The year is 1975. Phones – where they exist – are boxy plastic things tethered to walls by tightly coiled cable. Cars are rarely seen. An entire house will have one solitary TV within its walls, and the programmes it displays have to be watched when they’re transmitted or missed forever. It’s in this capsule of the past, somewhere so a long time ago and far, far, away Star Wars didn’t exist yet for writers to tenuously reference in their opening paragraphs, a time when nobody minded where kids were so long as they were home in time for tea, where nine year old Boku spends an unforgettable summer at his aunt and uncle’s guest house.
There’s a lot to love about Boku no Natsuyasumi 2 – the stunning hand-crafted background art, the charming writing, the use of tank controls outside of a survival-horror game – but if there’s one thing that defines BokuNatsu2 it’s the sheer amount of honest-to-goodness freedom you have to explore this small fictional slice of rural Japan on your own terms: Everything that happens after Boku gets off the well-worn rusty old boat at the harbour is up to you so long as it falls within the broad confines of “Things an adorable young boy visiting the Japanese countryside in the seventies would want to do”. There are more than enough different tasks, special events, and unexpected visitors dropping in throughout the month to entertain those who fancy casually falling in with whatever’s going on that day (and perhaps saying hi to a cat while they’re at it), and likewise anyone who’d rather spend every single minute becoming the best at one particular thing will find plenty to keep them going all summer long – and if nothing at all appeals there’s nothing to stop Boku sleeping all day every day (I wouldn’t recommend it though) – this is your holiday.
OK, apart from a few tiny exceptions: Every morning and evening the whole family – that’s Boku, auntie, uncle, and Boku’s cousins Takeshi and Shigeru – gather around the dinner table to eat and chat together (which also allows them to naturally bring up any fun events or special occasions that might be happening that day), after a hard day’s playing auntie will always make sure Boku’s in bed by 11:00pm if you’ve not decided to put him to bed earlier and… that’s it. That’s as “forced” as BokuNatsu2 ever gets, and even then there’s still some interactivity smuggled in under the radar – if you catch Boku’s aunt preparing the evening meal she’ll offer to cook him his choice from a small selection of possible dishes; your decision makes no difference to anything but seeing something you’ve asked for spread across the dining table and enjoyed by Boku’s extended family is a lovely inclusive touch.
Other than those short sequences Boku’s time can be spent however you see fit: If you decide insects are going to be your thing there are a hundred different kinds of butterfly, bug, and beetle to chase after (a quantity that’s only increased – as many things are – in the later PSP port), many of which are only likely to be found in specific places at specific times of day. To keep collecting them feeling organic and exciting even for the most dedicated insect hunter every single creature you catch also mentions its size: Yes you caught one, but was it large enough to officially register as a big one? Was it your biggest big one? Can you find one even more humongous than that? – and so the collecting itch remains as unscratched as it ever was, every flitting butterfly still a potential record-breaker. Any beetles you find can also participate in sumo-style matches against your cousin’s bugs – assuming you can find the not-so-secret treetop den where these titanic struggles take place, that is (and on a little tambourine, no less). Catching fish is an equally holiday-engulfing way to while away the hours: Boku starts off with access to a few saltwater and freshwater fishing spots (and gains access to even more as the month goes on), has multiple lures to choose from, and if those aren’t performing as well as you’d like you can always add some fresh bait to the end – if you can find a crab or crayfish hiding under a board or out on the harbour. Everything I already said about times of day, size, and biggest-caught records applies here too – and if you’re really dedicated (or lucky – it turns out I am neither) you might even catch a fish big enough to eat! Diving into those cool clear waters reveals another pastime: Hunting for discarded bottle caps shining amongst the stones and seaweed. Each one retrieved increases the length of time Boku can spend underwater (which is as traditionally game-y as this not-game gets) and has a different dinosaur design on top – who wouldn’t want to find treasure like that? Or “borrow” a piece of chalk from Boku’s summer home and watch him cheekily giggle to himself before he decorates the locality with his art – can you find every surface he can draw on? Let’s not forget that Boku’s small world is full of interesting people to bump in to as he hares about the place, each with their own developing plot threads, events, and perhaps a little gift for Boku to treasure forever either.
There’s a lot to take in and you’ll never, ever, do it all on a single run – you’re not supposed to. You’re not supposed to want to. Boku’s holiday has a lot to do because it’s designed to be flexible rather than an overwhelming series of compulsory checklists – everything you do or don’t do is a genuine choice on your part, the month will still continue without any major disasters no matter how much or how little you choose to have Boku do. Thanks to this laid-back approach nothing ever feels like a chore – or like a frivolous waste of what might have otherwise been “productive” time – because the decision to take a moment doing whatever it is you’ve decided Boku’s up to today is always entirely in your hands; if you don’t want to do it then Boku doesn’t do it, it’s as simple as that. Except it’s actually quite hard to want to not do something in this game as there’s a tangible reward for trying absolutely everything in BokuNatsu2, even when you’re not filling out an impressive collection of wildlife or forging forever-bonds with the local children: Something as simple as trusting in your own curiosity to guide Boku through a suspicious gap between a few trees may lead to a small shaded area bursting with flowers and butterflies, and wondering if he would dare to jump off a high bridge into the water below ends up with him swimming in a beautiful river filled with fish and countless green fronds swaying in the current. Nothing bad can happen to him because he’s got the unbreakable plot armour of a little kid off on a summer adventure (nothing worse than waking up at the guest house and scaring his poor aunt anyway – the beehives Boku can poke with a stick operate more or less as optional warp points back home so long as you can bear the guilt), so there’s no reason to be anything other than brave, curious, and free.
And these things – the gotta catch ’em all wildlife bothering, the compelling exploration, the sweet conversations with people happy to share their time with Boku – are all solid reasons why BokuNatsu2 is an excellent game but how it handles the passage of time is what transforms it into something truly special. It’s this one detail, more than any blue sky backdrop or cicada-filled soundscape, that imbues the game with its soaked-in-sunshine mood. Do you remember spending what felt like an eternity playing hide and seek or building a fort under a bush in the park and then racing home only to find all of an hour had passed, or friends portioning the day off into precious chunks such as “after breakfast” or “in the park after dinner”? BokuNatsu2 perfectly mimics the apparent elasticity of time in those long summer days with one very simple rule: Time passes in set amounts (four minutes, for example – you can increase and decrease the amount between slow/normal/fast presets any time you like in the options menu) whenever the camera angle changes and in no other circumstances. The in-game effect of this is that breathlessly charging around everywhere like a nine year old that’s been given the run of the picturesque countryside (just for one out-of-thin-air example) moves the clock forward quickly – before you know it the sun will be bathing every leaf and stream in a bright orange glow and Boku’s uncle will show up to take him home for tea. But if you decide to sit Boku down in a beautiful spot (and there’s plenty of those), are determined to catch a fish at your favourite casting point, or just want to sit and listen as someone softly plays an acoustic guitar by the sea then you can pause the whole world and really take in those precious moments that may never come again, five minutes and forever briefly meaning exactly the same thing.
Endless sun-drenched days sound idyllic, don’t they? Every day trapped in amber, a false perfection, an unrelatable world that never did – and never could – have existed. BokuNatsu2’s too good to fall into that trap. This is why the boat Boku arrives on is small and rusted, the pier it docks at is composed entirely of harsh grey concrete and barnacles, and when he arrives the first thing that happens is Boku’s cousins ask that all-important childhood question – who’s the oldest? – and the answer isn’t Boku. His room for the month is a space that’s been cleared out in the linen room of his uncle’s guest house and the bug-collecting set he’s been given as a present comes inside an old model kit box for a brown car. It’s all a very ordinary and unspecial way to treat the lead character – and the paying customer controlling them – but these beautifully realised and very human elements breath sparkling life into every aspect of Boku’s summer world: Swings have scuff marks in the dirt underneath them formed by dusty young feet, a washing machine rumbles away beneath a simple shelf lined with mismatching bottles of cleaning products, and a glass of beer rests not neatly on a table but perched on a nearby wooden beam, all the more convenient for its owner to reach as they relax in the cool evening breeze. This isn’t just a place for you – the player – to explore, this isn’t even a place for Boku to visit – this is a place where people live and work and will continue to do so long after you’ve gone.
And despite their cartoonish appearances (designed by the talented Mineko Ueda) these people have at least as much depth, detail, and heart as their exquisitely designed environment. Boku himself is as innocent, curious, and approachable as any parent would hope a nine year old boy would be but he isn’t held within an artificial child-friendly bubble of untroubled times and boundless happiness, and during the month he’ll stumble upon plenty of adult conversations dealing in grown-up hopes, family tensions, and even death, all hinting at the world beyond Boku’s current level of understanding. These instances aren’t dropped in to puncture the easygoing mood or to viciously twist Boku’s play into some false “intellectual” problem, asking ridiculous questions such as “Is Boku actually having fun or is he hiding away from the harsh truths of reality, hmmm?“, they’re just gentle brushes with some of the many wonderful complexities of everyday life he will eventually grow in to. BokuNatsu2 celebrates and adores this “ordinary”: The beauty of a welcoming home bustling with caring people, the pride in seeing flowers you’ve diligently watered bloom in the morning sun. It’s seeing make-do repairs and clothes flapping in the breeze and thinking home. BokuNatsu2 is a much needed reminder in the peace and happiness that can be found in the imperfect. In kindness. In you.