After spending much of this decade catching up with the rest of the world, the Japanese games industry is truly back, and PC gamers have been reaping the rewards of this renaissance. It’s taken time for Japanese developers and publishers to get on board, especially with consoles and smartphones remaining the dominant gaming platforms in their native country. But as classic console franchises finally make their Steam debuts, with better-late-than-never ports coming with full-fat optimisation options to give you the definitive experience, there really has been never a better time to be a Japanese-loving PC player.
As the Tokyo Game Show takes place this week, here’s 10 of the best and most significant Japanese games you need installed, whether it’s to immerse yourself in world-class game design, get a taste of classic console gaming history or Japanese culture, or, yes, if you just like the look of anime.
The saga began on Sega’s final console, the Dreamcast, with Yu Suzuki’s ambitious, ahead-of-its-time tale of revenge. Shenmue is set in an intimately realistic open world with mundane attention to detail.
It’s not necessarily aged well, and d3t’s port is, well, just a port, leaving all the textures, facial expressions and time to kill just like they were back in 1999. But it’s all part of its clunky charm, as you step into the shoes of po-faced and recently bereft teenager Ryo Hazuki, wandering around his hometown of Yokosuka on the hunt for sailors and bikers. The sequel drops you fresh off the boat to the labyrinthian streets of Hong Kong, where money talks on every corner (“Want to play Lucky Hit?”).
Whatever you make of it, it’s a vital piece of gaming history, which will also nicely prep you for when the saga finally continues with Shenmue III’s release next year.
Hyper-masculine, hyper-Japanese, and a perfect distillation of everything Sega, the Yakuza series has long been a PlayStation franchise. But just as the series has finally broken through to acclaim in the West, it also makes its PC debut, starting with the 80s-set prequel. Yakuza 0 isn’t just the best entry point, but the most riotously fun.
Whether you’re teaching gangsters life lesson with your fists, playing disco dancing rhythm games, or simply taking in the sights of districts modelled on real-life locations in Tokyo and Osaka, there’s no game that taps into Japanese culture better. With the remake of the first game also on the way, it’s only a matter of time before PC gamers catch up and become well-versed with Kiryu’s life story.
The Monster Hunter series has long been an institution in Japan, albeit on portable devices. With a bold step into a brave new world, this is not just the most beautiful entry, but many quality-of-life improvements also make World the most accessible Monster Hunter to date, streamlining the busy work so you can get to the good stuff.
The thrill of the hunt is intoxicating, whether you’re going toe-to-toe with a fire-breathing T-Rex-a-like or massive inflatable bats - but so is turning their carcasses into better weapons and armour so that you can take on even more powerful monsters. You’ll get sucked into its enormously satisfying loop.
Even a longer wait for the PC version, and a pesky pre-release crashing bug couldn’t thwart Monster Hunter: World from becoming the most successful launch for a Japanese game on PC.
Dragon Quest is Japan’s national videogame loved by whole generations, but in its three decades the mainline series has never seen a port on PC - until now. Released day and date with the PS4’s English-language launch, Dragon Quest XI is true to its core as a traditional JRPG, from its simple turn-based battle system to an epic tale that borrows from the very best examples of the genre, and it does it all incredibly well.
It may feel stubbornly ultra-conservative when its peers are experimenting with different aesthetics and mechanics, but there’s also something admirable in how comfortably confident it is with its identity. If you’re looking for the magic of a classic JRPG experience fit for the HD and 4K era, then Dragon Quest XI is an illuminating start.
Not just one of the greatest games of the decade, FromSoftware’s uncompromising take on Western fantasy action RPGs is also credited as the game that really opened the floodgates for Japanese games on PC, as Bandai Namco’s first release on Steam.
True, it was a pretty poor port that took a mod to unlock its potential, but the remaster released this year largely fixes those issues, now also supporting 4K and 60fps, as well as a few other graphical enhancements. Though improvements are fairly minimal, the brutal majesty of Lordran remains a towering achievement, as is the agony and ecstasy of conquering its bosses.
Even if director Hidetaka Miyazaki has officially laid the series to rest, and whet our masochistic appetite for the Japan-set ninjatastic Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the flame of Dark Souls still burns bright.
The game that began Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s journey in exploring the synaesthesia of music and games, Rez Infinite is a trippy out-of-this-world experience like nothing else. When you get down to it, the gameplay is essentially a simple on-rails shooter, but once you lock on and fire, and every shot ripples into an explosion of colour and melody to compliment the clubby beats and abstract dreamscapes, the results are sublime.
For those with VR headsets, you can also fully immerse yourself in the game in the way that it’s intended. But if nothing else, flying around in the all-new stunning Area X is worth the price of admission alone.
An intriguing blend of turn-based strategy and real-time third person shooter elements, this anime spin on World War II had been virtually ignored when it first released on PS3 in 2008, and it wasn’t until Sega decided to port the game to Steam in 2014 that people finally took note.
In surprise ambush, Valkyria Chronicles topped the Steam charts in the same month as big guns Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. Sega had been doing well in the PC market for some time thanks to Western-focused IP like Football Manager and Total War, but it’s fair to say that this proved that PC players had an appetite for their Japanese games too, which they’ve kindly fed since.
Better still, for those captivated by the tales of the Second Europan War, another story of that conflict is told in the forthcoming Valkyria Chronicles 4, which is just as excellent.
Bayonetta is Hideki Kamiya’s crazy sexy cool masterpiece, whose titular witch shoots and kicks the shit out of all God’s messengers while looking absolutely fabulous. Hardcore action combo-driven games are a rarity these days but when you need that hi-octane fix, the only studio that can satisfy you is PlatinumGames.
Sure, the story’s a load of hokum and you can debate whether Bay’s character is sexist or feminist until the cows come home, but once you’re activating Witch Time, spanking angels into bloody oblivion and heel-smashing demi-gods in the face, it’s all just Platinum Perfect.
The port may have taken its sweet time to arrive, but with 4K, locked 60fps and next-to-no loading times, this is the fastest, slickest and prettiest Bayonetta has ever been. Let’s dance, boys!
Sonic Team aren’t what they used to be when it comes to their eponymous mascot. The consolation, though, is that they’re responsible for developing the best competitive puzzler ever.
Tetris will probably be the main draw of this crossover, but it’s those mean beans of Puyo Puyo are where it’s really at. It’s all about matching four of the same colour Puyos to make them pop, but the beauty is in taking the risk of stacking them up, trying for the perfect drop that sets off an explosive chain to bury your opponent’s screen .
It’s taken a while for Puyo Puyo to really break the West, but this late port proves to be the best version, not only featuring more customisation options but also dual audio options for its kawaii cast of characters.
The world’s most popular anime series finally gets the game it deserves. Following on from Arc System Works’ cel-shading and animation effects in the Guilty Gear series, this 3v3 fighter totally nails the look and animation speed so it’s like you’re actually playing the anime itself.
Of course, looking the part would be nothing without the fighting mechanics to match. Matches are fast and ridiculous where dash attacks and screen-filling supers are the norm, but with many of its inputs executed with just a button press or a quarter-circle motion anyone who’s ever passed within feet of Street Fighter can enjoy this.
But if the simplified controls open the game up to a larger audience, it’s not been at the expense of technical depth - not if the high-level play showcased at prestigious tournaments like Evo is anything to go by. It’s one of the best new fighting games of the year.
On the Wishlist...
Of course, there’re still more great Japanese console games that are just asking for a jump to PC. But how likely is it for these to become a reality?
The most stylish JRPG you’ll ever play - except the series has long been a PlayStation exclusive. That said, the first Persona game did actually find a PC release in the pre-Steam era, and given that developer Atlus are owned by the PC-loving Sega, we can’t rule out the the Phantom Thieves coming to steal your hearts in the near future.
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone
Japan’s most famous digital pop star may have her songs created on computers, but if you want to play her excellent rhythm game series Project Diva, you’re out of luck. There is a VR rhythm game on Steam, Hatsune Miku VR, but its paltry selection of eight songs can’t hold a candle to the 200+ song library in the arcade-perfect version of the PS4 game. That’s another you can petition Sega for.
PC players have Dark Souls and will be getting the ninja-tastic Sekiro next year, but FromSoftware’s arguably greatest Souls-like, the gothic Lovecraftian Bloodborne, is sadly a real Playstation exclusive, as in Sony’s Japan Studio partnership-exclusive. One consolation is that it has been recently added to the PC-compatible Playstation Now streaming service, but honestly, the only thing more terrifying than fighting Cleric Beast for the first time is lag.
Any Nintendo game
It’d be great to have the company that epitomises Japanese games bringing its library to PC, from Mario to Zelda to Metroid to Animal Crossing. But honestly, you’re only going to be able to get these titles through emulation, which we’re not going to count. Unless Ninty suffers another Wii U-scale setback and goes the way of Sega, this is never going to happen - but I'll keep dreaming...