There’s a bit of lingo in Japanese gaming that doesn’t have a great equivalent in English. The term is baka-ge (literally “stupid game"), and it refers to games that are intentionally ridiculous or absurd. Think of something like Goat Simulator ($4.99), and you’ll be well on your way to understanding what a baka-ge is. The term doesn’t make much of a judgment as to whether the game is bad or good, mind you, but the very presence of this kind of spirit is enough to draw a certain type of gamer. My Horse Prince (Free) is an amazing bit of baka-ge, a tapper that seems to find endless joy in warping its equine protagonist’s body in nonsensical ways, sending up visual novel tropes, and making terrible dad-jokes. I suspect the majority of people who bring themselves to try it will find it too stupid to tolerate. For some of you out there, however, this might be one of the most memorable games of this year.
As a game, My Horse Prince can best be described as an idle time-waster. The gameplay, such as it is, largely involves tapping on objects to fill a meter at the top of the screen. When the meter is filled, you’ll earn the next story segment, bringing you to a new area with another type of object you need to tap. Naturally, the meter gets larger as you go, spreading the story segments out over a larger span of time. You also have to mind the Horse Prince’s stamina, as each object collected will deplete his energy and reduce the number of points earned towards the meter. His stamina will recover with time, but you can give it a little boost by initiating conversations with him and correctly answering his questions. These too are on a timer, so you can only answer three questions before having to wait a set period of time or watching an advertisement. Oh, and if you choose a bad answer, the Prince will lose stamina, an outcome you can reverse by watching a video ad.
That’s basically it as far as the mechanics go. There are IAP items that double your points intake or give you a temporary fever mode where Horse Prince Yuuma can earn tons of points in a short span of time. You can also pay to remove all of the non-incentivized ads, in particular the banners at the bottom of the screen and the ads that show during story intermissions. But whatever you decide, the game largely amounts to opening it up now and then, tapping stuff until you’ve used up all of Yuuma’s stamina and your three questions, watching a story scene if you happen to fill the meter that time, and then putting it away until you remember it again later.
So what’s the pull here? Why isn’t this one star? Well, it comes down to the writing and the game’s idiotic sense of humor. My Horse Prince tells the story of a young woman who you can name, but is called Umako by default. She’s just quit her job because she’s looking for a boyfriend and there weren’t any decent guys at her company. Her search has taken her to a ranch, where she hopes to meet a good-looking man. Instead, she meets a race horse named Yuuma, whose head inexplicably appears to be that of an attractive young man. The ranch’s owner gives a somewhat nonsensical explanation for why she sees a sexy guy when everyone else just sees an ordinary horse, but you shouldn’t worry too much about that. The owner informs Umako that Yuuma has no owner, and thus will be “retired" the next day. Umako is persuaded to take him on, and thus the roller coaster begins.
Each area has its own premise that is set up by a joke-filled dialogue between Umako, Yuuma, and some variation of the owner Ojisan, with a couple of surprising other characters appearing if you get far enough in the game. The first stage has a reasonable enough set-up. Carrots appear around Yuuma’s pen, and you’ll have to tap them to direct him to come over and eat them. He eats them with zest, and it’s pretty funny watching his human head devour them. You even get different animations based on how tired Yuuma is. Fill the meter, though, and you’ll get your first sign of where this game is going. Er, besides the handsome man’s head on the horse’s body, that is.
Just as in a visual novel, when you reach a certain target, you get a nice still frame of beautiful artwork. As in many romance novels, these frames depict our heroine and her love interest in the various stages of their relationship. After his belly is full of carrots, Yuuma stomps his way over to Umako in a cloud of dust, falling forward to create the first captured moment: Umako, her back to the wall, with Yuuma’s hoof pressed against the wall behind her head. In Japan, this is called the kabe-don (wall-thump), and it’s one of the basic tropes of Japanese romance fiction. Of course, it’s not usually done between a horse with a man’s head and a human woman, and it looks as awkward as it sounds. The artwork seems utterly sincere, but even the game pokes fun at itself in the script about this sort of thing.
Business picks up even more when you reach the second day. Having found an owner, it’s now time for Yuuma to get back to training for his upcoming races. How do you train a horse for racing? If you guessed “disposable treadmills", what the heck? Are you psychic or just harmoniously weird? Yes, the object that you have to tap this time is a regular old human treadmill, which Yuuma leaps on and takes a short dash on before destroying it, again with a few different flavors of animation. This is where the game starts to play with visual absurdity full-time, stretching and distorting Yuuma’s frame to make him do weird things like propping his front hooves on the hand rails while running with his hind legs. All the while, Umako and Ojisan will have idiotic conversations at the bottom of the screen.
Further adventures will take you to a kitchen, the racetrack, the streets of Tokyo, a concert, and even heaven itself, and things only get stranger as you go. My Horse Prince mostly maintains a tone of complete foolishness and self-deprecation, but it flashes sincerity just frequently enough to keep the whole thing glued together. Each chapter opens and closes with a theater frame, driving home that the whole thing is supposed to be a bizarre fiction. Ojisan acts as the head usher, hyping up the next episode, while Yuuma runs a broom across the floor in the seats of the foreground. The story, such as it is, often zigs and zags in illogical directions, something the characters aren’t afraid to point out.
In spite of how silly it all is, you might just find yourself rooting for Umako and Yuuma regardless of the obvious problems with that outcome. There’s no real ending to the game, though, since it just seems to continue on as the developer adds more chapters. So you’ll just have to settle for the push and pull of episodic romance, with no escape hatch too small for the plot to dive through. It’s fine, though. You wouldn’t to really take this seriously, would you? Look at the man-horse. Stop. This is a joke.
I played the Japanese version of this game for quite a while, and when I heard it had an English release, I was a little worried. The Japanese version’s text is just about perfect in tone and humor, and a great deal of it is steeped in pop culture references that wouldn’t work outside of Japan. Fortunately, My Horse Prince appears to have received a surprisingly strong localization. It preserves what it can, goes in different directions where it has to, and is very readable. It was clearly handled by a native English speaker, and I’m happy for that because virtually every strength this game has beyond its bizarre premise comes from its writing quality. It’s not perfect, mind you. There are awkward bits here and there, and some of the question and answer sections are hard to suss out with the existing translations, but overall, it’s quite good.
My Horse Prince is a hard game to score, though. If you’ve got the right sense of humor, it’s a must-play. If you’re a fan of Japanese visual novels and are open to seeing the genre’s tropes skewered, you really need to try My Horse Prince. But the gameplay is almost entirely empty, the story intentionally goes nowhere, and there are a ton of free-to-play monetization elements that pop up, often in annoying ways. So I’m going to settle for this: if you are at all intrigued by the premise and its promise for shenanigans, give the game a try at least until the second day. If this whole thing looks stupid, creepy, or too weird for you? It probably is. I kind of love this game, albeit for reasons that have nothing to do with the game part of the thing, but I also know that my feelings are not likely to be shared by many or most. Ah, whatever, let’s just Carter it.