Import-Friendly Japanese Games
How many times do we see a game that piques our interest and then curse that it's not being released in North America? When all hope is completely dashed, importing is your only opportunity to experience the game. The decision brings a slew of challenges, especially that pesky language barrier. After all, you want to make sure you can understand the game's rules. Import choices are always a tough call, but don't worry, we have you covered. Here's a list of 10 games that are import-friendly. These games are playable on any version of the consoles below, so don't fret about region-locking. They all feature Japanese voices and text, but the mechanics are easy enough to grasp that this shouldn't impact your experience.
Disclaimer: This isn't a comprehensive list of the best games from Japan, just some of the quality titles that are friendly to English-speakers.
Osu! Tatake! Ouendan (DS)
If Osu! Tatake! Ouendan looks familiar, that’s because a similar game was released in North America as Elite Beat Agents. Unlike the westernized, Avril Lavigne-infused port, Ouendan features a slew of J-pop and J-rock artists like Asian Kung-Fu Generation, Orange Range, and L’Arc-en-Ciel. Also, instead of Elite Beat’s secret agents, Osu! Tatake! Ouendan follows a group of male cheerleaders who are helping people across Japan through music. Fail at tapping to the beat or drawing patterns in this iNiS-developed rhythm game, and your compatriots suffer. Do well and they succeed at completing the task at hand. If you find yourself loving your Ouendan, a sequel was also released with another nineteen songs to play.
Jump Super Stars / Jump Ultimate Stars (DS)
Licensing always seems to come into play with crossover titles, usually accounting for why we rarely see them in English. Such is the case for Jump Super Stars and its sequel, Jump Ultimate Stars. Starring characters from a variety of manga, including Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, and Yu-Gi-Oh, these games are a take on the Super Smash Bros formula. If playing a fighter with your favorite anime characters wasn’t enough, you put together a “koma” deck of support characters to see even more of them. Unfortunately, licensing issues prevented us from seeing this popular game on this side of the Pacific, but the lack of complicated fighting systems and Japanese dialogue make this an easy import choice.
Tales of VS. (PSP)
Tales of VS. appeals to RPG fanatics in the same way that Jump Super Stars hooks anime fans: by throwing together a slew of characters in a battle arena and letting them duke it out. However, this fighter’s major focus is unlocking your favorite Tales characters by taking down a very lengthy story mode. Luckily, even this mode should be easy to navigate for those with little or no Japanese knowledge, though a little bit of experimentation might be required. The combat itself is very easy to jump into, as characters control just like their RPG counterparts. Why Namco Bandai skipped on localizing Tales of VS. is still a mystery, but odds are the PSP’s declining market and the game featuring characters from unreleased Tales games had something to with it.
Ys: Celceta no Jukai (Vita)
Ys: Celceta no Jukai is probably the only title on this list that has a chance of being released in a language other than Japanese, as XSEED Games has thankfully localized the last few Ys titles. Celceta takes over the spot of Ys IV in the overall storyline, though two previous games have had that moniker. This can be considered to be the official Ys IV, as it’s the first developed by Falcom, with Ys IV: Mask of the Sun having been created by Tonkin House, and Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys crafted by Hudson Soft. Ys players can always expect the same thing from Falcom: controlling red-haired protagonist Adol Christin through a gauntlet of fast-moving combat and challenging bosses. Vita owners jonesing for the next best RPG will certainly find something to love with Ys.
Hatsune Miku Project DIVA f (Vita/PS3)
If you’re unfamiliar with Hatsune Miku, she’s currently one of the biggest bombshells in Japanese music. The caveat? She’s entirely digital. Hatsune Miku is the blue-haired face of the music synthesizer of the same name, based on Yamaha’s Vocaloid software. With songs produced by a variety of composers, Project DIVA f is a dream game for fans of both music games and Japanese culture. This iteration is the latest to be released, with a version coming for PlayStation 3 next year, though just about any of the PS3 or PSP entries are ripe for import. As long as you can understand the face buttons on a controller, you can pick up and play Hatsune Miku.
[Next Up: Bullet hell, Hachi-Rokus, and Japan's favorite pastime ....]
Mushihimesama Futari (Xbox 360)
While Treasure is a big name worldwide, known for Ikaruga and Gunstar Heroes, developer Cave is a little bit more obscure. That’s not to say their games haven’t been localized, as Rising Star Games released Akai Katana earlier this year, but you’re unlikely to see their logo on store shelves often. Mushihimesama Futari (Bug Princess Duo) is one of their best-known titles and it wonderfully fits the nickname of the genre: bullet hell. A top-down scrolling shooter, Mushihimesama fills the screen with attacks and you navigate through the chaos, all while trying to use whichever attacks earn the most points, depending on how many gems you’ve collected. Those who don’t want to import can find the game on iOS as Bug Princess 2, but it’s very, very tough to play games like this on such a small screen.
Sengoku Basara HD Collection (PS3)
You might think you played what the original developers intended in Devil Kings for the PlayStation 2, but you haven't really played Sengoku Basara. Capcom ripped all of the Sengoku content out of Devil Kings for the US release and replaced it with a dark fantasy backdrop. If you want to get in on the original Japanese historical action, Sengoku Basara HD Collection is the place to do it. This Capcom-developed brawler shares quite a few elements with Koei’s Samurai Warriors games, but rather than taking a strict interpretation of Edo-era Japan, Capcom worked from the ground up to create a much more over-the-top take on the heroes of the Warring States. Containing the original two Sengoku Basara titles and a remix of the second game, Sengoku Basara 2 Heroes, this collection makes a great lead-up to the third game, Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes, available in the US for PlayStation 3 and Wii. Just be ready to shield your eyes from some outrageous content if you’re a by-the-numbers history buff.
Initial D Extreme Stage (PS3)
If you entered an arcade in the early to mid 2000s you were likely to find one machine front and center: Initial D. Unfortunately, the home versions of this card-dispensing arcade racer never saw an English localization, but with the region-free PlayStation 3, importing gives you the whole experience. When you're trying to set up your Hachi-Roku or WRX for downhill battles, Initial D makes you wrestle with some Japanese text, but it's not enough to scare off uninitiated gamers. Fans of both the anime and racers in general will find something to like in Extreme Stage.
Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan! (PS3)
Sega’s Yakuza games are popular for their modern-day drama and gritty settings, but what if you played as a gangster in Edo-era Japan? That’s the scenario for Ryu Ga Gotoku Kenzan!, released in Japan before the third classic Yakuza title. Kenzan follows a fictionalized account of famed ronin Miyamoto Mushashi, considered to be one of the greatest warriors of all time. Combining a deep beat-’em-up battle system with a long, complex story, Kenzan is easily the most difficult game on this list to navigate, but you can easily find ample story interpretations online. With a fifth Yakuza game on the horizon, this is the perfect time to dip into a little bit of gangster history.
Pro Yakyuu Spirits 2012 (PS3/Vita/PSP)
While Americans don’t often agree with the rest of the world on sports of choice, Japan and America have one pastime they can come to terms on: Baseball. Just as Japan has produced some of the world’s best players in Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish, they also created a top-tier baseball game in Pro Yakyuu Spirits. Produced by Konami, creators of Pro Evolution Soccer, Yakyuu Spirits is equally focused on creating the best simulation possible. With a variety of difficulty settings and direct control over where your batter is swinging, not just when, Yakyuu Spirits is a much different flavor of baseball from The Show and MLB 2K. While there’s a significant amount of Japanese text, the rules of the Nippon Professional Baseball league aren’t much different from the MLB, so most English-speakers can jump right in. Still confused? There’s a great worldwide community for the game at Spiritstranslation.