Neko Can Dream is a nonviolent, narrative-focused Game Boy-style adventure game available on both mobile platforms and in a physical cartridge for the Game Boy itself. Players take on the role of a cat-eared young woman who wakes to find herself in a strange city. An avian yakitori restaurant owner offers her a job, asking her to capture and can the dreams of the city’s sleeping residents. In order to secure these cans, the young woman must enter three dreams, each of which contains a complete story. While referencing classic games through original scenarios, Neko Can Dream expertly guides the player from one scene to the next as it reflects on the refuge that the fantasy world of dreams offers people who find themselves alienated from the real world.

Neko Can Dream

Amaitorte
Game Boy, iOS, Android
October 21, 2023

After she accepts her first assignment, the catgirl enters the dream of a woman who lives alone in an apartment behind the yakitori restaurant. This dream opens on a cliff above a surreal landscape of abstract cubes. As the catgirl moves from screen to screen, she encounters a variety of NPCs happily going about their business. The catgirl gradually finds herself in an outdoor fish market, where she’ll be allowed an audience with the market boss if she manages to track down eight runaway tuna. The tuna are scattered across an expansive map, but the game’s strong environmental design helps the player locate each of them without getting lost.

A screenshot from Neko Can Dream (2023, Amaitorte) that shows a catgirl talking to an anthropomorphic dog amid an abstract landscape. Dialogue at the bottom of the screen reads, "Strange terrain, isn't it?"

This first dream contains subtle callbacks to Link’s Awakening, a 1993 Game Boy game set on an island that only exists in a dream. Its surreal urban setting also echoes the dream city of Moonside in the 1994 Super Nintendo game Earthbound. The atmosphere of the first dream is strange but nonthreatening, although it takes a somewhat dark turn when the dreamer reveals the circumstances that caused her to retreat into a private fantasy world. The tone never descends into horror but instead glides along the placid surface of a gentle sadness.

In a complete change of pace, the second dream is set on a space train on its way to the moon. During the journey, many of the passengers engage in “Nekomon” battles on their handheld gaming consoles, as there’s going to be a big tournament on the moon. Unfortunately, one of the passengers has found another pastime—murder.

Screenshot from Neko Can Dream (2023, Amaitorte) where three characters stand in a medical centre. Dialogue at the bottom of the screen reads, "Are you sure you're not mistaken?"

After a young Nekomon competitor is found dead in his room, the catgirl joins the train’s manager, Ms. Yagiman, on a quest to interview their fellow passengers to solve the crime, Murder on the Orient Express style. There are no actual Pokémon-style battles; rather, this dream echoes the sequence in the original 1996 Pokémon Red and Green games in which the player is free to explore the St. Anne luxury cruise liner while chatting with trainers in their private cabins. During her investigation, the catgirl encounters a spicy bit of intrigue, including Ms. Yagiman’s romantic affair with a wealthy widow. There’s also a simple sokoban box-pushing puzzle in the cargo area, because why not?

I’ll leave the third dream as a surprise. Suffice it to say that it’s magical.

Outside of the dreams, the catgirl is free to wander a nighttime city based on the lively downtown centers of Tokyo. This fantasy city reminds me of the Kamurocho of the Yakuza games, and it’s fun to see the unique details of an environment so closely inspired by places in the real world captured with Game Boy graphics. With no combat or puzzles, Neko Can Dream resembles a walking sim, and there’s a distinct pleasure in exploring creatively rendered, pocket-sized environments while chatting with the locals.

Screenshot from Neko Can Dream (2023, Amaitorte) depicting a catgirl on a street in front of a yakitori restaurant.

I usually encounter Game Boy-style games on Itch.io, and this is the first I’ve played on a dedicated mobile app created by a game developer. This app is wonderfully designed. Its interface is simple and easy to navigate, and it automatically saves your progress so that you can start immediately from where you left off, even if you close the app. You can also choose from a range of authentic Game Boy Color palettes, including the classic olive green and gray of the original Game Boy.

Neko Can Dream is the creation of a Japanese transgender artist who uses the pen name Nekobungi Sumire (@nekobungi on Twitter and Tumblr) and publishes her work under the label Amaitorte. Aside from Neko Can Dream, Nekobungi has also drawn half a dozen short, stand-alone queer romance comics that she’s translated into English and made available on various ebook platforms. One of my favorites is Silhouette of the Sea Breeze, which is about a catgirl who runs a café in an old building on the ocean. Every day she’s visited by a researcher studying the Earth’s surface, which has been mostly abandoned by humanity. The catgirl has spent most of her life alone and is painfully shy, but the researcher is determined to befriend her.

The title page of Silhouette of the Sea Breeze (2023, Nekobungi) depicting a figure walking on a long pier to a building in the ocean.

Neko Can Dream explores similar themes of loneliness and the search for connection, and it takes place in a series of equally strange and fantastic worlds. In these dreams, the player encounters stories of young love, mature love, queer identity, and the everyday struggles of being an adult. The tone ranges from unapologetic silliness to bittersweet melancholy, and the more dramatic story beats are illustrated with manga-style cutscenes. Nekobungi has translated Neko Can Dream herself, and the writing has a charming quality of open sincerity that shimmers like a pearl in the irony-saturated retro indie game scene.

Neko Can Dream will take most players about two and a half hours to finish. Even though the narrative tone is gentle, the pace is quite brisk, and the excellent game design ensures that the player never becomes lost or confused. Certain elements of the individual character stories will resonate strongly with players interested in themes relating to queer identity; however, at its core, Neko Can Dream is about how the dream worlds of video games can help people at all stages of life recover from trauma and reach out for connection.