Weapon Shop de Omasse

Weapon Shop de Omasse is an interesting addition to the GUILD series because of who made it. While I’ve lauded the series as a way to give game creators space to make a small game with full creative control, Weapon Shop de Omasse gives that control to a Japanese comedian named Yoshiyuki Hirai. Hirai, who is one half of Japanese stand-up duo America Zarigani and also host of a youtube let’s play channel, is clearly a big fan of JRPGs, and his take on the genre is, while not entirely unique, something that you can see a comedian coming up with. It’s a light hearted look at the life of a weapon shop merchant in a semi self-aware JRPG. It’s a clever idea with some stand-out moments, but that the game was created by someone new to game development isn’t a surprise when you start playing for more than a few hours.

Weapon Shop de Omasse is a slightly difficult game to describe, because there isn’t one main activity, but a couple of smaller minigames to play while you man the storefront. The most notable is forging weapons. You have a number of available weapons to forge in a small rhythm minigame, the number increasing as the game continues. The minigame itself is reasonably involved. You hit the block of… iron (what are weapons made out of?) in time with a beat played to you beforehand, à la Parappa the Rapper. The temperature of the weapon slowly goes down as you play, so you need to manage it by occasionally heating up the weapon if it gets too cold before you’ve finished moulding it. As you forge, one of three stats will increase on the weapon, and you can also increase stats by adding various materials to the weapon before playing the minigame. It’s a really good premise and pretty damn fun for the first few tries – juggling heat and tapping to the beat is bolstered by some catchy tunes. The biggest flaw of the system, however, is that it fails to develop at all throughout the game – you’re always doing the same thing to similar looking weapons, and the music selection also remains pretty static; a pitfall I’ve touched on in this blog before. Perhaps its biggest failing comes in the fact that stat upgrades during forging are entirely random, so if you want to craft a katana with good slash power (something all good katanas need), you might have to craft that same katana multiple times, or use a valuable material, because there’s no way to manipulate the RNG.

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Weapons crafted can also be masterpieces, something I found out pretty randomly, after what I thought was me completely messing up one forge pretty late into the game. It turns out that, despite common sense, hitting every beat in the rhythm game probably isn’t the best idea, because slowing down the process allows you to get more stat gains overall, and makes the weapon better. If this review somehow convinces you the game is for you, I’d bear this in mind, because it makes some elements of the forging system make more sense, such as balancing heat, which becomes a non-issue if you manage to hit every beat in the game and craft the weapon before it can cool down too much. Sadly, the game never explains this key mechanic, and by the time I learned it, I was already worn out on forging in general.

Forging isn’t the only thing to do in the shop – you can also polish your weapons, which is an even shallower minigame than forging. It amounts to simply rubbing your weapons with the stylus until they look all shiny. What was a hidden feature in Pokémon Platinum is a core element of Weapon Shop de Omasse, and something that will take up much of your time if you want your weapons to improve, or if you want to actually do something in game that isn’t either wait for a customer or read the “Grindcast”.

I should probably explain where much of the game’s meat lies. You forge weapons to rent out to characters who swing by your shop, some of which follow actual questlines, others of which are just throw-away characters ‘humorously’ named NPC A or B or so on. These interactions are where the game’s various stories come in, pretty much none of which are memorable enough to talk about for long; there’s an axe wielding grandmother looking for her husband; a pair of sisters seeking revenge etc. You rent them suitable weapons you’ve forged, and wait for them to return, hopefully with the weapon you rented still in their possession. Choosing and forging suitable weapons for characters is a pretty fun idea, but the problem comes in how much waiting there is between the opportunities you get to do this.

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Characters will saunter into the shop and ask for a weapon, then leave to give you some time to forge and polish it. When they return you can rent them the weapon, then you can follow their quest in ‘real time’ on a social media app called the Grindcast that functions like Twitter but sounds like Grindr. On completion of the quest they’ll revisit the shop, return the weapon, and you wait for the next customer. What this boils down to in gameplay terms is you waiting for the customer to enter the shop, then waiting for them to come collect their weapon, then waiting for them to do their quest, then finally (wait for it) some more waiting for the next customer. While waiting, you can forge weapons or polish weapons, both of which wear out their welcome pretty quickly. Alternatively, you can just sit and read the Grindcast, which is remarkably unfunny for a game directed by a comedian, with lame half-baked JRPG style jokes that poke fun at the conventions of the genre like a dated webcomic. It’s pretty dire, but you’ll be forced to read it whatever happens, given that updates from the Grindcast appear on the top screen while you forge and polish weapons.

The game’s basic systems and gameplay are fine, but it would be easy to see how these could have been improved. You’d need to remove the RNG in forging and develop the system throughout the game, or make the game shorter. You’d need to make polishing a more involved skill. Most importantly, you’d cut out all of the waiting for customers. Perhaps have the customer enter, request a weapon, and then immediately forge that weapon for the customer. The waiting around in this game is egregious, and sucks the joy out of some properly good gameplay ideas.

This is just some rampant speculation on my part, but I do wonder if Hirai needed some more help on this project. There are ideas here that clearly come from someone who knows about games and what would work in creating a small game about manning a shop in an RPG. But it feels like some really bad ideas that might work in theory should have been shot down by someone with more experience. Creativity needs guidance, especially when you’ve never made a game before, which makes Weapon Shop de Omasse into an intriguing and sincere mess of a game. I can’t in good conscience recommend it, but like most of the GUILD series, it has some interesting ideas from an interesting creator.

Liberation Maiden

I can safely say I had pretty much no idea what I was doing or what was going on for about 90% of my playthrough of Liberation Maiden, making reviewing it a slightly intimidating prospect. The game was developed by Goichi Suda, better known as Suda51; the man responsible for classics such as No More Heroes and Killer7. Maybe because of this, Liberation Maiden is the most successful entry of the GUILD series, being the only one to spawn a sequel (confusingly a PSVita Visual Novel), and get an iOS port.

Unlike the past two games in the GUILD series I’ve looked at, Liberation Maiden is decidedly not story heavy, but instead a sort of on-rails shooter, which makes the fact that it has exceedingly well-animated anime cutscenes by Studio Bones (Space Dandy; Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood etc.) a slightly confusing choice. Although there are bonus story details included in the options menu, all you need to know is that some time in the future a new nation called ‘The Dominion’ (there’s some nominative determinism if I’ve ever seen it) has taken over Japan, and in a state of military emergency, the Japanese Diet has decided the only reasonable course of action is to put the former Prime Minister’s daughter into a mech suit and send her to fight the invading army forces. This sort of wacky premise is perhaps what you’d expect from a man who refers to himself as a punk game designer, but sadly the rest of the game’s design elements fall much more on the generic than the ‘punk’ side of the spectrum.

I’m not necessarily talking about gameplay right now, but about visual design. Unlike with the super-stylised and super-stylish character and visual design of Suda’s previous games, Liberation Maiden’s characters fall pretty squarely on the ‘generic anime’ side of the equation. Her mech is perhaps a bit sleeker than your average Gundam, but it’s nothing I’ve never seen before in passing. The enemies suffer the biggest fate in terms of visuals. Because they’re never depicted in the cutscenes it’s hard to get a grasp on what they really look like, but most of their tech is either dark grey tanks, dark grey spikes jutting out of the ground, or occasionally dark grey submarines and trains, all equipped with beautiful glowing pink weak spots. The weak spots are needed, however, because of how the game is presented. Your character floats above the ground, but aside from the enemy’s proclivity for heat seeking missiles, all of the other enemy weaponry remains on the ground. The 3DS, while a nifty bit of kit, isn’t quite strong enough to handle the draw distance this game demands, leaving most of the enemies as pretty difficult to parse.[1] This isn’t helped by the sheer amount of visual noise that clutters every frame of the game, leading it to chug at the most demanding moments. It’s a real shame that a game directed by Suda51 is so visually lifeless – the only real visual spark is the mini news bulletins that pop up after completing a mission. The music is enough to add some pizzazz to the proceedings, but not good enough to carry the game’s aesthetic fully on its shoulders.

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I should probably start talking about the gameplay. I described it above as an on-rails shooter, but that’s not quite true. While you are somewhat shepherded from one shooting gallery to the next, you mainly have pretty full control of your mech during these sections. It might instead be that I called this game a on-rails shooter because I think it would have worked a lot better as one. Controlling your mech is a little clunky, as is controlling the camera. The camera isn’t locked behind you unless you press the L button, but doing that also locks your control of movement to being only side to side. If you want free movement, you’ll mainly have to just trust the camera, which works most of the time until the game throws a surprise stealth mission at you in the third level. Here, unable to see the enemies you have to avoid without moving your character, a minor annoyance becomes a lot more frustrating. What’s more, when near a target, your mech will automatically start moving towards it if you aren’t controlling it yourself, one of the most baffling design decisions of the game, making it seem more often than not like you’re wrestling with the controls. Much like Kid Icarus: Uprising, controlling your aim is done through the touch screen. You lock onto enemies using the touch screen aim, then fire. However, given that the L button is already taken for putting you into strafe mode, you have to release your stylus in order for your weapon to fire. This is much easier to forget to do than it seems, especially in the heat of the moment.

By around the 4th level, I had finally gotten to grips with the control scheme, and at times, in the thick of the action, it can reach the heights of Kid Icarus. It can even occasionally exceed the depths of that game’s shooting mechanics, as Liberation Maiden includes a fun risk/reward system, wherein the nodes that orbit your mech are used for both attack and defence, meaning that firing too many off will put you in greater danger, forcing you to wait for some to return. Annoyingly, however, the game could have used this to test you on your dodging skills when you’re out of ammo, but the abundance of heat-seeking missiles mean sometimes damage is pretty inevitable.

However, as soon as the game started for me, it was all over. The game only includes 5 levels, with the last only containing a boss fight. Confusingly, the game teases a surprise final boss fight after the fifth stage, but ends after showing the enemy. The first 4 levels are also all structured identically; first find 3 small spikes sticking out of the ground and destroy those, then destroy a final large spike. Past the second level, then, when a new laser weapon is introduced,[2] the gameplay has pretty much finished evolving, without all that much variation. It’s a game that is content to be short but sweet, which I normally appreciate, but the complexity of the mechanics and inefficient tutorials meant that I spent most of the game lost. It was only with a second playthrough that I was able to have more fun with it, but by that point the surprise of what was coming next was lost.

Liberation Maiden is a perfectly fine action game, but it’s not the kind of game I expect from the GUILD series, or Suda51. In a way, its oddity is that, despite coming from an experimental director and an experimental series of games, it seems amazingly risk-averse. I can’t say I didn’t ever enjoy my time with Liberation Maiden, but while I’d rather play it over The Starship Damrey, a part of me would rather see a bold failure than a dull semi-success.

[1] The game should have really taken a page from Kid Icarus: Uprising, which came out a month before and has stunningly better visual design that this game.

[2] Introduced, but sadly never explained. I had to look up a separate review of the game after playing to work out how the laser recharged and how damage was calculated using it. I ended up ignoring it most of my playthrough because of that. It requires manual aim rather than auto lock-on, and it’s not well telegraphed as to how long it lasts.

 

The Starship Damrey

“This game contains no tutorials or explanations. Part of the experience is to discover things for yourself” Disclaimer before starting The Starship Damrey.

The last time I looked at the GUILD series was to wax lyrical about Attack of the Friday Monsters, a game I thought would never have been made in the way it was were it not for the funding and support of Level-5. With their help, creator Kaz Ayabe was able to create a game that he wanted to, and it was a near-unqualified success. But while that game exemplifies the highs of the GUILD experiment, The Starship Damrey shows that not all projects of this nature are created equal.

The start of the game shows a lot of promise, because of the disclaimer quoted above. For those not in the know, The Starship Damrey is a horror-adventure game, and starting one of those by promising the ultimate obscurity is a really good beginning. Here, you might think, is the start of another small, creatively-fulfilling premise. Sadly, this is not to be the case. The game opens with the main character awake in a cryo-stasis pod, with a few simple commands at your service; you can turn on and off the lights, unsuccessfully attempt to open the hatch, and boot up the computer. Within the first few seconds of booting up the computer, the game tells you exactly how to do boot-up system works. An inconsistent follow-through on its own premise will become a crucial theme of the game’s failure.

Eventually, through the computer you’re able to take control of a robot to guide you through the ship. Controlling the robot is similar to an old-school dungeon crawler; you can turn in four directions and go forward or back. The problem, of course, is that this style of gameplay is pretty outdated for a reason; it’s slow and clunky and the robot’s lethargic turn cycle does little to aid this.

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The game is filled with “spooky” darkened rooms and corridors, and so the robot’s field of view is further constrained by the tiny torch light you’re given. Exploration of the surrounding area is encouraged, because you’re asked to both find items scattered on the ground, as well as exterminate “space leeches”, tiny sprites that litter the floors and walls. In order to free the robot’s view, you have to press the A button, then move the D-pad around while standing still. Halfway through the game, I realised that pressing the A button was an unnecessary step because simply moving the analogue stick would do the job for you, but because the game “contains no explanations or tutorials”, I was stuck playing it in a slightly tedious way. It’s not a game changer, but instead just a way in which the premise turns into an annoyance rather than a cool feature. When the game can’t teach you its own mechanics through gameplay, sometimes a tutorial is useful.

Tedium is an annoyingly common feature of The Starship Damrey, and to illustrate that, let’s look at two of its puzzles. The first is probably the cleverest puzzle in the game; there’s a robot blocking your way and attacking you, and you have to find some way to stop it. Looking in the game’s database you can find information that robots can’t handle temperatures over 200 degrees, so you figure you have to find something that will be hot enough to disable your robo-assaulter. While doing some exploring you find an empty cookie jar, and will hopefully figure out that by putting the oil you found earlier in there and heating it up on the hotplate in the common room, you’ll have a perfect weapon. I’m being nice here and assuming that you remember both the oil and the hotplate, and don’t have to go searching through every room before you figure out the solution. Either way, you first head down through the elevator to the oil tap. Then, you place the jar under the tap and fill it with oil. After leaving the room and heading back up to the second level, you realise that you didn’t take the oil jar with you; the game has a nasty habit of requiring you to examine objects multiple times before being allowed to interact with them, so you forgot that the oil tap had to be examined again before you could remove the jar. After traipsing all the way back to the oil tap, then back again to the second floor, then finally to the hot plate, you have to watch a stupidly long heating-up process before you have the hot oil weapon of your desires. And that’s the good puzzle.

The puzzle directly after this requires you to remove a pile of debris that’s blocking your way to the next room. In the nearby lab, you find an assortment of chemicals, and in the doctor’s study you find a recipe for an explosive mixture. Of course, in a sensible game, you’d have enough inventory space to carry all the necessary chemicals to the debris, then create the explosion there. But no, the robots on the good Starship Damrey are only capable of holding one item in their claws, meaning you have to slowly trundle from the lab to the debris three times before you can create the explosion. Unlike the previous puzzle, this one is as simple as they come, but it’s made needlessly tedious. What’s more, it highlights just how obnoxious only being able to hold one item at a time is. Not only does this simplify the puzzles and mean they can only be designed in a linear fashion; it also causes situations like the one described above. Those two are extreme examples, but the game isn’t long enough to let them become forgettable distractions. It’s a shame that some smart and some simple puzzles are bogged down by poorly streamlined game design to the point of frustration.

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However, the imaginary defender of this game (I say imaginary because of the handful of people who actually played this game, I can’t think of any of them getting much out of it), might argue that the puzzles in the game are merely a conduit to the interesting and atmospheric story. I sympathise with this view to an extent; I’ve forgiven poor gameplay for a great story in the past, and had this game had a story worth experiencing, I might still have recommended it.

Sadly, that is not the case. The atmosphere of this game is as generic sci-fi horror as it comes – a dark and abandoned spaceship with dead crew strewn around the floor and a little girl hologram randomly appearing for the odd jump-scare. The scariest thing in the game is the sound that the space leeches make when you go near them, which is a bizarre and unexpected static-like screech. But the one weird sound doesn’t excuse the design of every corridor, robot and alien, which are all as stock as they come. The ship is comprised of endless grey corridors and big empty grey rooms; the robots are simple designs that could be in any sci-fi game, and the alien has literal glowing red eyes and a simple grey humanoid design. There’s so much fucking grey in this game.

As for the story, it’s remarkably obtuse until after the credits, when all is revealed. I’ll put a spoiler warning here for anyone seriously wanting to play this game, but for those who have been put off by my ranting; the game’s overarching mission is to free yourself from the pod you’re trapped in, as well as work out what’s happened to all of the crew members. The answer is amazingly boring; you’ve kidnapped three aliens in order to research them, and they ended up killing the crew. It’s not exactly 2001 (although the game does throw in a cheeky reference to that film). In the post credits stinger, it’s revealed that you aren’t a person in the pod, but one of the aliens, and that you’ve basically freed yourself in order to bring havoc to humanity or something. That twist is alright, but it’s awfully clued – there’s nothing to suggest that more than one alien was ever on board until the game tells you in the end. So while it may be shocking, it’s not satisfying.

Mercifully, the full game takes under 3 hours to complete, meaning you don’t have to spend more time than necessary in the Starship Damrey. It’s a shame that not every project would work out as well as Friday Monsters, but I think Damrey shows the limits of GUILD as much as Friday Monsters shows the strengths. Although the game has a bigger budget than it might have been awarded otherwise, it’s spent here on pointless cutscenes, rather than making the ship an interesting place to explore. And while a small-scale game can focus on interesting gameplay concepts that might not get funding elsewhere, like a game without tutorials, or an inventory, that doesn’t mean those ideas are worth pursuing. The Starship Damrey is an odd game in the GUILD series, because it feels as experimental as it is rote. However, with it out of the way, we’re free to explore the games that fall in between these levels of quality.

Attack of the Friday Monsters

In the 1950s, the prospering Japanese film industry reinvented the “monster movie.” The giant monsters of the era were “kaiju” that often symbolized the effects of pollution, such as radiation and hydrogen bomb experiments.
In the 1960s and 70s, the “hero show” was born. Brave heroes challenged the kaiju on prime time television, and the entire nation tuned in.
The heroes were just as big as the monstrous kaiju, but they were more like friends to the children of Japan, or even a father that would protect them, no matter the sacrifices he had to make…
      – This text appears each time you start up Attack of the Friday Monsters

I first heard about Level-5’s Guild series through Official Nintendo Magazine, an old UK-based Nintendo publication that I subscribed to before it sadly shut down in 2014. The Guild series consisted of two 3DS games published by Level-5 that were a collection of small games made by different famous game directors. Although sold in a bundle in Japan, in the West, these games were released without the “Guild” tagline on the eShop. At first, the only game of this collection I bought was Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale. This is because of a certain phrase from the ONM review that stuck out to me; that the game made the reviewer ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’. Although I’ve long since lost my copy of that magazine and the website has been shut down for some time, that phrase and this game have occupied a part of my mind for quite a while now. And while I talked about this game in my list of my favourite 3DS games, I’ve wanted to expand not only on why I consider Friday Monsters such a treasure, but on the Guild series as a whole, and why it was such a worthwhile experiment. 

Attack of the Friday Monsters centres around a young boy named Sohta, who has recently moved to Fuji no Hana, a fictional small suburb of Tokyo. Every Friday, giant monsters supposedly fight in the fields near the town, and as such, the children are warned from wandering too far afield. As Sohta, you investigate the truth behind the monster attacks, as well as find out more about the other inhabitants of Fuji no Hana.

Gameplay as a whole is pretty simple, and mainly consists of running from objective marker to objective marker talking to people. Occasionally (and I really do mean occasionally, it’s only necessary at two points in the story), you have to play a card game against your friends. The game is called “Monster Cards”, and it’s a clever take on the rock-paper-scissors game — serving as a decent distraction from the main plot, and something to keep you coming back once the story is over. The catch is that the way you collect cards for playing Monster Cards is by finding “glims” scattered on the ground around Fuji no Hana. Collect 5 of the same type of glim and you get a Monster Card. At the start of the game, you are asked to run around collecting at least 20 glims, assuming you never pick up more than 5 of the same type. This could be excused as a way to familiarise players with the map, but given its small size and detailed map on the touchscreen, it comes across as tedious padding.

When the game starts, a small musical cut scene plays that near perfectly encapsulates much of what I love about Attack of the Friday Monsters. I’ve linked the opening scene above for you to see, but there are a few things in it I really want to highlight.

The first is the fact that there’s an opening scene at all, sung from the perspective of Sohta. Sohta is obsessed with the hero shows of early 1970s Japan, and often sees his life as mirroring one. That a day in his life has an opening theme tune, or that each of the tasks you have to complete in the game are referred to as ‘episodes’ is just a lovely bit of theming.

It’s also a bit of theming that ties into the main idea of the game; the confusing nature of childhood. In the lyrics of the opening song, Sohta mentions that “Both my Mom and Dad love me, I don’t really know why, what should I do?” This uncertainty of life as a child is present throughout the game. It’s not just in Sohta or any other characters’ relationships with their parents, it bleeds into everything, including the plot.

The main hook of the game is found in seeing whether or not the monsters really do come out on Friday. As a viewer, you see many clues telling you they don’t, such as a TV station that seems to be responsible for the evidence that might prove the existence of said monsters. But Sohta consistently fails to put two and two together. Even when he and his friends come close — such as realising the monster footprints have been dug by people, and finding that a sign believed to be in an alien language was just made by the father of one of Sohta’s friends — the kids still never doubt the existence of the monsters or aliens. It’s a lovely bit of childhood wonder, and by the end of the game the viewer is sucked into it as well, as events occur that seem unexplainable through ‘adult’ logic, and we are asked to simply accept them. Although the game starts by maintaining a relative distance between the player and the child characters by offering the the former rational explanations for what the children see as fantastical, by the end it has eased us into their perspective and asks us to suspend our disbelief as well. For me, it works perfectly.

This dramatic irony is also used in the child characters’ dialogue for the game’s lightly comedic moments. There’s nothing in this game that comes close to laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s meant to be gently amusing, and it mostly nails that feel. The dialogue for the children is pretty spot-on, although when the game attempts weightier dramatic moments, it occasionally veers too close to melodrama for comfort. Take, for example, the game’s bully character. He isn’t in the game for too long, but whenever he is, his storyline falls much too in-line with every bully stereotype, including Sohta literally asking him “You’re just lonely, aren’t you?” It’s a rare and disappointing step into stock tropes in a game that otherwise defies them in its strange storyline. The argument could be made that the childrens’ often stock personalities are calling back to the hero shows that the game is constantly referencing, but it manages to defy expectations in its adult characters and central plotline, so I don’t see why it can’t for the younger members of the cast.

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Returning quickly to the opening song, it also serves as an introduction to my favourite thing about this game; its unique and perfectly realised atmosphere. Here’s where the idea of ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’ really comes into play; it’s not just that the game recreates what it’s like being a child that makes it impressive, it’s that the game recreates what it’s like being a child in 1970s suburban Tokyo.

The lot you have to explore is small and doesn’t change much or open up a lot during the game, but it’s quietly beautiful. All the backgrounds are hand-drawn, with the 3D character models placed on top of them; an effect that works surprisingly well, even if it’s a shame that the 3DS’ image quality sometimes stops this from looking as good as it could be. It also means that each screen on the game has a fixed camera angle à la Resident Evil, although it works better in this game given the slow moving nature of the gameplay.

Attack of the Friday Monsters makes use of its status as a videogame even outside of Monster Cards. Although much of what I’ve described of Friday Monsters’ strengths could come forth in a book or film, games as a whole are more immersive, and there’s something to be said for small atmospheric details — such as the radios playing in shops, or the train announcements that get quieter as you move away from the train station — that can only have the effect they have in a video game form. Additionally, even though the story is highly structured, the small moments of freedom that come from deciding in which order to complete optional episodes, or even which route to take to a point on the map all contribute to sucking you in to this act of tourism in someone else’s memories.

Attack of the Friday Monsters was created by Kaz Ayabe (born in 1965), who is best known otherwise for creating the Japan-only series Boku no Natusyasumi (lit. My Summer Holiday). These games have a similar gentle, holiday feel to them, but they are more open life-sims. Attack of the Friday Monsters is a much stranger game, and a much more personal game. For someone like me, this exemplifies the strengths of the Guild series. It gave creators a chance to make extremely personal projects with a big budget, not ever having to worry about anything except how to best bring to life their vision. Boku no Natusyasumi has 4 games in its series, whereas there will likely and hopefully never be an Attack of the Saturday Monsters. But therein lies its charm – Ayabe was allowed to make a game about the strange inconsistencies and confusing nature of childhood, all the while bringing the player into a slice of Japan that can no longer be experienced. It does indeed make me nostalgic for someone else’s childhood.