If you’re a fan of Japan there’s probably no better series out there than Yakuza; a franchise that’s so uniquely Japanese it almost hurts.
Most of the franchise revolves around a fictional red-light district of Tokyo called Kamurocho, which is heavily based off of the real red light district of Kabukicho.
While a game called Yakuza might seem like a serious crime drama, and it is, the franchise is filled with weird and wonderful moments as well. More than anything, Yakuza serves as a kind of time capsule for this district of Japan, showing you how it changes and evolves over the years.
As you walk the streets of Kamurocho you can try out various foods, like Yakiniku or Takoyaki, pop into a convenience store to pick up a Stamina health drink, pop into the arcade to play the UFO Catcher, and much more.
The Yakuza series has always partnered with real businesses to put them in the game, like the discount store Don Quijote.
On top of just being fantastic games with fantastic stories, Yakuza is great for learning about Japanese culture and certain things that just don’t exist in the West, like the idea of hostess clubs.
These are highly immersive games that let you wander around a Japanese city doing whatever you want, so they’re a must-play if you’re interested in all things Japan.
Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed
Akihabara is the infamous electronic and anime mecha of Tokyo, and if you’ve ever wanted to explore it in a digital space, Akiba’s Trip is the game for you.
The entire game takes place in Akihabara, where creatures known as Synthisters have infiltrated the district, preying on the citizens social energy and will to live.
There’s a ridiculous story to play through that involves unveiling a sinister plot by the Magaimono organization, but exploring Akihabara is the real appeal. There are over 130 real-life shops featured in the game, and the district is meticulously built and detailed.
Of course, as you explore you’ll have to battle Synthisters, tearing off their clothes to expose them to sunlight and kill them. Just par for the course, right?
The ridiculous combat and story are fun in their own right, but it’s the joy of exploring and seeing Akihabara that should really appeal to fans of Japan.
Persona has become renowned for its simulation gameplay, letting you live out your dreams of being a popular successful high school student. It also just so happens to be steeped in Japanese culture, in every way you could imagine.
Whereas Persona 3 and 4 drop you into fictional towns, Persona 5 drops you right into modern-day Tokyo, as a transfer student who’s attending Shujin Academy.
As you discover the power of Persona, you and the friends you make will form the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, and travel to the Metaverse in order to alter the hearts of evil adults.
Of course, part of the major appeal of the Persona games is simply living a Japanese high school life. Going to classes, hanging out with friends, taking part-time jobs, and exploring the streets of Tokyo.
There’s so much to see and do in Persona 5, and you get to listen to a sweet acid jazz soundtrack the entire time.
Travel to the arcade and hang out with Ryuji, take on a burger challenge, hit the smoothie shop in the subway; it’s your choice.
There’s a lot of Japanese culture to learn about in Persona 5, whether it’s by talking to an aging politician or an expert Shogi player.
Total War Shogun 2
If the historical aspect of Japan is what interests you the most, then there’s a smattering of strategy titles that might be up your alley, including Nobunaga’s Ambition.
However, the best of all those options is Total War Shogun 2, a massive strategy game that drops you right into Feudal Japan in a war for control of the country.
The game is set in 16th century Japan, in the aftermath of the Onin War as the Ashikaga shogunate rules. You’ll need to take control of one of a number of clans, and work your way to domination, either through combat or diplomacy.
There’s plenty of history to learn in terms of historical figures, clans, locations, and iconic battles. Of course, things deviate from actual historical events because of the freeform gameplay and choice.
If you’re a strategy fan, Total War Shogun 2 lays it on thick with tons of little layers and tactical options, and the Japan setting helps add even more flavor to the experience.
Samurai Warriors 4
If strategy isn’t your deal, there’s still plenty of options for playing historical Japanese games. Well, historical is used a bit loose there.
Dynasty Warriors is one of the most well-known hack-and-slash franchises out there, and the Samurai Warriors offshoot lets you take control of the fearsome warriors of Feudal Japan.
Samurai Warriors 4 is easily one of the best in the entire series, with fantastic visuals, an interesting story, and plenty of over-the-top gameplay. The story of Samurai Warriors 4 chronicles events in the Sengoku period, showing the political upheaval and wars that took place.
There are plenty of different historical figures that pop up, and this time around there’s a particular emphasis on the famed samurai Yukimura Sanada, as well as his brother Nobuyuki Sanada.
Keep in mind, of course, that all of these events and characters are heavily romanticized, but it’s still a great time if you have an interest in Japanese history, especially the Sengoku period.
There are plenty of actual historical battles and events to play through, and if the series strategy of Total War doesn’t appeal to you, Samurai Warriors 4 is a good pick.
The World Ends With You
The World Ends With You comes from the mind of Tetsuya Nomura, the creator and director of the Kingdom Hearts series, who’s also now working on the Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Whereas Akiba’s Trip gave you a window into Akihabara, The World Ends With You lets you roam around the streets of Shibuya.
You play as Neku Sakuraba, a young man who wakes up after his death and is forced to play a “game” by a mysterious organization, in order to return to the real world.
As you might expect from a story crafted by Nomura, things get weird quickly, but the characters of The World Ends With You are incredibly charming and well fleshed out.
Much of the game is built around vital aspects of Japanese youth culture, such as fashion, music, and cell phones. The stylistic graphics help reinforce the “youth” theme of the game, and it’s a blast to see all the crazy fashion options while roaming around Shibuya.
It may not be the most realistic one-to-one recreation of Shibuya, but The World Ends With You is still a great time for any fan of Japan and its culture.
Shenmue paved the way for so many open world games and narrative experiences, and even the Yakuza series, which we mentioned before, is heavily inspired by it.
Sadly, Shenmue hasn’t aged particularly well, but it’s still worth going back to if you’re looking to experience a hugely important piece of gaming history, or just looking for a laid back experience.
The first Shenmue takes place in 1986, in a quiet Japanese town called Yokosuka. A teenager named Ryo Hazuki returns to his family’s dojo only to witness his father being killed by a man named Lan Di.
This forces Ryo into an investigation over why his father was murdered.
The world of Shenmue is incredibly vibrant, and the entire town of Yokosuka runs on its own schedule, with shops opening and closing, NPCs going about their daily business, and events only happening at certain points of the day.
A lot of the game’s experience deals with simply exploring the sleepy town, and there’s a number of things outside of the main story that you can do to occupy your time.
Put some money in the capsule machines to collect little figures (including Sonic the Hedgehog), play a few mini-games, help the citizens with their problems, and more.
Like a lot of other games here, Shenmue is a great way to simply immerse yourself in the town of Yokosuka and Ryo’s life. Again, go in with tempered expectations on how the game has aged, but no matter what, Shenmue remains a classic.
Root Letter is a gripping mystery visual novel that lets you explore the town of Matsue, a real town in the Shimane Prefecture of Japan.
You, the protagonist, arrive at Matsue in search of a pen pal from high school named Fumino Aya, who disappeared 15 years ago.
In order to find out what happened to Aya, you’ll need to explore the town and interrogate her classmates, reliving parts of her life in the process.
While Root Letter may not be quite as interactive as something like Persona 5, it’s still a great game to play if you’re interested in Japanese culture or folklore.
The town of Matsue may seem like a perfectly normal place on its face, but there are a ton of mysteries lying just beneath the surface, many of which involve things that are specifically Japanese.
The game is incredibly faithful in its recreation of Matsue, and the core cast of characters are superbly interesting. Root Letter is a gem of a visual novel, but you’ll enjoy it even more if you’re interested in Japan.
Splitting off from modern or realistic Japanese settings, Okami is a game completely immersed in the fantastic world of Japanese mythology.
You play as Okami Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, who is inhabiting the form of a white wolf as she saves the lands of Japan from evil and darkness.
While the game has strengths, it’s best aspect is the insanely gorgeous cel-shaded art style that it uses.
The entire game resembles a sumi-e, or ink wash painting, and in fact, a painting mechanic plays a huge part in gameplay. Subsequent remasters and HD upgrades have only made Okami look even more stunning.
The game’s story is steeped in various Japanese myths and legends, and Okami is easily one of the greatest action-adventure titles ever made.
Yo-Kai Watch hit insane popularity in Japan years ago, and for good reason.
This Pokemon-like game has you exploring a quiet little Japanese town while meeting various wacky Yo-Kai spirits, and solving their problem in order to make them join your party.
It’s a laid back and simple experience with some fantastic writing and characters that make it easy to get into the game’s world.
On top of that, almost all of the Yo-Kai in the game are, in some way, based off of Japanese myths, legends, or culture.
Japanese folklore and yokai isn’t something that we’re super familiar with here in the West, but Yo-Kai Watch is a great way to learn even just a little bit of that.