25 Best Japanese Games Not Available in the U.S.
Ahead of TGS 2018, we look at 25 Japanese video game classics that we've never played in the U.S.
For various reasons, a lot of games released in Japan never make their way to North America.This could be because the game is too culturally foreign to Americans, or there’s perceived to be little international interest for the title. Sometimes publishers want to distribute games overseas, but they just don’t have the time and/or money to do it.
And then there are the cases where it’s clear there’s a large demand for the game, and maybe most of it already is in English, and it’s still passed over for localization. (Looking at you, Mother!)
These are 25 games that originated in Japan that have never made it to our shores even though we’d love to play them:
2001 | Sega | Dreamcast
Ignore popular series like Shenmue and Skies of Arcadia. Crank out a half-dozen terrible Sonic games. Sometimes it seems like Sega is run by a board of drunk chimps. If you’ve ever thought you could do a better job of running a once-powerful console manufacturer, releasing Segagaga is a good way to start. Billed as an RPG full of mini-games, your goal is to increase Sega’s market share to put the evil DOGMA (Sony) out of business. It’s the type of unique game that would have drawn a lot of acclaim in the States, but apparently those chimps just couldn’t be convinced to release it here.
1998 | Asmik Ace Entertainment | PSX
LSD was maybe a bit ahead of its time. If it were released today, it would be considered a walking simulator, but 20 years ago, the idea of just wandering through surreal landscapes baffled many players. Based on the dream journal of an artist at Asmik, the title actually doesn’t have anything to do with drugs, although a few minutes of gameplay will likely have you questioning that. Considering how little text is in the game, and that LSD has a bit of a cult following in the west, it seems odd that it never made its way to the PSN.
1999 | Nintendo | N64
While other Custom Robo games have made their way stateside, the original (which many would say is still the best) hasn’t found its way here in any form. As with other games in the series, your goal is simply to use your robo to take on robo rivals, collecting new parts and becoming ever more powerful. The original release was praised in Japan, though Nintendo oddly decided against releasing it here despite a dearth of titles in the N64’s final years. Maybe when the Switch Virtual Console is up and running more U.S. gamers will finally get the chance to try this one out.
Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic
1987 | Capcom | Famicom
So we technically did get a version of this game in North America. Doki Doki Panic was altered to become North America and Europe’s version Super Mario Bros. 2 after Nintendo deemed Japan’s version too difficult for international audiences. Nintendo actually developed Doki Doki Panic as a tie-in for Fuji Television’s Yume Kojo 1987 festival and the game incorporates several elemants from said festival.
It tells the story of a magical land where the people have invented a dream machine so that they can always have good dreams. But then an evil toad named Mamu arrives and turns the machine into a nightmare machine. Much of the plot was changed for Super Mario Bros. 2, but there are a few elements of Doki Doki Panic that remained in the North American and European versions of Super Mario Bros. 2, including Shy Guys, Pokeys, Birdos, and Bob-ombs. They all became iconic enemies in the franchise going forward. Perhaps we’ll get to see them in the original adventure one of these days.
2010 | Nintendo | Wii
The Wii became so well-known for kiddie shovelware that it was hard for any mature titles to find success on the console. That’s likely why Nintendo passed on localizing Dynamic Slash. It’s the story of two angelic siblings fighting legions of giants during the Norse Ragnarok. Combat is extremely violent, and feels great thanks to the Wii MotionPlus. The main characters did appear as trophies in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, so maybe Nintendo will eventually bring the game (or a sequel) to the U.S. in some form.
2008 | Nintendo | Wii
Think Animal Crossing with a twisted sense of humor. That’s the idea behind Captain Rainbow, a Wii exclusive that fans of been begging Nintendo to bring stateside for almost a decade now. As Nick, you’re the former TV star Captain Rainbow, performing good deeds on an island to try and reclaim your past fame. Admittedly, this one would need a lot of work to come to the U.S., as a lot of the humor would get lost in translation, but never say never.
1996 | Square | SNES
The working title for Bahamut Lagoon was actually Final Fantasy Tactics, which should give you a good idea of what to expect. But perhaps the biggest difference is that each party entered battle with a dragon that was the source of most of its strength. Lose the largely autonomous dragon unit, and you’re as good as dead, lending quite a bit of strategy to each fight. A North American version actually was announced, but since it was released at the tail end of the SNES’s lifespan, it was canceled so Square could focus its efforts on PlayStation development.
1994 | Human Entertainment | SNES
Firefighting actually seems like a great concept for a game that’s been woefully neglected over the years. In this overhead SNES title, you control two firemen as they traverse a high rise putting out blazes with their hoses and rescuing civilians. It sounds simple, but there’s actually a lot of variety in the types of fires and how they need to be put out. This seems like it would have done well in the mid-90s American console market, so it’s kind of odd that we never saw it here.
Dragon Quest X
2012 | Square Enix | PS4, Switch, Wii, Wii U, 3DS
Square Enix has gotten much better about releasing Dragon Quest games in the U.S., except for the tenth entry in the storied franchise. Blame the genre. Unlike the other games in the series, Dragon Quest X is an MMO, which means much more time needs to be put into translating text. There’s also no guarantee the game will be profitable here as Dragon Quest has never been a household name in the U.S. like Square Enix’s other big RPG series, Final Fantasy. Still, Square Enix has said it’s investigating the possibility of bringing Dragon Quest X here, so an American release isn’t completely out of the question.
Jump Ultimate Stars
2006 | Ganbarion | DS
A fighting game filled with hundreds of characters from Japan’s most popular manga is a dream for many American gamers. It would also be a nightmare for any lawyers trying to get the rights for all these different manga in order to get the title released here. Legal issues ensure Jump Ultimate Stars will almost certainly never see the light of day on our shores, but at least the Japanese version is easily importable, and can be played on an American DS without any sort of hacking or peripherals.
Dragon Force II
1998 | Sega | Saturn
The original Dragon Force made it to the U.S., and it was one of the best games on the Saturn, featuring deep tactical gameplay and gorgeous sprite-based battles between dozens of enemies. The story, which saw you selecting one of eight leaders to unite a continent, was also one of the best of the ‘90s. Sadly, the complete failure of the Saturn in the U.S. killed any hopes of the sequel making its way here, and fan translations have only made their way online in the past couple of years.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner
1995 | Atlus | Saturn, PSP
Here’s a weird one: all of the sequels and prequels to Devil Summoner have been released in the west in one form or another. And while Shin Megami Tensei was virtually unknown here in the ‘90s, its reputation has only grown in the U.S., with almost all of the entries released in North America receiving wide critical acclaim. Devil Summoner may not have all of the features of the later games in the series, but many fans would still love to see where the franchise’s negotiation and devil fusion systems began.
Marvelous: Mōhitotsu No Takarajima
1996| Nintendo | SNES
Marvelous is the title that laid the groundwork for the next two decades of Zelda games. The title was the first to be directed by Eiji Aonuma, who has served as either director or producer on every Zelda title since Majora’s Mask. Unsurprisingly, Marvelous plays a lot like a 16-bit Zelda game, except you take on the role of three characters simultaneously as they search for treasure. There’s also a point-and-click aspect to the game that makes it feel a bit like a PC adventure title. Marvelous features a ton of memorable characters, and an oddly dark atmosphere for a Nintendo game that would show up in Aonuma’s later titles, but sadly few American gamers have had the opportunity to see his early work.
1998 | Sega | Saturn
Deep Fear was Sega’s answer to Resident Evil, a survival horror game set deep under the ocean. You fight zombies and monsters while also maintaining an oxygen supply. The controls are much more user-friendly than early Resident Evil games though, allowing for complete 3D movement, and ready use of many items without having to pause and go into menus. In some ways, Deep Fear was an underwater Dead Space a decade ahead of its time. Thankfully, all of the voice acting and most of the menus are in English, so this one is easily importable, and actually quite cheap online.
Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse
2008 | Koei Tecmo | Wii
The motion controls and built-in speaker of the Wii-mote were a good fit for more immersive horror games, but the family-friendly audience, unfortunately, made those games a hard sell. That’s ultimately what doomed a North American release of the fourth entry in the underrated Fatal Frame series. And while we may never see the title here, at least the outcry from fans was enough to get Nintendo to put Mask of the Lunar Eclipse’s sequel on the eShop.
Shining Force III: Scenarios 2 and 3
1998 | Sega | Saturn
Shining Force III was an early experiment in episodic gameplay. Comprised of three scenarios, each with a separate but overlapping storyline. You had to play all three games to fully understand what’s going on and see the true ending. Unfortunately, only the first scenario was ever released in North America, and while it’s still seen as one of the best games for the underrated Saturn, the cliffhanger ending has left many American gamers forever waiting for the rest of the story.
Phantasy Star Online 2
2012 | Sega | PC, PS4, Vita
Lots of American players have fond memories of playing Phantasy Star Online on their Dreamcasts, Xboxes, and GameCubes in the early 2000s. And more than a decade later, there are few console games that capture the simple joy of grinding for loot with three other players so well. It seems like it would be easy money for Sega to bring Phantasy Star Online 2 to this side of the world. A North American build was even shown in 2012, but five years later there’s no sign of the game on our shores. Sega must really hate making money.
1994 | Konami | 3DO, PC, PSX, Saturn
It’s hard to imagine a Hideo Kojima game not getting a release in North America now, but this was still a few years before the success of Metal Gear Solid. It’s also a very different game. Originally released only for Japanese computers, Policenauts is a point-and-click adventure about astronaut cops, with some shooting segments on the side. It’s been praised for its detective story, which is no surprise given Kojima’s involvement. The Saturn version was actually going to be released in North America, but development was abandoned due to issues with syncing English voice acting with the game’s many FMV cutscenes.
Metal Wolf Chaos
2004 | FromSoftware | Xbox
Metal Wolf Chaos seems like a game tailor-made for a U.S. release. You play the U.S. president, a descendant of Woodrow Wilson, piloting a giant mech. Your goal is to blow a lot of stuff up as you take back portions of the country that have attempted to secede. It’s insane. It’s ridiculously patriotic. It even has full English voice acting, which would have made it super easy to bring to America, but many have speculated that FromSoftware got cold feet about its themes, given the country’s political climate following the War in Iraq. Damn politics ruin everything.
Valkyria Chronicles III
2011 | Sega | PSP
Valkyria Chronicles might be the most underrated series of the last decade. Featuring the perfect combination of strategic and real-time gameplay, it’s easy to get lost for hours in Sega’s fictionalized take on World War II. Sadly, the first two games in the series didn’t sell very well in North America, leaving Valkyria Chronicles III behind in Japan. Being a PSP exclusive also didn’t help matters. The latest game in the series, Valkyria Revolution, was released here last summer, so there’s always a chance that this one could show up here in some form.
1989 | Capcom | NES
Based on a Japanese horror movie of the same name, Sweet Home is perhaps best known as the game that inspired the original Resident Evil. Players guide five characters through a massive mansion, solving puzzles, managing inventory, and battling ghosts and zombies. Violent imagery ensured the game was never released overseas during the NES era, but as few people now view video games as a hobby exclusively for kids, there’s no reason for Capcom not to release an official port here.
1997 | DreamFactory | PSX
Tobal No. 1 was released in the U.S. to respectable sales and critical reception, but apparently, it didn’t sell quite well enough to justify a release of the sequel here. That’s a shame because Tobal 2 is superior to the first game in every way. Its 200-character roster still hasn’t been matched by any other fighter, and modern fighters could also learn a lot from its ridiculously lengthy quest mode. Square ultimately blamed poor sales of Tobal No. 1 and translation issues for the lack of a North American version.
Seiken Densetsu 3
1995 | Square | SNES
Secret of Mana is considered one of the best games of the 16-bit era, yet its sequel, which has even better music and graphics, has never officially made it to North America. Even more heartbreaking, the official reasons for why Square never brought it here aren’t entirely clear. A U.S. release was once announced in the ‘90s, but canceled due to mysterious “programming bugs.” The first two games were previously released here, so only the third one would need to be translated for American gamers to finally enjoy this lost classic.
1995 | Quintet | SNES
The SNES is fondly remembered for its great RPGs, but one of its very best never left Japan. After billions of years of fighting, the Earth has been almost completely destroyed by God and the Devil. As Ark, one of the last survivors, you must resurrect the planet. Perhaps such a deep story was thought to be too risky for a release in the ‘90s. Although the game was released in Europe, so this one is a little bit easier to play in English than a lot of the other games on this list.
2006 | Nintendo | GBA
There is perhaps no Japanese game that gamers want to see officially released in the States more than the sequel to Earthbound. And the sad thing is that when Mother 3 was first under development as an N64 title in the ‘90s, Nintendo talked openly about bringing it to North America. That version of the game was canceled in 2000, only to be resurrected on the GBA a few years later. Mother 3 was met with immediate acclaim in Japan for its colorful graphics, unique humor, and a battle system that requires attacking in sync with the background music.
Fan translations have been readily available online for years, and every now and then rumors make the rounds that Nintendo is bringing a port to the American Virtual Console, but that has yet to materialize. Maybe on day Nintendo will come to its senses and realize it’s just leaving easy money on the table by refusing to bring Mother 3 here.
Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.