I try to start my day at 6 a.m. sharp in The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa. I look at my schedule, and use the early morning time to study two subjects, like physics and chemistry on Wednesday morning, knowing that's on the curriculum for the day. Every time I study, my percentage in that subject goes up. Eventually I hope to have 100, or close to it, across all five subjects. Then, like an anime character with toast in their mouth, I run to school, run up three flights of stairs, and sit down at my desk. This is just one part of the routine I've settled into in The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa, a sort of River City Ransom meets Persona game.
The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa is a game about studying, growing up, and hanging out with friends. In between all that, you beat up fellow hooligans in the street that dare look at you in a particular way. Such is the life of delinquents in Japan.
The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa released on Nintendo Switch earlier this month, nearly a year after its release on Steam last year. Like Hollow Knight before it, it's gotten a second lease on life thanks to Switch. I hadn't even heard of the game until I saw Tim Rogers of Kotaku espouse love for it on Twitter—and now having spent the past couple evenings playing it, I'm flabbergasted that no one I know told me about it sooner. If someone put games, books, and themes I like in a blender, it would probably end up being something like The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa.
But let me back up for a moment.
In The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa, you play as the titular Ringo, a high school student who up to this point in life hasn't been taking school very seriously. His grades are straight F's. His mentor (a cool teacher who wears a sagging purple suit) encourages Ringo and his friends to work harder in school, but he'd rather spend his time roaming around trains and towns beating up members of rival gangs with his buddies.
In the Steam page description, developer Yeo says that despite its obvious River City Ransom open-world beat 'em up inspiration, it's more of a game about growing up. "I designed the game to make you feel this story. So it's not about rival gangs, or taking over turfs, or anything," Yeo writes. "You just live there and feel. And that's all."
After a few nights and many in-game days with Ringo Ishikawa, living it is perhaps the best way to describe it. Unlike Persona, which has a timetable of dungeons to worry about on top of the slice of life elements, The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa is more loose with its day-to-day activities. You can go to class, but you're never forced to. You can work a part-time job, but it's not a necessity. If you run into friends like Goro, who always loiters on the roof at school, you can recruit them to your party to follow you and punch by your side, if only for a day. You can go to the gym, but you have to pony up 30,000 yen first. Or you can do nothing at all, idly smoke cigarettes on a bridge, and maybe wander around looking for trouble. On occasion you'll even trigger an event, like running into a friend who invites you to coffee, and together you'll sit and chatter about small town gossip. It feels real; a simulated life with no artifice.
Once upon a time, I too was a snotty kid with an attitude in a small suburban town. I had friends who were older than me buy me cigarettes, and I'd often bike around town smoking, thinking I looked cool or something. (Don't smoke kids! Because quitting sucks!) Playing Ringo Ishikawa, those rugged teenage experiences are flooding back to me, even in the unfamiliar landscape steeped in Japanese culture.
It's that quiet quality I've already come to admire about The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa. It reminds me of a Yasujirō Ozu movie; it's unconcerned with traditional story structure, instead letting you observe—or in this case walk in the shoes of—its troubled hero and his friends. It's a somber and chill game (the soundtrack even has shades of a lo-fi hip-hop and chill beats radio station you'd find on YouTube, to complement the vibe) about finding your way through life and measuring up to others' expectations, even with all the hand-to-hand combat sprinkled in the game. The dialogue between characters, whether they're cashiers or members of your gang, are all interesting too. It all helps color the world of Ringo Ishikawa, where even simple actions feel worthwhile, like leaning over a rail and lighting a cigarette with the press of a button.
The animations help bring Ringo Ishikawa, and all the NPCs you meet, to life. In class, Ringo can lean back in his seat, arch forward, look out the window, or scribble on his paper furiously. When you fight, you can do all sorts of actions, from kicks to grabs to punches. While walking, Ringo can burrow his hands in his pockets to walk like a "delinquent," which slows his pace and makes others around him turn their heads—some may even instigate a fight. If he stands idle, he may squat. With the press of the B button, he'll light a cigarette (or toss the one he's smoking); indoors, the same button makes him flip a yen coin in the air.
In the game, you can choose to chase down an academic life, or continue your life as a delinquent with aspirations to be a yakuza. Or you can do what I'm doing, and try to walk the lines of both. It's a hard line to walk too. To make money, I crouch over knocked out rival gang members and steal their pocket change, which usually amounts to a couple hundred yen. I try to go to my part-time job at the video store when I have the time on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays after school. I maintain my grades by studying regularly, which rewards me with scholarship money if I keep them up after my weekly Saturday tests. I'm still in the C and D range for most subjects, but I'm getting there, slowly but surely.
The health meter in Ringo Ishikawa is more like a stamina meter, with activities like taking damage taken in fights and not eating wearing you down. If you get knocked out in a fight, you'll find yourself at home in your bed, with some number of hours having passed. On one occasion, I had a fight instigated by NPCs immediately upon exiting my apartment, and it was a fight I did not win. I woke up much later that same day (luckily a Sunday, so I didn't miss school), and roamed the streets at night in search of something to do.
Strangely, even when things don't go according to plan, the hiccups never feel like setbacks; I never feel like time is wasted, even when I do lose a fight I intended to win. It's kind of the opposite approach I take with other games, where I restart encounters over and over, or load old saves. In The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa, I just accept that shit happens, and life doesn't always go the way we plan.
That's really the intention. The meters and gameplay are purposefully obtuse, which at first blush is frustrating, but it doesn't take long to figure out what everything does. And sometimes, nothing matters. I read a 137-page book in the library in a couple in-game afternoons, only to get nothing in return when it comes to power. Just as in life, in The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa, sometimes that's just how it goes.