Posted on April 25th, 2011 4 comments
Maker: Micro Cabin
Release Date: 8/4/89
Price: 5900 yen
Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
PC Engine FAN Score: 17.69 / 30.00
Kōgien: “The player becomes Godai as he tries to find what Kyoko is looking for. An adventure game that pits you against the eccentric residents of the run-down Ikkokukan apartment house. As a game, it’s less of a puzzle-solving adventure and more one where you are immersed in the drama as one of the characters.“
Maison Ikkoku is Japan’s version of Three’s Company. No, really, this makes sense. Stay with me on this.
The original Ikkoku is a manga by Rumiko Takahashi that ran in Big Comic Spirits from 1980 to 1987. If you haven’t read it (shame on you), it stars Godai, an eternally broke student, as he lives an incredibly sitcom-like situation at a ramshackle boarding house straight out of the 1960s. His comic foils: an alcoholic single mother, a bar hostess who wanders around the house in lingerie all day, a creepy middle-aged man who would have been on the sex offenders’ list if such a thing existed in the early 1980s…and Kyoko, the superintendent and a total babe despite already having married and lost one husband.
The series (which has sold over 25 million volumes worldwide) grew into a sort of romantic comedy of errors over the years, with Godai and Kyoko developing a thing for each other that falls victim to a neverending cavalcade of misunderstandings and rival lovers. Before that love subplot kicks into high gear, though, the manga is nearly all about Godai’s hapless luck, his constant poverty, and the madness set off by his neighbors down the hall. So, really, Three’s Company, with Kyoko’s domineering parents dual-playing the part of Don Knotts. Simple.
Micro Cabin, the maker of this title, has something of an odd history in the adventure genre. When Sierra released Mystery House (one of the first graphical adventures) in 1980, the Mie prefecture-based developer countered with its own game for Japanese PCs, also called Mystery House, that also featured a mansion explorer trying to find a cache of diamonds. This sort of ripoff activity was pretty rife in the early history of Japanese video games (one of Nintendo’s first CPU-based arcade game was a Space Invaders clone), and while Sierra didn’t like it very much, they had little legal recourse given Japan’s laws at the time. (Sierra’s Mystery House would finally get an official port to Japanese computers in 1984.)
Micro Cabin made two Maison Ikkoku adventures, the first of which was originally made for the PC-8801 and later ported to the 9801, X1, MSX, Famicom, and finally PC Engine. In a way, though, the game’s more like Mystery House than anything else. There’s not much of a plot (Godai learns from the rumor mill that Kyoko is hiding some kind of secret from the tenants of Ikkokukan, and he tries to find out what it is) and the gameplay mostly involves wandering aimlessly around the apartment house and surrounding neighborhood in search of stuff to do. After some experimentation, you’ll figure out that the plot advances whenever you sit down and have a conversation with Kyoko, but with all of the interference from the other tenants, getting that audience is a lot harder than simply knocking on the door.
Maison Ikkoku, despite the standard Japanese menu-based adventure interface, is not a very orthodox adventure. There’s no stepwise walkthrough you can rely on to always take you to the ending — instead, the game’s about collecting items and keeping the NPCs happy and out of your way. Each tenant has an undisplayed “mood” statistic that changes their behavior, and at times you’ll need to give them things they like (such as instant ramen or sake) for them to get out of your way. This requires money, which Godai never has enough of, so figuring out how to score some extra yen is the game’s other main “puzzle,” if you want to call it that.
The result is really just frustrating. You get the idea that Micro Cabin wanted to recreate the charm of the manga, letting you step into the story and enjoy the atmosphere, but instead it feels like you’re in this sort of cruel purgatory where you’re constantly harangued by strangers and forced to repeat previous actions multiple times to get anywhere. All this for what must be one of the most non-ending endings in the history of anime licenses.
If I paid full price for this back in the day, I’d be angry — and yet, if some enterprising 8-bit software developer had tried making a Three’s Company adventure like this, I’m sure I’d lap it up at once. Funny how that works.