For a game that is about dating birds, Hatoful Boyfriend is surprisingly normal. And that is its greatest strength.
The Japanese dating sim, originally released for PC in 2011 and now remastered in HD, puts you in the role of a lone human student at the all-bird high school of St. PigeoNation's Institute, where you must choose and romance a lucky avian suitor.
While the premise is itself absurd, what makes the whole thing hold together is how the rest of the game is a by-the-books of a Japanese dating sim. Yes, everyone is a bird, but you still do the average things that a player normally does in a run-of-the-mill dating sim. You meet the bookish librarian bird and try to parse out what makes him tick. You meet the creepy nurse bird and try to impress your sleepy teacher bird. Heck, you go to a god damned fireworks festival with your birdy bae.
It's a fucking riot.
The key to a solid parody is an earnest love of the source material. If you're going to make a kung fu comedy, you better also know how to make an objectively good action flick or else it will fall apart. For example, a game like Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden only works because it understands and can absurdly parse out what works about both mid-90s Basketball culture and mid-90s Japanese role playing games. It's a conviction that comes from people that care about the game they're poking fun at, and one that is deeply felt in every second of Hatoful Boyfriend.
Hatoful Boyfriend reminds me of the surrealist mid-90s sitcom Dinosaurs. If you've never seen it, the show was originally pitched by Jim Henson as "a sitcom with a pretty standard structure, with the biggest differences being that it's a family of dinosaurs and their society has this strange toxic life style." Dinosaurs was so spot-on in what it was parroting that they could have turned the reptilian Sinclair family into humans and it would have worked, mostly. One could say the same of the excellent but short-livedClone High, an animated high school drama that starred the clones of famous people throughout history.
That minor switch — playing everything straight save for one weird element — creates a kind of static humour that transforms every ordinary occurrence into something conspicuous and amusing. When you're being harassed by pigeons with mohawks gleefully points out how weird that premise and structure of dating games are. Deciding if you should chastise a giant bird for being a bully indicates how stilted and surreal that binary choice is. It is criticism from a surreal and affectionate angle.
What's more, the very alien nature of the scenario is easier to sell to outsiders. I know several people who wouldn't ordinarly play a dating sim, but if I told them, "You get to date a hyper-intelligent dove," their eyes would surely light up. It's easier for people to accept because there is something for people that wouldn't normally play dating sims to latch on to. But that weirdness is not flagrant or needless.
That singular twisted swap is the thing that makes the whole thing work — adding something special to what could have been a run of the mill dating sim. By fully embracing the weird, Hatoful Boyfriend transforms into something otherworldly and delightful.