WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the entire Danganronpa series
Where do I even begin describing something like Danganronpa? What even is a Danganronpa? It almost sounds like a word a one year old would make up (real talk, though, it’s actually a portmanteau of the Japanese words ‘dangan’ and ‘ronpa,’ which mean ‘bullet’ and ‘refute’ respectively. It’ll make sense later).
Bizarre names aside, though, this strange series has really made a name for itself since the first game’s initial release in 2010. Back then, it was a Japan-only PSP title that only a small handful of Western fans soon learned about. Cut to 2014 and someone, somewhere, decided that the rest of the world should be made privy to the lives of the Super High-School Level Students of Hope’s Peak Academy. And it paid off in a big way.
Following the first game’s re-release on the Vita, Danganronpa has slowly but surely become notably more well-known. While by no means a household name, it still developed a surge in popularity. Originally just two games on the PSP (a console most people don’t even acknowledge anymore), the series now consists of seven games, several re-releases, two anime series, novels and a tonne of manga (seriously, there is a lot of it).
I found myself checking the first game out almost on a whim, and ended up falling in love with it and desperate for more. It’s since quickly become possibly one of my favourite series, so (with the next game in the series arriving later this month) I’ve decided to write up a personal retrospective about my experiences with it and why I love this franchise all about the ongoing struggle between hope and despair.
I can’t remember exactly where I first heard of Danganronpa; I think it was a Kotaku article about the then upcoming re-release of the first game. I initially blew it off; for whatever reason, it just didn’t grab my interest, which in hindsight is weird considering it was described as a combination of Ace Attorney, Persona and Zero Escape – three series that I absolutely adore.
Sometime later that year, a YouTuber I followed called Faulerro began an abridged series of the anime adaptation. I was a fan of his work so, despite my unfamiliarity with the series, I gave it a watch and wound up enjoying it, even though a lot of the humour was lost on me. But while the plot wasn’t entirely accurate and the characters’ personalities were even more exaggerated, I found myself becoming curious about what the source material was really like. One TV Tropes search later and, after spoiling most of the game’s mysteries for myself, I thought “Shit, I want to play this now.”
Later that year, it was my birthday and a copy of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc was now sitting comfortably in my Vita. So now that I’ve got my introduction to the series out of the way, what was it about the first game that ultimately won me over?
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
I suppose at this point I should explain the actual premise of the game. You play as Makoto Naegi, the most average of average Japanese high-school students. Despite having no particular skills, however, he’s lucky enough to win a special raffle that allows him to attend Hope’s Peak Academy – a prestigious school for only the most talented students. With his new title of Ultimate Lucky Student (Super High School Level Good Luck in the Japanese version), Makoto steps forth into the school, only to suddenly lose consciousness.
When he comes to, he’s now in the school along with fourteen other students and with no way to leave. Not long after, they are confronted by the malicious monochrome mascot of the series, Monokuma – a robotic teddy bear (don’t ask) – who tells them that they must spend the rest of their lives within the school. Naturally, the students don’t particularly like the idea and demand a way out. Monokuma then explains that there is one way to ‘graduate’ and escape:
If any of the students commit murder, they must then hold a class trial. If the murderer’s identity isn’t discovered, they can leave the school while everyone else will be executed. If the murderer is found out, only they will die and the remaining survivors can continue to live in the school. You ever read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None? It’s like that except every aspect has been ramped up to eleven. It now falls to Makoto of all people to uncover the truth behind Hope’s Peak and get everyone out alive before they succumb to the temptation of murder. As you can probably guess, things do eventually get a bit Battle Royale/Hunger Games.
Despite knowing a tonne of plot details before jumping in, Danganronpa managed to sucker me in with its premise alone. Sure, it’s not wholly original but what made it special were its diverse cast of characters. With fifteen students in total, you’re bound to get attached to at least a few of them, whether it’s the reserved and mysterious Kyoko Kirigiri, the doughnut obsessed swimmer Aoi Asahina or even Makoto himself, who gradually proves how he’s not as average as he thinks he is. There are many moments where you’re allowed to wander around school and just spend time with the other students, where you can learn more about them and their backstories. But you only have so many opportunities before they possibly die; it can be borderline devastating to devote your spare time to befriending a specific student, only for them to turn up dead the next day.
The “anyone can die” mentality is very hard to pull off in most media. If literally any character can just be suddenly killed off, you run the risk of making your audience apathetic. Ironically, you make people no longer care, especially if said deaths come across as pointless. I think Danganronpa, however, makes it work. While some characters do get more overall screen-time and development, no death feels cheap. The game makes it a point to remind you that every death matters and continues to haunt the survivors for the rest of the game. You feel the impact as you notice the size of the group gradually dwindle. Even though I knew who would make it, seeing every corpse still sent a shiver down my spine, especially since these are high-school students. I was watching children murder one another.
Once a murder is discovered, everything becomes a bit more Ace Attorney as Makoto has to gather evidence and testimony before the class trial. Though the comparisons to Capcom’s lawyer series are obvious, Danganronpa still does things very differently. It’s arguably even more stressful since you’re not just scrolling through one person’s testimony at your own pace.
Everyone is taking part, shouting over one another; their words flying across the screen for a few seconds before immediately switching over to someone else. In order to progress the trial, you need to not only find the contradiction and pick the correct evidence, but you also need to aim a reticle and shoot the statement with said evidence as a Truth Bullet. It sounds tricky and later trials become even more challenging but the first couple of trials pretty much act as one big tutorial to slowly ease you into the gameplay. There’s even a couple of harmless mini-games thrown in just to keep things varied, and the time spent with the other students can earn you skills you can use to make the trials a bit easier for you, like increasing your health or time limit.
But the real draw of the trials, though, is just solving the mystery. Again, while I had already spoiled who each murderer was, actually piecing together how they did it was still invigorating, especially considering how complex the mysteries could get. Much like Ace Attorney, that moment where everything clicks into place is immensely satisfying.
Unlike Ace Attorney, though, when you’ve finally cornered the killer and made them confess their guilt, there’s only a brief moment of that aforementioned satisfaction; because when’s all said and done, the killer is also a victim of circumstance, driven to commit this horrid act because of Monokuma, is then subjected to a disturbing (though darkly humourous) punishment of the bear’s own design, and the remaining students are still in the same place as they were before. It’s a nice subversion of how most murder mysteries typically resolve.
Danganronpa is ultimately about two things – hope and despair, and while it’s not handled subtly (you can make a drinking game out of the amount of times those two words are used), it’s a theme I can get behind and enjoy seeing be explored. The game routinely tries to bring you down, much like Monokuma, who actively enjoys watching the students break. There are moments where things will look like they’re getting better, only for some traumatising revelation to come along and rob both the characters and you of any hope you may have had.
Normally, this kind of writing would put me off, but what makes it work is that, by the end of it, the characters pick themselves up and choose to keep moving forward. It’s very easy to say you hope things will turn better; that on it’s own doesn’t change things. But the game shows that there’s more to it than that. Hope can be a motivator; believing that things will get better, that they can be better, that they can be made better – that’s what pushes them. When the game reached its conclusion, when Makoto stared back at the true villain’s face and destroyed their entire argument about how useless hope was and that despair was the only answer, I was officially won over. I thought I knew what to expect from this game but it all got blown out of the water.
I honestly feel I could write an entire article on this one game but this is a retrospective and I’ve got more things I want to cover. So, to surmise, Danganronpa was fantastic. I still enjoy going back and replaying it. While I regret spoiling a lot of it for myself, there were enough surprises left and great characters to keep me hooked. And once the game was over, I knew I needed more of it. But I wasn’t aware how soon that would happen.
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair
With Danganronpa being my new obsession, I naturally took to the Internet to learn more about it, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the West would not only be getting the Vita version of the second game, it was coming the very next month. What timing! For some reason, though, I didn’t go out myself and buy it the first chance I got. Instead, I waited an extra few months until Christmas rolled around to get my hands on it.
Danganronpa 2 ultimately has almost the exact same premise as the first game. Sixteen students from Hope’s Peak find themselves trapped not within the school itself but at a tropical island resort. Their self-proclaimed teacher, Usami (a stuffed rabbit, this time), says that they’re on a field trip and all the students need to do is relax and bond with each other.
Despite suspicious circumstances, it actually sounds like a really sweet deal. But the good times quickly end before they begin when Monokuma shows up, converts Usami into his “little sister” Monomi, takes over the island and instigates the killing game once more – kill someone and get away with it and you can leave the island.
Again, we have another example of why I enjoy this premise. The core idea of it is the same but the simple decision of changing the setting and characters involved helps keep it fresh. Granted, there are plenty of similarities between the two games but the differences are strong enough to make Danganronpa 2 stand on its own (plus some similarities are intentional).
Unlike the school setting which felt horribly claustrophobic, the island has this terrifying juxtaposition of relaxation and paranoia. It looks lovely, has more areas to explore and plenty to offer to keep the kids happy, like restaurants, a beach house etc. But the circumstances make it hard to really enjoy any of it. Add on top of that the unnerving soundtrack and the numerous mysteries surrounding the island (like the fact that it’s completely empty aside from the students) and you actually begin to feel anxious just being there.
While I think the first game had the better story, I have a lot of fondness for Danganronpa 2 simply because I went in completely blind. I didn’t know anything about the plot or these characters so I was constantly being surprised. Seeing which characters died, which ones committed murder and uncovering how this game was linked to the last one; there was barely a moment where I wasn’t agape. I remember playing till 3 in the morning once I reached the last chapter because every new revelation had me screaming “WHAT?!” and dying to know more.
I even found myself liking the cast more than the last game’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the cast is overall better (in fact, I’d argue it’s a little worse due to more polarising characters) but I really gravitated to the likes of sleepy gamer girl Chiaki Nanami, gangster with a heart of gold Fuyuhiko Kuzuryu and, of course, new main star Hajime Hinata.
I was really worried that Hajime would just be another Makoto, and while he is a perfectly nice guy, Hajime has a slightly more cynical edge and is quicker to anger. His frustrations over not remembering what his talent is makes him a more interesting protagonist, especially when you start getting little teases towards what his past was like.
However, I think Danganronpa 2 isn’t as good of a game as its predecessor. It offers a couple of extra, optional modes which, while no means bad, don’t really feel like they belong there. I never bother with the Tamagotchi virtual pet thing even on repeated playthroughs. And the Monomi minigame that plays like a top-down arena shooter is fine but can be easily skipped over. On top of that, the new minigames included during the class trials are actively worse than the ones in the first game. These ones do feel like an intrusion since they can be awfully finicky and tend to go on for far too long.
I also think the plot and characters are a little too… over-the-top. I don’t think it’s a bad thing (I kind of loved how crazy everything kind of gets) and the first game was not without it’s bizarre moments, but I feel like it might put some people off because it goes “too far.” The first game felt a bit more grounded, in my opinion, whereas the second one goes full anime, if you get what I mean.
All in all, though, Danganronpa 2 holds a very special place in my heart. It was one of those games where I wish I could recreate my first experience with it. And once those credits rolled, I was still not satiated. I needed more Danganronpa, and the next main entry was not for a long while. So, back to the Internet I went. Now fully caught up, I didn’t have to worry about any spoilers, and that’s when I found something a little interesting.
As I found myself going deeper down the rabbit hole, I eventually learned of a spin-off novel titled Danganronpa/Zero, a prequel set before the first game. I was naturally curious about getting a peek at the world of Danganronpa before the Tragedy, so I tracked down a copy of it online and gave it a read… and promptly stopped around the half-way mark.
Yeah, this is gonna be a short one since I don’t have much to write about Zero. It was honestly kind of a struggle to get through. Not because it was a bad story, by any means, but the act of reading it became weirdly tiring. Maybe it had something to do with how it was written. It almost felt stilted and occasionally became really hard to follow, though that may have been intentional considering the main character, Ryoko Otonashi, suffers from a form of amnesia where she forgets things minutes after they happen.
But another big issue was how I couldn’t get attached to any of the new characters. Unlike the games where I found myself quickly liking at least one or two characters, I don’t think any of Zero‘s grabbed my interest, especially the two leads, Ryoko and Yasuke Matsuda (the latter does NOT make a good first impression). They just came across as rather generic and kind of annoying.
That being said, I do know how the story ends at the very least and the twist ending actually sounds pretty decent. Plus, the story goes out of its way to explain how the students from the first game had their memories stolen, which was something that the game never completely addressed. I appreciate that at the very least.
A part of me feels like I might’ve had an easier time reading it if I had the actual book, instead of reading a translated version online. But, as of right now, I really have no desire to do so. The fact that you can get all the necessary info just from some Google Searches doesn’t do Zero any favours; almost makes it feel like a pointless entry.
While I was a bit disappointed that Zero didn’t really do anything for me, I at least had a new game to look forward to; one that was very different to what came previously.
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls
I don’t think anyone expected a series like Danganronpa to get a third-person shooter spin-off. I’ve never been a fan of the genre myself, but I was officially too deep into the series and was willing to give it a shot, especially considering the game’s scenario was so radically different to its predecessors.
Set in between the first two games, Ultra Despair Girls centres around Komaru Naegi, the younger sister of the first game’s protagonist, who has to escape from Towa City, which has been overrun by an army of Monokuma robots. Komaru soon learns that the robots are being controlled by a group of children called the Warriors of Hope, who seek to make a paradise for all children by killing all the adults. Armed with a Hacking Gun, Komaru ends up joining forces with Toko Fukawa (one of the survivors from the first game) to escape the city.
From what I can tell, most people aren’t particularly fond of this game, whether it be because of the radical genre shift, the story and characters or the actual gameplay itself. Personally, I rather liked it. Granted, it has gameplay and story issues and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s first Danganronpa or third-person shooter but, for what it was, I thought it was pretty decent.
For starters, I liked the Hacking Gun. Rather than a more traditional weapon, you’re armed with what looks like a megaphone that shoots “bullets” at the enemies that have various effects. Not only is it pretty unique, it also matches with the series’ over-the-top tone and incorporates the Truth Bullet mechanic from the class trials in a different way. And with the different Truth Bullets you can unlock, it means you have multiple ways of defeating enemies and it creates opportunities for neat puzzles. You can make the enemies dance to distract other enemies or set them on fire, move electric cars to clear pathways; there’s some nice variety as you progress. Not to mention it’s pretty hilarious seeing a dainty girl like Komaru facing off against giant Gundam-like machines.
Speaking of Komaru, I quickly grew fond of her as a character just because of her arc. Unlike her brother, Komaru is a lot more fragile emotionally. She is trapped in a battlefield; the city is nearly reduced to rubble and she’s surrounded by psychotic children, killer robots and corpses. The early sections of the game are an emotional roller-coaster for her and you can hardly blame her for becoming so overwhelmed.
Whereas Makoto always held onto the hope that things would get better and used that to keep himself going, Komaru has none of that. She is deathly afraid for the longest time and probably wouldn’t have lasted very long if she didn’t run into Toko, who she quickly becomes reliant on. Funnily enough, she’s even more ordinary than her brother, which is what makes her stand out ironically. She’s just a normal, scared girl who goes on to become a hero in her own way. I wanted to keep playing because I wanted to see where her story went. Seeing her become more confident in her own abilities and overcoming all the grief and despair thrown her way was incredibly satisfying.
And while we’re talking about characters, I have to support this game if only for it turning Toko from one of my most hated characters to one of my favourites. I did not like her one bit in the first game; she may have had an awful childhood but her unpleasant attitude made it difficult to feel sympathy for her. She just wasn’t a nice person and made no attempt to be better. So I wasn’t exactly happy to find out that she was one of the leads for Ultra Despair Girls.
But then I played the game and, to my own shock, I gradually grew to like her, and that’s all down to her development. While she’s still quick with the insults and just all-around abrasive, it’s clear that she’s grown quite a bit since the first game. She’s quicker to action and ready to take charge of a situation. Plus, while maybe not as eloquent about it as Makoto, she does help Komaru move forward whenever she loses her nerve. She may never say it but Makoto’s words have clearly had an effect on Toko, and she’s actively trying to do and be better as a person.
And, of course, she actually grows attached to Komaru, with their verbal confrontations gradually turning into banter, and the two repeatedly saving each other. By the end of the game, I was baffled to see this harsh, mean-spirited person be genuinely affectionate to someone else; it was like she was a completely different character. I can’t dislike a game that managed to pull something like this off.
Oh, and it was also a treat to play as her split-personality, Genocide Jack, occasionally; if only because it turned enemy encounters into a button-mashing slaughter-fest. It’s very good at relieving stress and making the game just a little bit easier.
Like I said, Ultra Despair Girls is not without its faults (there are, in fact, some story aspects that I did not like a single bit) and while it may hot have been something the fans wanted, I’m glad we got it anyway. Once I delivered the last blow to the final boss, I was grinning like an idiot, just like the previous games. Because of that, I still feel it’s a worthy entry in the series.
It would be a while until I got to return to the world of Danganronpa and, at this point, I had no clue what to expect. Little did I know that an end to this tale of hope and despair was approaching. And if you thought Ultra Despair Girls was polarising, you have no idea what the future had in store for the fan-base.
Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy
This was definitely a shocker. Rather than wrap up the story arc surrounding the titular academy with another game, it was decided that the grand finale should be told in anime form. I remember being somewhat hesitant about it but I couldn’t help but be excited. I mean, this was the end. Maybe not for the series as a whole but for the characters we had spent so much time with and grown to love.
Funnily enough, though, I actually forgot all about its existence until only a week or so before the first episode premiered. Not sure how but it made for a very pleasant surprise, especially once I learnt that Danganronpa 3 would consist of two different story arcs. Hope you have context for all this coz shit’s gonna get confusing.
Side: Future takes place after the events of the second game, with Makoto back as the lead. It begins with him being arrested by the Future Foundation (an organisation dedicated to combating against despair and restoring the world to what it once was) for defying their orders and helping the Remnants of Despair. Brought to their HQ, along with Kyoko and Aoi, he and the heads of the organisation are suddenly attacked and knocked unconscious by sleeping gas.
When they all come to, they’re trapped in the building, have bracelets stuck to their wrists and are forced into a brand new killing game by Monokuma (one I won’t explain in detail because it’s rather complex and, God damn, this article is already over 4000 words long). This is a game with no class trials; just a straight up free for all where they must successfully identify and eliminate the traitor among them or risk being killed whenever the bracelets put them to sleep. With tensions quickly rising and sides instantly being taken, Makoto’s hope is pushed to its absolute limit.
Side: Despair, meanwhile, is another prequel story; this one focusing on the cast of Danganronpa 2 during their time at Hope’s Peak and shows how they ultimately fell into despair, as well as how the long mentioned Tragedy started.
What was really cool about this was that the two arcs aired concurrently with each other, so we’d get episode 1 of the Future arc, then episode 1 of the Despair arc etc. Though initially unconnected for the most part, certain plot details would carry from one arc to the other. For example, an episode of Side: Despair would explain the history of a character seen in Side: Future, with the following Future episode focusing on that character. You actually can’t watch the entirety of one arc by itself because there would be twists in the story that would come out of nowhere if you hadn’t watched the appropriate episodes from the other arc.
At the time, I was completely enamored with the show. I would wait until the dead of night for the new episode to air because I just had to know what happened next. Waits between episodes were almost painful and every episode had me agape for one reason or another. It was dramatic, suspenseful, terrifying and I loved every second of it. Seeing nearly every facet of the series thus far being represented in some way truly made it feel like this was the conclusion, and the decision to tell this story in this format meant there were a tonne of opportunities for action and visual drama.
Regular listeners of The Entertainment Dome may remember that we discussed every episode during the show’s initial airing so I’m not going to go into too much detail here (plus I want to keep it as spoiler free as possible). However, it’s been a year since its release and, in hindsight, I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t see the problems other viewers had.
I may have praised how the series used the “anyone can die” mentality well, but it really bites Danganronpa 3 in the arse; mostly concerning Side: Future. We’re introduced to a lot of new characters within the first episode and most of them end up dead, with practically no backstory given. Unlike the games where you had opportunities to learn more about the characters who died early on, some characters have nothing and pretty much exist to be fodder. Side: Despair has a similar issue. Due to the large cast and only having twelve episodes, several characters take a backseat and get very little focus.
Both arcs are also plagued with some story issues, too. In hindsight, it’s almost hilarious how much of Danganronpa 2‘s story is retconned thanks to Side: Despair and while the reveal of who the traitor was in Side: Future was mind-blowing and an excellent twist at the time, I can’t ignore that it ended up tearing open plot holes wide enough for the Titanic to sail through. Writing a story and script for an anime is very different to writing for a game and I think series creator, Kazutaka Kodaka, may have underestimated how difficult it was going to be, especially since it sounds like he was singlehandedly writing both arcs. It almost felt like he was writing it by the seat of his pants. Hell, some episodes had to air a few hours later than planned because they hadn’t been finished yet (the anime industry can be hell).
And then there’s the ending. Dear God, that final episode. Titled Side: Hope, the conclusion to not only the anime but the entire storyline regarding Hope’s Peak was so divisive that I genuinely think it ended friendships. There seems to be no in-between about it; you either loved it or despised it. But what do I think about it? Well, I acknowledge that it’s problematic. I completely get the aspects that people disliked. Even I have specific issues with it and, in regards to the fates of certain characters, it feels like a cop out…
But I don’t care.
I loved the final episode because it delivered almost exactly what I wanted. One thing that was consistent with every game I played was that the endings were always satisfying. Despite all the hardships the characters went through, and even though despair still had a harsh grip on the world, things still seemed hopeful. For a series so dark and depressing, the stories always ended with an optimistic outlook for the future. That’s the ending I wanted to see from Danganronpa 3. I didn’t want things to go to waste, I did’t want to feel like all the deaths and sacrifices had been for naught. That’s precisely not what happened.
The good guys won, the world was now in a state where it could be rebuilt and the remaining characters could now rest easy and live happy lives again… also my OTP kind of, sort of became canon (DON’T JUDGE ME). If this was where the series was going to end, I was more than happy with it. I could overlook the issues the anime had because the resolution was ultimately satisfying.
Kodaka had stated that he wanted this to be a thank you for the fans for sticking with this series, and I think he genuinely meant that. And while, sadly, it wasn’t that for a lot of fans, I’m personally grateful for what it was, and I do hope he hasn’t let some fans’ ire for it get him down.
But that wasn’t the end, was it? There’s still one more game to go. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony will be out at the end of the month and I have deliberately kept myself in the dark about it. Is it a solo, standalone entry? The beginning of a new saga? An epilogue to the Hope’s Peak arc? Or maybe even something else entirely? I’m admittedly anxious but I have hope that I’ll fall in love with it and its characters, just like with the previous games.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this series, it’s that hope can be a dangerous thing. It can lead to an overwhelming despair. But I’m going to hold onto it regardless, if it means moving forward and embracing the future.