Moon is a game I'd always heard about, but never played myself. It came up on ancient game forums, in the midst of discussion of the RPG Maker cult hit Yume Nikki. It came up in the same breath as Undertale, developer and musician Toby Fox's magnum opus. It came up when friends talked about fan translations, despite Moon only having in-progress ones. Considering that up until last week it had never left the Japanese language, Moon has always felt like something of a myth.
Now, Moon is finally free to roam, thanks to developers Onion Games who helmed the port of the 1997 Love-de-lic game. (Onion Games is comprised of some former Love-de-lic developers.) Moon's Nintendo Switch port initially released in Japan in Oct. 2019. On Aug. 27, 2020, Moon finally received its first English translation. According to an interview with Vice, writer Yoshiro Kimura credits the new localization to himself, two native readers, a localization programmer, a QA tester, a second translator, and Tim Rogers (of Action Button, formerly of Kotaku), who handled its initial translation.
In the interview with Vice, Kimura says they had always wanted to translate Moon into English. "So, one day, Toby [Fox], Zun from Touhou Project, and myself were interviewed. After it was done, Toby and I went and got coffee together near the train station and he asked me why I didn’t release Moon worldwide," says Kimura. "I told him there was no way I could, but thinking back, that was the first push that got me thinking, ‘why am I giving up? I could do this if I wanted to’. Localizing Moon so he could play it became really good motivation for me."
Playing Moon in 2020, I'm struck by how un-RPG-ish it is, despite being led to believe it is an RPG. Instead, it's more of an adventure game plopped in the world of an RPG. At the start, you hop through save files at multiple points across an RPG's campaign, playing as a capital-H Hero on their way to slay a dragon. Eventually, the young lad playing the game gets sleepy and goes to bed. They return to their TV in the middle of the night to find it still on, but live with static. The kid's absorbed into the TV, and thus, Moon truly begins.
In Moon, you play as someone who's a mere witness to the goings-on of an RPG in a land called Moon World. Near the start, you meet an NPC who's something of a monster rights activist—they're pissed off that the so-called "Hero" keeps slaying innocent monsters, littering their corpses everywhere. You're then tasked with finding their lost souls, but that's just one way to accrue "love," which raises your "Action Limit." The Action Limit depletes over the course of a day via walking and talking.
Both the NPCs and the monster souls have a schedule that cycles from night to day across seven days of the week. Despite the rough similarity to our own calendar, the days have unique names: Solarday is Sunday, Crescenday is Monday, Blazeday is Tuesday, Tearsday is Wednesday, Leavesday is Thursday, Coinsday is Friday, and Echoday is Saturday. It autosaves everytime you go to bed, replenishing your Action Limit.
Moon is, in all senses of the word, very chill. You walk. You talk. You laugh at jokes. You play music on your portable record player. Sometimes you play minigames. You explore Moon World. For instance, a fetch quest early on had me getting bread for my grandma ("Gramby"). Lately, my errand-running has my Action Limit growing to an amount where I don't have to hurry back home to sleep in bed after just talking to a handful of NPCs during the daytime. (As a bird told me near the start: If my Action Limit depletes, then I'll pass out and it's game over. Knock on wood, I have not experienced this so far!) The primary goal of Moon is a simple one: you just have to accrue some love, and maybe, just maybe, save the moon from the Hero ravaging it.
I've seen some describe Moon as being "ahead of its time." It's an assertion that doesn't ring true to me. If anything, it is undeniably of its time. Its systems are so obtuse that you can't skate by without reading its manual first—helpfully also translated and tweeted out by Onion Games. Playing it, I can already foresee myself Googling guides for it eventually. I don't think I'll be able to muscle through it on pure instinct alone. But for now, I'm having a great time just exploring its oddball world, wherever stalking its NPCs takes me.
It's easy to see the DNA of Moon in pretty much any self-aware RPG that's followed it. As a send-up of RPGs at a time where they were the most popular game genre in the world, the tropes and circumstances of Moon still elicit a chuckle even 22 years later. The self-aware quality is what made RPG Maker freeware games bustle in online forums for decades; it's what made the likes of Nier and Nier: Automata resonate with audiences in modern times. Sometimes it's the truly meta stuff that evolves gaming further and Moon was an early pioneer in this realm.
It's a shame that so many experimental games like Moon are often lost to time, whether via failed preservation efforts or sheer lack of accessibility. Moon languished without a translation for decades, and it's been hardly alone in that plight. It reminds me of a game I discovered weeks or months ago (what is time anymore?), a PlayStation game called Boku no Natsuyasumi, loosely translated to "My Summer Vacation." Its lush environments and cute low poly characters caught my eye in the tweet. The game itself is set in 1975, and you play as a young boy staying at a relative's house in the beautiful rural countryside. You catch bugs. You collect bottle caps. Or you can just relax. It's the quaint art direction and calming accompanying music that really made the clip of the game stand out to me; a slice of life game in the style of animator Isao Takahata.
By the looks of the viral tweet's likes and retweets, thousands of others were enamored too. The series has four games in total, largely living on the PlayStation Portable, but was never localized for an audience beyond Japan. Such is the fate of a lot of games across the world. Without the opportunity for localization, games are in danger of fading out of memory.
With so many games being lost to time and technology, I hope that more games like Moon will be honored in the coming years with a modern translation. We're lucky that we've gotten the likes of Moon, Seiken Densetsu 3, and Metal Wolf Chaos in recent years. But what of games that remain stuck in Japan? From Mother 3 to Shin Megami Tensei If… to the Japan and Europe-exclusivity of Terranigma to hundreds of games I've probably never even heard of, many games are still inaccessible for English-speaking and reading audiences. And that's not to mention Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, and every other language in the world that has to rely on fan translations as well.
Modern ports aren't merely a re-release for older games, but pave the way for better preservation of games as a whole. Moon's Switch release is a big step forward in that regard; just as Seiken Densetsu 3's recent port was and the RPG Maker classic Yume Nikki's unexpected Steam release was years ago. I can only hope this ongoing trend is the start of more surprise ports and long overdue localizations—hopefully not just into English, but other languages as well.