Sega Dreamcast imports guide: The best Japan-only games to play
For a less-successful-than-hoped system now reaching two decades of existence, the Dreamcast holds an impressive library of games that just haven’t seen proper follow-ups, and that holds true with the unlocalized segment of its library. The end of the road for Sega’s hardware development was full of both special novelties and Japan-only genre specialties, and the system’s arcade-like approach means a lot of it’s totally playable for Western audiences. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss!
Before we continue, here’s what you need to know about Dreamcast importing:
You can play import games on domestic systems. It’s not region-free, exactly, but there’s a simple disc you can track down and make that will let you bypass the lockout and play games from other territories without hardware modding.
Most of the Japan-only library is text-heavy. Visual novels, JRPGs and simulations comprise most of what we didn’t get; it was a big era for that, and those sorts of games are precisely the ones that are too expensive to localize. That said, there are a few that aren’t so hard to approach and we found them.
You can use the same VMU. Unlike some systems of the era, memory cards aren’t region-specific. So no worries about intermingling saves!
Now, shall we head to the games?
Have you ever wanted to play Virtua Tennis and Breakout at the same time? And have you wanted to look like you’re playing Rez while you do? Cosmic Smash is in many ways the system’s last hurrah, a super-late first-party release that brings the arcade feel for which the hardware was known. It’s certainly the inspiration for many motion-controlled titles on Wii, Kinect and now VR platforms, but it does it with traditional mechanics.
Created by Summon Night developer Flight-Plan before that franchise’s debut, Black/Matrix is very much a tactical game in that vein, but sets itself apart with its theme. In its world, demons won a war against angels and took over society, flipping ideals so that cruelty is a virtue and love is a crime. What that means for you is a very different aesthetic around which to move your units through isometric grids.
Did you like ExciteBots but think it was just a bit too… normal? Zusar Vasar‘s robot animals pull you along in chariots, and through races on land, at sea or in the air! Of course, the gameplay itself is a bit more traditional, and makes a little more sense when you remember it released in the Episode One Racer era. The flying’s weird, though: you just fire the left and right engines with the triggers instead of traditional steering.
Somewhere between Sonic Adventure and Klonoa, Napple Tale is thoroughly pleasant. Sega wanted a different approach to platforming adventure, and it got it by assembling a woman-led creative team to build a quest around the Dreamcast’s strengths. It’s a game that certainly would have seen global release had the system’s life not been cut short, as outside of its light RPG elements, it’s language-agnostic fun.
If you’re looking into Dreamcast imports, it’s possible that you’re a fan of the sort of scrolling shooter for which developer G.rev has long been known. It’s home to new releases from homebrew developers to this day, but perhaps the most interesting time for the genre was just shortly after it lost official support. This 2003 game feels like a true retail release, and that’s because it essentially is. A passion project for the company, it’s rare these days despite reprints… so yeah, not cheap.
Zero Gunner 2
While there are many Dreamcast scrolling shooters released in such a late and weird fashion that it’s hard to call them imports, there are games like Zero Gunner 2 that fit the model of being overlooked for release in their own time. A mix between future space shooters and historical settings, this game opts for near-future helicopters for shiny bullets and convincing maneuverability. You will fight a sub and then fight a robot, and you will have been fighting the same thing the whole time. It’s that sort of game. It also carries a look that holds up well, especially with the Dreamcast’s VGA capability.
Sakura Taisen: Hanagumi Taisen Columns 2
Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Tetris (you know, after it stopped being Sega’s Tetris) didn’t have the long life some expected, but it lived longer in Japan through some license-based releases. This, the second Sakura Wars-based release, is a totally solid version of the game and also extra fun for fans of the strategy series. Still, the appeal here is matching the gems themselves!
Baldr Force EXE
Half-visual novel, half-mech shooter, Baldr Force EXE has some fun top-down action between bouts of skipping through text you can’t read. It’s likely that text — combined with the game’s since-excised adult game origins — that kept it away from the West. On a system full of space shooters, though, the mech conceit does enough to make it an interesting change of pace.
Puyo Puyo DA!
Pre-Rock Band rhythm games were… a thing. Even still, the idea of a music game spinoff of a puzzle game spinoff of an RPG is weird and special even in this context. Intended as a head-to-head, call-and-response approach to hitting buttons in rhythm, it isn’t the best example of a game in the world, but you totally get to be a fish in a tutu if you want and that makes it worth it.
Cool Cool Toon
On the other hand, how about an option that sells itself with gameplay? Cool Cool Toon certainly has style, but it’s a much better example of the era between PaRappa the Rapper and Gitaroo Man than any releases to have made it Stateside. You tilt the analog stick at an angle and press a button to trigger notes as they arrive, taking advantage of the platform and making for a distinct challenge at the same time.
Speaking of mechs: this From Software game that toed the line between Virtual-On and its Armored Core series certainly had a lot of them. It’s a little more action-oriented than the plodding games From typically makes, which is its real selling point in the present era, but there’s also extra interest in the company’s back catalog now that it’s made a mainstream hit.
L.O.L.: Lack of Love
A collaboration between Chibi-Robo creator Kenichi Nishi and Yellow Magic Orchestra‘s Ryuichi Sakamoto, it’s exactly what you’d expect from them: a quirky game with heavily-showcased music. And, like many of Nishi’s games (Captain Rainbow, GiFTPiA, Moon: Remix RPG Adventure), it stayed within Japan. It’s… sort of Spore? A lot like Tokyo Jungle? It’s best to just play, because its inexplicable nature is really its selling point.
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