It’s big game season in 2020, but I can’t stop playing a fascinating 2007 Nintendo DS game called The World Ends With You.
I can only imagine how hard it has been for fans of the original. But after 13 long years, Square Enix has just announced an official sequel in NEO: The World Ends With You, which is launching in 2021 for PS4 and Nintendo Switch.
I would like to join the collective sigh of relief, having now played enough of the original to understand why it’s so important.
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You can get the 2018 port of TWEWY on the Nintendo Switch or mobile devices, but if you have the means, I would really urge you to dig out your Nintendo 3/2/DS and play the game as it was intended. The reason for this is that as well as the inspired Shibuya streetwear aesthetic and the inimitable soundtrack, the real magic is in the control scheme, which is like nothing I’ve ever played.
TWEWY takes full advantage of the Nintendo DS’s touch-sensitive dual-screen technology — arguably more than any other game I’ve played on the platform. In combat, you’re controlling two characters in tandem, across both screens. Up top, you’ll use the D-Pad to play a rhythm game, entering specific directional inputs to pass a puck down to the bottom screen.
On the bottom, you’ll be using the stylus to tap, swipe, flick and drag to summon the elements and defeat enemies as the protagonist Neku. The gestures depend on the pins you have equipped, and once you deal enough damage, you’ll pass the puck back up top to keep the combo rolling. It’s like breakdancing while holding a tennis rally with Rafael Nadal. Of course it’s strange at first, but once you get the hang of it, the feeling is honestly incredible.
If that wasn’t enough to put you under this game’s spell, TWEWY’s premise is genius. The team behind Kingdom Hearts weave an effortlessly cool tale embedded in the 00s streetwear culture of Shibuya. You’re playing the Reaper’s Game and wiping out the ‘Noise’ to save your souls, all the while wearing killer clothing brands that alter your statistics depending on where you’re fighting across the ward. The art direction and typography sticks in your mind’s eye — truly, what an achievement it is to capture the immense milieu of Shibuya in a portable game like this. What a special and unforgettable place to set a game. If that wasn’t enough, Tetsuya Nomura and Gen Kobayashi’s peerless character designs bring such raw personality to the game, cementing its cult classic status.
The game’s Takeharu Ishimoto soundtrack is similarly full of stylish variety. Here we have trip hop, techno and neurotic piano evocative of Shoji Meguro’s work on Persona. But then you’ve got a song like ‘Underground’, with its angelic crooning and noisy shoegaze backdrop — it sounds like a B-side from My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Given that a poster for Loveless was used prominently in Final Fantasy VII, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Square Enix’s creative cabal is influenced by the melancholy power of shoegaze.
The best part about all of this is that the game ties its elegiac co-operative combat mechanics to the central thesis of its narrative. Despite what the title may suggest, the point of TWEWY is that it doesn’t. The game’s withdrawn protagonist can wear his headphones in the scramble and push away anyone who gets close to him, but the truth is that we need to give parts of ourselves to others in order to understand our existence and thrive.
Neku isn’t able to endure the Reaper’s Game — or any combat engagement, for that matter — without the help of his friends on the opposite screen. No person is an island. The importance of vulnerability and empathy in an ever-distant, agnostic world is a moral that cannot be understated, especially in a year like 2020. More than ever, we are realising the importance of the most minor forms of social contact that we took for granted, and the benefit of touching base with friends and family to make sure they’re doing ok.
With such powerful themes and distinct characters, it’s no surprise that TWEWY’s cast have appeared in Kingdom Hearts games since. Given that the future of that series seems to lie in the hands of Nomura and the streets of modern pseudo-Shibuya, I’m sure there’s a part to play for the stylish new blood teased in NEO’s recent trailer.
I’m stoked to see what Square Enix can do with a full-blown 3D sequel. Who knows what kind of unique combat systems they’re conjuring right now to evoke the incredible idiosyncrasy of the original. While I’m sure it will be flush with unique systems, I don’t really mind whether NEO meets the gameplay mystique of the original. All I care about is the fact that we’re getting another chance to explore this world. I’m sure you’ll feel the same after a few hours with this cult classic.
It’s a real testament to the dreamweaving developers behind this series that a game like this can endure and wow me with a surprising level of relevance even decades after its release. If there’s one classic game you play in 2020, I really hope it’s TWEWY.