While dismissed by many mainstream critics as lightweight, disposable moe fluff, the Neptunia series actually has some of the sharpest, most on-point writing in the business.
Both strongly allegorical and satirical, the series as a whole has evolved its treatment of its narrative themes and characters from installment to installment, roughly in keeping with trends in the gaming business and longstanding concerns in the industry as a whole. Not only that, but it acknowledges and satirises trends in other aspects of popular media, too, particularly anime.
Part of this is down to the snappiness of the original Japanese writing and the characterisation therein — much of which you can pick up through the Japanese voice acting, even if you don’t speak much (or indeed any) Japanese — but a lot of credit must also be laid at the feet of the various localisation teams who have tackled the series over the years.
The original Japanese script acts as an allegory for the quasi-religious fervour with which modern-day fanboys and fangirls lavish praise on their gaming platform of choice.
Before we delve too deeply into Neptunia lore as a whole, it’s worth acknowledging that the matter of the series’ localisation is actually a controversial issue among some sectors of the fanbase. In particular, NIS America’s translation of the original PlayStation 3 installment — which set much of the series’ English language terminology in place and diverged somewhat from the Japanese script in the name of accessibility to a Western audience — raised a few eyebrows among those familiar with incarnations of the game from both sides of the world.
One of the most notable aspects of NISA’s original translation was the toning down of explicit religious references in the scripts. The original Japanese script acts as an allegory for the quasi-religious fervour with which modern-day fanboys and fangirls lavish praise on their gaming platform of choice by literally, explicitly calling the main characters — who, for the benefit of those broadly unfamiliar with the series, are all themed around various console hardware manufacturers — megami (goddess) and their respective bases of operations kyoukai (church). Contrast with NISA’s localisation — the conventions of which were maintained even after Idea Factory International took over the series — which refers to Neptune and her friends as “CPUs” or “Console Patron Units” and their home turf as their “Basilicom”, a futuristic bastardisation of “basilica”, a specific type of church.
As you can see, the religious references are still there — indeed, as the series goes on in the West, we start to see “CPU” and “goddess” used more and more interchangeably, suggesting that Idea Factory International might well be trying to nudge the official localisation more in the direction of a literal translation from Japanese — but a little less on-the-nose, replaced with puns on computer and console-related terminology. Given the subject matter of the series as a whole, this wasn’t an altogether unreasonable substitution to make in the first place, but it is worth acknowledging the position of those who would have preferred a more literal translation.
The official lore line is that the original Hyperdimension Neptunia took place in the Super Dimension, whereas mk2 took place in the parallel world that we now know as the Hyper Dimension.
With that addressed, let’s look into Neptunia’s use of allegory, satire and other narrative techniques in more detail; with the above in mind, we’ll be using the Western terminology and character names from the localised versions where applicable, since most of you reading this will likely be most familiar with the English language versions.
The first two Neptunia games, Hyperdimension Neptunia and Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2, were broadly similar in their thematic content, focusing largely on the subject of piracy and its impact on the games business as a whole. It’s worth noting at this point that mk2 is not a sequel to the original Hyperdimension Neptunia; instead, it acts more as a reboot that allows the CPU Candidate characters — the main cast’s little sisters, representing the handheld platforms in contrast with the CPUs’ personification of TV-connected consoles — the opportunity to put in an appearance and indeed take most of the limelight. The official lore line on this is that the original Hyperdimension Neptunia actually took place in the Super Dimension, whereas mk2 took place in the parallel world that we now know as the Hyper Dimension, which has been the starting point for the other mainline installments in the series to date.
The fact that Hyperdimension Neptunia and mk2 focus on the same thematic content doesn’t mean that they tell the same story, though. No; they come at it from a rather different angle in each regard. In the case of the original Hyperdimension Neptunia, piracy is personified in the form of Arfoire (a reference to the R4 unit, which enabled the playing of pirated games on the Nintendo DS) — a villain who alternates between comedic incompetence and genuine unpleasantness. By contrast, mk2 casts Arfoire as something altogether more insidious: an unseen, long-forgotten goddess that the people’s growing belief in their entitlement to free games — perhaps in itself an acknowledgement of the problem the modern Internet has with making money from creative content — is gradually starting to rouse from its slumber, assisted by the machinations of the Arfoire Syndicate of International Crime (ASIC), each of whom represents a particular aspect of gaming culture at large.
Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, meanwhile, saw the series finally starting to pick up steam, acting as the first true sequel in the franchise by following directly on from mk2. Just to confuse matters, Victory then went and introduced yet another parallel dimension to the mix — the Ultra Dimension — in which most of the game unfolded, allowing the exploration of gaming history through allegory as well as acknowledgement of the industry’s past fallen heroes and villains. Indeed, Victory’s final boss represents a distinctly disgruntled Atari that is somewhat embittered by its failure to be a relevant part of the modern gaming industry despite its role in launching the very concept of video games in the first place; supplanted by these new pretenders who have, between them, usurped the affections of the people, Victory’s message as a whole is that however good things are right now, we should never forget to acknowledge the contributions of what came before, however insignificant or primitive they might appear from a modern perspective.
The choice of the Dreamcast as the central MacGuffin around which the first part of V-II’s storyline focuses is entirely deliberate — both Neptune and her sister are personifications of Sega hardware that failed to make an impact on the world.
Then we come to Megadimension Neptunia V-II, with the V-II part representing the fact that the game is explicitly intended to be taken as a sequel to Victory, despite not featuring the Ultra Dimension at all. Instead, it unfolds across three distinct dimensions: the Hyper Dimension that we’re well familiar with from mk2 and Victory; the mysterious, broken, apparently collapsing Zero Dimension; and the otherworldly, chaotic Heart Dimension.
In line with the three dimensions, V-II is split into three distinct episodes, each of which has its own title screen, opening sequence and separate storyline. Between them, they form one coherent narrative, though they also stand complete in their own right, too.
The game opens with the eponymous Neptune coming across an unfamiliar game console with a swirl mark on it, which anyone who has been gaming for more than a year or two will immediately recognise as a Sega Dreamcast. The choice of the Dreamcast as the central MacGuffin around which the first part of V-II’s storyline focuses is entirely deliberate — both Neptune herself and her sister Nepgear are personifications of Sega hardware that failed to make a significant impact on the world: Neptune represents the hybrid Sega Mega Drive/Genesis and 32X console of the same name, while Nepgear represents the Game Gear handheld. It’s very much fitting that our central characters, personifications of these two fondly remembered failures, should come across the Dreamcast, since that system, by being just a little too ahead of its time — and a victim of poor marketing and support by Sega — remains one of the most beloved, yet tragically dead-before-its-time systems in the entire business.
At this point it is perhaps a good time to look in more detail at the personality of Neptune and Nepgear, and how they personify the systems they’re supposedly based on as well as Sega’s overall position in the industry as a whole. Let’s begin with Neptune.
Neptune the character reflects this particularly turbulent period in Sega’s history by being a chaotic, irresponsible character who tends to act without thinking.
The Sega Neptune was an ill-advised concept from the outset. The 32X add-on for the Sega Mega Drive wasn’t particularly popular in the first place, largely due to a combination of factors: its relatively high price; its lack of games — it only saw 40 releases in its lifetime — and the fact that it was seen as a poor man’s entry to what was then next-generation gaming, an interpretation not helped by Sega’s own positioning of the device as, well, just that. By the time Sega started considering bundling both the Mega Drive and the 32X together into the Neptune, the Saturn — a 32-bit standalone system that was considerably stronger in capabilities than the 32X and Neptune — was already well on the way to release, so the Neptune was eventually scrapped due to being largely irrelevant even before its release.
Neptune the character reflects this particularly turbulent period in Sega’s history by being a chaotic, irresponsible character who tends to act without thinking. She always has good intentions at heart, but often charges headlong into situations without considering the consequences to both herself and the people around her. She’s also lazy and dependent on others — particularly her sister — but becomes immensely capable and, for the most part, rather more mature when she transforms into her “Hard Drive Divinity” (HDD) or goddess form. This latter aspect of her demonstrates the fact that, despite Sega’s somewhat chaotic, irresponsible and ill-considered approach to hardware in this particular era of gaming, they still made damn good systems that could push some impressive visuals around the screen.
Nepgear, meanwhile, is a study in contrasts with her sister. As noted, she represents the Sega Game Gear, a contemporary of Nintendo’s original Game Boy. The Game Gear ultimately lost out to the Game Boy in a number of regards despite being technologically superior: while it offered a backlit colour screen in contrast to the Game Boy’s unlit, 4-tone black and green display, its battery life was considerably poorer, making it less practical as a truly portable, handheld device. It also suffered a little from a lack of focus; Sega’s release of various addons including a TV tuner and a converter allowing the unit to play Master System games made it look as if the company wasn’t quite sure what to do with the handheld, and was instead throwing a bunch of ideas at it to see what stuck. (Nothing, as it happens.)
Nepgear the character reflects the Game Gear’s identity crisis nicely. A highly intelligent, technically minded character, she nonetheless suffers from a crippling lack of self-confidence thanks to being perpetually overshadowed by her sister. And despite having had a stint as the protagonist in mk2, the traumatic experiences she went through and witnessed over the course of that particular adventure left their own indelible marks on her personality; she’s also continually concerned, in one of the series’ many instances of “breaking the fourth wall”, that the games’ audience as a whole won’t take her seriously because she’s not the real title character. In other words, much as the Game Gear, later in its life, didn’t quite seem to know what it wanted to be — did it want to be a technologically advanced handheld gaming platform, or an all-encompassing portable entertainment device? — so too does Nepgear perpetually struggle with what her real place in the world is.
Sega likely hoped that the Dreamcast was a new dawn for itself after the Saturn lost out to the PlayStation — much as Uzume’s dance attempted to bring Amaterasu out from her slumber.
Neptune and Nepgear’s discovery of the “swirl mark console” leads them to inexplicably be sucked into Zero Dimension, a world that seems to be falling to pieces due to it being continually terrorised by a “Dark CPU” — a huge, remorseless figure that seems hell-bent on destroying Zero Dimension and everything in it, and which has largely succeeded.
Zero Dimension itself could be interpreted as a rather literal representation of Sega’s ailing fortunes in the Dreamcast era as the company gradually moved towards abandoning console hardware altogether and taking up the position it has in the industry today as a software publisher. Further evidence for this comes in the form of V-II’s first new character Uzume Tennouboshi, the personification of the Dreamcast.
Uzume’s character is riddled with references to the Dreamcast itself. For starters, her first name can be interpreted to refer to the Japanese Shinto goddess of the same name, who is a deity of laughter and merriment. Further credence can be given to this theory by the fact that the name “Uzume” can be literally interpreted to mean “whirling” — unquestionably a reference to the iconic “swirl mark” on both the real Dreamcast and its fictional counterpart in the Neptunia universe. Not only that, but the Shinto story of Uzume the goddess refers to her performing a strange dance that lured the sun goddess Amaterasu out of her cave, bringing the dawn — and perhaps not altogether coincidentally, one representation of the sun in traditional Japanese iconography is as a spiral shape. Getting a little more metaphorical, Sega likely hoped that the Dreamcast was a new dawn for itself after its previous console the Saturn lost out to Sony’s original PlayStation — much as Uzume’s dance attempted to bring Amaterasu out from her slumber in the cave to allow the sun to shine once more.
As for Tennouboshi, that’s a little more straightforward: it means “Uranus”. After the Mega Drive, Sega often used the names of planets (or Roman deities, if you prefer) as codenames for its new projects: we’ve already talked about the Neptune, for one, and the Saturn actually came to market with this naming convention. “Uranus” is conjectured to be the initial codename for the Dreamcast when it was first under development, but the prototype Dreamcast later became known as “Katana” as Sega abandoned this naming scheme. As references go, it’s perhaps a little tenuous, but there’s definitely still a Sega link there.
Gold Third themselves are designed in a similar fashion to the CPUs: their visual design incorporates elements of the things they are based on so they’re recognisable but not simply “cosplaying” as mascots.
The Dreamcast references don’t stop with Uzume’s name, though; her personality, character traits and behaviour all channel Sega’s doomed final console. As Siliconera writer Jenni argued in this excellent article, everything about Uzume is carefully crafted as a clever reference: her use of a megaphone as her weapon is a reference to how noisy the Dreamcast’s GD-ROM drive was; her tomboyish personality that occasionally slips into excruciatingly cute girliness when she’s not paying attention reflects how the system transitioned from hyperactive, bright, colourful arcade titles in its early years to more self-consciously “cool” games in its twilight years; and her HDD form is perhaps the most explicit reference to the console on which she’s based since Victory’s Iris Heart unmistakably dressed up as a dominatrix Mega Drive.
The other noteworthy new characters in V-II put in an appearance once Neptune and Nepgear return from their foray into Zero Dimension, the details of which I won’t spoil here for you right now. Dubbed Gold Third, they form the backbone of one of the game’s core allegorical themes: the period of upheaval between console generations, when the public’s faith in their chosen deities is shaken and many find themselves switching allegiances. Gold Third represent third-party publishers and the increasing importance that these companies, independent from the console manufacturers themselves, play in cementing the public’s loyalty to a particular allegiance.
Gold Third themselves are designed in a similar fashion to the CPUs: their visual design incorporates elements of the things they are based on so they’re recognisable but not simply “cosplaying” as recognisable mascots; their personality traits reflect common stereotypes about the company in question; and even the things they say refer to that company’s products.
K-Sha’s instability is a rather on-the-nose reference to Konami’s bizarre behaviour over the last few years: kicking out Kojima, cancelling Silent Hills, adapting its most beloved franchises into Pachinko machines.
Take C-Sha, for example, who represents Capcom. Her beret is similar to that which Jill Valentine wears in the original Resident Evil, while her costume has elements of both Chun Li’s and Mega Man’s designs about it. When switched into her Gold Form, she sprouts wings from her back, giving her a distinctly Morrigan from Darkstalkers-style appearance, and in battle she’s constantly quoting callouts from various Capcom games, such as “Okay! Are you ready?” from various Capcom fighters, and “Stylish!” from Devil May Cry.
Contrast with B-sha, who represents Bandai Namco. Her outfit features the colour scheme from Namco classics Pac-Man and Dig-Dug, and one of her special attacks even sees her making use of laser beam launchers that look like Pac-Man. Her personality and special attacks are all based around greed and microtransactions, reflecting the company’s arguably excessive use of paid DLC in franchises such as its flagship Tales of series, while her adoption of a mask-clad superhero persona and fear of monsters could, at a stretch, be interpreted as the company’s apparent uneasiness at releasing some titles via established distribution platforms (such as, most prominently, Valve’s Steam service) on its home turf.
S-Sha is perhaps the most obvious reference, particularly when her alternate personality E-Sha comes to the fore. Between them, they represent Square Enix, largely through S-Sha acting (and looking) very much like Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, arguably the most stereotypical Final Fantasy hero to many people, and through E-Sha being unable to communicate through anything other than “Yes” or “No” responses — a reference to Dragon Quest’s silent protagonists and player input in conversations being subject to the same limitations. Much like Squall, S-Sha initially seems uncaring, aloof and a bit of a dick, but later shows herself to be sensitive, noble and truly caring — particularly when it comes to E-Sha.
Finally, K-Sha has perhaps the most interesting subplot in the arc that focuses on Gold Third. Representing Konami, K-Sha embodies the popular yandere trope, in which she becomes absolutely convinced she is in love with Lastation’s goddess Noire and becomes increasingly unhinged and violent as a result. K-Sha’s instability is a rather on-the-nose reference to Konami’s bizarre behaviour over the last few years — kicking out Hideo Kojima after Metal Gear Solid V, cancelling Silent Hills, adapting its most beloved franchises into Pachinko machines instead of computer and console games — but she turns out to be a rather interesting, nuanced and sympathetic character in her own right. Her love for Noire is also one of the series’ most explicit acknowledgements of its latent yuri themes to date, although as an aside, recent Vita release MegaTagmension Blanc + Neptune vs. Zombies has V-II beaten in this regard, particularly if you’re fans of the Nepgear x Uni relationship; delving into this further is beyond the scope of this particular article, but let’s just say it’s worth a look.
V-II maintains a pleasingly airy tone throughout while still managing to say plenty of serious things and allow its characters to enjoy personal journeys of discovery.
V-II’s seemingly disparate narratives come together in the final arc, which encompasses both the Zero Dimension from the first arc and the Hyper Dimension from the second, as well as the all-new Heart Dimension. Ultimately, without spoiling things, the story comes down to Uzume’s place in the multiverse: where she came from, where she’s been, why she was all alone in Zero Dimension with only a very well-spoken human-faced fish (one Umio, a fairly obvious reference to ambitious Dreamcast experimental game Seaman) for company, and who really is responsible for all the chaos that has been enveloping the dimensions, putting all three of them at risk.
The narrative on the whole is a significant step forward for the series that de-emphasises its parody and allegory elements in favour of simply telling a compelling story with some truly likeable characters. Those parody and allegory elements are still there, of course, most notably in the middle arc, which focuses on each of the four nations, one at a time, and their corresponding Gold Third member, but it’s clear that the writing team behind Neptunia is now comfortable enough with these characters to want to tell more ambitious stories with them. In other words, it’s not trying to be a “joke game” of sorts; instead, it maintains a pleasingly airy tone throughout while still managing to say plenty of serious things and allow a number of its central characters to enjoy significant personal journeys of discovery and growth.
Megadimension Neptunia V-II, when taken by itself, tells an enjoyable story and is a journey worth taking. When taken within the context of the whole series, though, it takes on a whole new level of meaning. This transition period — a timely plot element, given that this is the series’ first installment on PlayStation 4 — is a significant moment for the central characters, and everyone involved has a lot to learn from both each other and the new characters introduced throughout the main narrative. For the players, meanwhile, it’s the beginning of a new era for Neptune and her friends, and here’s hoping that they all have a very bright future ahead of them all.
In the next article, we’ll take a look at the audio-visual aesthetic of Megadimension Neptunia V-II and the series as a whole: how Tsunako’s art forms an important part of the series’ identity as a whole, and how the games’ voice acting and music contributes to this distinctive look and feel.
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Megadimension Neptunia V-II is available now for PlayStation 4, with a PC version coming later in 2016. Find out more at the official site.