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Exploring Japan’s Indie Game Scene

The entire world has a scattering of independent game developers; everywhere from the United States to smaller African nations have individuals and small teams working towards making their own games without interference from larger publishers.

One of the largest, yet lesser known, scenes is the Japanese market; there is a metric ton of output in the land of the rising sun. The more notable ones make it out of the country onto Steam pretty frequently via publishers like Playism, and everyone who’s relatively settled into videogame culture knows about Touhou Project, famous enough to have every kind of fan material under the sun (including a handful of fan games of its own), but the sheer amount of potential is still hidden away from most eyes. With that said, let’s take a look at the Japanese indie game scene.

There’s a certain for everything, not just games, that are self published in Japan, and that’s known as Dōjinshi. They’re published by Dōjin, which is more or less the same concept as the indie community here – devs, players and everything in-between forming ‘circles’ (smaller communities) around their work. They make games, release them on their websites, and take them to special events known as dōjinshi conventions to try and sell them on. If someone becomes popular inside dōjinshi circles, their work is known to disappear quite quickly; most of the physical goods are duplicated by hand, so when they’re gone, they’re usually gone.

The biggest event like this is arguably Comiket, held two times a year under most circumstances (the upcoming 2020 Olympics, for example). It usually sees foot traffic of half a million people. Half a million! There are other, smaller events across the country as well.

It doesn’t stop there, though. There are plenty of online stores that are willing to sell this kind of content, with sites like DLsite and Getchu serving as massive hubs for self-published content like this. With a little bit of trial-and-error and some poking around with Google Translate, you can browse a massive market of indie Japanese titles. There’s even English language support on DLsite so you don’t have to go that far either. Whether or not there’s gold in them there hills… well, I’m about to take a small look myself. Stick around; we’ll find out together.

There are two things I’d like to point out before we go much further: One of the main things about dōjinshi is that they’re not particularly afraid of any kind of intellectual property law as we know it, mainly due to the idea that Japan isn’t as crushingly destructive to fan works of this kind like Western countries, for multiple reasons. So if you see something you recognize being parodied, like Initial D, but with trains (and in this case, no, I’m not kidding, that’s actually real) thank Japan for being more relaxed.

  • There is a lot of porn. Cosplay, hentai, you name it, there’s probably something sexually charged on these sites as well. I tried to find a Getchu link that didn’t have NSFW levels of boobs but their site is just that crammed with it, so I felt bad about linking anything directly. I’m not against this in any way, I’m just stating this as a fact to warn you before you end up clicking into a pile of poorly protected posteriors.

Thankfully, if we want to make a dive into what there is to play, we have a very handy assist from a dedicated dōjin member. The developer of one of the more popular dōjin scrolling shooters Astebreed, Edelweiss, has been distributing an index of games being sold at Comiket with accompanying trailers/screenshots & links to the games for the last 14 or so events. We can browse through freely, and at least in some cases, grab a trial of anything that we think looks interesting. If you scroll back in time, you can see games that have, by comparison, ‘hit the big time,’ like one of my favorite scrolling shooters, REVOLVER360:REACTOR. It goes back further than that; TYPE-MOON started as a doujin circle. For the purpose of keeping my time relatively free, we’re gonna be mainly focusing on the most recent event when I was writing this, Comiket 95.

(Oh yeah, did I forget to mention? Free demos are actually surprisingly popular in Japan, despite the trends of the West. Sites like DLsite have free trial filters, so you can only browse games you can try first. It’s great!)

I started out with a traditional, vertically-scrolling shooter called Blue Sabers Early Mission, which appears to be part of a series by developer Blue & White. The PC port (or at least the trial) picked up on my DualShock 4 and let me play straight away with no issues. The simple but challenging bullet patterns, variety of weaponry, and fancy but not over the top graphics impressed me, and as it turns out, a Steam release is incoming during August, and I’m gonna be keeping my eye out for it.

As I’ve pointed out before, some genres are a lot easier to pick up than others in foreign languages, so a scrolling shooter would be a good start. Turns out that there are a lot of games here that either have English menus, making them really easy to navigate, or are almost entirely in English; Blue Sabers has an English voiceover that is absolutely not written by a native English speaker, but it is there! To say that this dive into the indie market has been made infinitely easier by this is not an exaggeration. This is taken even further by sites like DLsite, who sometimes create official translations of games. Not common, but hey, if they put in the effort, it must be worth something.

The next game caught my eye almost immediately: Project Six, a high-speed arcade action take on the mech shooter formula. Built in Unreal Engine 4, the free trial of this one lets you shoot down some drones with one of the smoothest damn mechs I’ve piloted in a long time. The keyboard controls make perfect sense, the music is banging, the movement and shooting of your mech is unbelievably smooth, and it has Steam VR support, somehow. I’m honestly tempted to drop 1000 yen for the alpha copy they’re selling where they hand out the free trial, because it was just that impressive.

Of course, not every game can look as impressive as Project Six. This next game, which Google autotranslates to “A Mysterious Dream of the Sea,” is absolutely not the best-looking game on this list, but it makes up for it by being smooth and polished 2D platforming. Swappable weapons, the light & bubbly theme, and cute (but incomprehensible to a non-Japanese speaker) voice acting give it a lot of charm. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, but it’s hard not to like it. It’s pretty strange how you can go from Unreal Engine 4 to this kind of game in a heartbeat, but there you go.

These are just three titles I could easily source demos for; I could go on for ages about games that I’d like to try like the 3D dungeon crawler with Touhou characters, or a Lunar Lander clone with fluid simulation that you can play for free on Steam, or stuff that I have literally zero clue what they’re even about. There’s so much creative energy on display here that I’m continually impressed every time I see another game. And this is just one Comiket. I can’t help but wonder what’s going to come out of the next one.

So outside of just waiting for Comiket to roll around and hope that Edelweiss keeps it up, what ways can we work with to follow the doujin scene in Japan? Most Japanese game press sites keep an indie section; here is Famitsu’s, for example. There are some curators on Steam that will keep an eye out for the more obscure releases, considering that keeping up with new releases on Steam is next to impossible. And if worse comes to worse, there’s always the ability to search sites like DLsite by release date, or simply search for “同人ゲーム”in Google, and just browse on through. You never know what you might find. (Just make sure you have an eye for low-effort RPG Maker titles and you’ll probably be fine.)

While talented developers, cool ideas, and good games aren’t restricted to the Japanese indie scene alone, there still remains a great balance of all three in there, with a ton of potential worth tapping into (and publishers like Playism know all too well). While it might be a bit of a slog, there’s more than likely a few hits in there that are well worth the time; everything from Recettear to Downwell have proven that. I’m gonna go have a look through the old Comikets, see if there’s anything worth playing.