Japan has produced thousands of intriguing video games. For any number of reasons, not all of them were ever released outside of the country, especially in the '80s and '90s. While many of these titles have since been documented by the English-speaking video game community – and in some cases, even unofficially translated – a huge proportion of the Japanese game output is unknown outside of their native territory (and even, in some cases, within it).
Some of these games are oddities, the kind of uniquely Japanese title that wouldn’t have been commercial viable outside of the country; others may have done well but were victims of circumstance. Plus, for quite a long time, the Japanese industry developed separately from American and European output, with their own landmark titles that created trends and inspired later games. Even the older games have a visual and aural style that make them distinct from similar games from around the globe.
Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents: Japanese Video Game Obscurities seeks to catalogue many of these titles – games that are weird, compelling, strange, cool or historically important. Some of these may be familiar if you’ve comprehensively read Hardcore Gaming 101 website archives (though the actual text for this book is completely original), but we’ve also included a large number of titles that aren’t (currently) reviewed, and in some cases, have little to no English-language coverage whatsoever. Most of these games are Japanese exclusive, though we’ve also picked some that are suitably obscure outside of the country, or were only localized many years after their original release. In some cases, they’re games that were hugely successful in Japan but barely made a mark in the West.
Beyond the individual selected games, we’ll also be discussing the history of any larger series a game might be part of and any subsequent games it may have influenced. We’ve also picked games that represent a large number of genres – platformers, shoot-em-ups, role-playing games, adventure games – across nearly four decades of gaming, among arcade, computer and console platforms. We’re covering titles from giants like Nintendo, Sega, Namco and Konami, along with smaller titles from long-forgotten publishers and developers. In other words, even if you’re fairly well versed in Japanese video games, you're very likely to learn something interesting and new.
Sega was in pretty dire straits at the turn of the 20th century. The Saturn was failure in North America and was soundly beaten by Sony even in Japan. The Dreamcast had a strong start but its momentum was quickly dashed thanks to the promise of the PlayStation. We all know how history went: eventually Sega gave up the console game and shifted to third party development. But before then, they published Segagaga, a weird little game for the Dreamcast, which had one goal: save Sega.
Segagaga is half-RPG, half-management sim, with some minigames tossed in there to round things out. As a kid named Tarou Sega, you must restore the company's good fortunes by scavenging through the company's buildings to round up developers, and then decide how to allocate their resources to create new games. It's a remarkably self-aware game, made explicitly for long-time Sega fans, as it's loaded with characters, jokes, and other oddities. Your assistant, for example, is Alis from the original Phantasy Star, just in disguise. At one point, you meet up with former mascot Alex Kidd, who's been forced into retail work after Sonic the Hedgehog took his job. Many of the developers you "fight" are represented by all numbers of Sega characters. The final battle is designed like a Thunder Force-style shoot-em-up, where you zoom into space and fight against variations of Sega's many consoles. Along with this, there's also tons of jokes about the Japanese video game industry and otaku culture.
It's a profoundly weird game, and even in Japan, it was originally only distributed through the company's mail order service (a second printing was made more widely available.) But it's a beautiful game, just because it's a niche product and it knows it, so it really does revel in its obscureness.
Kuma Uta (2003)
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 2
Among all of the weird, experimental games on the Japanese PlayStation 2 library, one of the most fascinating is Kuma Uta ("Bear Song"). It stars a polar bear who decides to ditch his peaceful life in nature and become an enka singer. "Enka" is a very particular style of Japanese music that takes the form of sentimental ballads, often with themes of nostalgia, love and loss. It's very divisive, even in Japan, as it's generally seen as sort of "old people" music. So obviously, seeing a polar bear standing on his two legs, wearing various outfits and crooning songs about life and love is pretty ridiculous.
Your goal, as the player, is to help the bear, Kuma, reach the top of the charts by helping him write these songs. Here, you can suggest various topics, after which he'll scrawl out some lyrics and show them to you for approval. The main gimmick is that none of the songs are prerecorded, and are instead "sung" on the fly using a synthesized voice, one of those things that's made easier in Japanese thanks to its syllabic structure and consistent pronunciation. If this sounds similar to Hatsune Miku and the virtual idol phenomenon, that's absolutely correct... except Kuma Uta predates the Vocaloid software by a few months, and a good number of years before it really caught on with the greater public.
Obviously pop idols and their peppy music are a much easier sell than the absurdist crooning of a disaffected polar bear, which is why Hatsune Miku and friends are basically household names, whereas nobody really remembers Kuma Uta. Plus, unlike the rhythm-based titles from Sega, there's not much of a game in Kuma Uta – you just help write songs and then listen to them. Without understanding Japanese, some of the humor is lost, but its surrealness is still universal.
Thor Thorvaldson, who you may remember as the cover artist for our 200 Best Video Games of All Time and Sega Arcade Classics Vol. 2 book, has prepared a cover sketch for the Japanese Video Game Obscurities book, shown below:
See how many characters you can name!
Disclaimer though: I'm still waffling on whether to include Wonder Project J or its N64 sequel, so that one…
Hi all! Since a few people have asked, here's a tenative list of games that are planned to be featured here. Though the writing of the book is about half completed, I'm always swapping titles in and out based on whatever I dig up, so not every title might end up in the book (though all of the ones featured in the video and in the mock-up definitely will).
As the campaign continues, I'll be posting…
These people are helping to fund Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents: Japanese Video Game Obscurities.