Over the decades, Japanese developers have churned out a mind-boggling number of video games. Some are good, and some are bad. These are the 31 most important ones. Deciding which ones are the most important is tricky and subjective. I’ve tried to include games that have influenced Japanese gaming, worldwide gaming, or both.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona
No doubt I’ve left some off this list, but perhaps they would show up in the top fifty or top one hundred. Feel free to add any in the comments below with explanations why they matter. I’m all ears.
Space Invaders (1978)
Space Invaders defined Japanese gaming for a generation. The game helped kick up a tide of space-based shooters, and it was so popular when it was released in 1978 that arcades dedicated solely to the game, named “Invader House” in Japanese, appeared all over the country. With its thumping score, Space Invaders was one of the first games to realise the potential of music. No wonder The Pretenders released a track called “Space Invader”.
Pac-Man‘s impact has been enormous. Pac-Man is gaming’s first superstar character, appealing to a wide variety of players. Even today, the basic game design is timeless, with players trying to avoid enemies until they got a power-up. The design and concepts in Pac-Man have influenced countless games throughout the decades.
Donkey Kong (1981)
There are a slew of reasons why this game is important. It told a story, albeit a simple one, in an age when most arcade games did not. It was a massive hit for Nintendo when the company needed one most and then gave Nintendo a huge foothold in the US It also introduced players to Jumpman, who would later be renamed Mario. Oh, and it was created by some dude named Shigeru Miyamoto.
Super Mario Bros. (1985)
Not only one of the most important video games ever produced, but also one of the most important creative works made in the last forty years.
Dragon Quest (1986)
Internationally, Dragon Quest hasn’t quite reached the level of Final Fantasy‘s popularity. In its native Japan, Dragon Quest is a cultural institution. The Dragon Quest games have influenced generations of Japanese gamers and game creators.
The success of the very first title helped a young game designer at another game company get the greenlight for the RPG he had always wanted to make. The developer’s name was Hironobu Sakaguchi, and the game was Final Fantasy.
Final Fantasy (1987)
The lore behind Final Fantasy‘s conception and development is one of gaming’s great yarns. With their back against the wall, Square thought this game was going to bankrupt them, hence the word “Final” in the title. (Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi said the original title was “Fighting Fantasy” and any word that started with “F” would have been A-OK.) But can you imagine if this game was never made? Can you imagine Japanese gaming without Final Fantasy?
Mega Man (1987)
Mega Man is one of the most well-known video game characters ever to come out of Capcom. With big, memorable bosses and wonderful soundtracks, Mega Man left its own lasting mark on the platforming genre. Just look how many people backed Mighty No. 9 in the hope it would fulfil its promise as the character’s spiritual successor.
Baseball Stars (1989)
Sorry Bases Loaded, but Baseball Stars is the best baseball game on the Famicom (NES). It was fun to play, but more importantly, it had several features that would influence future sports games and become standard. Via the game’s manager feature, you could create teams as well as players.
Not only was it possible to improve their abilities by using in-game cash earned after wins, but you could fire them if they didn’t perform and draft new ones. You could play a 125-game season, which would be saved by battery backup, and the game would track stats for all the players in the league.
Street Fighter II (1991)
There were fighting games before Street Fighter II, but no fighting game was the same after it. If you were in arcades in the early 1990s, you couldn’t miss it. Besides influencing the genre, the game was so popular that Nintendo actually designed the SNES controller around it.
Sonic The Hedgehog (1991)
Going up against Mario is no easy feat. But that first Sonic game, with those wonderful blues and greens, terrific platforming, and blazing speed did a wonderful job of challenging Mario. In many ways, Sonic, with all his ‘tude, was the anti-Mario. The perfect foil for an era in which Sega did what Nintendon’t.
Super Mario Kart (1992)
You gotta love Nintendo. As with fighting games, they didn’t just make a racing game, but created their own racing sub-genre. There is an argument to be made that Mario Kart, which has sold over 90 million copies, joins World of Warcraft as one of the most successful spin-offs ever.
Super Metroid (1994)
When originally released in 1994, Super Metroid was a flop in Japan. Customers didn’t seem to realise how much of Super Metroid works brilliantly. The visual flair makes it wonderful to look at, the sound design sets the mood, and cinematic techniques move the story along.
There’s a wonderful flexibility to Super Metroid that you see in modern games that let players enjoy the experience however they see fit. If you want to explore, you can do that. If you want to race through it, you can do that, too. For the time, Super Metroid gave the player tremendous freedom in how he or she played.
Chrono Trigger (1995)
A ground-breaking game that featured elements that are now seen as standard, from multiple endings to eschewing random encounters. Add an evocative score, an impressive team of developers, an enjoyable story and you end up with one of the best JPRGs to ever come out of Japan.
Pokémon Red and Green (1996)
Harvest Moon (1996)
Now known as Story of Seasons, the game debuted on the SNES in Japan in 1996. You grow crops, make money, take care of animals, get married, and deal with variables like hurricanes. Today, there are a plethora of free-to-play games like this, but Harvest Moon did it decades ago and minus the micro-transactions.
Super Mario 64 (1996)
Nintendo took the rule book it wrote with Super Mario Bros. and chucked it out the window for Super Mario 64. It’s a platformer, but in 3D. You can go wherever you want. Instead of moving down a set, 2D path, the game offers unparalleled freedom.
Resident Evil (1996)
Resident Evil introduced gamers to survival horror, a sub-genre in which players are under-powered and where surviving, not killing, is the primary objective. The game wasn’t developed in a vacuum — it owes a great deal to Capcom’s 1989 NES title Sweet Home and Infogrames’ Alone in the Dark. Resident Evil went on to solidify survival horror and led to sequels, spin-offs and a successful Hollywood film franchise.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out when games were starting to move to 3D. However, Symphony of the Night showed how the spacial limitations of 2D actually open up exploration. The result is not only one of the best games to hit the PlayStation 1, but one of the best games ever.
The game and the series it launched, Bemani, became the blueprint for so many music games that followed.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
AKA, how character designer Tetsuya Nomura came to define the Final Fantasy house style. Final Fantasy VII is a great game. Sure, fans will debate that there are better entries, but, as foreshadowed with FFVI, what makes FFVII so important is how it brought a generation of gamers to the PlayStation and it changed the way Final Fantasy games looked. Hair styles and belts would never be the same.
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
At times, it was like watching a film; at other times, it reveled in being a video game. It was silly yet serious, fun and funny, and for its day, a sight to see. Metal Gear Solid popularised stealth, showing a generation of gamers that they didn’t have to kill enemies — they could just sneak on by.
Dance Dance Revolution (1998)
A huge hit when first released in 1998, what made DDR so, well, revolutionary was the way it combined gaming with physical activity. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Konami, which owns a chain of health clubs in Japan, created this title. Finding success on both sides of the Pacific, DDR would even lay the groundwork for future titles like Wii Sports.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
A big, 3D world made this game a stunning technical achievement. Ocarina of Time was so big for its day that when it was released, it came in at a whopping 32-megabytes, complete with cutscenes that were generated in real time. The game, with its lock-on camera and context clues, made what could’ve have been incredibly difficult — bringing a 2D game into a 3D world — seem effortless and intuitive.
Phantasy Star Online (2000)
Few games have been as far ahead of their time as this one. Former Sega honcho Isao Okawa thought online gaming was the future for consoles. Speeds were slow, and the internet infrastructure wasn’t quite there, especially in Japan. But when Phantasy Star Online hit the Dreamcast, it wasn’t only bringing Sega’s science fantasy RPG series to online gaming, it was also a sign of things to come for consoles.
Fate/stay Night (2004)
Originally an adult PC game, Fate/stay Night made the mainstream jump after a clean version hit the PS2. The game, and the franchise it spawned, hasn’t looked back; it went on to become one of the most successful visual novels ever made. Not only has it spun off anime and manga, but Fate/stay Night showed many Japanese gamers just how engaging interactive storytelling can be.
Resident Evil 4 (2005)
Forget stuff like GameCube exclusivity drama and the mistranslation that Shinji Mikami was going to “cut off his head” — Resident Evil 4 is one of the most influential games released in the 00s. Third-person shooters like Gears of War to Ratchet took RE4‘s “over-the-shoulder” camera view and ran with it. Besides the contribution of this important and now widespread mechanic, the game itself shows Resident Evil in top form.
Brain Age (2005)
In Japan, Brain Age was to the DS what Wii Sports was to the Wii. The game caused such a spike in DS sales that American Nintendo DS units were re-imported back into Japan to meet demand. During the height of Brain Age fever, there were numerous clones released, hoping to cash in on the craze.
Monster Hunter Freedom (2005)
This wasn’t the first Monster Hunter game (that distinction goes to 2004 PS2 title Monster Hunter). However, it is the Monster Hunter game that exploded in popularity, spiking PSP sales and proving itself a system-seller. Part of Monster Hunter‘s appeal is playing with friends, and the PSP was the ideal system for local co-op.
At a time when Western gamers were increasingly playing with friends online, Japanese gamers were meeting up in person to play Monster Hunter. The franchise became so strongly linked to the PSP that the decision to bring it to the 3DS caused controversy among players because of the innate hardware differences, but still went on to be a system seller. In Japan, Monster Hunter also appears to have influenced other titles, most notably GodEater.
Wii Sports (2006)
OK, ok. So, the Wii Remote isn’t that accurate and sometimes you feel like you’re just flailing around. But this was the game that got loads of people who were never interested in video gaming up and playing. It’s also the game that made the Wii a massive hit.
Demon’s Souls (2009)
Coming out the same year that Keiji Inafune said the Japanese game industry was “finished”, Demon’s Souls proved the complete opposite. Just as games were getting easier, Demon’s Souls showed how rewarding difficulty can be. It spawned sequels, spin-offs and the inevitable imitators.
Puzzle & Dragons (2012)
The poster child for smartphone game success, the puzzle-meets-RPG Puzzle & Dragons is so big that it not only spawned numerous clones, but Nintendo even released a Super Mario version on the 3DS. The free-to-play Puzzle & Dragons was the first mobile game to rake in a billion dollars. This game is one huge reason why Japanese gamers have moved from consoles to mobile.