Mobile phone culture in Japan pre-smartphones was a fascinating thing, and part of the reason why Japanese feature phones back then seemed so much better than than anything outside Japan had to do with its robust selection of extra features, including the variety of games released for phones. This was a time when Sega had its own Sonic Cafe service specifically for distributing mobile Java games like Sonic Racing Kart or Shadow Shoot, for example.
Yet, despite all this, there doesn’t seem to have been any major efforts to document this fascinating side of Japanese gaming, which permeated the country until the late 2000s. It was only in 2020 that G-Mode announced that it would be bringing its feature phone game catalog to the Nintendo Switch as the G-Mode Archives. It started off with Flyhight Cloudia, an RPG that released for feature phones in Japan back in 2004. While investigating the title, I found that many Japanese people held fond memories of the game, sometimes even calling it a masterpiece. It was then that I knew I had to try the game out for myself.
What I found is an ambitious JRPG in its full Java game glory, with all the implications that entails. The game puts you in the shoes of the young knight Raynus, who finds himself on the wrong side of the war when he refuses to follow his king’s orders for the army to commit mass slaughter during an invasion of a neighboring country. He’s saved by the traveling freight ship captain Bernheim and ends up leading the investigation on Airgate portals that are spawning fearsome monsters with a mysterious woman named Nia.
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Gameplay-wise, players go through turn-based battles with a rotating cast of party members, while exploring dungeons to train and complete whatever primary story objective is required there. Each party member has their own special ability, such as Raynus being able to cover allies and take damage for them, Nia’s support spells, and a powerful magic gun barrage for Hunt. Battles tend to go by quickly, even without much thought, and the game includes an Autobattle feature as a welcome surprise.
Dungeons are expansive and require puzzle-solving in order to open doors to progress onwards. What really hurts the game are two factors. One is that there’s no map system to help with dungeon exploration, and the other is an absurdly high encounter rate that’s paired with a low chance of successfully running away. While enemies go down relatively quickly, as long as you use common gaming sense, this does means that progress is bogged down by stopping to heal up your party members.
There’s also the world map, which takes place in the sky world of Cloudia, only populated by several kingdoms spread out across the sky and traversed via airship. For some absurd reason, the Air Bern that the party travels in is extremely slow and is only sped up by equipping rare engine parts to Bernheim’s accessory slot. As there’s nothing to do in the world map other than fight random encounters, it makes progressing to each location in the story quite frustrating.
One saving grace is the music, which is surprisingly robust for a Java game. The main battle theme is even swapped out in the second half of the story, and one particular dungeon BGM sounds right out of a Sakuraba soundtrack. G-Mode has opted to use the arranged CD soundtrack for the G-Mode Archives release, for which I am thankful.
If all I’ve described sounds very milquetoast JRPG, that’s because… it totally is. Raynus’ best friend and rival is Lonard, an edgy, black-haired swordsman who ends up being mind-controlled by the true big bad. Furthermore, true to the genre, Flyhight Cloudia ends off with an unexpected reveal of an eldritch abomination final boss. The game’s Java program limitations also show up every second, with walking animations that seem like they’re missing several frames.
Despite all these inconveniences, it’s hard to hate the game. It’s a title that’s very much steeped in the trappings of its original platform of release, meant for short bursts of play while commuting and not long stretches of gameplay on the Nintendo Switch’s TV mode (despite what G-Mode’s director says). While the story loses its luster in the context of modern day expectations, it tells the story it wants to tell with conviction and is a launching point for an entire trilogy that further expands the world’s setting. Although animations are lacking, the sprites themselves are expressive, considering what resolution they were meant to be played at. Considering the scope of the world and story and ease of play that is perfect for the casual Japanese audience, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the gateway JRPG for many players, which would explain why the game is remembered so fondly.
It’s hard to know if G-Mode’s efforts will spark a new wave of ports of Java feature phone games onto modern platforms. Many of the ones I played growing up were just ports of console titles, which didn’t play anything like the original game at all. But if Flyhight Cloudia proves anything, it’s that these games are worth preserving and that the gameplay experiences provided can just be as legit as its console brethren. If you want to experience a bit of Japan’s early mobile phone gaming past, I’d call this a worthy purchase.
G-Mode Archives 01: Flyhight Cloudia is available on Nintendo Switch via the Japanese eShop.