So, Natsuiro High School is a game in which its sole reason to exist is to give people the chance to skulk around a school and nearby town, with a camera in hand, and equipped with the mad skills necessary to slide under a girl's skirt and photograph her underwear without her ever noticing.
Game of the year, right?
Natsuiro High School Seisyun Hakusyo
What's impressive is just how committed the developer, Tamsoft (the same folks behind Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed and the Onechanbabra series), is to turning that idea into a full game mechanic. Your character will prowl around the school halls until you find a girl you fancy. Then, you'll get him to whip out his... camera, angle himself up, break into a run, and then time a sliding manoeuvre across the floor. Doing this slows time for everyone else to a crawl, so if you've angled yourself just right so the guy brushes just past her legs, you'll get a good couple of seconds to snap away at the full view he suddenly has of her panties. It's like Pokemon Snap, only creepy.
But the life of a hentai isn't all fun and games. Unsurprisingly the girls don't actually appreciate it if they catch you checking out their crotches, and a warning meter will begin to rapidly fill up as they get closer and closer to sounding an alarm. If it gets filled up all the way, then you're either called into the principal's office and suspended for being a creep (if you are caught on school grounds), or the police will chase you around and arrest you if you're in town. It's very realistic... or so I hear. Not that I've ever tried such a stunt, of course.
And the police will catch you. Oh gosh are those police fast when chasing perverts down. One time I got on my bike and started riding like my life depended on it, and all I could do is watch behind me as the police officer went from a blip against the background to breathing right down my neck in just a few moments. There was nothing I could do. It's a tough life, being a specialist photographer like this. The sacrifices we make for our art, right?
And to make things even more difficult, approaching the photo opportunity from just the right angle is tough work. Slide too close to the girl and you'll knock her over, which causes an instant spike in the warning meter. Slide too far away and you're not going to see much. Boring! No, being the master of photographing girl's underwear is going to take a great deal of training, patience, and practice.
Natsuiro High School offers an open world to explore, but don't expect a living city like you see in Grand Theft Auto. Though the island that the action takes place on is actually very large, almost nothing happens in it. And I really do mean that; you can wander around for minutes without running into anyone, and when you do finally spot someone there's not much you can do with them. Unless they're a girl, of course, in which case you have one job - check if her underwear is red or blue. Or perhaps black. Or she's more conservative and it's plain white. See, while Tamsoft didn't bother doing anything with the open world, they did take the time to give every single girl a distinct taste in underwear. For some girls it's simple panties; perhaps with a cute character pattern on them or something similar. But other girls wear green, red or black lingerie that looks more like what you'd see in a Victoria's Secret than a school. Not that I actually know, but I can only assume that girls don't actually wear their sexiest underwear to school, so points off for a lack of realism there.
But I can only imagine how that discussion must have gone at Tamsoft's development meeting:
Boss: Okay, so we need to wrap up development on this one, what's left to do?
Developer: Well, we need to populate the open world and....
Boss: Hang on, from what I'm seeing here, all the girls are wearing white panties!
Developer: Yes, well, we've only had so long to work on that and...
Boss: Well, now you know what you're doing! I want to see colour, guys! Every girl, something different! Get cracking!
And Natsuiro was then declared finished soon after.
I once read an interesting theory about Goichi Suda's open world in No More Heroes, which was as similarly underpopulated and empty as this one. The theory was that Suda was using it as a commentary on how ultimately purposeless open world environments are in those big western blockbusters that are in vogue at the moment. Of course, Suda makes smart games and there's plenty of evidence within No More Heroes to actually back up the argument that he meant to do something that would typically be considered 'bad' (whether you agree with him taking that particular path or not is another matter entirely). With Natsuiro, however, the world is empty and dull more because the developer figured that for whatever reason your interest in the game would start and stop at lingerie.
All of this is somewhat a pity, because there's actually some technical proficiency in the design and construction of the environment. It's simple, but it has an appealing layout and plenty of areas that had the potential to be interesting to explore. Once you're out of the school and town itself, the mountains and beach side are especially vibrant, and I actually had a lot of fun cycling around and just seeing what the island offered at first.
All that said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Tamsoft really did get the girls right. Of course so much of the company's business model is built around indulging fetishes, so by this point there would be a serious problem for the company if the girls weren't gorgeous, but where there are other bugs in the game (and plenty of them) the one bit the team absolutely nailed was what goes on under a girl's skirt. Each and every time.
Related reading: Dead or Alive features plenty of women's underwear, too. Matt's full review of Dead or Alive 5: Last Round on the PlayStation 4.
There's also a fairly in-depth dating game-style narrative in Natsuiro, though obviously you'll need to understand Japanese to read along. If you can't read Japanese though, I wouldn't concern myself too much with what you're missing out on, because the core gameplay mechanic remains the underwear photography challenge, and that is something you don't need to understand Japanese to play along with.
If you do read Japanese, however, you're going to get a story about a guy who gets recruited into an all-girl journalism club to be its photographer, only for some of the planned photo sessions to turn into dates. It's about as well-written and interesting as you might expect based on what happens in the rest of the game, and shows about as much respect for the half dozen girls that are the main love interests of the 'hero' as you would expect for a game that tasks you with invading some rather basic boundaries of decency, but one thing I will say is that there's a strong sense of nostalgia that runs through both the narrative, and warm, pleasant environments and soundtrack, and this gives the game a tone that is worth a second consideration.
At first it might seem odd that such a sleazy game might wax nostalgic, but the more I played of Natsuiro the more I realised a couple of things:
1) It is way too far over the top to be a genuine attempt at titillation
2) There is a very clear rule that states it's okay to look, but touching is a no-go.
3) The 'hero' is hardly treated like a hero. He's a pervert and the game doesn't really celebrate that.
Now here's where I'm going to get controversial.
Now I'm not saying the game is somehow smart or intelligent by any means, because it is clearly not. However, it does work as something of a reflection on what it's like to be that socially awkward kid back at school. The kind that struggles to even talk to girls, much less build meaningful relationships with them, but is endlessly fascinated by them.
In that context it's important to remember that in Natsuiro you can't actually hurt the girls in any way, and there are consequences for causing them distress. Not that this in any way is suggest that this game is not voyeuristic, or that it should be celebrated for its voyeurism, but there is a difference between curiosity and actual, dangerous, sleaze, and it's a line that this game is careful not to cross.
It's also worth remembering the cultural context of the game before assuming that it's out there to corrupt our moral sensibilities and turn us all into creepy people that run around lifting up girl's skirts. Japanese entertainment has a long history of finding humour in fetishes, and the weirder, the more entertaining. Over in Japanese film, for example, there's Hentai Kamen, a ridiculous comedy that at core is about exhibitionism. Anime and manga love harem fantasy. To criticise these art works for what they are is to criticise something about the sense of fantasy in Japanese culture, and there are very few out there with the kind of moral and intellectual authority to do that.
And let's fact it; if you were a guy at a school that had mandatory uniforms, and that meant skirts for girls, there was at least some point where you were hoping that your crush's skirt would gust up and just the right moment for you to get a look. That's male teenage hormones and inexperience with the opposite sex at work. That much is natural curiosity. Of course if you were a decent guy you wouldn't go looking for such an opportunity, much less actually create one, but if you were socially quiet or on the outside of mainstream culture, then such fantasies were probably the only outlet you had.
Related reading: On Dead or Alive, Mortal Kombat, sexualisation and violence. Matt looks at the differing attitudes between sex and violence in western media.
Hell, adult men still have those fantasies. That Marilyn Munroe photo is famous, all these years later, for a reason. There's nothing immoral about any of that, again, assuming that you're not the one responsible for it happening. It's important to draw that distinction. It's a distinction of relevance to Natsuiro, because Natsuiro allows you to act out those fantasies, while maintaining the moral centre that understands that it's fundamentally wrong to do what you're doing. You are punished for being caught, remember. If we can accept that there is nothing immoral about the ability to pick up a gun and go on a rampage in Grand Theft Auto, and indeed realise that GTA does at core recognise that going on massacres is a bad thing (else the police wouldn't start chasing you down), then we can also accept that the Natsuiro allowing you execute a perfect slide under a girl's skirt to snap her delicates is, in fact, not actually immoral. Not when in both cases do you in fact call the police upon you for doing it.
Now there is of course other themes beyond the gameplay, and morality thereof, that are worth discussing in relation to the game. At its very core it objectifies women, and turns their sexuality into a reward for playing well. In the hands of better storytellers it would be very easy to extend the satire to encompass this theme, as the aforementioned Goichi Suda did in Lollipop Chainsaw. It's not really possible to excuse this game on those grounds, because it's nowhere near as smartly written, but I do believe there is no way you can possibly play this and consider it a genuine work of exploitation. It's simply too self aware for that. So, as with Moe Chronicle, I've got to say that feminist critique of this game would be totally valid, but also debatable. That is of course assuming that people were willing to have a mature conversation about it. And let's be real; virtually no one does that in this industry.
|Dee Dee's try out for Natsuiro High School 2|
- Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
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