Most people know that the Japanese video game market is filled with titles the rest of the world never sees. But it’s only after visiting Japan and prowling through their astonishing second-hand game shops do you begin to realize the breadth and sheer strangeness of those un-exported games. After two years in Japan, here are ten video games that left the biggest impression on me.
- Densha de Go! Final (PS2)
Ever dreamed of operating a Japanese passenger train? You know, stopping to pick up passengers, blaring the horn at intersections, obeying the speed limit, etc. Densha de Go! Final, as its name suggests, is the last in a long running and hugely popular series that simulates the rules and precision that come with the job of train conductor. Ease the throttle up too high or miss your stop by a few centimeters and you get reprimanded. And be sure to obey the speed limit precisely, because if the countdown timer between stations hits zero, it’s Game Over!
- Persona 2: Innocent Sin (PS1)
The Persona series allows players to summon spirits to fight for them in randomly generated dungeons. Persona 2 was split into two releases in Japan: Persona 2: Eternal Punishment & Persona 2: Innocent Sin. Eternal Punishment was localized for western audiences, but Innocent Sin was not, supposedly because it contained more “graphic” subject matter than Eternal Punishment, such as the ability to engage in a homosexual relationship. Also, Hitler appeared in the game because, why not?
- Ka 2: Let’s Go Hawaii (PS2)
The original Ka came to the US as the horrifying Mr. Mosquito, in which you terrorized the Yamada family as a whining mosquito. Different level layouts saw you pursuing sweet, sweet blood in the Yamadas’ kitchen, bedrooms, living room, and, in one oddly guilt-inducing level involving the Yamada’s teenage daughter, the bathtub. The sequel sees the Yamadas and some friends travel to Hawaii for some Mosquito-free R&R…or so they think.
- Love Hina Gorgeous: Chiratto Happening!! (PS2)
Oh man, isn’t Love Hina awesome? Surely, you’re imagining the hilarious antics of Keitaro and Naru, and the cute, but kind of pervy, relationships Keitaro built with all of the girls living in his dormitory, right? Yeah, forget all that, because this game is mostly about taking actual practice tests in subjects like math and Japanese to get into Tokyo University. You still get a few entertaining scenes of character interaction to bookend the tests, but otherwise it’s time to dust off your graphing calculator from high school.
- Harmful Park (PS1)
One of many shooters that never made it off of mainland Japan, this side-scroller arms a young teenager with several different kinds of food, like potatoes and jelly (called “Jerry” due to a mistranslation), to be used as weapons against the denizens of a monstrous theme park. The art style is colorful and cartoony, not so different from the Mega Man X series, and the vaguely carnival themed stages are all pleasantly bonkers. The worst part about this game is that, despite being published by Konami, it is incredibly rare and copies don’t come cheap!
- Shadow Tower Abyss (PS2)
With the success of their Souls series and now Bloodborne, From Software has become a household name in the west. The studio also produced the PS1/PS2 era King’s Field series, which some see as the precursor to the Souls games. I felt the same way until I played Shadow Tower Abyss. If I may borrow a meme, the real Demon’s Souls starts here. This dark, first person dungeon crawler combines high-fantasy, the old west, and a Cthulu-esque visual style with one of the strangest control schemes since Killer 7. Speaking of which…
- Killer 7 (Multi System)
Yes, I know this game was also released in the US. But, have you actually played it? The control scheme is part rail-shooter and part, that one kind of nightmare where you’re trying to run away from something but can’t. The tutorials are delivered by a red leather gimp — with a slightly robotic Japanese VO. I love me some Suda 51 tomfoolery, but be prepared, Killer 7 is way, way over the top!
- Espgaluda (PS2)
One of the “easier” bullet hell shooters from the famed developer Cave, Espgaluda, sees the player controlling a winged member of a royal family bent on revenge. The hook in Espgaluda is the ability to “awaken,” which slows down enemy projectiles and, for some reason, temporarily switches the main character’s gender. The outstanding Espgaluda II eventually saw a western release on the Xbox 360, but you’ll have to import this title to learn where it all started.
- Captain Rainbow (Wii)
The Captain Rainbow box art features a well-muscled superhero leaping toward you in a colorful leotard. Beside him is a disclaimer, written in giant red Japanese lettering that says: “Actually this game is not about a cool hero! Let’s calmly read the details on the back of the box!” When you actually boot up the game you play as a young man who washes up on a beach and interacts with some truly odd side characters, including some familiar faces from the Nintendo character stable. However, unexpectedly, at some point your character gains the ability to transform into Captain Rainbow, so it actually IS a game about a cool superhero.
- Kuma Uta (PS2)
We’ve come to it at last. Possibly the weirdest game I’ve ever played, Kuma Uta (literally: “Song Bear”) was a first-party title for the PS2. It revolves around a polar bear—living in a tropical jungle for some reason—that finds a book that teaches him how to be a professional Enka singer. For those of you who don’t know what Enka is, it’s like Karaoke mixed with elevator music, mixed with Lawrence Welk. (That didn’t help, did it?) Anyway, you help the bear write songs by either selecting sets of lyrics, or writing them yourself in Japanese Hiragana. At the end he performs the song you wrote as a music video, singing in a synthesized electronic voice. Please, please go look up this game on YouTube!
Honorable Mentions: Mojib Ribbon (sequel to Vib Ribbon); Cho Aniki series