Put a little love in your heart
I came into gaming in a time when Japan was king. All the biggest and best games created in the ’80s and ’90s came from development studios and publishers operating across the Pacific. This is back in a time when Mega Man was a top-tier franchise for Capcom, and Konami hadn’t yet discovered pachinko machines.
And yet despite Japan’s near-complete domination of the industry, there are many games from the era that have existed only as folklore to those of us in the west. These unlocalized titles, supposed gems that “western audiences just wouldn’t understand,” became the stuff of legend to the dweebs and geeks of the time who hit up gaming chatrooms on AOL.
We didn’t have Xseed or NIS America or any of these other small publishers that cater to the whims of niche audiences the way we do now. We had to make do with what was given to us and daydream about what wasn’t. And there is no game I daydreamed more about than Moon: Remix RPG Adventure. This game has been such a long time coming, I knew I shouldn’t do this review alone. So I asked Adzuken to help me see if this un-RPG was worth the love I had given it from afar for so many years.
Developer: Love-de-Lic, Onion Games
Publisher: Onion Games
Released: August 27, 2020
CJ: I’m really stoked to be doing a co-op review on this game with you, Adzuken. Both of us are fans of quirky games, and Yoshiro Kimura of Onion Games has been doing nothing but bringing us the quirk his entire career. He’s the mind behind Dandy Dungeon, Million Onion Hotel, and Little King’s Story, and he served as the producer of the first two No More Heroes games. I love his work, though two of his titles have always eluded me: Chulip, the PlayStation 2 non-best-selling game, and the one that started him down the career path he’s been on since the mid-’90s, Moon: Remix RPG Adventure.
Given my experience with his work, and how I adore his humor and off-kilter sensibilities, I thought I was ready for what this game would throw at me. But three hours into Moon, as it’s known as for this Switch port, I was at a loss. Whatever expectations I had went right out the window because at every turn, I find this game subverting my expectations like it’s goddamn Rian Johnson.
Adzuken: I’ve always known that Moon was required reading for me. In another community I was previously part of, the members spoke in reverence of Love-de-lic’s small but impressive library of games. Chulip and Chibi-Robo, two games that resulted from the splintering of that venerable studio, are among my absolute favourite titles. I knew that someday, somehow, I would play Moon. I’m just glad I finally got the opportunity.
On the other hand, I had no idea what Moon was about, either. I had intentionally kept myself in the dark about its finer details, so like many people, I had mistakenly believed it actually was an RPG. It’s not. It’s clearly an adventure game having more similarities to Secret of Monkey Island than it has to Final Fantasy.
Really, though, I feel the best way to describe it for North American audiences is that it’s Chulip, but five years earlier. Of course, that doesn’t help someone like yourself. Did you really miss out on Chulip?
CJ: I’m sure that description is very helpful to the 14 people who played Chulip on our continent. But you’re right, it should be made clear that this is an adventure game, one that plays very similar to those classic Sierra and LucasArts titles. There are a lot of items here to collect, some of which you carry for hours until you discover their singular purpose. I know I watched the credits roll with a whole assortment of key objects that went unused.
Now, depending on which adventure titles from the late ’80s/early 90’s you were playing, chances are they leaned hard into humor. From the very beginning, Moon went to town on my funny bone with its over-the-top parody of JRPGs from the era. The basis of the plot here is you’re a kid playing this sword-and-magic role-playing game who has to turn it off before he beats it and is sucked into the game world. Nobody can see you at first, but you make your way toward a cottage in the woods where an old woman lives. She recognizes you as her grandson who everyone thought was dead and gives you a set of his clothes to wear, but everyone else in the world just sees some floating clothes walking across the land. Very quickly, you’re introduced to who may be the antagonist of this game, the knight who you were playing as in the JRPG opening. It’s at this point where I also experienced my first Game Over screen because I ran out of time.
Adzuken: I got that, too, because I didn’t understand the clock at first. There’s a translated manual online that may have helped prevent this tragedy, but I didn’t read it. Don’t be like me, children. Thankfully, it was one of the few deaths I encountered in the game.
The primary goal of the game is to help the residents of Moonworld with problems big and small while also cleaning up after the “hero” who stomps across the countryside, stealing lingerie and relentlessly killing animals. Through doing so, you gather love, which powers up your character so they can go longer without dying of fatigue.
This is where the whole “Remix RPG” moniker comes in; you’re essentially playing the same game as the one that teased you in the beginning but from a different perspective. The hero is still off to kill the evil dragon, but as a bystander, you can tell what a jerk he really is. You see parallels to what you did in the opening teaser, but they’re twisted to make the hero look unhinged. It’s really just a satire on the standard RPG stereotypes that were built up in Japan over the previous console eras and strangely continue to this day.
CJ: You know, with so many titles these days poking fun at the stereotypes of their genre, only to then immediately engage in such stereotypes, it’s nice to have a game that doesn’t fall into such trappings. Had this been an actual RPG, the messaging here would have ultimately been drowned out by the grinding and the battles and the boss encounters with five phases that you have to hit 300 times at 9999 damage just to kill.
As an adventure game set in an RPG world, however, it doesn’t have to worry about all that nonsense and can focus on the aspects both genres have in common, like memorable characters. I’ve played many a JRPG with townsfolk that have burrowed their way into my memory, but I don’t think I’ve met a cast quite as eclectic as this. I’ve certainly never worked to convince a strange alien with Pippi Longstocking hair that they were God, convinced a bird to go back to college, or purposely set myself on fire to save a little girl’s pet monster. Despite what issues I may have with the gameplay, which we’ll touch on, I enjoyed every moment I spent with the citizens of this land.
I also enjoyed the art direction very much because it is a rarity to get a game that looks like this in our modern console era. These visuals were en vogue for a very short time as developers made the transition from 2D to 3D graphics. This stylized look allows Moon to exist on this weird plane where everything you’re looking at can go from sweet and innocent to deeply disturbing in a matter of seconds, particularly with the design of these monsters you’re saving. Because the many corpses you come across don’t always prepare you for what their spirit looks like.
Adzuken: This appears to be the first place we disagree. I really didn’t like the art style. Certain aspects, like the character design, hold up well, but there’s this extreme lack of cohesion to everything. The animals have the look of clay to them, but the characters look like they’re drawn with pencil crayons, while the backgrounds are comprised of 3D models made into 2D sprites, like Donkey Kong Country. It’s like it was stitched together from a bunch of different unrelated assets.
Where I do find it aesthetically pleasing is with the soundtrack. Did you buy every MD? As soon as I learned to make money easily, I dropped it all on filling out my library. Rather than playing zone-specific background music, you build your soundtrack out of a wide variety of tracks you pick up from various places. I wound up creating an eccentric mix of psychedelic, atmospheric, or just weird music. I was particularly fond of “Waiting for the Night” and “Kera-Ma-Go.” I called the mix my “moon juice.”
CJ: I am so glad you brought up the music because it’s so damn good. The composition of the original songs you can buy may, in fact, be the best thing about the entire package. As the kids say, these songs slap, though I wish the tunes playing from my record collection would supersede the background music of the game world. As much of a fan as I am of Debussy, I didn’t need his most well-known track interrupting my playlist of “Madamcar Crash” and “I’m Waiting for Night.”
It’s interesting to hear you didn’t care for the visuals, and now I’m curious about your overall thoughts on the game. I did enjoy most of my journey through this strange, almost Wonderland-like world, especially once I figured out the key to actually progressing through it. Because Moon is pretty open-ended: it’ll tell you to go one way, but you’re free to go in any direction you want. It took me a bit too long to realize that if I wanted to see this thing through to the end, I would have pay attention and make notes about several of the inhabitants here as they often led me right to the information I needed. I should have seen this earlier given my experience with following around potential brides in Story of Seasons games.
Some of the puzzles do lean toward more obtuse solutions. The “Caviar Puzzle,” for instance, is one with a solution that kinda, sorta makes sense in hindsight. However, with caviar existing in a different part of this world, it led to a lot of wasted time trying for a solution that doesn’t exist. Once the full realization that is an adventure game hit me, I was prepared for those more questionable puzzle solutions. In truth, I didn’t find every bit of love because there were some solutions I just couldn’t figure out.
There are also some hearts I didn’t get because I got tired of dealing with waiting and chance. A perfect example of that is the fishing mini-game, which you can only play on a certain day of the week. We already mentioned that Moon has a time system that’s tied to your character’s level — and don’t worry, it’ll rarely matter after you level up a few times — but it also has a day and night cycle and a weekly schedule to keep track of. Some events only happen at a certain time of day for just a few seconds, others on a certain day of the week, and honestly, as I neared the point where I could successfully finish the game, I just grew tired of waiting.
Adzuken: That leads gracefully into my second point of contention with the game, and an issue it shares with Chulip: it really has no consideration for your time. There are, as you said, a lot of puzzles that just require you to wait for something to happen. There are a lot of times where solving something requires you to follow a character through their daily routine to find the one moment where they let their guard down and reveal themselves. There are even times where a journey plays out in real-time, and you have to watch it for the full day-and-a-half (or longer) it takes to complete. It’s insistent on wasting your time, and ruthless if you miss an opportunity.
I was pretty intent on completing the game without resorting to any sort of outside help, and to its credit, I was successful. This did lead to a lot of spinning my tires, but Moon is generous with its hints if you’re willing to look. I wound up asking that purple bird about basically everything in my inventory, but I still never found a use for the magnifying glass. In the end, I rescued every animal, mostly because I fell back on those puzzles whenever I was stuck with something else, but I didn’t get everyone’s love.
I think I kind of went into Moon with the wrong mindset. I went in with a reverence for Chibi-Robo and Chulip, knowing that this game was the original expression of their design philosophy: forget killing everything, let’s make everyone happy. However, I soon realized this game is that philosophy boiled down to its core element. It’s not as well-realized as those later games.
Chibi-Robo is deeper, more dynamic, and more fun to play. Chulip covers more important themes and has more interesting characters. Heck, even The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask does a better job of having you learn the characters’ daily routines and rewarding you for helping them with their adult problems.
I guess I’m circling back to my first point: Moon was simply necessary for me to play. It gives me perspective on those later games that I love. It has shown me the absolute origin point for a philosophy I cherish in video games. But while it still contains everything I love about those games, it hasn’t had the opportunity to take that core idea and grow. If this was 1997 and it was the first time I laid eyes on a game like it, I’d probably be calling its name from the rooftops. As it stands, I love the game itself more than I enjoyed playing it. And that hurts me deeply to say.
CJ: You do make a very good point about the developers who have their roots in Moon. It’s easy to see how much better they’ve all become at creating experiences with strong design foundations that don’t lose the spirit of those Love-de-Lic games. When you look at the three titles Onion Games has developed for mobile and Switch, you still see the same peculiar characters and narratives, but they’re coupled with strong gameplay mechanics.
And because of that, every other Onion Games title has been an easy recommendation. They’re all pretty damn brilliant. Moon, unfortunately, is the only one that gives me pause. I know this is a port of a 23-year-old game, and one could argue that it’s unfair to judge an old game by modern standards. But as a counterpoint to what you wrote, I actually think the passage of time is allowing me to critique it in a more hospitable light.
I wasn’t mature enough back in the ’90s to give a game like this a shot just as I wasn’t mature enough to play through EarthBound or Harvest Moon. I am today. I think both of us recognize that several design choices found within Moon don’t stand up to modern critique and would have been questionably acceptable back in the ’90s. And while we have differing opinions on the art direction, there is a level of heart and soul here that is unignorable.
Every time Moon would lose me with its constant waiting around or head-scratching puzzle solutions, it would win me back with its humor, characters, writing, and music. This is a game that exudes joy, and while I wasn’t always having fun playing it, I am grateful that I at least got the chance to experience it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]