What is “love?” The word signals many binaries. It’s unconditional but expectant. It’s something that goes often unrewarded but is not self-sustaining. It’s the balance of the hard, stern choices of a parent and the wide-eyed wonder of a child. It’s a legacy we pass from person to person, generation to generation. Everyone you meet has something to say about love or, at the very least, something they imply about their experience with it. Joni Mitchell says, “Love is touching souls”; Pablo Neruda loves “without knowing how, or when, or from where.” Love is undefinable, and intensely subjective.
In 1995, Kenichi Nishi along with several other Square employees that worked on games like Chrono Trigger and, more importantly, Super Mario RPG, founded Love-de-Lic, a small developing studio named after their shared love of Yellow Magic Orchestra. The company only lasted for five years, and Love-de-Lic only developed three games, none of which were ever localized in the West.
Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, their first game, gained a small cult following sometime in the 2000s. You can find a guide by one such fan published in 2007, referencing a now defunct GeoCities fanpage for turning the writer onto the game. Taking a look at the game, it’s easy to see its visual appeal. The cover features something like a glyph or a slab, displaying its cartoony, Rayman-esque protagonist in a mossy green. Below, it reads “fake” and “real” with a double-pointed arrow between. Graphically, it blends pixel art and a unique style that mimics claymation, all transposed over colorful pre-rendered backgrounds. It’s immediately reminiscent of games that both predate it and are more recent—Toby Fox has been upfront about the game’s influence on Undertale, but it also calls to mind Super Mario RPG and Earthbound. I was ecstatic when I learned the game was receiving a port. Learning Tim Rogers was working with the translation team only stoked this flame.
The game’s premise is simple enough: It’s something of a game within a game. You play as a young boy, named by you, who starts an RPG on his Gamestation. Despite the obvious reference, the game looks closer to something from the SNES era; battles look quite similar to Dragon Quest. The game is as cliche as they come—it starts with a lengthy exposition which comically grows larger and larger until the words are illegible. The boy skips through lines of dialogue and quickly makes it to the end, challenging an evil dragon who threatens the realm of Love-de-Gard. Just before he finishes, his mom beckons him to bed. Right as he heads to his bedroom, the television sucks him in, landing him inside the game’s world.
In the game, the hero you played as is wreaking havoc on the world’s monsters, rapidly leveling, and ignoring the intricate lives of the denizens of Love-de-Gard. Monsters you killed reveal themselves to be harmless dogs and docile slimes, not grotesque and violent enemies. After some wandering, you find yourself at an old woman’s house; she mistakes you for her grandson, who coincidentally has the same name as you, the same name you typed into the game. You’re visited in the night by a king who tells you to find Love, which he describes as “The power to see the unseeable.”
As you gain Love, you clear out landscapes. People leave and don’t come back. Lively areas in the game quiet down and corpses are revived and collected. Gramby, being a video game character within a video game, runs out of unique dialogue. She just reassures you she loves you and gives you a cookie. In Moon, you have to learn to let people go, to appreciate the short relationships you have.
You start each day with a limited amount of energy that decays over time, and if you don’t rest before it depletes, you die. You can increase your maximum energy through interacting with other characters and earning Love, which might manifest as a minigame or just be matter of being in the right place at the right time. Each night, when you sleep, the king visits you and tallies up your Love. Once you reach a certain amount, you level up. The only real benefit of leveling up is an increase in your amount of time each day, which allows you to seek Love longer. At every juncture, the focus is on Love and the tireless reaping of it.
If this sounds familiar, you might have played 2005’s Chibi-Robo or maybe 2002’s Chulip. Funny enough, both these games were developed by former Love-de-Lic team members who went their separate ways after the company’s dissolving. This only further deepens Moon’s impact; it feels like a node in a branching tree of Japanese adventure games.
Despite the relatively G-rated premise, Moon isn’t exactly “kid friendly.” For one, some of the game is deeply horrifying. There are no real scares, but the game presents its themes in stark, guttural ways, and dialogue is often veiled or cagey. Similarly, the game is written with a referential and, often, metafictional hand.
In Technopolis (another YMO reference!), Lady Techno dances all night to drum-n-bass deepcuts. Nearby, a gaggle of robots soliloquize about their existence. You can visit Club Techno later for a performance of the game’s theme song, “KERA MA GO,” a J-Pop song featuring the game’s signature “voice acting” style, a garbled, complex collection of English, French, and Japanese phraseology. It’s a little reminiscent of the near academic hyperpop movement that’s recently become popular. The developers clearly were trend-setting from the get go.
Moon is one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had in gaming. One minute, you’re tripping on mushrooms you harvested in a forest and revive a dead god killed by the wayward hero. The next, you’re being lectured by a secret society of superhero eco-feminists. The game’s as laugh-out-loud funny as it is deeply disturbing, and, each night, the king assures you that each interaction you had that day was an act of love. Without a guide, you’re left to figure out arcane sequencing and puzzles solved only by vague moon logic (quite literally). After waiting around for several minutes in real time outside someone’s house or trailing them around all day, you might stumble into their questline and be rewarded with a measly one Love.
Moon isn’t concerned with rewards, though. For patient gamers, it’s meditative, hilarious, and strange. There are no achievements to be made, and no unique content if you save the souls of all the monsters or collect all the Love in the world. Instead, you’re faced with labor—you run around a giant map and hope there’s someone to help, someone who needs a sympathetic ear. Instead, I felt quite lonely.
When you gamify love, you assign it a value—it becomes a mathematical function that directly correlates to other systems. But is that enough? Gamers naturally love to make numbers go up, but what are you left with when you finish? Do you hit “continue” again? Try to beat your previous score? Playing Moon, I felt a sort of nihilistic dread; I’m just going around fixing the treacheries I enacted on this world. I’m austin, the player, and AUSTIN, the character I named. I dashed through the game, ignored the story, and slayed as many monsters as I could. Sometimes I live my real life that way, too. Moon told me to take a minute to let the light in. That is love.
Austin Jones is a freelance writer with eclectic interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and 80s-90s anime @belfryfire.