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Kissing in public - it's a fairly common sight in the West. Even the most conservative types aren't likely to challenge the fact of modern everyday life, that people love smooches. Is there really anything more ordinary than simply kissing your wife at home or your boyfriend at school? Well...
It's not so easy in Japan, actually. Historically, kissing in public has been socially repressed. It's actually a pretty new thing - there is barely any trace of kisses in Japanese history before the Meiji Restoration of the second half of the 19th century, a time of radical political and cultural changes during which the concept of kissing was sort of imported from the West. It remained a marginal phenomenon nonetheless.
That probably explains why the kanji 接吻 ("senbun") is kind of archaic and the katakana キス ("kisu") is preferred, further asserting the "foreign" nature of the word itself. Nowadays, the normalization process the idea of kissing has gone through in the Japanese mass media allows for every popular dating sim to achieve pre-order records, but kissing your girlfriend in the streets of Tokyo pretty much remains a fantasy at best.
This social norm is something Yoshiro Kimura wanted to subvert. He is a game designer who once worked for Square on games such as Romancing SaGa 2, but working in such a huge office-like setting "wouldn't let him breathe" and he subsequently quit the company, with no intent to come back to the game industry.
He then went on a series of travels around the world - he considers his twenties to be his "travelling era". Then one day, he witnessed Peruvian children playing SNES games in a mountain village not far away from the Machu Picchu, and it persuaded him to take up his video game career - this time, as an independent creator.
As a progressive former Square employee, he went on to become one of the key members of the legendary avant-garde studio LOVEdeLIC and one of the three main designers of the cult classic moon Remix RPG Adventure along with Kenichi Nishi and Taro Kudo. Towards the end of the LOVEdeLIC era, Kimura founded his own company: Punchline. Its first game was Chu♥lip.
The need to make such a game occurred to him while he was travelling in Europe, where he witnessed English and Swiss couples shamelessly kissing on the streets. For a Japanese man accustomed to the aforementioned public morals, this must have come as quite a shock.
The final idea sprung out of his mind during a very vivacious party he held with friends at home, where drunk people ended up shouting "chu-shite" ("kiss me") following a discussion on video games that drifted off for reasons that are now lost to history. Seems legit.
Ironically, a game based on a more Western-accepted custom had a hard time actually coming to the West - and even then, it remained an exclusive to Gamestop stores. One might say it's a miracle Natsume even thought it would be worthwhile to localize such an oddball title, seeing how it wasn't really a commercial breakthrough in its home country to begin with. It actually took more than four years for its translation to be completed. Well, granted, Chu♥lip isn't really the easiest kind of games to translate.
The story follows the unlikely misadventures of a somewhat silly-looking young man in a worn-down Showa-era school uniform. He lives alone with his father in a small house at the corner of a street of Long Life Town, a tiny city to which they've just moved. They are poor though, and have something of a bad reputation as a result. Which is kind of a problem.
See, during the move, the hero had a dream in which he kissed his ideal girl under the Lover's Tree. However, reality is not so pleasant. When he stumbles upon that very girl not far away from his home, what he gets when he tries to smooch her is a slap to the face. There is NO way your love interest would kiss a shady guy out of nowhere like that!
Only after a failed attempt at a love letter will our hero find the true path, by following the advice of strange two-legged creature and senior teacher of the underground Michio Suzuki. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worst when Mr. Suzuki's refined Love Letter Set is stolen by one of his disgruntled subordinates who's fed up with waiting for his monthly paycheck. And without that Love Letter Set, no kiss!
It's now up to the hero to get his hands back on the much-coveted set. But it's not that easy. In order to get to the end of his journey, he needs a strong heart. And how do you grow a stronger heart? Well... By kissing people.
"Video games, contrary to the all the bad the press they might have been given, are nothing but love. What must remain in mind is the message going on between the developers and the player: video games are love."Yoshiro Kimura
Chu♥lip is a third-person adventure game with an emphasis on environment exploration, item management and - above all - social interactions with the game's characters. The point of the game is to move beyond merely interacting with them and manage to get a kiss out of them. Kissing is done by simply pressing Triangle, but of course just kissing people out of nowhere will do you no good - if your throw random smooches around, you're going to offend people and get stitches.
What you need to do is find a way to gain their trust. Do try to get along with with everyone, as you'll never end up trying to kiss a person that isn't supposed to be targeted at all. In Chu♥lip, the hero eventually has the opportunity to kiss absolutely EVERYONE: Men, women, children, elders, animals, robots, aliens. There is no escaping your love.
The cast is divided consists of two distinct groups: the surface dwellers, who are the regular townsfolk; and underground residents, who are sort of hikikomoris living in holes, and on whom you can peep. What's common to both, though, is the importance of time in relation to their activities.
The game is based around a schedule system - hence the clock in the HUD - and the hour of the day determines what the townsfolk are doing and when the hikikomoris get out of their hole. Times flows pretty quickly, as an in-game hour equals half a real-life minute. The way you approach each group, however, is rather different. People on the surface tend to require a set of conditions to fulfill and imply more story-driven quests, whereas you'll basically have to steal a kiss from the people of the underground at a very specific moment when they're out - even more specifically, when notes fly around their head, at which point you can slowly approach them for a stealth smooch.
"If I could cure one person's woes by kissing them, I'd kiss my neighbors. We know less and less about our neighbors, especially in big cities. I think we are afraid of them and don't want to be bothered, but that is not good. Kiss your neighbors. Better love than hate."Yoshiro Kimura
For instance: Goro, a townsfolk who is seen crying in front of the town's cinema late at night, offers his kiss once you've brought him one of the films he authored during his failed career as a director. Miss Thick Glasses, an underground dweller, gets out of her hole between 2:00AM and 3:30AM and notes starts flying around her head just after she trips and get up - don't kiss her at another moment though, or you'll just get hit.
Talking of getting hit, you should be warned that Chu♥lip is - indeed - a pretty punitive game. Your health gauge grows as the Lover's Tree rewards your kissing exploits with more heart strength... but the world of Chu♥lip is actually a pretty harsh place, and the game has a tendency to throw unexpected low punches around.
Just browsing a dirt bin for items is a risk in itself as you might very well find a "poopie" that actually hurts you. Similarly, missing your kiss when it comes to underground residents usually hurts so much that it can be synonymous with a one-hit KO if you're not properly prepared. It's kind of hard to get used to it at first. As a matter of fact, if you're out too late at night, you could potentially run into the overzealous cop patrolling the area tends to shoot everything on sight!
This punitivity has a die-and-retry vibe to it, but it becomes more foreseeable as you gradually integrate the game's logic and remember to frequently save, which is accomplished by going to the toilet. Well, there is a certain place that is just hardcore no matter how you look at it, but this punitive dimension really isn't really Chu♥lip's major flaw. The aforementioned examples with Goro and Miss Thick Glasses are positive examples: There are enough clues that let you understand Goro might be interested in an old film, and Ms. Thick Glasses spill the beans about her schedule in a monologue when you peep on her. But that, unfortunately, is not really the norm.
Chu♥lip tends to skimp on giving clues a lot. After a few hours of gameplay, you're very likely to get completely stuck with very little idea of what to do - precisely because of this lack of tips that are essential to your progression - especially when it comes to the underground residents. There is no way for you to simply guess when they come out if you're never told in one way or another. Which means you'll basically have to camp next to a hole in some cases, since stumbling upon one of these residents at random doesn't really happen when they are located in off-tracks locations you don't go through very often.
The game's punishing nature isn't a problem in itself, but with this utter lack of leads, it makes for an irritating combination. Let's be honest: Chu♥lip simply requires you to follow a walkthrough if you want to even get a grasp of what's going on around you,which kind of defeats the purposes of the game. It's really a pity, as some minor tweaks in the design would probably solve a major part of the problem. Sure, your love interest actually know quite a few things about the town, and a calling card-like item is designed to offer information on specific characters, but that doesn't really make up for it. The localizers made no mistake, and actually went to the length of including a walkthrough in the game manual. In short, Chu♥lip's execution goes from absolutely awesome and gratifying when it actually works thanks to its creativity, to downright terrible due to how broken it is. It's really a pity, as the concept in itself is simply fantastic.
"What I like the best to get ideas is, around my place, there's an old guy who's always drunk and always chatting about everything. I like to hang out with him, and maybe get new ideas from him."Yoshiro Kimura
Yet, in spite of this major flaw, chances are you'll keep on playing. Sure, some parts are as tedious as they can get, but they sometimes feel like a minor detail when compared to the overall joy Chu♥lip can bring to the player. Its universe is so charming, you'll just keep asking for more. The more you progress into the game, the more you want to learn about the nonsensical stories that make up the game's background and about the little secrets lurking at every corner. Exploring the environments, making the acquaintance of new characters and spotting small details you'd never realized were even there before is without a doubt the game's most powerful aspect. And the mere idea that the practical finality of your strolls are to gather intelligence on people you want to kiss adds a weirdly poetic vibe to it. When it comes to offering a deeply personal and intriguing universe, Chu♥lip is flawless. Long Life Town and its surrounding regions are, by themselves, a pleasure to explore. The whole journey feels like an uncommon take on a slice-of-life drama. The hallmark urbanism of post-war Japan, the smell of grilled meat at yakitori stands, the sound of chimes as night falls. There is some kind of otherworldly harmony at work here. It's hard to pin it down, really - it just feels both natural and eccentric at the same time.
Yet, even though the game definitely feels "modern" and "typical", its setting was heavily influenced by foreign elements, especially those who can be found in 60s popular culture. Hence the strange sense of nostalgia that pretty much defines the tone of the whole adventure. Japan is stereotypically depicted as "nationalist", however a large part of its modern culture celebrates exploration of foreign arts. Chu♥lip, by bringing along the signature cosmopolitanism of Love-de-Lic, is a perfect proof of that.
"I chose modern Japan as the setting of Chu♥lip in order to show to the whole world what we'd call here lower to middle-class districts. I really love my country and this game allowed me to express it at the time."Yoshiro Kimura
Of course humor, banter and pure quirkiness are also a huge part the game's identity. Its tone can be absurd and surreal, as one of the first characters you meet is an anthropomorphic utility pole that blocks the way on the ground, saying that "you could never understand how he feels"; but it's also mindless and silly, as a seemingly serious movie poster's title actually reads The Fart Woman. It can also be unnerving and creepy, as one of the underground residents is revealed to be an S&M addict who spends his time mumbling that what he's doing "is hard but feels good".
They include but are not limited to a creepy "old" woman actually aged 29, an hot spring manager who happens to be a Merlion statue come to life, a chunk of charcoal guarding a sword of legend behind a waterfall and a generic factory employee desperate to be fired by his boss. There are also the idiosyncratic underground residents such as a koala competing in the Olympics, an old rich folk targeted by a psychopathic sniper or an over-excited voodoo straw man running around the back of a cemetery, among many others. And yet, you'll want to kiss 'em all!
Speaking of all these characters, their designs are just as unique as their personalities. And while Kimura wasn't the character designer per se, most of the finalized designs were based off scribblings straight out of his drawing book. The individuality of each character and the diversity of the NPCs was required to produce a cast that is as relatable as it is convincing.
The dialogue also allows for opportunities of dubious, unrelated, unexpected, plain weird chit-chats - lifestyle tips from a talking gravestone? This gap between the script's eccentricity and the quiet flow of action is also a big part of Chu♥lip's distinctive laid-back weirdness.
The game also profits from a very peculiar voice acting system. The characters emit puirt-a-beul sounds à la Animal Crossing, except here they're digitized from actual recorded speech. This gives the impression the voices are bizarre collages that were made by cutting and pasting magnetic tape bands at random.
Yet, Chu♥lip also has a bittersweet side to it, even if it may not be obvious at first. Sure, the game is all about kissing random people and stuff, but it also manages to address more serious issues in a very creative way.
"There is a problem in Japan known as the hikikomori phenomenon. And schools, society and the whole environment are not making it easy for them to come out. I used this issue as sort of a metaphor in this game. You can stay wherever you want to stay, but relax, and don't worry."Yoshiro Kimura
This metaphor can be found in some aspects of the game and some hints in the dialogues, which makes it the total opposite of a forced tearjerker.It's a smart narrative choice that allows for deeper themes to be brought to an overall fun and quirky work without hurting its consistency. If you tend to be fed up with some modern works of art's tendency to force feed you their "point", chances are you'll find Chu♥lip to be a much welcomed breath of fresh air.
Faithful to the Love-de-Lic creed, there is that kind of Peace & Love side to the game expressed through its celebration of ordinary love and its quiet charge against herd mentality. In the end, the game manages to both enchant and subvert daily life.
There are still a handful of surprising singularities in the game: chapters are announced through nonsensical haikus written by Mr. Suzuki, and there even is a collection of short films you can find and then watch at Long Life Cinema. Unfortunately, the localization being kind of rushed, those were left untranslated - which is a pity, as they're really in line with the game's overall uniqueness.
But let us not end on a downer - and Hirofumi Taniguchi's incredibly fresh soundtrack certainly isn't. Its most distinctive features are how far away it is from traditional "video game music", and how it manages to be both vintage and rousing at the same time. By blending doo-wop acapellas, cool jazz arrangements, calls to 60s and 70s kayoukyoku and imaginary lyrics in a lively ensemble, he managed to create a musical ambiance that is both naive, nostalgic and catchy.There couldn't have been a better fit for strolls in Long Life Town and its surrounding areas. Modaete Jizoutouge ("Concerned about the Jizo Ridge") and Ginza no Koi no Monogatari ("Tale of the Goldfish Carp") are great examples of Chu♥lip's throwback to post-war Japanese pop culture. It just feels like you're in a bar in small-town Japan drinking beer, lots of beer - and sake, of course, lots of sake.
There is just no way you can't find your joy in the game's theme, Happy Shabby Life, or any of its three variations: the first is pure scat singing; the second involves a kazoo and is probably the most fun of all; and the last is basically a Brubeck-like jazz piece. When it comes to creating a unique soundtrack, Taniguchi certainly knows what to pick. And he also knows how to do it, as he didn't just compose them - he's also the one doing the vocals on those three!
That's how powerful Chu♥lip's game experience can be, in spite of the obvious gameplay flaws. Who else than Yoshiro Kimura could have brought sexual revolution, hikikomoris and poop together in a video game, to the tone of Taniguchi's retro pop? Absolutely no one, that's who.
Chu♥lip might have been a flawless masterpiece, if not for some awkward design choices that don't allow for its creative concept to be thoroughly enjoyable. Yet, it remains an off-beat experience - incredibly fun in its practical parts and absolutely without comparison in all of its overall atmosphere. It's definitely is the proud heir of the LOVEdeLIC era, and while it might be hard to stick to it up until the end, those who who are willing to endure its irritating downsides are in a for quite a journey.
The disturbing PlayStation 2 survival-horror Rule of Rose, Kimura's following game released five years later, would take a different path entirely.
Although Natsume did a reasonable job translating the title, they did have to censor out some of the nudity. There's a section where you need to sneak out a bathhouse without putting your clothes back on in order to impress a nudity-loving turtle. Having a prepubscent kid walking around without any clothes just wasn't going to fly with the ESRB, so your character now has underwear during this segment.
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