Nintendo has not released a traditional console or handheld system since 2001. Dual screens, motion controls, autostereoscopy, a handheld-console hybrid; there’s always some gimmick. This would be great if so many of these concepts did not end up overlooked outside of a few key first party games. Those later gimmicks have moved toward changing the console experience rather than offering a new gameplay potential, as if Nintendo has accepted this underutilization.
The true selling point of the original Nintendo DS was the implementation of a touch screen, which predates the popularity of touchscreen-based smartphones by a few years. The dual screen aspect was often implemented as a convenience. Some games used the screen for a map, while others used it for menu navigation. Most developers seemed wary of forcing the player to engage with both screens simultaneously.
By building a combat system around this split screen, The World Ends with You stands as the definitive DS experience. Nothing quite like this has happened before or since. TWEWY can be classified as an ‘action RPG,’ but its action is entirely singular. Even rereleases can’t quite capture the magic due to a change in technology forcing the combat to be overhauled.
The way TWEWY works is that protagonist Neku Sakuraba fights using the touchscreen while his partner can be controlled with button inputs. Using the controls aren’t too complex, with all the necessary buttons being limited to one side of the console. The challenge comes from finding the right combo on the top screen while maneuvering Neku on the bottom. Both characters share their HP bar, so you must put in a strong performance with both.
Part of the ingenious design involves the pin system. Neku comes across a variety of pins which change his attack patterns. These can activate in a variety of ways, from tapping the enemy to touching an icon of the pin itself to shouting into the microphone. You can seek out the pins which best suit your playstyle, but mastering the best might require stepping beyond your comfort zone.
While this has familiar RPG elements, levelling is more a modifier than a straightforward improvement. The player can choose which level they want to play at. Why choose a lower level? The bigger the gap between your max level and the level being used, the better the drop rate. This results in a highly adaptive difficulty slider. If really struggling, the player can sacrifice their drop rate to max out their HP. Otherwise, the game challenges you to play on the lowest level possible to maximize rewards.
The narrative is one of Square’s more creative inventions. Set in modern Shibuya, Neku wakes up invisible to most of the passing crowd. He soon learns he is in a week-long game to prove his worth of returning to life. He doesn’t even remember dying, having lost most of his memories. The game features some of Square’s most striking characters, from the anti-social Neku to the smug Joshua to Sho Minamimoto, who endlessly spouts strange math references. This narrative is shrouded in mysteries which consistently ramp up the stakes, and these characters are far deeper than they first appear.
Tetsuya Nomura’s character designs can be hit or miss, ranging from the iconic styling of Final Fantasy VII to Lulu’s dress, which consists of dozens of belts for some inexplicable reason. The characters in TWEWY are ludicrous in the best way, coming across as exaggerated takes on modern Tokyo fashion. The best detail is Neku’s headphones, which he insists on wearing to block out the noise of other people. What better way to establish a moody teenager?
The music adds to this ultra-modern atmosphere. Songs blend together hip hop, electronic, rock, all with a distinctly Shibuya-bend. Real-world elements of Shibuya play a major part in this presentation, from its scramble crossing to the statue of Hachiko. The never-ending yet unreachable crowds help highlight Neku’s isolation. The contrast between Neku’s desire to be left alone and this forced distance helps build toward the game’s central message. The title is both esoteric and perfect. “The World Ends with You” at first suggests the total isolation of Solipsism before establishing itself as a suggestion to open up. Our experiences in this world are limited to what we choose to engage with, so we can only reach a better understanding by attempting to connect with others and learning their view of the world. Underneath this ultra-stylized exterior and all this glorious combat is a moving story of a lonely teenager coming to terms with his purpose in being alive.
The World Ends with You is a prime example of video games as a boundless medium. Presented with a new technology, the team behind TWEWY took every option to maximize the experience. A game like this is not immediately accessible, but the developers took a risk while relying on the belief that the audience would recognize the potential and take the time to adjust. TWEWY goes beyond a singular experiment with its stylish presentation and engaging narrative. This is not a gimmick but a fully-realized experience which transcends what many imagined these technologies were capable of producing.