I never really liked kaiju movies growing up. You know: Kaiju, the Japanese film genre involving guys in rubber monster suits knocking over scale models of cities. Even when I was a kid, Godzilla always seemed too goofy to take seriously.
Especially since the weirdly out-of-place white guy in the helicopter was the only person who whose lip movements matched his dialogue. I didn't understand the nuances of Godzilla's politically charged message, nor the fact that Raymond Burr had been spliced into a foreign movie to make it more palatable to Americans. I just knew there was clearly a grown man inside that Godzilla costume and that it was very silly. As for the rest of the tokusatsu genre, forget about it; by the time that sort of thing made it big in the U.S., I was much too old to be taken in by the likes of the Power Rangers.
I guess I was just an unimaginative kid, or at least one with a very begrudging suspension of disbelief. So I appreciate Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale for attempting to take me back in time and force me to look at kaiju with the wide-eyed amazement of a child. A different child than me, that is. One with an age-appropriate lack of cynicism. I don't think it quite hits the mark, but I can't fault it for making the effort -- certainly there aren't a lot of other games that would even try.
Set in Tokyo's Setagawa ward in the early 1970s, Friday Monsters actually goes back in time further than my own childhood, casting me (and other players, of course) into the role of a young Japanese kid named Sohto. Having moved to Setagawa only a few days ago with his father and mother, Sohto is fascinated to discover that the town is besieged by giant monsters every Friday afternoon. The entire game takes place over the course of Sohto's first Friday living next to the evidently monster-ridden Fuji-no-hana station, getting to know his neighbors while trying to unravel the mystery of the monsters and, if possible, prevent their next incursion.
It quickly becomes clear as you explore the town that the whole "monster invasion" story may in fact turn out to be nothing more than wishful thinking or exaggeration. Were the giant monster tracks dotting the landscape faked? What's the deal with the local television station whose big feature appears to be a monster battle series remarkably similar to the conflicts the locals describe? Why does the warehouse on the outskirts of town seem tied to it all? But then, on the other hand, what's the story with the weird old guy named Frank, who always appears to be lurking nearby? And what of all the shady personal histories that certain characters seem unwilling to discuss?
Friday Monsters bobs and weaves between different possible outcomes, leading players to expect one conclusion only to throw in a new wrinkle that sends things on a totally different tangent, and it does this more than once. Not bad for a game that's only about three hours long. The plot ultimately ends up going in a rather unexpected direction, though despite the eventual narrative shenanigans it never loses its childlike perspective.
In fact, that's easily Friday Monsters' greatest strength: It feels authentically youthful in tone, but it's clearly written from an adult point of view. It has a habit of rolling out plot developments that paint a clear picture for the player but sail right over the protagonist's head... because, after all, he's just a fourth grader, and doesn't necessarily understand the subtleties of adulthood. The English localization is par excellence, full of word play and a sense of mischievousness that makes it clear the story shouldn't be taken too seriously. In fact, the whole thing is relayed through secondhand narrative that halfway implies it's all just imagination anyway.
Personally, though, I found my favorite element of Friday Monsters to be its setting. Tokyo circa 1971 was a very different Tokyo than the dense metropolis it is today. The Setagawa ward in this game feels like something of a small town, despite being close enough to Tokyo's center that a train is perpetually passing by and the characters comment on watching Shinjuku's new skyscrapers being erected in the distance. Friday Monsters perfectly captures the look of the period -- the crooked streets and mid-century post-war concrete architecture springing up to replace a more rustic way of a life -- a city that I know through those very kaiju movies I dismissed so easily. Strange that a video game can evoke nostalgia for a time and place I've only experienced through movies I never particularly liked.
As a story, Friday Monsters perfectly embodies the magical realism of childhood imagination. Its setting captures the spirit of a place long since vanished to the march of urbanization. With the doppler sound of train bells, the buzzsaw hum of cicadas, and music that bounces between eerie atmosphere and grade school reed band, it even sounds perfect. As a game, though, Attack of the Friday Monsters... isn't terribly great.
The problem with the game is that occasionally it remembers it is a game and therefore feels compelled to go through the motions of doing game-like things. For the most part, this consists of gathering "glims" -- glowing collectibles scattered about town that combine to create trading cards with which to play a rock-paper-scissors card battle game. The glims are conspicuous in their overabundance, and every time you pick one up -- something you're doing constantly! -- the game pauses to show a little animation accompanied by an audio flourish. It's cute a few times, but it quickly breaks the flow of the game.
Even more irritatingly, the card game becomes mandatory at a few key points. This verges on the downright ridiculous during a particularly high-tension story moment where you face one of the most difficult opponents in the game. Terrible things are going down in Setagaya, yet you keep plugging away at the minigame, over and over, until you luck into a win.
I wish Attack of the Friday Monsters were content to simply be a low-key adventure game about solving an odd mystery and getting to know the residents of Sohto's new home. On those levels, it's absolutely a wonderful little self-contained tale -- brief, sure, but crafted with such sincerity and attention to detail that you can't help but love it. The intrusive, mandatory card battling elements really detract from the game's strengths. I realize that all of director Kaz Ayabe's games (specifically the My Summer Vacation series) have some kind of battling minigame, and maybe they fit better in Millennium Kitchen's longer, more immersive games. Here, however, they break the flow of the game and detract from its real appeal: The characters, the story, and the mystery.