1. Genji: Dawn of the Samurai and Days of the Blade
If you’re familiar with Japanese history, you know that the power struggle between the Genji and Heike clans directly inspired numerous manga, anime, and video games.
Genji: Dawn of the Samurai and Genji: Days of the Blade bring this epic historic conflict to life by putting you into the greaves of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the most beloved hero of the saga. In these two PlayStation 2 classics, you journey from being a teenage political prisoner on the outskirts of Kyoto to Japan’s most celebrated samurai and general.
Various other famous Japanese historical heroes appear in the games, too, such as Benkei – i.e., Yoshitsune’s giant warrior monk retainer. Shizuka Gozen, Yoshitsune’s dancer consort, is a key character as well.
Story and characters are, however, not all there is to these two retro PlayStation games when it comes to experiencing Japan from your sofa. During their run, both were highly commended for superior graphics and artistic design. In short, these two Genji games will make you fall deeply in love with Japan’s age of honor and chivalry. You might even be encouraged to read up on the entire history of the Genji/Heike conflict after playing.
2. Yakuza 1–5
Personally, I am totally convinced that no other video game series delivers such a quintessential slice of modern Japan as the Yakuza series does. That is, the shadier side of modern Japan.
Through the life and struggles of gangland legend Kiryu Kazuma, you get to visit all of Japan’s most famous/notorious nightlife districts. You also get to try utterly Japanese adult experiences, such as hostess clubs chatting and video-chat flirting.
Other features of the Yakuza games are delightfully Japanese too. Be it the karaoke challenges, or the baseball mini-games, or the struggles of everyday Japanese people told through side-quests.
Of note, the Yakuza series is doubly renowned in the world of retro PlayStation games for product placements. This commercialization might feel like a turn-off but believe me, nothing enhances realism more than knowing the shops and restaurants you see in the games actually exist in real life.
At the right moments, you will completely feel as if you are indeed standing on Japanese soil.
3. Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army and Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon
Atlus’ Raidou Kuzunoha games feature a Japanese setting that has yet to capture international attention, that of the Taisho Roman period.
Named after the brief reign of Japan’s second modern emperor, this was the period of Japanese history when westernization was embraced with a passion. The signature Taisho Roman “look” is itself a curious but harmonious blend of European and classical Japanese architectural influences, and both Raidou Kuzunoha titles showcase this unique style in earnest throughout all chapters.
Even the suspenseful plots are also distinctively Taisho Roman. Edogawa Rampo, the father of Japanese Tantei (detective) stories, achieved his first literary success during this period. Both games pay tribute to him and his era by basing protagonist Raidou in a one-man detective agency.
In short, if you’re looking to experience a historical period of Japan that has yet to be discovered by tourist hordes, these two retro PlayStation games should be the first titles to consider.
Being Shin Megami Tensei spin-offs, you can also be assured of strong storytelling and truly unforgettable characterizations. There is also, of course, a slew of mythological enemies. From quirky Japanese Yokai to powerful Nordic gods, to forgotten Mesopotamian ancient gods.
4. Persona 3 and 4
Persona 3 and Persona 4 allow you to experience Japan in a different way. Rather than graphics or famous buildings, or historical references, you get a slice of Japanese life by playing as a high-school student. The overall mission is to survive one academic calendar year.
One very intense, and dangerous school year.
This might sound dreary to some players, but that’s where the fantasy elements of these two retro PlayStation 2 games step in to provide excitement. Other than class excursions, summer holidays, teenage drama, and cultural festivals, you also get to battle endless mythology-inspired enemies. As well as work on deepening friendships, Anime style.
The summary of it, if you enjoy watching comedic high school Anime, you will definitely love Persona 3 and 4. For other gamers, these two classic PS 2 titles are unparalleled examinations of what are possibly the most defining years of a typical Japanese person. In other words, it’s a golden insight into the modern Japanese psyche.
5. Onimusha Series
When it comes to playing retro PlayStation games to experience Japan, Capcom’s Onimusha series is likely among the first franchises gamers would think of. With bold re-imaginations of Japan’s most famous Sengoku period warlords, all that one would associate with historical Japan are in these titles. Soaring Tenshu keeps, exotic gardens, mythical temples, they are all here.
What’s more, the third game in the series, Demon Siege, provides gameplay in modern-day Paris too. This makes the episode a 2-in-1, perfect for those unable to decide between Europe and Japan for a holiday, and unable to time travel.
Needless to say, this contrast between East and West further accentuates the exoticism of historical Japan. It is not an exaggeration to say that if you are willing to give Demon Siege a try, it will remain one of your most unique gaming experiences for a long, long time. One of the retro games you’d most often replay too.
© 2017 Ced Yong