"It may have a limited audience, but if you're dreaming of going to Japan then you really can't go wrong with Go! Go! Nippon!"
Amongst the many differences between games here in the west and those in Japan, none are more pronounced than the differences we see in the visual novel genre. A good portion of English-speaking gamers are not even familiar with the term, yet in Japan, it's one of the biggest money-makers in the industry. Hundreds of visual novels are released there each year. Go! Go! Nippon!, developed by Japanese company Overdrive with help from MangaGamer, attempts to break down that barrier, or at least poke a hole in it. I was skeptical of the game when I first read about it, but I'm pleased to report that it pleasantly surprised me.
Go! Go! Nippon! is the story of a young man (you can name him) who embarks on his first trip to Japan. He loves Japanese anime and video games, and he has an appreciation for the history and culture of the country. He's been studying Japanese for years to make the most of his trip and even managed to organise a home-stay with two guys he met on the internet. The internet, as I think we all know by now, often leads to miscommunication. As it turns out, the two 'male' friends are actually a pair of sisters! Not only that, but their parents are away, and it'll just be the two girls and our hero living alone! The two sisters, Makoto and Akira, accompany him on his adventure and act as tour guides so that he can soak up every last bit of Japan.
That completely unrealistic plot aside, Go! Go! Nippon! is in essence a glorified travel guide. Like any visual novel, there are choices to be made and a couple of different endings, but the main point of the game is to show you around some of the biggest tourist attractions in Japan. This includes locations in Tokyo such as Ginza, Asakusa, Akihabara, Ikebukuro, Shibuya, and Shinjuku along with Kiyomizu-dera and Kinjaku-ji in Kyoto. If you have no idea what any of those places are, then you're not within the target audience. However, that's not to say you wouldn't enjoy playing it. You only have one week in Japan, and you'll visit Kyoto every time, so there are three locations to visit per game while you're in Tokyo. The girl you end up with and what special location you get a tour of on your last day is ultimately determined by these choices. In short, you'll need to play through it twice if you want to see everything. Considering that your first go through will only take around five hours, it's not much of a task to complete it twice. That being said, the game is priced at a measly 9.99 Euros so you're getting what you pay for.
As I have personally been to almost every location you visit in the game, I'm happy to report that they're portrayed with extreme accuracy. Your visit to each sightseeing spot is only brief, but you'll be treated to some lovely scenery, a guide to the interesting tourist spots, and even a little history about the area. I knew little about the history and thoroughly enjoyed learning about how each area developed over time. The backdrop graphics are particularly wonderful to look at, and the images of Asakusa and Tokyo Tower stand out as particularly memorable. If you've been to Japan and have already seen these places in detail, then it definitely won't be as exciting as it would be for a newcomer. Your limited amount of time in each place means that not a lot can be covered, but Overdrive has taken care to throw in just the right amount of culture, history, and pretty scenery to present each area in an attractive and interesting way.
Accompanying this vacation is a cute little love story between the hero and one of his two hosts. This story definitely takes a backseat to the sightseeing, but there's just enough cute dialogue and funny moments to make you go "Awww." There are no sad back stories or life-threatening conditions (like many visual novels), just young people getting along, having a good time, and forming relationships. It is a little cringe-worthy at times, but nothing you won't be familiar with if you've played other visual novels. After the credits is a special, and very sweet, epilogue, so make sure to stick around for it! It's also worth mentioning this is an all-ages release (there is no 18+ version), so don't expect anything steamy outside of some PG-rated perving.
My only real complaint with the simple story comes from the clichéd dialogue. Aside from the touristy-stuff, almost every line comes from the visual novel writer's handbook that 90% of Japanese companies seem to use. Makoto plays the older-sister type while Akira easily fits in as a tsundere character. There are lines about indirect kisses, making memories, cheesy moments, and saying things out loud when they were only meant for inside your head. It's still cute, but if you're an avid visual novel player, then some of it might bug you a little. On the other hand, if you're new to the genre, then it's an excellent entry point. Another issue is that our foreign hero speaks and acts like someone who was born in Japan. Many times he says things or acts in ways most foreigners would not; mostly in his thought processes. It's not a major issue, but feels a little odd at times.
The dialogue may be overly familiar, but this game isn't entirely unoriginal – it features some surprisingly unique game mechanics. Alongside all the English text in the game is its Japanese equivalent. If you're studying the language or already speak it, then it's a perfect way to practice or brush up. If you wanted to, you could even ignore the English completely and play the whole thing in Japanese. Go! Go! Nippon! even takes time out to teach you some foreign terms. Occasionally, one of the girls will use a word that either the hero is unfamiliar with or that Overdrive assumes you might not know. When this happens, it's displayed beneath the regular text in a green font along with a proper description. Even if you can't speak more than a handful of Japanese words, many are likely to be familiar to you if you watch anime (such as tatami, miso, and the like).
The most inspired idea the game makes use of is a little button in the corner of the interface. When clicked, the 'Show Photo' button will open your web browser and take you to a Google satellite and street view image of exactly where you are in the game. When you're out sightseeing you can do this at any time and actually see what the area looks like in real life! I have to commend Overdrive for adding such a clever and appropriate idea. After beating the game you unlock an extras gallery where you can quickly jump to individual sightseeing spots and read all the information again. Also included are the usual CG galleries and scene-skipping, of course.
When the game begins, it first asks you for your name, along with the exchange rate between your country and Japan. Throughout the game it uses your currency to show you how much everything would cost in terms you can understand. If you pause the game, you can check a running tally of how much you've spent each day and for the trip in total. This was an excellent idea, but it wasn't implemented to extent it could have been. When your native currency pops up you're not always told how much it costs in yen, and it's useful to know this too, as it's the currency you'd actually be spending while in Japan. You automatically spend the same amount of money each time you play (depending on where you go), but adding some sort of budgeting scheme would have added some depth to the gameplay.
If you've had a look at the screenshots on the right, then it should already be obvious that the game is very attractive to look at. Real locations are drawn beautifully and accurately and are a real delight to examine. Sisters Akira and Makoto are quite stylish too, but they're certainly not of the quality many high-end visual novels present. The interface is a real stand out with its sleek design, bright colours, and character colour-coded text. Menus are easy to navigate, and there are plenty of options to adjust them if you wish to do so. There's no voice acting at all, but the characters do well enough without it. The soundtrack is upbeat and catchy and adds excitement and anticipation to every location you visit.
The only real letdown graphically is the reuse of some backgrounds. Nearly every backdrop used in Akira and Makoto's house and the surrounding area have been recycled from another game Overdrive developed: Kira Kira
. If you haven't played it, then it's not going to be an issue for you but as I had, it was a little irritating. Likewise, a couple of locations in Kyoto have only been slightly modified for use in Go! Go! Nippon! Luckily, the vast majority of backdrops are original, so it's not a huge concern. Unfortunately, there are a couple of times where interesting people or objects are described, but not actually shown. A traditionally dressed Geisha our hero sees while in Kyoto, for example, is beautifully described in the text, but there's no graphic for her. Likewise, if you're hoping to actually see inside some of the stores at Akihabara, you'll be sorely disappointed. Another rather unfortunate graphical incident comes by way of a train trip. Each time you take the train you're presented with a short, very ugly animated sequence in mostly black and gray.
Go! Go! Nippon! nearly perfectly nails what it sets out to do: be a travel guide in the form of a game. It's fun to play, provides a good overview of some of the popular tourist spots in Japan, and gives you two cute girls as companions. With the ability to see actual photos of where you are in the game at the click of the button, it's not just an enjoyable game, but a genuinely useful tool. The story is cute and fun and, a few unfortunate exceptions aside, the graphics are beautiful too. It may have a limited audience, but if you're dreaming of going to Japan, then you really can't go wrong with Go! Go! Nippon!