Konami’s second go at first love

Tokimeki Memorial 2 is a lavish PlayStation exclusive experience, one where every event and cutscene has been crafted to the highest standards using vast quantities of spoken dialogue and premium quality artwork – no wonder it spans a frankly absurd five CDs. That’s more than any of Squaresoft’s chart-topping RPGs released around the same time, and probably (probably) more than any other PlayStation game ever, even though the game itself doesn’t take any longer to complete than the original Tokimeki Memorial.

Yep, that’s right: Konami used five CDs to tell roughly ten hours of story.

Some of the first disc’s space is taken up by Emotional Voice System data: EVS for short. This new feature gives certain people the ability to speak your name, and all you have to do is pick one of two major characters – childhood friend and pink-haired cover star Hikari or older childhood friend Kasumi – and then spell your chosen moniker out phonetically before adjusting the tone to your liking (Should their voice raise or lower at the end, or emphasise the middle instead? It’s entirely up to you). The toll this takes on your memory card is a heavy one, your single six-character-at-most name taking up a whopping eleven of a standard memory card’s fifteen blocks. Voice data for the rest of the cast was relegated to three separately sold “append discs” bundled with Hibikino Watcher – a sort of supplemental fan material book – a smooth combination of supplementary income for Konami as well as a simple necessity just due to how little free space there was to go around. Later this voice data was released digitally as part of Sony’s wonderful PlayStation Store PS Archives collection, and was until recently by far the cheapest and most practical way to gain access to this additional content.

Is all of this fuss (and expense) worth this effort? Absolutely. The first thing that happens once you begin playing, assuming you picked Hikari Hinomoto to be your EVS’d character (which to be fair is definitely the most likely scenario for a new starter), is you get to hear her speak your name like it’s just another part of the dialogue. It’s a remarkable accomplishment even when you know exactly what’s coming, and as easy as it is to point out that we’ve managed just fine without it before (and in many cases, since) there is something special from hearing your chosen name called out by the school gates or on a day out as if you – whatever you’ve decided you want to be called this time around – are as much a part of the script as anyone else.

Your time with Tokimeki Memorial 2 opens not on the first day of three years of hormone-soaked high school but a carefree spring break seven years earlier. This extended playable sequence lasts several in-game days, you cheerfully wandering around your home town of Hibikino with Hikari, who turns out to be literally the girl next door, from daylight to dusk. This time spent playing in the local park and poking your nose in wherever you please gives you a backstory to call your own, you and Hikari childhood friends (several other cast members can also be met in their younger forms) from a childhood you have personally lived through – even if only for a few days. Cleverly your behaviour here and the interactions you have with the adults you might talk to around has a mild influence on your starting high school stats, energetic behaviour making for a more physically active older self while a more perceptive or curious mini-you can expect to start your time at Hibikino High with a natural disposition towards science, for example.

Whatever you do or don’t do it’s an idyllic time filled with dirty knees and laughter that culminates in a perfect day out at the Hibikino amusement park with Kasumi and Hikari, engaging in the innocent fun of merry-go-rounds as well as hot-blooded assurances that nobody here’s afraid of how high the big wheel goes. What could be better than a quick photo of the three of you to commemorate this wonderful moment followed by the easy promise to go play again tomorrow, same as every other day?

Only this time there is no tomorrow for you and Hikari. Instead you return home and the screen goes black save for the dialogue box – your dialogue box. You’re speaking, expressing shock and impotent pint-sized anger at the news your family’s moving house. You don’t want to leave Hikari and Kasumi! Why do you have to go? There is no answer to your pleas, perhaps reflecting a mother’s awareness of the upset this sudden change is causing her son, perhaps cold acknowledgment that any reason the writers could have included is irrelevant as children at that age have few options but to live the life they’ve been given. You do at least get to say goodbye to your two best friends, the scene ending on a full screen FMV sequence showing young Hikari bawling her eyes out as she fruitlessly chases after the vehicle that’s taking away her childhood friend forever.

[Please insert disc 2]

Yep, that’s your first disc of TokiMemo 2 done and dusted (until the very end): a quick display of technical magnificence followed by some cheerful fun and a knife straight through your heart. Now the game begins proper, with you moving back to the town you thought you’d never see again to attend a new school – Hibikino High – and hear about a new lover’s legend too: “The Legendary Bell”, which in practise follows the same template Kirameki’s Legendary Tree used in the first game. The less charitable might consider this a quick rehash of the original TokiMemo’s theme but I see it more as an honest reflection of the broader educational experience: every school has a special gathering spot, a juicy rumour about some nondescript locked door, repeated tales of the day long ago the children were sent home because the boiler broke in winter. In that context the idea that two separate groups of loved-up teenagers would both pick their school’s One Weird Feature as the focal point of their romantic legend doesn’t feel far-fetched at all.

Besides, TokiMemo 2 carries itself with the confidence of a game that isn’t going to meekly copy the one thing everyone remembers from the previous entry and hopes you won’t mind too much – this is a game that wants to show up and then claim this space as its own. You get the distinct impression TokiMemo 2 wants to thoroughly out-sim the earlier Shiori-starring story, courageously casting aside everything beyond the absolute basics in favour of a thrilling all-or-nothing attempt to capture the hearts and wallets of the series’ fans.

You do still have an info-loving friend to help you out, Takumi serving the same function everyone’s favourite phone number collector Yoshio did in the first game (with a fun twist – I’ll talk about that later), but other than him your new year group really don’t have any clear parallels with old cast – and TokiMemo 2’s all the better for it. There are still sporty girls, shy girls, confident girls, and science-loving girls – as there are in any school – but nobody’s been created as a direct replacement for your favourite member of the established Kirameki High line up, leaving you with no choice but to engage with the cast on their own terms, to get to know them and what they like instead of falling back in to whatever routine worked last time.

Not satisfied merely with offering players an all-new cast to fall in love with TokiMemo 2 also uses the series’ famous phone call/diary schedule system to create some new storytelling opportunities too. Kaedeko Sakura (short green hair, rather sweet and shy) is as far as you know just another girl in your year group – until the day she’s just not there any more because she’s transferred to another school. Her sudden absence echoes the same childhood upset your younger self faced in the prologue; you know how upsetting that situation is because you’ve played it through yourself yet there’s nothing you can do to prevent it and calling her old number only lets you listen to a “This number is no longer in use” message. Even if she wasn’t your favourite friend this unexpected rewrite of established rules is still a shock to the system, TokiMemo 2 keen to remind you that even though you’re a boy in a dating sim full of girls the cast – as well as their families and their private lives – do not exist in a passive bubble created for your benefit.

And then TokiMemo 2 adds another surprising twist: If you were close enough friends beforehand she might think to call you from her new number, sparking a long-distance relationship based on lengthy phone calls about the latest school gossip or whatever was on TV yesterday. You can still send and receive birthday gifts and Valentine chocolates although these now have to be mailed off rather than given in person, denying you the typical visual “reward” and reaction that usually accompanies these interactions. This is the really special part of Kaedeko’s story, the game asking a question few others dare to even consider: Were you dating her because you actually liked her, or were you dating her because she was pretty and conveniently available?

Another girl, Akane Ichimonji, has story-driven scheduling issues in a different way: She has to work to support her schooling, the money going towards everyday essentials rather than teenage frivolities (this detail even extends to her school uniform, which is always a bare-minimum version of the summer type). This means that when you do see her around she’s as friendly as anyone else, but those phone calls that often end with you successfully arranging dates with the others tend to end with her apologising because she’s busy working that day. Her continual lack of spare cash also colours her preferred choice of dating spot too – you’d have to be pretty thoughtless to take her somewhere expensive when she’s already spending every waking moment trying to make ends meet, wouldn’t you?

But why would you even look at anyone else when your beloved childhood friend is right there? TokiMemo 2’s excellent writing offers a very simple solution to the small problem created by its Hikari-centered intro: She’s very happy you’re back, but that doesn’t mean she’s spent the past seven years missing you. If you do pursue her she’ll relish your company, but at the same time you can see she already has a full social life without you and that means you have no reason to feel bad should you choose to turn your romantic attention elsewhere – she doesn’t need you (or your permission) to be whole.

This independent behaviour equally applies to your male friends (yep, plural) this time around, with both the previously mentioned Takumi as well as sweetly shy Junichirou choosing and then actively pursuing their dream girl. The first time I realised this was going on was when Junichirou called and admitted he liked our mutual classmate Miho. Without any prompting my school-bound self was immediately supportive, suggesting and then successfully setting up a double date at the amusement park with the help of willing accomplice Hikari, the two of us just-so-happening to go on all the rides together so Junichirou had to spend all of his time with Miho. It was a positive experience for all involved and as a player it felt great to be on the other side of the double-date fence for once, helping to make one beetroot-red teenager’s dreams come true. Much later on Takumi pulled me to one side at school to introduce me to his girlfriend – someone who could have been a forever partner of my own – and the scripted reaction was to congratulate them both and wish Takumi well, followed by her name no longer appearing on my list of phone numbers.

There is a chance due to the way TokiMemo 2 picks the favoured girls of these two friends that you will eventually come to (cute 3D) blows if two of you are trying to impress the same girl (and even then only if she is also head over heels in love with you), but even then this is just another example of Tokimeki Memorial’s belief that these girls aren’t “yours” to pick from. They can and do fall in love with anyone, even people who aren’t you. But even better than that is seeing the game present your prospective loves not as an idealised concept of datable teenage girls but as other people in the same year as you; their surfeit or lack of femininity, intelligence, or availability having no relation to their worthiness of affection. You don’t “fix” the ones that aren’t polite, traditionally attractive, or more into being their best gremlin selves than dating boys before they become “acceptable”; you either love them as they are or learn to enjoy your single life.

RPG-like battles make a welcome return, the combatants now rendered in chunky 3D. While I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the new polygonal look much care was taken to imbue them with as much personality as possible; the summer trip snake is now able to swallow students whole (complete with comedy lump travelling down their throat) and depending on your partner at the time thugs may be served soothing cups of tea, sending them off to sleep for a brief moment before getting pummelled into submission by lumpen square fists.

One new feature I’ve not mentioned yet is the weather, which can now add some enjoyable unpredictability to your everyday events. Characters may show up wet to a day out or carrying an umbrella on the way home from school, or even have new conversations based on the current conditions. There’s nothing to stop you from organising an outdoor date on a rainy day and even have the girl agree to go… although when she does turn up she will point out there’s not going to be much on at the stadium during a downpour, wasting everyone’s free time.

Need to take a break? Then why not take a little piece of TokiMemo 2 with you using the incredible power of Sony’s “They didn’t actually rip off Sega’s VMU but I can see why people think they did” PocketStation accessory. You’ll need all fifteen blocks of your micro-portable’s memory free but if you can manage that then you’ll be able to take a single character wherever you go (a quick word of warning: Only Takumi and Junichirou are available by default) and even choose two of three spoken phrases – all of them sounding surprisingly clear out of the little system’s speaker – for use as alarm calls too. When out and about the tiny PokeMemo program gives you access to a clock, alarm, stopwatch, and timer, as well as the ability to check out lightly-animated full body artwork of the character you picked. Press the PocketStation’s sole action button and they’ll usually offer a general greeting based on the time of day (and that means someone had to write individual lines of dialogue for the PocketStation) but on annual events, as I discovered entirely by accident while writing this article, they’ll have something specific to say – even when that event is as relatively minor as the Spring Equinox.

It’s an extra that strikes just the right balance between the essential and the useless: Anyone with one of Sony’s imported devices to hand gain access to a charming additional experience that can’t be found anywhere else. At the same time this bonus feature adds nothing at all to the game itself, so anyone who just wanted to play the game they paid for can do so without missing out on anything important.

More than twenty years may have passed since Tokimeki Memorial 2’s debut but it still feels like fresh and supremely self-assured experience, a game determined to stand on its own two feet and neither rely on nor live in fear of the immense popularity of its all-conquering prequel. The attention to detail, to the point where characters will comment on the current outdoor temperature, is nothing short of astonishing and the full screen animations (true animations, not prerecorded FMV) reserved exclusively for the final confession speech are so fluid and emotive you know you’ll have to play a lot of games before you’ll see anything that comes close to matching them. TokiMemo 2 was never going to be able to redefine dating sims – the first game is just too big, important, and well made for that – but sequels as good as this are a rare thing indeed.

[I only get to write articles like this thanks to the support I receive through Ko-fi. If you’ve enjoyed this piece or any other, please consider helping me make more!]

7 thoughts on “Konami’s second go at first love

  1. I love TokiMemo 2. It is so dense, super ambitious and full of self confidence. A way a game could only be if it comes at the cusp of a genres popularity, following the most infuental game in said genre that made sure the company wasn’t pressed for money for years after it came out. It truly came out just at the right moment, and we are all richer for that.

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  2. This game sounds AMAZING. I love hearing that the characters are all their own independent people rather than the ‘you’re a kid in a candy shop go pick your flavor’ approach that games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age take when it comes to romance. It kinda blows my mind that they understood that concept when they made TokiMemo 2 but it’s still such a rare thing to see in games today. I can’t wait until I know more Japanese so I can finally play these wonderful games!

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    1. I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time when you do! Just that slight shift in tone – that these are people who might like you rather than romantic options to choose from – makes an enormous difference.

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  3. This sounds awesome. I should go play Tokimemo 1 first though since I only got one ending in that one.
    I love it when the game makes you feel like other characters have life, Dokyusei also did that. Girls aren’t just waiting around in line for you and have their own personal issues and drama.

    Kind of amazing one of the most high-profile dating sims to date is Love Plus, if you ask me games like Dokyusei or Tokimemo are much more engaging.

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