The shadows gather around us once again. Take our hands and wander with us into the darkness where the monsters gather. We’re bringing you 31 horror reviews in October. Whatever you do, don’t let go of our hands lest you find out what truly goes bump in the night.
More than great controls, beautiful graphics or a stunning soundtrack, I love an amazing concept. It draws me in when I see a game trying to do something or think of something in a way that hasn’t been properly done before. One of my favorite RPGs of all time is Robotrek, a mostly forgotten SNES game that allowed you to build and customize your own robots to do your dirty work. It was so foreign at the time of its release that, even though the idea has been perfected by other franchises, it still sticks with me to this day as a fantastic time. And, on the cusp of the darkest and most unsettling holidays the world over, I turn an unseeing eye back onto a game that still raises my hackles just thinking about it. I’m talking, of course, about the Nameless Game.
The Nameless Game is a murmured rumor that comes to life in a horrifying way on one university campus. Much like Ring, there are tales of a piece of software that people can get onto their DS that, seven days later, will take your life. Naturally, these are just rumors until you, yourself, inexplicably get a new game downloaded onto your system one day. What appears to be a simple Dragon Quest knockoff quickly starts to take on some truly sinister motives, as the characters start becoming twisted parodies of popular NPC tropes, and the glitchy, broken maps make you feel unwell and aware that something isn’t quite right. The soundtrack is also incredibly dissonant, mocking what RPG music usually sounds like by being in the wrong key and often dropping out suddenly to crease tension.
Rather than just be a straightforward “bad game” sort of play, Nameless Game also spends a lot of time in the first person perspective of the player, who needs to walk around a variety of buildings, homes and abandoned hallways to try and find out what’s causing these awful phenomenons and figure out exactly what it is that’s killing his classmates and, potentially, him. The walking is far from just standard exploration, as you have a chronic sense of danger in most of the places you explore, either from immediately apparent sources or just general foreboding. Much like Ring, you’re also very aware that you have a timer counting down, as the game reminds you of which day your on every time you need to close your eyes. Additionally, the glitches of the “game” become more aggressive with each passing day, and you feel like the deterioration of self mirrored in the breakdown of the software you’ve been cursed to carry.
Many people may not have gotten a chance to try their hand at this shadowy masterpiece, simply because the timing was bad and the localization never game. Called Nanashi No Game in Japan, this was a horror DS title that was relatively well received and even got a couple sequels, but never made its way outside of the East. This has a few different factors, but I’d say the big one is the cultural difference and impact of how both the story is told and executed. You gotta remember that the Nintendo DS became a personal assistant for a lot of people during its heyday, so tasks that we delegate to our phones now – saving contacts, studying, silly little games – were shared with Nintendo’s golden calf. It made sense that people would just carry their DS with them everywhere, which is a huge part of the Nameless experience. If you loaded up the game today, it would just feel a little silly to constantly see the DS menu on your 3DS, feeling very out of place and somewhat anachronistic.
But Nameless Game has so much that I loved and really could appreciate in a handheld title. For one, it insisted that you use headphones so it could take full advantage of 3D sound to really pitch the creepy atmosphere at you. Hearing something sneaking up on you in the distance is much more terrifying when you aren’t keenly aware the sound is coming from your speakers. Additionally, the way that you could see just in front of you with the bottom screen and some slight periphery on the top screen was a brilliant use of the DS’ physical design. Japan had already gotten used to using the DS in a variety of different ways, so physically twisting the DS sideways for the “exposition” mode and then turning back for “exploration” was completely manageable. For me, it also served as a grounding moment to keep you set in reality. The pressure of the game was very real at times, and making me twist around my game device helped break the ice and say “It’s all ok, this is just a game.”
Lastly, and this seems almost a cheap addition, but I am just fascinated with the idea of a haunted video game. I really liked the way the “game” is presented as this glitch-ridden, utterly broken but still playable game that slowly preys on the player’s own investment in the time spent. If you were playing the RPG as a standalone title, it would be an equally creepy experience because of how things keep changing and manifesting themselves without really addressing that they happened. You run into a couple who are slated to get married even though their families disapprove. The man is showing hesitation while the woman is blissfully smitten with her fiance. Suddenly, a creepy ghost sprite leads you to a grave and you leave the wedding, one screen up. The music suddenly stops and you return to find both groom and bride dead with no explanation. The whole town is now in mourning, you just want to progress onwards, but you can’t sleep at the inn because dreams of the dead bride are haunting you and continue to do so until you quit and do something else in real life. It’s goddamn unnerving and I would LOVE for the full, awful RPG to just be released, by itself, with no preamble on the Switch someday.
As it stands now, there is no official translation release of Nameless Game, and I highly doubt there will be. Four total titles hit the DS, as well as a true mobile variation for iOS and Android, and Square Enix would prefer to forget them and focus on other titles at the current time. Thank God for rom hackers, then, who’ve made it totally playable in English with a couple of patches. Though I argue there’s been some nuance left behind in translation, it’s an excellent entry point for English speakers to enjoy this horrific title. If you’re into experimental titles and want something a bit terrifying for this season, I highly, HIGHLY recommend seeking out The Nameless Game. I doubt you’ll ever forget it.