More so than any time in the past, the divide between “Eastern” and “Western” gamers has become narrower and narrower. In today’s age, we have the luxury of knowing exactly what games are coming out all over the globe, and audiences in every specific region are able to, in a way, demand what games they want localized. The best example of this in recent memory, was Operation Rainfall, a fan campaign that sought, and succeeded, in persuading Nintendo of America to localize three Wii JRPGs (Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower) for Western audiences. Longtime Western fans of Namco Bandai’s Tales series, as well, have also been able to successfully jockey for each of the Tales games (perhaps a little belatedly in some cases, *cough* Tales of Graces) to be localized as well, with the most recent case being Tales of Xillia which will be released in the North America sometime this Spring/Summer. But this was not always the case: before the age of the internet and widespread video game journalism, Western audiences never really knew which games being developed in Japan were going to make it to the United States and, in many cases, they didn’t even know what games were being developed in Japan at all. Japan, historically, would always use their audiences and the performance of a game in their market as a litmus test to see which games would reach overseas. This led to a great many games for the Genesis and Super Famicom/SNES that were virtually unknown outside of Japan (unless you could read Kanji), as many never even came close to reaching our shores (I believe out of the 1700 games made for the Super Nintendo, only 720 were released in North America).
Recently, though, through the legally questionable development of emulators, rom-hacking, and fan translations, Western audiences have been able to discover these forgotten Japanese gems for themselves. While OF COURSE I would never endorse someone downloading these games illegally, as well as downloading the necessary hacks in order to translate the game for you, HYPOTHETICALLY if a person was so interested, these translations allow an undiscovered plethora of amazing games to finally reach the North American shores. Some are strange, many are at least unique, and a good few are really great. Here are some select games from a couple different genres that, if you are looking for an authentic vintage 16-bit feel, you really can’t afford to pass up.
1. Live A Live (1994)- Square
Live a Live was a Squaresoft (yes back when it was Squaresoft) RPG developed for the Super Famicom by the same development team that would a year later bring the world the awesomeness of Chrono Trigger (thank you Tokashi Tokita!). Live a Live is an RPG, but it is an interesting case as it is almost a dissertation on RPG form and narrative. Eschewing a uniform gameplay style, the game follows seven completely different scenarios from throughout history, and each has a different gameplay style and narrative construct. One chapter is set in the Wild West, and in true Cowboy fashion is about helping a small town prepare for the rowdy band of outlaws who plan on storming the town; how well you prepare the town alters how difficult the final encounter with the chapter’s boss will be. Another chapter is set in Prehistoric times, and is told completely in Emoticons rather than dialogue. Finally, there is a chapter set in the Far Future, where you play a robot where there is no action at all (except for a final boss battle), and the chapter is purely story driven. The combat, it seems, is purposefully simple and not the mainstay of the game, and the game almost focuses completely on how it tells a story.
My favorite part of the game? Once you complete all of the chapters, you learn how they are all linked in a thrilling final chapter. Throw in multiple endings and a pretty malicious sense of humor on the part of the developers (one chapter has you doing very repetitive and monotonous tasks in order to progress, such as pressing a certain button combination then praying to a statue exactly 58 times…if you mess up at all you start all over), and it makes for a game that is definitely worth checking out!.
2. The Firemen (1994)- Human Entertainment
While this game did make it to Europe, The Firemen by Human Entertainment (who also made the classic Clock Tower game) never did grace the American shores. The Firemen is a top-down action game where you follow two fire fighters, Pete and Danny, as they plow their way through one gigantic burning skyscraper, fighting fires and haywire robots (hey it is Japanese) while saving as many people as they can. The game plays very similar to a top down shooter, such as the Jurassic Park SNES game or Zombies Ate My Neighbors, but instead of wielding an assault rifle or a plethora of guns, you only wield an axe and a magic fire extinguisher. The game plays incredibly fast, and though the gameplay per floor is pretty much the same, it is strangely addictive. It helps that your AI partner is fairly aggressive and pretty smart, in that he doesn’t get in your way and moves logically where he should.
Overall, it is a really solid action game which manages to make the threat of fires pretty darn palpable even in a 16-bit setting. If you are looking for gripping action with a somewhat arcade bent, then you should definitely look in picking this up.
3.& 4. Mother 1 & Mother 3 (1989/2006)- Nintendo/Ape
Yup! Not many people know this, but the Super Nintendo’s classic Earthbound is actually a sequel to a Famicom game known as Mother
(known as Earthbound Zero among the Rom Hacking community), and furthermore there is a GBA sequel known as Mother 3. Both games, as Earthbound was, are incredibly quirky, bizarre, have a creepy hint of darkness, and are incredibly fun role playing adventures. They take place in the same warped vision of suburban America, focus on the same style of Psychic battle, and have the same delightfully odd characters and environments. Also you get a nice bit of Nintendo’s self-reflexive humor, with it taking pot-shots and jibes at itself at every available moment (I mean, in Mother 1, the main character’s name is Ninten). Mother 3 especially, takes a pretty jaundiced look at American society and the idea of consumerism/video game culture, with the villain from Earthbound, Porky, returning through the selling of his “Happy Box,” a game system that turns people into mindless drones, allowing him to set up his Megatropolis, New Pork City.
Needless to say, many people have asked for a sequel to Earthbound, and Earthbound itself is still a highly sought after and well-remembered game (it still on eBay and Amazon sells for hundreds upon hundreds of dollars if it works and is a non-pirated copy). So if you are one of those people who crave more of that quirky RPG, then you should probably check out its prequel and sequel!
5. Treasure of the Rudras (1996)- Squaresoft
One of the last RPG’s from Squaresoft in the Super Famicom era (before the jumped ship and moved to Sony), Treasure of the Rudras is like a great homage to the companies great history of RPG’s with the system. It plays almost like the logical evolution of Final Fantasy VI, where instead the hand-drawn villains in each battle are not only hand-drawn, but also slightly animated, almost giving it a very similar artistic quality seen in Vanillaware games like Odin Sphere. As well, it helps that it has a really great story, taking place in a world that faces mass extinction every 4000 years, and the game follows four different characters as they try to alter the path of destruction in the final fifteen days of their cycle. Perhaps the neatest thing about this game is its unique magic system: the spells in this game are called “mantras” which are formed by the player putting various words into their spell book, each forming into a mantra consisting of a prefix, a root, and the suffix. The player has complete freedom in forming their spells from the various words, and it adds a great bit of experimental fun to the game, as until their words are tried, they will never know the effects. Most spells are useless/have some really non-practical effects, while others end up being incredibly powerful or beneficial.
As Squaresofts parting love letter to the Super Famicom, it really is a game worth checking out. It has a sweeping score, a fascinating storyline, and some truly beautiful environments and enemies that take great advantage of the Super Famicom’s Super FX Chip to produce great quality graphics. For the fans of the classic turn-based RPG, you should really look no further than this.
So there you have it folks, some truly unique and innovative games that, sadly, never made it to the shores of North America during the reign of the Super Famicom and SNES, and these five games don’t even scratch the surface of other games forgotten in this era. There are plenty more RPGs for the Super Famicom alone, such as Lennus II, Treasure Hunter G, Bahamut Lagoon, or the incredibly rare Dual Orb series, not to mention the tons of games released by Sega on the Genesis, or NEC on the Turbografix-16. There are multitudes and multitudes of games out there just waiting for North American audiences to rediscover them, and until some game companies decide to re-release some of the older catalogs of games (doubtful), sadly the means by which Western gamers play them will have to be suspect and legally questionable.