Are you a fan of Japanese games but find yourself constantly berated by people who think you should “broaden your horizons” and play games from other parts of the world?
Well, firstly, I can’t emphasise this enough: you play whatever you damn well please with pride and enthusiasm, and sod what anyone else thinks about it.
But secondly, if you really want to give the naysayers a pleasantly satisfying “gotcha” moment, just spend a bit of time with any of these titles, all of which feel distinctly “Japanese” in terms of their aesthetics and mechanical features — but which actually all hail from western developers.
Probably the most well-known title on this list, Freedom Planet’s Japanese inspirations are obvious if you know that before it adopted its cast of original characters, it was a Sonic the Hedgehog fangame. Specifically, it was a game that aimed to give us a taste of what a Sonic game from the 32-bit era might have been like — a question people have been pondering for years thanks to the fact that Sega never really gave us an official answer.
Freedom Planet combines speedy, slick and immensely satisfying 2D platforming with an inspiring, dramatic and emotionally engaging story. It’s a surprisingly dark game in terms of some of the themes and narrative content it explores — and if the sequence leading up to the final boss encounter doesn’t hype you up to extremely unreasonable degrees of excitement, I recommend a bit more caffeine in your diet.
Freedom Planet is the brainchild of Sabrina DiDuro, also known as Strife, who is a developer from New York State in the USA. While initially enthusiastic about her Sonic fangame project, it didn’t take long for her to feel like living in the shadow of an established franchise — and unofficially so, at that — would hold her creation back. So she decided to take a bold step and reinvent the game as a completely original creation, adopting Chinese artist Ziyo’s original characters Sash Lilac, Carol Tea and Milla to play the leading roles.
And if you’ve ever played Freedom Planet, you’ll know that this was a very good decision indeed.
Freedom Planet is available on Steam for PC, as well as Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. Limited Run Games did a physical version for Switch and PS4 a while back, but sadly this is long gone; you’ll have to brave the second-hand market if you want a boxed copy.
Fight’N Rage is the work of one-man Uruguayan development studio Seba Games Dev, with various ports handled by Spanish company BlitWorks and music provided by Uruguayan composer Gonzalo Varela. It’s a side-scrolling beat ’em up that provides a perfect example of the phenomenon known as “modern retro”; it features pixel art that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Japanese system of the past, but combines this with spectacular visual effects, flawlessly slick gameplay and a level of intense action that simply wouldn’t have been possible on classic consoles.
Fight’N Rage unfolds in a world where “the law of the jungle” is dominant; humanity has been subjugated by anthropomorphic animals, led by the lion-esque The Boss. You take on the role of busty warrior Gal, martial arts expert F. Norris or fugitive mutant Ricardo as they attempt to battle their way through to the lair of The Boss and re-establish the natural balance of the world. Yes, in essence it’s a game about beating up (and being beaten up by) furries.
The recent resurgence of the beat ’em up genre — a type of game traditionally best handled by Japanese devs — has been a delight to see, and Fight’N Rage, like other games of its type, is a solid example of a brawler that has been properly designed to be played at home rather than to extract as many coins out of you as possible. It’s fair but challenging, it offers plenty of rewards to unlock that will keep you playing over the long term — including alternative game modes and playable characters — and there’s a strong emphasis on replay value, whether it’s for high scores or the best speedrun times.
Plus it has some of the most magnificent pixel-art titties you’ll ever see on your screen.
Fight’N Rage is available via Steam for PC, plus Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. Again, Limited Run Games did a physical version of this for PS4 and Switch a while back, but you’ll have to brave the second-hand market to nab one of these now.
The duo of Spanish coder Daniel Fernandez Chavez (better known as “Diabolical Mind”) and French developer Fabrice Breton of Cowcat Games has put out several excellent games to date, with Demon’s Tier+ being one of their best.
Each of Diabolical Mind’s games draws heavy influences from Japanese titles — particularly platformers and shoot ’em ups — and wraps the whole experience in a thoroughly pleasant 16-bit-style aesthetic. Demon’s Tier+ not only looks the part with its deliberately low-resolution anime-inspired pixel art characters, it sounds it, too — thanks to some excellent instrumentation choices for the background music, it sounds like a Squaresoft SNES game from 1992.
In terms of gameplay, Demon’s Tier+ is sees you exploring randomly generated top-down dungeons and defeating enemies using twin-stick shooter mechanics. There’s a heavy emphasis on risk versus reward, as you’re only able to carry out the currency you need to unlock new characters and equipment if you either use an “escape rope” item, or complete the “tier” of the dungeon that you’re on. Pushing just a little further will net you some greater rewards — but will you be able to survive the challenges ahead?
Demon’s Tier+ is available for Steam via PC, plus Nintendo Switch, PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4, though the web links for the latter appear to have vanished at the time of writing. Limited Run Games… you know the drill by now, but only on PS4. Play-Asia and eastasiasoft also did a limited release of the Vita version a while back.
Most of the titles we’ve seen so far have paid homage to the 16- and 32-bit eras of classic Japanese gaming, but Petal Crash, developed by the Portland, Oregon-based Tim Ashley Jenkins and published by Freedom Planet creators Galaxy Trail, was part of a brief trend for modern indie games to adopt a Game Boy Colour/Neo Geo Pocket Colour-inspired aesthetic. If you like big, chunky pixels, a deliberately limited colour palette and distinctive-sounding chiptunes, you’ll be in heaven here.
Petal Crash pays particular homage to ’90s Japanese mascot puzzlers like Bust-A-Move, Magical Drop, Puchi Carat and Money Puzzle Exchanger. The varied cast of characters all have strong personalities, and each has their own story to work through in the game’s main mode. This helps give the game a really strong sense of character as you play, which is nice, since the mechanical side of things is completely abstract.
In Petal Crash, you view a playfield from a top-down perspective and are tasked with sliding coloured blocks around so that like-coloured blocks “Crash” into one another and clear space. As with most ’90s puzzle games, there’s a strong emphasis on setting things up so that you can create massive chain reactions, and a dedicated “Puzzle” mode challenges you to clear boards using these chain reaction mechanics using a limited set of moves available to you. Besides this, there’s the aforementioned story mode along with “Time Trial” and “Turn Trial” modes to enjoy
Rigid Force Redux
Shmup fans will have doubtless noticed that R-Type Final 2, the latest installment in an all-time classic Japanese shoot ’em up series, is out now — but if your budget can’t quite stretch to the full-price version of this new blaster, a somewhat more wallet-friendly option that you might want to explore is Rigid Force Redux, a loving homage to the R-Type series put together by German developer com8com1 Software.
Rigid Force Redux, as its name suggests, is actually a revamped version of an earlier game — specifically, a 2018 PC release called Rigid Force Alpha. Under the guidance of your cool, calm and collected AI assistant PSYE, you’ll blast off into combat in order to fend off the enemies of the CORE project that made your powerful spacecraft a reality. Along the way, you’ll collect coloured power-ups to customise your weaponry, plus Force Fragments to supplement your firepower in a variety of different formations.
Like R-Type, Rigid Force Redux places as much of an emphasis on negotiating perilous environments as it does fending off swarms of enemies; the more challenging stages will task you with flying through claustrophobic corridors while simultaneously blasting enemies approaching from both sides of the screen. And then, of course, there are screen-filling bosses along the way for you to contend with. It wouldn’t be an R-Type homage without them.
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