The Super Famicom’s best kept secret. Welcome to Ihatovo.
Ihatovo Monogatari. 1993, Hector Entertainment.
Next stop, Ihatovo town.
Ihatovo Story is based on one of the most widely read literary figures in Japan, poet and children’s author Miyazawa Kenji. The back-story of its development reads like a Hollywood underdog movie, an incredibly ambitious title developed by a fabulously under-equipped team of developers (Hector). Undeterred by their companies low profile and fulled by a love for his work, Hector set out a plan to create a game that would envelop Kanji-san’s entire literary universe; a herculean task for a company that were mostly known for a handful of mediocre releases on the Famicom. Previous genres released by the company included mahjong, business, baseball, horse racing and a presidential campaign sim. Despite their offerings and their latest release (Moon Crystal) Hector were yet to make a distinguishable mark in the video games industry. Perhaps the decision to switch from making sports and mahjong to something completely non-linear, surreal and unique was an easier choice for the team as Hector had nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.
Kenji Miyazawa. Buddhist, vegetarian, social activist,
teacher, poet, author of children’s literature
and the unlikely subject of a video game.
Born in Iwate over a century ago in 1896, Kenji’s literary works received little attention during his lifetime with only two books published before his passing at the age of 37. The remainder of the great number of stories and poems that he left behind were edited and published posthumously, after which the richness and depth of his art finally gained nation-wide recognition.
Born into the family of a wealthy pawnbroker, he was upset with his family’s affluent lifestyle that was supported by money lending to the local farmers that struggled to maintain a livelihood in his rural and impoverished province. This and his strong Buddhist faith drove him to spend most of his brief life in a passionate struggle to improve the lives of the poor farmers, starting with the rejection of his inheritance and ending with him developing new agricultural techniques and new varieties of seeds. He found employment as a teacher in agricultural science at Hanamaki Agricultural High School and by saving his teacher’s salary, he was able to finance the publication of his first collection of children’s stories and fairy tales, The Restaurant of Many Orders and a collection of free-verse poems, Spring and Asura in 1924.
Kenji’s stories are set against the whole of the universe, replete with people, animals, plants, the wind, clouds, light, the stars and the sun. This free association between the elements and living beings that make up the world are one of the distinguishing features that resonate throughout his work. His poems and stories often centre around themes of forgiveness, kindness, an awareness of nature and the importance that it holds in every day life.
With this extensive and well-established source of material to work with, Hector chose to design a game that would borrow elements from other video game genres but would be difficult to pigeonhole. Weapons and fighting are absent (a staple of RPGs), as are foes, bosses or any forms of physical conflict. Instead, the player explores the world by interacting with people, and animals, listening to their situations and offering to help them and by doing so, resolve their problems and unlock more areas to explore in the world map.
After the game’s intro which depicts a train journey (a reference to Kenji’s novel, Night on the Galactic Railroad) The game begins with our nameless main character standing alone at an empty railway platform. We have arrived in Ihatovo, a fictional town (originally crated by Kenji which he based on Iwata). There’s no back story to this character, nor do we know his name. All we can establish is that he’s dressed in a hat and coat, a choice of clothing that’s synonymous with Miyazawa’s own attire, made symbolic in various national stamps, artwork and book covers. In his hand is a suitcase. What’s inside it? Where has he come from and why is he here? The player is left to explore Ihatovo and interact with its inhabitants by speaking with them in the streets, or visiting their homes and places of work. Saving is made possible by visiting the local hotel, our character’s new temporary home where he awakes from after each chapter is complete. After some interaction with two key characters (Horogama-Sensei and the Rasuchijin inhabitants) the game objective is established: Discover and collect seven lost pieces of work by Kenji Miyazawa. After each note book is found, a new chapter is opened. After collecting all seven, they are presented to Miyazawa himself who appears in the game. He rewards the player by returning them back to the physical world via the galactic train.
Each chapter references a different Miyazawa piece with every main character existing in either one of his poems or novels. For example, Chapter one is based on The Fire Stone, chapter 3, Kenju’s Wood and so on. To be familiar with Miyazawa’a works would certainly benefit the player’s experience but as each chapter is complete, the story of each poem is revealed with a series of illustration stills. Graphically, the game looks fantastic with an excellent score handled by none other than Tsukasa Tawada, who spent the first few years of his career at Hector. It’s surreal, lucid and slow paced with a soundtrack designed to relax the player. Communication, resolution and item exchange are key to progression. It looks and, at times feels like an RPG but instead plays out as an interactive read-through of Miyazawa’s collection of work, accessed by helping others.
After reading some of his work, I have came to my own conclusion that the main character is indeed Kenji Miyazawa and after his death, travels to a spiritual realm (his own utopia, Ihatovo), experiencing his own literary creations before resolving what work he had left behind by finding his notes before returning ‘home’ via the galactic train. It’s an existential experience and depending on the gamers knowledge of Miyazawa’s work can be multi-layered. For Hector it’s a mixed result, depending on the gamer’s tastes. A home-run for the Japanese but one that slightly loses it’s resonance from the perspective of a global market. On one hand we have a very linear structure to a game that lacks any action or classic gaming template situations, such as end of level bosses or power ups. On the other, it’s a labour of love for one of Japan’s much loved figures in literature and offers fans, children and adults who were taught his works at school an opportunity to explore his creations in an entirely new way.
The 100th anniversary Satellaview release.
Ihatovo Story was granted a 2nd release via the Satellaview in 1996 with voice narration to celebrate his 100 anniversary. The four day event was broadcast for download and fans voted on who they would like to hear voice their favourite scenes.
Despite this, it remains one of the Super Famicom’s best kept secrets. A game that has drawn a cult following from it’s native country but due to its content remains so obscure that it’s barely mentioned in the West. Its Japan-exclusive content has resulted in a title that has mostly eluded Western websites, otaku’s forums, gaming publications, retailers and even importer’s collections and despite its age, Ihatovo Story has succeed in slipping under the Western JRPG community’s radar and has yet to receive a fan translation patch for fans of Emulators. A German language patch was announced but has yet to see the light of day.
As a fan of tracking down the most obscure and exotic that video games has to offer, Ihatovo Story certainly delivers. For Hector, it was their finest achievement on the Super Famicom with excellent pixel art and a stunning soundtrack written by one of Japan’s best video game composers. The bulk of its narrative may be lost on some but it has been cruelly overlooked by gamers in the West.