Shin-chan has been his oddball little self for over thirty years now, the manga and anime star headlining games on just about anything and everything going all the way back to the Game Boy and Famicom. The public reception of these titles has generally ranged from mild apathy to active dislike, something created because the money-monster must be fed and Shin-chan is the perfect vehicle to do so.
This latest effort in that slightly cursed line is by none other than Millennium Kitchen, best known in English-speaking parts of the world for Attack of the Friday Monsters and in Japan as the developers of the Sony-exclusive and perennially untranslated Boku no Natsuyasumi series, games dripping with sincere nostalgia for endless summer days spent chasing butterflies and making new friends in picturesque parts of rural Japan. To date there have been no new entries in that series since the fourth appeared on the PSP in 2009, although Crayon Shin-chan: Ora to Hakase no Natsuyasumi, using the exact same “a young boy on holiday in the Japanese countryside” setting as the developer’s older works, comes so close so often if it had been made by anyone else it could’ve been accurately described as a knockoff.
It uses the same mix of beautifully painted backgrounds and 3D characters. Shin-chan takes part in the same fishing and bug collecting pastimes. There’s the same gang of local kids to play amusing side games with. The same “time only passes when you switch screens” mechanic. The same family meals bookending the endless summer days. The same going to bed and morning exercise routine. The same sub menu, even.
Same, same, same. In many ways it’s not unfair to say this game is a streamlined revival of Boku no Natsuyasumi with a thick coating of Shin-chan painted on top – and that’s great, because if there’s one thing this hobby would definitely benefit from it’s more heartwarming games capable of making your soul feel just that little bit brighter for having played them. But as photocopy-close to older titles as Shin-chan initially appears to be a lot of love, care, and thought has gone into this game, and for everything that’s similar you can guarantee there’s a novel twist somewhere along the way to make it feel fresh and different too.
Much of this comes about just due to working with Shin-chan. The 3D models are impressively true to the manga’s more recent stylings, artfully breaking as many rules of perspective and continuity as their polygonal construction would ordinarily make them follow; the distinctive style no more out of place amongst the painted flowers and voluminous clouds than Mineko Ueda’s art in Boku no Natsuyasumi of old. Their expressive faces, unique body shapes, and joyfully exaggerated movements naturally making them easily understood and entertaining to watch whether viewed up close in a cramped office piled high with old paperwork or at a distance, dashing across a dirt path flanked with beautiful trees and thick green bushes dotted with colourful flowers.
But Shin-chan’s influence runs much deeper than that, and the game is – and it feels almost blasphemous to admit this – better for being brave enough to move away from Millennium Kitchen’s house style. A lot of this is to do with the leading five year old bum-wiggler himself: He’s a loveable scamp who seems to come at every conversation sideways, and as a long-established character in his own right the enjoyable plot is quite reasonably more concerned with his reaction to the outlandish events and likeable people around him, ditching any concerns about moulding your – or rather his – own digital summer memories in favour of a stronger plot featuring a self-described mad scientist using his not-so-secret lab (there’s a large sign outside saying “secret lab” in English and Japanese) to sporadically summon mostly benign dinosaurs using time travel, a laptop, and a silly song and dance. Usually these dinosaurs then go on to amiably wander around Asso village, just another bit of off-kilter ordinariness in a game stuffed full of off-kilter ordinariness, but at times everyone will find themselves taking part in all sorts of pleasant events, from cheerful dinosaur parades to a toy robot memorably fighting a curry-eating tyrannosaurus.
Sadly this happy week ends far too quickly for anyone playing to even come close to seeing and doing everything in the village and Shin-chan finds himself on the train back home… and then back in the village again, at the [re]start of his summer holiday. I won’t give too much away here, but let’s just say the unique structure of this laid-back adventure actually works to the benefit of the player as much as the plot, and you can safely put any fears of drearily redoing things you’ve already done to one side.
As lovely as this all sounds there is one unavoidable problem for potential importers, and one nobody really wants to hear: If you can’t read the text – not all of it always, but most of it, most of the time (there’s plenty of furigana to help with the kanji if you need it) – then you’re not going to get much out of this game, no matter how appealing the images above make it look. Even if you’d be happy just pootling around the village catching fish and helping find, buy, or grow ingredients for local businesses and ignoring all of the amusing dialogue (some scenes genuinely made me laugh out loud) there are still too many times where you need to do something in particular to progress or unlock a new area, and it’s unlikely to be the sort of something you’d do by accident.
If you can get over that hurdle then I’m sure you’ll find Crayon Shin-chan: Ora to Hakase no Natsuyasumi to be a fantastic game in its own right even if you have no experience with either the manga/anime/unstoppable media empire that spawned it or the dusted-off game systems it’s been expertly incorporated in to. Those coming to this from the Shin-chan side of things will find a game worthy of its star’s ongoing popularity, and anyone hoping to play the ghost of Boku no Natsuyasumi 5 will surely find themselves smiling, even if the game doesn’t have quite the same breadth or depth of sun-soaked experiences. It is quite short – it took me around seven hours to clear, and I wasn’t desperately racing to the end – but there’s a New Game+ mode available for those that want to have another go, and it’s such a pleasant experience I’m confident that could include just about everyone who gets their hands on the game.
Commercially-minded collaborations like this are normally something to be treated with extreme caution, but from any angle it’s hard to see Shin-chan as anything less than a complete success; and if this what it takes to bring Boku back in spirit if not in name then I can only hope everyone in gaming, from the Puyo Puyo gang to Master Chief himself, gets to have their own wonderful summer holiday.