Tokimeki Memorial Drama Series Vol. 1: Nijiiro no Seishun (PlayStation, 1997)

Hideo Kojima is generally associated with stealth gameplay, gruff characters, bizarre storytelling and giant robots. So I’ve always found it curious that during the development of Metal Gear Solid he also executive produced a trilogy of high-school dating visual novels with Zone of the Enders‘ and Metal Gear Acid 2‘s Noriaki Okamura directing.

Tokimeki Memorial is basically the Star Wars of Japanese dating sims. Originally released on PC Engine in 1994 and later ported to just about everything under the sun, you play a high school kid looking to date one of many potential classmates. It spawned a media empire of sequels, anime, manga and merchandise, none of which made it outside of Japan.

This game is a spinoff of that, focusing on blue-haired sports fanatic Saki Nijino. You play an unnamed member of the football club who’s been relegated to the B-team. Can you train hard enough to make it onto the team for the big match? After all, scoring the winning goal would surely impress Saki enough for a kiss under the legendary magic school tree that brings true love?

Maybe. But there’s a substantial hurdle in the way. The game is text-based and entirely in Japanese. I don’t speak Japanese.

But we live in an era of marvels and where there is a will there is a way. After some research I found a program called Universal Game Translator that looked like it’d do the business. Configuring it wasn’t easy (a readme admitting the software is “jank” is a bad omen), but after setting up a Google developer account, puzzling over API keys and manually editing a text config file… it worked.

Kinda.

uhm. okay Saki

Japanese to English AI translation is notoriously bad, so while I could understand what characters were talking about, what questions I was asking and what the responses were, I missed out on a lot of linguistic context. Even so, I persevered, deciding I’d just pretend my character had recently suffered a serious head injury.

But even if I could have completely understood the game I doubt I’d have had much fun. See, your character is on a strict Monday-Saturday training regime. Each day begins with class ending, you getting a few minutes to chat to friends around the school and then begin football practice.

This is the closest the game gets to… well, being a game. It’s a free kick simulator in which you must knock down various targets. You calculate height, direction and power and take into account wind and static obstacles. Training consists of completing a couple of rounds of that, then retreating to a shrine to a few more rounds with bins and piles of tyres in place of team-mates.

It’s repetitive, fiddly and honestly just goddamn tedious. On top of that, the blue-haired target of my affections was chirpy but boring. I was about ready to throw in the towel when I happened upon the school’s lab and met the mysterious Yuina Himoo.

Flanked by a skeleton, test tubes and with a worrying glint in her eye, I decided to ditch Saki and refocus my attention on this mad scientist. I soon managed to worm my way into her company, despite her wiping my memory on two or three separate occasions. But I knew I was warming her cold heart when she enlisted me for an experiment to summon some kind of football-related robot.

All I had to do was head to the school courtyard and push one of two buttons. I eagerly did so, only for the button I chose setting off an explosive charge and mildly explodiong me. I would later discover that both buttons set off the bomb – that’s so her.

As she stood over me, smirking at my injuries, I knew she was the one for me. Soon enough she was confiding in me about her scheme to build a mech to dominate the world, a walking nuclear death mobile, a weapon to surpass… no… it can’t be?!

but that’s one of the most secret black projects! How did she know that?!

Sadly, the game quickly forced my attention back on Saki so I didn’t get to see if she was making a Metal Gear or not. Due to not giving a crap about training I failed to make the first team, lost her interest and ended the game without so much as a smooch under the magic tree. The final shot was of my lonely character slumped in the kit room miserably polishing a ball while weeping. Oh buddy, we tried.

While it’s nice to tick it off the list, I can’t say that I felt much Kojima influence here. It’s possible to go on a date to see Policenauts at the cinema, but I must have offended my partners as I never got the option to do that. On the whole this was largely the garbage I always assumed these games would be. I guess one plus point is that at no point does it sexualise the schoolgirls, but that’s a low bar to clear.

Maybe I’ll try some of Kojima’s other Japan-only output sometime soon – who knows, perhaps his 2006 DS game Kabushiki Baibai Trainer Kabutore (Stock Transaction Trainer Kabutore) is a hidden gem?

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