NOTE: THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS A STAFF WRITER AT THE NOW DEFUNCT SPLITKICK.COM
REVIEWED BY JEFF CONOLLY ON 3DS
Kaz Ayabe is known in Japan for making a game series called My Summer Vacation that never made it to the West, and it’s a damn shame. His games are unique, officially classified by the likes of Wikipedia as in the “adventure” genre, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. What’s incredible about Attack of the Friday Monsters is that it’s entirely driven forward by the charm of its characters and the beauty of its world, with very minimal game mechanics.
This crazy romp was originally released in Japan as part of a three pack of small games, but is now available as a standalone download on the 3DS eshop. It deals with monsters, aliens, dry cleaning, trading card games, making small children your servants, and super heroes. It’s weird.
I’ll be honest, there’s a bit of a cultural disconnect here. Some of the humor feels more misplaced than funny and I set my 3DS down several times in confusion at just how bizarre it was. That said, there is a Western aesthetic that this game fits into. As uncanny and Japan-based as it is, it’s sort of a videogame version of The Goonies or Super 8.
The game starts by giving a small history lesson about Japanese culture in the 70s. All you need to know is that the whole giant monster thing was so cool at the time that there would be weekly TV shows where a giant superhero would fight these behemoths. Considering my childhood was full of Power Rangers, I was prepped for this concept. You’re Sohta: ten years old, a dry cleaner’s son, and new in town. Like many of the aforementioned kid adventure flicks, the thrust of this is a mystery. This city seems to have real monsters every Friday, but where do they go or come from? Who is this weird guy in a suit that says such strange things? Did the guy who runs the noodle restaurant really name his son Ramen?
This game is exploring and conversing with little else. There is a collectible trading card game that beautifully hits the super simple but hard to master sweet spot (it’s literally rock, paper, scissors), but even that is mostly optional. You only are required to play it once to advance the story. The rest of the time you walk around talking to your friends or collecting randomly placed glims (similar looking to what enemies drop in Kingdom Hearts) that turn into monster cards when you get eight of the same color.
If you do choose to invest in the monster card game, there is a lot of fun to be had. If you beat one of your friends, they become your servant and have to fall down randomly whenever you say so. Servants also will give you helpful hints as to what you’re supposed to do next. Sadly, while the card game is great and addictive, the opponents are pretty limited. Also without the risk/reward of playing for ante, à la Triple Triad, there’s very little reason to play an opponent after you’ve already beat them. However, for a mini game in a six hour experience, it’s pretty damn robust and it’s hard to complain too much.
Frustratingly, the “episodes” system that drives the narrative forward was really confusing at first. It perhaps would have been better translated as “missions”, but maybe they were being clever about the TV show thing? It’s misleading, because they’re finished out of order (with some early episodes not able to be finished until after the credits and others introduced and completed almost instantly). Sometimes there would be a map indicator of a particular episode number to help you along, sometimes there wouldn’t be. I spent my first hour of play not willing to just freely let myself go and explore because I was worried that I was missing what I was supposed to be doing with a particular episode.
Those issues aside, Attack of the Friday Monsters is wonderful and endearing. It won’t be the best game you’ll play all year, but it will be the only game you play like it. Also, unless you learn Japanese, it’s the only way right now to get Ayabe’s unique development aesthetic. It’s a bit like only getting to experience a film director by watching one of his experimental shorts, but you have to work with what you get. Here’s hoping either more of his games start getting ported or I learn how to do more than count to five in Japanese.