, the major tropes and popular genres of VNs, which were mostly foreshadowed in the late 1990s, are firmly established and standardized. They include TIPs, unlockable routes/end, true ends, bad ends, hidden heroines, time loops/leaps, moe, chuuni, nakige, utsuge, imouto games, and many more. The diverse and awkward gameplay of the 1980s and 1990s more or less disappears.
- Meanwhile, many of the most successful eroge companies like Key, Type-Moon, and Leaf/Aqua-Plus successfully rebrand themselves and reduce their focus on adult content for the sake of marketing their works to the rest of the Japanese "otaku" industries. They adopt the label of "bishoujo game maker". Many of their most popular IPs (intellectual properties) receive anime adaptations or evolve into multimedia franchises, with "Fate" being the most famous example. On the other hand, as these industries embrace VNs, they also learn from them and try to emulate that same appeal within their own IPs; Fate/stay night is especially influential as a progenitor of the "chuuni" genre.

2006:
- Statistically, eroge sales begin to decline. The industry itself doesn't immediately begin to decline, though, because investors take time to notice and react to such trends, companies are still in the midst of developing games, and they will try to shift strategies to fight the trend. The decline in sales won't slow down until 2012.

WHY

Causes of the trend? This was fiercely debated for years and still hasn't been completely settled. But it's more or less clear.

VNs served as a creative outlet without rivals for several years.

At first, in the early 1990s, nobody expect much from eroge. But as we entered the later part of the decade, that changed. Eroge was always a venue for weird and exciting scenarios that wouldn't be accepted elsewhere, and it was easier than ever to make quality audiovisual experiences, with multiple free or cheap VN engines available. Writers like Maeda Jun and Nasu took advantage of the medium's ease of entry, along with the freedom of expression it afforded. It was a fresh, mature alternative to the LN industry. However, that didn't last forever. Major publishers in other mediums distilled the parts of eroge that appealed most to players: the nakige components, the moe components, the fanservice and unapologetic harems, the handy sci-fi tropes, the balloon breasts. Everything except the deep emotional and mental investment that's only possible with literature. And of course, the mature themes and content.

Above all, what VNs brought to the table was no longer as fresh to people. Without a sense of excitement, the fact that VNs require people to sit down and actually read continuously for hours became... problematic. The era of smartphones and social media also heralded the era of low attention spans. People came to think that "adventure games" = "boring". This was coupled with the fact that more and more people play bishoujo games on their smartphones, and who wants to play eroge in public?

Waifu/husbando social games like Fate/Grand Order and Granblue Fantasy dealt especially heavy blows to players' interest in VNs. They let players pick between countless more waifus and husbandos than VNs, have more exciting plots to engage casual players (not some ordinary school life drama), have the slutty outfits and exaggerated figures of nukige heroines, continually put out new content for the most popular characters, let you put your waifu/husbando in your home screen so you can constantly look at her, and tap on the portrait of her/him to hear some flirty line voiced by a popular anime seiyuu. They even copied the feature of some VNs where you can give your favorite hero or heroine chocolates on Valentine's Day or White Day. The proof is in the recent anime Chuubyou Gekihatsu Boy where the "guy who's only interested in 2D girls" stereotype no longer involves VNs on a PSP, but rather depicts a social game on a phone. To be frank, even the latest Fire Emblem game probably makes VNs less appealing by comparison. The main draw of VNs was always the cute and flirty heroines and romance, but these elements have been thoroughly exported.

The exact same situation arose with Japanese web novels on the site Shousetsuka ni Narou. An initial wave of authors pioneered new genres with certain distinctive tropes, most of them related to isekai, and started a trend which has dominated the Japanese web novel scene. But the mainstream LN industry quickly learned and started to put out its own isekai LNs, as well as aggressively recruit these authors (who naturally didn't object to being paid for what they'd initially put out for free online). A few years later, Narou's talents have more or less moved out, and the stories at the top of the popularity charts haven't been supplanted by any new talents. In any case, the major difference between Narou and the VN industry is that Narou authors are overall much better off with editors, whereas the transition from VNs to LNs/anime is absolutely a creative downgrade.

WHAT DO

1. Copy FGO.

Social games are a natural evolution of the appeal of many VNs. Unfortunately, they're also largely vapid experiences with have less voice acting, silent protagonists, a massive cast of heroines who receive little character development, a disjointed narrative, a story that's mostly dialogue and constantly interrupted by battles, and many other flaws that prevent them from achieving literary excellence.

These games have invariably underestimated how popular they'll become and worked with cheap art assets and flimsy storytelling, only to fix this by hiring better artists and writers for the more recent arcs of their ongoing main storylines. However, even those recent arcs are still shallow experiences compared to VNs. The best they can do is have good comedy--no one will ever feel as empathetic toward the characters as they do in VNs.

But of course, despite the problems with social games' storytelling, they are still... inevitable. They will still successfully rake in cash from people with personalities prone to gambling addiction. So one VN company after another has tried to become the next FGO. Eushully, light, August, Key, Lilith, Frontwing, Nitroplus and many others have pursued social games, virtually all of which failed to really take off like FGO--in part because they weren't very well-made, and in part because the Fate franchise is more popular with more devoted fans.

Frankly, this solution has been thoroughly pursued by all sorts of VN companies, and we know exactly what happens: it fails unless they're very lucky.

2. Give up.

This is a wise and fine choice. The river of life flows ever onward. Sometimes it's best to accept defeat.

3. Make NOT a visual novel.

Be Kodaka Kazutaka. Start from the idea that you want to make an adventure game. Then to appease your producer, call it a detective game instead, and add a 3D world with gameplay that takes place within it while occupying a lot of the player's time, so it in no way feels like a pure ADV. Make the narrative largely dialogue-driven. Write in a way that wastes less time on subtlety and imagery and takes more advantage of humor, twists, and action. Then call it Danganronpa and be successful, while feeling that you tricked the world by making an adventure game with the quality storytelling of an adventure game that doesn't feel like an adventure game.

Too Kyo Games plans to water down a full-fledged ADV-quality scenario with meaningful realtime gameplay, by partnering with studios that actually know how to make fun games. It's a long-term experiment on tricking people into playing adventure games.

4. Make a visual novel, but be better.

Find a slightly new angle. Gather the A-Team. Target non-traditional markets. Cultivate one's prestige. In short, reorganize and rebrand. But still make a visual novel, with ordinary 2D art and probably little to no gameplay.

The only problem is that people don't like VNs anymore because smartphones shrunk their brains until they had flea-sized attention spans. So at best, such "better" VNs will simply exist in the top tier of modern VNs, able to survive and maybe make a little profit. These are VNs for the sake of creators who want to stay in the VN industry despite how comparatively little it pays.

Aniplex.exe, a new VN brand started under Aniplex that Makura staff like Sca-ji are involved with, seems to fall under this category. They're identifying as makers of "novel games" probably because that sounds more respectable these days than bishoujo game. I'm frankly more interested in Sca-ji's other still unannounced projects (but that's just because I'm not personally a fan of Konno Asta or Umihara Nozomu).

5. Copy FGO, but EVOLVE.

Before Light's "Pantheon" mobile game died mid-development, Masada planned for it to have a substantial scenario. That kind of story would fatally clash, like matter and dark matter, with social games as they exist today. Unless they rethought the entire premise from scratch, I assume they'd have to at the very least dilute such a lengthy narrative into segments with constant breaks, rewards, and mini-games. And they'd have to make a tough choice about whether they seriously want to market it for smartphones, or stick to PC like Granblue Fantasy.

It's easier to not evolve or just give up. But moreover, I think industry veterans are just pissed off and unable to accept that something as amazing as VNs can't find its consumers anymore. So they will struggle. Visual Arts will struggle, for sure. Key pretended to be half-dead in their 20th anniversary message, but they were actually hard at work. They've let Maeda take on the scenario of a high budget smartphone game called "Heaven Burns Red". Will he be able to do for social games with "Heaven Burns Red" what he did for VNs with "Kanon"? I'm not too optimistic, since I haven't seen any indication that the overall story concept was Maeda's.

6. ???

To quote Sca-ji, a writer who's qualified to talk about the unique worth of eroge, from late October: "People across various otaku industries have said, 'I want the wonderful culture of eroge to stay alive.' They're going out of their way and doing many things to make that happen. If I'm pessimistic, this might be our last chance to revive this industry, so I'm cheering them on. Do your best. ... People around their late twenties to thirty years old have started to take positions of power in society, praising eroge and doing many things for us."

ZZZ

「Kanon」や「CLANNAD」「Angel Beats!」など…「泣きゲー」からアニメ原作まで、美少女IPを仕掛け続けた28年! ビジュアルアーツのユニークなブランド戦略と経営思想を馬場隆博社長に聞いてみた
『ダンガンロンパ』、『東京クロノス』、『グノーシア』の開発者が語る。「アドベンチャーゲームは滅ぶのか?」緊急座談会
「なぜエロゲ業界は衰退してるのか」 それをまとめた画像が話題にwwwww
https://twitter.com/gannbattemasenn/status/1015644154271973376
https://enty.jp/avestan
https://twitter.com/sca_di
https://vndb.org/

EPILOGUE

A new decade is upon is, and we're in the midst of a wave of 20th anniversaries that inevitably prompt retrospection.

What I'm keeping an eye on, out of concern for the industry, as we enter it:
- Too Kyo Games
- Heaven Burns Red (unveiling on February 28) and Visual Arts as a whole
- Sca-ji's Twitter account
- Aniplex.exe as a whole
- Any news from Masada about new publishers for Pantheon
- Major non-adult scenarioge companies like Spike-Chunsoft and Mages (they may absorb some talent or try to carry on eroge culture)
- Any actual new VNs from Nasu, like the Tsukihime remake

ADDENDUM I: A Note on Death VS Decline (added 1/28)

Spoiler

 

I just read an interview where Yoshimune responds to claims of the "death" of VNs. His response minimizes people's concerns, and I understand why he said it, but it still triggered me a little, so I want to talk about this.

Yeah, there is no immediate indication that the VN niche will die out completely in favor of other types of otaku media like social games.

For example, there are at least 2 mainstays of the VN industry that I personally consider very secure:
1. Lighthearted moege like Yuzusoft's VNs (because the kind of deep sexual and emotional intimacy you find in these VNs has earned itself a loyal consumer base)
2. Labors of love (typically scenario-oriented games put out by talented teams who have a history working in the industry and don't want to leave it)

Death and decline are different. But when people say "death" it's really only hyperbole for "decline". And the industry is undeniably in decline. The absolute top tier of VNs, the most culturally impactful and wonderful works out there, were only possible because for a brief time the entire otaku industry seemed to revolve around VNs, but that time has ended (due to, as I just outlined, shifts in the rest of the otaku industry and in consumer interests).

Even intuitively you can't deny the VN industry has declined, because in the past VNs were popular and prestigious, and now that enthusiasm has waned. Companies like Key, that benefited most from prestige, suffered the steepest relative downturn.

Many major writers around the end of the 2000s had ambitious plans for new VNs, but those plans went up in smoke and the VNs never materialized, in part because there was no money anymore, in part because the writers were seduced into other industries. Taiyou no Ko, Shoujobyou, Conquistador, and Occultum are the names of just a few of those now-mythical high-profile projects.

Muv-Luv Alternative would not have been funded, if someone wanted to make it in today's VN industry. That's also why Muv-Luv Alternative 2 never went anywhere (until recently, when age suddenly seemed revitalized). In short, you simply can't create in today's industry what you could in 2004's industry, even if there are creators who want to do so. The funds aren't there, and many of the major creators aren't there, because VNs don't sell as well anymore. That's what it means to have declined. And it's a serious issue, because the whole point of VNs is play kamige. Ten thousand average manga aren't worth a single One Piece.

 

 

MayoeruHitori

Summer Pockets Review

Before I begin, I'd like to point out that the Frontline Japan review is excellent. The only part I didn't like is that they indirectly reference one of the most important hidden elements of the story (but it's possible some people won't notice or think too hard about it) and that they say it's too short.

Edit - Just to re-emphasize, this is an atypical style of VN review. If you want a more normal review, check out the Frontline one.

This is intended to be a spoiler-free review. I never reveal anything concrete about the story itself or its themes, that isn't clearly evident from the first hour, or assumed if you know anything about Key (like the fact their games are nakige).

Key's Creative Intent

If you didn't know, Summer Pockets is the next major Key title (not a short VN like Harmonia) that came out recently.

In Key's promotional interview back in December of last year (translation), the director and writer Kai revealed that Key staff tried to have a "fresh approach" and come up with ideas for the next Key title internally, but didn't like any of the proposals. Then Maeda Jun spoke up and said, "Uh, I have this one idea..." And they said, "This is Maeda Jun!" and went with it. That's the core of Summer Pockets.

Maeda was unable to write for Summer Pockets due to medical problems. Key had already hired Niijima Yuu by then, and Kai worked with Niijima to flesh out the story. Hasama and Imashina Rio also wrote part of the scenario.

How Summer Pockets Actually Turned Out, Overall

Summer Pockets is easily the most Key-like game since Clannad. It's not an unconventional title like Rewrite.

Niijima's influence definitely stands out; he was responsible for many of the most important parts of the scenario, and from what I've seen, fans have praised those parts most. However, Kai's role shouldn't be understated, since he was the director and worked closely with Niijima.

Despite some people's fears, Summer Pockets was not turned into a distinctly "Niijima" work like Majo Koi Nikki or Koikake. That was only to be expected, since Niijima didn't come up with the concept behind Summer Pockets, and he wasn't the sole planner either.

Although Niijima is no Maeda, IMO he's the best Maeda they could possibly find, because their overall styles are similar. There was no sense of discord with Niijima as the lead writer.

The parts not written by Niijima weren't problematic in any way, either. At the worst, you could say they were typical Key routes. To me, each route felt very unique, and each heroine had her own charm and appeal, so even if the prose didn't wow me, I always had fun.

The production quality of the rest of Summer Pockets was also extremely solid. They seriously didn't skimp on the CGs this time. Since Angel Beats! -1st beat-, Key's art has been (in my personal opinion as a non-Itaru fan) much more beautiful and expressive. The seiyuu are top-notch too. But it's too bad that the male lead Hairi wasn't voiced. Key always has nice music, too; I've spent hours with the jukebox in the extras menu. Orito's tracks are typically my favorites, and I also like Maeda's "Sea,You Next" and "Pocket o Fukuramasete". Normally I'm a major Mizutsuki Ryou fan, so the fact she's overshadowed by two people just makes me think, "Yep, that's Key for you." My favorite track from her in Summer Pockets is "Yoru wa Mijikaku, Sora wa Tookute".

What It Feels Like to Play Summer Pockets

From here on out, this review will be "less spoiler-free" simply because I'll talk about stuff like... the extent to which the heroines interact with one another in the common route, or the common route's structure. Don't worry, I never reveal anything concrete about the story itself or its themes, that isn't clearly evident from the first hour.

At the story's start, the male lead Hairi arrives on a small island that's located off the coast of his home city. He's ostensibly there to help his aunt dispose of his recently departed grandmother's possessions, but she tells him, "I'm still sorting through everything, and don't need your help yet. Go out and have fun!" So he has no choice but to wander around the island every day.

A major part of the charm of Summer Pockets rests in the island and its inhabitants. As Hairi wanders around, he becomes friends with the handful of locals who are his own age. They already know each other well and have their various humorous character dynamics, so it's wonderful how they accept Hairi into their circle despite the fact he's not from around there. To quote someone on EGS, it's "an island atmosphere filled with kindness and consideration." Many people love this aspect of Summer Pockets. It probably appeals to players even more than the nakige aspect does (judging from the EGS tags).

The fixed part of the common route is very short, and from then on you have to repeatedly choose who you want to spend time with in order to select a route. It's very typical.

In the heroine routes, you'll learn about the hidden sides of the heroines and come into contact with various mysteries. Unless you've never heard of Key before and want zero expectations (don't confuse "intended to be spoiler-free" with "completely blind"!), I don't think it is a spoiler to say that you should expect to deal with drama that arises from supernatural plot devices.

The average reading time of Summer Pockets on EGS is 30 hours. That's the same length as Air, and longer than Kanon. Of course, it's much shorter than Little Busters EX, Rewrite, or Clannad.

The Bottom Line: How Good Summer Pockets Is

Just look at the numbers. Summer Pockets has an extremely robust score on EGS, a median of 89 with 200+ votes. For comparison, the only clearly better-received VNs in the past 5 years are Sakura no Uta, Rance 10, and ChuSinGura 46+1. It's similarly well-rated on VNDB.

What appeals to people most is, as you'd expect, that this VN successfully nails the Key formula: comedy, lovable characters, and of course, tears. As one person put it, "Key isn't dead. I've been convinced."

And like I said earlier, the production values are excellent. Key's VNs used to be known to skimp on art (of course, the music was always solid) but they've broken away from that limitation. There are so many nice CGs in Summer Pockets, as well as sprites. It seriously improves the experience. Summer Pockets is truly a modern VN.

There were other improvements over previous Key VNs, too. Kai probably deserves credit for them. He mentioned in the December interview that for Summer Pockets, they tried to make the heroines interact with each other more, and they also added handsome male side characters. Key pulled this off well; while the level of inter-heroine interaction still wasn't at the level I hoped for (I know I'm crazy to want harem love comedy situations in a Key VN...) it was still solid. The two boys, Tenzen and Ryouichi, resembled Kengo and Masato (from Little Busters) respectively. Although they clowned around a lot, and rarely seemed as reliable as the Little Busters boys. Not that they didn't have their cool sides. But if you're Kyousuke-sexual, you probably won't find what you want in Summer Pockets. If anyone, perhaps Ao was the "Kyousuke" of Summer Pockets, socially. Despite being a heroine, she's a friendly person who's easy to talk to and well-connected on the island, so there were plenty of roles for her to play in every route of Summer Pockets.

I would say that Summer Pockets has 2 notable "flaws". The first is that some routes are better (worse) than others. Frankly, this should surprise no one who has read Key VNs--or VNs at all. Not all writers are equal, and Key often has multiple writers work on the same VN. But as I said before, none of the routes are especially bad in any way. I personally enjoyed every one of them. Only 1 of them felt fairly predictable. To offer you an idea of what my tastes are like, I was decently entertained by every route of Little Busters aside from the ones Tonokawa did (Komari and Kurugaya). So if you're someone who would say that every route but Refrain and maybe [some other route] was terrible, then maybe you actually will think that ~2 of the routes in Summer Pockets are terrible... Tastes vary.

The second "flaw" is that it's fairly derivative of other Key VNs. Maybe now you see why at the start of this post, I related the little anecdote from the interview. It shows how Key attempted to innovative, but in the end, they went the safe route with a very Maeda-esque story. Since I read this interview before I played Summer Pockets, I didn't expect a revolution... Anyway, I personally don't think it makes Summer Pockets any less excellent, except to the extent that it doesn't blow anyone's mind because they've played VNs like this before. A lot of people realize that Clannad copied from a certain other classic VN, but that doesn't make Clannad any less of a masterpiece which achieved success beyond that classic. Even if Maeda recycled some themes or plot devices when he came up with Summer Pockets, the fact of the matter is that Summer Pockets delivers them in an unpredictable way, with plenty of red herrings. You can tell from the impressions people left on EGS that few people care about the parts that are derivative. And for the record, it's not completely derivative thematically. For example, the themes about summer and summer vacation are potent and unique to Summer Pockets. The final title drop especially wowed me.

Niijima VS Maeda

I want to talk about Niijima's style. A lot of people assumed that a Key VN wouldn't feel like a Key VN without Maeda Jun, with comparisons to Rewrite.

But a Key miracle happened. Summer Pockets has been just as successful (I mean, when you adjust for the fact that the industry is smaller than it used to be) as many of Key's past titles, like Air. Credit where credit due: Niijima Yuu, the same person who wrote the hit Hatsuyuki Sakura (#1 VN of the year 2012, as voted by 2ch), who has been praised by many writers in the industry, did for Key what I presume someone hoped he would when they hired him: he utilized his Maeda-like style to capture the sort of atmosphere that they'd previously relied on Maeda to deliver.

For the record, I'm not denying that there are still many people (even those who loved Summer Pockets) who, after they played it, still think, "I miss Maeda." Niijima and Maeda are not exactly the same. I personally love them both. From an objective standpoint, Maeda is probably better. However, Niijima has his own strengths.

Both Niijima and Maeda like to write comedy that involves eccentric side characters, with male leads who tends to wander around like a loner. They both write scenarios that make the player cry at climactic moments. They both lean toward narratives with unlockable routes and true ends. They both tend to incorporate the supernatural into their plots, yet at the same time don't completely rely on it, or employ it as a kind of metaphor.

A major part of what I feel is Maeda's charm is that there is a deep sense of intimacy, or camaraderie, between his characters. The characters don't subconsciously keep each other at a distance--they form a unique bond almost immediately which deepens as they come to know each other, in a way that every reader loves to see, especially more socially isolated Japanese readers. Niijima's flaw is that he can't quite do this--it wasn't until some of the scenes toward the latter part of Summer Pockets (perhaps not written by Niijima) that I really felt I could sense a heartfelt connection between Hairi and the side characters. There were many parts of Summer Pockets where a character would have some sort of comic reaction, where they became really upset or passionate, but then 2 sentences later when another character switched the subject to move on with the conversation, that upset character suddenly was calm and matched the pace of the conversation, as if they'd instantly quelled their emotions with zero explanation, or as if their previous reaction had been totally fake. I'm sure that Maeda would have depicted more smooth conversational transitions. Niijima's humor has its own brilliance, but often it feels like the characters just relate to one other with humorously eccentric behavior at a superficial level, without the sense of closeness of Maeda's character dynamics.

On the other hand, Niijima's text appeals to me a lot more as a fan of eroge. His humor may not be quite as... hmm, "creative" and "unprecedented" as the weird situations Maeda comes up with, but it feels less childish too. One very Niijima-esque technique is to have a set of ~3 side characters who talk back and forth to each other about the male lead in the male lead's presence for comic effect. In other words, he pokes fun at misinformed attitudes and social expectations. Compared to Maeda, Niijima's humor is a bit more, hmm... "mean-spirited"? It feels like the humor often revolves around one character who teases another based on a misconception. Connected to that, it often feels like there's more of a flirty atmosphere. Well, honestly, Summer Pockets was still a lot less lewd than I expected from Niijima. The lewdest parts of the VN weren't even written by him. So the overall more "eroge-like" atmosphere of Summer Pockets may owe itself to the director Kai more than Niijima. But I think that Niijima's style is what enabled this. Anyway, this is the first Key VN I've read where I actually really wished it had ero.

Still, as a Niijima fan, I wished I'd seen a little more of his style in the fabric of Summer Pockets. While it's true that the text definitely felt Niijima-like, and one of the routes that Niijima wrote deeply resembled a route he wrote in a certain other VN... Part of what I had really hoped to see Niijima introduce to Summer Pockets are elements of action. It's not like I expected the amount of combat to match Hatsusaku, but at least once or twice, I would've liked to see a few short battles. The nature of the way Niijima writes such clashes, as half-metaphors which emphasize differences in perspective, leaves the story's atmosphere intact, so it wouldn't have hurt. But I'm afraid that Kai may have wanted to avoid any Rewrite-like action, as Key attempted to return to their foundation with Summer Pockets. In any case, without this, Summer Pockets suffered from a deficiency of 盛り上がる要素 (excitement/tension). Despite the fact that in many ways Summer Pockets felt like a modernization of Key's style, it still lacked one of the most prominent elements of modern console ADVs--action.

Kai may have perhaps clamped down on Niijima a little too much, but I'm still very happy with Niijima's role in Summer Pockets. The "summer vacation" that's at the core of the story (adjacent to the parts that Maeda came up with) as it's developed is 100% Niijima thematically, and is also the most memorable part of the story to me, besides just how fond I am of the characters.

Key, After Summer Pockets

Actually, I'd rather ask you, theoretical reader of this post. Do YOU know what Key plans next? Has anyone at Key said how they feel about the positive reception to Summer Pockets? I haven't heard any information yet, but then, Summer Pockets only came out recently.

All I want to say is that Key's future is on my mind. I'm hopeful they will make a fandisk, because they've made a fandisk for every other major Key VN besides their first 2. If so, they will probably keep Niijima around for a little while more. I want Maeda back, but I think Key is an excellent fit for Niijima, and maybe Key can allow him a tiny bit more creative freedom next time to repay him for Summer Pockets. I wouldn't mind if they let him direct a smaller-scale project like Harmonia.

That's all from me. Have a nice day.

MayoeruHitori

2018, A Year of Possibility in Visual Novels

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[source]

~ Leaving Behind the Old Year ~

Let's face it. 2017 was not an impressive year for Japanese visual novels.

Sure, the OELVN scene had a breakout hit in the form of Doki Doki Literature Club.

Sure, the VN localization industry amazed everyone with prominent official releases of super-popular titles like Muv-Luv Alternative, Little Busters, and the never-before-translated Subarashiki Hibi, Dies irae, and Chaos;Child, to name a few.

But the heart of the visual novel industry remains in Japan. And this year has been fairly mediocre for it.

I mean, if you take a look at the numbers on Erogamescape (also known as EGS, it's Japan's equivalent of VNDB), you'll find that Hikari no Umi no Apeiria [vndb], and Nora to Oujo to Noraneko Heart 2 [vndb] were the only VNs with a median around the mid-80's or higher and more than a hundred votes [EGS source data]. For reference, 2016 had 6 titles at that level: Island, Chaos;Child, Akeiro Kaikitan, Utawarerumono 3, Tokyo Necro, and Baldr Heart.

Of course, that data point doesn't tell the full story. EGS is geared toward eroge players; in terms of pure adventure games (also known as ADV, the common way Japanese players refer to visual novels) New Danganronpa V3 [vndb] was very well-received. (V3 is also the only 2017 VN among VNDB's top 100.) The very recently released Kiniro Loveriche's [vndb] reception has been extremely positive, and though it hasn't had time to accumulate votes yet, I'm optimistic it will stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Apeiria. It's not like there aren't an assortment of noteworthy VNs that merely fall short of the top tier statistically, such as Ouka Sabaki [vndb] and ChronoBox [vndb]. Fans of particular studios like SMEE [vndb], Purple software [vndb], and Moonstone [vndb] were also able to get their fix this year. The VN industry is far from dead; if anything, it's evolving to fill various niches.

But that's a whole other topic. The bottom line is I'm ready to move on from 2017. And once you see what's in store for us in 2018, I'm sure you will be, too.

 

 

~ Ringing in the New Year, Along with Potential Kamige ~

Every year has promising titles. Unfortunately, they often don't live up to their promise. Still, some titles are so promising--the studios behind them so reputable, the staff working on them so consistent, so little room for error--that it's hard not to get excited.

There are, in my opinion, 5 such confirmed titles for 2018.

 

~ Summer Pockets (Key) - June 29, Delay Likely ~

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Let's start with this one, because it's the one I'm personally most hyped for.

To state the obvious, Summer Pocket is a major ADV from Key. No matter who the staff behind it is, you'd be foolish to underestimate it. Key's complete major titles are Kanon, Air, Clannad, Little Busters, and Rewrite. (I skipped Angel Beats because it's not complete.) Every one of these VNs is resoundingly famous.

But let's pretend we don't know that Key, with its reputation for ambitious works that are patiently crafted rather than quickly pumped out, is behind Summer Pockets. Instead, let's take a look at the staff.

The heart of Summer Pockets is Niijima Yuu. He's the mastermind behind Hatsuyuki Sakura, a massive hit from 2012. His prose is hilarious, fresh, and really endears you to the characters. With his tendency toward fanservice and lewd humor, and the way it's always hard to discern the supernatural from the metaphorical in his narratives, he has a lot in common with Maeda Jun. ...Hopefully you already knew this because you've read Hatsusaku. Nobody should miss out on that one, whether they're a romance fan, an action fan, a mystery fan, or a FEELS fan.

Anyway, the problem with Niijima Yuu is that he can't be allowed too much creative control. If he is, you end up with the likes of his later works Majo Koi Nikki and Koi x Shin Ai Kanojo, where he made creative decisions that alienated many players. When he was with Saga Planets, they reined him in well. When he was with Amuse Craft, they obviously didn't. But he announced a period of self-reflection in response to Koikake's criticisms. And he adopted a very humble attitude in the first Summer Pockets interview from back in December 2016. Furthermore, Key is a company incredibly concerned about its brand identity, and on top of that, Summer Pocket is constrained by Maeda's outline. So I'm confident that Niijima's strengths will truly shine through, like they haven't since Hatsusaku.

And my optimism has been boosted further by all the Summer Pockets info released this past week. Not only are the character designs and backgrounds beautiful, but the excerpts of scenes with each heroine are charming and demonstrate that yes, this is Niijima at his finest.

On a final note, it's very possible that Summer Pockets will be delayed--hopefully not past 2018--because Niijima's recent tweet indicated that he's not at all confident he'll be done with the scenario in time for a June 29 release.

 

~ Kimi to Mezameru Ikutsuka no Houhou (Navel) - April 27 ~

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I won't say a lot about this one. I'm not a Navel expert; I've watched the Shuffle anime, and read Oretsuba and Tsuriotsu, but that's it.

One reason I'm so optimistic about Kimimeza is rooted in the way Navel handles their creative works. A cynical way to look at it is that they squeeze all their works dry with at least one or two fandiscs, often way more than that. A better way to look at it is that they rarely put out a title that doesn't deserve fandiscs. Navel has finally moved on from Tsuriotsu, and I believe they haven't done so casually.

The real question, to me, is how much of a creative role Jackson will play. A fair amount of what made Tsuriotsu so special to me came from Jackson (yes, I'm aware of what interviews and such say, and I believe it's deceptive). We know Jackson does miscellaneous work for Navel, but will he involve himself in this new VN? Or will Navel just let Kazuki Fumi do what he wants within a particular framework, and hope for a decent reception?

Even if Kazumi Fumi doesn't receive any support from Jackson, Kimimeza could still wildly succeed. He's a talented writer who wrote Gun Knight Girl and Akeiro Kaikitan, among others, and the constraints of Navel's brand identity could help refine the finished product into one that's broadly appreciated. The premise of Kimimeza feels really interesting, not overly generic but not silly or half-assed either--it's the premise of Chobits where a guy finds an abandoned android, except the girl isn't an android, she's disguised as an android but actually a victim of human organ trafficking, plus there are apparently assassins.

Although the story seems like it'll be exciting, the fact that there are only 3 main heroines makes me wonder if Kimimeza will be smaller-scale than Tsuriotsu. Still, there are plenty of reasons to pay attention.

 

~ Rance 10 (Alice Soft) - February 23 ~

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Rance needs no introduction, and doesn't lack proponents. The Rance games are always above average in quality, and they always sell well.

In case you hadn't heard about Rance 10 in particular, it will be the final one in the series. As the concluding chapter, the big question is whether fans will consider this a fitting end that wraps everything up the way they hope it will. My gut is telling me that it will be.

What's also awesome about Rance 10 is that once it's out and the series is over, people like me who aren't into the series will no longer have to feel jealous that they can't join in on the hype.

 

~ Minikui Mojika no Ko (Nitroplus) - Summer ~

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The literary core of the current Nitroplus, and the brain behind many ambitious and unique titles, Shimokura Vio, is making a new eroge.

I haven't researched this much, and not a lot has been announced either (maybe more has been mentioned in interviews that I'm just not aware of). The tagline is "I (僕) know your ugliness (醜さ)" and the title is a play on "The Ugly Duckling". "Mojika" is probably a reference to 文字禍 (lit. "letter calamity"), Nakajima Atsushi's 1942 short story about a fatal curse upon an Assyrian king, which originated from a spirit (霊) of written language (文字). I'm not someone who reads classic Japanese literature, so I don't know more than that. In any case, my impression is that it will be another deconstructive work by Shimokura.

 

~ Sakura no Toki (Makura) - TBA ~

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Is it stupid of me to assume that the sequel to Sakura no Uta, of all VNs, will actually come out within a mere year, rather than suffer delay after delay? Probably, but it's being steadily developed and Sca-ji initially aimed to release it in 2017, so the whole of 2018 should be enough time, unless... well, unless history repeats itself.

Again, this will be the sequel to Sakura no Uta, the best VN in the last half a decade. And it'll be done by the same writer, and probably mostly the same audiovisual staff (too lazy to check). Although it's possible that it won't be as ambitious as Sakura no Uta, it will naturally feature Sca-ji's writing and have some excellent parts, and probably be rated highly too.

I don't have much to say about Rance 10, Minikui Mojika no Ko, and Sakura no Toki, because their staff situations aren't as complicated as Summer Pockets and Kimimeza, as far as I can tell.

 

~ Other Notable Titles~

Many other VNs will be both announced and released in 2018, so this is far from a representative portion, but here a few other titles that caught my eye. Sorry if I missed your favorites, hypothetical reader.

  • Kieta Sekai to Tsuki no Shoujo on January 26: A collaboration between La'cryma and Hiyoko Soft. I love Kamiya (writer of fortissimo), but although he's involved with the scenario, it doesn't seem like he's personally writing it. The developers announced they'd be deliberately concealing the staff who work on this. I'm also a little afraid it may repeat the mistakes of Lass with an overly dark scenario. But it's worth paying attention to.
  • Butterfly Seeker on March 30: Another Silky's Plus VN, this one is from Unabara Nozomu, writer of Fairytale Requiem and Shinsou Noise. (The writer of Apeiria doesn't have any announced VNs in the works, if you were wondering.)
  • Riddle Joker on March 30: The new Yuzusoft VN. Many moege fans swear by Yuzusoft, and although their VNs usually aren't rated very high, they sell very well. Toishi Hiroki (an apparently decent writer) will also be taking part in this one.

 

~ Other Predictions for 2018 ~

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My wild prediction is that 2018 will be the year that people accept that the eroge industry won't be pumping out kamige like Fate/stay night or Muv-Luv Alternative reliably any more, and won't be standing at the cutting edge of moe again anytime soon, but still has unique worth as a medium and will continue to steadily produce awesome works that rival any popular anime or manga. The big investors and talented writers are mostly gone, but in exchange, studios are getting smarter and playing to the medium's strengths. Maybe we'll also see people categorize less in terms of eroge versus console ADV, and more in terms of (doujin) eroge versus commercial ADV.

 

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