Recently I thought it would be fun to rewatch Gossip Girl, one of my favorite teen dramas of all time. Immediately, I realized how dated it was. Here was the lavish Serena van der Woodsen, spotted in Grand Central Station through a grainy flip phone photo, setting forth the events of the series.
It's that flip phone that's hilarious about Gossip Girl's pilot from 2007. If filmed today, it'd be an iPhone XS, and the picture would probably be taken in Portrait mode with the studio lighting filter on. The titular Gossip Girl would probably run an Instagram rather than an old Blogspot or whatever other old blogging platform. The only thing about Gossip Girl that hasn't aged is every character's impeccable fashion sense. While playing The World Ends With You this past week, I'm struck with the same thought from the moment Neku pulls out a flip phone. This is more dated than I remember... And yet, so stylish.
And it's not that old either. Last year, The World Ends With You reached its 10-year anniversary from its Nintendo DS debut. We celebrated it in true USgamer fashion, with a podcast and a retrospective praising what set it apart from its contemporaries. Yet it's that flip phone Neku and Shiki and all the characters of The World Ends With You carry that encapsulates how the RPG feels like a blast from the not-so-modern-anymore past. Both in experimental Square Enix sensibilities and in the fact that frankly, they don't make 'em like this anymore, and they especially don't make phones like that anymore.
The World Ends With You is very much a JRPG that lives in its own world, which almost shields it from the usual pitfalls of aging. It defies the trends set by fashion and video games, paving its own—albeit trendy Shibuya-inspired—path. So, it's not a complete surprise that it feels just as fresh 11 years later. It's decisively modern, or at least late 2000s-modern. A couple years ago I may have said that some of character designer Tetsuya Nomura's style tendencies were dated—from Shiki's pronounced pageboy hat to Beat's late-90s skater look—but nowadays those sort of looks are very in, making The World Ends With You's fashion loop back around to being cool again.
Mechanically, The World Ends With You still feels unusual even today. Its Pin system—how it accounts for a careful balance of physical attacks, telekinesis, and magic—remains one of the most unique battle systems I've seen in any RPG, real-time or turn-based. It spits in the face of other action-oriented RPGs, crafting its own system of building up card-like decks of Pins to rely on in battle while dashing around some pavement. In 2018, its combat system is still satisfying, with a lot of creativity offered to build up your collection. (If made today, Pins would undoubtedly be rebranded as apps, as that's what they look like: little icons for apps on a smartphone.)
As well as it holds up this year, there is something that doesn't sit right: and that's its unfortunately obtuse control scheme, which takes more from the smart device ports than its origins with the touchscreen on the Nintendo DS. And there's an immediate compromise with The World Ends With You: Final Remix when you power it up on your Switch. You have two control options: Joy-Con, whether with a kickstand-ed undocked console or it docked on your television, or the portable option, strictly touchscreen.
Over the past week, I've played a healthy amount of The World Ends With You in all its playable forms (though unfortunately nowhere near enough time to see its new epilogue). I've played it alone, both touchscreen and Joy-Con-enabled, and co-op on my television. No matter what, it's an odd experience for the once Nintendo DS-bound game.
As I saw back at PAX West, there is no Pro controller support for the JRPG, nor any standard control schemes. You can't play it with two synced Joy-Cons either, unless they're separate players. You can only play it with one measly Joy-Con, motion-controlled reticle pointed at the screen, directing Neku and company around Shibuya in what amounts to hell-Tokyo. The control scheme is a strange one, reliant on motion controls but not in a particularly intuitive or satisfying way. By pressing Y, you can always recenter the reticle, but in battle it frequently goes a little haywire which makes for a frequent annoyance.
Meanwhile its touchscreen compatibility became my favorite way to play The World Ends With You on Switch, but it's essentially the same of what I remember of its iOS and Android counterpart. Essentially, a portable Switch playing The World Ends With You is just a smaller iPad… except it has a bonus epilogue featuring a character that was teased in the secret ending of its mobile and iPad version, Solo Remix.
The Switch port largely has more in common with the smart device version, all the way down to its subname: Final Remix. While the combat is more balanced in its DS counterpart, it's also more complicated, with the dual screens playing a large role both combat-wise and narratively. In the mobile and Switch versions, both characters share the same screen, and tapping and dashing becomes the main element to stay alive. There's only one HP bar, but contrary to the DS version, the other character is invulnerable—even in co-op.
That's one of the biggest new introductions to the Switch version though: co-op, which is only playable via two Joy-Cons. The other player takes on the role of whoever your buddy of the week is (from Shiki to Beat). The co-op element only comes into play during battles. Normally, your partner character is more of a tag-team character that you can utilize as an extra ability, sort of like a sentient Pin. In co-op, your partner controls them, along with a whole suite of Pin abilities like Neku has. Only there's a catch, as the other player is stuck with that character's base Pins, with no swapping out for new abilities. It plays well in some boss battles, where usually you hop between two characters for sections, but in co-op it's like you're taking turns; otherwise, having a second character directly controlled makes most other battles a cinch—not that the game is terribly difficult in the first place.
The art, while a much higher resolution and looking great on Switch in terms of main character models, renders a lot of background NPCs as blurred, raising suspicions of this indeed lifting from its mobile port, à la Square Enix releasing the iOS version of Chrono Trigger on Steam—blurry sprites and all. The music also lets you switch between the "Remix" score and the original Nintendo DS'. For a dose of nostalgia, I've left it on the latter, though the new and improved music is good too.
Overall, if you've never played The World Ends With You before, then there's probably no better release out there than the Switch one with the inclusion of HD art, a new epilogue, and co-op, even if it is clunky. Otherwise, I find myself still preferring the original Nintendo DS version, as nice as the crisp art is on the Switch and mobile ports. I just find myself preferring that hard-to-read dual-screen battle system a lot more. Maybe one day the Switch version can see a similar style system, due to some recent Switch games taking advantage of a vertical display and all. I reckon that's just a distant dream though, and if we want a more pure The World Ends With You experience, then the DS is still the only place to get it.