We are living in an unprecedentedly competitive attention economy, one in which time and energy are increasingly finite and precious. Because of this, it can be easy to overlook games which appear simple and unassuming at first glance: retro monochromatic Game Boy-style graphics, cute-but-childish anthropomorphic characters, 8-bit chiptune soundtrack — Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories is an old-school adventure RPG nostalgia trip, sure, but it reconnects us to a simpler gaming time and it’s got all the hallmarks of a future hidden gem.
The original Melon Journey was a small RPG maker game created over a decade ago by indie team Froach Club. It quickly became a cult classic, with a sold-out ‘Pocket’ version being released for Game Boy later this year by Limited Run Games. This new entry with the ‘Bittersweet Memories’ subtitle was created as less of a sequel to the original, and more of an expansion on the previous bite-sized explorative adventure.
Like many of the best things in life — cats, Kirby, or Super Nintendo World during a power outage — Melon Journey is cute on the outside, but dark on the inside. It’s got all the trappings of a children’s game (talking animals, fruit-themed storylines, cheery music) but within the first few moments of play you realize there’s something much more sinister happening at the melon factory. You control Honeydew the bunny as they search Hog Town for their missing friend, Cantaloupe. The best part of this game is the intriguing storyline, so we’ll avoid spoiling anything. Suffice it to say, some very mature themes are dealt with, and they only become darker as you progress. While playing, we were frequently reminded of one of our other favorite games, EarthBound — if you’re a fan of the Mother series, we think you’ll enjoy Melon Journey.
The world presented here is small, but it’s filled with detail and completionists will find a familiar joy in checking each and every green-tinted pixel for easter eggs, hints, and hilarity. In many instances, investigating things more than once is not only a compulsion, it’s a requirement for completing certain tasks, and will reward players with countless new discoveries. Certain side quests and cutscenes in the game will only be accessible when specific selections are made, which means checking everything multiple times over as you play.
It definitely has a satirical side that anyone familiar with the Game Boy era will appreciate. Humorous nods to the all-green color palette, moments where the audio skips or pops in and out with sound effects and scene changes, or even instances of NPCs breaking the fourth wall to comment on the sheer ridiculousness of their outdated world, this is knowing nostalgia done well. There’s even a secret song hidden in the 90-title jazzy soundtrack that features real vocals and is pretty catchy. There’s a depth and a soul here that many modern games seem to lack, replaced instead by flashy open worlds. While both styles have their merits, Melon Journey feels like a timely reminder that not every world needs to be open.
In the world of art and creativity, there is a now-familiar concept referred to as the “constraint mindset” in which creative thinking is highly activated when there are fewer resources to work with, and that approach is one which Froach Club and XSEED have mastered here, stripping the core adventure back to 2-bit-style pixel art, bare-bones D-pad and A/B inputs, and chiptune audio, but with a passionate focus and attention to detail on the story that many more superficially complex games lack.
On the subject of D-pad input, you’ll quickly realize that the analogue stick isn’t the best way to play, as the constraints on in-game movement are very authentic to the gridded systems of the 8-bit era which can be tricky to control with a stick. You’ll want to grab your Pro Controller or anything with a directional pad for the best experience.
In addition to the minimalism inherent in the gameplay and design, Melon Journey’s length is also a breath of fresh air, taking only five-ish hours to roll credits (or more, if you’re like us and compulsively check all of the things, over and over and over again). While some might feel the game is too short for their liking, we found it a refreshing change of pace.
Of course, nothing is perfect, especially in art; twice while playing, we experienced game-breaking bugs that caused crashes, and with a lack of modern features we’ve all grown accustomed to, such as autosave, this did become a bit frustrating. You’ll quickly find yourself slipping back into the habit of repeatedly re-saving your progress after each new scene and discovery made — again, nostalgic, but annoying. We imagine these bugs may be fixed with the planned day-one update, but nonetheless they broke some of the magic for us in the moment.
The team behind the game definitely went all-in on their commitment to the monochromatic color palette and 8-bit-style soundtrack, too, so be prepared for both your eyes and ears to experience some graphical and audio fatigue through repetition. It’s catchy and cute at first, but has the potential to become tiresome after a few hours — which makes it doubly important that Melon Journey doesn’t outstay its welcome.
If you’re someone who finds yourself speed-reading through dialogue and skipping cutscenes, avoiding investigation of every single nook and cranny, then Melon Journey is NOT for you. This is a great little story-driven, exploration-based mystery RPG, plain and simple. Do yourself a favor and avoid this particular journey if you are not a serial completionist who lives for dialogue and NPC interactions. You have been warned.
All in all, we loved Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories for taking us back to our roots and reminding us of simpler times when games were much more limited and required a unique type of creativity and imagination in their nostalgic design and witty storytelling. Short but sweet, if you’re looking for a well-written little adventure that walks a dark path, you’ll enjoy this evocative, melon-choly journey.