25 Years With an Invisible Elephant in the Room

We’re closer to our video games than ever. Character relationships defined beyond plot proceedings and realized by progression mechanics of all sorts are now increasingly mainstream in some of the bestselling games each year. Fire Emblem lets you indulge in an intimate tea time with its wide ranging cast. Yakuza routinely allows you to rub shoulders with women from Japan’s hostess club industry, drinking and chatting it up as you rack up an ever bigger tab. Even past Pokemon games have given you the chance to offer your caught critters affectionate scritches and pets. Meanwhile, on the narrative-focused end, more visual novels and even games from its genre forebears in Japan, sound novels and adventure games, are finding life in new languages overseas as they become more routinely localized. This, it must be emphasized, after decades of such games being shut out of foreign markets because of overly restrictive regional platform holders and perceived consumer apathy. I’d also be remiss not to mention the efforts of developers outside Japan in exploring how relationships can be systemically depicted, particularly in indie games as wildly diverse as Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story, Nina Freeman’s Cibele and We Met in May, and Sukeban Games’ VA-11 Hall-A, among many, many others. [Full disclosure: I’ve previously been hired for translation work by Nina and am also friends with the leading members of Sukeban Games.]

In many ways, there has perhaps never been a richer time to explore relationships in games, both through systems and storytelling. But in Western circles, the history of these themes past their more recent incarnations over the last decade or so remains one that many are averse to grapple with. Their potential for deep, resonant player engagement and immersion are now recognized, but not always the trailblazers that hinted at it in the first place, especially those that originally came from Japan in the 1990s and 2000s, but languished outside Asia without accessible localizations.

It’s about time we in Western circles more widely grappled with the place that historical dating sims inhabit within this canon. In the remaining days of this year, one already rife with significant anniversaries in video game history, there’s one paradigm-defining entry in the genre that turned 25 this past May, yet has lamentably gone ignored despite its sheer presence in its homeland and its immense legacy remaining in many of today’s chart-topping hits.

We need to talk about Konami’s Tokimeki Memorial before 2019 is over.

Tokimeki Memorial’s main stat-building screen.

Where to begin with such an ill understood game within an oft-derided genre? Let’s start with what it’s not. Originally released in 1994 for the PC Engine Super CD-ROM, Tokimeki Memorial is a dating sim in the Japanese sense, rather than the Western one, which has, over time, become an amalgamation of genres with at times disparate histories and connections to one another. Though it maintains many presentational trappings that appear reminiscent of visual novels, in practice, it shares little in terms of structure and writing style with them. Visual novels, true to their name, often rely on a full suite of traditional prose techniques seen in conventional novels and tend to abide by a fairly rigid, linear progression with limited, if any, real gameplay systems beyond dialogue choices and story routes. Dating sims like Tokimeki Memorial, on the other hand, predominantly rely on character dialogue that’s portrayed in short vignettes, often within a comparatively open-ended, free-form gameplay flow.

Dating sims also possess a strategic meta that must be taken into consideration while playing in order to win a character’s affection. As a foundational game in its genre, Tokimeki Memorial’s own formula is about as classic as it gets, widely emulated to varying degrees in the years immediately following its release. Placing players in the role of a young student on their first day at Kirameki High School, they have three years to raise their stats in an attempt to court a girlfriend by the time graduation rolls around, as local legend has it that those who become couples under the old tree in the schoolyard will go on to be happy together forevermore. Canonically, the protagonist’s ultimate goal is to woo red-haired Shiori Fujisaki, his childhood friend and the game’s iconic mascot. Regardless, players can also pursue one of a dozen other girls instead, which they’ll likely end up doing for at least their first few runs, as Shiori is notoriously fickle when it comes to winning her heart.

In practice, this process entails determining the protagonist’s schedule in week-long chunks, choosing one of several activities to focus on each school week that are designed to boost specific stats to somewhat random degrees, albeit at the cost of others. As players do so, they’ll slowly meet the other girls populating the school. Regularly scheduling time to hang out and socialize with them all, even the ones the player has no intention of getting together with, is key, as failing to do so can sour the protagonist’s reputation with them, ultimately creating a domino effect among the other girls as word spreads. Taken as a whole, Tokimeki Memorial therefore ultimately descends more directly from retro Japanese adventure and strategy games, particularly those found on PCs and the so-called “raising game” subgenre pioneered by series such as Princess Maker, than novel games more generally. While also an offshoot of Japanese adventure games, those games were only beginning to take shape in their own right when Tokimeki Memorial first arrived in May 1994, with the first works marketed under the “visual novel” banner proper not arriving for another year and a half by way of developer Leaf.

Though to many Western players, this formula might, on paper, sound like a glorified exercise in RPG stat grinding, a handful of smart design decisions made by the development team helped elevate Tokimeki Memorial to the mid-90s social phenomenon that it became. First is the way it subverts and recontextualizes the formula of Japanese raising games such as the previously mentioned Princess Maker and Japan Home Video’s Sotsugyou, both important influences in their own right. Whereas those earlier games tasked players with serving as a parental figure to one or more young girls to prepare them for, say, royal life in the former and high school graduation in the latter, Tokimeki Memorial turned the premise on its head and made players’ own growth the objective. In reorienting the stakes to be more personal within the nigh-universally relateable setting of high school life, Konami made the proceedings a far more intimate affair. Now players weren’t simply dictating the lives of others from afar. They were working to improve their own in the hopes of wining the affection of each of the girls, inviting experimentation and repeat playthroughs in turn.

Even with this setup, however, Konami understood that the underlying structure of choosing stats to bolster and socializing with the girls of Kirameki day in and day out, by itself, could well get repetitive over the course of three in-game years. Indeed, this was a skepticism held by many Japanese players prior to the game’s original release, who often regarded the wider galge umbrella of games that inspired it as mainly being vehicles for fanservice instead of legitimately engaging games. To alleviate this, Konami turned to its development history, creating minigames regularly interspersed throughout the entire gameplay cycle that take full advantage of its strengths in arcade and action games. Every year in early June, for example, sees the arrival of the annual sports festival, bringing with it a slate of athletic minigames that are more than a little reminiscent of Konami’s Track & Field series. Likewise, should players diligently attend the school’s computer club as one of the game’s optional extracurricular activities, they can unlock an abridged boss rush minigame based on Twinbee or, if they’re especially devoted, an entirely original shmup known as Force Gear developed specifically for Tokimeki Memorial. There are even optional RPG battles that parody SNES-era Final Fantasy games, complete with their own take on the series’ trademark ATB combat system.

These minigames serve as more than mere interstitials meant to break up the potential monotony in the basic loop. They also serve to unify Tokimeki Memorial with the greater canon of Konami’s games up until that point. Far from being an outlier made to cash in on the galge trend witnessed on Japanese PC platforms, as die-hard Japanese fans feared, Tokimeki Memorial, despite playing unlike virtually anything else in the company’s library, maintains much of its design sensibilities in large part because of these minigames. Rather than a repudiation of Konami’s past accomplishments, they serve as groundbreaking, thematically appropriate reapplications of lessons learned in those previous games that enrich the main proceedings. The fact that success in them is also tied into the stats system, such as the way players’ prospects at the sports festival is determined in part by how fit the protagonist is, also ensures that there’s a crucial continuity between them and the rest of the game. Indeed, so important are these minigames to Tokimeki Memorial’s identity that they were a central selling point in pre-release promotional footage made in an attempt to garner interest from wary hardcore players, as you can see below.¹

Explaining Tokimeki Memorial’s Japanese success purely in terms of its design chops, however, paints an incomplete picture about its goals and ambitions. While in practice, much of the moment-to-moment gameplay feels highly mechanical thanks to its reliance on stats and simplistic dialogue choices, it was never intended to be consumed purely on such merits. For all its limitations a quarter of a century later, as a game that seeks to depict the growth and development of human relationships over the course of months and years, it is, in truth, designed to be an emotionally and experientially compelling one above all else. Systems and mechanics play an important role in this regard in every dating sim, serving as a metaphor for which players explore a given game’s premise on relationships. But they run the risk of feeling hollow and insincere if they don’t produce something more than that in execution. For Tokimeki Memorial, that something more comes from its extensive use of something taken for granted now: the human voice.

Of course, on the face of it, video games already knew how to talk for a good while by the time Tokimeki Memorial came around. Synthesized voices had been a part of the arcade scene since at least 1980 by way of Sun Denshi’s innovative Stratovox and already 14 years later, plenty of games such as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and Ys: Book I & II had taken advantage of the burgeoning CD-ROM format and its vast data space to provide cutscenes with full-on voice acting. Talking was still novel in video games in 1994, but it was becoming less of a simple party trick as they got chattier with each passing year.

But Tokimeki Memorial was a game that talked, conversed, even, in a way that other games didn’t at the time and to a much greater extent than many of those earlier examples. Whereas a lot of its contemporaries were lucky to have more than a half-hour’s worth of voiced lines spread between hours of gameplay, here, every line by every major character other than the protagonist was voiced in full from start to finish. The girls, as a result, had plenty to discuss when spending time with them. They asked you — ostensibly the protagonist, but really, you, the player — how your day was. How your studies were going for those midterms coming up. What your hopes and dreams were for the coming year. About your opinion on that soccer game you attended and that concert you saw together. Even if in hindsight the actual substance of the dialogue wasn’t often much to write home about, in cadence and tone, they sounded far more like a neighbor down the street than traditional video game characters. In effect, one-on-one, people-to-people interaction became itself interactive.

And that’s what made Tokimeki Memorial so powerful. It wasn’t simply a game about human relationships, nor was it even the first one to make them the central theme. It was a game that set out to fundamentally change the relationship that players had with video games themselves, expanding what that connection between controller and screen could emotionally entail and it did so with its rich palette of voices. As a writer working under the pseudonym Chimuko Nakabori wrote in a post-release Famitsu editorial about his experiences with trying to woo Shiori, “Tokimeki Memorial reminds me of just how much games can do with CD-ROMs. Even lines of dialogue that would’ve done nothing for me as just plain old text, once they become voiced, they have a way of pulling at my heartstrings.”² These voices, provided by a group of actresses who, in many cases, were still quite early in their careers, did much in filling in the blanks in girls’ characterizations in ways that the writing failed to do on its own. Pink-haired Yukari, for instance, reads on paper like a stereotypical daughter from a wealthy family thanks to her prolific use of keigo, a more overtly formal and respectful type of Japanese normally used in select settings. But thanks to a just ever so slightly slow, airy inflection given to her lines by actress Ayako Kurosaki, she loses all sense of any real pretension and instead becomes lighthearted, humorous company.

Critically, progress in the player’s relationship with each of these characters isn’t marked simply by unlocking major cutscenes or spending holidays together. It’s also evident in the way their tone audibly changes over time as that relationship deepens, perceptible even in brief exchanges over the phone when scheduling dates. As Nakabori remarks in his essay, once he and Shiori became close in the game and he called her up, Shiori’s voice hung slightly with a sweet, but nervous “Ah” upon finding out it was him on the other end, a single syllable that spoke volumes about the bond they shared. “It’s the tone of her voice, fairly high when she utters that surprised ‘Ah…’” he explains, “that says a surprising amount, a testament to the feelings she’s developing. A tone that gives me reason to believe something will come out of all this. When she first said it, without even thinking, I found myself repeating the same thing back to her. ‘Ah…’ I doubt that we would’ve shared that moment if there wasn’t also a voice behind the words on-screen.” Japanese itself is a language that, especially verbally, is heavy on unspoken subtext and implication. Context is king and rarely does everything need to be explicitly stated for it to be grasped by native speakers. It’s in such small exchanges like the one described above, where little is overtly conveyed, but intuitively felt, that Tokimeki Memorial with its voice acting is an early master of the minimal art of Japanese conversation in video games, where even slight utterances can hold such sway.

In that sense, Tokimeki Memorial was a game that recognized much earlier than most the power of real, nuanced human voices in games beyond quick barks and rote cinematic storytelling. It saw them as a way of forging meaningful, tangible connections that even the best written text alone couldn’t achieve. In a game about budding romance where the goal is to have a lasting, lifelong relationship with one of the dozen-plus dateable characters, the place of voice becomes all the more important in ensuring that development and climactic finale feel authentic and stirring. Because it’d be one thing to stand under the pivotal schoolyard tree at the end of the game and simply read the words “I love you” as they’re being rendered on screen with the chirpy blips typical of early game dialogue. But it’s something else entirely for that same character, after many hours spent listening to them on dates and in casual conversations, look you in the eyes and say, out loud, directly at you, “I love you.” In 1994, when visceral, aggressive games like Doom and Street Fighter II were at the forefront of players’ and developers’ minds the world over, the belief that hearing those three words alone would be payoff enough for those who stuck with Tokimeki Memorial was thus nothing short of radical.

And radical it was, kicking off a huge boom of other games like it that quickly established dating sims as a proper genre of Japanese games, its heyday lasting roughly through the PS2’s twilight years at the end of the following decade. The immense success with which Tokimeki Memorial was met, particularly after its crucial 1995 PlayStation port that opened it up to a rapidly growing audience on much fresher hardware, helped prove that there was fertile ground aplenty for emotional experiences in mainstream games. Though invariably inviting imitators that hewed closely to its formula, over time, Japanese developers experimented with the mechanics behind their relationship building and, by extension, the relationship between those mechanics and their storytelling, creating different schools of design that would compete and inform each other as the genre and its market matured.

While many of these dating sims have historically targeted a male audience, it’s important to note that women players and developers alike have been pivotal in the genre since its very inception. Also released in 1994 was the first installment in Koei’s (nowadays Koei Tecmo’s) long-running Angelique series. Developed by the women-led Ruby Party team, it took many cues from the company’s iconic Nobunaga’s Ambition series of strategy games for its gameplay and added its own romantic meta, laying the foundation for the now hugely successfully sphere of otome games within the Japanese industry. Japanese games also therefore owe an immense debt to these and other romance-themed games directed at women. This includes Tokimeki Memorial itself, which eventually entered the otome market with the Girl’s Side spinoff series. A formidable hit in its own right, whereas the main series went dormant after Tokimeki Memorial 4 was released on the PSP to lackluster sales in 2009, in light of the enduring popularity of otome games, especially on mobile platforms, Konami has recently seen fit to develop a new Girl’s Side entry, which, as of this writing, is set for release sometime in 2020.

Since the end of the 2000s, however, traditional dating sims have dissipated on consoles and handhelds. With some notable exceptions such as Konami’s own Love Plus series for the DS and 3DS, as well as Kadokawa’s Amagami for the PS2, PSP, and Vita and, to a lesser extent, D3’s Dream Club series in the Xbox 360 and PS3 era, games of that ilk have largely receded from the consciousness of Japanese players. From a purely narrative perspective, dating sims have been supplanted by now far more ubiquitous visual novels. Often cheaper to produce in comparison to many other types of games, in terms of themes and settings, it goes without saying that many of them scratch similar itches, though few of them achieve anything remotely resembling Tokimeki Memorial’s level of success. Nevertheless, the spirit of retro dating sims lives on today among mainstream Japanese developers, who find inventive ways to recontextualize old systems and frameworks within other genres, creating games with altogether unique identities that are, at times, met with massive global recognition and acclaim. Fire Emblem, a once purely strategy RPG affair, emerged from near retirement to some of its greatest success after leaning more heavily on its latent relationship mechanics with the 3DS entry Awakening, becoming a global, multi-million selling series and, separately, a smartphone juggernaut in the process. Similarly, the Social Link system adopted in later Persona games from Persona 3 onward, whose mechanics are an explicit throwback to early dating sims like Tokimeki Memorial specifically, has proven to be a key-selling point as its popularity exploded in a similar fashion. Dating sims as they’ve been historically known might not be all that in vogue these days, but their central tenets have never been more important across video games as a medium.

Visible from abroad or not, much of that international success in today’s Japanese games is inextricably linked to the groundwork laid all those years ago by Tokimeki Memorial. Tokimeki Memorial, a game that the house of Contra, Gradius, and many more beloved challenging games, gamers’ games, took a chance on. A game that exists not in defiance of the rest of Konami’s early library and legacy, but in deep harmony with it, drawing from it important lessons in pacing and structure as it forged new ways for players to engage, truly engage, with what they were seeing on screen at a deeper, more emotional level. General Western consensus has long codified a handful of Japanese releases from the 1990s as being pivotal in the advancement of video game design and the grammar it continues to refine to this day. By virtue of its subject matter and heightened emphasis on Japanese cultural dynamics, to non-Japanese-speaking players, Tokimeki Memorial might appear far more inscrutable than the likes of games such as Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, giants who, in many ways, wrote the book on how games of their respective genres would play in the coming decades. Some might even write off its success as a fluke, a fad that tapped into the supposed perennial loneliness of the Japanese otaku, that dweeb who only has room in his heart for “2D girls” and is often a butt of critiques to the country’s thornier socioeconomic problems.

In reality, Tokimeki Memorial is a titan in Japanese game history in its own right, its reach similarly vast and persistent across decades. If those N64 classics helped define how games in more established genres would play and control as the industry embraced polygons, Tokimeki Memorial helped expand what games could be about outright, demonstrating how to apply existing technology and design techniques to enrich the gameplay experience and infuse it with more personal significance, often with tools as simple as the human voice. It’s no exaggeration to say, then, that it stands as not only one of Konami’s most important games and not even simply one of the biggest games released in the 1990s, but one of the most vital Japanese games ever made. Foreign audiences may only just now be widely beginning to warm up to some of its ideas as its progeny attain even greater heights in its wake. But in Japan, they’ve been informing video games this entire time, 25 years and counting. That they’re now making a mark overseas at long last speaks to the universal power belying them and the continuing relevance of one simple, radical belief: that love belongs in video games, too.

Footnotes:

  1. Translated and subtitled by me. Original Japanese transcript URL: https://retrogameraiders.com/archives/9283203/
  2. Original Japanese article: Famicom Tsuushin, issue 288 (June 24, 1994), page 34. URL: https://archive.org/details/famitsu0288june241994/page/n33

Tom James is a Japanese-English translator specializing in video game localization with credits in games such as Monster Hunter Generations and Tales of Berseria, among others. You can find him hoisting Tokimeki Memorial and other vintage dating sims onto hapless readers at his Twitter account here, as well as get in touch for professional inquiries via his portfolio website here.

Freelance Japanese-English video game translator. Monster Hunter Generations, Tales of Berseria, and more. Work site: http://www.freelansations.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store