Ask PC gamers in Japan what their favorite games are, and Starcraft, World of Warcraft or Call of Duty won’t be uttered from many of their mouths. Blizzard? Activision? These companies are irrelevant. KEY, Minori and Type-Moon? Bring it on. In Japan, it isn’t space marines, guild raids, or massive online shooters that the real Otakus are interested in. It is the dating sims, interpersonal stories, and the fine art of moé that take center stage.
While it’s true that dating sims/bishoujo games rarely leave their host country, a few brave companies such as JAST, NIS, MangaGamer, and the now-defunct Hirameki strive to bring them over here with decent/moderate success. Curious about what makes these choose-your-own adventure games so memorable? Or how an adult man can be brought to tears with just a little over-the-top melodrama? I present to you the top ten bishoujo games that have been commercially released in English for your enjoyment.
***note: While making this list I had to consider many different things, including whether or not I wanted to include games that have visual novel elements like Persona or the Ace Attorney Series. In the end, I decided to focus on true ‘bishoujo’ dating sim games.
Five years is how long it took someone to finally release this storied franchise in America. Fourteen years, if you’re counting from the beginning of the series. In other words, it was about damn time. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love does not contain the greatest story, nor the greatest cast of characters that I’ve come across (akin to a throwback to the Power Rangers and Robotech era) but it has had a profound impact on niche Japanese gaming in the West.
Sakura Wars was eagerly anticipated by Otakus of all ages and sold successfully on the PlayStation 2. So much so that retailers such as Amazon and Rosenqueen have sold out, demonstrating to publishers that there is indeed a fanbase. Throw in the fact that it had a very polished turn-based strategy system and you have the first truly successful English-translated bishoujo game.
#9: Princess Waltz (PC, Pulltop/Peach Princess)
Pulltop’s audaciously entertaining piece shows what happens when Uno meets hentai. Often referred to as a “Fate/Stay Night clone,” Princess Waltz tells the story about a royal dance where six princesses compete for the right to marry the Prince of Eldhiland. The premise may sound more like something you would expect from a shovelware title like Natsume’s Princess Debut, believe me when I say it’s not. Instead, the story is closer to an action genre anime like My-Hime in which sexy schoolgirls fight using special weapons and powers, and if that doesn’t turn you on….then my friends, otaku you are not.
You can expect plenty of twists and betrayals galore, as well as heavy themes about friendship and love throughout, with magnificent production values that are unlike any other bishoujo game that’s been released here. If you’re looking for a bit more spice to accompany your visual novels, then look no further.
#8: Divi-Dead (PC, C-Ware/Himeya Soft)
As the oldest entry on this list, C-Ware’s Divi-Dead represents some of the best and worst aspects of the genre. The navigation system is a complete unadulterated mess that often leaves you aimlessly wandering around, visiting random parts of the school campus and not knowing where to go until a random character talks to you. On the other hand, the game’s unsettling storyline and twist will stay with you for a very long time.
With one of the strongest atmospheres that I’ve encountered and a memorable cast of characters, Divi-Dead still holds up today. Imagine Silent Hill with vampires, set on a high school campus; if that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.
#7: Ar Tonelico II (PS2, Gust/NIS America)
Like the Godfather Part II, this is one of those classic cases where the sequel outperforms, outshines and generally outdoes everything that was established by its predecessor. Featuring one of the better turn-based/rhythm battle systems along with a more interesting cast of characters, Ar Tonelico II represents one of the finest JRPGs in the PlayStation 2’s excellent library. Similar to other Gust classics, the hymns – breathtaking mixes of choir and orchestral music – are what set this sequel apart from its peers.
Music and battles are great, but the real reason to play this gem is the girls. From the hyper-active Luca to the voluptuous Cloche, the memorable cast is the reason Ar Tonelico II is on this list, and the bond between the female protagonists make it hard to put the controller down. I only hope you don’t have the unfortunate luck of running across a game-breaking glitch towards the end.
#6: Phantom of Inferno (DVD, Nitroplus/Hirameki Intl.)
Phantom of Inferno put Nitroplus on the map and was later adapted into an anime known as ‘Requiem for the Phantom.’ Twisting the traditional formula of a high school boy meets high school girl, the game places you in the shoes of Zwei, a fifteen year-old Japanese teenager who’s been trained as a professional assassin. Reluctant at first, he is given the choice to either join the group known as Phantom or die. While the company does try its best to retain the dating sim look and feel, the mature storyline is full of unexpected twists and turns that lure players to keep clicking “just one more page.”
Unfortunately, the game also happens to be on Hirameki’s craptacular DVD format, which uses a horribly designed save system of passwords. Don’t let that stop you though, as Phantom of Inferno is easily one of the darkest, mature and dynamic visual novel storylines available to date… assuming that you can find a copy.
#5: Family Project ~家族計画~ (PC, D.O./G-Collections)
Family Project is certainly not “the greatest bishoujo game of all time,” as JASTUSA owner Peter Payne proclaimed, but it doesn’t disappoint. As I originally wrote in my official Gaming Target review of the game, “[Family Project] was known as the best game of the genre with its mix of good artwork, a great soundtrack, and a very interpersonal story.” Much of which was ahead of its time. Writer Yamada Hajime (Kana: Little Sister, Yume Miru Kisuri) explores the meaning of family through the eyes of a loner, Tsukasa, who’s forced to build bonds as a means of survival.
Although the game shows its age through recycled CG sets, slightly outdated sprites, and merely adequate backgrounds, Family Project is still a definite recommendation if you’re interested in exploring how games such as KEY’s CLANNAD came about. That, and I have to thank them for introducing me to the awesomeness of Matsuri. There I said it. Again.
#4: Kana: Little Sister (PC, D.O./G-Collections)
This is the game known to make grown men cry buckets of tears. You knew that this list would not be complete without it. Kana is suffering from kidney failure, which automatically makes the scenario incredibly depressing. If Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain made you cry, Kana will make you want to slit your wrist while driving off a cliff. There are no antagonists nor deus ex machina endings. Kana: Little Sister is a slice of life that will make you appreciate the one you have. Kudos to G-Collections for bringing this masterpiece over to America.
#3: Yume Miru Kusuri (PC, Will/Peach Princess)
I had a hard time choosing between Yume Miru Kusuri or Kana for the top three Both have extremely good merits and are worthy of their universal praises, but I had to go with Will’s Yume Miru Kusuri. After all, it has a drug-addled fairy!
Yume Miru Kusuri is for all kids who feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders. Tackling three real-life issues that almost any kid will face (parental expectations, societal expectations, and bullying) this is one of those stories that hits home with most gamers. By the way, if you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice that the past three games have all been penned by the same guy. Genius writer, a modern day Dickens.
#2: Kira Kira (PC, Overdrive/MangaGamer; iPod Touch, Overdrive/Mtryx)
The highly recommended Kira Kira tells the story of Shikanosuke Maejima, a male student at a missionary school in Japan. Maejima lacks direction in life and meets a girl, Kirai Shiino, whose fates intertwine in completely unexpected ways. The duo forms an all-female punk band, with Maejima cross-dressing as they tour Japan. They hit it big, becoming an overnight YouTube-type success. With music at the forefront of Kira Kira, you can expect an impressive sampling of J-pop/rock.
You might think that a game featuring a pink-haired singer and a cross-dressing drummer would be an extremely light-hearted affair, and it is, for the first half. Considered to be the gem of MangaGamer’s collection, their website features both the all-ages and hentai version to reach as broad of an audience as possible. If you’re even vaguely interested in visual novels, or good stories in general, then you owe it to yourself to check it out. On a related note, an iPhone/touch version, featuring MangaGamer’s rather strong translation, was recently released at the low cost of $9.99.
#1: Ever 17 (PC, KID/Hirameki International)
This 100-hour, all-age masterpiece is nearly flawless in every regard. Featuring some of the best characterization in video game history (seriously) and a mind-blowing twist, Ever 17 is the best available English visual novel to date. While it is very long, it never seems like it due to the hectic atmosphere.
You take on the role of two different protagonists who are stuck in an unfortunate accident at an underwater amusement park, trapped 153 feet underground. Without any contact with the outside world, seven strangers must work together in order to escape before the building collapses within 119 hours. If this sounds like an episode of LOST to you, then get this visual novel. Heck, even if you don’t like LOST, this visual novel is still for you. It’s just that good. The main problem is finding it.