The release of charming adventure game Shin chan: Me and the Professor on Summer Vacation on Nintendo Switch this week may not seem like a momentous occasion in the annals of gaming — low-budget licensed titles rarely are. But like the recent Western debuts of Live A Live, Kowloon High-School Chronicle, or Moon, Shin-chan’s new release fills an important gap in the history of video games.
Shin chan: Me and the Professor on Summer Vacation is the first full-length game in the My Summer Vacation series to make it outside of Japan, where it’s known as Boku no Natsuyasumi. The cult-hit series about a 9-year-old running around the Japanese countryside making friends and catching bugs has never been released in English, and the series has lain dormant since the fourth entry came out on PSP in 2009. While Shin chan doesn’t bear the My Summer Vacation moniker, it shares the series’ same developer, director, setting, plot, gameplay loop, fishing minigame, hand-drawn backgrounds, and wonky time-progression mechanic. This is My Summer Vacation 5 in all but name and with a Shin-chan coat of paint.
The Summer Vacation games aren’t just another made-in-Japan obscurity; they were some of the most touching examples of the late-’90s turn toward daily life in Japanese game development. Globally, Shenmue, Animal Crossing, and Harvest Moon are the more well-known examples of this trend in console gaming, but in Japan the Summer Vacation series stood alongside them. With the release of the Shin-chan spiritual sequel, we’re getting a better picture of that creative moment.
Millennium Kitchen boss Kaz Ayabe based the Summer Vacation series on his own childhood romps in the rural countryside, the same font of inspiration that caused Yasuhiro Wada to create Harvest Moon, and, most famously, Satoshi Tajiri to create Pokémon. The plot of every Summer Vacation is the same: A kid named Boku (“me” in Japanese) visits his family in the boonies, and he fills the long days with swimming, hiking, and chatting up locals amid quaint, dusty buildings and picturesque rolling fields.
Ayabe puts in a lot of effort to capture the geography of rural Japan. “When I start creating a game, I start by drawing a map,” Ayabe said in an interview with Scroll. Each town in a Summer Vacation game is composed of non-scrolling screens, like a LucasArts-era adventure game, stitched together to form rambling paths. Time only moves in-game when Boku moves from one screen to another, and since time is limited, this lends traversal a risk-reward dynamic unique to the series.
Boku has 31 days to live his life to the fullest before he has to go back home, which means collecting all the bugs, fish, trading cards, and other assorted junk that kids love before time’s up. The game does not impose any progression on the player; Boku could theoretically spend the whole month indoors if he wanted to. When the game does force you to do things, it acts like a parent: You can’t skip morning exercises, you must attend both breakfast and dinner, and you can’t stay up too long or your uncle comes and gets you. Basically, the goal is to relive the ideal ’70s Japanese childhood, cavorting with no responsibilities in the warm embrace of a loving family, cool friends, and unspoiled nature.
Ayabe has mentioned his love of influential filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu in the past, and there’s something Ozu-like that permeates the whole series. For one, Boku’s family and friends are keenly observed and not entirely cuddly, particularly in the more adult-oriented first game. In that first title, Boku visits his aunt’s house in the mountainous Yamanashi prefecture, just outside Tokyo. The tone of the game is warm but there is darkness around the edges: Your younger cousin Shirabe behaves coldly to you, you occupy the room of your aunt’s dead son, and you hear rumors of a Wolf Spirit roaming the woods. In a genuinely moving conclusion reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro, Shirabe runs away from home the day before Boku is set to leave, and you reunite after a long search in a field blooming with sunflowers.
Ozu was celebrated for his “pillow shots,” stretches of time where his camera would break from the plot and settle on a landscape, just to admire it. My Summer Vacation has several backdrops like that sunflower field, which has no gameplay-related purpose but allows the player to slow down and drink in the view. While Boku himself and all the other characters are 3D models, the rest of the game is pre-rendered, hand-painted 2D backgrounds packed with atmosphere, made to be admired in their own right.
After that first outing on the original PlayStation, the series would move to different scenic locations with every game: the tropical Izu Peninsula in My Summer Vacation 2, the wide-open Hokkaido plains in 3, and the Setonai Sea islands in 4. The gameplay would stay the same, give or take a few minigames, though each release would expand the scope with more characters, more locations, or more collectables. In Japan, the series would go on to sell more than a million copies.
Ever since the release of that fourth game, the series has been defunct. While Ayabe gained some acclaim from his Nintendo 3DS game Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale, which paired gameplay elements from the Summer Vacation series with a fantastic tokusatsu-inspired plot, a short, three-hour game just wasn’t enough to bring the series back to prominence.
Shin chan: Me and the Professor on Summer Vacation could turn things around. The game sees Shinnosuke “Shin” Nohara, star of the Crayon Shin-Chan manga and anime, vacationing at his mom’s friend’s house in a rural region of Kyushu island, filling his days with chasing butterflies, growing vegetables, and fishing. The charms of the Summer Vacation series — the aimless wandering, the evocative backgrounds, the personable characters — have been preserved in this ersatz sequel.
Other aspects have changed, perhaps to court a wider audience. There’s a central plot now, involving a mad scientist and time-travel hijinks, though you can still ignore it if you choose. And just to add a dash of magical realism, the time-travel hijinks summon dinosaurs to wander the village, following Attack of the Friday Monsters’s design philosophy of giant monsters being really cool.
There’s less of an emphasis on naturalism, but Shin-chan is remarkably accurate to its cartoon and manga source material. Unlike the earnest Boku, Shinnosuke is a smart-ass, and the game has all the usual gags of Shin spouting off punny dialogue or awkwardly flirting with older women. Appropriately, there’s a dedicated button for Shin to wave his behind at the camera.
Millennium Kitchen, showing its trademark care for aesthetics, has traded the Studio Ghibli-esque styling of its previous work for the flat, cel-shaded look of the Shin-chan anime. It’s accurate to a remarkable degree: The developers even ensured that Shin’s trademark cheek bulge always faces left no matter if he’s seen from the front or the back, just like in the source material. At its core, though, this is still a familiar game of trying to have a blast as an unsupervised kid in the wilderness.
Given that Sony, who published the series in Japan, has shown little interest in promoting the property further, and that no active fan translations of the games exist at this point, Shin chan: Me and the Professor on Summer Vacation is the best, perhaps only, chance on the horizon for English-speaking players to get the My Summer Vacation experience.
Shin chan: Me and the Professor on Summer Vacation is available now on Nintendo Switch, and is coming to PlayStation 4 and Windows PC via Steam.