Sure, its easy to bag on other cultures. From the outside looking in, there are cultural dimensions of any society that can be plucked out and held up for ridicule, especially amongst entertainment products. And while were not normally prone to throwing stones from inside our glass houses, Japanese gaming has staked out such a uniquely bizarre niche that we find ourselves equal parts fascinated, revolted, and intrigued.
Dont get us wrong, the games on this list arent representative or typical; instead, they represent a sheer cliff of wonderfully Japanese insanity that were happy to tumble off. Even stranger than any of these games is the fact that we can play them in English, thanks to the glory that is localization. Even if your brain can register what's happening in these games, we can't guarantee it'll be able to process it...
Katamari Damacy (PS2, 2006)
Our journey begins with the delightful Katamari Damacy, the heartwarming tale of an alcoholic father who gets a little too deep in his cups one evening and (whoopsie!) destroys most of the universe. Like any responsible parent, The King of all Cosmos sends his kid to clean up his mess, gifting him with a magical ball called a Katamari and instructing him to roll up enough matter to repopulate the heavens.
The Katamari franchise isnt distinguished just for its crazy narrative, though. It makes our list in large part because of its kindergarten-classroom-meets-acid-trip color scheme and physics-defying character design. Why do rainbows shoot out of random surfaces? Are those rolled carpets on the King and Princes heads, or ARE they their heads? We neither know, nor care; to us, theyll always be gorgeous, weird, and uniquely Japanese.
Love Death: Realtime Lovers (PC, 2005)
Theres a sensationalized perception, especially in certain dark corners of the internet, of Japanese eroticism. While in a lot of cases the oddness of Japanese sex culture has been overblown, no franchise makes a stronger case for its peculiarity than Love Death, a game best described as an anime girl abuse simulator.
The gameplay in the Love Death franchise primarily involves savagely beating anime girls with baseball bats, soccer balls, and other sports equipment, with occasional breaks to shoot a viscous, translucent substance onto their faces/ outfits (subtle, we know). When we first discovered this piece of hyper-misogynistic software, we hoped it was an outlier, a singular example of a shameful way overworked salarymen might vent some of their stress. Instead, it turns out its only the first in a long-running franchise with five entries, all of which seem modestly but disturbingly popular. Please, come back home, Japan. Were all very worried about you.
Mr. Mosquito (PS2, 2002)
A lot of games offer the escapist experience of inhabiting fictional creatures, rare animals, or fantastic monsters. Much less often are we offered the opportunity to discover the secret life of tiny, blood-sucking insects.
Mr. Mosquito takes us inside the home of the Yamada family in the form of the titular bug, whos attempting to stockpile enough delicious human blood to survive the long winter ahead (because, yeah, thats how insects work). Perhaps the oddest quirk of the game's mechanics is the combat, which is closer to Shiatsu massage than actual battle. If one of Mr. Mosquitos victims notices him as he goes about his pestersome work, he has to quickly trigger various pressure points on the targets body to relax them back into docility before he can proceed with his insect vampirism. Apparently, Japanese mosquitoes are much more thoughtful than their American counterparts.
Rule of Rose (PS2, 2006)
Japanese horror games have a well-deserved reputation as leaders in the field of the bizarrely surreal. However, even among this elite crme de la crme, few titles ascend to a fever pitch of torturous insanity like Rule of Rose.
Rule of Rose is a blend of the worst sadism of Mean Girls, seasoned with Japanese oddity, and rounded out with liberal doses of Lord of the Flies and torture porn. The plot follows Jennifer, a teenage girl inexplicably wandering the British countryside at night. She trails a mysterious young boy to a dilapidated estate and--this being a Japanese horror game--is promptly sealed inside a coffin by a group of demented young girls called the Red Crayon Aristocrats. This begins a genuinely horrifying sequence of events that lead to Jennifer being verbally humiliated, tortured, and left alone to fend off animal-headed monstrosities. The designers are on record saying Rule of Rose is informed by misconceptions about the nature of girls, but we think the central lesson is avoid creepy mansions.
Parappa the Rapper (PS, 1997)
No, your eyes dont deceive you: Thats a dog dressed like a rapper. Why, you ask? Because hes trying to win the heart of alets say girl with a sunflower face and a penchant for striped dresses. Or maybe he just cant contain his funky flow. Either way, the result is a charming rhythm game thats odd enough to make our list and cute enough to capture our hearts.
Aside from its quirky characters, Parappa expresses its weirdness through a strange series of story events and a central conceit that most of lifes obstacles can be overcome by the strategic application of rap music. We wont pretend to know how besting tutors in rap challenges gets you to the front of the line for the bathroom (real life attempts have proven less than successful), but Parappa manages to be so disarmingly cute and entertaining that we found we didnt much care. One of the few genuinely fun to play experiences on this list, Parappa proves that you dont have to be human to burn up the mic.
LSD: Dream Emulator (PS, 1998)
As evocative titles go, LSD: Dream Emulator takes the cake. While the game has never seen a proper English release, we felt we couldnt exclude it given its cult popularity (which has led to a number of fan translations) and TOTAL DISREGARD FOR SANITY AND REASON. Besides, LSD does a fantastic job of making language seem pretty irrelevant (and yes, we mean both the game and the drug).
In LSD, the playerhm. Uhm. Turns out were not entirely sure what youre doing in this game. There's such a staggering abundance of madness, its difficult to be sure if youre accomplishing anything. But thats not the point; as far as we can tell, the point is to experience such a glut of nightmarish visions, inter-dimensional horrors, and lunatic hellscapes that you either shut the game off or are driven forever insane. Thanks, Japan!
Incredible Crisis (PS, 2000)
Theres such a massive variety of minigame collections available to the modern gamer, wed forgive you if you overlooked Incredible Crisis. If thats the case, however, we recommend you amend that mistake post-haste. Incredible Crisis is a rare accomplishment: Its not only appropriately menta,l but at times manages to be wildly entertaining.
The story revolves around a family braving imminent death, mandatory office dance parties, and space aliens, all to ensure that grandma has a very special birthday party. The final product is reminiscent of an episode of a typical American sitcom, where a series of comic misadventures invariably leads to hijinks. The key difference is that in Incredible Crisis, the hijinks usually involve the potential for hilariously spectacular fatalities or the near destruction of the planet. Of course, it being Japanese in origin, there's also a lengthy simulation of a back massage aboard a Ferris wheel, the subsequent detonation of a bomb, and a harrowing escape by helicopter.
Fighting Vipers (Sega Saturn, 1996)
On the surface, Fighting Vipers may not appear that extraordinary. Its a 3D fighting game with enclosed battle arenas, in which combatants degrade each others' armor and life bars with some fairly rote attacks and combos. Ho-hum, right?
WRONG! Even a cursory look at Fighting Vipers character roster begins to expose its deeply wacky core. To start, most of the combatants are teens, which is a bit unusual--but not nearly as odd as the inclusion of a ten-year-old boy dressed as a giant bear mascot with an orange cowboy hat (whose primary attack is dropping his furry hindquarters on his opponents). Then theres the 16-year-old who became so fed up with his conservative, Kabuki-actor parents he took to the streets and founded a murderous gang of disgruntled teen thugs. Toss in Pepsiman (Japans Pepsi mascot), a giggling fashion student, a fat scooter riding numerologist, and a teenage metal/hair band enthusiast, and youve got a recipe for some delightful Far-Eastern madness.
Toilet Kids (Supergrafx, 1992)
The closest thing to edutainment on our list, Toilet Kids tells the story of a young boy sucked through his toilet in the middle of the night, drawn into a magical universe of combative sanitation. Now that's an original game concept.
Apparently, the sewage system in Japan is a real mess (no pun intended), and resembles a top-down shooter where malicious urinals and sentient feces seek terrible revenge on their human masters. Besides being utterly ridiculous, Toilet Kids has taught us to never enter a Japanese bathroom unarmed. Were confident this new policy wont have any negative or litigious consequences.
I'm Sorry (Arcade, 1985)
Find yourself nursing secret fantasies of striking Michael Jackson or Madonna in the face? Well, first, you should probably seek psychological care (particularly since at least one of those people is dead)--but secondly, now your sick dream can finally become a reality!
Im Sorry is a top down Pac-Man clone where players attempt to collect gold bars while avoiding or knocking out the aforementioned pop stars (as well as other relevant '80s celebrities like Carl Lewis and Tamori, a Japanese television actor/comedian). While the premise is odd enough on its own, the real magic begins if the player is captured by Tamori. In that instance, your on-screen avatar is stripped down to a white diaper, and Tamori (whos apparently a devotee of BDSM) slips on a stylish leather bikini and mercilessly whips you. Oh, Pac-Man, sweet boyshield your virgin eyes.
The Houchi Play (XBLIG, 2012)
At long last, a stalker simulator for the 50+ crowd! The Houchi Play follows 56-year-old super masochist Taro Heibon on his quest to get within sniffing distance of as many young women as possible. The action, such as it is, involves a creep show version of the childrens game Red Light, Green Light, with the player mashing buttons to shuffle closer whenever Taros female target isnt paying attention.
Of course, being a man of weak conviction, Mr. Heibon has to pause occasionally to chug liquor, though somehow his labored breathing and booze stench dont alert his victims. Alongside this massive helping of creep (were detecting a trend here), Houchi also offers up generous servings of boredom and trigger-finger fatigue. Not that, you know, we played it. Much. Hey, come on--it was research, get off our backs.
Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360, 2010)
By drawing inspiration from an American source that is already deeply weird (David Lynchs seminal television series and cultural touchstone Twin Peaks), Deadly Premonition aspires to a very unique class of strangeness.While weve come to expect a certain level of crazy from Japanese auteur Swery65 (creator of other lovely slices of madness like Tomba! 2: The Evil Swine Return), Deadly Premonition feels like his masterwork.
The narrative chronicles the exploits of a serial killer in pursuit of immortality via mystical red seeds and ritualistic murder. The investigating FBI agent (who regularly has conversations with an imaginary friend) is dispatched to a lumber town that, though it shares a lot of surface elements with any small town in northwestern America, feels more like an elaborate hallucination than a real location (and is, purely by coincidence, infested with ethereal hyper-ghouls). The entire experience feels like Swery embracing Twin Peaks as a historical document describing everyday American life, and the storytelling product of him regurgitating it is so stilted and engaging that its difficult to not be charmed.
Embrace the strange
And thats a wrap. We hope youve enjoyed navigating the dark, ooze-slick underbelly of Japans gaming exports as much as weve enjoyed shining a flashlight on it. Have your own examples of weirdness exclusive to Japan? Let us know in the comments section; were always on the hunt for the bizarre.
Does your inner otaku crave more? Take a look at The Top 7... Japanese games that absolutely need to be localized for the west and A fairly interesting A-Z of game-related things that come from Japan .