The Starship Damrey

“This game contains no tutorials or explanations. Part of the experience is to discover things for yourself” Disclaimer before starting The Starship Damrey.

The last time I looked at the GUILD series was to wax lyrical about Attack of the Friday Monsters, a game I thought would never have been made in the way it was were it not for the funding and support of Level-5. With their help, creator Kaz Ayabe was able to create a game that he wanted to, and it was a near-unqualified success. But while that game exemplifies the highs of the GUILD experiment, The Starship Damrey shows that not all projects of this nature are created equal.

The start of the game shows a lot of promise, because of the disclaimer quoted above. For those not in the know, The Starship Damrey is a horror-adventure game, and starting one of those by promising the ultimate obscurity is a really good beginning. Here, you might think, is the start of another small, creatively-fulfilling premise. Sadly, this is not to be the case. The game opens with the main character awake in a cryo-stasis pod, with a few simple commands at your service; you can turn on and off the lights, unsuccessfully attempt to open the hatch, and boot up the computer. Within the first few seconds of booting up the computer, the game tells you exactly how to do boot-up system works. An inconsistent follow-through on its own premise will become a crucial theme of the game’s failure.

Eventually, through the computer you’re able to take control of a robot to guide you through the ship. Controlling the robot is similar to an old-school dungeon crawler; you can turn in four directions and go forward or back. The problem, of course, is that this style of gameplay is pretty outdated for a reason; it’s slow and clunky and the robot’s lethargic turn cycle does little to aid this.

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The game is filled with “spooky” darkened rooms and corridors, and so the robot’s field of view is further constrained by the tiny torch light you’re given. Exploration of the surrounding area is encouraged, because you’re asked to both find items scattered on the ground, as well as exterminate “space leeches”, tiny sprites that litter the floors and walls. In order to free the robot’s view, you have to press the A button, then move the D-pad around while standing still. Halfway through the game, I realised that pressing the A button was an unnecessary step because simply moving the analogue stick would do the job for you, but because the game “contains no explanations or tutorials”, I was stuck playing it in a slightly tedious way. It’s not a game changer, but instead just a way in which the premise turns into an annoyance rather than a cool feature. When the game can’t teach you its own mechanics through gameplay, sometimes a tutorial is useful.

Tedium is an annoyingly common feature of The Starship Damrey, and to illustrate that, let’s look at two of its puzzles. The first is probably the cleverest puzzle in the game; there’s a robot blocking your way and attacking you, and you have to find some way to stop it. Looking in the game’s database you can find information that robots can’t handle temperatures over 200 degrees, so you figure you have to find something that will be hot enough to disable your robo-assaulter. While doing some exploring you find an empty cookie jar, and will hopefully figure out that by putting the oil you found earlier in there and heating it up on the hotplate in the common room, you’ll have a perfect weapon. I’m being nice here and assuming that you remember both the oil and the hotplate, and don’t have to go searching through every room before you figure out the solution. Either way, you first head down through the elevator to the oil tap. Then, you place the jar under the tap and fill it with oil. After leaving the room and heading back up to the second level, you realise that you didn’t take the oil jar with you; the game has a nasty habit of requiring you to examine objects multiple times before being allowed to interact with them, so you forgot that the oil tap had to be examined again before you could remove the jar. After traipsing all the way back to the oil tap, then back again to the second floor, then finally to the hot plate, you have to watch a stupidly long heating-up process before you have the hot oil weapon of your desires. And that’s the good puzzle.

The puzzle directly after this requires you to remove a pile of debris that’s blocking your way to the next room. In the nearby lab, you find an assortment of chemicals, and in the doctor’s study you find a recipe for an explosive mixture. Of course, in a sensible game, you’d have enough inventory space to carry all the necessary chemicals to the debris, then create the explosion there. But no, the robots on the good Starship Damrey are only capable of holding one item in their claws, meaning you have to slowly trundle from the lab to the debris three times before you can create the explosion. Unlike the previous puzzle, this one is as simple as they come, but it’s made needlessly tedious. What’s more, it highlights just how obnoxious only being able to hold one item at a time is. Not only does this simplify the puzzles and mean they can only be designed in a linear fashion; it also causes situations like the one described above. Those two are extreme examples, but the game isn’t long enough to let them become forgettable distractions. It’s a shame that some smart and some simple puzzles are bogged down by poorly streamlined game design to the point of frustration.

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However, the imaginary defender of this game (I say imaginary because of the handful of people who actually played this game, I can’t think of any of them getting much out of it), might argue that the puzzles in the game are merely a conduit to the interesting and atmospheric story. I sympathise with this view to an extent; I’ve forgiven poor gameplay for a great story in the past, and had this game had a story worth experiencing, I might still have recommended it.

Sadly, that is not the case. The atmosphere of this game is as generic sci-fi horror as it comes – a dark and abandoned spaceship with dead crew strewn around the floor and a little girl hologram randomly appearing for the odd jump-scare. The scariest thing in the game is the sound that the space leeches make when you go near them, which is a bizarre and unexpected static-like screech. But the one weird sound doesn’t excuse the design of every corridor, robot and alien, which are all as stock as they come. The ship is comprised of endless grey corridors and big empty grey rooms; the robots are simple designs that could be in any sci-fi game, and the alien has literal glowing red eyes and a simple grey humanoid design. There’s so much fucking grey in this game.

As for the story, it’s remarkably obtuse until after the credits, when all is revealed. I’ll put a spoiler warning here for anyone seriously wanting to play this game, but for those who have been put off by my ranting; the game’s overarching mission is to free yourself from the pod you’re trapped in, as well as work out what’s happened to all of the crew members. The answer is amazingly boring; you’ve kidnapped three aliens in order to research them, and they ended up killing the crew. It’s not exactly 2001 (although the game does throw in a cheeky reference to that film). In the post credits stinger, it’s revealed that you aren’t a person in the pod, but one of the aliens, and that you’ve basically freed yourself in order to bring havoc to humanity or something. That twist is alright, but it’s awfully clued – there’s nothing to suggest that more than one alien was ever on board until the game tells you in the end. So while it may be shocking, it’s not satisfying.

Mercifully, the full game takes under 3 hours to complete, meaning you don’t have to spend more time than necessary in the Starship Damrey. It’s a shame that not every project would work out as well as Friday Monsters, but I think Damrey shows the limits of GUILD as much as Friday Monsters shows the strengths. Although the game has a bigger budget than it might have been awarded otherwise, it’s spent here on pointless cutscenes, rather than making the ship an interesting place to explore. And while a small-scale game can focus on interesting gameplay concepts that might not get funding elsewhere, like a game without tutorials, or an inventory, that doesn’t mean those ideas are worth pursuing. The Starship Damrey is an odd game in the GUILD series, because it feels as experimental as it is rote. However, with it out of the way, we’re free to explore the games that fall in between these levels of quality.

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Attack of the Friday Monsters

In the 1950s, the prospering Japanese film industry reinvented the “monster movie.” The giant monsters of the era were “kaiju” that often symbolized the effects of pollution, such as radiation and hydrogen bomb experiments.
In the 1960s and 70s, the “hero show” was born. Brave heroes challenged the kaiju on prime time television, and the entire nation tuned in.
The heroes were just as big as the monstrous kaiju, but they were more like friends to the children of Japan, or even a father that would protect them, no matter the sacrifices he had to make…
      – This text appears each time you start up Attack of the Friday Monsters

I first heard about Level-5’s Guild series through Official Nintendo Magazine, an old UK-based Nintendo publication that I subscribed to before it sadly shut down in 2014. The Guild series consisted of two 3DS games published by Level-5 that were a collection of small games made by different famous game directors. Although sold in a bundle in Japan, in the West, these games were released without the “Guild” tagline on the eShop. At first, the only game of this collection I bought was Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale. This is because of a certain phrase from the ONM review that stuck out to me; that the game made the reviewer ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’. Although I’ve long since lost my copy of that magazine and the website has been shut down for some time, that phrase and this game have occupied a part of my mind for quite a while now. And while I talked about this game in my list of my favourite 3DS games, I’ve wanted to expand not only on why I consider Friday Monsters such a treasure, but on the Guild series as a whole, and why it was such a worthwhile experiment. 

Attack of the Friday Monsters centres around a young boy named Sohta, who has recently moved to Fuji no Hana, a fictional small suburb of Tokyo. Every Friday, giant monsters supposedly fight in the fields near the town, and as such, the children are warned from wandering too far afield. As Sohta, you investigate the truth behind the monster attacks, as well as find out more about the other inhabitants of Fuji no Hana.

Gameplay as a whole is pretty simple, and mainly consists of running from objective marker to objective marker talking to people. Occasionally (and I really do mean occasionally, it’s only necessary at two points in the story), you have to play a card game against your friends. The game is called “Monster Cards”, and it’s a clever take on the rock-paper-scissors game — serving as a decent distraction from the main plot, and something to keep you coming back once the story is over. The catch is that the way you collect cards for playing Monster Cards is by finding “glims” scattered on the ground around Fuji no Hana. Collect 5 of the same type of glim and you get a Monster Card. At the start of the game, you are asked to run around collecting at least 20 glims, assuming you never pick up more than 5 of the same type. This could be excused as a way to familiarise players with the map, but given its small size and detailed map on the touchscreen, it comes across as tedious padding.

When the game starts, a small musical cut scene plays that near perfectly encapsulates much of what I love about Attack of the Friday Monsters. I’ve linked the opening scene above for you to see, but there are a few things in it I really want to highlight.

The first is the fact that there’s an opening scene at all, sung from the perspective of Sohta. Sohta is obsessed with the hero shows of early 1970s Japan, and often sees his life as mirroring one. That a day in his life has an opening theme tune, or that each of the tasks you have to complete in the game are referred to as ‘episodes’ is just a lovely bit of theming.

It’s also a bit of theming that ties into the main idea of the game; the confusing nature of childhood. In the lyrics of the opening song, Sohta mentions that “Both my Mom and Dad love me, I don’t really know why, what should I do?” This uncertainty of life as a child is present throughout the game. It’s not just in Sohta or any other characters’ relationships with their parents, it bleeds into everything, including the plot.

The main hook of the game is found in seeing whether or not the monsters really do come out on Friday. As a viewer, you see many clues telling you they don’t, such as a TV station that seems to be responsible for the evidence that might prove the existence of said monsters. But Sohta consistently fails to put two and two together. Even when he and his friends come close — such as realising the monster footprints have been dug by people, and finding that a sign believed to be in an alien language was just made by the father of one of Sohta’s friends — the kids still never doubt the existence of the monsters or aliens. It’s a lovely bit of childhood wonder, and by the end of the game the viewer is sucked into it as well, as events occur that seem unexplainable through ‘adult’ logic, and we are asked to simply accept them. Although the game starts by maintaining a relative distance between the player and the child characters by offering the the former rational explanations for what the children see as fantastical, by the end it has eased us into their perspective and asks us to suspend our disbelief as well. For me, it works perfectly.

This dramatic irony is also used in the child characters’ dialogue for the game’s lightly comedic moments. There’s nothing in this game that comes close to laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s meant to be gently amusing, and it mostly nails that feel. The dialogue for the children is pretty spot-on, although when the game attempts weightier dramatic moments, it occasionally veers too close to melodrama for comfort. Take, for example, the game’s bully character. He isn’t in the game for too long, but whenever he is, his storyline falls much too in-line with every bully stereotype, including Sohta literally asking him “You’re just lonely, aren’t you?” It’s a rare and disappointing step into stock tropes in a game that otherwise defies them in its strange storyline. The argument could be made that the childrens’ often stock personalities are calling back to the hero shows that the game is constantly referencing, but it manages to defy expectations in its adult characters and central plotline, so I don’t see why it can’t for the younger members of the cast.

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Returning quickly to the opening song, it also serves as an introduction to my favourite thing about this game; its unique and perfectly realised atmosphere. Here’s where the idea of ‘nostalgic for someone else’s childhood’ really comes into play; it’s not just that the game recreates what it’s like being a child that makes it impressive, it’s that the game recreates what it’s like being a child in 1970s suburban Tokyo.

The lot you have to explore is small and doesn’t change much or open up a lot during the game, but it’s quietly beautiful. All the backgrounds are hand-drawn, with the 3D character models placed on top of them; an effect that works surprisingly well, even if it’s a shame that the 3DS’ image quality sometimes stops this from looking as good as it could be. It also means that each screen on the game has a fixed camera angle à la Resident Evil, although it works better in this game given the slow moving nature of the gameplay.

Attack of the Friday Monsters makes use of its status as a videogame even outside of Monster Cards. Although much of what I’ve described of Friday Monsters’ strengths could come forth in a book or film, games as a whole are more immersive, and there’s something to be said for small atmospheric details — such as the radios playing in shops, or the train announcements that get quieter as you move away from the train station — that can only have the effect they have in a video game form. Additionally, even though the story is highly structured, the small moments of freedom that come from deciding in which order to complete optional episodes, or even which route to take to a point on the map all contribute to sucking you in to this act of tourism in someone else’s memories.

Attack of the Friday Monsters was created by Kaz Ayabe (born in 1965), who is best known otherwise for creating the Japan-only series Boku no Natusyasumi (lit. My Summer Holiday). These games have a similar gentle, holiday feel to them, but they are more open life-sims. Attack of the Friday Monsters is a much stranger game, and a much more personal game. For someone like me, this exemplifies the strengths of the Guild series. It gave creators a chance to make extremely personal projects with a big budget, not ever having to worry about anything except how to best bring to life their vision. Boku no Natusyasumi has 4 games in its series, whereas there will likely and hopefully never be an Attack of the Saturday Monsters. But therein lies its charm – Ayabe was allowed to make a game about the strange inconsistencies and confusing nature of childhood, all the while bringing the player into a slice of Japan that can no longer be experienced. It does indeed make me nostalgic for someone else’s childhood.