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The World Ends With You After 10 Years: Why a Cult Nintendo DS RPG is Now a Classic

Looking back on one of the Nintendo DS' most stylish and inventive RPGs.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

I used to walk through Shibuya every day on my way to work, and along the way I would be transfixed by the sights that define Japan in the minds of many—the massive Scramble Crossing, the wild fashion, the narrow alleyways packed with multi-level shops.

Of all of Tokyo's major districts, I loved Shibuya the most, which made The World Ends With You feel like home to me. But its connection to Shibuya isn't the only reason it has endured over the years.

Jupiter's ambitious RPG, which turned 10 yesterday, was part of the Nintendo DS' creative peak. It used every single feature on the Nintendo DS, from the dual screens to the then-novel touchscreen. It even utilized the microphone by making it power up one of the pins—collectible power-ups that granted Neku their power. It felt like a throwback to the days of the original PlayStation, when Square was putting out games like Bushido Blade seemingly every other week.

Indeed, Square Enix—the game's publisher—desperately needed a game like The World Ends With You to break its deepening malaise. Heading into the Xbox 360/PS3 period, they were were already struggling with disappointments like The Last Remnant, to say nothing of Final Fantasy XIII's protracted development. The World Ends With You showed that they still had a little bit of creative juice, even if it took moving to the Nintendo DS to draw it out.

It begins with the main character—an abrasive teen named Neku—awakening in the middle of Shibuya's iconic Scramble Crossing and discovering that everything has changed. Not only does he suddenly have the power to read minds, he's trapped in the middle of a mysterious game. The mystery of the game, as well as Neku's developing bonds with the partners who are forced upon him, form the core of the story, while the enforced seven day time limit createss a series of mini-arcs that keeps the plot moving at a brisk pace.

Shibuya is the backdrop against which this all happens, with many of its familiar shops and sights figuring into the gameplay somehow. HMV, Tower Records, and Mark City all make appearances, as do Hachiko and the iconic screen above the Scramble Crossing. Indeed, if you know Shibuya well enough, you can navigate The World Ends With You's streets with hardly any trouble at all.

But Shibuya is more than just random locations. Its culture infuses the story, the music, the art, and even the combat to some extent. Fashion is a major part of The World Ends With You, with local trends affecting the power of your pins—your main means for dealing damage. Artist Tetsuya Nomura is clearly in his element here. In setting the story in Shibuya, Square Enix was clearly begging artist Tetsuya Nomura to cut loose, and he was happy to oblige with some of his best work to date. It was maybe the first and only time that his over-the-top aesthetic really fit the look and feel of his game's setting. After all, you can't top Shibuya for crazy fashion.

I was dazzled from the start by The World Ends With You's style and creativity, not to mention its extremely high production values. On a platform with games that didn't look too far removed from the Super Nintendo, it was amazing to see a stylish opening cutscene and a vocalized soundtrack that saw Neku running past his future partners—Shiki, Joshua, and Beat. It helped to set the mood immediately.

But the World Ends With You is More Than Just Style

Once it settles down into the actual story, we get to know Neku a bit better—and well, he's kind of a jerk. He's abrasive and dickish to his unwitting partner, Shiki, telling her that he doesn't need friends while referring to her as "Stalker." Most of the contemporary criticism of The World Ends With You centered around Neku's attitude; and to be fair, it did come off as kind of over the top. But the key, of course, is that Neku gets better, ultimately the kind of sympathetic arc that Squall sorely needed.

As the story progresses Neku slowly warms to Shiki, discovers the true nature of the game (he's dead), and begins to look for ways to beat the trap he finds himself in. The initial seven days play out as a complete arc almost by themselves, after which The World Ends With You's story shakes things up and begins ratcheting up the stakes.

A few things I like about The World Ends With You's story: it has a sense of mystery about it, the characters grow as the story progresses, and there are a number of heavyweight villains for Neku and his friends to overcome. The most mysterious of these villains is, of course, Joshua—a player who is clearly orchestrating the game in some way, but whose true role doesn't become apparent until after you complete some of the endgame quests (and even then it's all a little nebulous and confusing).

All of this is par for the course in a Square Enix RPG (and especially Nomura projects). But what I find really interesting is how The World Ends With You manages to weave its gameplay mechanics into the main story. In particular, a battle system that certainly has its flaws, but is also amazingly forward-thinking and creative in its own way.

It's different in the mobile version, but the battle system on the DS has you fighting on two screens—your partner on the top and you on the bottom. While you scribble furiously with your stylus to attack on the bottom, you simultaneously hammer the left d-pad button to deal damage up top. Over time you get to feeling the rhythm a bit with your partner's attacks, and they likewise grow more powerful and earn new attacks.

One the face of it, it's simple and one-dimensional, and I honestly kind of ruined my touchscreen scribbling as hard as I could to activate my pins. But it does a few things right, the most important being that it lets you set your own difficulty. At any point you can scale the battle difficulty up or down, with rewards reflecting the level you choose to play at. You can also earn massive XP bonuses by fighting multiple enemies at once. It was a novel idea for the time, and has since been adopted by the likes of Diablo 3 and other popular RPGs.

Another sneaky aspect of the battle system is the way in which it bonds you to your partner. As you spend more and more time with Shiki, Joshua, or Beat, you can't help but get into a rhythm with them. The bond you have is such that when that partner is eventually replaced with someone else, it's kind of shocking. In that moment, you are put firmly in Neku's shoes—a rare but vital instance of the gameplay doing the storytelling.

Such moments continue to rattle around in my head even today, amplified by The World Ends With You's frankly incredible soundtrack and sense of style. I'm not the biggest fan of its battle system—it's interesting from a storytelling perspective, but too one-dimensional—but I still marvel at how it plays a different vocalized soundtrack in each battle. And the selection only increases as the game goes on. All this on a tiny Nintendo DS cartridge.

Looking back, it was a tiny marvel on the Nintendo DS—an instance of a period when developers were pushing the tiny handheld to its limits. I'm not sure there's ever been a comparable period on the Nintendo 3DS. Can you name a game on the Nintendo 3DS that's even remotely as ambitious and flatout crazy as The World Ends With You?

It's been a decade since I last lived in Japan, but The World Ends With You still brings me back to the days when Shibuya was my main haunt. I miss it. But if I ever want to go revisit it, I know that Neku and company are there waiting on my phone or my DS—ready to take me home.

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Comments 21

  • Avatar for jeffcorry #1 jeffcorry A month ago
    I always love reading about this game. The irony here is that I still have never played it. Perhaps someday. I want to...I just haven't yet.
    Great write up. I love the connection you have with this game. Some games are able to capture a time and place very well and bring it back almost every time you fire it up.
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  • Avatar for Broen13 #2 Broen13 A month ago
    @jeffcorry Play it. This was one of my favorite portable rpgs, and I have played a few. Another COMPLETELY missed gem is Infinite Space. What has me gob-smacked is I hated IS when I started playing it because of the battle system. When I gave it another go I put 120 hours into it. It and TWEWY were reasons to own a DS, they are so good.

    I will say that I don't disagree with this statement " Can you name a game on the Nintendo 3DS that's even remotely as ambitious and flatout crazy as The World Ends With You?"

    But I might say that of all the RPGs I've played TWEWY is one of the more unique games regardless of platform. We need more like it.
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #3 benjaminlu86 A month ago
    TWEWY is the last good Nomura game.
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  • Avatar for Ralek #4 Ralek A month ago
    Isn't it insane that you could download this to your Shield Tablet from Play store right now, but you can't get it for the Switch, probably never will ...

    What are you doing Square? You're failing us, that is what.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #5 TernBird A month ago
    It's such a shame that TWEWY underperformed in Japan; this game could have had so many great sequels if it set them in other metropolitan areas. What's the Reaper Game like in Paris, for example? Or Broadway?
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #6 Lord-Bob-Bree A month ago
    The early parts of the game made me think I was going to dislike it, but it really grew on me.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #7 link6616 A month ago
    @TernBird I am ready for TWEWY Broadway edition.

    Unfortunately, I'm terrified that somehow the Glee kids would make their way into it.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #8 Vonlenska A month ago
    I'm just gonna leave this here. I was pretty disappointed in Persona 3's soundtrack, but TWEWY's managed to pull off a similar sound quite a bit better. And Novoiski is awesome.

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  • Avatar for One_Vurfed_Gwrx #9 One_Vurfed_Gwrx A month ago
    I played through the first playthrough of this while living in Japan for a year and it was a fun little game. I never did do the supposedly essential second playthrough though, I wonder if I can just do it fresh or if I should replay route 1 first...
    @Broen13 I have Infinite Space and want to play it but I hear it is a massive timesink and has intimidated me a bit so I have barely tried it. Maybe one of these days I will get around to it..
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #10 SatelliteOfLove A month ago
    I just remember TWEWY for the hundreds of people who David Caged themselves by thinking difficulty sliders was some EXPLOSIVE NEW REVELATION IN GAME DESIGN! OMG BRIBE ME MORE NOW!

    Generation 7 folks.

    Anywho, I didn't know DO:S2 was confirmed on the docket for Sept. Excellent!

    (note, you will be able to disguise poison potions as healing potions by dying them red. mwahahahaha)Edited last month by SatelliteOfLove
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  • Avatar for Dorchadas #11 Dorchadas A month ago
    I checked my cart after reading this and my game is still there. I played it for the first time on the shinkansen from Hiroshima (where we lived at the time) and Tokyo, so the impact of going to the scramble, seeing the Moai, standing near Hachiko, and seeing the store names in 109 was maximized. Sad there's no real Jupiter of the Monkey, though.

    I have pages of Mastered pins. Maybe I should do another playthrough...
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  • Avatar for ChairmanYang #12 ChairmanYang A month ago
    Why does everyone give Tetsuya Nomura credit for TWEWY? He didn't even direct (or co-direct) the game. Given how poor his output tends to be, and how good TWEWY is, I doubt he had all that much influence on the gameplay or story, and that was why both of those aspects were successful.
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  • Avatar for Gamer-Law #13 Gamer-Law A month ago
    Kat - Great article and excellent podcast this week. Hard to imagine that TWEWY is 10 years old. I remember when this game first released in the west and it took some time before catching on with RPG fans. Once it did, however, fans realized what a gem they had in their hands.

    The combat system was unique and forward looking. The battle system's learning curve had more to do with its non-traditional nature than anything else. The graphics were among the best (if not the best) on the DS. And the soundtrack...just incredible. I imported a copy from Japan several years ago and count it among my favorite game soundtracks.

    As others have noted, it is a shame that we have not seen more games like this from Square. Switch seems like a perfect platform to release a sequel.Edited last month by Gamer-Law
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #14 odaiba-memorial A month ago
    @ChairmanYang He was a producer, though, which is a fairly significant role, and he clearly designed the characters. Given the entire game just reeks of Nomura's style, I wouldn't be surprised if he took a more direct supervisory role.
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  • Avatar for Gamer-Law #15 Gamer-Law A month ago
    @Broen13 - Spot on regarding Infinite Space. That game was unlike any other I have played and I loved every minute.

    Kat and Nadia have talked about Infinite Space on the podcast, but it is sad that it was overlooked by so many gamers. The learning curve is steep. Okay, really steep. A better tutorial system was clearly required and early battles could be a major source of frustration. Once you mastered combat, however, the game opened up and I continue to be amazed by how ambitious the game was considering the platform it was on.

    In short, I recommend Infinite Space to people all the time. It is a niche game that probably only appeals to a certain set of gamers. That said, the game's story, characters, combat and exploration mechanics make it a stand out title in the DS library.
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  • Avatar for clownbomb #16 clownbomb A month ago
    This is probably my all-time favorite DS game, though it took a lot of false starts before I really "got" the combat system. I love the art design, the soundtrack is fantastic, great story with a great twist, and like Kat said, it's one of those few games that exploited every feature the DS had to offer … even the microphone … without being "gimmicky" about it.

    I bought the iOS version but have never launched it; it was literally a case of, "Here, take my money."
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  • Avatar for Wellman2nd #17 Wellman2nd A month ago
    The only game on the 3DS I can say probably had nearly as much ambition and its own unique style but sadly didn't realize it or the potential of its premise... Code Name: STEAM.

    The steam punk historical style with literary and historical characters play a streamlined real time strategy a la Valkyrie Chronicles could have been a new classic. Sadly the hardware wasn't up to the task and the promotion Nintendo gave it was to be generous a little weak. HAd the game sat for a few years and released as a launch or early Switch game with enhanced visuals and time to be refined, it could have been much better received.

    Other then that, maybe the Virtue's Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma.Edited last month by Wellman2nd
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #18 Kat.Bailey A month ago
    @ChairmanYang I only mentioned him in the context of the art.
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  • Avatar for swamped #19 swamped A month ago
    Need to give this one another shot, couldn't ever get into it at the time. Although I'm starting to think I might just have a Nomura allergy.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #20 TernBird A month ago
    @Gamer-Law

    I've got to chime in on the Infinite Space love, because it *is* an RPG unlike any other. I remember people on 1UP.com really being into how the game was inspired by Childhood's End (which, in retrospect, was rather overblown), but the game has a lot of meat to it. It feels like a full-fledged PC RPG from the 90s, there's so much to it.

    It did need better tutorials, because learning and using abilities was a complete shot in the dark. Space battles were also a little simplistic in their rock-paper-scissor nature (not to mention *very* easily cheesed through the use of fighter jets), and the crew-on-crew battle segments never did click with me. But there's no denying just how enjoyable it is to jump into the game and mess around with the components: allotting modules in ships, galactic exploration, the massive range of available characters...

    But back to TWEWY. With Nomura as producer (which can be more important than a director--a producer can veto decisions, after all), we have a game that has the best example of his artistic vision we could hope for. Maybe this is a sign Nomura should step back from game directing and just produce?
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  • Avatar for metalangel #21 metalangel A month ago
    I bought this at Gatwick Airport to keep me amused on a trip home, and my hotel room rang to the soundtrack during every spare moment.

    I found it all confusing at first (which is sort of the point, I think) and got all the way to the end... only to find my cart is defective and always crashes when I start entering the final sequences. Bah!
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