Several months ago, in an issue of Spencer Chang’s newsletter, I discovered the 6 hour video review of a game called Boku no Natsuyasumi by Tim Rogers (known as Action Button).

To call this a review is surely stretching the limits of the word’s meaning as we know it.

Boku no Natsuyasumi, henceforth shortened as Bokunatsu, is a game for the original PlayStation released 24 years ago in Japan. And only in Japan. It centers on a young boy, Boku, spending a month of his summer vacation with his aunt, uncle, and their family in the countryside of Japan in August of 1975.

Players can explore the countryside as Boku, collect bugs, fish, fly kites, and other low-stakes activities you might expect from a child on summer break.

Slowly, you learn about the people around you and their stories.

Sounds simple, but watch Tim’s review and you’ll see that the game is a subtle masterclass in storytelling, menu design, cinematography, typography, skeuomorphism, Japanese culture, sound design, memory, and even mortality.

I became determined to experience the game myself, which is easier said than done given that it was never released outside of Japan. I managed to find an English patch, translated by a fan, for the game’s sequel Boku no Natsuyasumi 2: Umi no Bouken-hen (My Summer Vacation 2: Sea Adventure Chapter). The sequel, released two years after the original, also follows a boy named Boku vacationing in the countryside in August of 1975.

Armed with the patch file, I needed 3 more items to complete my quest: a PS2 emulator, a PS2 BIOS (the software pre-installed on the console’s chipset), and a copy of Boku no Natsuyasumi 2.

Luckily, the emulator is easy to come by. I downloaded the excellent PCSX2, which is an open source PS2 emulator that works quite well on my MacBook Air.

Unfortunately, for Legal Reasons™ I cannot provide a link to the PS2 BIOS or the the game itself, but a cursory Google search should turn up the files you need without too much trouble.

With these 4 talismans in hand I was able to perform the necessary ritual of resurrection: apply the English patch to the game, boot up the PS2 emulator, load the game.

After a few clicks… paydirt.

A screenshot of the start screen of Boku no Natsuyasumi 2

An experienced gamer might find this process mundane, but to me it feels like the internet equivalent of breaking open an ancient, hidden tomb. At this point I could only imagine what treasures may lie within.

What I discovered is undoubtedly a work of art, made clear by my time playing this iteration and from Tim’s review of the original. The games also happen to be an example of the billions of bytes of lost media that are just waiting to be rediscovered by someone who will appreciate them.

Here is a game, published 22 years ago, that has managed to evoke feelings of nostalgia and wistfulness in me today, in 2024. This must be the closest thing to time travel I’ll ever experience.

I knew lots about the game before playing due to Tim’s review (which, again, is a 6 hour masterpiece), but there are two aspects I couldn’t fully appreciate until playing: the game’s backgrounds and soundscapes.

First, the backgrounds. Bokunatsu makes use of a fixed perspective, where the camera only changes angles when the character moves to another scene. Each area that the user can move through is set upon a gorgeous hand-painted background. If you’ve ever seen a Miyazaki film you have a sense for the feelings that these backdrops create. A 3D modeled scene would never have evoked such a strong sense of place, time, and character, and the creative decision to use hand drawn backgrounds makes all the difference.

There’s a narrative purpose to the backgrounds as well, signaling the time of day as they change throughout between different paintings for day, afternoon, and night.

The backgrounds were done by artists at an animation studio called Kusanagi. Here are the backgrounds they made for Bokunatsu 2, but I heartily encourage you to browse through all of the art on their site.

Kazuo Oga is a famous background painter and the person responsible for many of the backgrounds in your favorite Miyazaki films. Animation Obsessive had this to say about him:

That’s really the heart of it. Oga notices things — little things. He gets a feel for them. When he sits down to work, he brings with him all the unimportant details that matter the most. Then, with his paint, he creates an artwork that centers those details, elevates them. It’s more a way of seeing and feeling than it is a technique.

All the unimportant details that matter the most—paying attention to these details are precisely what make Bokunatsu, from its backgrounds to the narrative itself, so plainly striking.

The backgrounds are complimented by the soundscapes. These are, in my opinion, the best part of the game.

Of all the characteristics of summer, it may be the sounds which I most associate with the season. I grew up in the rural south, and Bokunatsu manages to capture the droning sounds of summer in a way I’ve never experienced before in media.

At times, I’ve let the game run in the background just to listen to the soundscapes.

According to an interview with the creator and director Bokunatsu, Kaz Ayabe, Sony sent a team into the mountains to capture sounds for the game.

Dear reader, I’m here to tell you that the effort paid off.

The game’s environment is alive with the sounds of insects chirping, the wind blowing through a nearby chime, the trickling of a nearby stream. As Boku explores the countryside time advances and, like the background art, the sounds change to evoke the feeling of morning, afternoon, and night.

Animal Crossing, which debuted the year after the original Boku no Natsuyasumi game, is held up as the shining example of cozy, relaxing video games. I am a true fan of the Animal Crossing franchise, but with its gameplay literally focused on grinding in order to pay your landlord they stand in stark comparison to a game like Bokunatsu. Animal Crossing rewards completionism, and in doing so makes the game about grinding instead of actually relaxing.

In comparison, the only thing you’ll get for collecting all of the bugs or catching all of the fish in Boku is a diary entry written by the boy at night before bed. And, like in real life, maybe that’s enough?

Discovering and playing Bokunatsu (and watching Tim’s 6 hour magnum opus of a review) has given me a deep appreciation for the timelessness of art and media.

A game from 24 years ago, deeply steeped in a culture that isn’t my own, has managed to create in me a sense of warm nostalgia. Its soundscapes remind me of home, but also make me long for a place I’ve never been.

It’s also worth appreciating the meta aspect of the journey I went on to discover and experience this game, all because of a link in a newsletter. This is why the web is so special, and it’s what an AI will never do: unearth a lost gem.

When writing in his diary at the end of each in-game day, Boku reflects on “the most wonderful day in which nothing happened.” Let this be a reminder that there is magic waiting to be found in the mundane.