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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