It should come as no surprise that the eroge market of today forces the player to search through thousands of titles on a monthly basis to find that one particular game that is not just decent, but great. While many companies and brands step up to the plate, few actually produce true quality titles that are overall entertaining yet meaningful. These games manage to stand the test of time, even long after the maker has dissapeared into the mists of history. Of course, the question then arises: what is it that makes a great game? In the case of TerraLunar's final release, it can be said that clever use of comedy combined with a great set of characters and a well-written scenario is enough to make such a title great. With this, I present to my readers (all three of you) Rakuen ~Ai kawarazu na boku no baii~.
Game: Rakuen ~Ai kawarazu na boku no baii~
Rakuen ~Ai kawarazu na boku no baii~ (Rakuen for short) was released on June 25th, 2004 by the softhouse TerraLunar. At the time, TerraLunar was part of a larger development company known as Getsumenkichimae (base on the face of the moon). The game's title literally means Paradise ~the case of "Never improve myself"~, the case being the making of the game Ai kawarazu na boku and the events surrounding it.
The player takes the role of a nameless protagonist that the script refers to as Boku (boku is a word one can use to refer to themselves in Japanese. It's less formal than watashi, but not to the point of words like ore). Boku is a ronin that moves to Tokyo in hopes of being able to study and prepare himself for the university entrance exams. His hobbies as an artist and the myriad of temptations of the big city have kind of caused him to waste his time away, playing games and watching anime instead of focusing on studying. His need for a job eventually landed him a job at MoonEarth, an eroge studio that at the time was needing a character designer. The studio's fate takes a turn for the worse when the scenario writer decides to entirely drop out just as the crew is producing their first title.
Seeing as the fledgeling studio is under a lot of scrutiny from its parent companies, this turn of events places MoonEarth in a very sticky situation. As such, the story focuses on MoonEarth's budget problems (the project director likes gambling budget money away by playing pachinko), scheduling issues (the lack of a scenario writer means EVERYTHING from character designs to CGs to BGMs and Voice Actor casting is delayed as well), and eventual crunch-time (since as of the game's start, MoonEarth has one month to create a game from scratch) as they trudge their way to releasing their first title, a game called Ai kawarazu na boku.
The game's five heroines are more than just potential partners for our protagonist: their involvement in Boku's life determine the fate of MoonEarth and his future in the world of eroge.
|Heroine: Chikura Sae C.V.: Nagasaki Minami|
Sae (AKA Chikurin, AKA Sakurachi) is Boku's ex-girlfriend from high school. She was a year behind him, and has always called him senpai. On his graduation day, Boku gave her one of the buttons from his uniform. Sadly, he lost touch with her and did not see her since.
Our protagonist meets Sae once more on a random day at cram school. At first he doesn't recognize her, but soon remembers when she recognizes him. As it turns out, Sae didn't do well on her entrance exams, so she is preparing to take them again the following year. Upon finding out that Boku is also a ronin, she makes a promise with him that they'll get into college together.
For a majority of the story, Sae is an outsider to the events going on behind the doors at MoonEarth. This changes when the staff realizes they really need a scenario writer for Ai kawarazu na boku. Our protagonist decides to ask her to contribute (knowing of her little hobby for blogging and fanfic writing), and she hesitantly agrees. From then on Sae uses the pen name Sakura and manages to transform the game's base concept (which was three heroines, a normal girl, an angel and a devil) into something truly decent. While she gives her all to make sure the game comes out as good as it can be, Sae's true focus is the fulfilment of the promise she made with the protagonist.
|Heroine: Mishiba Karen C.V.: Ayase Mayu, AKA Matsunaga Yuki (speculated)|
Karen (AKA Mishiba-senpai, AKA Hamster, AKA Chibi, AKA Chupacabra) is introduced as MoonEarth's eccentric (if overly playful) CG artist. She, along with Kantoku and Marqui are all that's left of MoonEarth's production staff at the time Boku joins them.
Karen, along with her friend Mikami Mika, was once a starving art student with nothing to her name. After Mika got her big break by becoming MiniMi Software's character designer, she was also brought on board to help. Tanaka Daizaburou (MiniMi's director of staff and scenario writer) holds her in high regard because he knows how talented she really is.
After breaking off, Karen helped form MoonEarth. As the story begins, she has nothing to do because without any artwork being made, she has no CG to create. In fact, Karen puts a very special emphasis on the relationship between the character designer and CG artist, since (according to her) both must compliment each other through their work and mesh well in order for the final product to be good.
That being said, Karen has a unique way of dealing with people. She for the most part is straight and to the point, and is unusually serious when it comes to people that dance around issues. She loves to take jabs at Boku for being an otaku (despite being a walking eroge encyclopedia herself), and also enjoys poking fun at his younger sisters for being like the eroge stereotype. Her speech pattern constantly changes, often switching to finishing her sentences with "nya". Should one make the mistake of angering her, Karen will respond with kicks to the face and bites.
Highlight for spoiler: As we later find out, Karen is actually half-Japanese (through her mother) and half-Dutch (through her father). She grew up in the Netherlands as the standard rich girl, with many responsibilities and duties to her family (as she was her family's oldest child). When her brother was born, her father placed all duties and expectations on him and stopped caring about Karen. After he tells her that no one would care if she was not around, Karen decided to run away to Japan and take up her mother's last name.
In Karen's route, her family tracks her down and tells her to return home when Karen's brother suddenly dies. Since the chosen heir of the family is gone, Karen once again is forced to take up the duties expected of her back in the Netherlands. While Boku is hesitant to let Karen leave, she decides to willingly return, as she feels she owes it to her brother. She makes arrangements so that she would return home after MoonEarth finishes producing Ai kawarazu na boku, but sends some of her people to Japan to purchase a copy of the game on release day. Karen's stay in the Netherlands is short-lived, since after a couple of (strangely convenient) international incidents in her home country, she once again finds herself in Japan to fill MoonEarth's vacant position for a CG artist. Karen's real name is Karen Van Duyn.
|Heroine: Mikami Mika C.V.: Oukawa Mio|
Mika is introduced as MiniMi Software's character designer. She is a rather succesful doujinshi artist and is trying to prove herself as a mangaka as our story begins.
Unlike her boss/colleague, Tanaka Daizaburou, Mika is still on friendly terms with most of the MoonEarth crew. She and Boku had already met, since both were artists selling their works at a comic convention that took place before the story began, and is convinced their meeting was fated to happen.
As an artist, Mika is indeed exceptionally talented (enough that her artwork has a decent following and was pivotal in helping MiniMi Software make a name for itself). Elsewhere, however, she can be helpless, and even clumsy. She has a hard time around computers, which causes some problems with her work because she's so used to drawing everything on paper.
Being a kansai-ben speaker, Mika is relaxed and laid back most of the time. Almost too much, at certain points. While she is oblivious to the troubles caused by driving like an Initial D character or putting her credit card number on adult web sites, Boku is usually the one that has to look out for her.
Her relationship with our protagonist starts off as a friendship between fellow artists, but she manages to get him to become her assistant when she starts working on full manga. Of course, Mika develops feelings for him throughout the story, but Boku is hesitant to get together with her because unlike Mika (who is already established as an artist and has a steady source of income), he hasn't achieved much. While she is aware of all this, she admits that she can't do her work on her own, and wants him to be by her side to continue to motivate and inspire her.
Highlight for spoiler: Mikami is apparently the reason why MiniMi Software split into MiniMi and MoonEarth. As told by Karen, both Kantoku and Tanaka had a thing for Mika at one point. This rivalry manifested itself through creative differences between the two founders of MiniMi, which led to the split. Kantoku took Marqui and Karen to form MoonEarth while Mika stayed behind. As mentioned by Mika, they used to fight so much that she didn't know which of them to listen to. To top things off, the only person she really loved aside from Boku was Karen. Yes, she liked Karen "that way" (even if Karen would frown and simply say "but there's no penis involved." before walking away).
|Heroine: Ann C.V.: Kusayanagi Junko|
Ann is the older of Boku's twin sisters. Boku refers to her as the "non-cheeky", demure imouto (younger sister). She in turn calls him Ni-niichan. Her age is not disclosed, but one can assume she's in high school.
Ann and her sister Aki joined Boku's family when their mother married our protagonist's father. Unlike the rest of her family, Ann has not given up on our protagonist, and for the most part worries that he's not responsible enough to take care of himself and do what he's supposed to do. Thus, after Boku fails the university exams the first time, Ann decides to move in with him to make sure he studies and goes to cram school. Ann is also the only person in Boku's family that respects and encourages his skill as an artist (in fact, she helped him sell his doujinshi back when he used to sell his work at comic conventions).
This is not to say that she'll let him get away with anything, though. In fact, Ann is actually very strict when it comes to sticking to duty, and has been known to get angry if Boku strays from the "true path". When she finds out that Boku is working for MoonEarth, she jumps on board and becomes the studio's manager. This leaves scheduling, budget planning and such in her hands.
As would be expected of a giri (step/adopted) sister, Ann is infatuated with our protagonist. This puts her in an odd position, since her relationship with Boku is platonic for the most part, even if they do have their uneasy and suggestive moments (which are almost always conveniently interrupted by one of the other characters). Despite this, Ann is still fairly jealous, and is often cold to most women that Boku could find attractive (most notably Mikami Mika).
On a funny note, Karen and Mika constantly poke fun at Ann for being so much like the younger sister characters commonly seen in eroge. It's gotten to the point where Mika and Karen call her a "real imouto character".
|Heroine: Aki C.V.: Kaneda Mahiru|
Aki is the younger of Boku's twin sisters. Boku refers to her as the "cheeky", selfish imouto. Like Ann, her age is not disclosed, but one can assume she's of high school age.
Aki was originally in love with Boku's now-deceased older brother (referred to as Ichi-niichan), whom she viewed as a very responsible and incredible person. Thus, she in part wants Boku to be like him, but decides to make fun of him for being an otaku and a ronin. She's not as merciful as Ann is, which often puts her and Boku at odds with each other. They do get along through their common interested in anime, as she herself is a fan (and a cosplayer). Aki is also a lot more open when it comes to talking about sexually themed things like eroge, much to our protagonist and Ann's dismay.
Unlike the rest of the cast, Aki is very detached from the events of the game, basically doing her own thing while studying to be a voice actress. Just like Ann, she moves in with Boku to make sure things are alright with our protagonist, but also because there's a nearby acting school that she wants to attend.
A point of interest is that due to Aki's low level of interaction with the other characters, it is through her work that the protagonist develops feelings for her. Her talent as a voice actress shines in the story, since she is contracted to be a VA for Ai kawarazu na boku. Much to Aki's chagrin, Boku prefers to see her act as the innocent and cute imouto (which is nowhere near what her real personality is).
Story Structure & Game Engine
The game is set in the year 2004. The player is thrusted right in the middle of the action, on October 30th. This is where we see that MoonEarth is stuck without a scenario writer, leaving the production crew one month to come up with at the very least a master version of the game or look for new jobs. All events culminate with Kantoku getting hit by a car, after which the game rewinds and shows us how our characters got to that point. After this, the story continues through this to the release of the demo for Ai kawarazu na boku, and then the fate of MoonEarth is decided by which girl our protagonist chose to pursue.
Despite having times and dates set to certain scenes, there is no specific pattern for pacing of events. In other words, the game does not have daily progression. Something else to note is that the game is played in "wide screen" mode throughout, with the exception of CG event artwork. The blank spaces at the top and the bottom are actually used to get some of the jokes accross to the player; a good example of this is when Tanaka berates the MoonEarth crew for having Ann as an employee, when she's obviously a schoolgirl. The blank parts of the screen quickly flash "All characters in this story are 18 years old or older". Additionally, the game will shift into other modes to make a scene particularly funny, like when Mika asks the protagonist to pull down his pants, at which he panics and begins to have a visual novel-style monologue (a la To Heart, Tsukihime and such).
Mode-switching is also used to put emphasis into certain scenes, and makes use of narrative from the heroines for a stronger effect, This is most notable with Ann, Aki and Karen, who are given soliloquies at very important points in their respective stories.
The game engine is reminiscent of the old game engine for Comic Party, with a couple of extra features. The panel will allow the player to replay spoken lines, control the speed at which the text is displayed, save and load. The text log is not a separate window, but built into the text panel, so the player will have to scroll with the mouse wheel to find a particular line.
Yamato Nawoyuki did the character designs, with Karen being credited for the game-within-a-game's artwork (for Boku no taisetsuna mono). Even though Yamato-san's artwork looks a little cartoony, it does an incredible job at presenting the characters to us.
Sound & Video
Rakuen is partially-voiced, with the five heroines being the only characters that are voiced. This is the game's only true flaw, since many of the extra characters (Kantoku, Tanaka, Marqui, etc) contribute as much as the heroines to the plot. That being said, the five they got are true veterans as of the time of this writing, with Oukawa Mio and Kusayanagi Junko (Mika and Ann, respectively) winning my vote for best VA in the game, followed by Ayase Mayu (Karen). Something to be aware of is that the directors preferred to use real Japanese, so Rakuen's script is amongst the closest thing we'll see to common spoken Japanese. There is much less enunciation, lots of slurring and use of slang/contractions.
BGM and the ending song (The case of us) were provided by Ben from Rock'n'Banana. Rakuen's soundtrack is entirely made of rock music, giving the game a relaxed feel when needed, while being fully capable of relaying tension in any scene. This soundtrack is great in my book because they managed to make a rock guitar version of the 2nd Movement from Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" String Quarttet.
As for video, the game has three movies included: OP and ED movies for Rakuen and the Promotion Video for Ai kawarazu na boku. The OP movie can be viewed here.
Rakuen's only extra is the game-within-a-game Boku no taisetstuna mono (My most important thing). This game was mentioned in the story as the latest and highly anticipated release from MiniMi Software. The "game" is not voiced, and has a limited selection of BGM tracks. A decent extra, but nothing awe-inspiring.
As far as I'm concerned, this game has proven to stand the test of time through its own merits alone. I've yet to see a game that has managed to come even close to the level of Rakuen in terms of delivering comedy through a fan-centered setting with meaningful stories and plot elements. Makes it understandable to see how many of us actually mourned Gestumenkichimae going away forever before they could release their remastered version of Rakuen (fully-voiced, new extra scenario and more). Still, this is a gem of a game that I definitely recommend to anyone looking for comedy and quirkyness in a gaming company setting. Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter.
NOT SAFE FOR WORK
...don't say I didn't warn you. >.>;