Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be solving the mystery of Danganronpa‘s history. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
In the mid-2000s, Japanese studio Spike was primarily known for its work developing publisher Bandai’s Dragon Ball Z series of fighting games. By the end of the decade, though, the developer had started to broaden its artistic palette by publishing ports of Chunsoft’s visual novels 428: Shibuya Scramble (2008/2018) and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (2009/2010) in Japan. The success of these more experimental games seems to have inspired Spike to internally develop its own visual novel for the PlayStation Portable (PSP).
Spike staff member Kazutaka Kodaka had few game credits to his name when he began work on a prototype of the first Danganronpa called Distrust. His work on Clock Tower 3 (2002) may have been an influence on Distrust, as the game featured significantly grittier violence than the final version. Images of the prototype reveal a dirty warehouse setting, a bloody guillotine, and an early incarnation of series mascot Monokuma in which the character is depicted as a man missing half his skin rather than the stylized teddy bear he would later become. Kodaka and his team decided to scrap the early concept after concluding that it was too dark to have anything more than niche appeal.
Spike’s second approach to the game quickly evolved into the version released in Japan on the PSP in 2010. Based on Kodataka’s own fond memories of his time at an all-boys high school and the film adaptation of Battle Royale (2000), Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc still featured a grim premise but now conveyed it through a heavily stylized pop art lens identified by Kodataka as “psycho-pop.” The setting is a mysterious elite high school called Hope’s Peak Academy at which 16 students have been imprisoned. They are expected to take part in a sadistic game run by the aforementioned mechanical bear Monokuma – now designed using a black and white motif intended to recall Spider-Man antagonist Venom – and can only escape a lifetime at the academy by murdering a classmate and avoiding punishment.
The player character, Makoto Naegi, must investigate murders as they occur and build relationships with his surviving classmates over a lengthy adventure. Classmates are each identified by a so-called ‘ultimate’ characteristic. These include Ultimate Gambler Celestia Ludenberg, Ultimate Fanfic Creator Hifumi Yamada, and Ultimate Clairvoyant Yasuhiro Hagakure, among others.
Gameplay is broken down into two major phases which comprise each of the game’s six chapters: School Life and Class Trials. The former sees Makoto exploring Hope’s Peak, talking to non-player characters, and then gathering clues once a dead body has been discovered. The latter echoes the style of Capcom’s contemporary visual novel series Ace Attorney, as Makoto participates in a trial and presents evidence in order to identify a murderer.
Where the trial mechanics of Danganronpa distinguish themselves from Ace Attorney is in their sense of urgency and downright unique user interface. A digital clock ticks down during the first phase of the trial – Nonstop Debate – as the player listens to all surviving classmates discuss the chapter’s murder in real time. When yellow text appears on screen, the player can choose to press the speaker by shooting the text with a cursor designed to resemble crosshairs. At this point, a more substantive argument begins and Makoto can present evidence (referred to in-game as “word bullets”) discovered during the preceding School Life sequence. Once the murderer has been successfully identified, a pre-rendered cutscene depicts their execution.
Cutscenes and standard gameplay both feature highly stylized aesthetics referred to by the development team as 2.5D Motion Graphics. Environments are fully 3D, though the player cannot freely navigate them and instead must move a cursor around to interact with objects or characters. These characters are rendered as 2D anime-influenced cutouts within the surrounding 3D space. The game’s horrifying violence is typically viewed from an oblique perspective and all blood is colored bright pink, rendering the events more abstract.
Danganronpa‘s Japanese launch on the PSP was a commercial success, prompting enhanced ports for the PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, Steam, iOS, and Android. The PlayStation Vita version was published in North America by Nippon Ichi Software (NIS) four years after the game’s initial debut, prompting a new round of critical acclaim (aside from some concerns about an insensitively handled gender issue) and uncharacteristically high sales for the historically under-performing visual novel genre in that region. Thanks to the lengthy localization delay, fans in North America would not need to wait as long as Japanese fans had for a sequel.
Super Danganronpa 2 / Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (2012/2014)
Spike merged with Chunsoft – the studio which had originally developed aforementioned Spike-published visual novels 428: Shibuya Scramble and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors – in 2012. The two studios had already established a business partnership during the 2000s, but the merger brought increased resources to bear on each of the studios’ increasingly popular franchises. Kazutaka Kodaka was given the greenlight to develop a more ambitious realization of Danganronpa‘s unique premise.
The second title in the franchise is set on an isolated tropical island called Jabberwock, though it is otherwise initially similar to its predecessor in its framing device. A group of students from Hope’s Peak Academy are stranded and tasked by school president Monokuma with either murdering their classmates and getting away with it or identifying and punishing said murderer. The player takes on the role of amnesiac Hajime Hinata as he builds relationships with his classmates and seeks to solve murders.
Danganronpa 2‘s narrative is conveyed through the same gameplay sections as in the series’ debut: School Life and Class Trials. Both modes offer a handful of new wrinkles, of course. The former sees players navigating Jabbrwock Island in 2D, leveling up their protagonist through interactions with classmates, and gaining the ability to equip additional deductive skills during high-pressure Class Trials. These trials are broadly identical to those in Danganronpa, though players must now rapidly identify truthful statements in addition to lies. The Logic Dive section of Class Trials is perhaps the most surprising new gameplay mechanic, as it features the player character skateboarding down a representation his own synapses in 3D.
Though the premise of Danganronpa 2 is similar to its predecessor, complexities are introduced which render the game much more than a retread. A metatextual layer hinted at in the opening hours through a virtual pet mechanic expands into some profoundly dense storytelling in its back half. Cliffhangers and unresolved plot threads from the first title are likewise resolved or developed further in spite of no initial continuity between the events of each game. Among the 16 members of the player character’s cohort are Ultimate Yakuza Fuyuhiko Kuzuryu, Ultimate Mechanic Kazuichi Soda, and Ultimate Affluent Prodigy Byakuya Togami.
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair was originally published in Japan by Spike Chunsoft on the PSP in 2012 before being re-released, with touch controls and higher-resolution graphics, a year later on the PlayStation Vita. An international release of the Vita version occurred in 2014, and was followed by ports to PC (2016) and PlayStation 4 (2017). The enhanced edition of the game features a few impressive post-game features, including the ability to replay the story without Class Trials and an alternate story in which events unfold differently; the latter is presented as a non-interactive light novel by Ryougo Narita. Perhaps a bit inexplicably, two stageplay adaptations followed in 2015 and 2017.
Note: Cover image sourced from Danganronpa Wiki
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (2017)
Between the release of Danganronpa 2 and Danganronpa V3, Spike Chunsoft licensed the property to anime studio Lerche for a television show intended to wrap up all lingering plot threads from the series’ first two games. Lerche had already successfully produced an animated adaptation of the series’ first game, so it seemed a natural fit for an original story set in the same universe. The resulting 24-episode work, Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School, was directed by Seiji Kishi and aired in Japan during 2016; a localized version was later brought to worldwide audiences by Funimation. With few remaining areas of the series’ preceding plot left unexplored, Danganronpa V3 (the V stands for Victory) was developed as something of a new start for the franchise.
It seems to take some of its cues from Distrust, the discarded prototype for Danganronpa. The series returns to Hope’s Peak Academy from Jabberwock Island, though the school now has darker visual elements reminiscent of a prison. Similarly, character executions are more grisly and violent than they had been in either of the two earlier titles.
The plot is initially familiar to players of the series’ debut, as it features 16 students participating in a bloody battle to survive their time at the school, though an increasingly twisty narrative ensures that it soon differentiates itself from its predecessors. On the surface, Monokuma is less prominent as much of his role has been redistributed to a new group of Monokubs. These characters retain the unique mixture of cute and sinister which had come to define Danganronpa‘s ursine mascot. The game’s all-new student roster includes Ultimate Supreme Leader Kokichi Oma, Ultimate Tennis Pro Ryoma Hoshi, and Ultimate Cosplayer Tsumugi Shirogane.
Cosmetic and mechanical updates are still more recognizable in the series’ third entry, as it was the first designed from the ground up for a wider range of platforms than the PSP. Highly stylized character models are still composed by Rui Komatsuzaki but the graphics are otherwise more detailed than in earlier titles. Minigames are more varied than ever, including a dungeon-crawler role-playing game (RPG), a highly abstract card/board game, and a Class Trial sequence called Psyche Taxi in which the player controls a car avoiding obstacles on a psychedelic 3D track.
Gameplay is roughly divided into School Life and Class Trials as it had been in the first two Danganronpa titles, but both of these modes include a handful of new features. School Life includes a casino in addition to the typical plot-progressing exploration and conversation options; players can participate in various minigames at the casino to acquire in-game currency and gain access to a love hotel troublingly situated on the grounds of Hope’s Peak. Class Trials now offer the opportunity to lie and participate in mass panic debates, cacophonous moments when the player must choose which of multiple competing speakers to refute.
Danganronpa V3 was released on the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 in Japan on January 12, 2017. It was localized in the West by NIS for both platforms, along with PC, later that year. Reception was especially positive, comparing the game favorably to its predecessors and drawing particular attention to its impressively twisting narrative.
Most Danganronpa spinoffs, as with many other Japanese intellectual properties (IPs), are confined to non-interactive media. Manga side-stories, the aforementioned anime adaptations, and even a couple of prequel novels present a much larger world than the one that players can interact with in the video game series. Demos for each series entry also offer distinctive mini-stories designed to introduce players to the world without disclosing much of the associated core entry’s plot. In this section, I would like to focus specifically on the handful of interactive Danganronpa spinoffs released by Spike Chunsoft over the past decade. Except where noted, these games are exclusive to Japan.
The first category of spinoffs include mobile titles released as apps on iOS or Android devices. 2012 saw the release of Alter Ego, a lightly interactive simulation game which lets users see the time in Japan, access an encyclopedia, and engage in brief dialogue sequences with Danganronpa characters. Danganronpa: Monokuma Strikes Back, a minigame collection in which the player participates in various reflex challenges starring Monokuma, was released later the same year. Collectible card-based RPG Danganronpa: Unlimited Battle was released exclusively on iOS in 2015, and features characters from the first two core series entries acquired through gambling on randomized cards bought with real-world currency; this game was a simple cosmetic update to Kenka Banchou: Crash Battle (2014) and was discontinued less than a year after its launch.
The second category of Danganronpa spinoffs consist of simple games playable in internet browsers. Two of these, MonoMono Machine (2012) and New MonoMono Machine (2016), are slot machine minigames playable on Spike Chunsoft’s official website; both feature cosmetic digital prizes – like desktop wallpaper – and served respectively as promotions for Danganronpa 2 and Danganronpa V3. Monokuma Factory, an incremental factory production title in the style of Cookie Clicker (2013) was also published as a marketing tie-in to the more extensive Vita/PlayStation 4 spinoff Ultra Despair Girls: Danganronpa Another Episode (2014/2015). In this game, the player is mass-producing Monokumas for some sinister purpose.
The third category of spinoffs includes titles released across PCs and traditional game consoles. The first of these, the aforementioned Ultra Despair Girls: Danganronpa Another Episode (2014/2015), is an action-adventure game published on the PlayStation 4, Vita, and PC in which the player takes control of a character associated with the events of the first core series entry. Gameplay articulates as a third-person shooter in which the player character must shoot marauding Monokuma robots with words fired from a megaphone-like gun and participate in brief overhead puzzle sequences. This is one of only two Danganronpa spinoffs to be localized outside of Japan.
The second of these localized spinoffs is Cyber Danganronpa VR The Class Trial (2016/2017), a virtual reality demo on PlayStation 4 which retells the events of a class trial in the first Danganronpa title. Gameplay is light, as the player is able to interact with debating characters from a first-person perspective. This demo features a rare instance of Rui Komatsuzaki’s character models rendered in full 3D. Sadly, the trial is incomplete and ends with a recreation of an execution from the first Danganronpa also shown for the first time from a first-person perspective.
The final Danganronpa spinoff at the time of writing in 2019 is a sound novel tie-in to the Danganronpa 3 anime. Bundled with the 2016 Japanese Blu-Ray release of that television series, Kirigiri Sou is functionally a choose-your-own-adventure text story which can be played on PCs. The plot concerns a mysterious girl named Kyoko Kirigiri, a car crash, and the exploration of a spooky house.
Spike, and later Spike Chunsoft, has produced a shocking amount of Danganronpa material since the franchise’s 2010 debut on the PSP. Kazutaka Kodaka’s visual novel franchise has shed blood across a variety of interactive and non-interactive platforms, integrating increasingly action-oriented gameplay as it evolved over time. It came as a shock when Kodaka unexpectedly left Spike Chunsoft in 2018 to form his own studio, Too Kyu games, alongside Danganronpa artist Rui Komatsuzaki. No commentator can say where this leaves the series which brought him worldwide fame, though one can be sure that fans are eagerly awaiting news from either Spike Chunsoft or Too Kyu on Danganronpa‘s next unlucky class of students.
What do you think? Are you a fan of Danganronpa‘s “psycho-pop” aesthetics or do you prefer its mystery mechanics? Could you see more genre-bending hybrids in the vein of Ultra Despair Girls or would you like to see a fourth entry in the visual novel style? Who is your favorite Monokuma Kub? Let’s discuss below!
Next week we will be covering Wario Land. Here is a full list of upcoming planned entries in the Franchise Festival column (subject to change):
- September 13: Wario Land
- September 20: Ultima
- September 27: Uncharted
- October 4: Castlevania
- October 11: Clock Tower