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Japan’s Best Classic Video Games

A nostalgic looks back at some of the early video game classics.

By 7 min read

I absolutely love playing video games. In spite of the numerous negative stereotypes applied to video games players in the modern western media: social inadequacy, isolationism and even violent tendencies, I am an unashamed gaming geek.

Growing up, I was lucky enough to play a huge number of games on a variety of systems. My gaming journey started with the classic Nintendo NES, or Famicom as it is known here in Japan. In 1992, Christmas brought with it an upgrade as I moved over to Nintendo’s arch-rival Sega, and their Mega Drive systems. I realize some of you may be thinking “What’s a Mega Drive?” In North America, and some other territories, a copyright dispute lead to the console in question being released under the name “Sega Genesis”.

A few years later I, like most teenagers in Europe and the US at the time was faced with a Christmas quandary: Should I go with Sega again and upgrade to a Sega Saturn, or do I take a chance on this new entrant to the video games arena and buy a Sony Playstation.

Unfortunately, I opted for the former. A series of delayed and cancelled titles, and numerous marketing problems, greatly curtailed the life of the Sega Saturn. Whilst its hardware was actually superior to the Sony PS in many ways, it was really hard for developers to work with, and within just a few short years, it was largely abandoned, becoming a video gaming “Betamax”. If you don’t know what a Betamax is, ask your parents.

Since 1997, I’ve been with Sony. I got my Playstation for Christmas that year, then a PS2 in 2002 and finally my current PS3 in 2009. When I came to Japan, I was surprised to learn how many of my favourite games were actually developed in Japan. Of course some classic games like Onimusha and the Tekken series are quite obviously Japanese both in style and setting, a lot of other games are not what foreigners would envisage as typically Japanese in style.

Today I will look at my personal all-time top 5 of Japanese video games that also became big hits in Europe and the US too. Before I begin, I must apologize to N64, Dreamcast and Xbox fans. I never played any of those consoles, so I really can’t comment on them.

5) Pro Evolution Soccer

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Known in Japan as Winning Eleven, this long-lived sports series has enjoyed widespread international success. As the main rival to US developer Electronic Art’s FIFA football series, PES, developed by Japan’s Konami, has always faced a tough time in making a name for itself alongside the glitz, glamour and officially licensed kits and player names of its American counterpart. For many it came down to a simple equation: playability versus fan service.

If you support a major European club, like my beloved Celtic, then FIFA offers the chance to score great goals using the exact kits, player names and appearances and sometimes even the official stadium of your team.

However, putting it succinctly, PES has, in my opinion, always been much more fun to play. The fast, fluid passing movements, powerful shots and almost pinball like speed of FIFA has its charm. However, PES makes you work for your results. FIFA can often degenerate into a goal-fest, but in PES it takes time and patience to break down your opponent’s defence.

There are few more satisfying feelings in gaming than splitting a defence wide open with a beautiful through ball before slotting the ball gently into the bottom corner to win the PES cup final.

4) Metal Gear Solid

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Konami features again at number 4 with Hideo Kojima’s Playstation masterpiece from the late 90s. As the box art says, “Tactical Espionage Action” is the name of the game. Playing as Solid Snake, possibly mainstream video-gaming’s only chain-smoking hero, you have to take down an entire nuclear-armed arctic base of terrorists.

The game had a unique, highly intuitive control system that had you taking down bad guys using stealth, high tech weaponry and even your bare hands in no time.

Metal Gear Solid set new standards in video game cinematics, branching storylines and creative ways to take down the bosses. Sadly, the series seems to have disappeared up its own backside in recent years, with increasingly convoluted storylines taking precedent over gameplay. Nonetheless, MGS remains one of the original Playstation’s finest moments.

3) Sonic the Hedgehog

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The title that really launched Sega’s Mega Drive console in Europe back in 1991. This game has a special place in my heart as it was the first game I ever played on my Mega Drive. For Christmas in 1992, my parents bought me the console bundled with this very game.

This high-speed, beautifully animated platform game, launched an entire franchise. Whilst Mario remains Japan’s undisputed video gaming icon, there was a brief period in the mid-90s when Sonic and his pals Miles Prower (better known as Tails the Fox) and Knuckles the Echidna surpassed even the Italian plumbing duo in their global popularity.

The original will always be my favourite, but many fans site 1992’s Sonic 2 as the pinnacle of the series. Both Sonic 1 and 2 are now enjoying a new lease of life in the present day as downloadable games on both iOS and Android smartphones.

2) Street Fighter 2

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While Sega went after younger gamers in 1991, with its Sonic the Hedgehog, platform game, Nintendo and their newly released Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super Famicom in Japan) went after a slightly older demographic, with a near perfect conversion of Tokyo-based Capcom’s arcade hit Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior.

This one on one fighting game spawned dozens of imitators and were it not for the success of this original title then other classic fighters such as Tekken and Mortal Kombat would never have happened.

The colourful characters, each with their own unique moveset, balanced gameplay and a difficulty curve that was challenging but not alienating made Street Fighter 2 a global phenomenon that still spawns sequels to this day.

1) Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis

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Ok, im breaking the rules a bit here by putting two games at number 1. However both of these games brought me so much joy, excitement and occasional terror in my teenage years, that I cannot separate them.

Resident Evil 2 (known in Japan as Biohazard 2) had a huge act to follow after the massive success of the original game back in 1996. Building on the haunted mansion premise of the original, developers Capcom expanded the game to include an entire city besieged by zombies. Whilst the original had 2 characters who both played slightly differently, RE2 took this a step further. Both characters had an A scenario and a B scenario, with all 4 scenarios playing quite differently, effectively giving 4 games for the price of one.

And it didn’t stop there, by completing all the scenarios in under 3 hours, and obtaining the elusive “A” ranking, you could unlock 2 extra short missions. One allows you to battle through a 20 minute onslaught of enemies as a heavily armed mercenary, the other, extremely bizarre scenario has you armed only with a pocket knife and some herbs, playing as a giant, sentient block of tofu! “That’s so Japanese.” My friends used to say.

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (Biohazard: Last Escape in Japan) came a few years later and went for a more stripped down, action formula, as you played through the same timeline as Resident Evil 2, with different characters and from a different part of the city. What made this game so brilliantly challenging and unique was the addition of the titular villain, Nemesis. A huge, nearly invincible bio-weapon, the Nemesis stalks you throughout the game and can leap out and attack you at any moment, raising the fear level to incredible levels the first time you play through.

Although it has less replay value than RE2, Nemesis was a much bigger and, in my opinion more difficult game that expertly filled in some of the story gaps left by RE2’s rather open-ended conclusion. Like Metal Gear Solid, a number of sequels and spin-offs of varying quality have appeared down the years, but Resident Evil 2 and 3 remain the high points of the series to date.

So there you have it, Japan’s finest moments in gaming history. But gaming is a wide, diverse arena. What are your favourite Japanese games of all time? What do you think of my choices?

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  • nor_he says:

    Street fighter and mortal kombat and tekken always seem to top the list for fighting games. My favourite has been the Japanese releases of Kamen Rider fighting games; and of these, “Kamen Rider V3” is quite possibly the best platform fighter of all time… unfortunately I don’t think it was ever released outside of Japan.

  • Kymars says:

    I love Sonic, too! I didn’t have the pleasure to play with any consoles previous to the first PlayStation, but I did play this classic on the Gameboy Advance SP. Of course, Pokémon was also in my childhood from as early as the Game Boy Pocket’s Pokémon Blue and Red.

    From the list of non-pocket consoles’ games, though, and at the risk of sounding cliché, my favourites would have to be Final Fantasy VII and the Kingdom Hearts’ series. They are Square Enix’s masterpieces, and I can’t wait for FF XV to come out after so many years of teasing. These games are fun to play, have well designed characters and interesting stories.

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