Originally, I wanted to cover the last ten years within the visual novel genre on my own. I had several ideas on how to approach looking back at the 2010s. In the end though, from a purely critical point-of-view, while the plan to look back at the best and worst of the 2010s was solid, the idea of it just including me was not. Because, I wasn’t the only critic to navigate the visual novel genre for the last decade. Many have contributed their thoughts and analyses on the genre, its up and its downs. Of that many, three have been so effective and influential in their critiques that I have had the privilege of calling them confidants: HusbandoGoddess, Tryinmorning and ChrisTenarium. So, I decided to scrap my plans and offer them the floor first on what they thought was the Best and Worst Visual Novels of the 2010s.
I hope you all enjoyed HusbandoGoddess’ Best and Worst of the 2010s and Tryinmorning’s Best and Worst of the 2010s. They were fun to edit and very fun to talk about. The history of visual novels in the West and especially the English Visual Novel market could fill a few days of discussion. For now though, seeing different ideas of what stood out and for what reasons brings a smile to my face.Today it is my turn and considering this blog is mostly me featuring what I’ve thought were the best and worst for the last decade, I was and am on the fence on whether or not I should even get a turn. After all, I’ve spent most of the last decade telling you all exactly what I feel are the best and worst on the VN side of gaming. And there are many more that work outside of those categories that we should talk about. What was the most influential, what did we learn about business from the rise and fall and rise(?) of Sekai Project, and the viability of the visual novel media as is. I think despite it all, the future is very bright.
These are conversations for another day, because ultimately I do have two titles I consider the Best and Worst. I’m sure everyone has an idea on what I think stood out as during the 2010s and I’m sure I’m about to repeat myself in at least one category. However, for all of the ups and downs, I can safely say covering visual novels for the last nine years hasn’t been boring. So, let’s celebrate that here with my picks for Best and Worst Visual Novel of the 2010s.
Best Visual Novel: VA-11 HALL-A (2016)
2016 was a rough year for your humble visual novel reviewer. The political world was turned on its head and I was sweating it out in Middle and South Georgia trying to keep my business interests from crashing down. Spoiler Alert: they did anyway. With everything either on hold on in flames, I spent the downtime I had decompressing with my Best Visual Novel of the 2010s: Sukeban Games’ VA-11 HALL-A.
There is a saying that ‘everyone is the protagonist of their own story’. VA-11 HALL-A takes that literally by making an entire cast of cyberpunk protagonists. Everyone who walks into the bar is in the middle of their own adventure whether it is Sei’s work as a White Knight, Gillian’s role as a revolutionary, and the less we talk about Dorothy’s role the better. Also, Best Boss. Anyway, the main setting of the game feels like the converging point for all of these disparate plot threads and that requires writing, or at least planning, several stories in order for all of the plot beats to make sense when they converge at the bar. Succeeding here not only shows a mastery of the craft, but also pushes forward the major theme of the game: living. And that is done through the protagonist, Jill Stingray.
Stingray’s story is one about coming to terms with past mistakes, accepting responsibility and maturing into a quasi-responsible adult. However, you’re not told that immediately. All you know is that she is the perpetual straight woman in this insane world. Then you get a better view of her living situation and a hint at what’s going on in her head before finally unraveling her past. By itself, it’s standard noir fair but what elevate the tale is that she can’t make the situation ‘right’. She can’t apologize or explain her side of the story. All she can really do is is keep working, focus on the drinks and try to reconcile her emotions when she has time. You just have to keep living and that story is magnificently done.
It also helps that VA-11 HALL-A has one of the best Presentations of any visual novel of all time. The artwork and character design is sublime and the music? The VA-11 HALL-A OST is still rightfully a standard in all of gaming. It is an excellent title that not only has stood the test of time, but rightfully deserves the nod as Best Visual Novel of the 2010s.
Worst Visual Novel: Sakura Spirit (2014)
Yup. One more time: for the record.
Like it or not, for most of Western gaming, there are two titles that introduced them to the visual novel medium. The first was Katawa Shoujo: a title that hasn’t aged well but is still more average than anything. The second is this. Sakura Spirit dominated livestreaming and Let’s Play videos in its time: generating so much interest that many in these audiences purchased the game outright to be a part of the joke. Hundreds of hours streamed and, realistically, millions of dollars in profit later, Sakura Spirit had fully saturated the gaming market. If anyone didn’t know what a visual novel was, they finally had a good idea. And what, pray tell, was that idea?
That idea is that if you pay for this, you don’t deserve better.
Sakura Spirit is the dictionary definition of vulgar. I’d argue nearly every title in the Winged Cloud library is vulgar (we’ll revisit Pyrite Heart soon enough). No one in its orbit denies it. Even during years of controversies and a definite case of fraud, the Sakura franchise was profitable. That gluttony and vulgarity not only sunk Sekai Project for a time, it nearly sunk Steam. I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom because there were successful titles during this time. But there was also a clear stretch where the Sakura series was the one setting the pace. Thankfully, the bar was set so low that it really didn’t take too much to jump it. It just took the right audience to notice. Hence: DDLC.
We are in a much better place in 2020 than we were when Sakura Spirit first came out. The market is more open to having standards now, for one. New developers are putting their own unique spin on the genre like Necrobarista and Chromatose. Also, many games that had to deal with the bad timing of launching during this era are finally getting their due. Everything is looking up as of the time of writing this and, hopefully, new standards will be set moving forward. But, it behooves one to remember exactly how bad things can get. Sakura Spirit is the Worst Visual Novel of the 2010s and, God willing, the bar will never fall so low again.