Whacky entertainment waiting to be discovered in the east.
Renowned as the epicentre of pop culture and the acropolis of anime, the land of the Rising Sun never ceases to amaze us with its platter of entertainment and we owe it all to Japan for a wellspring of big names such as Pokemon, Super Mario and Ultraman. To say the least, dating back in the annals of time, the scintillating “Cambrian Explosion” of video games in the 20th century was set in motion by the invention of handheld consoles (like the N64s and SNES), heralded by upstart companies like Capcom, Sega and Nintendo.
While in this age, the Japanese are more than delighted to keep us spellbound with their cutting-edge console release, the mobile gaming sector took the opposite approach. Stemming from a staunch conservative business culture, with Kadokawa and their Kancolle series being textbook examples of how an obstinate “Sakoku” mindset can be detrimental to a game’s growth potential, refusing to push beyond the border even with moderate traction and fanfare from the global community as catalysts. Breaking past that stifling invisible region barrier, you’ll discover a treasure trove of whimsical games, exclusively confined within the shores of the land of the Rising Sun. To level the playing ground, our curated wish list will consist of mostly new faces with a glimmer of hope of making it overseas. So, without further ado, strap in.
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Super Robot Wars DD
As a diehard mecha fan, Super Robot Wars is always a fever dream for many. It’s a crossover of multiple mecha series as robotic entities join hands in vanquishing a common villain – either completely fictional or an existing one from a series. Perhaps, it’s also a definitive way to canonise the interactions between characters from a multitude of mecha franchises, so next time if you have ever wondered what will transpire when a Gundam pilot meets the Mazinger, this series will satiate that curiosity.
With the mainline SRW hosted on console or desktop, unbeknownst to many, there is a mobile spin-off first released in 2019. The caveat is watered-down animations and a more PSP-era user interface to accommodate the limitations of mobile. Nonetheless, it features an impressive gamut of mecha characters from beloved series such as Gundam, Evangelion, GaoGaiGar, GRIDMAM, and many more. Just like its mainline brethren, continuity is absent as each chapter in the overall story arc is self-contained and tinkers with “what-ifs” in an alternate timeline.
The hero collection aspect is enunciated here as you work to expand your roster of individual pilots as well as mecha through the gacha system. Battles happen in a tactical-role-playing fashion much like the Fire Emblem Series, albeit less dexterous. Of course, you can still relish meticulously articulated rag doll-style animations when a character is priming to brandish an ultimate attack.
Dengeki Bunko: Crossing Void comes to mind as one of the few using the concept of crossing over anime like free real estate. It will do wonders to see one such player to spice up diversity, especially with a central focal point on mecha.
Heavens Burn Red
When it comes to visual novel RPG gachas, you can trust Wright Flyer Studios.Inc. makers of Another Eden to deliver a stellar experience. Heavens Burn Red is another addition to its portfolio with Key, the brains behind one of my favourite childhood series, Angel Beats!
The narrative is told through the lens of Kayamori Ruka, an airhead who enjoys musical gigs. While on the surface this might seem like another slice-of-life folly of innocent schoolgirls doing goofy things, deep down, they are prodigious wielders of a mysterious power called “Seraph” that happens to be humanity’s trump card against “Cancer”. The thought process is robust here as evidenced by articulated animations, reflecting their personality, power type and fighting style.
For the most part, the story is a masterclass of literature, filled with nuances and an amazing score to boot that won adulation from Japanese audiences, with most citing the great proficiency in the Japanese language to fully enjoy the game. For that reason alone, that got me riled up as I always fancy a masterfully written visual novel as an escapade.
Uma Musume Pretty Derby
Everyone has probably seen this coming. Third on the list is Uma Musume, the Keiba simulator. With sportsmanship taking precedence over magic duels or brutish brawn and catering towards the casual demographic, or so it seems…
Just like the anime, you assume the responsibilities of a race manager whose task is to ensure your equestrian waifus are in peak condition through complicated layers of micro-management. The horse girl’s stats and mechanics are faithfully replicated based on the metrics employed by the Japanese Racing Association.
The onus is on you to min-max your girls through a series of roguelike racing tracks to ace the URA competitions. To unwind from the competitive scene and bond with your equestrian pals, you can chillax by reading their individual character stories. Pop music featured in the anime is consolidated in a jukebox section for you to indulge in an MMD-style performance by the horse girls.
Around the clock, events run on a rotational basis and a PvP mode fills in the gap for a much-needed social event. Take my advice with a grain of salt but do not sour your engagement in the game, stay clear of PvP and enjoy it for what it is – a fluffy, low-maintenance horse racing sim. The globalisation of this game can also share the beauty of keiba with the rest of the world too.
Black Rock Shooters: Fragment
Black Rock Shooter first eked out an independent existence as an original creation named “Elishka” by Huke, characterised by a Gothic outlook and a hallmark vicious, brilliant blue flame igniting in her right eye. Her design philosophy is ahead of its time and quickly drew a loyal clout with serialisation work that began in earnest sometime around the 2010s, spanning an anime series, a PSP spin-off, a manga and an exclusive cover by Hatsune Miku in 2008.
BRS: Fragment came into being as a joint venture between Good Smile and G2 Studios. Playing through the perspective of Elishka, along with new faces joining the fray in a war against a rogue AI called Innocent Cloud. While the story is nothing to write home about, the gameplay is a mix of real-time tactics and tower defence, with the twist being the ability to relocate your chibi characters to a new position on the field. While I can’t speak for everyone, I relish the slick user interface and cyberpunk aesthetics. At least, Fragment is decently popular enough to see the daylight, having just ended its collaboration with 86 the anime instead of the usual Nier or Attack on Titan.
With a relatively high volatility of the survival rate of mobile gacha based on anime IP, we are very interested to see how Black Rock Shooters: Fragment would fit into the landscape.
To quench this dry season, former producers of Senran Kagura: New Link made a splash with Dolphin Wave, focusing on motorsports involving recreational watercraft engaging in “jet battles”. You don the hat of a coach and help your characters square off against rival factions. The standout feature has got to be the racing gameplay, which features two attackers and defenders, all working together to keep the pace. Foul play is allowed as your compatriots are armed to the teeth with unique weapons, much like Super Mario Kart with the Koopa shells.
Side stories called “Diorama” grant you a sneak peek at how sports maidens under your tutelage go about their daily lives. The ecchi level is undeniable, to the point, a collaboration event was held with Azur Lane that sees Atago’s and Baltimore’s iconic race queen get-up implemented as outerwear. All in all, Dolphin Wave is certainly a breath of fresh air and the Senran Kagura essence will doubtless appeal to the majority. It will also do the art team a huge favour by showcasing their work on the global stage.
Anyone active in the gaming space will know that, for a brief moment, Armored Core: Fires of Rubicron was all over the place, igniting an intense commotion and fiery debacle. What if I told you that Bilibili has secretly released a game that mirrors Rubicron’s aesthetics and vibes with anime girls plastered on it? As one of the more recent entries that launched sometime in 2022, there’s a lot to unbox, from the flipping fantastic exosuit design, glowing environment design and a narrative that stitches together cinematic cutscenes supplemented with voice acting.
The premise is set in a futuristic, cyberpunk themed world that is thrown into a constant state of warmongering over natural resources to further their agenda. In this morally grey world, you play as Executive Officer for a faction and lead a battalion of mobile weapons piloted by anime girls to fight on three fronts – land, sea and the vast sky – quite a bargain considering in almost every game, battles only take place in one terrain type.
Immortals Muv-Luv: Dimension
Sure, this game is dancing on the edge of a precipice, having gone through multiple phases of development hell, releasing in March 2022 just to be gutted after a few hours and in some wicked twist of fate, revived in July 2023. It’s also a daring gamble as the developers and creators hedged their bets on this title.
At first glance, everything in this iteration of Muv Luv screams antiquity. It is a top-down musou game with bullet hell elements riddled in it. Take control of a squad of Tactical Surface Fighter to take down a swarm of extraterrestrial invaders known as BETA. The gameplay likely won’t impress anyone as soon as you just drag your mech around while the automated system does the bulk of the killing.
Many fan-favourites that starred in Muv Luv: Alternative made a comeback donning new suits, such as everyone’s favourite Mitsurugi Meiya, the young Empress of Japan with an edgy, Yu-Gi-Oh over-the-top hairstyle. In the same boots as BRS: Fragment, both the developers aim to make a legacy out of their mobile spin-offs and we are very excited to see how it unfolds.
A wanderlust by nature who regards video games as an artful medium for creative storytelling. I implore thee to join me on my jubilant voyage through the sea of video games. PS: I find great pleasure jamming to Touhou songs while riding on public transports.