One of the secret best features of the last generation of consoles was the removal of region locks. Sony’s consoles in particular boasted not only a total region-free approach, but plenty of games worth importing. With the advent of digital distribution, however, you can skip the wait and costs associated with shipping. By making a Japanese PlayStation Network account you can not only download PS4 and PS3 games, but digital versions of PS2 and PS1 games that would otherwise be region locked and require a region specific machine to play.
PlayStation Lifestyle has a 60 second rundownthat will help you get a Japanese PSN account in no time. From there you’ll need to add pre-paid credit to your account (I’m assuming you don’t have a Japanese credit card). I buy mine from Japan Codes, but other import stores will also sell them to you. Just make sure that they send you the codes directly and don’t ship the cards themselves to you. Keep in mind that you’ll also pay a bit more than the value amount you buy.
From here we’ll actually be using a web browser to navigate the store. It’s much faster than the notoriously slow PlayStation Network.
Click the option above the left side of the search bar, then sign into your new Japanese PSN account. From there hover over your username, pick the third option down and redeem the code on the next screen.
Using a web browser to browse the store has other benefits as well. By hovering over links you’ll get a URL preview that will end in a category ID, which will probably give you a much better idea of what you’re clicking. Seeing PS1ARCHIVESALL in a URL might not be an elegant way to parse a menu, but it’s easier than trying to parse a foreign alphabet.
Even better, you can copy and paste the kana of a game title (from a Wikipedia article for example) and use it to search for a title, as you can almost guarantee that you won’t get results for the English title. For this list I’ll actually link to the store pages.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the games themselves. Please note that I’ve picked games that require little to no knowledge of Japanese to play, as well as titles that were either never localized or are unavailable on the US store.
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1.LSD: Dream Emulator
Ambient, frequently bizarre, and sometimes frightening, LSD is a cult classic that has more in common with modern day experimental games than anything of its era. Functionally, it's an album of dreamscapes to wander around in as an ambient soundtrack washes over you. Coming into contact with walls or other objects in the environments will whisk you away into other dreamworlds. The game was created with imagery out of creator Osamu Sato's dream journal, and like dreams themselves, there's rarely a consistent logic or goal to the game. At the end of each dream a grid will begin to fill out according to the mood of the dream. You can try to fill this grid out, but that's a frustrating and unpredictable task. LSD is better served by strolling through when the mood hits and seeing what you find. It's gained some notoriety due to Let's Plays, but it understandably wasn't a commercial success so physical copies go for upwards of $300. It's much easier to recommend as a $6 download.
For lovers of: Yume Nikki, Eastern Mind
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2. Aquanaut's Holiday ~MEMORIES OF SUMMER 1996~and Aquanaut's Holiday 2
Another curio of the early PlayStation days, Aquanaut's Holiday comes courtesy of ARTDINK, a developer that's never quite found commercial success, but have managed to make plenty of offbeat and interesting games. Aquanaut's Holiday itself is a simple undersea exploration game. While there are objectives, again, they're sideshows to the exploration. The low resolution graphics, short draw distance, and ambient soundtrack all contribute to its unique atmosphere, and the sea creatures are all well animated. There's also a few hidden creatures ruins for thorough explorers to find.
Both games here are similarly relaxed. Memories of Summer 1996 lets you build a reef to attract different kinds of fishes, while the sequel has improved visuals and controls and focuses instead on finding different species of fish and cataloging them. (The catalog entries for these are of course in Japanese). Be prepared for a little trial and error to figure these out, or consult an FAQ to familiarize yourself with the basic operations.
For Lovers of: Endless Ocean, Submerged, ABZÛ
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3. Gunner's Heaven
Most of Gunner''s Heaven can adequately be summed up by saying "the designers of this one really liked Gunstar Heroes." Between the style of running and gunning, the animations, and the character designs, it's obvious that MediaVision had a fondness for Treasure's Genesis shooter. Gunner's Heaven never quite reaches the same heights, as it lacks the sheer inventiveness and its stages are much more straightforward. It also omits the ability to combine weapons, instead opting for an approach similar to Gunstar Super Heroes, where you constantly carry several types of weapons, which vary across the two characters. It also keeps up the momentum by forcing you to constantly pick up power-ups from downed enemies, which will keep boosting your firepower and allow you to get past rougher encounters. There's also a fun grappling hook, but it's not used for much aside from grappling over larger foes. Taken on its own, it's a well-made, frantic shooter.
For lovers of: Gunstar Heroes, Contra 3, Metal Slug
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4. Panzer Bandit
Speaking of complements to Treasure games, here's Panzer Bandit. Keen eyes will note some similar ideas to Treasure's RPG beat-em-up Guardian Heroes, notably the multi-plane combat and fighting game style commands. That would be because both Guardian Heroes and Panzer Bandit have roots in the 1994 mech brawler Mad Stalker: Full Metal Force. Programmers from both games worked at developer Fill-in-Cafe at the time, and Mad Stalker was cited as one of the inspirations for Guardian Heroes.
Panzer Bandit is much less hectic than its Saturn counterpart. It ditches the RPG elements and doesn't reach the same on screen body count. Instead it goes for a more traditional animated style, with painted backgrounds and softer character designs to contrast with Guardian Heroes ' angular, and sometimes garish, look. There are a few characters with their own unique movesets and specials, with a combat flow that will be familiar to anyone who's played Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds (which one of the programmers went on to design). There's a story here as well, but it's entirely in Japanese and largely composed of throwaway anime tropes. Overall it's a very direct brawler, but one that's satisfying while it lasts.
For lovers of: Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, Guardian Heroes, Capcom and Vanillaware beat-em-ups
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5. DamDam Stompland
DamDam Stompland is basically shadow tag turned into a competitive arena game. Step on your opponent's shadow three times and victory is yours. What makes it interesting is the dynamic shadow system. Light moves in one of a few patterns, playing off the shadows and causing them to bend and warp alongside it. There are a few choices of characters, whose shape will determine the silhouettes of your shadow. One character, for instance, is quite fast, but is tall and casts a long shadow that makes him more vulnerable to being stepped on when the light moves horizontally. Each character also has a unique ability they can use once per match, and the arenas themselves provide obstacles to contend with. The simple story mode probably won't get you mileage (especially if you don't speak Japanese), so it's best played alongside a buddy, where the dogfight-esque struggle to find an advantage shines best.
For fans of: Bomberman, local competitive party games
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6. Speed Power Gunbike
Long before they made their mark working on the Megaman series, Inti Creates launched their new careers with the release of Speed Power Gunbike. A mix of traditional action and vehicle racing, Gunbike sees you plowing through enemies at high speed on a transforming robot/bike hybrid. A constantly depleting energy bar doubles as health and timer, forcing you to keep up your momentum as you race through dangerous highways. You won't stop for anything, though. Instead, you pick up speed in your bike form then transfer that momentum into your robot form, allowing you to plow straight through enemies. Each mode has distinct functions and abilities, which also come into play when you reach the boss fights. Play it right, and you can chain driving into knockdowns, following them up with a bit of gunfire and swordplay.
Like many of Inti Creates' later titles, Gunbike is only satisfying when you're doing well. Getting a sequence right feels like performing a scene straight out of an anime, but losing that flow stops the game's momentum immediately. Between the complex controls, high difficulty, and early 3D awkwardness, Gunbike arguably demands more of a player than is reasonable. If you're willing to overlook its flaws (which are many), there's a seriously stylish game here, and a good look at the origin of the team that would go on to make the Megaman Zero and Megaman 9 and 10 games.
For lovers of: Megaman Zero, Clover Studio, action games too difficult for their own good
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7. EOS~Edge of Skyhigh~
Edge of Skyhigh is on the opposite spectrum of transformable mech games. It's an on-rails shooter that will have you transforming between a jet and mech, bringing down enemy craft with vulcans and homing lasers. The mech form will allow you to lock on easier and provide a chargeable special attack, while the plane is more agile and difficult to hit. It's not deep, but brief and intense, with some memorable boss encounters and spectacle. You'll get a bit more playing it for score, where you'll have to achieve the maximum amount of lock-ons before launching your lasers, something which should be familiar to players of Rayforce or Rez.
For lovers of: Rayforce, After Burner II
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Speaking of Rayforce, the follow up to Taito's quiet masterpiece also makes an appearance on the PlayStation Store. A prequel to the events of Rayforce, Raycrisis deals with humanity's attempt to shut down an AI supercomputer called the Con-Human, which goes rogue after gaining sentience following fusion with a cloned human. The dramatic backstory takes a backseat to the act of gunning down enemies with bullets and lock-on lasers, but it does manifest in the level structure. At the start of each game you'll be given the option of the order in which to tackle the stages, each of which represents a different facet of the AI's personality. Tamayo Kawamoto's score alternates between sick jams and moody overtones, and lend a strong identity to Raycrisis. While it doesn't have the same sheer spectacle of its predecessor, it works well with its 3D graphics to convey a strong sense of scale and dynamism. It also doesn't hurt that it's one of the best shooters made for the original PlayStation.
For lovers of: Rayforce, Rez, fantastic soundtracks
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9. Robbit Mon Dieu
A spin-off of the cult classic Jumping Flash! series of first person platformers, Robbit Mon Dieu has our robot-bunny friend left with nothing to do after they've saved the world. So of course they end up doing errands for the people around. While the first two games had a heavy focus on platforming and shooting, Mon Dieu is more of a collection of minigames and challenges, tied together by fully animated and voiced cutscenes. Unsurprisingly, this meant this third entry in the series was never localized, which relegates most of the appeal of the game to Japanese speakers.
For lovers of: Jumping Flash!, mini-game collections, absurd humor
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10. Ore no Ryouri—"My Cooking"
If you can't get enough of absurd mini-games, Ore no Ryouri, a.k.a. "My Cooking," is a hidden gem about proving yourself in a cooking contest to a frog who feels slighted that he lost to you in an Iron Chef -style competition. There's a lengthy story set up, and the all Japanese menus might prove to be a hurdle initially, but with a bit of trial and error (or a decent FAQ) you'll be able to parse it soon enough.
What makes Ore no Ryouri stand out is how it combines everyday actions with absurd situations, turning it into a chaotic slapstick show. Each of the mini-games uses the analog sticks, requiring you to rapidly combine different movements and levels of sensitivity. For example, you'll have to repeatedly push down on one stick while pulling away on the other to cut vegetables (and not your fingers), or tilt the sticks to pour beer at just the right angle for the perfect amount of foam. Top that off with a Diner Dash style series of orders that need to be attended to, and there's a wonderful energy to it all, with plenty of chances to mess orders up. If that wasn't enough, finish a stage and you'll face off against the restaurant owner, attempting to outcook each other in a dramatic boss battle. You can even play these battles against another person afterwards.
Vertigo Gaming would later make two English fangames of Ore no Ryouri, which served as the basis for Cook Serve Delicious.
For lovers of: WarioWare, Cook Serve Delicious, Cooking Mama