Key is a Japanese visual novel studio founded by writer Jun Maeda, artist Itaru Hinoue and composer Shinji Orito on July 21, 1998 as a brand under the publisher Visual Art’s. Key’s games combine amazing storytelling with phenomenal music and unforgettable characters to leave a lasting impression on the reader. Key’s stories have touched the hearts of millions of people around the world; only a small minority of whom can genuinely say that they managed to get through without shedding any tears.
For many people, the name Key brings to mind very heavy emotions - stories of humanity with deep philosophical and psychological meaning. Key’s stories often have strong ties to the supernatural, providing a sense of mystery, and a whimsical atmosphere which brings out the fantastical in the mundane. The name Key also immediately brings to mind its unforgettable characters whom many of us continue to carry with us every day; whose stories guide our paths through life in small yet significant ways. Kazamatsuri.org aims to provide a home for people who love Key, and to introduce others to Key’s world in the hope of one day welcoming them into our growing family.
What are visual novels?
Visual novels are a type of video game, often described as mixed-media novels or a form of interactive fiction. They typically involve progressing through a story by pressing a button to scroll through dialogue, which is presented through text (and often voice acting) together with character portraits, backgrounds, graphics and music. Visual novels often provide the reader decisions to make at certain points in the story which affect the path the story takes; a feature often compared to the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. Some visual novels may include some form of interactive gameplay, but the focus of visual novels remains on reading through the text.
Visual novels take many different forms, but the medium features most prominently in Japan, and as such most visual novels feature anime-style art. The market for visual novels spans across many different platforms and genres. The PC market for visual novels primarily consists of adult-only games, referred to under the blanket term eroge, an abbreviation of ‘erotic game’. These vary in scope from games which are mostly story-oriented and feature a sex scene at the end, to games which are almost entirely pornographic.
Key’s visual novels are more focused on telling a story - their primary genre of focus being nakige; a term that when translated means ‘crying game’. Key (and their predecessor Tactics) are often regarded as the founding fathers of this genre. A typical Key plot follows the formula of a comedic start, a romantic middle, a tragic climax and a heartwarming resolution. While not all of Key’s stories follow this formula, it is certainly something the Key brand has become very recognisable for. Most of Key’s games involve dating, but they are not to be confused with ‘dating sims’; Key’s games are known as ‘galge’ or ‘girl games’ - dating sims are something else entirely. Some of Key’s releases also contain adult content in the form of sex scenes with the girls (also known in the industry as h-scenes), but they are usually considered superfluous to the plot and can easily be skipped or removed from the game without affecting the story. Supporting this is Key’s tendancy to remove erotic content from their games in follow-up all-ages releases. The only reason Key includes h-scenes in their games is to compete in the pornography-saturated PC visual novel market, something that’s extremely difficult to do without resorting to erotic content. Every Key game has an all-ages version, but not all of them have been translated into English. If you are interested in playing Key’s visual novels, please keep this in mind and do your research before playing, especially if you’re under the legal age for viewing erotic content.
The typical format of Key’s games starts in what’s usually referred to as a ‘common route’ - which is the (usually) comedic early part of the story - from which a number of character-focused ‘routes’ branch out from. The route the player ends up on depends on the choices they make throughout the common route; most typically following the route of the character the player chooses to interact with the most. The character routes typically involve the male protagonist having romantic relations with the character (Though platonic character routes do exist). The character routes are usually much more dramatic and emotional than the common route, and will result in a number of bad or good endings, depending on the player’s choices throughout. Most of Key’s games contain locked routes which can only be accessed after meeting certain requirements (typically, reaching all of the ‘good ends’), usually culminating in a final route which serves as the climax and true conclusion to the story.
Key’s three co-founders originally worked together under the brand Tactics, with Itaru Hinoue and Shinji Orito working on their first game Dousei, and later Jun Maeda joining them to produce One: Kagayaku Kisetsu e and Moon. Eventually the three left Tactics to form Key, making their debut with the game Kanon in 1999 to great reception. Kanon contained sex-scenes to compete in the PC visual novel market, but Key made sure to keep them to a minimum, and followed up with an all-ages version the following year. Later that year Key released AIR, also featuring sex scenes and similar storytelling, but a more complex scenario than Kanon. Key’s third game CLANNAD was released in 2004 after some delays as the first of Key’s games with no erotic content, building upon the storytelling of Key’s previous titles. Each of these games were met with high praise and earned the company many loyal fans. Later that year, Key released a short visual novel titled planetarian ~chiisana hoshi no yume~ as an all-ages game. The game was a departure from Key’s previous titles, featuring a completely linear story with no choices for the player to make, as well as deviating from Key’s standard storytelling formula. Key’s fifth game, Tomoyo After ~It’s A Wonderful Life~ was released in 2005 as a spin-off sequel to CLANNAD, starring Tomoyo as the female lead and also including a tactical RPG minigame. The game contained significant amounts of erotic content in the early portion of the game, while the latter chapters were more story-focused. As with all of Key’s games, it was later re-released as an all-ages version. Key’s sixth game, Little Busters! released in 2007 as an all-ages game with lots of minigames, but was later re-released in 2008 as Little Busters! Ecstasy as an 18+ game with additional content, including three new routes. Little Busters! Ecstasy was later re-released in different versions with the erotic content removed. In 2010 Key followed up on Little Busters! with another spin-off sequel starring the character Kudryavka Noumi, Kud Wafter. Like Tomoyo After, it features significant erotic content in the early half of the game, but the latter is more story-focused. Kud Wafter also received an all-ages version. Key’s 9th game was Rewrite, which was released in 2011 as an all-ages game. Rewrite was another notable departure from the typical Key formula, focusing less on making the reader cry and more on confronting the reader’s beliefs and values. The following year, Key released Rewrite Harvest festa!, a fan disc expanding on the scenario of the Rewrite with 6 individual side-stories corresponding to each of the game’s heroines, and also including a dungeon exploration minigame. 2013 saw planetarian receive an official English release on iOS, and again in 2014 with an updated translation on Steam, marking the beginning of Key’s entry into the English-speaking market. Angel Beats!, a multimedia franchise produced with the help of Key’s Jun Maeda and Na-Ga, has strong connections to the Key brand. A six-part all-ages visual novel series expanding on the story of the Angel Beats! anime series is currently being released. The first entry, Angel Beats! -1st beat-, was released to the public in June of 2015. Later in 2015, Key collaborated with Aniplex and P.A. Works to release Charlotte, an original anime series written by Jun Maeda with character designs by Na-Ga. 2015 has also marked Key’s foray into the international market, with the success of the CLANNAD Kickstarter and appearances at conventions in the US, France, Hong Kong and Singapore. CLANNAD is due to release in English on Steam in late 2015.
Currently in development is Key’s twelfth visual novel, Harmonia, which is planned to be released internationally on Steam before anywhere in Japan, a first for the company.
Key’s Releases in Summary:
- Kanon: 1999. Originally 18+. 5 character routes. No voice acting for PC vers. 39k lines; 35 hours.
- AIR: 2000. Originally 18+. 3 character routes, 2 final routes. No voice acting for PC vers. 49k lines; 40 hours.
- CLANNAD: 2004, 2015 in English. All-ages. 11 character routes, 1 final route. Voice acting in supplementary release. 100k lines; 85 hours.
- Tomoyo After: 2005. Originally 18+. 4 sequential arcs + minigame. Voice acting incl. 15 hours.
- planetarian: 2004, 2013/2014 in English. All-ages. Single short, linear story. Full voice acting incl. in supplementary releases, and for all future Key games. 5 hours.
- Little Busters!: 2007. All-ages. 6 character routes, 1 final route. 74k lines; 55 hours.
- Little Busters! Ecstasy: 2008. Originally 18+ re-release of LB with 3 additional character routes (9 total). 104k lines; 85 hours.
- Kud Wafter: 2010. Originally 18+. 2 sequential arcs. 15 hours.
- Rewrite: 2011. All-ages. 5 character routes, 2 final routes. 101k lines. 70 hours.
- Rewrite Harvest festa!: 2012. 6 seperate arcs + minigame. 15 hours.
- Angel Beats!: Anime broadcast in 2009, manga ongoing.
- -1st beat-: 2015. All-ages. 3 character routes.
- -2nd beat-: TBA.
- -3rd beat-: TBA.
- -4th beat-: TBA.
- -5th beat-: TBA.
- -6th beat-: TBA.
- Charlotte: Broadcast in 2015.
- Harmonia: TBA.
Key 10th Memorial Box
The Key 10th Memorial Box was released in 2009 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Key. It includes updated all-ages ‘memorial edition’ releases of all of Key’s games made up to that point: Kanon, Air, Clannad, Planetarian, Tomoyo After and Little Busters! Ecstasy. It also includes an art book, posters, and XL T-shirt, a coffee mug, and a bunch of other goodies to make every Key fan happy.
It’s worth noting that none of the games except Little Busters! are fully supported by English patches, but all can be made to run in English with some tweaking. Follow the steps outlined in each of the individual game’s pages to learn how to do so. Keep in mind: these methods essentially convert the games into their 18+ equivalents, so erotic dialogue will still remain present even without the graphics. At this point in time, the box is not recommended as the best option to play the games in English, but it does make an excellent collector’s item.
It can still be found on Amazon.com for upwards of $300.