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Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is still the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game

(Image credit: Carpe Fulgur)

In 2010, a Japanese indie game appearing on Steam was unheard of. Valve's store didn't sell anything that looked like Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale back then. It almost didn't stock Recettear. Localisation team Carpe Fulgur emailed Valve—that's how it worked back then—and were ignored. It was only after they released a generous demo, which was widely and gushingly blogged about, that someone at Valve played it and realised this cute anime oddity deserved a place there.

Developers EasyGameStation made mainly dōjin soft or fangames before this. Somehow, a studio responsible for a beach volleyball game based on a popular anime series turned their hand to original JRPGs and made a genuine classic. I remember playing the demo in 2010 and being surprised by how much I enjoyed something so cutesy, with a protagonist whose catchphrases are "yayifications" and "capitalism, ho!"

(Image credit: Carpe Fulgure)

Pix or it didn't happen

Even today Recettear stands out for two reasons. It's a JRPG that can be comfortably finished in under 25 hours, and it's a JRPG with writing and localisation that won't make you wince—most of the time. Occasional jokes don't quite land, as with the gag embedded in its title. See, the name of the shop is Recettear, pronounced "ress-uh-teer", which is a portmanteau combining the names of the shop's owners, Recette and Tear. The joke is that naive Recette doesn't realise people might misread the name as "racketeer". It's not much of a joke, no.

It's worth glossing over the occasional groanworthy gag, because this is still the best realisation of the Fantasy Shopkeeper Tycoon idea around. To earn the most pix (its fantasy currency) you have to upgrade and rearrange your decor to attract certain customers—the assassin likes it dimly lit and spooky; the wizard wants to see books on display; expensive items in the window draw in the wealthy—then haggle with them over the price of everything from magic swords to toffee apples. It's a solid sim.

Customers will want to sell you their own junk too. Combined with randomised stock customer dialogue, this results in wonderful moments like the adventurer who wants to know how much you'll pay for his family heirloom, which turns out to be a hamburger. Or the man with a sob story about a grandmother telling him to sell off something valuable when she died, who then hands over a tin of peaches.

(Image credit: Carpe Fulgur)

Sometimes specific item categories will be in demand, allowing you to jack the prices way up, but gouging customers isn't actually the best strategy. Though Recette's business partner, a foreclosure fairy named Tear, suggests charging people as much as 130 percent, in the long run you're better off charging closer to 105 percent most of the time. Customers have an invisible reputation score that goes up when they get a good deal, encouraging them to spend more money, while your own merchant level goes up if you chain unbroken combos of sales together. The higher it goes the more you can personalise the shop, as well as unlocking things like vending machines or the ability to take advance orders.

All these things are important because you're trying to keep ahead of debt repayments. Recette's deadbeat dad ran off to be an adventurer and left her with a huge debt, and if she doesn't keep ahead of those payments she'll lose her home. For all its breezy wheeling and dealing and "Capitalism, ho!" there's another side to Recettear, one that condemns exploitative loans and discourages ripping people off for a quick gold buck. 

Bash for cash

As well as being a sim Recettear is a dungeon-crawler. Though you can stock up at the market or merchant's guild, you also collect loot by hiring a down-on-their luck adventurer to brave the local underground monster zoo and let you keep the stuff they find. You take direct control of the adventurer in these Zelda-esque bashytimes, battering gnolls and slimes for another day's worth of stock to sell.

Though some of the monsters are adorable, dungeons get tough. Specialist adventurers like the thief and magician are hard to learn, with hardly any hit points and skills that take some getting used to, and boss fights are brutal. To beef up heroes you can loan them quality equipment, but then they'll store the old gear in inventory slots that could be used to bring loot back. The better way to gear up adventurers is to sell them items when they visit your shop, improving their odds of survival while making a cheeky profit.

(Image credit: Carpe Fulgur)

That's why tweaking your shop's atmosphere is so important. I want Elan the two-fisted priest-in-training to come buy a pair of gloves he needs, which means filling the display cabinet with cheap sweets to attract him and making sure those gloves are out on show as well. At which point a tiny girl will probably come in and buy them before he gets a chance, of course.

These two sides of Recettear feed into each other, but profit potential isn't the only reason it's worth going underground to get zapped by eyebats or stung by wasps. It's also the only way to meet certain characters and progress their stories, and thanks to its breezy writing the story in Recettear is a reward too.

EasyGameStation's history as fanfic writers shows through here. Not only is Recettear littered with references (a rival attempts to spy on you from under a cardboard box like in Metal Gear Solid, one character quotes the famously goofy translated exclamation from Final Fantasy 6, "Son of a submariner!"), it has the tone of a Coffee Shop AU fic, the kind of story that reimagines characters as the staff and customers of a friendly cafe who spend all their time just hanging out and bonding over a hot cup of java.

(Image credit: Carpe Fulgur)

The other thing it reminds me of is how important shopping becomes in pen-and-paper RPGs. If you've ever played the kind of Dungeons & Dragons campaign where one session is about clearing out the goblin caves and the next is entirely about wandering around town trying to decide what to do with the loot, you'll know what I mean. I'm convinced half the reason for the popularity of live-play D&D show Critical Role is how much time they dedicate to shopping, with Matt Mercer portraying a parade of quirky shopkeepers. 

Financial Fantasy

There's a save-the-world quest buried in Recettear, but you might not even find it. That side of the story is entirely optional, with the mounting repayments your real concern. By the time you've got 200,000 pix due you'll be scrambling for every coin. The punishment for failure isn't too bad—you loop back to day two and get to try again, keeping all your stock, merchant level, customer reputations, and adventurer levels. It'll be easier on your second go. Even so, I personally went straight to the wiki for advice so I could finish in a single loop.

Among the undocumented mechanics of Recettear are bonuses to your merchant xp gained by getting a price close to what the customer considers ideal, and for unbroken chains of sales where you suggest an acceptable price on the first try. Sure, there are notifications when this happens, but what they say is "near pin" and "just bonus", which in English at least are not combinations of words that suggest what they actually mean.

The other way Recettear has of reminding you it's a Japanese game originally designed in 2007 is that it has no idea what mouse controls are, and uses the arrow keys instead of WASD. More recent Japanese games have taken on western-isms like those, but Recettear predates all that. This is a game from before widescreen was the default, from a time when the Z, X, C and occasionally W keys were valid choices for your main prompts. If that's a dealbreaker for you, more recent indie games have copied the Recettear formula with modern controls and resolutions. Moonlighter is probably the best of them.

(Image credit: Carpe Fulgur)

I still prefer Recettear, though. I like that it presents itself as a game about profit and "Capitalism, ho!" but is actually about raising up an entire community. You help out the broke local adventurers, turning them away from crime and booze and setting them up with careers. You compete with a rival big-box franchise that doesn't care about people, and watch the town's economy grow as you haul prosperity out of a hole in the ground and share it around.

I also like the way it reformats the rest of the RPG world the same way it does the concept of the all-purpose item shop. It's a setting full of professional adventurers, so they must be organised and carry around business cards and try to land sponsorship deals. There are dungeons people keep returning to, so they must reconfigure and restock themselves somehow and there must be someone behind that. Like the Discworld books, it takes fantasy cliches and applies common sense until they come out the other side somehow even weirder than they went in.

Though Japanese games coming to Steam has stopped being so rare—there's even a Persona game on Steam now, one of the series Recettear references with its Doors of Return—and small, weird games are commonplace too, I still enjoy replaying Recettear for its own merits. It deserves to be remembered. It's that rare thing, a parody that's even better than the things it parodies, and still my favourite JRPG. 

Jody is that guy who will try to convince you to play some indie game you've never heard of with a name like Extreme Meatpunks Forever. He is also on a doomed quest to play every Warhammer game.