Revisiting Chulip because I love it and no one can come between us
I’m going to be honest with you, the advice I usually give people who are looking to give Chulip a try is to make sure you have something nearby to read. Chulip is an unfriendly game, and among its unfriendly features is a nasty little habit of wasting your time. Trains, for example, are used to carry you to all the different locations, but they run on a strict schedule. Miss the last train and, well, that’s what the reading material is for.
While I know I’m not exactly selling the game here, I’m sincere when I say I wouldn’t change a thing. On the surface, Chulip tantalizes with its weirdness. A game about kissing more or less sums it up. But beneath its unique and charming concept is a title that pulls no punches when it comes to addressing the crushing reality of everyday mundanity.
In Chulip, you play as the new boy in town. Impoverished, your arrival is the hottest topic for gossip. But before you can get around to pulling poop from the trash can, you fall in love with one of the girls in town who refuses to kiss you because your reputation stinks. The only way to improve it: rampant promiscuity. You need to accumulate kisses to be recognized as a valuable member of society, and everyone is a target.
They won’t just pucker up if you wash your face and apply lip balm, however. First you need to help them with their problems, and while many of the underground inhabitants just want to see you eat eggplant or walk past their field of vision a million times, the townsfolk all have extremely mundane problems wrapped in a very surreal shell.
Take, for example, the woman who literally bottles up her emotion. You help her by giving her another outlet. There’s an old director well past his heyday who cries on the corner when he’s not being verbally abused by his long-suffering wife or selling baked yams. Or the musician who hates being looked down on for being poor but can’t stand selling his soul out to a corporation in return for a real job. Maybe drop in to see the doctor who can’t get the medication for his insomnia right, just don’t stop by past 1:30pm or he’ll drain you of your blood.
Chulip belongs to a weird, loosely defined subset of games that include The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Deadly Premonition, and Chibi-Robo. These are all games that have a heavy focus on helping people with their mundane adult problems in order to power up for whatever happens in the main game. Even more modern titles like the Yakuza series push you to help people buy pornography and satisfy their kinks to gain helpful bonuses. Chulip is like those games if there was no other goal to it beyond helping people.
Mundanity in these games tends to serve as an anchor point, keeping them grounded regardless of how weird or dramatic their main stories may be. Majora’s Mask gained narrative depth as you assisted people who were staring death in the face. Deadly Premonition gained a sense of personality as the town of Greenvale felt like a living place. In Chibi-Robo, it’s a source of progression as you collect happy points. For Yakuza, it’s a major distraction and largely the reason it takes me almost a year to get through one of its titles, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Chulip is that entirely. The humdrum is baked into its core. Technically, its mechanics make it something of a spiritual successor to Moon: Remix RPG, but where that game presented a twisted depiction of a JRPG world, Chulip prefers to twist reality. It has a lot to say about individuality, tradition, the frustrations of life, and the complexities of love and heartbreak.
Sure, it’s weird. From a disc-faced train station attendant to a bizarre clockwork police officer, Chulip is steeped in surreality. It’s just always sure to take a moment to remind you of the beautiful things in life. Like having afternoon tea with a lion statue man or having after midnight tea with his zombified high school sweetheart in the graveyard. There are late-night movies and walks through the countryside. There’s waiting on a bench for the train and more waiting on a bench for the train because you missed it again.
Even the main story, which centers around recovering a fancy writing set so you can pen a love letter to your sweetheart, involves dealing with a lot of boring adult problems. One section in particular has you navigating the soul-sucking lifestyle of a faceless work drone in a monolithic industrial complex. Yeah, you have to get a job and work to get promoted. It doesn’t get much more mundane.
I’ll argue until my dying breath that Chulip is a special game deserving of attention. The reality is that it isn’t for everyone, and I recognize that. It really likes to kill the player for basically no reason. A failed kiss knocks hearts off your health meter, and it’s impossible to tell how much damage you’ll take. Even when you’re not trying to non-consensually kiss everyone, you can be killed by playground equipment, poop from the garbage can, or just bad tea. As you level up, you’re given a longer health meter which makes things a bit easier, but getting there may have you pulling your hair out.
The puzzles can be ridiculously obtuse, as well. The North American instruction manual actually comes with a full walkthrough in case you get stuck, and you probably will get stuck. Between figuring out the correct sequence of shinkansen stops across Japan and realizing the eggplant-headed guy wants to see you eat eggplant, some of the puzzles are just…not puzzles at all. It’s weird adventure game logic that expects you to be insane in just the right way.
These are the sorts of problems that some people immediately balk at, whereas I just tilt my head affectionately and say, “That’s my Chulip!”
Chulip tickles every single one of my fancies. Its bizarre take on the modern world, its layered narrative effectively about maturing through promiscuity, its captivating cast of characters; it exudes personality from places better not mentioned and manages to be emotionally touching at the same time.
It wasn’t well received at its launch, having originally been released in Japan in 2002 and only reaching Western shores in 2007 with a rather sketchy translation. Even today when I bring it up, people like to pee on my parade and tell me what a horrible encounter they had with it. That doesn’t matter to me. I love it with everything I’ve got and I promise never to shut up about it. You just don’t understand what Chulip and I have between us.
Chulip is still available for purchase on the PS3 store, and Onion Games is currently looking into the possibility of re-releasing it (hopefully with an updated translation). If you get the chance and haven’t already, I definitely recommend you pucker up. Just keep your expectations in check when you go in for the kiss or you may end up feeling a sting on your cheek.