This article has been republished to celebrate the game’s North American anniversary as well as the upcoming NEO: The World Ends With You release. Portions have been edited to reflect modern times.
April 22nd marks the North American anniversary of the DS one-hit wonder, The World Ends With You. The 2008 cult classic made it onto our own site’s “200 Best Nintendo Games” list and now, more than a decade later, is receiving an anime adaptation and a much-awaited brand-new sequel.
Those who have never played The World Ends With You, or heard of it for that matter, may be wondering what all the hullabaloo is about. What is it about this game that has fans up in a tizzy? What’s so special about it that Square Enix suddenly feels like pushing it so hard? Take a seat, and let’s talk about The Reapers’ Game.
The Beginning of the End
Development of the original The World Ends With You began soon after the Kingdom Hearts team at Square Enix wrapped up work for the GBA Chain of Memories title in cooperation with studio Jupiter. The team looked at the then announced, but unreleased, Nintendo DS hardware and decided to create a new game specifically designed from the ground up for the handheld. They had the touchscreen in mind, in particular, and wanted to set the game in a real-life location as opposed to their fantasy modus operandi.
Eventually during development, the famous Tetsuya Nomura suggested utilizing both screens for battles in a revolutionarily unique system. Creating battles using touch inputs on the bottom screen progressed smoothly enough but creating a simultaneous system for the top screen was the source of, understandably, much anguish. After substantial trial and error, the team finally arrived at the zany, hair-brained solution we can find in the final product today.
To say The World Ends With You’s battle system is complicated would be one of the biggest understatements of the gaming industry. Our protagonist, Neku Sakuraba, is controlled on the bottom screen using the stylus. Various gestures activate his various equipped “pins.” For example, tapping an enemy repeatedly may activate a projectile pin while slashing them activates a close combat pin.
Meanwhile, Neku’s partner, the upbeat Shiki Misaki, occupies the top screen and is controlled using button inputs. By following an onscreen button map Shiki will attack and execute various finishers, with each finisher also corresponding to a card. Yes, a card. Because it’s not enough to just mash buttons for a finisher, you’re also playing a card game akin to Memory at the same time that charges your special Fusion moves.
By the way, Neku and Shiki share a health bar so don’t go neglecting one or the other unless you want them both to kick the bucket!
It’s a lot to take in on paper, and it’s a lot to take in in practice as well. In our “Top 200 Nintendo Games” list I described the screen-splitting action akin to learning how to pat your head and rub your stomach while playing the xylophone with your feet and the harmonica with your mouth. It is a system as obtuse as it is brutally difficult and it takes no small amount of effort to even begin to grasp.
When you put in that effort to learn the ins and outs, though, and that sudden “click” goes off in your head, you are rewarded with what is still to this day some of the most satisfying action RPG gameplay out there. You fall into a rhythm as you deftly alternate your focus between Neku and Shiki. This rhythm was only heightened by the game’s funkalicious battle tracks that came complete with vocals, which was an absolute marvel for a DS game’s tiny cartridge.
Fortunately, if that “click” seems to be taking a while, The World Ends With You provides a slew of ways to tweak your gameplay, many of which were almost unheard of in its time. Regular battles are initiated purely on the player’s terms, meaning you won’t get overwhelmed by an onslaught of skirmishes with an unfamiliar system. Difficulty levels can be changed at any time with harder difficulties yielding better loot.
The real unique feature, however, is the ability to manually lower your own level from your max for an additional loot multiplier, adding an extra layer of risk vs. reward. You can even play the entire game at level 1 if you so choose. All these options allow the player to custom tailor the difficulty on an individual basis, and could very well be seen as precursors to the accessibility features found in modern games such as Square Enix’s own Bravely Default series.
Welcome to the Reapers’ Game
Why are Neku and Shiki fighting together in the first place, though? After waking up on the streets of Shibuya, Tokyo the two learn that they now inhabit a space overlapping the real world called “the Underground”. The pair is forced into The Reapers’ Game where they must compete against other pairs of players to complete tasks set out by the Game Master. Pairs who fail the task in the given amount of time are “erased”.
The story of The World Ends With You one filled with twists and turns that constantly make you second-guess yourself and reevaluate truths and falsehoods every step of the way. Neku’s character arc is a particular highlight as he rapidly develops from an angsty teenager into a multi-faceted individual to empathize with.
That goes for every character in the game, too. From the upbeat Shiki to the snarky Joshua, and even the notorious Pi Face (aka Sho) who shouts out so many math terms you’ll be dreaming about triangles, each and every character is bursting at the seams with depth, style, and pizzazz. The artistic decision to go with a vibrant, stylized aesthetic complete with sharp angles took advantage of the DS’s limited pixel real estate to make the Underground inhabitants pop along with the concrete jungle that is Shibuya.
The amount of care that went into mapping the terrain of Shibuya is astounding, with the game map corresponding almost one-to-one with its real-life counterpart. The development team even went so far as to enter rooftops without permission in order to obtain reference photos from the proper angles. Iconic landmarks such as the 109 Building were renamed to the 104 Building and such but the overall layout remains intact, so much so that some particularly avid fans even go on “tours” to record such locations found within the game.
The modern-day setting isn’t just for show, though, as it affects numerous aspects of the gameplay as well. In a twist that is distinctly metropolitan Japanese, every district of Shibuya has shifting trends and fashion and equipping popular brands of clothes and pins results in greater effects, with the reverse happening by wearing unpopular brands. Eating food at restaurants bestows various benefits, but only after digesting the meals through repeated battles. There’s even a silly, little mini-game called Tin-Pin Slammers that fits all too well as the “what kids play these days” game of choice on the streets. All of these aspects meld into this wonderful cacophony of a city that pulls the player in despite its pixelated 2D graphics.
Demand for a sequel to The World Ends With You has only grown stronger over the years. It spiked initially with Solo Remix then reached a feverish pitch when Neku and the gang were included as Travis Town cameos in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. Now we have the Switch remake, Final Remix, as well as an anime pushing the fervor full speed ahead to NEO: The World Ends With You’s worldwide release in July. As a fan since the very beginning, this sudden resurgence is as surreal as it is downright exciting and I can’t wait to see what comes of it!
The game is afoot, and the countdown has begun.