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Level Up: The Top 5 Mobile Games in Japan

It's never a dull moment living in Japan — and if it ever seems that way, then here are five popular smartphone games many Japanese play to help pass the time.

By 6 min read

An English student of mine once told me that 20 years ago when you looked around on the crowded Tokyo Chuo line you would see people with their noses buried into the latest issue of Shonen Jump (boys manga magazine). These days, you’ll instead see commuters with their headphones on, eyes down and smartphones in their hands.

While many of them are still reading manga — only now in digital form, on phones and tablets — a lot of people play mobile games to pass the time during their commute. If you aren’t much of a gamer or have never tried mobile video games before, don’t worry — we’ve got you covered.

Here are five of the most popular mobile games being downloaded in Japan today on both Android and iOS according to App Annie.

All the games on this list are free to download and play and have full English support. We’ve listed them in order from least to most popular, with No. 1 receiving the highest amount of downloads.

5. Super Mario Run

When it comes to video games, it doesn’t get much more iconic than the Mario franchise. Luckily, Nintendo has had its eye on the mobile market, as well, and has been releasing polished, pocket adaptations of their console game hits. When a mobile game is made by the same company that brought us the Gameboy and Nintendo DS — arguably the most successful mobile consoles in video game history — you know you can expect good things.

The graphics are stunning, sleek and polished. The gameplay is optimized for mobile and designed to be played with one hand, yet it’s incredibly fun and engaging. There are multiple modes and the majority of the game is free to play. The first three stages are unlocked, but to progress further in the main game and unlock other stages, players must either purchase the full game or complete challenges in other mini-games.

  • Super Mario Run is available for download on iOS and Android.

4. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

Animal Crossing Pocket Camp

Also published by Nintendo, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is a mobile version of their incredibly popular Animal Crossing series — known as Dobutsu No Mori (“Animal Forest”) in Japan. The series has been around since the Nintendo 64 era and the West got its first English localization of the series on the Nintendo GameCube.

While the game has been marketed as a miniversion of the series, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp looks, plays and feels like a full-fledged Animal Crossing title. It doesn’t feel downgraded — rare for a mobile release of a popular game title. For those unfamiliar with the series, Animal Crossing is a life simulator in which the main characters are personified animals. Think The Sims but with cute animals and in a world where work and play have melded together.

  • Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp  is available for download on iOS and Android.

3. Disney Tsum Tsum

Disney Tsum Tsum

Another very popular mobile game in Japan is Disney Tsum Tsum, published by Line Corporation. Disney Tsum Tsum is basically Bejeweled after a few too many energy drinks and filled with Disney characters instead of gems. The game’s name comes from the Japanese word tsumu (to pile). As the name suggests, cute faces of popular Disney characters are piled on the screen and players must connect matching faces to earn points. Because of its simple nature and the Japanese love for everything Disney, this game is popular among the general masses. For those who have never played a mobile game before, Disney Tsum Tsum is a great place to start.

  • Disney Tsum Tsum  is available for download on iOS and Android.

2. Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality Pokémon game that uses a player’s smartphone camera and the real world around them as the game’s map. Players can see their favorite Pokémon creatures hovering over and around train stations or in the middle of a relaxing park. Based on one of the most popular anime of all time, Pokémon Go took the world by storm in mid-2016. While the hype for the game has since dwindled, it still leads the Google Play Store as the number one top grossing adventure game with over 100 million downloads to date.

As well, the real-life Pokémon Centers are some of the most popular tourist areas in the country.

In Japan, Pokémon characters are everywhere: on bread packages, curry boxes, school bags, cutlery and everything in between. As well, the real-life Pokémon Centers are some of the most popular tourist areas in the country. Thus, the game is still widely played and adored, and many Japanese can still be seen with their smartphones out and thumbs ready to swipe a Poké ball towards the nearest Pokémon they can catch. If you’re a fan of the Pokémon series or enjoyed the Pokémon games on Nintendo consoles, be sure to give this game a try.

  • Pokémon Go is available for download on iOS and Android.

1. Knives Out

Knives Out

A recent trend in the gaming industry is “battle royale” video games. The premise of the genre is simple: a large number of players start with minimal equipment for combat and the last one standing wins. Most of the leading games in the genre support matches of up to 100 players at a time with all vying to be the champion.

While many gamers thought it was impossible, developers are now taking these massively multiplayer battle royale games to the mobile market and are doing so with unprecedented success. Knives Out from NetEase Games is by far the most popular mobile game of this kind in Japan.

In this title, players jump out of a plane and parachute down to a large remote island alone with 99 other players. Upon landing, they race to pick up the best weapons and armor and then have at each other until one squad of players — or even just a single player — remains. Luckily, menu options and the tutorial have all been translated into English so gamers with little Japanese ability will have no problem playing the game. On the other hand, communicating with teammates will be tricky. Playing the game in Japan means almost all the players on the server will be Japanese. While voice chat is enabled, it’s not necessary to enjoy the game and, of course, when playing on a train you shouldn’t be devising combat strategies out loud anyways.

  • Knives Out  is available for download on iOS and Android.

While all the games on this list are free to download and play, they also include in-app purchases [for additional levels and game modes, extra items, skins, and in-game currency that can be spent to progress the game or gain experience faster]. However, the bulk of them can be enjoyed fully without spending a single yen. So, next time you’re stuck on a crowded train but have enough room to squeeze your hand into your pocket and whip out your smartphone —  give one of these games a try.

If you are a die-hard fan of one of the games on this list or if there are other incredible mobile games we missed, be sure to let us know in the comments below!

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