The Game-ranking Metagame

Man in comfort wear caught playing a visual novel

It's really satisfying to put things in the right boxes, in the right order, isn't it? Let's put some visual novels and related old games where they belong – on a ranking list! Maybe it's possible to find the quantifiably best visual novel ever. Of course, that'll require meaningful evaluation criteria...

Let me qualify that slightly: I will (gradually) review all games that are completable on SuperSakura, in their modern user-friendly form. This notably includes being able to save the game anywhere, and instant display speed for game text. And this isn't restricted to strictly visual novels; adjacent genres like mahjong, card battles, and some old JRPGs just might appear as well.

Obviously I'm far from the first one doing this. VNDB already has crowd-sourced ratings for all games they know of, plus scattered free-form reviews. I'll be sure to add my scores there. VNDBReview has game blurbs and links to plenty more reviews. And there must be a multitude of VN reviewers in Japan, I assume, the most obvious being the AdvGamer blog. There are many other non-quantitative review blogs beside these, although not many remain active, not to mention ongoing VN discussion in other more ephemeral social media.

Room with a television and anime memorabilia, cluttered with manga and VHS tapes, with fine pixel art detail A fanboy's happy place from Divi-Dead, 5 stars. The game's story has an intriguing air of suspense.

I'll try to rate the core facets of a game with a 5-star scale for each, yielding a final average rating. I just like how easily 5 stars works for anything from food to weather. (For example, any pizza from the outstanding Mamamia restaurants in Kyiv gets a definite 5 stars; a mild overcast day with a touch of British drizzle – but no godrays – gets 3 stars. I guess toadstool jerky during a radstorm would be 1 star on both counts.)

I've always felt 10- or 100-point scales are just too granular; considering it's taken me a year to put to words how exactly a 2-star rating differs from a 3-star rating, I'd need geometrically longer to meaningfully quantify a 10-star scale. (Describing a 100-star scale would ironically exceed the sun's lifespan.)

With that said...

After due reflection, I put it to you that a game of quality must excel in four areas, of broadly equal weight: Visuals, Writing, Sound, and Gameplay.

Sunny view of 3-story townhouses and a cobblestone path, with good attention to detail, and decent perspective and shading Pretty townscape from Zest to Fantasy, 4½ stars. The game itself has an unusual multi-branch CYOA story structure.


Good art draws you in and invites admiring examination, hopefully helping a game to "show, not tell" while impressing with technical finesse. The classic adage holds – I don't know much about art, but I know what I like!

What to look for:

Grade descriptions for visuals:

Ransacked office scene, drawn in low resolution and only 8 colors Limited-fidelity graphic from Lipstick Adv. 1; this gets 2½ stars.

Writing, or Novelness, if you will

Other esteemed blog writers like to devote multiple posts to describing game events and actions, producing a kind of poor man's game novelisation. I lack the skill to write all that in an interesting way, so I'll keep things casual and talk about the game's story on a high, spoiler-free level. About a dozen paragraphs per game is about the upper limit of my long-suffering attention span.

Speaking of which:

Grade descriptions for writing:

Awkwardly posed anime girl over a dark low-quality digitised photograph A few games attempt to use digitised backgrounds with unsatisfying results; this gets 1 star for the background, 3 stars for the character.

Sound, including music, effects, and voice acting

As a child of the 80's, I grew up with catchy game music, synth albums, and intensely melodic classical music. I've done plenty of tracker composing myself, and so have great admiration for the 80's and 90's masters who could create memorable melodies with relatively limited tools. And, although there were several excellent Western composers during this golden era, the majority of the best works were made in Japan.

In a game's soundtrack, I primarily look for catchiness and hummability. If it also provides extra emotion or atmosphere, immersion, all the better. Incidentally, it's well known that music grows on you the more you listen to it. Therefore, I will undertake to listen to each game's full soundtrack outside the game on at least three separate days before passing judgment, to give it a fair chance to impress.

Sound effects I don't have much to say about; it would be nice to have some, but subtle rather than annoying. As for voice acting... Games didn't have voices in my day, and I usually prefer it that way. Voiced dialogue easily takes several times longer than reading, which means a significant chunk of playtime becomes passive listening instead of active playing. To make that tradeoff a net positive, the voice acting would need to be incredible.

On that note:

Grade descriptions for sound:

Stylised painting of a rock garden, a few lush trees, and a single white flower Modern games with wider color palettes favor realistic or full anime styles; this gets 4 stars.

Gameplay, game mechanics, or just plain playability

Visual-novel-like games are of course an evolution of Western adventure games, but with the puzzles de-emphasised and eventually removed entirely. As the verb+nouning of Japanese ADV games was further streamlined into a mostly non-interactive story maybe offering an infrequent multiple choice, we're left with very little by way of game mechanics beyond clicking through a few thousand boxfuls of text.

Even a multiple choice game can still be interesting, if the game is structured so that making the right choices is neither trivially obvious (always pick the person you like) nor pure guesswork (hit some events, but not all, in a precise order with absolutely no clues offered).

Additional game mechanics (RPG stuff, calendar schedule, minigames, etc.) are an obvious way to break up storytelling and wake up the player. But it really comes down to maximising the number of interesting decisions a player makes. Choosing what to look at in the current scene is generally a non-consequential choice, only minimally interesting; responding to an ethical dilemma with no perfect option available is immediately a much more interesting choice.

Playability is the area where SuperSakura makes the most difference – old games might have unnecessary restrictions on saving, laborious disk swapping, game-breaking bugs, maybe not allowing any text skipping, whereas the SuperSakura ports should not have any such issues. I'll try to ensure the user experience is smooth, at least from the game engine perspective.

For a good time:

Grade descriptions for gameplay:

A green-jacketed lady on a street looks cutely at the protagonist. There is a wide variety of potted plants on the sidewalk. It's unlikely any serious modern game gets less than 4 stars for graphics, but how many can achieve the wow factor?

Let's see where this takes us!