The Best Japan-Exclusive RPGs That Deserve a Global Release

Games Lists RPGs
The Best Japan-Exclusive RPGs That Deserve a Global Release

In 2022, role-playing classics Live A Live and The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero finally left Japan through worldwide releases. And this March, the sequel to Trails from Zero, Trails to Azure, will leave Japan’s shores as well. It’s not being greedy to ask for even more of the wonderful role-playing games Japan has been holding onto for decades to release elsewhere else. So, let’s get ready to beg and plead.

Traditional role-playing games, strategy RPGs, action RPGs, whatever: there are loads of high-quality ones that never made it out of Japan, especially when you look back to the ’90s. Let’s go over a few of them that we wish would get the same kind of treatment Live A Live et al have received of late. 

Two notes: Quintet’s action RPG masterpiece Terranigma would be listed, but it was already included in a different “re-release this!” feature, so no need to double up. And once again Mother 3 isn’t listed here since Nintendo will ignore it, anyway, but if you must know how I feel about it in significant detail, you can

Ys V: Lost Kefin, Kingdom of Sand

Ys V is a mediocre Ys game. It had a generic Super Famicom look that didn’t scream Ys, from sprite design to the menus. The soundtrack was good, but fairly muted for the high-powered, guitar-and-synth-driven Ys. The combat system was an early bit of Falcom trying to figure out the move from bump combat to pressing buttons for swinging a sword, and it showed—and that’s somehow all significantly better than its half-baked magic system. It’s very much a bridge game for the long-running franchise.

And yet! It’s as salvageable in remake form as Ys III: Wanderers from Ys was, when Falcom brought that into the present day in the form of The Oath in Felghana. The original Ys III was arguably the weakest of the original bunch to appear on 16-bit consoles, and yet, in its remade form, it’s up there with the very best games in the franchise. If we trust Falcom to pull that kind of trick off again, then we should very much be pulling for the only mainline Ys title to not leave Japan yet to finally do so.


The Legend of Xanadu

One more Falcom before switching gears. Well, two. The Legend of Xanadu—and The Legend of Xanadu II—were released for the PC Engine CD. The first is the eighth and final game in the Dragon Slayer franchise, as it was the last one that Yoshio Kiya worked on before leaving the company. While Falcom was traditionally a developer for Japanese PCs that would let publishers like Hudson or Sega license the titles out for their systems, with these two titles, they built them from the ground up for the PC Engine CD. And there they stayed: even when ported a couple of console generations later, and then later still released on the Wii Virtual Console, all of that action stayed in Japan. 

While there was an unofficial translation of the two action RPGs in the works for some time—even going so far as having voice lines recorded for a dub, with mention of such efforts showing up in mainstream gaming blogs—there hasn’t been an update on those projects in years. So, it’s back to official channels for that sort of thing, even if Falcom can’t seem to stop focusing nearly exclusively on Ys and Trails as of late. 


Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War and Fire Emblem: Thracia 776

Numbers two and four, respectively, on the inarguably correct ranking of the best mainline Fire Emblem games. Genealogy of the Holy War has been rumored to be the focus of a remake for a couple of years now, as well it should, considering it was the best Fire Emblem game for literal decades, and was also next in line for a remake with the first three already completed for the Nintendo DS and 3DS. It’s tremendous, the source of many of the series’ mainstays like support conversations and romance and the weapon triangle, and it’s also laid out in such a way that its large-scale engagements feel the most like actual war and combat of any of the FE titles. It could use some quality of life changes to spruce it up for the present, but now that there are two different Fire Emblem games (Heroes and Engage) in North America that feature protagonists Sigurd and Seliph in some way, there is little excuse to not just make those changes and give us the real thing.

Thracia 776 is far more claustrophobic than the game it’s an interquel to, taking place largely indoors and on small-scale maps, and it’s the most difficult of all Fire Emblem games: not because of some weird quirk that unbalanced things, but by design. It’s a game where sometimes you have to decide if you want to “capture” an enemy to take their belongings, lowering all of the character doing the capturing’s stats in the process and leaving them susceptible to a quick death, or risk your life in an arena that could also kill a character, in the middle of a stage you’re probably trying not to get killed by the non-optional forces in. You’re an underfunded and undersupplied rebel force: you have to make a choice between the two awful solutions. There is a fatigue system that can make characters unavailable when you really need them if you overuse them beforehand. Even using save states, you will end up sacrificing characters to achieve your larger goals. It’s all so dire and desperate and those feelings seep out of every bit of the game: it rocks.


Soma Bringer

With both Baiten Kaitos and its sequel/prequel Origins releasing on the Switch in 2023, Nintendo has amassed most of the Monolith Soft library that they have the rights to on their present-day system. Soma Bringer, though, was a DS action RPG with a bunch of top-down dungeon crawling and multiplayer components, and it remains both on that system and in the country it is exclusively released in. It’s not difficult to find critics who believe it feels more like a Secret of Mana sequel than the actual sequels to that game, and the game’s soundtrack was composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, who had worked with key Monolith developers on games like Xenosaga and Xenogears, as well as Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and team efforts like Bomberman 64: The Second Attack. 

Soma Bringer does have an unofficial translation out there if you’re impatient, but seriously, how is this not already available worldwide, given Monolith’s significant success as a Nintendo studio?


Xak

No offense intended, but if there can be two Valis collections available for modern consoles, I don’t know why the effort can’t be put in to bring these Ys-likes that released on Japanese PCs and the PC Engine to North America, too. Micro Cabin’s flagship series is hard to find, since none of the games ever left Japan during the developer’s heyday—the original eventually ended up with an official English translation through a Dutch-based, now-defunct site. But there are a bunch of them, and they deserve a second shot. Leaving aside Ys for a moment, Hydlide received international releases, and Fairune is a modern nod to those games that’s seen wide distribution, so why not bring the Xak series along for this throwback ride, too?


Princess Crown

George Kamitani of Vanillaware fame was the designer and director of Sega Saturn action RPG, Princess Crown. And you can tell just by looking, too, due to the exquisite animation and the highly detailed sprites that took the full power of the Saturn and put it to good use. 

It’s definitely missing some of the refinement that occurred in Odin Sphere (as well as Muramasa, and Dragon’s Crown, which is very much the spiritual successor to this pre-Vanillaware title) in its battle system and controls, but you could deal with that easily enough if you only knew exactly how the game worked. Which… well, it’s hard to be in that space, since it never received an official localization, and unofficial translations remain a decade-spanning work in progress at this point. 

Neither Vanillaware nor Atlus (the original developer, which Kamitani worked for at the time) have forgotten the game exists: it was included as a bonus with the Japanese release of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, and before that, saw a Japan-only Playstation Portable release, as well. Sega was the first publisher, and since Atlus is their subsidiary now, there aren’t any legal loopholes or negotiations required for a North American release. Maybe we’ll have to wait until after the GrimGrimoire remaster and for Muramasa: The Demon Blade to finally show up somewhere in HD first. Oh, and for Grand Knights’ History to leave Japan and the PSP, too. 


Bomberman Wars 

Bomberman used to genre hop all over the place, with 2D and 3D platformers, racing games, and even a top-down, Link’s Awakening-style adventure on the Game Boy Color. And then there was Bomberman Wars, a tactical Bomberman RPG. There’s an unofficial translation of the Playstation version out there, but here’s the thing: people who are not my level of nerd about this sort of thing should both know (1) Bomberman War exists and (2) have a chance to choose to spend their money on it. Hey, if the Rabbids can have a tactical game succeed enough to have a sequel, then Bomberman should get a second shot, too. 

Standing in the way of this ever happening is Konami, which has very much secluded Bomberman to the traditional maze/arena multiplayer-style game since absorbing Hudson Soft, but we can dream. After all, we already live in a world in which a Bomberman tactical RPG was created and released, so magical things can happen.


Emerald Dragon

The various Japanese computer editions of Emerald Dragon are a bit messy for a number of reasons, and the Super Famicom iteration that’s been translated unofficially is enjoyable but not the definitive edition. The PC Engine CD version is, however, and it’s the one that should get re-released in the present. Emerald Dragon is considered the best game that developer Glodia—a studio founded by former Telenet employees—made in its near-decade in the industry, as well as one of the PC Engine’s finest RPGs. Considering the exclusive Falcom titles and Hudson’s own RPGs and much more beyond that, this is no small compliment. Its focus on story and characters helped it to stand out at the time, even when it had issues with its combat and dungeons before its redesign for the PC Engine CD, and it’s very much a title that should have been given a chance overseas, too, considering the success some of its similarly ambitious peers had outside of Japan.


Bahamut Lagoon

There are parts of Square’s 1996 gem Bahamut Lagoon that are incredibly frustrating, from mechanics to some characters to pacing, but none of that matters all that much because the game as a whole is killer. It’s a narratively driven strategy RPG that combines turn-based traditional RPG combat with tactical movement, so you end up in a situation where, when engaging an enemy foe on the map, it brings you to a side-view bout between opposing parties. That alone would be something, just like it is in Ogre Battle 64, but you also pair up these characters on the map with a dragon that you raise and develop over the course of the game. The dragons are AI controlled, but you can direct them in a general sense through your movements and a menu to behave in certain ways: raising them right, so that they’re effective killing/healing machines which can back up your controllable forces, is the key to it all.

The combat does take forever, but it’s also excellent: it could stand some modern quality of life speed-up mechanics, but the core game here is just wonderful. It’s beautiful to look at in the way that Square’s late-life Super Famicom offerings were, with some massive sprites loaded with detail that make it seem impossible that Bahamut Lagoon came out on the same hardware as Final Fantasy II (IV). And the music stands out, too: it was composed by Noriko Matsueda, in her first solo effort after working on larger composing teams for Chrono Trigger and Front Mission. North America really missed out in everyone’s rush to forget about the SNES and move on to the 32- and 64-bit era.


Treasure of the Rudras

Speaking of late life Super Famicom titles, there’s also Rudra no Hihou, or, Treasure of the Rudras to consider. This was Square’s final Super Famicom release, and it looks and sounds the part: everything the company had learned about making a game sing shows up here in its graphics and sound. You know how people will say the best part of Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest is its music, and they don’t even usually mean it in a backhanded compliment kind of way? Ryuji Sasai composed that, as well as Treasure of the Rudras. (And, coincidentally for our purposes, composed music for Xak games as well.) The character designer was Keita Amemiya, who has had a lengthy career in television (GARO, Kamen Rider), movies (Zeiram, Kamen Rider again), and video games designing creatures and characters: Amemiya has worked on Hagane: The Final Conflict, Clock Tower 3, two of the Onimusha games, Shin Megami Tensei IV, and designed the characters for Enix’s visually stunning Saturn title, Nanatsu Kaze no Shima Monogatari

In Treasure of the Rudras, you have more freedom than you’re used to in an RPG for casting magic, as you create spells to use through a series of combined magical katakana characters: if you’ve played Eternal Darkness for the GameCube, you’ve at least got a basic idea of how you can mix and match various elements to create and discover spells that will then live on in your magical codex. Some of them won’t do anything, some will be highly effective, but the exploration and discovery is part of the… well, magic. It takes work to get used to, but at least there’s an unofficial translation out there by Aeon Genesis so you don’t have to sort it out while it’s in Japanese.

It’s a long shot to ever leave Japan, just like Bahamut Lagoon, but hey, so was Live A Live. And now here we are.


Tengai Makyо̄ Zero

You have to be able to understand Japanese games to get the most out of Tengai Makyо̄ games. The one exception is with Hudson and Red Entertainment’s (Sakura Wars, the Bonk series, Lords of Thunder) Tengai Makyо̄ Zero, the lone Super Famicom entry which received an unofficial translation in 2017. It’s a pretty ambitious title in a few ways, with a real-time calendar system that, depending on the time of day and also year, will open up different parts of the game to you or host different events. It’s also full of some beautiful spritework and graphical effects, both in the overhead map and in battles, due to using a special cartridge chip: the SPC7110. This chip compressed graphics so that there could be far more sprites in Tengai Makyо̄ Zero. Not a single enemy sprite repeats, meaning, there aren’t any palette swap versions of monsters that just happen to be a different color and stronger that you’ll meet later in your quest. Each monster instead has a unique sprite, because Tengai Makyо̄ Zero could fit a ton of them in one cartridge. 

There’s loads of music and text in the game for this reason, too, and character sprites in battle have a ton of detail, looking more like something out of the Genesis and Phantasy Star series in terms of size than what Super Nintendo owners were used to. Not Super Famicom owners, though: as you can tell by the structure of this list, much of the most impressive graphics work on the system came in the mid-’90s and never left Japan.

The chip would have been a nifty addition for the base hardware or cartridge and would have likely extended the popularity of the system somewhat, but like with Argonaut Games’ Super FX chip—which powered games like Star Fox, Stunt Race FX, and DOOM—it ended up used in just a few titles on a console with over 1,400 of the things. Thanks to the presence of the SPC7110 and what Red used it for, though, Tengai Makyо̄ Zero still looks great today, and would remain impressive in a re-release.


And a lightning round:

Lagrange Point: A Konami RPG released for the Famicom in 1991. The cartridge had a special sound chip to improve the music and sound quality, but outside of that, it stands out for being a sci-fi RPG on consoles at a time when, Phantasy Star games aside, that wasn’t the norm.

Cave Noire: Another Konami game that never left Japan, Cave Noire is a Game Boy roguelike that predates the term, focused on short missions of increasing difficulty where your goals shift, your items are randomized, and combat is actually something you want to avoid more often than not. 

Sakura Wars: Sega rebooted the series for the Playstation 4, but most of the original titles never made it out of Japan. There’s an active effort to unofficially translate them over time, but Sega releasing a collection of the many Saturn and Dreamcast efforts they published would be welcome, too. 

Namco x Capcom: The predecessor to Project X Zone, which also includes Sega and Nintendo at this point. Pure, goofy fanservice, but it’s got a Monolith Soft battle system, original Yuzu Koshiro songs, and artwork from Soul Calibur’s Takuji Kawano and Super Robot Wars’ Kazue Saito, among others, too. 

Megami Tensei: There are so many Megami Tensei and Shin Megami Tensei games that are stuck in the ’80s and ’90s of Japan, and that should change.


Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin