Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2010
As far back as the late ’80s, Hayao Miyazaki was complaining about the tendency of some otaku to depict girls more as “pets” than as real people. It would be interesting to know what the legendary animator made of Loveplus.
Since bursting onto the scene last autumn, the Nintendo DS dating simulator (makers Konami prefer “communication game”) has become a phenomenon in the Japanese gaming and otaku communities. Despite minimal publicity, it has shifted over 200,000 copies and spawned five manga series and an iPhone game. With an updated semi-sequel out this month, helpfully called Loveplus+, it has created a legion of fans who dote over digital high-school cuties Rinko, Manaka and Nene.
Loveplus is strikingly different to other dating simulators. Where its competitors could more accurately be termed “seduction simulators,” with stories geared around wooing and ensnaring your chosen girl, Loveplus takes the confession of love as the starting point and allows the player to continue their relationship in an open-ended fashion. It’s a style of gameplay reminiscent of the tamagotchi “virtual pet” craze that swept the world in the ’90s, not to mention borrowing a number of features from another critter-centric DS title, Nintendogs.
Taisuke Endo, a Loveplus fan devoted to the bookish character Rinko, believes that the way the main section of the game runs in real time, with the heroine calling you or sending you text messages at various points through the day, is the key to its attraction. “This is new,” he explains, “because it even includes things that make you annoyed and bothered when you have an actual real-life girlfriend.”
Much of the popularity of Loveplus stems from it being able to push fans’ emotional buttons in a more direct way than anime or manga. As Endo says, “The point is that the heroine—a two-dimensional girl—can be into me, not just some guy in an anime.”
Nevertheless, some people have taken this attachment to extremes. Last year, a man calling himself “SAL9000” managed to convince a priest to marry him to his virtual date in front of his friends and family. The wedding ceremony was broadcast live on the video sharing site NicoNico Douga.
While some commentators were quick to see this as evidence of a culture that had lost its ability to distinguish reality and fantasy, Endo is more dismissive. “When people try to put on those kinds of big otaku events, we call that odotte-mita (‘I try to dance’),” he says, “It’s like posting about sex with your girlfriend on a website. People who make a big song and dance about the attraction of Loveplus are basically not serious about it.”
The game has also provoked a spate of articles on “virtual cheating,” in which real-life wives and girlfriends complain that they have been sidelined by their menfolk’s obsession with the game. (Endo, incidentally, claims to have abandoned real women in favor of the 2D variety a long time before Loveplus came along.)
The new Loveplus+, released on June 24, promises to blur the boundaries even further. One of the new features allows players to take a virtual trip with their date and spend a night at a hot spring or seaside resort—there is even a tie-up planned with the real-life Hotel Ohnoya in Atami. Another addition is the fitness mode, where players can do a workout and stretches together with their virtual honey.
If the popularity of the first game is anything to go by, Japan should expect to be overrun by hordes of super-fit, well-toned, and utterly love-struck otaku within a matter of months.
Loveplus+ is out now on Nintendo DS, priced ¥4,800.