When it comes to RPG developers, I have two true loves: Falcom, and Love-de-Lic. You're probably familiar with the former name, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if you've never even heard of the latter, since their American presence is very, very minimal. As far as I'm concerned, though, I could play nothing but games developed by these two companies for the rest of my life, and I'd be a happy gamer, through and through. It's funny, too, because they're almost on opposite ends of the spectrum: Falcom rarely ever seeks to reinvent the wheel, instead opting to "make it rounder," as it were. They basically take existing RPG subgenres, and fine-tune them to perfection, capturing the very essence of what makes them fun and interesting.
Love-de-Lic, on the other hand, doesn't just re-invent the wheel, they completely scrap the whole concept of wheel-based motion, instead opting to create some sort of hilarious pulley system that somehow involves dimensional jumping and clowns. Their games are so far out of the norm that the norm doesn't even know what the hell to make of them. I mean, this is a company whose game roster includes a surreal kissing adventure, a game where you play as a 3-inch tall helper robot programmed to spread happiness, and a game with one button permanently mapped to urinate. These guys don't just innovate, they pretty much slap the industry in the face with a wet noodle, daring it to just try and top them!
And no game more perfectly illustrates what Love-de-Lic is all about than their very first title from 1997, which to this day remains one of the most unique, innovative, and just plain outstanding RPGs I've ever played. I speak of "Moon," a game which takes an almost postmodern approach to the role-playing genre, showing us what's really going on behind the scenes in our favorite console RPGs -- and doing it in a way that manages to be fresh and original, despite brilliantly satirizing everything we've come to know (and sometimes love) about this guilty pleasure of ours. Moon carries the subtitle "Remix RPG Adventure," and that's exactly what it is: if Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior is a song, then Moon is the crazy dance remix of it.
But Moon's beginnings are actually quite humble, depicting a little boy who sits down in front of his TV and "GameStation" one night to play a new RPG he just bought. Little does he know, though, that there's a whole other side to this game... a side with which he's about to become very, very familiar.
Moon opens with the actual game your hero plays on his GameStation, lovingly referred to as "Fake Moon." Fake Moon is a 10-15 minute long mini-RPG game-within-a-game that takes place in an unforgivingly stereotypical land called "Love-de-Gard," and tracks your hero (whom the official Japanese strategy guide calls "Ziegfried" and depicts in an overdramatic Amano-esque portrait) as he slashes his way through a king's quest to vanquish the evil dragon that, apparently, ate the moon. Along the way, he must face off against the various and sundry denizens of this world, including a mad dog in the town (who runs away rather quickly), a slime in the overworld, and a spiky-armored creature capable of splitting in two and bursting into flames; he must create a rainbow arch through the passage into "darker lands" by donning his legendary armor (and helmet, and shoes); and eventually, he must ride an airship to the dragon's high-tech robot-guarded castle, to vanquish his foe once and for all with the fearsome "oMete" spell.
Everything in Fake Moon is an absolutely brilliant, glaringly obvious parody of NES- and SNES-era RPGs, partiucularly Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. Virtually nothing was left un-zinged, from Fake Moon's 8-bit soundtrack, to its Dragon Warrior interface, to its oversized tile graphics, to its ludicrously mismatched character sprites and speech portraits. Even if Fake Moon had no relation to Real Moon, it would still stand out as one of the most thorough, concise, and well-written RPG spoofs ever conceived -- and that's saying a lot, considering how many times the genre has been parodied over the years!
But unbeknownst to this innocent little boy, there's something much more significant and distressing happening in the land of Love-de-Gard... and it may just be that he himself is the cause of it...
After pulling what appears to be a serious all-nighter on Fake Moon (with over 20 hours logged into it), our hero is ordered to bed by his angered mother, right as he's about to kill the final boss. Not wishing to incur the wrath of an angry parent, he obediently turns off the GameStation and the TV, and trots over to his bed... but what's this? The TV has turned itself back on! And when our hero gets up to investigate, he finds himself being pulled in... into the world of Moon!
Things inside this "Moon World" are quite a bit different than they appeared in the game, however. Everything looks more vivid, more real. The townsfolk, though disproportionate and super-deformed, look distinct and unique, and bear a much greater resemblance to the speech portraits from Fake Moon than their earlier character sprites did. As the boy gathers his bearings, the hero of Fake Moon limps by to enter the castle, struggling under the weight of his own obscenely long sword and outrageously heavy armor. Your character attempts to speak with the townsfolk and find out what's happening, but they seem aware only that someone or something is talking to them. They can't see you, and they can't hear your words. You're... not of their world.
As you wander about, it becomes increasingly clear that this is indeed the world of the game you were playing -- but things are significantly different than they had previously seemed. Eavesdropping on a few conversations, you quickly discover that the hero is not exactly a welcome presence in the town, and indeed, a few people don't approve of him at all. As you're listening, you see the hero himself run by, in pursuit of a local dog. Hey, didn't this happen in Fake Moon?
Your travels take you to an old woman's house in the outskirts of town -- the old woman who cares for the dog, as it happens. She can't see very well, but she's quite convinced that you're her son: the son who vanished many years ago, and was presumed dead by most of the townsfolk. She calls you by a name you recognize as the one you entered for yourself in Fake Moon. Could it be that the hero is this old blind woman's lost son? Could he have just abandoned his poor mother?
In any case, you see a look of utter joy on her face at the prospect of being reunited with her estranged child, and reluctantly decide to assume that role, if only because you know nothing would make her happier. You're given her son's favorite outfit, which solves the problem of your invisibility (and, consequently, also allows you to interact with other people, though they still can't exactly hear you), and the two of you catch up a bit before she falls fast asleep in her rocking chair. You, too, decide that you could use some rest... but in your dreams, you discover your true purpose for being here.
The hero, as it happens, may unwittingly be the biggest threat to the continued prosperity of Moon World. He cares only for gaining levels, and pays no heed to whose toes he must step on to get them. Considering what a "hero" he supposedly is, too, he conducts in some rather rotten activities, such as looting the houses of innocent villagers, brutally slaughtering all the wildlife, and excessively drinking. It is your mission to be a "messenger of love," and help clean up after this dastardly hero. You need to take the time to get to know the people around you, and help them achieve their dreams -- or at least do whatever you can to restore some degree of order to their chaotic lives. In addition, only you have the ability to "soul-catch" the wandering spirits of the animals killed by the hero, reuniting them with their rotting corpses and helping them to finally rest in peace.
And remember, this is a philanthropic mission. Like it or not, even the hero, for as much trouble as he's causing, has dreams and aspirations -- and without the hero's outlandish behavior, you wouldn't even be here! If you can help make the hero feel needed, then that, too, is love. For you see, without you, the hero is just a sham! None of the "mystical" things you did when playing as him were even remotely legitimate! When rocks were pushed aside, for example, it wasn't due to his excessive strength at all: in actuality, the rocks themselves are living creatures, and they're extremely shy. When stared at by another living creature, they blush slightly, and walk away. And that rainbow arch the hero formed by donning his holy armor? It was actually created by switching on a "rainbow arch generator," hidden in a small cluster of boulders nearby.
As you aid your fellow man, woman, monster, and increasingly more infuriating hero, and gather lots of love in the process, a surprisingly deep story unfolds. Moon World may initially seem like a stereotypical RPG world, but there's actually a lot of history to it... and a lot of poignant scenarios, too. Your quest is odd, and amusing, but surprisingly, it's also rather emotionally engaging! And as you play, the relationship between Moon World and the real world becomes more apparent, and you slowly begin to realize just how deep this game is. Remember, it all comes down to one concept, the golden rule of Moon:
Gain love, not levels.
The World of Moon
Regardless of how good the story is, though, it's also extremely bizarre. It makes other odd titles like "Earthbound" and "Okage: Shadow King" seem perfectly ordinary by comparison. Moon will take you on a journey that's truly unlike any you've ever seen before -- and that's an understatement! You'll be playing the xylophone in an all-monkey band on a remote tropical island, attending college classes at midnight with your good friend Yoshida the non-flying purple bird, doing a tribal dance with the shadowy "Kakunte" people of the mushroom forest, bird-watching, fishing, stalking a baker, assisting a waitress with her aspirations to become a pop idol, sliding through the digestive system of a hungry ghost, and even helping an American family man overcome his writer's block and pen the comic book of his dreams.
Perhaps the most fascinating events, though, are the ones that come straight out of Fake Moon, presenting you with an account of what really happened. Invariably, these events manage to further parody the RPG genre by revealing the truth behind each situation to be the exact opposite of what you'd expect, while at the same time brilliantly tying together loose ends in the story. These scenes are easily the most memorable in the game, and are bound to make even the most jaded gamer think, "holy crap, I can't believe that just happened!"
The wacky cast of characters and superbly-written Fake Moon tie-ins are just the tip of the iceberg, though. Moon successfully does what few games can: it creates a full, living, beautiful world. Every location is truly unique, and follows its own set of natural laws that may not have anything to do with life as we know it. Every single character in the entire game, from the most inconsequential townsperson to the King of Love-de-Gard, has a story to tell, and can be assisted in some way or another. There's a steady progression of day and night in Moon, as well as days of the week, and everyone in the game has a routine he/she follows, including sleeping schedules, weekend retreats, secret meetings with friends or lovers, etc. Learning everything about everyone is part of the game's appeal, and gives its large and varied cast of characters an unmatchable depth.
In short, Moon's world is vast, unique, and very much alive...
The Gameplay of Moon
As you might imagine, there are no battles in Moon. At all. There are monsters, but they're all... well, dead. Their bodies are scattered about everywhere, sometimes with remains of arrows stuck in them, or a nice clean slice down the middle. And invariably, the souls of these monsters will be floating around somewhere in the general vicinity. Sometimes it's just a matter of waiting for the right moment, sometimes it involves giving chase, and sometimes it requires a rather complicated bit of puzzle-solving, but every soul in the game can, somehow or another, be caught and reunited with its lifeless body. Doing this gives you a certain number of "love" points, and calls forth a UFO to come and whisk the monster away, generally leaving you with a bag of neka (the game's currency) for your troubles.
"Love" points can also be gained by completing any given character's sub-quest. And when I say "any given character," I mean it: the game's characters all have lofty goals they're reaching for, or serious problems they need to overcome. Sometimes, achieving these goals or overcoming these problems is a very simple task, but sometimes it's a long process that may span a good chunk of the game's length.
At any rate, the entire game is basically comprised of monster soul-catching and character sub-quests, only a very few of which are actually required (as they're the ones that advance the game's surprisingly intricate plot). By the time the credits roll, half the game world's population will become very near and dear to you -- as much so as any main character from any other major RPG.
This, of course, means that Moon is quite non-linear.
I've never cared much for non-linear RPGs, so I had my doubts about Moon. But as far as I'm concerned, Moon is the most successful non-linear RPG ever made. The sheer volume of sub-quests in this game is absolutely inconceivable. Unlike many non-linear RPGs, which often leave you wandering the map trying to find something to do, Moon generally leaves you with far too much to do. Most every character sub-quest involves other characters, and these other characters have their own sub-quests. Within a few hours of playing the game, you could literally be on two dozen or more different quests at the same time. You may actually have difficulty deciding what to do first! And even if you should somehow successfully finish every quest you can think of, the world changes over time (as plot-advancing quests are completed), so new ones will probably be waiting for you little more than a single screen away.
And as stated above, taking the time to see a character's sub-quest through to its end nets you "love" points. But the question is, what are these "love" points, and what do they do?
Well, your character is, unfortunately, not really part of this world, and can only remain conscious within it for a very short period of time. If you remain conscious for too long, you fade out of existence entirely. Only sleeping can fully rejuvinate you, with food being a temporary solution when you're in a pinch. And let's face it: with Moon World as big and sprawling as it is, you're not always going to be near a bed, nor will you always be lugging fresh fish around with you. Your only choice is to gather "love," which raises your "love level" and, in turn, drastically increases your "activity limit," allowing you to remain conscious for much longer periods of time. In the beginning of the game, this rather seriously limits what you can do, preventing you from exploring too far beyond the old woman's house. As you rescue lost souls and aid people in need, however, this becomes less and less of a worry, until you barely ever even have to think about it. Of course, moving out of your "mother's" house and getting your own place in the center of the world does help matters.
Completing Moon, in the end, amounts to accomplishing a few specific sub-quests, and building your "love level" high enough that you can survive for four and a half game days without food or sleep. Why four and a half game days, you ask? Well, you'll just have to play and find out, now, won't you!
The Groove of Moon
Moon also has the most unique soundtrack I think I've ever come across. As you might imagine, a game like this must have a wide variety of songs in it, and to that end, it does not disappoint. The tracks are quite fitting for such a strange world, and are extremely catchy and well-written, largely composed by Love-de-Lic's in-house group, "The Thelonious Monkees," and recorded with real instruments and vocals. Each new situation you find yourself in is accompanied by the perfect choice of music, regardless of whether the circumstances call for a somber melody, or something totally off-the-wall.
That only really applies to situational melodies, however: songs that play during cut-scenes, important events, etc. Moon is a game with a lot of travel in it, where you might find yourself working on a particular townsperson's sub-quest for quite a while, solving puzzles and talking to various people around the world the whole time, without triggering a single cutscene important enough to get its own music. And unlike most RPGs, Moon doesn't have any pre-set background music for these situations. No, it actually has something even better!
See, Moon's soundtrack is just as non-linear as its gameplay. Throughout the majority of your time in Moon World, the game's BGM can be whatever you'd like it to be. Your main character comes equipped with an MD, or "Moon Disc" player, and can either find or buy up to 36 different MDs. Most areas are naturally silent, aside from ambient noise, encouraging you to create your own background music by building an MD playlist of up to 8 songs. The MDs are composed by over 30 different independent Japanese artists, in a large variety of genres (dance, pop, jazz, electronica, new age, even traditional Japanese koto music!), and each comes with its own unique jacket art. It's fun to collect them all, and refreshing to be able to periodically update your playlist, reassigning the game's BGM to fit your current mood. It helps, too, that there are so many different styles to choose from, and a fantastic selection of quality songs within each one.
When it comes down to it, the attention to detail represented in Moon's soundtrack is nothing short of remarkable. Few games ever manage to achieve this level of musical diversity, and the ability to pick and choose your own background melodies is something that would still be unique and forward-thinking even by today's standards -- especially in an RPG! It's amazing to think that Moon was made nearly 10 years before this review was written, yet no one else has ever really tried anything quite like this again.
The Sights and Sounds of Moon
And what would music be without sound effects to back it up? In addition to the aforementioned ambient noise, Moon also boasts some other rather unique audio. When you soul-catch a monster's lost spirit, for example, a high-pitched female voice yells out, "kyat-chi!", in a cute Japanese approximation of the word "catch." But really, most of the game's sound effects are pretty standard fare, sounding perfect for the situation without being notably remarkable in any way. There is one place where they do stand out, though, and boy do they ever stand out! I refer, of course, to the character voices. Because in a game with characters this weird, you wouldn't expect run-of-the-mill voice-acting, now, would you?
As Love-de-Lic's first game, Moon actually started a trend in voice-acting that's carried over to every subsequent game they've made, without fail. The best way to describe it, really, is to say that the characters' voices sound like chewed-up cassette tape recordings -- but that sounds rather negative, when the actual effect is something quite distinctive, unique, and amusing. Basically, it seems like each character's voice-actor (who may have been hired for the job, but could just as well have been taken from an old radio recording or something) has one or two spoken sentences that have little or nothing to do with Moon, and indeed are often in foreign languages that the majority of Moon's players would never be able to understand anyway. These lines of dialogue are then chopped to pieces, and rearranged in a random order, each time that character "speaks." This makes it a bit different from simple gibberish, since you can occasionally pick out individual words or phrases (be they in English, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, or any other language), and it does give each character a distinctive voice, even if the actual content of what he/she says is complete nonsense.
Visually, too, the game is just as odd as you'd expect. The art style differs quite a bit from the anime art you typically see in RPGs, and indeed from any other art style you may have previously encountered as well. It's cartoony and abstract, but extremely fitting. And with the game's fairly large and decidedly well-animated sprites, and its hand-painted backgrounds, this distinctive yet odd art style is flawlessly depicted in the game, presenting you with a twisted RPG world that actually looks the part. Your avatar is particularly noteworthy in terms of character design, since he is, of course, invisible, and thus appears only as a disconnected pair of shoes, a jacket, white gloves, and an elf hat, with a walking animation that resembles a funky strut more than anything else. Although not the most flashy or impressive of graphics, it's obvious when playing Moon that the game looks exactly as its designers intended, with absolutely no compromises made -- and that's something very few games of this era ever managed to pull off.
The game's day-to-night progression, however, is sadly not depicted with the colorful subtlety as in subsequent Love-de-Lic productions, such as "Endonesia" or "Chulip." Instead, it's a sudden change from bright sunlight and shade to the eerie blue glow of Moon's moon and back, with only a brief transitionary animation at dusk and dawn. The lack of special palette-shifting effects doesn't really hurt the game's graphics, though, since they otherwise depict the game's world in such thorough and beautiful detail. And with everything and everyone else in the game constantly moving and changing, and the brief transitionary animation at dusk and dawn actually being rather nifty-looking in and of itself, it's hard to really find any fault in Moon's graphics at all.
Like everything else in this game, the visuals represent a tremendous attention to detail. Love-de-Lic has set the bar higher since this title (with varying degrees of success), but that doesn't make Moon's graphics any less beautiful or magical, and the variety of locations in the game helps keep them new and fresh from beginning to end
Gain Love, Not Levels
With games like this, it's easy to see why Love-de-Lic would become one of my favorite Japanese developers of all time. And while Moon is only available in Japanese, it has many spiritual sequels, one of which has actually made the transition to English: "Chibi-Robo," for the Nintendo GameCube. If you can read Japanese fairly well, Moon is worth tracking down. And even if you can't, there's still a lot of fun to be had with it. But if you want the full Love-de-Lic experience, and can't get it in Japanese, then I would at least recommend picking up Chibi-Robo. It's not quite as good as Moon, but it's very close -- and it's still very, very Love-de-Lic.
Moon is truly one of the greatest RPGs I've ever played, and is sure to be loved by any and every RPG fan who's willing to put the time and effort into playing a text-heavy Japanese game. It's one of the few games that not only picks an extremely difficult theme to work with, but actually succeeds at it, with flying colors (er, sometimes quite literally!). Everything is expertly handled, and the only real imperfections in the game are a handful of overly-difficult and frustrating puzzles -- which can be easily overlooked, given the abundance of interesting and fun puzzles that are also present. This honestly is one of the most well-written, well-realized games I've ever encountered, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
You'll laugh, you'll cry... you'll scratch your head in confusion... in parts, you'll be very disturbed... but you'll never get bored of it, and you'll definitely enjoy every minute. Games this good don't come along very often, so if you have the opportunity, be sure to save this one from obscurity. I can only hope that one day it gets rereleased (perhaps on the PSP?), and reconsidered for American localization, as Moon definitely deserves a place in the spotlight. It's nearly perfect in every way.