I’ll make a very bold proclamation; Tokimeki Memorial did a lot for Konami in the 1990’s, arguably more than their Metal Gear Solid title ever did for games during that time period. Initially released in 1994, Toki-Memo – the affectionate abbreviation given by fans – is a visual novel with dating sim aspects. To possibly hap-hazardly attempt to defend my claim, I’ll lay some of the ground work that paved the way for Toki-Memo to be.
Visual novels prior to the mid-90’s are interesting studies of classic games. Primarily existing in Japan they were effectively evolutions of the classic DOS “adventure” type and read titles or even those classic Ascii adventure games. The concept of a “visual novel” arose primarily as a means to sell a product. As computers in the later 1980’s became more dynamic in how they were able to display images, budding game companies in Japan realized they could quickly assemble a product with static images displayed alongside a continuing narrative. The player often had VERY little interaction with the narrative – if any at all – and many of these titles were in a quite literal sense “visual novels” that you simply read.
Many of these games were also pornographic.
It made sense as sex sells. Even with a hodge-podged narrative and quirky pixel-drawn images, publishing companies could easily move units as fast as they would go to work on the next title. Many of these, such as the Rance and the Viper series, are now classics that have fallen into relative obscurity. These early visual novels laid foundation for a genre that would evolve and continues to this day in varying capacities.
Toki-Memo would not be the first true dating sim visual novel combo. I give that award to Doukyuusei, released in 1992 (a title for potentially a future topic.). Toki-Memo however was the first title that successfully combined the ideologies of a visual novel as a “simulation” that gave the player a lot of interactive freedom, something most all prior titles of this genre lacked. And best for Konami it did it without needing to use sex or any other visual gimmicks.
Toki-Memo’s development was one that came at a very good time for Konami. The company made a tremendous amount of money from the success of the Famicom (NES in the US). Despite some of the issues Konami faced in the US market in particular such as having to market some of their titles under the Konami “Ultra Series” branding, Konami in a four year time period went from making ten million USD to having made three-hundred million USD by 1991 off of their various properties, reported by Imagine Media’s Next Generation mag in ’95.
A large influx of disposable income meant Konami could really go all out on not just their existing titles but new properties. During this time, a big blip on the radar pushed Konami’s HQ from Osaka to Tokyo, and simultaneously saw small radar blips establishing various sub committees and focus groups within the company. One, Konami Computer Entertainment, would be headed by none other than Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame, Kojima being put in as one of the producers for the upcoming Toki-Memo property, alongside Kirita Tomikazu and Director Nagata Yoshiaki.
The idea behind the game was simple. Utilizing an established narrative that evolved based on both your choices and stat building abilities, the player would progress through a full school year in high school (in the future of… 1995!!) to an ending, be it with the girl of their dreams or all alone. The replayability value was immediately apparent, as endings were based on how many characters were in the game (with one character having a surprising twist), giving the player multitudes of paths and choices. Sans the menu choices given, the protagonist – nameable, with also the ability to be given a birthdate and blood type (two very important things in Japan of course) – was silent.
Stat building was actually very unique. Building say your studying stat would lower your athletic stat, which may push you towards being able to meet the studious Mio Kisaragi but lose out to whoo’ing the athletic Yukari Koshiki. The title’s heroine, Shiori Fujisaki, was effectively the game’s Final Boss in that the player would need to obtain high stat values in every parameter in order to win her over.
Making the stat building and round robin dating issue more challenging became the game’s most well known feature; the bomb. In the later stages of the game you had to juggle school work, your own stats (literally your health), and the dates set up, many of which were periodically forced upon the player. If for whatever reason you missed a date with one of the girls or if you scheduled two dates on the same day and missed one, that girl’s affection stats would immediately plummet and she gossips to the other girls, lowering your affection stats ALL AROUND (stat icons would be replaced with literal bombs and sad face emojis). Late in the game, it could effectively ruin hours of gameplay, necessitating strategic saves.
In 1995 and 1996 the title moved to 32 bit consoles, to the Playstation and Saturn respectively. While Toki-Memo had flown just at radar prior, when it hit 32 bit it exploded – not in the game’s bomb way – in popularity near immediately. The massive amount of space available for optical media allowed all of the girls to have voiced lines, and Konami ensured that EVERY. SINGLE. LINE. of dialogue had voice. It made the game come alive.
If Toki-Memo wasn’t the first dating sim it became the first comprehensive dating sim to have fully voiced characters; arguably it may be one of the first titles during the 1995 time period for non-PC game consoles to have a fully voiced narrative period. For most players it was like playing something straight out of anime. Anime that a player would control.
The resultant popularity of Toki-Memo turned most of the characters into virtual idols near overnight; well before YouTube virtual idols. It wasn’t just limited to gamers or individuals with strong otaku culture. Everyone in Japan knew what Toki-Memo was. It was even written about as early as 1996 in The Times in the US. Konami took full advantage. They would go on to release drama CDs (basically side-stories voiced by the character’s VA’s), photo CDs, puzzle games, nearly an indescribable amount of items containing character goods, and numerous sequels to the first title including an entire sub-set of games with a female lead and all male characters dubbed “Girls’ Side.” Tokimeki Memorial was ultimately a big money maker for Konami, and even in Japan nowadays it’s very easy to go into various second hand stores that deal with gaming culture and find SOMETHING Toki-Memo from the 1990’s.
It’s popularity bank rolled Konami even further.
The Tokimeki Memorial series’ hey day seems to have come and gone. Sans a Playstation Portable title in 2012 and Nintendo DS title in 2010 for the “Girls Side” portion of Toki-Memo, there have not been any mainstream titles since roughly the 2006-2007 time period. In recent years, Konami has fished the property to mobile gaming, where it has expanded to even encompass a Toki-Memo Restaurant serving-genre title. It seems like Konami has had a habit of similar moves as of late with their games…
My initiation with Toki-Memo came about innocently enough. In the late ’90’s I came across a very small article in a gaming magazine whose name escapes me. It had two screen caps from the Playstation version of the game, and a brief synopsis. I eventually found out about emulation, and played the Super Famicom (SNES) version of the game. I put quite a bit of time into it. Eventually I imported the Sega Saturn version as I had an Action Replay RAM cart which allowed my console to play imports. Despite myself playing it some years after it’s hey day I knew that in the mid-’90’s it was a very impressive title.
The language barrier aside, I poured over all the various Toki-Memo pages I could locate and managed to hodge-podge a sketchy Word Doc guide that allowed me to roughly play the game. A lot of saving and replaying sections took place, but eventually I managed a few play-thurs on both my imported Saturn copy and an emulated Super Famicom ROM. I hate that the document I put together at the time is long lost because I really did dedicate a lot of time to it, trying to piece together broken English for each of the characters to get a rough idea of how to progress.
In recent years I’ve discovered some interesting aspects of Toki-Memo, many of them probably leading to the series own decline. Apparently Konami did consider a US port of sorts at various points, and even cleverly disguised their most recent attempt. According to former Konami US employees the PSP game Brooktown High released in 2007 was a market gauging attempt by Konami to test the feasibility of a dating sim title in the US. It’s somewhat strange though that considering dating sim elements and visual novels were already long available in the US that it would take Konami until 2007 – thirteen years after the release of the original title – to begin SERIOUSLY considering an English market version. And on a console that even by 2007 was having market issues in the US. Also we were no longer living in the ’90s were most anything with an anime feel was taboo; this was 2007. Americans were fine with playing cliche’d anime titles.
Konami also went to court over various aspects regarding Toki-Memo, the most well known being a third-party memory card issue, with one of the more infamous being suing a doujinshi (fan-creation) studio over creating a pornographic short of Shiori Fujisaki. The short version of this story is that during this time in the ’90’s it wasn’t unheard of for many small time animation groups to create doujinshi motion pictures (plenty of them exist of IPs from the time, such as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, Rayearth, etc). One sold around this time period contained Fujisaki in the lead “role”. While that in itself possibly didn’t warrant concern since Japan has always had a somewhat accepting relationship with fan-created materials, Konami finally caught wind of this creation well over a year after it hit the doujinshi market, and as by this time Toki-Memo was more mainstream than otaku immediately shutdown most all doujinshi properties relating to Toki-Memo. It’s a prime example of even why today, regardless of how hard you may search, it’s very difficult to find fan made content relating to Toki-Memo despite the massive amount of second-hand Toki-Memo merchandise that does exist.
Dating sims and visual novels have come a long way since Toki-Memo. Many non-visual novel games have aspects of dating sims as part of the game proper (Atlus’ Persona series, for example). Visual novels had a relatively rough start in the US, primarily with low publication from companies such as JAST (yet another potential future topic) and American classics such as the click-and-advance title Leisure Suit Larry. I for one do not know if they’ll every gain any sort of mainstream acceptance in the US, but at the least they continue to maintain a very devout and strong niche’ following among individuals in the know. A lot of that is owed to Toki-Memo and Konami’s work.