It didn’t really matter which entry in Millennium Kitchen’s sixteen year old series of summer holiday simulators I wrote about here as they all follow a very particular formula - Boku, a blank slate of a young city Japanese boy, is sent to visit relatives in a distant part of bygone rural Japan for all of an idyllic August. From almost the very moment Boku arrives at his holiday home – usually somewhere by the coast, but in this entry at ‘Uncle Farm’ in a fictional part of Hokkaido – the player’s given free reign to enjoy the sights and sounds of 1970’s Japan through the eyes of an inquisitive young boy.
You might wonder what the emotional value of this game is to anyone unfamiliar with the sights and sounds of retro Japan, but Boku’s surroundings are far from unrelateable. Kids are kids, and it takes all of five minutes play to realise that jumping on bales of hay, running through grassy fields with no shoes on and trying to catch impressive bugs and beetles are things we’ve all either done or wanted to do no matter where we’ve grown up.
Days are long and lazy but they do have some light structure to them with breakfast, tea, and a final bed-time all occurring at specific times. These daily events gather the family together and give Boku the chance to talk about a significant experience he’s had during the day or give his relatives the opportunity to gently nudge the player in an optional new direction, for example (paraphrased):
Great Uncle: Boku, would you like to borrow my fishing rod?
Boku: Yes please!
Aunt: And if you catch something good I can cook it for tea!
Weaving pointers and gameplay tips into the dialogue in this way not only helps keep up the sense of immersion but also forces the player to pay attention – natural conversation isn’t just a cute way to pass the time or allow the writer an avenue to express their opinion on Japanese dairy farming but something that the player can gain tangible rewards from if they care to let this charming family get under their skin and then apply what they’ve been told.
But there’s no need to panic if you don’t feel like listening in on breakfast chit-chat (or if you can’t), as for the most part you’re free to run about and do as much or as little as you please. Want to spend the day sliding down a grassy hill on a bit of cardboard? How about skipping with friends or tending to the cows? Whatever you feel like doing on any given day is absolutely fine, and that holds true whether you’d rather focus on one aspect of the game (swimming, chasing butterflies) or prefer to dabble in a little bit of everything.
That isn’t to say your actions in the game are shallow consequence-free affairs though – if you don’t take the time to water the vegetable patch every day the plants will of course wither away in the summer heat, but this is considered simply as the logical result of your choices, not something to be punished for. The game’s designed to reward natural enthusiasm and curiosity, not force the player into a set box-ticking routine - perfectly aligning the gameplay with Boku’s playful and carefree attitude.
Stone skipping, playing jump rope with other children, drawing crude pictures of your adventures in Boku’s diary every night… when written down they sound like twee, facile, activities; but Boku no Natsuyasumi 3’s love for childhood play is sincere and infectious – there’s no ‘catch’ here, no correct way to play or sudden change to be wary of – just day after day of perfect blue skies and lush rolling fields.
Boku’s holiday world may be a slice of nostalgia but the series has never mistaken this loving backwards glance at days gone by for a perfect world trapped in amber, and part of Boku no Natsuyasumi 3’s strength is in its ability to express the fleeting nature of these precious moments. People come and go from the village based on their own travels and schedules, the swallow chicks nesting outside the shed grow up, and Boku makes new friends only to have to wave goodbye when it’s finally time to return home. The world is experienced by young Boku but narrated in key places by his adult self, a gentle but not melancholy reminder that the experience is to be treasured, because it won’t last forever.
All of this may sound like a whole lot of wishy-washy nothing, but the entire series is constantly heart-warming and endlessly replayable, games that exist purely to be enjoyed. There are no dark secrets, no sudden strife or hardship to deal with or character flaw to overcome - it shouldn’t work, but it does. Small details like the mismatched furniture in Boku’s shared bedroom and the basket of dirty clothes by the washing machine grant the game a light touch of realism that tempers the innocence and youthful ignorance of Boku’s worldview, a subtle sort of visual storytelling that reminds the player of the complexities of adult life without making them feel bad for not participating in it.
Like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, Boku no Natsuyasumi is one of those series that only comes to life when you’re experiencing it first hand – a fact which makes the lack of any sort of overseas release during the past sixteen years more than a little irritating. There’s still some positive news to be shared though as Boku no Natsuyasumi 1, 2, and 4 are all available for the PSP, and with Boku no Natsuyasumi 3 a PS3 exclusive it does mean that all four games can be played region-free on real hardware without any great difficulty – please do so if you can!