You crazy for this one, Yuji Naka.
RELEASE DATE: 1984 (JP)
Girl’s Garden is a cornucopia of whimsy, an exploration of childhood love in pixelated form. Or, from another perspective, Girl’s Garden is anti-feminist propaganda that celebrates girls as creatures who exist solely to give boys pleasure. I’ll be honest, my eyes roll back into my head when I ponder the latter point. I constantly question whether critics should read so deeply into games, period, let alone a thirty-year-old SG-1000 game. But as much as I think certain aspects of the gaming landscape have become over-analyzed in recent years, both interpretations of Girl’s Garden could be argued reasonably. Given the game’s lighthearted disposition, I doubt Sega intended players to view Girl’s Garden as a strictly chauvinist experience, but that doesn’t make the sexist undertones any less unnerving.
In Girl’s Garden, you control a young girl named Papri. Papri must collect a bouquet of flowers to take to her boyfriend, Minto. If Papri doesn’t get the flowers to Minto in time, he will leave her for another girl, Cocco. The flowers are collected in a large field that also teems with bees and bears. Bees are your allies and will often drop pieces of fruit worth bonus points, extra lives, and even pre-made bouquets of flowers. Bears, however, get aggravated when they see you, and will not hesitate to maul you unless you give them some honey. Once bears see the honey, they are distracted and you’re free to move near them for a limited time.
You start the game with five honeypots in tow, but these will not last long unless you use them sparingly. Honey is only-reacquired when you begin another level or if you collect a bee that’s pollinating a flower. Flowers in the field come in one of three types: pre-bloom, full bloom, or dead and wilting. Only the blooming flowers count towards your bouquet; if you collect a budding flower, it adds nothing to your count, and if you collect a wilting flower, it eliminates half of the flowers you’ve already collected. Once you’ve collected enough flowers, you take them to Minto’s house. He accepts them with joy, the field magically blossoms with rows of flowers, and your love becomes an undying love – until the next level when Minto demands another bouquet of different flowers.
Minto can’t even bother to spell “Welcome” right. What a jerk.
Let’s analyze what Girl’s Garden asks Papri to do: risk her life to collect flowers for a guy who is moments away from leaving her for another girl. Notice the “time bar” at the top of the screen. Papri the valiant warrior-ess on the left side, Cocco the mistress on the right side, Minto the unfaithful ne’er-do-well in the middle. As Papri collects flowers in the level, Minto walks slowly towards Cocco on the time bar. But when Papri delivers the bouquet to Minto in the level, Minto in the time bar comes sprinting back towards her (the less time it takes him to sprint back to Papri, the more bonus points you receive). Minto doesn’t love Papri at all. He loves the flowers and the attention. Whether Papri knows this or not is unclear. But as the game continues and Papri continues to collect flowers with an oblivious smile on her face, it’s clear she’s unwilling or unable to face reality.
Yes, Girl’s Garden doesn’t show relationships in the best light, but it’s important to remember that Papri, Minto, and Cocco are young kids, probably no more than ten. Relationships at that age usually involve nothing more than talking at recess or holding hands (or delivering bouquets of flowers?), and often end quickly. As for Papri’s exploration of the bear-infested fields, how often do kids intentionally seek out danger or get themselves into danger without thinking? If Papri likes flowers herself, there’s a chance she would risk wandering into the field even if Minto wasn’t in her life. If nothing else, Girl’s Garden shows that kids are gonna kid. I wonder if Sega would have portrayed the relationships as harmless as they did if the characters were adults.
So this is what God meant when He said we would toil in the field…
I’d like to deem Girl’s Garden as a wholly innocent kids game, but the final product feels more like a demented Disney film. Underneath the cheerful coating and chipper music is a dark, depressing story of a young girl who doesn’t want to give up the love of a jerk, even if it means her death. No element of the game is on poor Papri’s side. The bees are enablers, helping her to collect flowers so she can prolong the inevitable break-up. The bears are trying to maul her for being in their space. Minto only cares about what he can get from Papri. Cocco isn’t thinking about Papri at all. Sure, Papri and Minto could live happily ever after, surrounded by thousands of suffocating flowers. But Girl’s Garden only ends when Papri is no longer able to defend herself with honey. After the fourth stage, the game repeats with unbelievable amounts of bears, and the fields become that much harder to navigate. Papri is forced to collect flowers for Minto until her inevitable death. I wouldn’t call Girl’s Garden anti-female by any means, but the actions of the characters don’t paint the game’s intentions in a good light.
Taken as just a game and not an exploration of controlling male-female relationships, Girl’s Garden is one of the best experiences you can have on the SG-1000. The graphics and atmosphere are bright and colorful, the controls sublime, and the flower-collecting gameplay, though not wholly original, feels like a breath of fresh country air compared to the SG-1000’s typical monotonous dreck. Also, troubling themes aside, how many games at the time – heck, even now – allowed you to play as a girl and a little girl at that? One gets the sense that Sega’s heart was in the right place with Girl’s Garden, even if their execution was misguided.
As a SG-1000 game in 1984: A-
If Girl’s Garden was released as an indie game today: C
The love affair that withstood twenty bears.