From Western to Weeaboo—Easing Into Japan’s Weirder Side of Games
Over the course of the last ten years, I went from someone who barely paid attention to the state of the industry, and ignoring the entire Japanese side of the pie, to going almost entirely in on Japan.
There are multiple reasons for this. In an age where a lot of Western-lead games rely on microtransactions, skinner box designs, so-polished-it’s-boring game play or simply not delivering what we’re asking for, Japan feels entirely different when you dig down into the niches, with different ways of doing things that are a good breath of fresh air.
It’s not an easy journey to make, with certain hurdles that do need to be leaped, but as someone who will happily list the last two games in this article as two of his favorite games of all time, the journey is absolutely worth it. With that said, recommending a game such as Muv-Luv to a Call of Duty player isn’t exactly going to hit home, and easing someone into the weirdness of Japan’s culture can take some time.
This list is designed to help with that. We’re going to dig into and recommend games that help you get used to the weirdest of the weird, so that when you finally take the plunge into the deep end, it’ll be much less of a surprise.
This article is going to be split into multiple sections, sorted roughly by ‘difficulty’ to get into based on your familiarity with Japanese culture. It’s recommended that you head down the path from Easy to Extreme, so that you can find your limits without going too far in right off the bat. With that said, let’s get started.
We’re going to start with Easy difficulty, which show little to no oddities, and may appear more American than one might expect at first.
Any Japanese Game the Mainstream Media Has Actually Heard Of
The majority of you reading this are probably at this spot.
Some people might start further down this list, but for anyone who has never heard of anything listed below, you start here. The best example of this level would probably be almost any Nintendo game. Throw a dart, seriously. They still have that otherworldly creativity that is well appreciated, and even with Nintendo being Japanese, their games have a great universality to them, a great way to remember that Japan is human, just like us.
The Yakuza Series
It’s taken off in recent years (and as someone who caught it just before it became popular, I am eternally grateful for it), so it might already be on your radar, but the Yakuza series is a fantastic example of properly presenting Japanese culture in a way that’s palatable.
Serious Japanese dramatic flair with all the proper customs, while also letting you take breaks by beating the bejesus out of some street punks in a true-to-life recreation of a nightlife Tokyo district. Fantastic voice acting makes the honorifics sound thoroughly natural, so when you start hearing it more further down the list, it won’t set off any alarm bells. You can start at Yakuza 0, which is often cheap.
Metal Gear Solid
This probably could have been rolled into the “any Japanese game yadda yadda” point above, but it’s worthy of mention in its own section, purely because of how much of a weirdo Kojima is.
Barring certain parts of the series that try and fail, almost any MGS game is filled with weirdo nonsense that gives the game its own sense of style. While Kojima definitely has his own style about things, his upbringing in Japan absolutely helped. (Hell, Otacon is a self-described anime otaku, the journey in which you become one is one you’re taking right now. If that doesn’t give you an idea, then I don’t know what will.)
Things You Remember
This is probably obvious to everyone who’s reading this article, but the world of Japan bought us everything from Pokémon to Dragon Ball Z. All of their weird quirks and traits that made them so lovable may well have come from a Japanese atmosphere. That’s all. Moving on!
Medium difficulty is getting up there, with small, notable moments of exposure to the weirder sides of Japanese culture and storytelling tropes. Great for starting to build resistances to the odd one out.
Persona 4 or 5
A slightly more down to earth Japanese title now.
Persona is an RPG series about Japanese teenagers going on to save the world through the power of friendship, and a lot of familiar tropes used in Japanese gaming tend to turn up here. The games are notable for taking a long time to get going, and there are a couple of scenes which may turn off the most Japan-phobic, but if you can get through one or the other, you’ll probably be fine.
Zero Escape – The Nonary Games
The first of a handful of visual novels on this list, and what turned my opinion on keeping an eye out for Japanese games in the first place.
A lot of Japan’s best game stories are conveyed via VN, and if you want to start with one, this would be the place—a gripping science-fiction thriller with plenty of hard but fair puzzles in-between. Also has a few Japanese tropes here and there, but they’re still pretty lightweight at this point, so take the time to get used to them.
Gundam Breaker 3
If the words “giant robot fight” appeal to you at all and you’ve never touched Gundam, this is the best game to start looking.
A crossover of almost every Gundam up to the point of the game’s release, with a simple to understand Diablo-style brawler game loop, so that you can focus on making the most kickass giant robot possible. The reason why the difficulty is higher on this is that the story is pretty cliché for Japan, and it’s actually hard to get a hold of, especially the more complete Break Edition. (Do not buy New Gundam Breaker.)
Other Japanese Media
As pointed out in the last intermission, Japan makes a lot of animated shows, and also manga (comic books), many of which are worthwhile reads in their own right.
Anime and manga are filled to the brim with interesting stories, and if you’ve made it this far, you might consider dipping your feet into those realms as well. There are multiple sites such as MangaDex and AniList.co that let you sort by ‘highest rated’, which is a great starting point.
We’re onto the Hard difficulty now, and this is where things get pretty heavy. Fanservice is guaranteed in one form or another, and you’re definitely going to see a couple of cultural norms that might leave you scratching your head.
Steins;Gate is a visual novel about time travel that is obscured by a first half that’s more or less ‘slice of life of weird Japanese people.’
It definitely has a fair amount of fanservice to boot, but nothing that goes too over the top. Once you’re through that though, the plot will keep you hooked all the way to the end, and you’ll have developed a pretty decent resistance to the weirder side of stuff.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception
In the form of a massive adventure across a familiar but thoroughly different feudal Japan, Utawarerumono has a little bit of everything you’ve done so far—Japanese clichés that some people might not like, great gameplay in the form of easy-to-learn, hard-to-master strategy, a fantastic, huge scale story with tons of loveable characters, and enough fanservice (although not on the level of our next entry) to keep that side of things interesting. If you’ve played everything else on the list so far, this shouldn’t be a massive challenge for you to handle, and it’s great to prepare yourself for what comes next.
Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus
Yup, a full on fanservice game.
And arguably one of the best Japan has to offer.
Senran Kagura is about chesty ninjas beating the crap out of each other, and it’s one of the better hack-and-slash titles to come out of the land of the rising sun. It’s also purposefully over the top, with plenty of destructible clothing and silly poses. This is the ultimate test to see if you’re ready to get the scuba gear on and dive into the deepest depths—if you can handle a few hours of Senran Kagura without your eyeballs popping out of their sockets, very little will phase you.
If you made it down here and you aren’t thoroughly disgusted yet, you’re pretty much ready for anything. Extreme is the ultimate challenge. The one game that guarantees this trip is worth it is…
Muv-Luv / Muv-Luv Alternative
Currently the top rated visual novel on the Visual Novel Database, Muv-Luv Alternative is an absolute epic in the realm of sci-fi, and you absolutely, positively need to play the trashy, clichetastic, fanservice-laden but also utterly hilarious and enjoyable Muv-Luv first.
Even I was a bit surprised with how far they took it in Muv-Luv Alternative, which is exactly why this is Extreme difficulty, but if you can make it through that, you’ll be on the road to one of Japan’s best stories.
Hopefully, if you’ve been playing through up to here, you’re able to see the value in the weirdest and weebiest games available right now, and there’s still plenty of games available to take a look at outside of what’s listed here.
Be sure to dive into the backlog of XSEED, Aksys, NIS America and of course, Atlus, to see the worlds that you’ve been missing.