[*WARNING* – This post includes some NSFW material. I’ve tried to keep it minimal]
Season of The Sakura, or Sakura no Kisetsu [ さくらの季節 ], was one of the first visual novels I played back in the later 1990s. It’s often spoken of in fond circles and equally critiqued as a product of it’s time; one of the very first visual novels – and honestly ‘Japanese’ as a whole – games to release in the United States. My segmented bit does warrant some critique when you consider SoTS’s original Japanese release date was in 1996. How, you’ll ask, does my assumption that “first” Japanese game to be released in the US possibly hold up? Well, it doesn’t, and rather a better statement may be SoTS was one of the first “otaku Japanese” games in North America that gave American gamers a real taste of the sort of games popular in Japan.
Don’t get me wrong; plenty of games from Japan had come to the United States prior. Unfortunately they were often manipulated and altered beyond belief under the guise of “localization.” Now to make an initial point clear, localization is not the same as censorship. Localization does have a purpose. Key of which includes not only dealing with a lot of Japanese-esque terms and ideologies that do not necessarily translate well into English, but also to not further bog down a player in ideologies that they may not immediately understand. In modern days it’s very easy to Google anything that’s ambiguous, be it a native Japanese saying or similar that doesn’t translate well into English. In the 1980s and early 1990s that was not something at a game player’s disposal unless they had someone Japanese sitting next to them at all times.
I have some rather fond memories of particular “anime” games prior to playing SoTS. Key of which is undoubtably the LUNAR series that I have previously visited, but there were also quite a few others that were on the radar, so to speak, in the 1990s. I particularly remember being intrigued by the Ranma 1/2 beat-em-up being on the Super Nintendo (the game actually got me into the series), and prior to the explosion of popularity of JRPGs thanks to Final Fantasy VII there was very much a budding of “anime” games that had not be completely subjected to the bastardization of localization.
While games such as Ghost in the Shell saw shelf releases in game stores, other “anime” games like MixxZine’s Graduation was left to mail or web order only. Keep in mind the internet for most of the general populace well into the era leading towards Y2K was still a very new thing. Myself personally my family did not get a personal computer that could connect on-line in-home until 1997. Not only did that mean many trips to the library, but also having to be weary of a fandom in public that many people in this time period simply did not understand (and to a degree still don’t).
I know; I really need to get back on track about SoTS.
So what does all of this have to do about SoTS? I actually learned about SoTS by accident. I was a frequent visitor of the Anime Web Turnpike back in it’s early days of 1996/97. For those that knew AniPike they likely similarly have as fond memories of it as they do similar nostalgia. For those that don’t know, AniPike was THE place to go to in the mid-90s for most anything anime and manga related prior to common search engines. Founder Jay Fulber Harvey would often personally scour or take in various anime-themed links across the web. This meant diving head first into the world of web rings and other hodge-podged fandom machines that served the English-speaking anime fandom world.
Being a fan of anime or manga anything in this time period was difficult. Unless you lived on either the West or East coast you were effectively at the mercy of shelf items and any musings in magazines (Animerica was a popular English language anime/manga magazine during the time). Nowadays so many series and IPs release that it’s difficult to keep up with them, but during this time period most everything was very recognizable. And if it wasn’t you FOR SURE would be told what you were looking at. There was no “What’s the sauce?”, Oh no; people were all about touting that obscure series character they found by diving into some real depths of the English anime fandom. I remember when I first came across Initial D through the AniPike back in 1998, four years prior to it’s official English release by TokyoPop, and was amazed anime could go as far as a series about “power sliding” (what the English world knew as “drifting”, well before we knew what drifting was).
It was ultimately through the AniPike that I learned of SoTS. Again, I stumbled upon it really by accident. I had just started to learn about Rayearth (notice in the prior image of AniPike it was a popular series even in ’97, as the only thing we had state side at the time was the manga thanks to MixxZine which spurred interest) and a site I came across spoke briefly of SoTS. The three “main” female leads were spitting images of the Rayearth heroines, and the game was like if you were interacting with them.
I was intrigued.
So I managed to track down who the English publisher was of SoTS, JAST USA. JAST USA is effectively the English speaking arm of JAST ltd, a Japanese eroge (adult visual novel) publisher, and published a lot of circa time period titles, not only from JAST from also other eroge creators. JAST ltd itself formed in 1985, and eventually went under in 2001; JAST USA still exists along with some genre-oriented companies it subsequently spawned.
SoTS itself was created by Tiare, a rather small eroge company that existed for roughly five years in the later 1990s. Many eroge companies during this time came and went, or eventually assimilated into other companies. Eroge itself is worthy of a VERY long thesis, but to try and get to the gist of it eroge basically served as a vessel to tell an original story through a visual novel that often – although not always – utilized adult themes. In the 1980s and even to the point of SoTS many of these games were DOS format or similar sort of hardware, primarily made up of fantasy or sci-fi themes & genres. Most of the time the visuals were what would ultimately ‘sell’ the game, but as many more of these games were made a lot of companies made attempts to try and carry legitimate and intriguing stories.
I’ve spoken about some of the influences ’90s Japanese visual novels and dating sims like Tokimeki Memorial had on games, but around the ’90s a lot of visual novels started to shift focus on school-life/slice-of-life genres and more modern settings in Japan, rather than the more fantasy and sci-fi -esque genres prior. A shift in both genre focus and more quality story telling meant these sort of slice-of-life titles were in very prime real estate for the visual novel gaming format. Arguably Tokimeki Memorial was a very large player in this regard, and I believe no doubt games like it influenced SoTS’s genre and setting and similar games going forward. Nowadays many visual novels actually establish IPs, and many go on to have all sorts of various properties spawn from them including anime, manga, and various character goods.
The icing on SoTS’s cake in particular, and this possibly factors into it’s ‘product of the time’ sense, comes that nearly every character in the game is based off of circa 1995/96 popular characters. In addition to the three Rayearth heroines being parodied a lot of the other characters are based off characters from Neon Genesis Evangelion, the magical girl series Saint Tail, and even Tenchi Muyo. This was what individuals that have played SoTS likely remember most about it, with not only looks of the character’s parodied but even their demeanor and mannerisms. I’m certain a game of this sort probably could not get away with doing this in 2019.
Okay. So let’s FINALLY talk about SoTS.
The story is about Shuji Yamagami, a first year at Kotobuki Prep School. His backstory is the atypical MC (main character) life likely a lot of fans of anime and manga are accustomed to; new school, relatively oblivious to others but somehow immediately popular, and also somehow good at everything he does. He’s not silent at least, but JAST USA’s dialogue sometimes makes him a fairly shallow character even with ample menu and dialogue choices.
The narrative and game itself is truly is a mixed bag, leaning more on a mix of positives. I do recognize it’s very difficult to speak of it with the nostalgia it carries. I will say the game does have some considerable narrative flaws. Under localization efforts, JAST USA had to bump all the character’s ages up two years (some of the characters are twenty years old in the English release), which playing it now really suspends the player into some relative disbelief knowing how Japanese schools work. In hindsight I don’t understand why JAST USA didn’t simply state everyone was eighteen, and then rework the story accordingly (particularly instead of some characters in other grades they could have simply been in other classes). Kotobuki’s setting is described as being a sort of prep school, which I guess you could say is like the equivalent of a cram school, but it’s not actually a cram school at all. The dialogue really does try to hide all notions of this being a Japanese high school of any sort, despite it very obviously being a Japanese high school. The most glaring narrative issue that strangely enough was never resolved is the very first line of inner monologue spoken in game by Shuji states that he is “sixteen years old;” immediately at game start! There’s also some trailing off points, such as an arcade scene that introduces a character that is never seen again nor has any actual relevance to any of the routes.
Pacing of the game is a bit slow but anyone familiar with the classic point-and-click or similar adventure titles will be familiar with the game’s interface. Players are presented with various options including ‘think,’ ‘talk,’ ‘look,’ or similar and then sub menus based on who or what is present in the room themselves. Most of the scenes require the player to simply click through all the menus to hit all the dialogue points to proceed. However some key “flag” moments in-game make you have to stop or proceed a VERY particular way in the selection tree; I still to this day cannot get to the Ruri route on my own.
The game does proceed in a almost atypical Japanese school life progression, and honestly for the time this was novel since I’d imagine a lot of US players were, relatively speaking, ignorant as to how Japanese high schools function. You get the typical class session interface, deal with clubs, festivals, trips, all the tropes and the like similar to any school life anime nowadays expunges. They’re unfortunately very static. Unlike say Tokimeki Memorial where some events had mini-games SoTS’s events are just text and static pictures; no sort of real player interaction other than menus. Unfortunate, but rather atypical of visual novels.
The longer routes really do divulge into most all of the Japanese High School tropes that everyone is acquainted to. The culmination of it all comes in the large Sakura tree on campus, which for most of the characters becomes their confession points. Most of the routes ‘end’ here, although some trail off or, again, end VERY early in the game.
One feature that has really stuck with players and since been cited as a relative positive is the sexual content. It’s actually very decent, and is still pretty decent even compared to modern eroge efforts.
Unlike most visual novels that often tease or present some sort of sexual content throughout a particular character’s route, SoTS saves all this progression for one ‘scene’. Literally the sex scenes are like the ‘end game’ for whatever route you’re on. Some routes occur early within the game – Shoko for example, whose route is easy to finish – requiring a more thorough play through. However most of the characters’ routes don’t conclude until well over fifteen to twenty hours of play, requiring strategic saves so you don’t have to play the entirety of the game each time to finish every route. And they’re all very vanilla; so much vanilla, that SoTS sucks all the vanilla frosting (hur hur) out of stock. I’m certain this must be by choice. Most doujinshi (fan made derivative works, typically manga) feature known characters in rather… compromising situations and genres. Since SoTS’s characters parodied a lot of well-known characters Tiare likely realized a lot of players would want to see these characters in overly lovey-dovey situations.
I’ve played through the game quite a handful of times, not obtaining all routes but strategically saving to get the majority of the routes. Unlike later titles that often unlock content once a route is finished, none of that exists in SoTS sans a ‘memory’ option. When you complete a character’s route you’re allowed to revisit the final scene between the particular character and the MC. No narrative changes or similar revisiting occurs though, so ultimately everything comes down to strategic saves and hitting the right ‘flags’.
One great thing JAST USA has recently done is allow everyone to enjoy their classic titles through your browser. In association with The Asenheim Project, you can now play SoTS and many circa JAST titles (they STILL have not corrected Shuji’s first dialogue line to himself…).
If you have only played visual novels recently you likely have never played SoTS, and it’s a good enough effort in the eroge genres that it at the least warrants one good play through, not only to enjoy a good visual novel of the time period but also simply to enjoy what is a decent effort at these type games.