I recently watched and really enjoyed game reviewer Tim Rogers’s in-depth analysis of the influential 90s dating sim Tokimeki Memorial. While the video’s length may initially seem intimidating, it’s well worth the watch to see someone exploring the history of romance games and taking them seriously at the same time as having a lot of fun with them, and I highly recommend it. Tim Rogers made Tokimeki Memorial sound like a really interesting experience, and I finished the video wishing that I could play it for myself. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Japanese, and neither the original Tokimeki Memorial nor its sequel have ever been translated. But there is a fan translation of a later entry in the series, Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side, which followed the same format with a female protagonist and male love interests. (Specifically, it’s a translation of the expanded Nintendo DS port, Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side: 1st Love, which came out in Japan in 2007, as opposed to the original which was on PS2 in 2002.) So I took my own little dive into this series, stumbling through three simulated years of life at Habataki Academy on a quest to get a boyfriend. Read on for my opinions on this classic of the otome and dating sim genres.
First of all, I want to clarify that when I say the Tokimeki Memorial games are dating sims, I mean dating sims—I’m not just using that term to broadly refer to any kind of game with a romance plot. They’re games in which you schedule out your time to raise your stats as much as possible while also juggling the attentions of a multitude of potential love interests at once, inevitably stressing yourself out about finding time to date them all on top of your other commitments. And alongside typical dating sim mechanics like trying to buy the perfect gifts for the guys’ birthdays, Girl’s Side includes a host of other complicated elements like choosing how to address a boy in conversation (I hope you know the etiquette surrounding Japanese honorifics) and picking out the perfect outfit to wear on a date (I hope you’ve been paying attention to your date’s preferred style, regularly changing fashion trends, and the weather). It’s a deceptively complex game, but I think a lot of its appeal comes from that surprising depth, and the discoveries you make about how many little details will provoke different reactions in the characters as you go along. If you set out to have the perfect playthrough with top marks in school and every boy at your beck and call, you’re likely to end up frustrated—but if you approach it with the goal of just having a good time and laughing at how easy it is to mess up, it’s a lot of fun.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some absolute nonsense mechanics, especially the mini-games for things like the sports festival and making Valentine’s chocolates. Part of the issue might have been that I was using an emulator and trying to play games designed to be played with a DS stylus on a laptop touchpad instead, but I had no idea what was going on in most of those. Throughout your dates, you’ll also often be prompted to try to touch the boys with your stylus—but half the time, they appear not to actually want you to, or to have some problem with where or how you do it. I have some notes written down from halfway through my playthrough bemoaning the fact that these guys all hate me. “They’ve got frowny faces on my brother’s info sheet and when I ask them out they insult my clothes and tell me to stop touching them,” I wrote, “But if I don’t ask them out they get mad about that too!” This is, however, honestly pretty hilarious, and I don’t really begrudge the game for the difficulty of navigating its bizarre mechanics at all. That’s the Tokimeki Memorial experience I signed up for.
And despite my multitude of blunders, I did actually manage to land a boyfriend by the end of the game: Morimura Sakuya, a shy and sweet guy who loves gardening. His ending confession scene was very cute, and it felt especially satisfying to achieve after putting the effort into managing three years of my character’s busy social calendar. But unfortunately, the amount of effort it took ended up making me feel like it would just be tedious to replay and try to explore other routes right away. I’d actually be pretty interested to see what the secret love interests I barely saw this time around were like, as well as just to experiment more and find out what I can accomplish with deeper knowledge of the game’s mechanics. But I think I’m going to save that for some time in the uncertain future, because putting even more time and energy into actually trying to play with a specific strategy was the last thing I felt like doing after how difficult it was just to come out of my first playthrough with decent marks and none of my classmates actively trying to sabotage my reputation. This game is a lot.
So overall, while it was an enjoyable experience to do one playthrough of Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side, I’m not sure it’s something I would whole-heartedly recommend. But I do think dating sims are a fun genre, and it’s too bad that they’re pretty unknown outside of Japan (to the point that a lot of people don’t even really know what they’re like and erroneously think the term means basically the same thing as “visual novel”). I’d be happy if Tim Rogers’s video sparked some new interest in them with English-speaking audiences, as I’d love to see translations of more of them in the future—maybe even of the fourth entry in the Girl’s Side series, which has been announced for Nintendo Switch! I’d gladly spend some time being baffled anew by whatever different nonsense mechanics a different entry in this series can devise to keep me on my toes in the quest for simulated love.