Final Fantasy. Mario. Metal Gear Solid. To all the “n00bs,” this is what qualifies as “Japanese gaming.” And that is perhaps sad, because even obscure Japanese games were once well recognized in America. Now, all the people that know games like Lux Pain are treated like social outcasts, forced to dwell in their own distant forums towards the end of the internet zone.
However, that doesn’t change that people who are aware of obscure Japanese gaming still do have smaller companies catering to them. In fact, those games are sometimes really good, if unpopular. So, if you just want a break from Westernized gaming, here are the four companies you need to know.
A developer, publisher and distributor based in Tokyo, Atlus has seen enough mainstream hits (Catherine, the Megami Tensei, Trauma Center) to almost lose subculture status. However, they have also brought American audiences unknown Japanese titles such as Baroque and Spectral Force 3. Often creating and importing projects that scream “low-budget” and “experimental,” Atlus has never been afraid to make something that is not traditionally appealing. If you genuinely want games that attempt something new, you should at least be able to appreciate Atlus’ efforts, if not entirely fall in love with their smaller titles.
A company that largely specializes in translating and localization of Japanese titles, Aksys will be known to many through the Guilty Gear series, one of the best 2D fighters around. However, Aksys has also brought us titles such as 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and DeathSmiles. Obsessed with the anime art style and fond of games where stories take precedence over gameplay, Aksys brings its viewers some of the most disturbing, fun and unmistakably Japanese games around.
3) Nippon Ichi
Nippon Ichi’s most well known series in North America is Disagea; that should tell you how many people would have heard of them. Responsible for both publishing and developing their own titles, Gifu Prefecture-based developer and publisher has brought North America titles such as Phantom Brave: We Meet Again and Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do to Deserve This? With irritatingly difficult games and a quirky sense of humor, the company’s works is a real throwback to the olden days of gaming. Nippon Ichi has also had a bad experience with localization when they failed to recognize American sensibilities and offended some people with the use of religious symbols in their PS2 game, La Pucelle: Tactics (the game was published in North America by another company, Mastiff, but the symbols were removed prior to release nonetheless).
Another company that has found some mainstream success (courtesy of the ogirinal Wii’s final hit, The Last Story), XSEED is nonetheless a distributor for a very small audience. In an interview with Kotaku, editor Jessica Chavez defined their target audience as “a niche of a niche of a niche” and, when you hear the list of what they’ve published and translated, it makes sense. Solatorobo: The Red Hunter and Half-Minute Hero, both some of their best titles, are virtually unknown. Sales are often so poor that, much to the chagrin of their audience, XSEED can’t even justify the smallest of releases. However, it doesn’t change the fact that they still bring over games that we would have never otherwise seen (and sadly, still don’t hear of often enough).
Therefore, if you are looking for some great games unlike anything you will find on IGN ads or Gamespot posters, these are the companies you need on your radar. They aren’t always hits and they aren’t even always unique (when compared with other Japanese products, any way) but the games these four companies are sometimes real gems.