These 10 niche games on Steam are "so Japanese" must-plays

Japanese games on Steam are plentiful, strange, and "so Japanese"--here's 10 charming niche titles that you don't want to miss.

There are dozens of Japanese games on Steam nowadays, and some of them are just plain weird -- like the infamous bird-dating simulator, Hatoful Boyfriend.

However, despite being a bit strange, there are still fans who find something "endearing" about this feathered dating experience.

"Why", you ask? This is what a "niche Japanese game" is about: every person has that charming title that's "so Japanese" that they like a lot, yet can't quite explain why. It might not appeal to everyone, but to the player they fill a "certain something" that makes them so memorable and absolutely worth a try -- perhaps not for being good or bad, but for doing something different.

So without further ado, here are 10 of my favorite niche Japanese titles on Steam (in no particular order).

1. Astebreed

2.5D multi-plane scrolling bullet hell shmup

Ah, Astebreed -- just the title of this game alone can be an eyebrow raiser and a pronunciation challenge, but don't let that keep you away.

Astebreed is a fantastic shmup (AKA "shoot 'em up") title where you play as a cast of characters in mechas (er, giant robot suits) fighting off enemy waves. With amazing audiovisual and a constantly changing perspective, this game keeps you constantly on your toes, itching for the next sequence.

In addition, the "so Japanese" feeling from this piece comes from the bullet hell sequences where so many different projectiles are floating on the screen, much like the Touhou game series. While overwhelming at times, it's an exhilarating experience as you dash and shoot your way to a level's completion.

Here's a short demo of the first chapter to let the game speak for itself:

2. Killer is Dead - Nightmare Edition

Stylish third-person character action

From the creator of the No More Heroes series Suda51 comes another character action title by the name of Killer is Dead (the Steam version called Killer is Dead - Nightmare Edition). In Killer is Dead, you play as slick ladies' man Mondo Zappa, a suited gentleman wielding his "Gekkou" katana for hire.

Here's some gameplay from YouTuber deluxe345 as Mondo investigates a strangely built house:

As you can see, the title also has a distinct cel-shading style much like another one of Suda51's titles, Killer7. The game even messes with the black levels, to the point where "pitch-black" environments appear to be a very dark blue.

Look carefully at the top left of this screenshot to see what I mean--and I promise it's not your screen melting.

So what makes this title "so Japanese"? Its incredibly bizarre story-line that never seems to make complete sense -- but that's what makes it more intriguing. For example, a unicorn shows up at some point (yes, a unicorn), and this is what it says:

I don't know about you, but it's not every day a hitman in a tuxedo has a tragic backstory with a talking unicorn in it. The image of plain-faced Mondo riding on the whinnying equine is additional icing on the cake.

I can't help but laugh at how ridiculous it is, and this is what makes Killer is Dead such a memorable experience -- a weird story and fun gameplay.

3. Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

Third-person shooter and mecha combat title

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition takes place on a frozen planet by the name of E.D.N. III, where amnesiac protagonist Wayne struggles to remember his past. Armed with the knowledge of handling a Vital Suit (abbreviated as "VS", which are the mechas of this game), he proceeds to travel with a small crew of "snow pirates" in hopes of finding his memories.

Moreover, the small crew travels around the harsh winter landscape searching for large quantities of Akrid (the creatures and inhabitants of E.D.N. III) to harvest thermal energy to survive, and it's usually up to Wayne to slay the big bad encounters.

Here's a short clip from the Colonies Edition of the game (also available on Steam) of the first mission:

Along with fighting Akrid, Wayne also encounters enemy pirates and other VS handlers, so the gameplay goes back and forth between a standard third person shooter and a mecha fighter. Furthermore, there's a lot of handy customization from being able to attach/detach weapons from the mechas, so if you want to heft a giant VS shotgun to kill Akrid on foot, it's entirely possible.

Giant Akrid "Undeep"
"Hello fellow traveler! How nice to eat -- I mean greet you!"

Like Astebreed, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition has that "on your toes" feeling where you're constantly moving forward and enemies spawn, kind of like a Japanese arcade game. However, unlike Astebreed, LP: EC at times has quiet moments.

For example, in one gameplay sequence it's quiet except for the crunch-crunching sounds of your feet on the snow, and then suddenly the ground trembles and a giant snow worm ambushes you.

Do give this game a shot if you enjoy mecha-based combat and diverse boss fights, though I would not recommend LP:EC for the story or for the harder difficulty levels, as they can get quite confusing or unfair.

4. Tembo the Badass Elephant

2.5D level-based side-scrolling platformer

Did you know developer Game Freak makes games other than the Pokemon series nowadays? It's true!

Tembo the Badass Elephant is their recent 2.5D platforming title that has a lot of comical charm. A brave and stalwart soldier, Tembo charges into battle, rescuing civilians and steamrolling enemies.

The gameplay feels similar to old Sonic titles, but in a puzzle setting (well, if Sonic was a heavy rampaging elephant). Like Sonic, Tembo can spin and bash himself at enemies, but he also has his own mechanic of spraying water to stop fires and raise platforming plants:

So why is this a niche title? Unfortunately to many, Tembo the Badass Elephant is known as "that not-Pokemon game" done by Game Freak.

Even a Tembo the Badass Elephant article by CallSignDiver on here GameSkinny wrote this for their introduction:

When I first saw the Game Freak logo in the launch trailer, I have to admit, my eyes lit up. I didn't even know Game Freak made anything outside of the Pokémon series. I had to check their Wikipedia page. Sure enough, with the exception of a few obscure one-offs in the early nineties, the list goes: Pokémon,  Pokémon,  Pokémon,  Pokémon, Pokémon, TEMBO THE BADASS ELEPHANT...What the hell is TEMBO THE BADASS ELEPHANT?

Nevertheless, Tembo the Badass Elephant is an enjoyable platformer that differs from Game Freak's standard Pokemon style, and I recommend it to anyone who loves a side-scrolling adventure.

5. Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut

Bizarre third-person open-world survival horror

"Did you see that, Zach?!

Clear as a crisp spring morning! F.K...In the coffee!"

~Agent York

In Deadly Premonition, you play as FBI agent Francis York Morgan investigating in the fictional location of Greenvale, Washington. The town has a mysterious murder of an 18 yr. old woman, and it's up to York to solve it.

This game is categorized as "open world survival horror", but it goes beyond the standard "wandering around solving puzzles and smashing ghoulies" fare. Directed by the talented Swery65, this title has the additional "so Japanese" charm on full tilt.

In particular, York and other members of the cast have little quirks -- traits which make them weird and interesting. For example, York constantly talks to his "imaginary friend" Zach, even when others are around. He also drives around in a police car starting long anecdotes about movies and DVDs to Zach:

"Who is Zach? Are we (the players) Zach?"

And who can forget the cheerful whistling tune prevalent in the game. It makes certain sequences seem almost everyday and normal, in their own eccentric ways. Here's a small scene where York encounters Mr. Stewart, a handicapped old man with an interesting way of speaking:

In terms of gameplay, Deadly Premonition runs on a timed schedule, where certain places (such as a store) only opens at certain intervals, so there's a need to speed up the day to complete key events. How does York fast-forward time you ask? Via a cigarette and his own little mind-world of home furnishings and red leafed vistas, of course:

Yes Metal Gear Solid V fans, Big Boss is surprisingly not the first to implement this mechanic.

...including a charming can of "the pickles" in his diet.

While there are combat moments against various zombie-like enemies, most of the time York is driving around town, asking questions and collecting items for the people of Greenvale. He also consumes a variety of items to recover, including a charming can of "the pickles" in his diet.

To sum it up: Deadly Premonition visually won't win any awards, but the gameplay mechanics and cast of characters has its own unique style that's hard to find outside of a Swery65 title.

6. Jet Set Radio

Third-person sporty trick-based platformer

Jet Set Radio (known in Japan as Jet Grind Radio) is a fantastic rollerblading and spray painting adventure, originally found on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. Since then, the game underwent an HD facelift and is now available on various platforms, including PC via Steam.

With a distinct audiovisual style, Jet Set Radio takes place in a fictional city of Tokyo-to (known to in-game characters as "Tokyo" for short). With protagonist Beat, players skate around Tokyo, performing tricks and tagging walls with their signature of choice while evading the authorities and rival gang members. The music as loud and expressive as its cel-shaded art style, and will likely leave its graffiti'd mark on your mind after a short moment of play.

Here's the debut trailer for Jet Set Radio:

7. VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

Story-focused pixeled bartender simulator

VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action's title speaks for itself -- set in a post-dystopia world, you play the day-to-day as a bartender named Jill, mixing drinks and chatting with the various customers in beautiful pixel format.

For example, here's a screenshot of the player mixing a requested drink:

The characters at the bar are all have their own motivations and roles, ranging from cat-eared ladies to robotic helmet men, each with their own life stories and dialogue to discover:

Other than working and paying the rent, Jill can use her profits to shop for some fun customization of her room, ranging from action figures to even some fresh wall decor. She can also spend time drinking and chatting with her pals, giving the game a very immersive charm.

For more details, here's the trailer for VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action:

If you enjoy simulator games with a shot of personality and story (no pun intended), I suggest giving VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action a try.

8. Stardust Vanguards

Multiplayer local free-for-all in a mecha anime theme

You thought this would be entirely about single-player games huh? Well surprise -- here's a local multiplayer title where you can fight it out against your friends and the game AI to see who reigns supreme!

Titled Stardust Vanguards, this niche Japanese title is a pixeled dueling free-for-all. Up to four players can each choose a colored mecha to shoot, dash, and even summon minions in the skirmish based on a gradually increasing meter.

At certain points in the match, the AI will send out waves of its own enemies against the player mechas. Thus, players can choose to either form temporary alliances to slay this universal foe, or continue smashing each other to bits with the threat of the AI team winning.

Here's the trailer for Stardust Vanguards for a quick look at the gameplay style:

9. Corpse Party

Anime-styled third-person overhead survival horror

Deadly Premonition doesn't quite have the spookiness that horror aficionados desire, but perhaps Corpse Party will satisfy that need.

Corpse Party is a game about a group of high school kids doing a chant on a rainy night, causing them to be taken into an alternate dimension where unsettling child ghosts roam the halls.

Here's a small clip of Corpse Party's gameplay and story:

"butter up my pooper" scene:

As you can tell, the game's characters have a typical "anime style", but don't let this fool you.

The game's western release has a surprising amount of goofy localized dialogue that makes it a stress relief while retaining its creepy charm.

For example, one of the most well-known moments from Corpse Party is the "butter up my pooper" scene, where Seiko needs some ointment for her bottom that's been "drier than a desert".

(Don't believe me? I included screenshots of the scene on the right for your own visual entertainment.)

I recommend Corpse Party on Steam if you want a pixeled horror game that has anime elements and an unsettling story about brutally murdered elementary school kids.

Otherwise, carry on to the final title of the niche Japanese list!

10. D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die

Eccentric third-person whodunit with rhythm elements

The last but not least title on this list is also by SWERY65, a game by the name of D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die, commonly known as D4.

D4 is another investigative game starring protagonist David Young in his quest to find his lover's murderer, but with a different perspective.

Unlike the open-world Deadly Premonition, D4 is an episodic (almost like a point and click) title. To inspect an object, the player hovers their hand-like cursor over parts of the screen, and in return a series of small descriptions appear on the object. Players can also use this curse to "grab" or "push" things to earn collectible points, or to discover new clues.

So what makes D4 "so Japanese" and niche? Well, if you found Deadly Premonition's cast to be slightly strange, then D4's characters are something straight out of an abstract art gallery.

"Traveling fashion designers"

For example, by now you're probably wondering who the peculiar green-haired characters are at the top of the article -- I won't give away too much because of spoilers (and you really should see their characters yourself for maximum entertainment), but let's just say they are both "traveling fashion designers".

Also, other than investigating with the hand cursor, D4 has various QTE sequences that function just like a Japanese rhythm game. In particular, there's a "Synchro Rate" mechanic where a player has to act in character of what David would do (as both a detective and as himself) in a given situation.

Here's an example demonstrating both the wacky cast and one of the rhythm game moments:

I recommend this for any person looking for a unique episodic title to add to their library. Like Deadly Premonition but more streamlined, D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die has a unique take on investigative gameplay in an amusing light.

And that's it for my list of 10 niche Japanese games -- I hope you found at least one new title to enjoy as you peruse Steam's enormous library of PC titles. Oh, and speaking of which, do you have any niche Japanese titles that you love on Steam? Do leave a comment below!

[Images retrieved from Giant Bomb, KnowYourMeme, and Steam]

Published Jul. 12th 2016
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