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Love Live!, the Japanese anime idol series, explained

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It’s more than just an anime

27 anime girls pose together on a pink glowing stage while dressed in idol outfits Image: Bushiroad/KLabGames/Sunrise

In 2014, Love Live! School Idol Festival became many anime fans’ gateway into mobile gacha games and idol culture. Now a new spinoff, Love Live! All Stars, is out, and there’s a lot to know about the rhythm game franchise before you dive in.

Love Live! is an idol music project centered around anime girls. Originally a story project published in Dengeki G’s Magazine, it eventually spun-off into rhythm games, several seasons of anime, and even entire albums of Love Live! music.

Personally, the series was my gateway to other idol game franchises, like Idolm@ster and Bang Dream!, but lots of anime fans found their calling helping out the idols in Love Live!. Despite the fact that most of the content for any of these series is in Japanese, the international reach is noticeable across social media, with the School Idol Festival reaching over 23 million overseas players in November 2019. If you’ve ever seen somebody with a Twitter bio that says something like “MikaP” or “UmiP,” that means that they’re the producer for that idol, and she’s their favorite. Though the series has a mostly adult male fanbase in Japan, it’s enjoyed by all types of people, with women making up a large chunk of the series’ Western fanbase.

Love Live! School Idol Festival originally focused on nine girls from Otonokizaka Academy in their school idol club. The girls band together to create a group called μ’s (pronounced “muse”) and you help them find success as their manager. Eventually, the series expanded, adding two more groups of nine girls: Aqours (pronounced “aqua”) and the Nijigasaki High School Idol Club.

Beyond the smartphone game, Love Live! is a cultural phenomenon. It’s more than just an anime series or game — it’s a talented group of real-life performers who put on sold-out concerts in Tokyo and rank among other talented musicians on music charts.

How do you play the game?

You scout girls of various rarities, make a team of nine with them, and play a song. The better stats on your girls, the better you’ll score. You simply hit the upcoming circle notes to the music.

There’s also bits of story between levels for you to interact with the girls and read what they’re up to.

To build teams, you’ll have to earn cards through either completing events or by using the gacha system. Teams can have duplicates of the same girl and each girl will have a plethora of different cards, showcasing them in different outfits or situations. Is it summertime? You bet a bunch of cards of the girls in bathing suits. Is it Halloween? Time for witch or demon outfits! Since the cast is limited, each girl gets way more focus than say, Fire Emblem: Heroes, where only the most popular of characters get multiple versions.

You can see video of School Idol Festival, which will continue to be updated by developers Bushiroad and KLab, in action below.

Who are the girls?

Each group is made up of three first-year girls, three second-year girls, and three third-year girls, with the second-year girls typically being seen as the “main” characters by the franchise. Each girl receives about the same amount of new content, so this mainly stays true when regarding the anime series. True anime idol culture demands you pick one or two as your favorites and focus on producing them, collecting all their cards, and becoming a diehard fan — but you don’t have to, of course.

μ’s

Nine girls with varying hair colors in school uniforms hug and cheer around each other
From left to right: Honoka, Umi, Kotori, Maki, Nico, Eli, Nozomi, Hanayo, Rin
Image: Sunrise

As the original set of girls μ’s is arguably the most popular group. It features idols like the plain, but hardworking Honoka Kōsaka, and the lover of rice Hanayo Koizumi.

  • First-years: Hanayo Koizumi, Rin Hoshizora, Maki Nishikino
  • Second-years: Honoka Kōsaka, Kotori Minami, Umi Sonoda
  • Third-years: Nico Yazawa, Nozomi Tojo, Eli Ayase

Aqours

Nine girls cheer on a beach in front of the ocean
From left to right: Ruby, Dia, Hanamaru, Riko, Chika, Kanan, You, Mari, Yoshiko
Image: Sunrise

Aqours is the second group and they all go to a school by the ocean, Uranohoshi Girls’ High School. The group features sisters Dia and Ruby Kurosawa, and edgy “fallen angel” Yoshiko Tsushima.

  • First-years: Yoshiko Tsushima, Ruby Kurosawa, Hanamaru Kunikida
  • Second-years: Chika Takami, Riko Sakurauchi, You Watanabe
  • Third-years: Kanan Matsuura, Dia Kurosawa, Mari Ohara

Nijigasaki High School Idol Club

Anime high school girls enjoy hanging out on a terrace near a river
From left to right: Karin, Emma, Ayumu, Shizuku, Kasumi, Ai, Rina, Setsuna, Kanata

Unlike the other two groups, these girls are not in a group together. They all work individually as part of their school’s club. The club has members like Rina Tennoji, who always covers her face, and Ai Miyashita, a fashionable girl who likes to make puns. This group doesn’t have its own anime series yet, but one has been announced to air in the future.

  • First-years: Kasumi Nakasu, Shizuku Osaka, Rina Tennoji
  • Second-years: Ayumu Uehara, Ai Miyashita, Setsuna Yuki
  • Third-years: Karin Asaka, Kanata Konoe, Emma Verde

Wait, why have I seen some of these girls before?

Because Love Live! is popular! Also, Nico Yazawa is the start of many anime-centric memes and smug anime girl pictures, and Mari is known for her “it’s joke!” line from the anime, since she’s a silly prankster. You can likely see her being used as a reaction GIF from folks on Twitter and elsewhere on social media when a joke fails to land or if somebody reads something sarcastic as serious.

And you said they sell out huge stadiums and perform live? How?

The voice actresses are heavily associated with their characters and they dress up and perform the series’ songs at concerts. It isn’t an anime hologram, like Vocaloid Miku Hatsune. It’s real girls on stage, singing and dancing. Folks who are pretty deep into idol culture will also be huge fans of their favorite voice actresses from the series.

Even Fathom Events, the screening company that often shows limited runs of anime movies in theaters, has shown these live concerts, like the ninth anniversary Love Live! Fest, for dedicated fans to watch on the big screen.

Are the games entirely in Japanese?

All the audio is in Japanese, but the “worldwide” version of the School Idol Festival is playable in English, Korean, and traditional Chinese. All Stars is playable in the same languages, with the addition of Thai.

Which game should I play between the two?

That depends on your taste. School Idol Festival is more of a straightforward rhythm game. While it isn’t as pretty, it provides fun songs to play with exciting charts that’ll leave even the best rhythm game player a little bit sweaty. All Stars has more RPG elements, focusing on upgrading girls and playing a pretty story with a rhythm aspect. The Nijigasaki girls are only featured in School Idol Festival as limited-time rewards, and the game focuses more on μ’s and Aqours.

The most noticeable change between the two games is that All Stars supports 3D models dancing and singing in the background. School Idol Festival uses a static image of a stage in the background, but All Stars has the girls performing as you play.

That all being said, keep in mind this is a gacha game, which means that you’ll have to grind out premium currency to get high-stat units — or you can pay money, but beware the dangers of gacha gambling.

For the rhythm game fans, you can download School Idol Festival on the Google Play store and the App Store. For those who want story and 3D models, download All Stars, also on the Google Play store and App Store.