In an oversaturated game market, talking about things that suck is easy. You stick the terrible game in your console (or load up your rom and pretend what you’re doing is totally legal) spout some choice words at it, and let it die in the Abyss of Forgotten Games. But what if the game in question is from a super niche interest…like let’s say anime video games. You’re a serious otaku, so you’ll try said game- it loads up, you brace yourself for the pain of impact…and suddenly…you exhale. The moon and stars spare you, and you’re blown away- the game doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s fun. Really fun!
These conflicting emotions ran through many of us back when we were teenage anime fans of yesteryear (IE, in the early 2000s). Likely the same experience as kids in the 80s who just wanted to play the video game version of their favorite movie (spoiler, lots of them were terrible). At the time, discovering new animes was like mining for treasure- we were just happy to be in the cave. I’ve mentioned before what happens when fans are starved for content, and want to see representation of our favorite franchises. At the time, those full manga books were only just beginning to get published. And the corresponding video games? Forget it, nearly unattainable…or so we thought.
But, as with anything, the need to taste the rainbow comes with mixed results…and a few surprises along the way. Such as when:
The American release of the Dragon Ball game tried to hide that it was a Dragon Ball game
Back in 1988, Nintendo released a game called Dragon Power. The box art got the “cool dude” treatment much like Mega Man did. It featured a fire-breathing dragon and a Kung-Fu style fighter dude named Goku, clad in a white gi and blue headband.
Fabled to be based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, (and totally not the Toei animated show about a little kid also named Goku) the game features a little redesigned monkey-looking character in an orange karate gi on a mission to obtain crystal balls. Note that, crystal balls. Totally not Dragon Balls. Your guide- a blue haired girl named Nora who we can pretend isn’t Bulma. Other sprites and characters were changed to suit the western narrative, including Master Roshi who was changed to a more “traditional” martial arts instructor, and the girls’ panties power-ups changed to little triangle-cut sandwiches.
Ultimately, Bandai had no obligation to bring the Dragon Ball game to a western audience, especially when the corresponding anime hadn’t hit the shores yet. But it seems like a missed opportunity to introduce audiences to the franchise. This isn’t like when Nintendo changed Doki Doki Panic into Super Mario Bros. 2 to give it more visibility (truly a brilliant move). Instead, they took a game with an already-popular fanbase overseas and turned it into an under-promoted, disjointed forgettable game based on (as far as we knew) nothing.
But while Dragon Power got its own facelift and chemical peel, anime was now thoroughly gearing up for its western debut. And in the 1993 during the fighting game craze, a game slipped onto American soil.
Ranma ½ got an American release for kind of no reason
Ranma ½ was a martial-arts comedy anime that ran for 143 episodes (plus some movies and direct-to-video stories) from 1989-1992. It tells the story of Ranma Saotome, a sixteen-year-old martial artist who, along with his dad, falls into a cursed springs while training in China. Now, upon getting doused with cold water, Ranma becomes a cute little red-headed girl and his dad becomes a giant panda. Other friends and foes managed to fall into the same cursed springs over time and become other animals and creatures. Hilarity ensues and a classic anime is born.
As you can imagine due to the subject matter, the majority of the Ranma ½ games released were fighting games. In fact, sometime in the early 90s a game called Ranma ½: Neighborhood Combat Chapter was given a complete American do-over. The sprites were completely stripped, the background and music changed, and the game was retitled Street Combat. While it’s interesting that the game was built on top of an altered Ranma game, it’s really not much different that building a game using the engine of another to produce new content. From the little bit of footage I’m able to find, the game looks boring and clunky and unfortunately not memorable.
But it was Ranma 1/2: Hard Battle for the Super Nintendo that first brought our gender-bending martial artist to American soil. Released in 1993, the game was a standard, non-offensive fighting game featuring the best characters from the TV series. The translation was even provided by Viz Media, the company that’s held the Ranma license since it made its English-language debut. The game was charming, simple, bright and colorful with easy to understand controls, and best of all- it was unaltered from its original Japanese release.
The game gets typically average reviews, but it’s resell value is fairly low, between $8-$13. Reception of the game isn’t notable or easy to come by, and it’s easy to believe that sales were low. The game was released before there was a big market for Ranma ½ in the west. Video cassette tapes of the show were extremely expensive and fairly hard to come by, and no other Ranma games have been released in the US since Hard Battle flopped.
But as time went on, anime fandom began to grown, as did awareness of games and the methods in which to play them, making it super surprising when…
The most popular magical girl of all time got shafted in the domestic game market
After Sailor Moon made her animated debut in 1993, the show’s popularity quickly exploded. the show’s merchandising was backed by Bandai, and a torrent of games flooded through the Japanese gates in a hurry. And I say without any shame, that I have played every single one of them.
For the most part, early Sailor Moon games were mostly side-scrolling Beat-em-Ups and fighting games. After the first few seasons of the anime, the puzzle games began showing up. They were good, typically involving disappearing squares, clearing hearts, and popping balloon. The graphics were bright, they gameplay was approachable, and everybody involved was having a good time.
It wasn’t until 1995 that the biggest missed opportunity in the Sailor Moon video game franchise was released in Japan. It was called Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon: Another Story (and all 15 hours of it are available to view on YouTube).
The game was incredible- a complex, involved role playing game with a solid story. It was released at a time not only when the best RPGs were being created in Japan, but Sailor Moon was actually aired on TV in the US (even if it wasn’t until the show’s Cartoon Network release a few years later that its popularity would truly explode in the states).
The game, which got many non-RPG fans trying to get into RPGs would likely have been an excellent game to bridge the gap between anime fans, gamers, and Sailor Moon fans alike. There were even rumors (among fans at least) that the Sailor Moon SuperS (season 4) fighting game was going to hit American shores, but it never did. I’ve only seen it once it person, and it was a burned bootleg played on a friend’s mod-chipped PlayStation.
Instead, Japanese Sailor Moon video games stayed in Japan. They were released on nearly every game system, including a fighting game for the 3DO system that used creepy marionette 3D effects when the game was capable of handling full animation. To date there’s never been an American release of a Sailor Moon game, other than the mortifying 3D Adventures of Sailor Moon for PC in 1997 (which was a collection of a few mini games and dressing paper dolls), and the new Sailor Moon Drops phone game, which follows the Candy Crush or Bejeweled format of gameplay.
Magic Knight Rayearth got a strange western release on the Sega Saturn
While we’re on the topic of RPGs and missed opportunities, no discussion would be complete without addressing the Magic Knight Rayearth game for Super Famicom. Released in Japan in 1995, the gameplay was stunning. The story was rich. It would have made an excellent addition to the fantasy-roleplaying market had they allowed the game to come over to western markets.
But there were a few problems- The year: by 1995, the Super Nintendo was already on its way out in the US (while in Japan, the system lasted until 1999) Second, the audience. As mentioned, anime was just gearing up for its western explosion. At this point, the masses just weren’t familiar enough with the franchise to justify a US release, although arguably, a great RPG that overlapped genres and fan bases might have been helpful. Luckily, there’s a fan translated patch which is awesome. And third- because the Sega Saturn game was already on its way.
Also released in 1995 (and said not to be a port of the Super Famicom game) the Magic Knight Rayearth RPG for Sega Saturn was the last game released on the system in the US in 1998. While featuring a fully animated opening sequence, but the time this game came out, the PlayStation was already crushing it. The Sega Dreamcast was getting ready to come out.
It was another case of great games being released to console ghosts. But if we’re talking about anime games that should have/should not have been on the PlayStation, then I call a do-over for the only Neon Genesis Evangelion game from 1999, Girlfriend of Steel, which had like no robots, all original characters, and more whining Shinji. Luckily, we didn’t get a western release here, but a turbo-style Evangelion game would have been explosive and welcomed.
And speaking of turbo-hyped-badass games…
The new wave of anime games are nothing short of mind-blowing. Since the release of Dragon Power back in the day, Bandai has really upped the fan-service for the Dragon Ball video games. The same beautiful, cel-shaded treatment is applied to other popular anime franchises in the newest video game incarnations. Footage of the Naruto games (from 2008-present) make me want to watch the show even though I’ve never connected with it, and the same goes for Bleach. The One Piece games make me want to power watch all 10,000 episodes in one sitting, or whatever they’re up to now. And Dynasty Warriors: Gundam Reborn gives me the giant mech-robot chills that I was waiting for in 1999 when I was sickeningly disappointed by the PlayStation Evangelion game.
Upon actually playing or reviewing these games, they mostly get scores on the average side, typically 6-7 out of 10. And for various reasons too- gameplay, controls, story, etc. But on a visual level, the spirit of the animes are finally coming through. And instead of an anime fan simply sucking up bad games to see the show represented, these games are doing the opposite. Finally the games are strong enough that they’re making gamers want to go see the anime.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t take Goku 20 hours to power up in the games like it did in the old show. Otherwise, we’re going to have to take some long sandwich breaks.