Though the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive was immensely successful in North America, there are still quite a number of games that remained in Japan for a variety of reasons. This list is meant to elucidate some interesting titles that never left the shores of Japan. This is by no means a definitive list and these are not necessarily the 10 best Japan-only Genesis games, but they are simply games that I personally had a positive experience with.
10. Golden Axe 3
Golden Axe was released on the SEGA Genesis in 1989, it was proof positive that SEGA was able to deliver on their promise of bringing the arcade into the living room. The home console sequels however, failed to innovate and left the series floundering in mediocrity, to the point that the third game was never released in Western markets. There are even rumors that SEGA of America thought the third entry in the series was so bad, that they were worried it would damage their reputation.
Is the third game truly that bad? I think not, although it certainly re-hashes much of the same enemies and has some of the most bland and uninspiring environs on the Genesis, the gameplay is solid and even remedies some of the annoyances in Golden Axe II. Namely, replacing the much maligned mages with the item-bearing thieves from the original Golden Axe
Despite the game being mediocre at best, I still think the game is worth playing, and a safe purchase when bundled in one of the many SEGA retro collections on current consoles and not as a stand-alone game. Why then is it on this list? Probably because I am a die-hard and foolishly biased Golden Axe fan. Consider this one a guilty pleasure and probably by far the worst on the list.
Surging Aura is an interesting choice for this list, considering I cannot actually completely enjoy this game; it is a text heavy RPG, with no complete English fan translation patch at the moment.
From the reviews and description of the gameplay mechanics however, I was intrigued enough to further explore this title. I made my first attempt with a completed French translation, proceeding far enough to get a slight feel for the game and defeat the admittedly tough first boss. There was one small issue with my approach however…I can’t understand French, and that really hurt the experience, almost as much as dealing with the Japanese text. I get the impression Surging Aura would be reasonably easy to playthrough without the English translation, but dialogue is such an important part of JRPG’s, that I wanted to avoid spoiling the game for an eventual English playthrough.
I finally gave up and found a let’s player on YouTube that was playing the game in Japanese, but reading everything in English aloud. From my limited experience, and from watching the let’s play, I can say that this game shows promise; it is unique in that the main character is a frail mage, rather than physical attacker. This creates a reliance on party members unparalleled in the genre. The main character must wait for spell-specific incantation times to elapse before casting magic. During this time if struck by an enemy, the magic is further delayed, and can even be cancelled if hit twice. This seemingly annoying mechanic is balanced by the same being true for enemies, the player can strike early and cancel their attacks as well. To even further enhance the strategy, enemies appear in two separate rows, leaving melee attackers unable to do damage on those in the back row.
Surging Aura delivers a stellar presentation, keeping in mind my general lack of understanding of the plot. The game has beautiful, highly-detailed, anime-style visuals, comparable to Phantasy Star IV and an above average OST with a few tracks standing head and shoulders above the rest.
I highly suggest this game to anyone that enjoys grinding, high encounter rates, and text-heavy JRPGs, that is, if they are Japanese- or French-literate. The unique nature of this games mechanics, combined with the beautiful presentation, place this game squarely atop my personal backlog, as I patiently await a full English fan translation.
Out of appreciation to the YouTuber who posted the let’s play, I linked the video below. It is a relatively small channel, and he is doing a great service, so give him a views/likes/subscribes:
8. Panorama cotton
Panorama Cotton is a member of the Cotton series, a series which helped establish the sub-genre of shoot em’ ups, called “cute em’ ups.” This genre exchanges the usual space setting for a more whimsical and light-hearted venue. The Cotton series is set in a magical world in which a small witch’s pursuit of candy often results in her preventing Armageddon. With some of the best graphics on the Genesis/Mega Drive, that hold up much better than its contemporaries like SNES’ Star Fox, intense forward scrolling action, and an upbeat and catchy soundtrack, this game is a must play. Perhaps the only reason this game isn’t higher on the list is my personal bias against the forward scrolling shooter sub-genre and the game’s interpretation of depth in some areas, making it difficult to time attacks correctly.
The menus are easily navigable in Japanese, so the only thing preventing a purchase is the HEFTY price tag. I suggest emulation for this one, way too expensive.
7. Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer
Lucia, following the disappearance of her father in a warp hole, steals the mighty Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer ship, in an attempt to save his life. The story sets the stage for action-packed gameplay with multiple, though admittedly basic, endings.
The central tenet of Gleylancer‘s unique gameplay is the use of two satellites to fire additional shots outside of the ship’s own cannons. The part that differentiates Gleylancer from others in the genre is the ability to choose from 7 options with regards to how the satellite modules orbit the ship. These modules can be used to AIM SHOTS, which is such a welcome addition in a horizontal scrolling shooter. The variety of available play options, combined with some unique power ups including a beam sword and a flamethrower, make for one of the best shmup experiences on the Genesis/Mega Drive.
6. Pepenga pengo
A sequel to the 1982 arcade title, Pengo, this game was the final first-party release for the Genesis/Mega Drive in Japan, and an exclusive to the region. This addicting arcade puzzle game blessed Japanese Mega Drive with an experience comparable to Super Nintendo’s Super Bomberman series.
Rather than being purely a Bomberman clone, Pepenga Pengo plays more of a Bomberman-Pengo hybrid, yielding a unique gameplay experience. Pengo can both create ice blocks and kick them in order to destroy enemies. If timed properly, the creation of these ice blocks can be used to freeze the enemy as well, resulting in an alternate way to dispatch of enemies and gaining a free ice block. With vibrant and varied locales, 2-player Co-op, a 4-player battle mode, inclusion of the original 1982 arcade game, and intense boss battles this game is crammed with content. This is one of the can’t miss multiplayer games on the Genesis/Mega Drive.
Much like Golden Axe 3, this game never had a physical release outside of Japan, and was instead subjugated to the Sega Channel. Unlike Golden Axe 3 however, this game is a gem of a platformer and was developed by Game Freak, yes, the people who created Pokemon.
Pulseman opens with a level select screen, allowing the player freedom to choose from 3 stages and gets right into the action with minimal unnecessary pageantry. Pulseman can jump, dash and perform a slashing attack, all of which are pretty standard platforming elements.
Where Pulseman differentiates itself however, is the addition of the ability to build up static electricity while running. This opens up a long-ranged electric attack and the ability to launch Pulseman upward at a 45-degree angle. The launch allows bouncing off of walls, permits access to hidden areas, and gives the titular hero the ability to travel through electrical wires; greatly enhancing the otherwise simple platforming.
Very solid gameplay, challenging bosses, topped with gorgeous, occasionally seizure inducing, visuals and a literally incredible soundtrack make this game a well-rounded and easily accessible platformer for Japanese Mega Drive.
4. Tougi Ou: King Colossus
Tougi Oh: King Colossus is a top down action RPG for the Japanese Mega Drive, that provides an exceptional entry into one of the consoles most rarely visited genres.
King Colossus wastes little time, opening with an old man berating the player for losing his valuable Iron Sword to thieves. Following the complaints, the game gives immediate potential for action, by allowing the player to walk out of the door and select the first dungeon area via an overworld map.
This first dungeon may put some players off, considering the pitiful range of the starting sword, and the mildly over-powered enemies, but I implore anyone who tries this game to stick it out for at least two dungeons before passing judgement and labeling it as a shitty Zelda clone. The game quickly remedies the games initial issues by allowing access to spears, magical staves, bows and ball-and-chains, yielding some truly exceptional combat mechanics.
As the game progresses, King Colossus continues to deliver with excellent combat, a variety of special attacks, plot twists that occur within the first hour of the game, and an awesome soundtrack; albeit one that suffers due to the Genesis sound chip. There are even some pretty intense platforming sections courtesy of the game’s jumping mechanic, which provide an experience games in the Zelda series rarely explore. Considering all these factors, this game performs well in every category, though not completely excelling in any; which is I chose to place this game fourth on the list and not higher.
Though this game is not necessarily a staple of the action RPG genre, it is an incredibly overlooked gem that provides 10 hours of addictive gameplay. I have grown incredibly fond of Tougi Ou: King Colossus and consider it a must play Japanese Mega Drive game.
3. Langrisser II
Sometimes a game enraptures the player so thoroughly that they are utterly consumed by it. This is what happened when I played Langrisser II. This game actually resulted in the delay of this article because I felt compelled to finish it. Completing a game for a Top 10 list is fine, but this is not a few hour long shmup, rather this epic turn-based strategy RPG is a sprawling adventure that takes time and patient decision making to finish. This is also one of the few games on this list I had not had the privilege of playing previously, allowing me to capture the magic of my childhood, when I was occasionally blind-sided by a high quality game no one was talking about.
Langrisser II stars Elwin, the re-nameable main character, in his attempt to prevent Liana, a girl with special powers, from falling into the clutches of the evil Rayguard Empire. Though standard RPG fare, this story excels with regards to character development, allied and enemy alike.
This game plays similar to Fire Emblem and Shining Force, but with the additional option of purchasing disposable troops to bolster the main characters’ attacks. There is also a rock-paper-scissors mechanic to determine strengths and weaknesses: Soldiers > Pikeman > Horsemen > Soldiers, ranged units are weak to melee attacks, and certain classes get bonuses with specific terrains or against specific enemy types. This seemingly simple concept acts a framework for the greater, more complex overall battle system and truly results in exceptional gameplay.
Topped off with rock-solid visuals, a reliable online fan translation, and a soundtrack by Noriyuki Iwadare, composer for the Langrisser series, the Grandia series, the Lunar series, and Gleylancer, this game is an incredible, though admittedly niche experience. The only reason this game is not number one on this list is the genre being so hit or miss with a lot of gamers.
2. Battlemania Daiginjou
A sequel to the 1991 shmup Trouble Shooter, also known as Battlemania in Japan, Battlemania Daiginjou elevates the formula set forth by the original to incomparable heights. Unlike many games in the genre, this series stars two lively anime girls with distinct personalities, as opposed to the usual cold, lifeless starship. The controls in this game are absolutely flawless. Every movement is precise and tight, which is crucial in the shooter genre. This is further enhanced by the ability to control both characters simultaneously and the choice to play the game with uni-directional, bi-directional or 8-way aiming capabilities.
The exemplary controls and multi-directional fire options only scratch the surface of what defines Battle Mania Daiginjou; the game is truly defined by its outstanding gameplay and sterling level design. Though this game is technically a horizontally-scrolling shmup, the player will often find themselves in vertical scrolling city-scapes and other interesting environs. This creates a much needed change of pace periodically and adds an alternate form of mayhem to cope with.
The intense action, exceptional music and storyline, layered atop visually appealing 16-bit graphics, set the stage for one of the best gaming experiences available on the Japanese Mega Drive
1. Monster World 4
Monster World IV is a side scrolling action RPG released for the Japanese Sega Mega Drive in 1994. The game is an entry in the Wonder Boy/Monster World series and stars the series’ first female protagonist Asha, as she saves Monster World from darkness.
What makes this game one of the best in its series is the gameplay mechanics being much more fluid, compared to the stiffer, more deliberate platforming in previous entries. With smooth movement, multi-directional attacking and timing-based shield mechanics, for defensive purposes, the gameplay and controls in the game are near perfect.
The platforming is further enhanced by the addition of a Pepeloogoo, a strange creature with an even stranger name, that can be used to double jump, high jump, glide, hit switches and exhale heavily to move platforms.
In addition to the excellent platforming and battle mechanics, RPG elements are also explored; with an upgradable health bar, via collection of 150 Life Drops scattered throughout the game, as well as equippable weapons and shields to buff Asha’s power. By choosing these simpler, and admittedly basic, RPG mechanics, Monster World IV properly identifies the minimum effective dose of these elements to elevate already exceptional platforming gameplay, rather than attempt to hide sub-optimal design behind a veil of overly convoluted mechanics.
The greatness of Monster World IV does not end with the lovingly crafted platforming mechanics. The visuals in this game are absolutely gorgeous, with vibrant colors and intricate architecture. The soundtrack is delivered beautifully, avoiding the pitfalls of the Genesis sound-chip, instead sounding comparable in quality to an SNES game. As mentioned, gameplay is spectacular, with its only flaw being its linearity. Monster World IV is a universally appealing, expertly crafted adventure, which is why it took the number one spot for this list.