The release of charming adventure games Shin chan: Me and the professor on summer vacation on the Nintendo Switch this week might not seem like a momentous occasion in the annals of gaming – low-budget licensed titles are rare. But like the recent Western debuts of Live A Live, Kowloon High-School Chronicleor Moon, Shin-chanits new release fills an important void in video game history.
Shin chan: Me and the professor on summer vacation is the first full-length game in the My Summer Vacation series to make it outside of Japan, where it is known as Boku no Natsuyasumi. The cult hit series about a 9-year-old who runs around the Japanese countryside making friends and catching bugs has never been released in English, and the series has been dormant since the fourth entry came out on the PSP in 2009. While Shin-chan doesn’t carry the My Summer Vacation name, it shares the series’ same developer, director, setting, plot, gameplay loop, fishing mini-games, hand-drawn backgrounds, and unique time progression mechanic. This is My summer vacation 5 in all but name and with a Shin-chan coat of paint.
The Summer Vacation games aren’t just a new one made in Japan; they were some of the most moving examples of the late 90s turn towards everyday life in Japanese game development. Globally, Shenmue, Animal crossingand Harvest Moon are the more famous examples of this trend in console gaming, but in Japan the Summer Vacation series stood alongside them. With the release of the spiritual Shin-chan sequel, we get a better picture of that creative moment.
Millennium Kitchen boss Kaz Ayabe based the Summer Vacation series on his own childhood rooms in the countryside, the same source of inspiration that prompted Yasuhiro Wada to create Harvest Moon, and, most famously, Satoshi Tajiri for creating Pokémon. The plot of every summer vacation is the same: A boy named Boku (“me” in Japanese) visits his family in the boonies, and he fills the long days with swimming, hiking, and chatting with the locals amid quaint, dusty buildings and picturesque rolling fields.
Ayabe puts a lot of effort into capturing the geography of rural Japan. “When I start making a game, I start by drawing a map,” Ayabe said in an interview with Scroll. Each town in a summer vacation game consists of non-scrolling screens, like a LucasArts-era adventure game, stitched together to form walking paths. Time only moves in the game as Boku moves from one screen to another, and since time is limited, this traversal gives it a risk-reward dynamic unique to the series.
Boku has 31 days to live his life to the fullest before he has to go home again, which means collecting all the bugs, fish, trading cards and other junk that kids love before time runs out. The game does not force any progression on the player; Boku could theoretically spend the entire month indoors if he wanted to. When the game forces you to do things, it acts like a parent: you can’t skip morning exercises, you have to attend both breakfast and dinner, and you can’t stay up too long or your uncle will come and get you. Basically, the goal is to relive the ideal Japanese childhood of the 70s, without any responsibilities in the warm embrace of a loving family, cool friends and untouched nature.
Ayabe has mentioned her love for the influential filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu in the past, and there is something Ozu-esque that permeates the entire series. First, Boku’s family and friends are sharply observed and not entirely cuddly, especially in the more adult-oriented first game. In the first title, Boku visits his aunt’s house in the mountainous Yamanashi prefecture, just outside of Tokyo. The tone of the game is warm, but there is darkness around the edges: Your younger cousin Shirabe acts cold towards you, you occupy the room of your aunt’s dead son, and you hear rumors of a Wolf Spirit roaming the forest. In a genuinely moving conclusion that reminds of My neighbor TotoroShirabe runs away from home the day before Boku is to leave, and you are reunited after a long search in a field blooming with sunflowers.
Ozu was celebrated for his “cushion shots”, stretches of time in which his camera broke from the action and settled on a landscape, just to admire it. My Summer Vacation has several backgrounds such as the sunflower field, which serves no game-related purpose, but allows the player to slow down and drink in the view. While Boku himself and all the other characters are 3D models, the rest of the game is pre-rendered, hand-painted 2D backgrounds packed with atmosphere, made to be admired in their own right.
After the first outing on the original Playstation, the series would move to different scenic locations with each game: the tropical Izu Peninsula in My summer vacation 2the wide-open Hokkaido plains i 3and the islands of the Setonai Sea i 4. The gameplay would remain the same, give or take a few mini-games, though each release would expand its scope with more characters, more locations, or more collectibles. In Japan, the series would go on to sell more than one million copies.
Ever since the release of the fourth game, the series has been discontinued. While Ayabe gained some recognition from her Nintendo 3DS game Attack from the Friday monsters! A Tokyo talefrom which paired game elements Summer vacation series with a fantastic tokusatsu-inspired plot, a short, three-hour game just wasn’t enough to bring the series back to prominence.
Shin chan: Me and the professor on summer vacation could turn things around. The game sees Shinnosuke “Shin” Nohara, the star of Crayon Shin-Chan manga and anime, vacations at his mother’s friend’s house in a rural region of Kyushu Island, and fills his days chasing butterflies, growing vegetables, and fishing. The charm to Summer vacation series – the aimless wandering, the evocative background, the personable characters – are preserved in this ersatz sequel.
Other aspects have changed, perhaps to cater to a wider audience. There is a central plot now, involving a mad scientist and time travel, but you can still ignore it if you choose. And just to add a touch of magical realism, the time travel buckets summon dinosaurs to wander around the village, after Attack of the Friday monstersits design philosophy that giant monsters are very cool.
There is less emphasis on naturalism, however Shin-chan is remarkably accurate to the comic and manga source material. Unlike the serious Boku, Shinnosuke is a smart-ass, and the game has all the usual gags of Shin spouting witty dialogue or awkwardly flirting with older women. Fittingly, there’s a dedicated button for Shin to wave backwards at the camera.
Showing its trademark care for aesthetics, Millennium Kitchen has traded the Studio Ghibli-esque style of its earlier work for the flat, cel-shaded look of Shin-chan anime. It’s accurate to a remarkable degree: the developers even made sure that Shin’s trademark pout always faces left, whether he’s viewed from the front or the back, just like in the source material. At its core, however, this is still a familiar game about trying to have a blast as an unsupervised kid in the wilderness.
Given that Sony, who published the series in Japan, has shown little interest in promoting the property further, and that no active fan translations of the games exist at this time, Shin chan: Me and the professor on summer vacation is the best, perhaps only, chance on the horizon for English-speaking players to get My Summer Vacation experience.
Shin chan: Me and the professor on summer vacation is available now on Nintendo Switch, and is coming to PlayStation 4 and Windows PC via Steam.