With YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World, a classic
Visual Novel getting a remake and anime adaptation, many people are now being exposed to the work for the first time.
On first impression, however, YU-NO can be seen as nothing more than an old Visual Novel, with a decent
majority of players also outright dismissing it because they think it’s either generic or dated, which really is a
shame. Today on RockmanDash Rambles, I’d like to spend some time to talk about YU-NO in the hopes of letting
people know about this gem of a work. YU-NO is not just yet another tried-and-true Visual Novel; from its
engaging story to its unique presentation and defining place in the Visual Novel industry to its special place in my
heart, YU-NO does a lot, and there’s a lot to talk about it.
Let’s start this off by talking about the game itself: YU-NO is a sci-fi mystery time travel epic Visual Novel released in 1996 by ELF for the PC-98 Japanese computer. With a VNDB length of 30-50 hours and a complex, multi-route storyline, YU-NO is an ambitious Visual Novel that strives for and genuinely achieves great things. It follows Takuya Arima, our lovable pervert of a protagonist and a third-year student at Sakaimachi academy. One day Takuya’s father mysteriously vanishes while doing his historical research. Later that summer, Takuya receives a package from his missing father containing information about parallel worlds. At first Takuya doesn’t take it seriously, but soon he realizes that the package contains a device that allows him to travel to alternate dimensions. Is his father alive, after all? If so, where is he? From here, a mystery unfolds, trying to find out what the heck is going on with his dad, parallel worlds, and a girl who randomly appears out of nowhere!
It’s a compelling and interesting premise, but more importantly than any of the specifics, though, YU-NO first and foremost is a work that is about parallel worlds and the mechanics of that itself, with other elements like mystery helping to progress the story, similar to works like Steins;Gate. The alternate worlds play out familiarly to time travel stories, with “save points” allowing you to travel through points in the game’s narrative. It’s technically different because YU-NO diverges into a different world, when the “save points” are used, but it’s implementation is essentially the same. So if you’re like me and time travel style stories are your jam, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a shot.
For me, YU-NO’s real strength is in how it manages to meaningfully integrate the gameplay and the story in a way that almost nothing else really even attempts to try, and a lot of this is because of gameplay decisions that a modern Visual Novel wouldn’t even consider. It is worth mentioning that this section is based on my experience with the original, and when the remake lands i’ll definitely update this section with information about the remake. The alternate and parallel worlds are implemented like one’s experience of the game, with the jewels in the divergence map serving as your save states and the different routes as different branching experiences in the story for Takuya. This gamification makes you feel much more engaged and attached to the game than a typical Visual Novel: You have limited saves so you’re conscious about the current existence of the player, new routes open up depending on your item inventory just like someone in Takuya’s situation, saves are temporary because they’re dependent on jewels so if you screw up with your save management you get to have fun skipping until you get back just like Takuya, and you’re dictating the player through point and click action so you feel more in control.
There are definite downsides to these choices, though - item management can really drag the game down, especially when something like a blue card or rope can and will keep you from progressing. The backtracking in YU-NO is something I’m really glad is no longer a thing because it really, really, really sucks to retread but having different elements of the story interact with different routes helps to flesh out the story so I get why it’s this way, but it’s worth mentioning. Last but not least, the point and click nature. In YU-NO you are in control of where Takuya goes, and it’s up to you to pick up items, to get Takuya in the right place, etc. This is simultaneously my favorite and least favorite gameplay element of YU-NO because it’s far more immersive and leads to a lot of great moments but it’s also a total pain in the ass that leads to a lot of faffing about. I’m glad that most modern Visual Novels moved away from this but I do appreciate that YU-NO has point and click. Modern VNs also never even attempt to do large branching stories like this anymore, which I do really miss. VNs are generally much more linear, or have less significant choices. There’s still the occasional branching epic, but you’ll rarely find something that has as large of a scope as YU-NO does.
You might expect YU-NO to be a really slow read given it’s 90’s Sci-Fi VN nature, and for some people I can definitely see them thinking that, but in general from my experience it keeps your attention throughout with interesting events which is remarkable given the length of the story. You might not expect it, but YU-NO as a game and as a story actually holds up incredibly well, but at its core deals with a lot of elements that haven’t really shown it’s age.
Of course there are elements that haven’t aged well, as you can feel the 90s eroge influence through in two real elements: 1) the characters feel extremely dated by modern standards and 2) the amount of sexually suggestive scenes or just downright sex scenes in the original Visual Novel. For the first point, while the cast might have been interesting or influential back then, by modern standards the cast has such by-the-book, tried-and-true personalities that they aren’t all that interesting. You can basically categorize characters like tsundere, lackey, teacher, bad guy, etc. and with those categorizations themselves you basically know everything you need to know about most characters. This makes a lot of the game less interesting, but the engaging banter and dialogue makes this far less of an issue than you’d expect. Also given many of the cast are actual adults instead of teens, the more by-the-book and less unique nature of the cast is less of an issue, simply because it’s rare in the first place to have engaging adults in an anime story. There’s also a lot of intriguing character moments, meaningfully integrated with exciting elements in the story. So, while the cast isn’t all that interesting or unique, it is a very likable cast that is engaging and does its job.
As for the sexual elements of the game, both suggestive and sex scenes pop up far
too frequently, which is incredibly distracting given YU-NO’s plot-focused nature. Every now and then it can
get a smile out of you (like this gif) but for the most part it doesn’t make the game better, and I definitely wish
there was less of it. A lot of it can just feel like sexual harassment and it’s pretty awkward to go through. In
regards to the explicit sex scenes that can be immersion-breaking, at least this will not be an issue with the remake
or anime given they are completely absent in those versions, but they remain a potential deal-breaker for for the
original, not because of the content itself but how it’s handled. I am genuinely not a fan and it’s my least favorite
part of the original release, but I get it if you like it.
The sped up nature is what I’d consider more a personal decision or coin flip than something good or bad. It’s handled really well but there’s still the fact it is done that way at all: The anime is missing scenes that might make continuity more confusing and certain scenes and characters may seem less developed and engaging than if you’ve played the VN. The way they treat specific characters seems weird to me; for example, Mio, the tsundere character kinda comes off as less likable character throughout the anime when she gets some nice development in the VN.The characters seem a bit dumber in general because we aren’t seeing them do nearly as much thinking and problem solving, small stuff like that. Cut content is not necessarily bad - sure it’s a different experience, but as long as you make the anime experience a great one, there’s nothing wrong with changing things to better fit the medium. Seeing a version as good as this given the amount of just garbage VN animes like Island, Rewrite, etc. is really nice, it’s a great way to have people enjoy this story.
Though, one change that really isn’t small is what they did to Takuya.
Apparently the anime director went out of his way to make the anime version more perverted, and you can really tell
that. They injected a ton of new perverted jokes, amplified the presentation of existing jokes, and they aren’t really
handled that well. The jokes make Takuya seem far less mature than his Visual Novel version. Sure the original Takuya
had his fair share of perverted moments but even in the VN I didn’t like most of them so more is not really a good
thing. It’s something that I find rather annoying and I think it could be a deal breaker for some people. It’s
incredibly out of place in many scenarios and just hard to watch, especially in 2019 given that a decent amount can be
seen just as sexual harassment.
Also just worth mentioning: this isn’t exclusive to the anime but because it’s based off of the remake the aesthetics are just not my cup of tea and I think the show’s less appealing as a result. You can try to take out the 90s out of YU-NO, but any attempt to do so takes some of the charm out of the work itself. The soundtrack isn’t the same, which some people have been complaining about but honestly, I don’t think it’s a big deal at all. It might not be the same iconic and memorable score but in no way should it be considered a deal breaker - it’s still absolutely fantastic and holds its own in regards to making an emotional and engaging impact. The track in episode 9 with Mio comes to mind and is legitimately one of my favorite moments of the anime so far.
While you might not expect it given the way the industry is nowadays and how YU-NO compares to modern Visual Novels, YU-NO has a special place and special influence in the history of the medium. There’s a Hardcore Gaming 101 article that describes the game and how it came to be better than I ever could so I’d recommend reading that if you’re interested, but I’m gonna give my best shot at doing it justice. Basically, there’s a reason it is worth remaking in the first place: YU-NO and other works by Hiroyuki Kanno, Umemoto, and others provided an experience other Visual Novels couldn’t come close to at the time, shaping the industry as a result.
Back in the 90s, Visual Novels, Nukige and Eroge were basically the same thing - almost every Visual Novel back then focused on the sex scenes, with so much cheaply made porn VNs made to the point in which the PC-98 is now known primarily as a hentai machine to many people in the West. As we all know, though, Visual Novels aren’t just restricted to being porn, and as a medium they have the potential to tell incredible stories that vary wildly in style and presentation. At C’s Ware, Kanno, Umemoto and others were eager to change all of this and we would see this come to fruition with works like Desire, Xenon and Eve Burst Error, works that focused more and more on providing a quality package with presentation and story being put first and foremost. They weren’t perfect though, and Elf, another VN Studio knew it - they hired both Kanno and Umemoto to create something impressive, to create YU-NO. Kanno and Umemoto’s works were a smash hit, so successful that it did the impossible - all 3 got a console port for the Saturn, removing all the sex yet still standing alone as a quality game which was something unheard of at the time.
Thanks to Kanno and Umemoto‘s hard work, YU-NO was the real starting point for developers to actually take the medium seriously. YU-NO proved that Visual Novels can be more than Eroge and Nukige, that a compelling and engaging story could be made from this medium. The deep integration of story, presentation, and gameplay become something that everyone wanted in the medium, and staff at the time responded by hiring more talent, leading to more creativity and more risks. After the mid-90’s we’d see a rise in story based Visual Novels from groups/companies like Key, AquaPlus/Leaf, Type-Moon, etc. and we’d see works that would take stylistic cues from YU-NO with the massive branching plotlines and time travel stories like Fate/stay night and Steins;Gate. Hell, there are direct examples of YU-NO’s influence with writers like Jun Maeda (Clannad, Kanon, Air, etc.), Romeo Tanaka (Rewrite, I/O, Humanity has Declined, etc.) Fumiaki Maruto (White Album 2, Saekano), and Tamiki Wakaki (The World God Only Knows) all are on record saying that YU-NO had a direct influence on their works, and I’m sure there’s plenty more out there.
In a way, the impact that YU-NO had on the medium is similar to the impact that Final Fantasy VII had on JRPGs in the west: it made people interested in this type of work, and influenced the rest of the industry to follow in its footsteps. While FFVII made people in the west take JRPGs seriously, got the genre as a whole mainstream, lead/inspired a wave of great JRPGs like Chrono Chross and Grandia. YU-NO got people in Japan to start taking Visual Novels seriously, got story driven VNs into the mainstream and lead/inspired a wave of Visual Novel Classics like Kanon and Fate/stay night. Even if you dismiss YU-NO as a work itself, there’s no dismissing the impact it had on Visual Novels. It’s not an understatement to say that Visual Novels as we know it would be nothing without it. I for one am grateful for all of its impacts because many of my favorite Visual Novels wouldn’t exist without it, and the reason I care about the medium as a whole would be non-existent without it.