For the longest time, Japan was the dominant force in video games. This came to a point that international fans started to garner interest in Japan, and some companies took advantage of it by having some games take place in Japan for international and domestic audiences. Thanks to the progression of technology since the Sega Dreamcast, there are now games that provide an authentic Japan experience.
So what are some great games that offer a taste of both the contemporary and ancient Japan? Read today’s top 10 to find out!
- System: PS2, Wii
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Clover Studios
- Release Dates: Apr 20, 2006 (Japan), Sept 19, 2006 (US)
The title Okami is an intended wordplay both meaning “Great God” written in this kanji 大神, or “wolf” written in this kanji 狼. If you want to study Japanese mythology and folklore, Okami is the perfect game to play. In Okami, you assume the role of Amaterasu, the Japanese Goddess of the Sun who takes the form of a mystical wolf to save Japan from demons.
With Okami taking place in ancient Japan, you get more of an open country feel as if you’re watching a classic samurai flick. You can explore its vast nature surrounded by either bamboos trees and/or cherry blossoms. Its cel-shaded graphics is a perfect compliment to traditional Japanese calligraphy and brush art, which greatly contributes to its distinct gameplay that teaches gamers about Japanese calligraphy or sumie (Japanese ink) art.
In addition, you also encounter some Japanese famous figures such as Abe no Seimei, a famous astrologer who served as an assistant to the emperor during his lifetime. Last, you mainly face against other mythical Japanese creatures such as the eight-headed Orochi.
9. Onimusha: Warlords
- System: PS2, XBox
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Dates: Jan 25, 2001 (Japan), Mar 13, 2001 (US)
If you want a taste of the time of the samurai, Onimusha would be a great start for you. You play as Samanosuke, who is modeled and voiced by Japanese-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, who also co-starred in a famous Kung Fu movie, House of Flying Daggers. While Oda Nobunaga’s role in history has been to subject to controversy by numerous scholars, this game portrays him as a dastardly demon. Numerous gamers have pointed out its similarities to two other Capcom franchises, Resident Evil and Devil May Cry. The gameplay and camera layout is largely like Resident Evil and has Devil May Cry’s hack 'n' slash features, and both deal with killing creatures of the night.
Much of the game can take place within large palaces, or in run-down villages. Its architecture with its traditional rooftop tiles brings a very authentic feel, and without skyscrapers blocking the moon like in modern Tokyo, the outdoors settings have an appropriate atmosphere of tranquility and eeriness that moonlight can only provide in comparison to overwhelming neon light signs. Much of the clothing is suitable for its period with the samurai armor and kimonos. While the US release has English voice acting, it thankfully includes the option to switch to Japanese voice acting for a truer experience.
- System: PS3, PS4
- Publisher: Sony (US), Koei Tecmo (Japan)
- Developer: Team Ninja
- Release Dates: Feb 9, 2017 (Japan), Feb 7, 2017 (US)
In case some of you didn’t know, Nioh takes inspiration from an unfinished screenplay of legendary director, Akira Kurosawa, who wanted to make a movie about William Adams, a real-life Western samurai. However, this game takes creative liberties and has this version of William face off against traditional Japanese demons as he encounters numerous real-life figures of the Feudal era such as Tokugawa Ieyasu. Like Okami, the game takes more inspiration from folklore and you play in the same era as in Onimusha.
Much of the architecture and nature displayed in Onimusha is more or less in tune with Nioh, but with Nioh being a newer release, it is shown in a quality that feels more organic. William shows he is adept at Japanese culture by wearing samurai armor and using Japanese sword techniques in his fighting style. Thanks to having the ability to seeing the opponent’s ki, or stamina, the fighting is equally about the brain as it is about the brawn, which is the essence of the Japanese way of fighting. So if you really want to learn about Japan in terms of the way of the samurai from a Westerner’s perspective and respect, Nioh is a great game to play.
7. Samurai Warriors (Sengoku Musou)
- System: PlayStation 2, XBox
- Publisher: Koei
- Developer: Omega Force
- Release Dates: Feb 11, 2004 (Japan), May 6, 2004 (US)
Like some of the games we have listed, Samurai Warriors takes place in the age of the Samurai and features some real-life warlords such as Oda Nobunaga. In addition, you can also play as the previously mentioned Tokugawa Ieyasu, Ishikawa Goemon, and Date Masamune.
The game is mostly hack 'n' slash so there is not much exploring to do so. If you just want to kick some ass, this game gets right to it. You fight in the open battlegrounds of Sengoku Japan and the characters are appropriately dressed in samurai armor, and the soundtrack uses a mix of traditional acoustic and modern electronic instruments. Despite being a Japanese game, the audio of the American release uses an English track with NO option for Japanese audio.
For those that want a more authentic experience with Japanese dialog, you may have to import this game as opposed to some games on this list that actually offer that selection.
6. Bushido Blade
- System: PS1
- Publisher: SquareSoft (Japan), Sony (US)
- Developer: Light Weight
- Release Dates: Mar 14, 1997 (Japan), Sept 30, 1997 (US)
Bushido Blade is an unorthodox fighting game that relies on the effectiveness of a strike as opposed to depleting your opponent’s life meter. In other words, try to loosely think of this as a more realistic fighting game. You can play as six characters and choose various weapons from standard blades to sledgehammers. While the game largely has a feudal atmosphere, it takes place in modern times such one of the stages being a helipad. In some ways, some gamers can see that Bushido Blade represents that much of Japan is still in tune with its older traditions in addition despite being modern and industrialized.
The characters wear traditional kimonos, ninja gear, and other types of clothing that symbolize stealth, movement, and protection. Beyond helipads, you can fight in the courtyards of traditional castles, inside kendo dojos, a small forest area covered in bamboo trees or a traditional garden that includes cherry blossoms, which symbolize the lifespan of a samurai. What ultimately makes this game distinct is that it can penalize you for violating the codes of Bushido. If you attack an opponent from behind or as they bow at the start of a bout after a certain amount of times, the game will stop and display a message that you are acting dishonorably.
So if you want to be educated in the code of Bushido, Bushido Blade is the game you have to play.
5. Persona 5
- System: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
- Publisher: Atlus (Japan and US), Deep Silver (Europe)
- Developer: Atlus
- Release Dates: Sept 15, 2016 (Japan), Apr 4, 2017 (international)
Taking place in modern Tokyo is the fifth installment of Atlus’ Persona series. Despite being the fifth game, no exposure to the previous games or the Shin Megami Tensei series is necessary in order to enjoy this one. In Persona 5, you play as a student who attends high school by day and fights evil by night as a member of the Phantom Thieves. While a large portion of the game deals with the supernatural, its reality is as equally appealing, if not, maybe even more. As the main character attends school, you actually have to study and take tests, and they contribute to your knowledge points. After school, you have the option to either partake in your nightly activities or go to your part-time job at the flower shop. Other than being just an anime experience, the game does a great job of representing numerous districts in Tokyo.
The main character lives in Yongenjaya, an area of Tokyo’s Setagaya ward inspired by Sangenjaya (with san meaning 3, and yon meaning 4). The train stations of both the game and in real life look virtually identical and just like the real-life Sangenjaya station, a train ride from Yongenjaya station to Shibuya station is rather instant. Some small details such as the cafes in this game’s Yongenjaya take direct inspiration from the real-life Sangenjaya district as well. Plus, you get a feel of the real-life Shibuya in this game (in addition to Odaiba and Akihabara), which leads us to our next game on the list.
4. The World Ends With You
- System: Nintendo DS
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Developer: Jupiter Corporation
- Release Dates: Jul 27, 2007 (Japan), Apr 22, 2008 (US)
In the Action RPG of The World Ends With You, you play as Neku Sakuraba, a teenage amnesiac introvert who for some reason has a pin that gives him the ability to read the minds of others. Shortly after, he finds himself involved in the Reaper’s Game, where the deceased must complete a series of tasks within a week to come back to life. The World Ends With You takes place in Shibuya, Tokyo’s most famous fashion ward. In fact, many of the featured characters are dress up in very unusual and yet appealing clothes that represent its reputation.
This game manages to bring in some notable landmarks such as the statue of Hachiko, the loyal dog who always waited for his owner at the station, as well as its famous crosswalk just outside the station. One other well-known place that is noticeable is the Shibuya 109 shopping mall (though renamed as 104), an awesome place to buy clothes.
Another quality that makes the game enjoyable is its distinct soundtrack and for every battle you’re in, it will play a different song as opposed to sticking to a standard one like most RPGs. The soundtrack feels like something a local Shibuya club would play. While this game isn’t as graphically detailed as some of the games on this list, its manga style does a very great job of representing the colorful spirit of Shibuya. So if you ever find yourself playing this game and visiting Shibuya or the reverse, you’ll be surprised by its accuracy.
3. Akiba’s Trip
- System: PSP
- Publisher: Acquire
- Developer: Acquire
- Release Dates: May 19, 2011
Some of you might be familiar with the anime that came out in 2017, but the original game came out in 2011. Just like in the anime, vampires possess the people of Akihabara and the only way to help is to strip them down to their underwear! Other than the weird gimmick, if you want to experience what Akihabara, the Mecca for Otakus is like, Akiba’s Trip is the closest thing you’re going to get to the real thing. The game does a perfect job of portraying the real-life Akihabara from Chou Street to even the Sumitomo Building at the center of the area.
Also included in this game is the famous Radio Kaikan, a place to buy numerous Otaku goods. In addition, you can visit maid cafes and visit other famous video game stores such as Gamers. Outside of its gimmick, the game itself is a 100% simulation to experiencing the real thing so if you ever want to prepare yourself for a trip to Akihabara, Akiba’s Trip will help you familiarize yourself with how to navigate Akihabara station, shops, arcades, restaurants, and cafes.
2. Shenmue - Chapter 1: Yokosuka
- System: Dreamcast
- Publisher: Sega
- Developer: Sega AM2
- Release Dates: Dec 29, 1999 (Japan), Nov 7, 2000 (US)
In Shenmue, you explore the port city of Yokosuka, which is south of Tokyo. You play as Ryo Hazuki, a teenage martial artist who must find Lan Di, a Chinese mafia boss who is also a master of Kung Fu treachery who slew Ryo’s father in a man-to-man fight. Even though Shenmue takes place in 1986, the game still does a great job of accurately capturing Yokosuka as it is today. Not only that, but the game effectively portrays the ordinary lives of Japanese residents. You can leave your house early in the morning and find the elderly neighbors sweeping outside their own homes, or you can even visit the local shrine and feed a kitty.
On New Year’s, characters wear elegant kimonos to commemorate the holiday like real life Japanese residents do. If you play up to April, the tree near Ryo’s dojo will bloom cherry blossoms, which is when cherry blossoms in Japan actually bloom. And just like in some Japanese homes, Ryo’s will have a Butsudan or a Buddhist Altar. It honors a deceased member of the family, such as Ryo’s father, and he can pray to it whenever he visits.
Last, the game does a great job of portraying the beauty of Japanese culture through the principles and the techniques of the martial arts. You can learn techniques from scrolls, or NPCs at times can teach them to you. The Western release is in English only, but its dub has been subjected to some ridicule been reviews and gamers alike (despite Yu Suzuki admitting to liking it). However, the Japanese version does bring a more appropriate feel to the game and if you want a more immersive experience, the Japanese version is it.
1. Yakuza 5 (Ryu Ga Gotoku 5: Yume, Kanaeshi Mono)
- System: PS3
- Publisher: Sega
- Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios
- Release Dates: Dec 6, 2012 (Japan), Dec 8, 2015 (US)
Tokyo is one hell of a place to enjoy but what about Osaka? Nagoya? Fukuoka? Or Hokkaido? If you want an all-around Japan experience, the ultimate game for that is Yakuza 5. Not only do you get to explore five cities, but play as five characters, Kazuma Kiryu, Shun Akiyama, Taiga Saejima, Tatsumi Shinada, and Haruka Sawamura. Beyond the cutthroat nature of Japan’s underworld, Haruka’s story teaches gamers the demands and sacrifices it takes to become an idol. Through Shinada’s story, players can learn how deep shame can go when you’re disgraced in Japanese society, even under false accusations.
In Yakuza 5, you visit the respective red light districts of each city. Kamurocho in Tokyo is inspired by Kabukicho. In Osaka, you get to visit its version of Dotonbori, Sotenbori. In Fukuoka, you explore Nagasugai, which is inspired by Nakasu. In Sapporo, you visit the game’s representation of Susukino, Tsukimo. And in Nagoya, you get to visit Kineicho, which simulates Sakaecho. Even though the names are changed, the infrastructure, landmarks, and architecture are all pretty much accurate to the real thing as if you’re really there. Not only that, you get to enjoy the pleasures of eating at real-life restaurants like Watami, simple shopping at a convenience store and enjoying some shots at a hostess club. With Haruka, her part of the game allows players to learn the duties of being an idol, and that includes TV appearances and you let Haruka answer quiz questions to the best of your ability to make her look good.
Last, some honorable mentions go to Steins;Gate, Tenchu, Maximum Tune, Kenka Bancho, and Tokyo Jungle. Each game on this list probably offers something of interest for some of you that are reading. Some games give you a taste of feudal Japan, others let take you to something more mystical but maintain its culture, and there are those that let you experience something more realistic representation or get a mix of everything. Depending on your tastes, we are positive our list can point you in the right direction.
For some of these games that have Western releases, some have Japanese audio with English text support. While there are some people who reasonably would like dubs, having the audio in Japanese brings a more sensible feel to the setting. If you want 100% Japanese with text, you are free to import these games if you feel the need to practice your Japanese, especially with the first release of Shenmue.