I Was a Pre-Teen Japanophile.
Gee, I bet you’d never have guessed that. Growing up as a video game-obsessed kid in suburban America, a lot of my favorite media was Japanese in origin. I didn’t really know this at first, but I knew there was something different about my favorite games; something about the art style that made them more appealing than that of western animation. Maybe it was the sharp features and the bright colors, or maybe it was because of my crush on the girls from Valis III when I was 5-years-old. ANYWAY…
I finally put two-and-two together around 1993 when EGM ran an article on the upcoming SNES fighter Ranma 1/2 Hard Battle. I thought the character designs were really unique and exciting. Mousse with his morningstar and duck-shaped training potty, Genma the giant panda, whatever the hell Pantyhose Taro was supposed to be, etc. Eventually my wish to know more about these weirdos led me to discover the Ranma anime series, and my adolescent obsession with all things Japanese began.
Anime and manga were pretty hard to come by in Kansas circa 1994. I had to take what I could get, which was mostly released by Viz and mostly expensive. With only a limited amount of spending money, unless I was renting something I often stuck with what I was familiar with, purchasing other comics by Ranma author Rumiko Takahashi. I fell in love with the bawdy interstellar antics of Urusei Yatsura, and terrified myself with the explicit gore of Mermaid’s Scar.
And then there was Maison Ikkoku, a comics series that obviously wasn’t aimed at a 10-year-old American boy. I didn’t fully understand it, but I still managed to enjoy it, much to the bafflement of my friends.
Running from 1980-1987, Maison Ikkoku (lit. “Living with Assholes”) is the story of depressed 20-year-old rōnin Yusaku Godai who, too embarrassed to go back home after failing his college entrance exam, moves into the eponymous boarding house in an effort to cram and re-do the test the following year. Ikkoku-kan is populated by an odd bunch of characters who constantly intrude on Godai’s life. Staying in Room 5, Godai is sandwiched between polite-and-formal pervert Mr Yotsuya in Room 4 and Room 6’s lackadaisical cocktail waitress Akemi Roppongi. Below them in Room 1 lives middle-aged lush Mrs. Ichinose along with her rarely-seen salaryman husband and their young son Kentarou. The tenants descend on Godai and invade his room, drinking and partying all night while he’s trying to study, and eating all of the food from the care packages his grandmother sends him. He’s not pleased about the situation, but he’s too much of a pushover to do anything about it.
Rounding out the residents is Ikkoku-kan’s beautiful caretaker Kyoko Otonashi, a young widow who Godai’s head-over-heels for. Although she obviously likes him too, he can’t seem to tell her how he feels. Kyoko is joined by her big Samoyed dog Mr. Soichiro, named after her late husband.
A fairly straight-laced romantic comedy, the unresolved romance between Godai and Kyoko serves as the crux of Maison Ikkoku’s story. Its characters, while often hysterical, are slightly more believable than those found in other popular manga of the time period. Their character designs reflect this, featuring none of the outrageous outfits or hair colors found in Takahashi’s other works in favour of contemporary 80s-style fashions.
This all sounds like a solid enough concept for a comic series, but it’d make for a pretty unlikely video game. Despite this, developer of obscure masterpieces Micro-Cabin rose to the challenge, creating a Maison Ikkoku ADV that was first released for Japanese PCs in 1987 before being ported to the NEC PC Engine and Nintendo Famicom in 1989. For the sake of my inadequate Japanese skills, we’ll be looking at the PC Engine version, which was fan-translated in 2008 by the lovely and talented duo of Matthew La France and David Shadoff.
Developer & Publisher: Micro-Cabin
Release Date: 4 August 1989
Format: PC Engine Hu-Card
Fan Translation: Matt La France & David Shadoff (Link to translation patch)
The game puts players in the position of Godai who, upon hearing that Kyoko has a secret photograph, immediately goes out of his way to take a look at it. The game leaves its concept in the instruction manual, choosing not to waste any time with exposition by dumping you unceremoniously in Room 5 with a menu of available actions. From here, you’ve virtually got free reign to explore Ikkoku-kan at your leisure. You can check in on the other tenants who are up to the sorts of things: Yotsuya is using a hole in Godai’s closet to peep on the scantly-clad Akemi while she sleeps, while Mrs. Ichinose is on the shakedown for a bottle of booze. Kyoko’s minding her own business in her room, Soichirou sleeps in his doghouse outside, accompanied by a listless Kentarou.
Notably, you can get a game over within the first ten seconds, by choosing for Godai to commit suicide by leaping from his window. Grim enough on its own, this is made all-the-more dark by the fact that the command “jump out” is top of the list in any room with an open window, or when out on the balcony or on top of the roof. Hang in there, Godai!
The first task is to be invited in to Kyoko’s room to take a look at her photograph, but this is easier said than done, as Godai’s housemates are sure to get in the way. A core tenet of Maison Ikkoku is the fact that you have to constantly bribe Godai’s housemates in order to get anything done, or suffer the consequences. Often these are rather benign, such as Ichinose refusing to leave you alone with Kyoko, while other instances can be game-ending, such as being locked on the balcony or stranded on the roof by an irate Yotsuya. You can get these goons off your case by giving them any number of food items purchasable at the supermarket, or sake purchased at the ChaCha Maru bar.
Even after you’ve gotten everybody to leave you alone, you need to buy flowers to present to Kyoko for a chance to be invited in. All this purchasing is made more complicated by the fact that money is a finite resource in Maison Ikkoku. Reflecting Godai’s status as a poor student, he begins the game holding 5000 yen ($50/£30) with a few one-time loans available from his friends, and a fee received for tutoring Kyoko’s niece late in the game. The player is forced to carefully consider their purchases and gifts lest the game end up in an unwinnable state. Many of the items are expensive red herrings, and you’re best off just buying cheap ramen to bribe with.
Once you gain access to Kyoko’s room, your chance to steal the photo will be interrupted by Akemi requesting that Kyoko repair the bathroom door. And thus, the cycle repeats; bribe your housemates to leave you alone, give Kyoko flowers, and get kicked out by another coincidental inconvenience. This happens three more repetitive times, until you’re suddenly tasked with collecting photos of the other tenants to show Kyoko in order to get a look at hers. Naturally, the game only gives vague hints on how to achieve this.
Maison Ikkoku, unlike Oishinbo, cannot be brute-forced simply by interacting with everything. The game has a bit of a puzzle aspect that comes in to play when managing the needs of your fellow tenants, but the solutions are so poorly communicated that it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. It’s also quite easy to work yourself into an unwinnable state. For example, after going to visit Kozue and her family, Kyoko, in a fit of jealousy, will refuse to speak to Godai. She can be placated by returning her bra, which blew up on to the roof. That’s all well and good, unless Godai is goaded into visiting Kozue a second time; With no bra to give back, I couldn’t find a way to placate Kyoko, and had to use a 67 digit (!!) password to reload an earlier state.
Gameplay faults aside, the game’s graphics are attractive for a 1989 Hu-Card release, doing an admirable job of recreating Takahashi’s unique character designs in pixel form. The music is particularly lovely; the relaxed theme that plays within Ikkoku-kan will certainly stay with you long after you finish the game. The visuals and audio work together to evoke a slight melancholic feeling that is right at home with the manga’s theme of a penniless student struggling with unrequited love (creepy photo-stealing invasions of privacy notwithstanding).
Most importantly, Maison Ikkoku provides a rather intimate portrait of the source material’s world. Exploring Ikkoku-kan from top to bottom, interacting with its tenants, and even the boring minutiae of supermarket shopping and tutoring a child; all of these actions serve to immerse the player in the world of Maison Ikkoku, something that is arguably more interesting and valuable than the completion of the game’s tasks. Even dealing with the pesky tenants, shallow as it can be, sometimes really makes you feel like the put-upon Godai. This type of intimacy is something you don’t often find in video games based on licensed properties, and it’s quite charming.
There are overt hints of an avant garde experience here. I can only imagine how this ADV could have turned out if Micro-Cabin had decided against playing it safe, eschewing the goal and endpoint in favour of something more akin to a slow-paced life sim that took place in Maison Ikkoku’s world. Hey, it could work.
Micro-Cabin released a sequel in 1988 called Maison Ikkoku: Kanketsuhen (“Maison Ikkoku: The Final Act”) that supposedly follows the last few volumes of the manga up to the final chapter. However, this was released solely to Japanese PCs, so English information is scant. Perhaps we’ll take a look at Kanketsuhen if I’m able to track down a copy in the future.
Maison Ikkoku's Famicom port was handled by BOTHTEC, a company that boasted Yuzo Koshiro and Yasumi Matsuno amongst its alumni. In 1990, BOTHTEC became Quest, who went on to develop Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre, among other unique titles.