Ever since I discovered Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation, I have had a fascination for Japanese games. This includes big franchises like Monster Hunter, Persona, and Dragon Ball.
However, I have also liked the best Japanese indie games. In fact, some of my favorite games over the past few years have come from Japanese indie developers. These games are often ambitious, unique, and lovingly crafted.
The community for the best Japanese indie games used to be niche. But thanks to Steam shining a light on indie developers through Early Access, the community has grown significantly. And annual events like Bitsummit have also played a crucial role.
Nowadays, a wide range of Japanese indie games come out on Steam—along with the Switch and other platforms, if they are popular enough.
So, it has become a challenge to select the best Japanese indie games if you are new to this niche. But that’s where this guide comes in.
Best Japanese Indie Games: The Bottom Line Up Front
With a seemingly new Japanese indie game coming out every few weeks, gamers are spoilt for choice. However, not all of these games are made equal.
The games I have selected below stand out because of their uniqueness, gameplay, and story.
My Top Picks at a Glance
- Unholy Heights: this doubles as a tower defense and apartment management game. Simple and fun.
- One Way Heroics: you can only move in one general direction in this roguelike.
- Downwell: the action is frantic as you make your way down a deep well full of dangers.
- Sumire: Emotional game about making the most of one day.
- La-Mulana 2: Metroidvania game with rich lore and fun, challenging gameplay.
- Black Bird: you play as a vengeful being that wreaks havoc on a kingdom.
- Gnosia: find out who the alien is in this mystery game before it’s too late.
- Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth: explore a world reminiscent of Castlevania: Symphony of The Night.
- Touhou Luna Nights: explore a new world as you manipulate time to defeat enemies and overcome obstacles.
- Giraffe and Annika: explore an island as you look for star fragments in this laid-back game for the whole family.
When choosing the best Japanese indie games, I followed the criteria below.
- No AAA games. This would hardly be a list of the best Japanese indie games if it had some AAA titles.
- Well received. There are thousands of indie games out there, but not all are worth your time. The ones I selected are the best of the best, and some have even won awards (but I welcome any additions if you have them).
- Not popular in the West. While some of these games might be part of franchises popular in Japan, they are hardly known in Western countries. Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is an example: it has novels and anime in Japan, but only the most dedicated fans know it outside the country.
- They offer something different. Japanese indie developers are among the most creative, so it would be a shame not to include their innovative and experimental games.
Tips for Readers
- Choose your genre. There are simulations, visual novels, roguelike games, and more. Read about the kind of game you would play, and if you like it, that’s what you should consider getting.
- Many Japanese indie games offer a significant challenge when it comes to gameplay. In fact, some feel absolutely Souls-like. However, some exceptions are relaxing. I suggest checking on the difficulty before investing in a game that will frustrate you.
1. Unholy Heights
- Developer: Petit Depotto
- Genre: Tower Defense, Apartment Management
In Unholy Heights, you play as the Devil. However, this is not the horned, red-skinned version we are accustomed to. Here, the Devil is a balding, bespectacled, middle-aged man.
He spends his life savings on the apartment block he has always dreamed of. However, he is constantly interrupted by heroes who are out to destroy him. So, he rents out his apartments to various monsters to keep the heroes at bay. And to retaliate, he decides to take over the world with his monstrous tenants.
Just for this unique premise, Unholy Heights is among the best Japanese indie games. However, it goes deeper than that.
The game is a tower defense as you position monsters to protect you from heroes. However, tower defense takes a backseat to manage your tenants and the apartment. You have to keep your tenants happy while ensuring they don’t freeload or cause chaos.
Unholy Heights is a game you have to play to believe.
- Unique tower defense experience
- Managing the apartment block is investing
- Not the most challenging game
2. One Way Heroics
- Developer: Smoking WOLF
- Genre: Traditional Roguelike
One Way Heroics is a game inspired by classic RPGs. It has a top-down view and cute pixel graphics. It is also a roguelike, so you start again from the start every time you die.
However, the game world’s premise is unique: you can only move in one general direction. This is because an evil shadow called the Shine Raid invades the world. If the darkness touches you, you instantly die. So, you have to fight the game’s enemies and make sure the shadow does not reach you.
The world is procedurally generated. This means that every restart offers a new experience. This makes One Way Heroics significantly replayable, and its mechanics make the game plenty of fun.
- The Shine Raid is an interesting concept
- Tons of replayability
- It can be unforgiving if you’re slow
- Developer: Moppin
- Genre: Action, Roguelike
Downwell is a game about going down a well—a bottomless pit. However, the game makes this experience delightful and unforgettable.
You use armed boots that can only shoot downwards. You use these boots to attack obstacles and enemies as you go down the well. However, ammo is not infinite. It will run out, and to replenish it, you have to bounce off an enemy or land on a surface.
Because of its fast pace, you might be surprised by the depth of Downwell. The game lets you decide which upgrades to prioritize, which enemies to avoid, how risky to play, etc. And the levels are randomly generated, which improves their replayability.
The only thing gamers might not like about Downwell is its graphics. It looks like an early 80s relic, and this is either something you accept or not.
Downwell is among the most entertaining and best Japanese indie games you can buy today, especially if you like fast-paced roguelikes.
- Reasonably challenging
- Rewards risky plays
- Graphics might not suit everyone
- It can be frustrating early on
- Developer: GameTomo Team
- Genre: Narrative Adventure
Sumire is a game that takes place in just one day. However, the game does a lot during its brief length.
You play a young girl called Sumire who is going through anxiety and sadness after losing her grandmother. A magical flower with only one day to live asks Sumire to show it a wonderful day, and that’s what she does.
Sumire encounters other characters, and they are all fully realized, with their own desires and needs. The story is sad, heartwarming, and immersive, and it’s the main reason to play the game.
Sumire’s gameplay might not be unique, but that’s not its goal. Instead, it wants to show you all the extraordinary things that can happen in one day. And it helps that the storybook-like graphics are so stunning.
Sumire is the kind of game you should play when you want a brisk story with characters to root for.
- A fascinating, heartwarming story that makes you think about life
- Decent length for this kind of story
- The gameplay is not the most engaging
5. La-Mulana 2
- Developer: NIGORO
- Genre: Metroidvania
2005’s La-Mulana was an indie triumph when it came out. The Metroidvania game was challenging, had different puzzles, and was free.
La-Mulana 2 took creator Takumi Nakamura and his small team over 8 years to develop, plus a successful Kickstarter campaign. And the effort shows.
You play your way through a 2D map with various interconnected areas. Each section has boss fights, secrets, monsters, and traps. La-Mulana 2 is tough, and you will certainly die a lot. However, it rarely feels unfair, and each death feels like something you could avoid.
You play Lumisa Kosugi as she explores the cradle of mankind’s civilization, La-Mulana. To learn why monsters appear from these ruins, Lumisa heads to Eg-Lana to examine and solve this mystery.
La-Mulana 2 is a fun but challenging game with rich lore and cute, simple graphics. If you like games with the difficulty of Dark Souls, La-Mulana 2 is among the best Japanese indie games you can play.
- Simple and beautiful animations
- Immersive story
- Some will love the immense difficulty
- Some will hate the enormous difficulty
- Some puzzles are not easy to solve
6. Black Bird
- Developer: Onion Games
- Genre: Side-Scrolling, Shooter
Black Bird is about a young girl who dies pitifully on the street while people ignore her. However, she is soon reborn as the titular Black Bird, who brings death, vengeance, and destruction to the kingdom.
The game itself is a side-scrolling shooter. You shoot at enemy forces and unfortunate pedestrians and progress by destroying watchtowers. You can either rush through each level or take your time and unlock various secrets.
You have to start again from the game’s beginning when you die, though. This will be an obvious source of frustration for some. However, the game tries to counteract this annoyance by letting you practice on any level you have passed through and unlocked.
Black Bird is chaotic, brutal, and pretty, cementing its place as one of the best Japanese indie games.
- Fun gameplay
- Beautiful art, including bosses
- It can be cathartic
- Some boss fights can be a bit much
- Developer: Petit Depotto
- Genre: Social Deduction, Visual Novel
In Gnosia, 14 characters with diverse personalities are on board a wayward spaceship. However, they are not all who they claim to be. One (or more) of them is a Gnosia: an alien being determined to destroy humanity.
Finding out who is a Gnosia and who isn’t is not easy. But when you think you have found one, you hold a vote and convince your crewmates to vote against that individual. Once the vote passes, they are put into cold sleep.
However, the tables might turn if there are more Gnosia than humans. Since they know each other’s identities, you might be the one being voted into cold sleep. You also have to be wary of humans on the side of the Gnosia who want to see humanity end.
As the game advances, additional obstacles appear. They include jobs for passengers, from an Engineer to a Doctor.
Gnosia is a tense, unpredictable game, much like Among Us.
- Tense and unpredictable
- Works for both long and brief gaming sessions
- Interesting characters
- The game can feel unfair at times
8. Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth
- Developer: Team Ladybug
- Genre: Metroidvania
Record of Lodoss War is a media franchise that not many people outside Japan know. However, the franchise consists of novels, role-playing games, manga, and even anime.
Creator Ryu Mizuno returns to the franchise with Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth. This is a 2D Metroidvania game that follows Deedlit as she wakes up in an unknown location.
She then explores a beautiful 2D fantasy world with interconnected areas full of mythical beasts and other enemies.
You can finish Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth in as little as 10 hours, making this among the shorter Metroidvania games. Unfortunately, its boss fights are also not as challenging as you might expect from this genre.
Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is a gorgeous game with an exciting story and a fun world to explore.
- Stunning graphics and a beautiful world
- Great game for anyone who enjoyed Castlevania: Symphony of The Night
- Fun mechanics
- It does not have the usual Metroidvania difficulty, which will put off some
9. Touhou Luna Nights
- Developer: Team Ladybug
- Genre: Metroidvania
In Touhou Luna Nights, you control the head maid from the Scarlet Devil Mansion called Sakuya Izayoi. She is sent to a new world created by magic by the head of the mansion, Remelia Scarlet. With weakened powers and no way to escape, Sakuya’s only choice is to go along with her employer’s game.
The plot might not be that interesting, complicated, or investing. However, that’s not the point of this game.
Touhou Luna Nights’ primary emphasis is the gameplay, and it does an exceptional job at that. Sakuya can manipulate time, starting from slowing time to entirely stopping it. Time manipulation helps Sakuya overcome obstacles, traverse dangerous terrain, and defeat enemies.
HP doesn’t regenerate in the game unless you manipulate time and get close to an enemy or projectile. This offers a thrilling challenge, especially during boss fights.
When it comes to simple but fun Metroidvania games, Touhou Luna Nights is one of the best Japanese indie games.
- Time manipulation is a compelling concept
- Not overly complicated, so most players will have a good time with it
- The story is not the most exciting
- Those looking for a hardcore challenge will be disappointed
10. Giraffe and Annika
- Developer: atelier mimina
- Genre: Rhythm, Adventure
Sometimes you just want a simple game that’s not overly taxing, the kind of game you can play with kids. Giraffe and Annika is among the best Japanese indie games for this.
You play as Annika, a catgirl with tail and cat ears. She wakes up on Spica Island with no idea how she got there. She soon meets Giraffe, a boy who asks Annika to help him by picking up star fragments from dungeons he can’t enter.
The story is not revolutionary or complicated but heartfelt and straightforward. The few enemies present don’t bring a significant challenge, and it’s actually hard for Annika to die. Boss battles are rhythm games where Annika jumps from left to right to dodge attacks and catch various projectiles.
Giraffe and Annika is among the most laid-back games you can play, with a beautiful soundtrack and an exciting world. It is the perfect game for a lazy afternoon when you don’t feel like pushing yourself.
- Gorgeous animations
- Amazing soundtrack
- Simple, relaxing game
- The lack of challenge is not for everyone
Question: What Is The #1 Game In Japan Of All Time?
Answer: According to broadcaster TV Asahi, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the #1 game in Japan, with Dragon Quest V and Final Fantasy VII coming in 2nd and 3rd, respectively. This comes after the broadcaster conducted a poll with over 50,000 respondents.
Question: What Is An Indie Game?
Answer: An indie game is typically made by a lone person or a small team. They usually have a minimal budget, and development often takes a long time.
Question: Where Can I Play Japanese Indie Games?
Answer: You can play Japanese indie games on most platforms. However, the most popular one nowadays is Steam on PC.
Question: How Big Are Video Games In Japan?
Answer: Japan has always been an influential country for video games. Its top gaming companies include Nintendo, PlayStation, Konami, Bandai Namco, etc. There are also plenty of Japanese video game franchises that have become major hits in Japan and worldwide.
Best Japanese Indie Games: Conclusion
Japan has its fair share of excellent video game franchises. So, it’s no surprise that the best Japanese indie video games are so diverse and of such high quality.
Depending on your preferences, each of the above games might give you a fantastic—or even unforgettable—experience. So just give these indie games a try and see!
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