Across the sunflower field — From isolated wandering to characters everywhere you go: on the gradual increase of characters in the Bokunatsu franchise
The Boku no Natsuyasumi series is built around the premise of making players manage their time so that ensure their summer experience is an unforgettable one, with a good degree of that coming from interacting with the different casts introduced in each game, with many of these characters both acting as guides for each protagonist -and for the player-, and providing some of the most heartwarming storylines through all of the series.
The “real-time” mechanic upon which the franchise is built upon also represents a slight challenge by denying players the option to interact with every single character every single day. This, tied to the fact that many of these characters seem to have routines and schedules of their own — with some of them occasionally becoming unavailable to interact with, some of them for days — results in playthroughs of each entry involving some degree of planning to ensure the storylines of these characters are properly uncovered.
In the original title, Boku spends his holiday with the Sorano family, which consists of uncle Yusaku, aunt Kaoru, older sister Moe, and feisty younger sister Shirabe. In addition to the Soranos, Boku can spend his time with a local gang made up of three boys: hotheaded leader Guts, joyful (and curiously named) Fat, and timid nerd Megane; becoming friends with these boys results in more kids for Boku (and occasionally Shirabe) to hang out with, which ultimately culminates in a solemn farewell scene towards the end of the simulated summer. The first game’s cast is completed by Saori: a college student who’s camping in the surrounding area to investigate the mysterious appearances of a ghost wolf, a mystery Boku may or may not involve himself with.
As new installments were released, Millenium Kitchen would gradually try to incorporate new concepts and gameplay mechanics, including increasing its character numbers. For contrast, where the first title offers players the possibility of occasionally interacting with Boku’s relatives, a three-member gang, and a college student, its sequel maintains the possibility of interacting with Boku’s host family, while also adding to the list the rotating guests of the seaside inn they run, the personal of a local clinic, two local families, and even occasional visitors. Gameplay-wise, this translates into an experience that might require a bit more planning than what players might expect from games about summer vacations. Even if this sounds like a potential setback, having each title take place in a setting where you cannot find out everything about every single character on a single playthrough, not only increases each installment’s potential replay value, but it also makes the passing of time — a central theme of these games — feel like a more realistic and grounded concept.
While the numerous casts became a series trademark as more sequels were released (to the point of the fourth title including a quest where Boku and a gang including six other children uncover the mysteries of a temple-looking building), the Bokunatsu franchise has always managed to integrate the presence of other characters to its interactive aspect. An early example of this comes in the form of the beetle sumo tournaments available since the original PS1 title: this minigame involves catching bugs and pitting them again others in a makeshift arena (with the bonus of letting the player learn about the competitive dispositions of the other kids). Succeeding in becoming the champion among his new friends earns Boku access to the game’s secret area, a neat reward for the player’s dedication to this task. More simple examples include stuff like touring the area with Shirabe (and learning about her love for animals) in the first game or helping Tomoko-hime look for her lost geometry set (which is something she is scared of sharing with anyone else) in the fourth one. Through all these little character-centric tasks, each entry in the franchise manages to make its setting feel more alive, further grounding its connection to the players.
Characters are undoubtedly one of the aspects that make stories memorable, no matter how simple these might be. This is properly embodied by the Bokunatsu series, with each of its installments presenting players with different casts of characters that can create unique bonds with the titular characters, something that in turn paints a more detailed picture of the different areas each Boku spends his vacation in. By including the possibility of having players unearth short character arcs, the franchise adds another layer of liveliness to the experience of having a virtual summer vacation.