The World Ends With You Proves Innovation in Game Design Can Carry a Series to a New Generation

2008 was an interesting time for handheld gaming, including the titles developed by Square Enix. It’s funny to think there once was a handheld console war, a domain Nintendo singlehandedly dominated starting with the original Game Boy and all the way to Nintendo 3DS. That is until they decided to make the very idea of a handheld system redundant with their hybrid Switch, but there was a time when these devices had their own library of games.

Nintendo overcame a lot of competition with little to no effort, outselling the likes of Game Gear, Lynx, and even relatively obscure ones like Turbo Express. When Nintendo was ready to retire their iconic Game Boy brand and introduce the stylus-savvy Nintendo Dual-Screen (DS), Sony stepped in to create some formidable competition with their first-ever handheld, the aptly named PlayStation Portable (PSP).

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The PSP was a powerful system for its time, using UMD technology to deliver impressive, almost PS2-quality graphics. It had an instant appeal on paper, and no doubt, gamers were immediately drawn to its graphics and impressive lineup of titles. The DS, on the other hand, had comparatively primitive graphics, struggling to produce decent 3D visuals and so playing off sprite-based models instead.

Still, Nintendo chose to innovate more with gameplay than graphical prowess by using its dual screens and the stylus for touch controls. This combination ended up creating gameplay experiences; no other platform could host. Where PSP was content with miniaturized PS2 experiences, the DS decided to experiment with innovative gameplay styles. While the PSP certainly had the initial allure, in the long run, it was DS’s fun gameplay ideas that turned it into a massive commercial success.

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At the crossroads was Square Enix, who, for the most part, gave equal attention and love to the handhelds, but in 2008 they presented players with an interesting choice: The World Ends With You (TWEWY) on DS and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII on PSP. The latter had all the right hype and anticipation, a fully-fledged RPG serving as a prequel to Final Fantasy VII, providing deep insight into the origins of its main characters, not to mention a smooth and free-flowing battle system which would eventually evolve into what we ended up getting in Final Fantasy XV.

Crisis Core was familiar, and a guaranteed good time and remains one of the best spin-offs. In hindsight, however, it was the little cult following TWEWY which would stand the test of time and expand its fanbase.

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TWEWY offered a gameplay style that, even now, is best experienced on original DS hardware. Both screens were essential, as the control scheme uses both buttons and the stylus. It was super confusing and yet highly rewarding to gradually learn and master. The whole dual screen aspect fit nicely with the game’s lore and was completely different from anything else at the time.

Years later, TWEWY would be ported to the iOS, and although it didn’t quite have the dual control input, the stylus touch controls got the job done. Despite the touch screen in handheld mode, the port on Switch didn’t quite have the right feel about it as it generally felt uncomfortable. Playing it in docked mode using joy-cons was a waste of time. All these ports may have featured cleaner graphics, but the core gameplay needs to be experienced on DS, as nothing else comes even close. On that note, porting the original TWEWY on something like PS4 would be completely pointless.

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A combat system using two screens with separate control schemes is pretty wild, but TWEWY also oozed with a sense of style and presentation, instantly captivating players who gave it a chance. Crisis Core certainly was impressive, but its style and lore were largely “been there done that”.

As a gamer in 2008, I couldn’t necessarily afford to own both handhelds, so my console choice ultimately came down to Crisis Core or TWEWY. I ended up choosing the latter, and it was absolutely the right call despite some graphic nerds rolling their eyes at me (having fun with your Vita then? Yeah, I thought so). Subconsciously, perhaps others and I wanted to signal Square Enix to invest more in innovative IPs. We all still love Final Fantasy, but we know they can do so much more. As we enter 2021, we see the publisher going through a renaissance of sorts with their stacked lineup of RPGs.

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With a brand new sequel, NEO: The World Ends With You, revealed for a 2021 release, an anime series, and other cool media spin-offs, it’s clear how, over a decade later, it was DS’s experimental methods which allowed something like TWEWY to thrive or even exist. While Crisis Core on PSP enjoyed an initial splurge of hype, it was TWEWY and its innovative gameplay and control, which stood the test of time in the long run. With an epic new sequel on the horizon in 2021 alongside an already stacked Square Enix lineup, perhaps history may repeat itself, once again proving how sometimes innovative style provides enough gameplay substance.

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Jahanzeb Khan

Old SEGA games will go up in value... you'll see!