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Some Thoughts on Attack of the Friday Monsters

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It’s hard to say anything new about Attack of the Friday Monsters, a game that splashed on the scene months ago. The work of its creator was lovingly lauded by Ray Barnholt–a noted Boku no Natsuyasumi fanatic–in such a reverent way in his SCROLL magazine that it’s almost sacrilegious to try to write more. So instead of doing a point-by-point review, I’ll mention some details that stand out to me, personally.

I played through most of Attack of the Friday Monsters on a flight the day after I watched Miyazaki’s Secret World of Arrietty. Sure one had beautiful water colors and amazing visual tricks mimicking real camerawork and the other used pre-rendered backgrounds with blocky polygonal actors on the stage, but these art styles complimented one another. They didn’t clash.

I was struck by the ambient sounds that bring the pre-rendered backgrounds and polygonal characters to life. The periodic train sounds, presaging the arrival of an in-engine rendered train–sort of quirky and quaint with today’s game engines powerful enough to render both background and foreground objects–remind me of a previous exposure to Japanese culture: the first time I watched Neon Genesis Evangelion as a teenager. There are the ubiquitous cricket or cicada sounds that were also present in Eva, but for me, they hearken back to a youth spent in the rural South. The drone of cicadas in the sticky summer heat reminds me of falling asleep in a Mississippi home, of walking into cool woods after standing in a sunny meadow.

The whole game engine is full of quirks and reminders of the PS1 era of gaming. But one of the mechanics seems rather novel, an addition seemingly for its own sake, with little influence on actual plot or gameplay. I’m talking about the spell casting mechanic, reminiscent of games children used to play in 70s Japan, the time in which Attack of the Friday Monsters takes place.

If you win the sometimes annoying, somewhat forgettable, rock-paper-scissors card game, fueled by collectibles strewn throughout the world, you gain the ability to cast spells on your buddies, knocking them down. It has no bearing on the outcome of the story. The spell system is simply decoration that deepens the story by providing a more complete world, accurately capturing what it feels like to grow up as a child in Japan during the 70s.

You are allowed to pick, and reorder, the phrases of the spell your character speaks. This type of cosmetic customization is typical in modern games, and in Attack of the Friday Monsters it’s nothing more than cosmetic, but it could have been used in surprising ways.

I realized the potential depth of this mechanic during a phone conversation with my brother. As I told him about the spell casting, he mentioned a Kickstarted pen and paper RPG called Magicians.

Magicians uses spells spoken in another language as both an impulse toward learning the language and a mechanic for determining the success or failure of an action. The game my brother described involved a Harry Potter-esque international school for magicians in Korea.

To use magic, the characters, and thus the players, have to correctly speak Korean words–at least with enough accuracy to satisfy the voice-recognition system of an online translation service. This sets up the potential for a rather clever scenario in which characters’ Bildungsroman stories are echoed by the players’ acquisition of the language.

At present, on the 3DS, the kind of voice recognition required for this sort of is immature. But it’s certainly possible on more powerful platforms.

One way to exploit the 3DS, and other devices with touch interfaces, involves learning written language, such as Japanese hiragana or katakana. I can imagine a magic mechanic that involves correctly writing scrolls, where the fidelity of the player’s calligraphic strokes determines the strength and efficacy of the scrolls.

Another possible approach is to build up language comprehension by constructing words out of syllables. Given several options, one would choose the correct syllable to complete the necessary word, in order to perform an action or cast a spell. A similar sort of approach would work for learning syntax, completing or building a sentence with the appropriate words.

Attack of the Friday Monsters is a quick experience, but the depth of its design has made it a memorable one. If you’d like to learn more about the game and its creator, you can check out this interview by Ray Barnholt, which covers Attack of the Friday Monsters and other games by creator, Kaz Ayabe.