Top 20: Games from Japan

Another round-up, this time from partner, Next Generation, who round up the best and the worst of Japanese games from '06

00. Portable Island: Resort in the Palm of your Hand Bandai-NamcoPSP

I’m going to cheat. Instead of beginning with the 20th best game of the year, I’m giving a mention here to the worst game of the year. Portable Island is Bandai-Namco's attempt to cash in on the ‘non-game’ craze. In it, you're a lonely person wandering around on an island. The game is just wandering an island and picking stuff up. You can set a hammock between trees, and then sleep in the hammock. What for? Why pass your time watching an imaginary person sleeping in a hammock? Why not fight monsters, or live a life of adventure? Why escape the daily grind by doing something you could do in real life if you requested some time off? It's mind-boggling. Games that aren’t games are great, if executed correctly. Animal Crossing has characters and community. This game doesn't. Now, onto the good stuff.

19. Talking Cooking Navigator NintendoDS

Talking Cooking Navigator is the next step in Nintendo's ‘training’ games, in that it teaches a person to cook any of dozens of recipes. It is not only training one's mind, it is feeding hungry bachelors. Furthermore, it establishes the DS as a personal entertainment landmark: place the cute little thing on top of your cute little half-sized Japanese refrigerator and turn up the volume, and use it to time your eggs -- with a silky-smooth female voice doing the reading. Is the game perfect? By no means; however, as lifestyle productivity software for a portable videogame system, it's top of the top-class.

18. Final Fantasy III Square EnixDS

Between 2005 and 2006, Final Fantasies I+II, IV, V, and VI were all re-mastered and released on Gameboy Advance.  When it was announced that Final Fantasy III would instead be remade from the ground-up for Nintendo DS, everyone agreed it was a good idea. FFIII was where the FF franchise first showed signs of its illustriously popular future. It deserved an update, and that's what it got. So important was the restoration of this game that Square Enix applied veteran staff members -- director Hiromichi Tanaka was in fact one of the original three employees of Squaresoft. Toss in cute new character designs by Final Fantasy Tactics artist Akihiko Yoshida, colorful polygonal graphics, rearranged music, and actual  personalities for the characters (the game had previously starred clean slates) and you end up with a pretty wonderful package that sold close to a million. However, the most novel thing about Final Fantasy III is that it’s entirely controllable with the stylus. Moving in towns, talking to townspeople, selecting targets in battles. In fact, the truest sign of FFIII's design brilliance is that you needn't pick ‘attack’ before clicking a monster during a battle. The game gets the idea. It is educated game design, free of throwaway gimmicks.

17. New Super Mario Bros. NintendoDS

New Super Mario Bros., produced by Shigeru Miyamoto's long-time right-hand man Takashi Tezuka, marks a return to 2D side-scrolling for Mario; thanks to its name, its prominent and gleaming yellow plastic case, and its prominent placement out in front of every game-selling shop in Japan, it sold three million copies faster than any other DS game at the time. Everyone was a critic of the game's actual design -- many cited that the difficulty was either too low or too high and many others bemoaned Mario's lack of interesting power-ups. At any rate, design-wise, the game has some fascinating little quirks. The addition of a wall-jump to 2D Mario's repertoire is a stroke of genius, and Mario's trademark running inertia effect makes bouncing off walls potentially more satisfying than in classic games such as Ninja Gaiden. The "problem," then, would be that New Super Mario Bros. is essentially just an announcement that 2D Mario is not dead. Nintendo is prone to reuse and polish.

Takashi Tezuka, the man responsible for actually realizing the original Super Mario Bros. based on Miyamoto's visions, is essentially in charge of this new series, and has confirmed he will be making more games in the "New" series. Let's hope he keeps the mechanics of New Super Mario Bros. intact, and focuses on stage design and rounding out the multiplayer experience.

16. GodhandCapcom (Clover Studio)PS2

Recently, when it was announced that Capcom would absorb Clover Studio staff back into Capcom, many non-Japanese gamers became confused. The reasons for the closure of the studio are a bit more understandable in Japan, when one considers that Clover's signature title, Viewtiful Joe, went largely ignored here, and that the darling of the Western games press, Clover's 2006 release Okami, was perhaps too stylistically Japanese to make any impact in Japan. Godhand, the last of Clover's games to see release on the PlayStation 2, is a really tough nut to crack. It's a rock-hard beat-em-up that, in one fell swoop, bundles together everything that we took for granted as "normal" in a beat-em-up back in the arcade era, and once and for all exposes the entire genre as utterly ridiculous and, quite frankly, frightening. Oft-cited examples include the over-the-top special moves, the demon Elvis, and the puppy-kicking dominatrix. The game is structured around a short series of stages broken up into vignette-like missions. It tells a mostly idiotic story. Its graphics are a little shoddy. Sometimes it's so hard it feels unfair.Yet the game is so solidly constructed, so air-tight, that it can't be denied that it is precisely the way it is because its producers, headed by the now-legendary Atsushi Inaba, wanted it to be. It may eat and breathe nonsense, and thrive on idiocy; however, it is absolutely sure of itself.

15. Chronicles of Dungeon Maker TaitoPSP

In this game, you play as a single hero, heading into a dungeon. The dungeon is only one room in size. You choose which way the dungeon tunnels are dug. You carve out rooms, decorate the place, lay traps and ‘personalize’. You also have to kill monsters, and upgrade your own powers.Sound monotonous? It is, kind of. Yet there's the hook -- you are leaving a dungeon of your own design. This means that while the traps you lay are no mystery to you, your dungeon is fully playable by another player. And your friends' dungeons are playable by you. It's almost an exercise in amateur psychology, to see what kind of dungeon your friend made. To see how deep it goes. To see simple trap placement and think, "that seems like something he would do."

14. Earth Defense Force 3 Xbox 360D3 PublisherEarth Defense Force 3 (to be released in America as Earth Defense Force X) is a kitschy alien invasion action game that sports slick graphics and textures, excellent framerates, and decent interactivity with NPCs. The action and flow is mostly unchanged from the PS2 predecessors. Some fans miss the jet-pack-wearing female alternate playable character from Earth Defense Force 2; others pine for a multiplayer mode over Xbox Live (the game only offers downloadable stages). I'm happy with the game as it is. It's still amazingly addictive and endlessly entertaining to anyone who picks up the controller.

13. Lost Planet Xbox 360Capcom

Like Insomniac's Resistance: Fall of Man and Epic’s Gears of War, Lost Planet is about saving the world from aliens, only its plot unfolds like the RPGs Japanese gamers have loved for so long. Unlike some of those other games, Lost Planet offers lengthy missions, complete with multi-form bosses. The game sets up interesting situations and then masterfully dissects them with carefully aimed shotguns. There's a certain looseness to the experience, a counterpart to Gears of War's perfect tightness, that makes the game feel reckless, bold, and new.

Lost Planet is most significant in that it purely illuminates the current trend of Japanese game designers looking toward the West. But Lost Planet manages to simultaneously hold onto Japanese design conventions, flaunt its pedigree, and turn out to be a hell of a thrill ride.

12. Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner PSPAtlus

This game is a rather simple monster-collecting RPG a la Pokemon with a much heavier story. Players control multiple party members, each of whom has a small selection of monsters to use. The dungeons are big and vibrant; the dialogues are fully voiced and sometimes amusing. It winds up to a nice climax. Most interesting, however, is that no less than ten renowned game music composers scored the soundtrack. Most notable are the two lead soundtrack producers Yasunori Mitsuda and Hitoshi Sakimoto (who also scored the acclaimed Final Fantasy XII this year). Greats such as Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Super Mario RPG) and the master Kenji Ito (SaGa) were also hand-picked for composing, and not a single track feels wasted or wrong.

11. Virtua Fighter 5 SegaArcade

Virtua Fighter 5 is the best possible sequel a game developer could hope to make. It has gorgeous, shiny graphics. It runs at a blistering framerate. Its cabinet is, perhaps, the most fearsome-looking thing to ever grace a Japanese arcade. Slick, metal, large, laser-lit, black, with pink joysticks and buttons. The battles are even full of running voice commentary by shrewdly pre-recorded announcers. In short, the Virtua Fighter 5 arcade experience is that local drug lord's basement pleasure paradise, full of kids skateboarding up walls and loud music blaring. As series producer Yu Suzuki famously said back during Virtua Fighter 2's heyday, "Someday, Virtua Fighter will become like a sport." He must have been thinking of the total integrated experience of Virtua Fighter 5.

10. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess NintendoWii

Though much arguing is currently being done on the Internet, I personally am of the belief that Twilight Princess is far better than its predecessor, Wind Waker. It just does everything better. It has a richer story; the segments between towns and dungeons flow masterfully. The challenge is balanced impeccably in the dungeons -- whereas in previous Zeldas solving a puzzle is a matter of simply using the item you earned in that dungeon, and then using that item again, Twilight Princess gives you items that require a quirky little sleight-of-hand to use. When getting accustomed to the Wii controller, this is an excellent challenge. It makes me wonder -- why doesn't anyone else in the games industry even TRY to make games this well conceived? The answer is all too simple: it takes time, and actual love.

9. Pokemon Diamond & Pearl The Pokemon CompanyDS

Pokemon Diamond and Pearl sold 3 million copies, faster than any DS title to date. The core audience of the game is Japanese children. They pop up, they learn to walk and talk, and they start playing Pokemon. People are always making kids so Pokemon will always have fans. And this new Pokemon, remarkably, actually succeeded in hooking older fans who had tried the series out years ago and then given up. Like, for example, me. It’s a wonderfully-put-together piece of entertainment. The graphics are vibrant and lovely; the music is cute and catchy. The monsters are deeply customizable. And the game uses the DS's touch screen brilliantly. But the bulk of this game's significance is the online functionality. With DS WiFi stations so abundantly present all over Japan, it's easy for kids to get online and challenge other Pokemon trainers. It's even easier to put a Pokemon into the ingenious online-auction-like trading system.

8. Rhythm Tengoku NintendoGBAOne of the more brilliant games of this year is also one of the most underrated. Rhythm Tengoku, meaning "Rhythm Heaven", for the Nintendo Gameboy Advance, was released this summer to absolutely no fanfare. Rhythm Tengoku is very close to a perfect videogame.

As the title indicates, the challenges are all about rhythm. Blocks fly at a karate fighter; press the button with proper rhythm to punch them away. The visuals, the buttons, and the sounds are all as one. The game is as stripped down and free of waste as any game has ever been. Some of the challenges wind up devilishly hard. Yet they are all alike in that aspire to a weird kind of mesmerized perpetuity. Rhythm Tengoku has verve, personality. It has sound, and rhythm.

7. Common Sense Training NintendoDS

The full title of the game I will call "Common Sense Training" is actually "Common Sense Training for Adults who wouldn't dare ask these kinds of questions of anyone at this point in their lives." I'm not making that up. The game sometimes asks you to listen to three musical compositions and identify which one is by Mozart, or Beethoven, and sometimes it asks you simple questions about world history or economics. Sometimes it asks you super Japanese questions, like "Which of these four photographs is not a food originating in Hokkaido?" Though at its core, it asks you questions of manners and common sense. For example, if you and three colleagues are riding together in a taxi, which seat do you offer to the highest-ranking employee? Well? Brilliant.

6. After Burner Climax Sega (AM2)Arcade

Here is a game that cuts to the heart of what's fun. Here is a game that absolutely does not mess around. It pulls no punches. It is Sega Spirit. You're soaring over beautiful oceans and under brilliant blue skies. You're going so fast it is, quite frankly, frightening. The cabinet rocks and tilts and spins.  The enemies come at you quickly. You lock on and shoot missiles. You dodge. You get shot down. You explode. There's a two-player co-op / versus mode, as well. Whether you're competing or cooperating, who knows? You're flying together, and shooting together. You can crash into one another. These planes are set only to go very fast. In a year full of sweeping industry changes and two major console launches, it's wonderful to fall in love with an arcade game that's simply about moving forward, going fast, and shooting.

5. Toro: Mainichi Issho SCEIPS3

In ‘Together Everyday’ a cat called Toro sits in his room. He rolls around on the floor. You can't control the camera. Or Toro. You can only call up a menu or exit the game. Once (or sometimes twice) a day, the game's intrepid staff uploads a news program to the server. It appears in the menu. You can watch Toro and his pal talk about various topics. They talk about movies and sports, or the weather or videogames. Sometimes they ask trivia questions.Obviously, this is marketing. It's marketing wrapped in a gorgeous package. The characters are fun. There are contests and prizes. This non-game is obviously designed to entertain people on a daily basis. I've personally not failed to check it every day.  Why does it work? Because the material is well-written and interesting.  It's a blog that’s actually worth visiting.

4. Final Fantasy XII PS2Square Enix

Players complained that the characters were boring; the main character was ineffectual, and the story was dry. They didn’t like the ‘Gambit System’. They wanted the "wet epic" style of Final Fantasy games, with swirling emotions and ending worlds and giant monsters. Sure, it grows thin at the end; the ingenuity promised by early dungeons vanishes, and the game becomes all about hacking forward. The final boss is poignant yet dull. There is no doubt, however, that the game is actually a masterpiece in disguise. RPG battle systems are, in the end, just a crude tool for representing combat. FFXII's battle system is an actual piece of originality and great design. The RPG genre has become horribly stale and unoriginal in Japan. FFXII is a way forward.

3. Blue Dragon Xbox 360Microsoft

A traditional RPG, a hacked-together second-generation game for the most flatly rejected piece of hardware on the Japanese market, the cheesiest story in an RPG since Final Fantasy V.

Its battle system is basically Final Fantasy X, quasi-real-time, with a turn order bar scrolling at the top of the screen. You equip your characters' dragon-shadows with a ‘job’ system like in Final Fantasy V. And you know what? The game moves forward. It's clean as a whistle. Characters cry, and laugh, and cry again, and laugh again. Battles are big and memorable; the boss music features live guitars and drums, and heavy metal vocals. The game rolls without stopping right to the end, forty hours later. And the player shouldn't feel like they wasted any time.Though for all its reaching and flailing -- hell, because of the reaching and flailing that went into its making, it's perhaps Sakaguchi's best game since Final Fantasy IV, in the weirdest, subtlest way.

2. Mother 3 NintendoGBA

The game world in this RPG is small; the plot developments are easily digestible. The battles are simple. There is basically no challenge. But the dialogue reads like poetry. Rhymes and rhythm. It's fantastic and it’s beautiful and it’s compelling. It has a story to tell you. It tells you the story. Only 200,000 were willing to listen to the story. I'm certain that all of them, like me, listened all the way to the end, and then probably started listening all over again.

1. Dead Rising CapcomXbox 360What makes it so great? Structure. Design-wise, the game is as compelling as games get. It takes the sandbox formula and puts a leash on it. It evokes memories of old games where all you need to do is move to the right and jump over pits. Only now, you're free to jump over the pits however you want. That the environment is chock-full of zombies means there's always some thumb-exercise within reaching distance. In fact, the game never, precisely, rewards you (except with occasional experience points) for killing zombies. Avoiding them is key. Yet if you feel compelled, you can clear a whole room before moving on. It's tough to find someone who doesn't at least admit the game is clever. Dead Rising is evidence of the Japanese game development community looking at Western games and thinking about ways to genuinely make them better. The playing is so violently fun. It's a joy to move, to swing weapons, to shoot guns. The magic of a whole sandbox game is, ideally, contained in every moment.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.