Pasokon Retro is our regular look back at the early years of Japanese PC gaming, encompassing everything from specialist ’80s computers to the happy days of Windows XP.
Konami’s Tokimeki Memorial is the Resident Evil of dating sims: it didn’t create the genre it made famous, but it sure as heck defined it. After its PC Engine console debut in 1994 the game swiftly became a million-selling success story, giving rise to countless silly and serious spinoffs at home and in arcades. It was swiftly remade, demade, and ported to just about every successful format at the time—including Windows 95. This version of the game ran in a console-beating hi-colour mode at a pin-sharp 640×480 resolution, and if that wasn’t already enough to encourage a fan to double, triple, or even quadruple dip, the box included an exclusive shirt-sized iron-on transfer print to sweeten the deal.
Merchandise was a big part of the TokiMemo experience and impact in the ’90s: Kirameki High School’s students were so popular the usual array of CDs, keyrings, and telephone cards weren’t enough to satisfy the game’s horde of loved-up followers. Konami was more than happy to feed their fervour, releasing replica uniforms, cameras, mobile phones, life-size character busts, LCD BeatMania games, and plenty more wallet-busting trinkets. Nothing was too outrageous—or expensive—for the game’s fans. Tokimeki Memorial apparently generated 10 billion yens’ worth of merchandise sales in the first four years.
But why was it so successful? By the standards of the decade it debuted in—perhaps of any decade—it shouldn’t have been. Not even Konami thought it was going to be a hit at first, content to give the game a low print run, as little marketing as possible, and essentially send it out to die. The genre doesn’t help much: this is a game where a self-insert player character wrestles with an RPG’s worth of stats just so they can buy girls nice presents for their birthday or ask them if they’d like to go shopping sometime. To make matters worse, TokiMemo also lacks the highly suggestive or outright explicit visual “rewards” that were often found in similar games available at the time. Here, a modest swimsuit worn on a sunny beach is as exposed as any character gets (outside of an optional shower scene, with negative consequences for peeking). Even more bizarrely every single student—and there’s no guarantee you’ll meet them all—can turn you down.
That’s right: this is a dating sim where the girls don’t have to date you.
As ridiculous as it sounds, these unromantic features are the key to Tokimeki Memorial’s evergreen popularity. Those stats reflect your own decisions as you study and socialise your way through Japanese high school life, your successes and specialisms of your own making. You are whoever you choose to be, from the most well-groomed nerd in the world, to the star athlete who loves to paint, to someone who’s just happy to get through the academic year with the minimal amount of fuss and a few friends by their side. It gives the friendships you do make a more personal angle they wouldn’t have in some other dating sims: the girl you met while out exercising, the one who noticed your dedication to fashion or love of books.
This more relaxed take on digital relationships, where a sweet confession of mutual adoration at the very end of the game is as emotionally and physically intense as your interactions ever get, opened up a whole new world of possibilities. The girls have the space to be more than dating trophies or desirable stereotypes, for your relationships with them to fall into categories other than “I’m going to make her love me” and “I’m not attracted to her” and for their interactions with you to be more varied in return.
Girls will participate, or perhaps even play a major role in, their favourite school clubs. Maybe they’ll bump into you in the hall while they’re rushing off somewhere else or, catch you at school and ask if you’re free to go to the amusement park next weekend, or have to say no to an invite because they’re busy that day (or just not that into you).
Because they’re written as people, rather than a collection of IF>THEN statements for you to click into romantic submission, you have to pay real attention to not only their likes and dislikes but their lives and personalities if you hope to spend any “more than friends” time with them. Success isn’t defined by picking the perfect date spot and the right answer every time, it’s about being on the same wavelength. Neither of you enjoying the concert you’ve gone to see is better than one of you loving it and the other wishing you’d gone to the park.
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The girl of your dreams doesn’t need you to be perfect (cover girl Shiori Fujisaki, sometimes referred to as the Last Boss of Dating Sims, excepted), she just needs you to put a bit of effort into yourself and take an honest interest in her and her friends.
In a truly genius move, mastering the game’s systems introduces its own set of unique and largely self-inflicted drawbacks. So you’re the most popular kid in school? Great. But how do you keep up your busy social schedule without failing every test or wearing yourself out? What do you do if you accidentally end up promising two girls a date on the same day? What do you do when three girls are annoyed because you haven’t bothered calling them in weeks but you only have the time to phone one?
There is no one right answer to any situation, and in some cases no right answer at all, and this freedom is why TokiMemo is still cherished to this day. This is your game to tackle as you see fit, not a visual novel with distinct pre-planned routes and binary choices, or a forced teen romance between you and someone who’s only returning your avatar’s affections because that’s literally their entire reason for being. The journey as you choose to take it is this dating sim’s real prize: that time you crooned a hard song to impress girl to karaoke, unlocking the computer club’s shmup minigame, finally winning a sports day race. No ending is ever as sweet as the memories made along the way.
So few games dare to allow us to make our own fun, or have the confidence in themselves to merely shrug and carry on if we fail or choose to not do the “right” thing, yet TokiMemo tore up the rulebook, more than happy to hand over control.
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Rarely equalled, and arguably never bettered, Tokimeki Memorial remains the dating sim nearly 30 years later. So it’s a shame Konami have never really acknowledged TokiMemo’s existence outside Japan, never mind actually released any of the game’s numerous ports in English, isn’t it? Thankfully talented fans have once again stepped up to fill in this huge gap in gaming history, translating the easily emulated SNES version of the game (essentially a “demake” of the original TokiMemo, considering the game’s CD-based origins), finally bringing this important game to a wider audience with minimal fuss.
It’s great news, but there’s even better to come: an English translation of the Saturn version, one sprinkled with additional scenes and greatly improved artwork, is also being worked on.
It really can’t come soon enough: what could be better than being able to fall in love for the first time—twice?