Today’s list covers a unique variety of games from Japan. Beyond the surface of artistic features that Japanese games offer, there are genres and other qualities that just make them distinct for “cultural” reasons. There are some Japan exclusive titles on this list that define them just for the fact that they are “too Japanese.” And there are some that are on this list that made it to Western shores and has their own distinct characteristics that stand out while some are well hidden but have so much depth. So some let’s have a read!
- Platform: GameBoy
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Game Freak, Creatures
- Release Date: Feb 27,1996 (Japan) Sept 30, 1998 (US)
Other than the anime art style, what makes Pokemon distinctively Japanese? It’s because of bug collecting (especially beetles) is a popular pastime in Japan, plays a large influence and the game's co-creators, Satoshi Tajiri and Shigeru Miyamoto, enjoyed it in their childhood. In the old days, you could sell certain bugs to a pet store for a lot of money. Sometimes, children like to do battle with their beetles or with other bugs they may have.
In addition, Tajiri thought the game was a good way to introduce children to RPGs, which were popular with older gamers. In addition, may of the regions of the game are actually based on regions in Japan. For example, the name Kanto is taken from the real life Kanto region of Japan, which consists of Tokyo and Yokohama.
9. Touhou Rei'iden: The Highly Responsive to Prayers
- Platform: NEC PC-98
- Publisher: ZUN, Amusement Makers
- Developer: ZUN, Amusement Makers
- Release Date: November 1996
Though the Touhou Project has been gaining international attention within the anime fanbase the last few years, its legacy goes back 20 years! Its fanbase in Japan is big to the point that there are numerous fan-dedicated projects to it (including one that is influenced by Castlevania). We’ve all played vertical rail shooters like 1942 and Ikaruga. They tend to be very sci-fi oriented and enemies are swarming all over the place! But replace them with mikos, or shrine maidens and that’s Touhou Rei'iden!
Shrine maidens are young ladies who work in Shinto shrines and pop culture portrays them as magic users. If you have familiarity with the trendy definition genre, it is the same and yet so different. Due to the gimmick of shrine maidens, it is more mythical/magical based as opposed to technological. As usual, players have unlimited ammo with standards bullets and there are bombs or spell cards in the case of this game. Bosses and sub-bosses have their own spell cards as well. Some enemies are also based in Japanese mythologies such as tengus, kappas, and various Japanese demons and ghosts.
8. School Days (School Days HQ)
- Platform: PC, PS2, PSP
- Publisher: Overflow, Jast
- Developer: Overflow, Jast
- Release Date: April 28, 2005 (Japan), June 28, 2012 (US)
A certain percentage of you readers are likely to be familiar with the anime, but it happens to be influenced by a visual novel (think of it as an interactive anime) game, a genre that has a following in Japan. As the genre name suggests, the game is portrayed through animated scenes, and the player has the option of choosing what to say or how to conduct the character in order to progress. Whatever choice the player makes will impact the flow of the game and relationships with certain characters. In the original PC version, the game had some very extreme scenes, which were taken out of its console releases.
Depending on how the game can go, the ending can be pretty dark and the series gained a majority of its fame due to its very dark and violent endings. Due to the many endings for better or worse, the replay value is high and addicting. Though games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap may have caused congressional hearings back in the 90s, the nature of violence in video games may be controversial in Japan, but thanks to its much lower crime rate, games like School Days with their extreme content shows that such material does not lead to such a society.
7. Kamidori Alchemy Meister
- Platform: PC
- Publisher: Eushully
- Developer: Eushully
- Release Date: April 22, 2011
Kamidori Alchemy Meister is part visual novel, part old school RPG, and part eroge (erotic games), which are all genres that are widely available in Japan. The interaction with other characters share the qualities of a visual novel by having pictorials of the characters, while the exploration and combat modes are based on RPGs. This game offers various tools, weapons, and classes.
In terms of being a visual novel, players have the option of choosing what to say during dialogs, decides which routes to take, or make crucial decisions that impact the direction of the game and the relationships with the other characters. As the title and RPG genre suggests, it is based on fantasy and magic. And like a good percentage of visual novel games, it has a good handful of hentai, and as Wil, the character gets to bang many races of women from fox ladies to warriors.
So if you want a bit of this and that, this is the game for you. If you want some catchy music (and its intro feels like a real anime intro), then this is strongly recommended.
6. Final Fantasy VII
- Platform: PS, PS2, PC, and soon, PS4
- Publisher: SquareSoft, SCEA
- Developer: SquareSoft, SCEA
- Release Date: January 31, 1997 (Japan), September 7, 1997 (US)
Final Fantasy VII popularized old school JRPGs shortly before the transition to modern style. During its release, anime was on the rise in America and its design was very distinguishing at the time. FF7 made great use of the PlayStation hardware by emphasizing on their groundbreaking full motion video scenes by still maintaining its anime foundation.
One such iconic scene that will forever stay with fans is (SPOILER ALERT) the loss of Aeris (or Aerith). It was one of the first games that widely exposed non-Japanese gamers to how emotional and cinematic video games can be which has always been a trope in Japanese games. In addition, it taught audiences that in Japan, there is no such debate on whether or not video games are art.
5. Elite Beat Agents (Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan)
- Platform: Nintendo DS
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: iNiS
- Release Date: July 28, 2005 (Japan), November 6, 2006 (US)
Some of you readers may have played Elite Beat Agents, but how many of you have played its original Japanese version Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan (meaning Go! Fight! Cheer Squad)? While the American and European release in terms being a music game is still the same, the foundation of their gimmicks is different. While the Western release portrays the characters of government agents, the original Japanese version portrays the characters as a Japanese cheer squad. Yes, Japanese cheerleading tends to be very different from the West. To some of you Western readers, you think of mini-skirts and pom-poms. In Japan, it’s not exactly like that. Cheerleaders are dominantly male, wear gakurans with red armbands, scream very loud, and this game portrays those qualities.
In addition, while Elite Beat Agents appropriately uses a good mix of classic and then modern hits (though they are covers) such as Queen’s I Was Born to Love You and Survivor by Destiny’s Child, the original Japanese version uses top Japanese hits such as Ready Steady Go by L’Arc~En~Ciel, Over the Distance by Hitomi Yaida, and Koi no Danes Site by Morning Musume.
4. Yakuza 5 (Ryu ga Gotoku 5: Yume Kanaeshi Mono)
- Platform: Sony Playstation 3
- Publisher: SEGA
- Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios
- Release Date: December 6, 2012 (Japan), December 8, 2015 (US)
With Yakuza 5 taking place in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya and Sapporo, the player can play as the five main characters (Kiryu, Haruka, Akiyama, Saejima, and Shinada) who each have their own stories that are intertwined, and with mini-games that distinct each other for freshness. With Kiryu, you understand what it’s like to be a cab driver and you learn some interesting things that stand out to Japanese society when interacting with customers.
In one of his interactions, you learn that the Japanese take particular attention to nose hair and it is bad manners to have them untrimmed. Within Haruka’s game, you learn about the cutthroat world of the idol industry. Through Saejima, you learn how harsh the winters can be in Hokkaido and the poor prison conditions in Japan.
As usual, players can explore the arcade, telephone clubs, hostess clubs and learn about business manners in Japan. Take for example, if you go to a restaurant and have a meeting there, the main person sits at the head of the table facing away from the entrance/exit, the co-worker sits to either the left or right of the main, and the customer sits in the chair closest to the entrance/exit to give him main priority when entering and exiting. Such small details give players the chance to learn new things they may never have known about Japan.
3. Shenmue (Shenmue Isshou Yokosuka)
- Platform: Sega Dreamcast
- Publisher: SEGA
- Developer: SEGA AM2
- Release Date: December 29, 1999 (Japan), November 7, 2000 (US)
To the dedicated fans of Shenmue, it is their gate to a virtual Japan that has been praised for its accuracy. If the players go as far as playing into the spring, the cherry blossom tree outside of Ryo’s dojo blooms, or on New Year’s, people will wear kimonos. The detail put into this game is probably the most effective edutainment tool of Japan as you’ll ever get.
Yu Suzuki has confessed in interviews that he has been touched by what players have learned about Japan because of Shenmue. One instance that a fan shared with Suzuki that stands out to him is that Ryo says thank you when someone gives him directions and Suzuki finds it fascinating that though that may be the norm in Japan to do that, it is unheard of in non-Japanese countries.
Though a large number of people have mocked the dub, even the English cast has admitted that there were things they didn’t agree with and for good reason. The dub was under the supervision of a Japanese director. It was the intention of the Japanese staff to have the game still talk in a Japanese style. For example, if a player chooses Ryo to do some training, he will say let’s get sweaty. Though it sounds strange in English, in the original Japanese, ase wo nagasu, it is a very commonly used idiom meaning to work hard. Such phrasing may sound very weird in English, but in its original Japanese many of what is said happens to be common.
2. The Idolm@ster
- Platform: Arcade, Xbox 360
- Publisher: Bandai Namco
- Developer: Metro
- Release Date: Jan. 25, 2007
With the first Xbox not being that much of a success in Japan, by having more Japanese style games for the 360, what better game than Idolm@ster? For generations, some of Japan’s top production companies have given fans legendary idol groups such as Morning Musume and AKB48. So how are these groups formed and how do they reach and maintain success?
If anything, idolm@aster can give players a loose idea of what it is like to raise an idol in Japan. In this game, the player assumes the role as a producer and through auditions, singing and dancing lessons, concerts, and other public appearances, the producer helps their idol gain exposure and more fame for their production company. The game teaches how competitive the industry can be and how pressure is put on the producer, the company, and the idols in order to succeed.
The game has a tension meter for the idol and as the producer, it is not only the player’s responsibility to make the idol succeed but to also make sure the idol doesn’t break down. Think you got what it takes to succeed in the Japanese entertainment industry? Try this game!
1. Love Plus
- Platform: Nintendo DS
- Publisher: Konami
- Developer: Konami
- Release Date: September 3, 2009
Dating sims have been a novelty in Japan for more than 20 years, but Love Plus takes the genre to higher levels of creativity and reception. Through the main character (an ordinary school boy), the player encounters Manaka, Rinko, and Nene who have their own distinct personalities from the quiet type to the tsundere. As the game progresses, one of these girls becomes the girlfriend and the player can schedule dates, reply to emails, and go to a hot spring trip. Any late replies to emails and no shows for dates, there will be hell to pay! These relationships can go on for a month, a year, or for the rest of your life.
Its description alone is enough to explain why the game is so Japanese but it has become a unique phenomenon to the point that a player married one of the characters, Nene. Though some people can naturally assume that fans may have social/developmental problems, Akari Uchida, the creator, has said that fans of novels, TV shows, and movies have feelings for the characters in those mediums and should be no different in games. For its most unique feature, the game needs Japanese speaking ability to play since it uses the DS microphone. Try saying “suki da” or “aishiteiru”, both meaning, “I love you,” into the microphone and the girl will react.
Some honorable mentions we like to share go out to Project Diva, Stein’s;Gate, Phoenix Wright, Tokimeki Memorial, and Dead or Alive Xtreme 3. When non-Japanese gamers have exposure to some of these titles, a good number are likely to be captured by the unfamiliar qualities of these games, or some may not just get it. As the cliché goes, art can imitate life and many gamers can find such qualities in these games and take something from it.
As for what we covered on this list, some of these games can be very educational to players in their own way or just give players something fresh to try out. Has a Japanese game given you a unique kind of experience different from popular American games like Halo? Leave it in the comments below!