Hatsukoi is a 2002 romance eroge from Rune.
Hatsukoi is a very standard school-life romance eroge. The protagonist Hatsushima Minoru is a high school student who, depending on the route, either meets and falls in love with a girl or falls in love with a girl he already knows. The common route in the game is surprisingly short, or at least it feels short because it proceeds at a brisk clip. It serves to introduce the characters, though some of them only cursorily, and provide a few comedic scenes. The comedy is average: a few great jokes here and there but it’s mostly middling humor. I think the common route’s biggest strength is that it gets you to the character routes quickly but with enough established context that it doesn’t feel too sudden. Character routes are, after all, the point of eroge, especially the more romance-driven ones.
Hatsukoi’s main focus, fittingly given its title, is the romance, and it does this very well. The rate at which the romance develops is a near-perfect balance of slow enough to feel real and substantial but fast enough that the route isn’t stuck in any part of the relationship development for long enough to become boring. Many eroge either take too long getting into the romance or spend too long in the “ichaicha” phase where the couple flirts and goes on dates etc. and nothing really happens, but Hatsukoi fortunately avoids these common problems. Instead the relationship between Minoru and the heroine is always moving forward. There are certainly cute romantic scenes where they affirm their love for each other but these are usually singular, not repeated until they lose any power or meaning, and are substantial and real-feeling rather than sickeningly saccharine like you sometimes find in eroge. There are many small aspects to the romances that make them feel realistic, or at least more so than in some eroge that focus on moe to the detriment of any compelling emotion.
Part of this is the necessity of drama. Any worthwhile romance has dramatic conflict for the boy and girl to overcome. Unfortunately, while Hatsukoi does a good job with the rest of its romance this is where it begins to stumble. To what degree depends on the route, but there isn’t a single route that does its drama as well as I would’ve liked. The drama between routes varies not only in quality but in its nature: there is one route of commonplace drama, one of incest drama, and three of varying degrees of nakige-style magical realism. The route with mundane drama presents the kind of ineffectual relationship roadblock that has come up in a million romance storylines and doesn’t put up much of a fight before resolving. The incest route was actually the impetus for me playing this game, and although it teases a good incest-based drama, which are so rare in incest eroge for god knows why, it similarly is resolved way too easily. Any potential conflict simply fizzles out on its own over the course of a few scenes. Really disappointing.
The magical realist routes are more interesting. Although one is a pretty standard nakige plot that, like the routes discussed so far, resolves too quickly, the other two have some novel and compelling ideas. The main heroine’s route in particular centers around a certain plot element that I have a thing for, especially in romance stories, but which is for some reason rarely seen in eroge. Unfortunately, while the ideas are great the execution is less than. Although in these routes the drama sticks around long enough to actually mean something it is handled very clumsily. This is best demonstrated in Yusumi’s route, where a really cool plot idea is heavily foreshadowed. It turns out that that cool idea is actually correct, but the reveal and exposition is bungled so badly that it loses almost all of its coolness.
This is another issue with the drama in Hatsukoi: its predictability. Even when novel ideas are involved the trajectory of the route is completely transparent. This, combined with the awkward execution of the drama, ruins any potential emotional impact of Hatsukoi. Although it’s clearly an eroge of the nakige school I never came close to crying. However, on the whole this is a minor issue. Because the sole reason for the drama in this game is to anchor the romance in reality. The drama exists to present a hurdle the couple must overcome so they can be together. You know going into it that they will be together forever. The drama is a necessary threat that prevents the romance from being pure fantasy: it may still be largely fantasy but it is a fantasy that has been earned through hardship, however contrived. In this way the drama in Hatsukoi, despite its flaws, serves its purpose. It enhances the romance, which is the main point of this game.
Hatsukoi’s heroines are all very likable. They’re also all quite unique, even the ones that at first glance seem stereotypical like Anzu the imouto character or Karin the ojousama. Some of this uniqueness is created through kinda gimmicky character traits, like Karin’s forgetfulness or Anzu’s “traps” but it ends up working. They are therefore not especially nuanced or complex but they still feel like full characters. My favorite heroine was the main heroine, Komomo-senpai, who is one of the more memorable heroines in recent memory; she definitely makes for a great main heroine. Anzu is an awesome imouto but sadly more so outside of her route than during it. Karin and the ghost girl Yusumi are also close runners up: like I said the heroines in this game are really likable. My least favorite was the homeless gaijin girl Koko, though she grew on me over the course of her route. And of course little brown girls are the best.
Minoru is, like so many eroge protagonists, predominately dense and indecisive, but again like many protagonists he is protean in nature. Depending on what the scene calls for he can become bold, stubborn, emotional, perverted, or the voice of reason. This does not feel like character development so much as character inconsistency, save for perhaps a few exceptions such as in the main route.
Out of the cast of side characters the only standouts are two of Minoru’s female friends: the Type A personality Nishimura (who has a very short subroute) and the eccentric Miki-pon (who, as the girlfriend of one of Minoru’s friends, has no route). Minoru’s male friends are forgettable—save for the rage-inducing role one of them plays in the main route—and other side characters are route-specific and only exist because they’re necessary for the route’s plot.
Hatsukoi has great BGM, with a style and tonal palette typical of its type of game and of its era. While everyday tracks are mostly not noteworthy the emotional tracks are very powerful—ironically more powerful than the emotional scenes they provide the backdrop for. Piano lines are striking and passionate and strings reverberate with heavy melancholy. I was very surprised the first time I heard the dramatic tracks in the game because they were so moving for a game that had up until that point (I started with Anzu’s route) not presented itself as that kind of game. Hastukoi’s OP and ED are both mediocre, the latter more so than the former. While the OP is based on one of the better BGM tracks it’s one of those rare cases where the instrumental version is superior.
The voice acting initially feels too disinterested but it ends up coming through where it counts: the emotional scenes and the sex scenes. Importantly, the girls all sound cute, a cuteness which like the romance feels more solid than the exaggerated cuteness of something intentionally aiming to be moe.
The art is a very cute loli style, despite all of the characters being in high school. Yet again, it’s cute without being over-the-top. The Rune (and later Tanuki Soft) artist has a characteristic artstyle that lends itself well to nukige but also seems to work for a non-nukige romance eroge. Although the style is great the quality in the art fluctuates oddly. Even just looking at the sprites you notice that some characters are much crisper looking than others. CGs tend to not be as detailed as the more detailed sprites, and there are too few of them.
The ero scenes in Hatsukoi are noticeably better than the norm for non-nukige. You can tell that the writer writes primarily nukige, because his descriptions and scene compositions are much more erotic than you usually find outside of nukige. The scenes are at once dirtier and more realistic than in most story-based eroge. The art also plays a large role in making the ero scenes good, particularly for people who are into loli. Although the characters don’t act like lolis (save for perhaps Koko) one can at least appreciate the physical aesthetics of the loli body type. Unfortunately a number of the ero CGs have poor composition that detracts from the eroticism and ultimately remind you that sex is not the focus of Hatsukoi.
Pros: Great romance; likable heroines; good art and music
Cons: Clumsy drama; generic protagonist
Hatsukoi is a very solid romance eroge. It is orthodox without being cliché. It does romance better than the great majority of eroge, and it’s cute without the saccharine shallowness that came with the rise of moe as an industry term makers consciously aimed for rather than a personal descriptor determined by fans. The main issue with the game is its poor handling of the obligatory drama, but it isn’t so bad as to be offensive and it achieves its goal within the framework of the romance story. Perhaps Hatsukoi’s only real sin with regards to drama is that it sets up a couple of routes to have excellent plots but manages to make a mess of those as well.
At one point Hatsukoi had me spending my entire day playing, which hasn’t happened with an eroge in years. Not because anything impressive was happening, not because it was a masterpiece, but simply because it was such an enjoyable experience. I think this speaks to its power to evoke what makes eroge special. Hatsukoi is a great eroge in the traditional early-2000’s vein.