Top Five Japanese Games Set in Fantasy America

5. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a portal fantasy in which a young boy named Oliver travels to another world from his home in Motorville, a small town based on a suburb of Detroit that’s filled with classic 1950s Americana. The game’s characters and environments were designed by Studio Ghibli, so Motorville’s cars, houses, and grassy lawns surrounded by white-picket fences are infused with color and charm. Every character in the fantasy world of Ni No Kuni has a counterpart in “our” world, so Oliver is frequently tasked to returning to Motorville to help people by solving puzzles and fighting enemies. Through these transitions between Motorville and Ni No Kuni, Wrath of the White Witch suggests how a child’s imagination might create an entire sprawling fantasy world within a small American suburb.

4. Final Fantasy XV

According to its developers, Final Fantasy XV was partially inspired by a road trip down California’s famous Route 1 coastal highway. Not only can you take the wheel of a stylish convertible to enjoy the scenery of the American West, but you can also stop off at various diners to take in the Formica counters and shiny chrome jukeboxes while picking up recipes for burgers and fries slathered in ketchup. While the game’s landscapes reflect the beautiful natural environments of California, its inhabited areas reflect the state’s cultural diversity, and Eos is home to cities inspired by locations as far-ranging as Shinjuku and Havana.  

3. Pokémon Black and Pokémon White

Each of the mainline pairs of games in the Pokémon series is set in a region analogous to a location in the real world. Pokémon Black and Pokémon White take place in the Unova region, which is loosely modeled on New York. The center of Unova, the thriving Castelia City, is much larger than any city previously seen in the series. Castelia City is filled with skyscrapers and boasts a bustling harbor, as well as a festive boardwalk entertainment district in the nearby satellite city of Nimbasa. During their journey, the player can also get a taste of American-inspired desert highways and city-sized airports. In addition, the Unova Region marks a major landmark for the Pokémon series – this was the first pair of games in which characters could have darker skintones and Afro-textured hair.

2. Silent Hill 2

The setting of the iconic survival horror game Silent Hill 2 is Silent Hill, Maine. As a mid-sized resort town that sprang up around the scenic Toluca Lake, Silent Hill is lovingly modeled on small-town New England, with picturesque pine forests framing a charming central business district. Thick mist rises from the surface of the lake as the heat of the day cools in the evening, creating evocative vistas of telephone poles emerging from a sea of fog.

If you linger too long in Silent Hill, however, you may start to notice that the town isn’t doing too well – many of the stores in the strip malls are closed, the hospital and other public buildings are slouching into genteel decay, and odd graffiti has been scrawled on the tarps and fences surrounding abandoned construction sites. There is, of course, also an underground cult whose activities have linked the town to a hellish nightmare realm. As the game’s tagline reads, “Every town has its secrets,” and Silent Hill’s secrets are pure Stephen King.

1. Earthbound

One of the reasons why the quirky 16-bit RPG Earthbound has managed to secure such a strong hold on the imaginations of generations of gamers is the vibrancy of its setting in Eagleland. Your hero Ness, a boy destined to save the world with psychic powers and a baseball bat, grew up in a modest wood-frame house on the outskirts of the small town of Onett. Onett has a burger joint, an old-fashioned arcade, and a handsome public library, as well as wide streets and sidewalks large enough for Ness to navigate on his trusty bike.

Once he sets out from this pitch-perfect Steven Spielberg movie set, Ness travels around Eagleland to visit an outdoor market filled with hippies, an indoor mall filled with bored teenage employees, a seedy nightclub hosting the Blues Brothers, and a compact version of New York City that becomes a neon-lit wonderland after dark. Ness’s adventure even takes him to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the famous “Pink Palace” of Waikiki. Far from being a whirlwind tour of the United States, Earthbound offers players countless incentives to spend time in each town seeing the sights, talking to the locals, and discovering the stranger aspects of American life as seen through Japanese eyes.  

Half Past Fate

Half Part Fate is a visual romance novel by an American developer that follows three couples on their journey to their first date. There’s a long list of possible achievements to unlock, but the story itself is entirely linear. Although the characters are adults, the tone is 100% PG, and everything is very sweet and wholesome.

The game is divided into twelve chapters, each of which takes about ten to fifteen minutes to complete depending on how quickly you read and how much you want to explore. You play each chapter as one of the romantic leads in a top-down environment, each of which functions as a small and self-contained stage reminiscent of the “town” sections of a 16-bit JRPG. Your job is to walk around and talk to people, and the gameplay elements are limited: Person A will give you Object B, but only if you trade it for Object C that you get from Person D. There are (mercifully) no puzzles or reflex-based minigames, making Half Past Fate a chill and relaxing experience.

The environments are a lot of fun. The game is set in a romanticized hybrid of Los Angeles and Austin, and there is no crime, poverty, or infrastructural decay. Everything is clean and neat and aesthetically pleasing, and no one is rude or creepy. You can therefore walk around urban environments like coffee shops, public parks, outdoor shopping arcades, and waterfront bars without worrying that someone is going to report you to the police for striking up conversations with strangers. Half Past Fate reminds me a lot of Earthbound in that it offers the player an opportunity to stroll around a contemporary city and read quirky flavor text while catching small glimpses of people’s lives.

The three love stories are just as cute and charming as the pixel art. One couple has been friends since college but never found the right time to confess their feelings, and now they find themselves realizing how much they mean to each other as their artistic careers have started to take off. One couple meets randomly at a tea-themed street fair and has a lovely afternoon together, but then the boy loses the girl’s phone number and has to track her down. The third couple is entangled in a high-stakes game of money and power and deception, and it admittedly takes a willing suspension of disbelief to fit them into the same world as the other characters, but I still liked their story a lot.

The three main couples are straight, but they’re surrounded by representatives of a rainbow of genders and sexualities. Many of the queer side characters are involved in romantic dramas that you can piece together if you take your time exploring, and queerness is so open and omnipresent that the straightness of the main characters doesn’t feel forced.

In addition, the diversity of the cast is taken entirely for granted, which I appreciate. The racial and ethnic identities of the characters are specific and affect more than their family names and physical appearance, but they’re never the sum total of any character’s personality or backstory. Speaking personally, it’s rare to see multiethnic friend groups represented in popular media in a way that doesn’t involve tokenism, but the characters’ networks of relationships felt very real and natural to me.

I picked up Half Past Fate on Nintendo’s online storefront, and I enjoyed playing it as a handheld portable game on the Switch Lite. I’m not sure if the full $10 list price will be worth the three hours of gameplay for everyone, but it definitely was for me (especially considering that paperback novels cost almost $20 these days). Although I would have preferred a bit more bite and tension in the storytelling, the art and graphics are wonderful, and I’m a big fan of this retro JRPG style of structuring a visual novel. I’ve already downloaded the second game in the series, Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing, and I’m looking forward to sitting down with it the next time I want to spend a relaxing afternoon in a softer and brighter version of reality.

The Coming Storm

This is a tribute to the iconic Zac Gorman comic, but with a twist.

I sometimes think about how Ganondorf more than likely didn’t start out as evil. I imagine that he probably went on a journey that paralleled Link’s, but his reaction to the secrets he found in hidden caves and forgotten temples was substantially different due to the circumstances of his life and destiny. While the Legend of Zelda games contain subtle elements of melancholy from Link’s perspective, Ganondorf’s story is more like a full-on Greek tragedy.

Mad Father

Mad Father is a retro survival horror game about a cute girl named Aya who lives in an isolated mansion with her father. As you might be able to guess from the title, her dad is not 100% sane.

The game was originally designed with RPG Maker and released on Steam in 2012, but it’s been remastered for Nintendo Switch with updated graphics and sound design, as well as a few postgame bonus segments. It takes about three hours to play, and I felt that it was a good value when I bought it on sale on Nintendo’s digital storefront for $5. The horror is ghoulishly cheesy, and the jump scares are a lot of fun.

The opening of the game is nonlinear, as Aya has the run of the entire aboveground portion of the mansion. It’s somewhat difficult to understand what to do at first, and I admit that I had to consult a walkthrough to figure out how to get started. Once you gain access to the family’s sprawling underground murder dungeon, however, the path forward becomes easier to discern. Also, once you figure out how the environmental puzzles are supposed to work, they become much more entertaining.

As you grow accustomed to Mad Father during the first hour of playing, the jump scares become less effective, and the game compensates by leaning hard into camp. I don’t mean to suggest that anime can’t be scary, but Mad Father’s combination of over-the-top character portraits and cute pixel art amps up the carnivalesque elements of the story. By the time the dad starts chasing you with a chainsaw, my main reaction to the various horrors on display was delighted amusement.

There is one genuinely creepy moment toward the beginning of the game involving the father’s (nonsexual) reaction to the distress of a naked preteen girl, and it’s creepy because the game knows this reaction is upsetting but still treats it as perfectly natural. The killer dolls and unquiet ghosts haunting the tunnels of the murder dungeon aren’t actually all that scary, but the “kind” behavior of the father during the sepia-tinted nostalgia flashbacks is super disturbing. Mad Father is officially rated Teen, but it’s definitely not for kids (or adults sensitive to depictions of child abuse).

The basement of this family’s house is truly epic, by the way. The other day I was reading that a lot of families who live in McMansions don’t actually have any furniture in most of the rooms, and that makes sense to me. If you’re not imprisoning people to use as subjects for occult medical experiments, then what are you supposed to do with all that space, exactly? If nothing else, I suppose Aya’s dad is to be commended for his commitment to his interior decorating theme. It’s a shame that this theme is “horrible grotesque murder,” but if he’s paying the property tax on all those rooms then he might as well put them to good use.

Anodyne

After starting and abandoning Anodyne a few times on various platforms, I downloaded it onto my Nintendo Switch. Being able to play this retro-styled adventure game on a handheld console turned out to be just what I needed in order to appreciate the experience, and I got completely sucked into its world. Because of its horror elements, I’m not sure Anodyne is for everyone, but I had a great time working my way through the game while eagerly anticipating what sort of strange and grotesque imagery I would encounter next.

The game has Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire style Game Boy Advance era graphics. The pixel art is by turns allusive and unique, and it’s occasionally genuinely gorgeous or horrifying.

The screen-by-screen dungeon and overworld layouts remind me a lot of the two Legend of Zelda Oracle games, and the gameplay is like what those games could have been if they had focused on their core strengths instead of distracting the player with extraneous marginalia. If you’re willing to explore a bit, you can learn to jump fairly in the game, and it’s a neat ability to incorporate into the Zelda-style gameplay.

Anodyne also gives off strong Yume Nikki vibes. You start off on a fairly generic quest, but it quickly becomes clear that you’re exploring a manifestation of the subconscious mind of the protagonist, who is not doing okay. There are clear references to addition, depression, and suicidal ideation, and each of the dungeons is themed after a specific fear. The first dungeon is about the fear of not being able to see, the second dungeon is about the fear of being born from the bloody entrails of your mother’s body, the third dungeon is about the fear of being generic and unnecessary, and so on.

Anodyne also reminds me of the original The Legend of Zelda in that there’s zero guidance – the game has no interest in telling you where to go or what to do. This is why I abandoned it the first few times I tried to play it, as I arrived at its open field area and became overwhelmed. Once I decided to stick with it and finally figured out the small environmental clues meant to lead the player forward, it was a lot of fun to be able to go anywhere and do anything while unearthing a few secrets along the way.

Anodyne’s structure is balanced between the overworld areas and the dungeons, and each of the dungeons is a perfect puzzle box. Despite the gameplay mechanics being deliberately limited and basic, some of the puzzles are very clever. The controls are a little loose, but it’s not really a combat-heavy game. There’s no real penalty for dying, and I died a good three dozen times out of sheer laziness but didn’t feel frustrated even once.

It took me about six hours to finish Anodyne, and I enjoyed every minute. It seems there’s a lot of postgame content that involves revisiting various locations, talking to important characters again, and using a new ability to access a bonus dungeon. This game is subtly but undeniably disturbing, and I’m looking forward to seeing just how weird it can get after the first “quest” has been completed. Or maybe the player-character finally works through his trauma and gets better? That would be good too. I guess.

To summarize: Anodyne is a 16-bit nightmare adventure for a mature audience, sort of like a re-imagining of Majora’s Mask in which characters are allowed to say fuck. Putting the edginess aside, it’s super fun to play, and the dungeons are ghoulishly creative.

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a 16-bit Zelda-style adventure game with cute graphics and meme-heavy writing that takes about two and a half hours to play from start to finish with 100% completion.

Along with a bright and colorful overworld, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion features three formal inside dungeons and two less formal outside dungeons, as well as the usual variety of “go fetch me this thing” sidequests. The game is meant to be accessible to a diversity of players but still presents a range of entertaining challenges. The gameplay isn’t engineered for precision mechanics, which makes the boss fights somewhat more difficult than they perhaps need to be, but you can turn on “god mode” at any time from the menu. Around the middle of the game, Turnip Boy discovers a device that generates portals, and this tool enables are some fun puzzles involving getting bombs and blocks to where they need to be on the map in order to move forward.

Your main goal, as Turnip Boy, is to destroy every single piece of horrible paper you get your (non-existent) hands on. Tax documents? Rip them up. Leases? Rip them up. Receipts? Rip them up. A love letter that the girl you like wants you to deliver to someone who isn’t you, even though she knows you like her? Rip it up right in front of her face. Someone’s uwu anime drawing? Rip that mess up.

It’s very cathartic.

The exploration and puzzles are fun, but what I really enjoyed about Turnip Boy is the dialog, as well as the way your adorable yet feral protagonist’s silence is used for comedic effect. This game uses one of my favorite Earthbound-inspired tropes ever, which is to populate dungeons with people who talk to you, making them feel like towns that happen to be temporarily overrun with monsters. There are also diaries and other documents (that you can rip up!) scattered about in the dungeons that provide lowkey Fallout-style worldbuilding.

So I suppose you could say that Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a comedy story game that’s set up as a 16-bit Zelda adventure quest. Thankfully, the 16-bit graphics and Zelda-style gameplay elements work really well. The music is super-catchy too.

Is Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion worth $15? To me, it definitely was. A team of fifteen people developed this game, and I’m happy to give each of them a dollar. If you’re in the “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding” camp, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is the game for you, especially if you’re in the mood to take an afternoon off and enjoy yourself by exploring a colorful fantasy garden while gleefully smashing capitalism.

A Noble Pursuit

None of the lessons from the Gerudo Classroom have prepared Rhondson for married life with Hudson, who has grown restless and disappeared from Tarrey Town a year after its founding. She travels to the Akkala Citadel Ruins to hunt for her husband while reflecting on the bridges that will need to be rebuilt in order for Hyrule to embrace a peaceful future.

“A Noble Pursuit” is a short story that explores the theme of cultural differences, including different attitudes regarding the preservation of historic sites, via the Akkala Citadel Ruins.

As the Gerudo tailor Rhondson crosses the Sokkala Bridges, she’s impressed by how sturdy and practical they are; and, at the end of the story, she considers how building more bridges – both literal and cultural – might help make the Akkala Citadel habitable once more.

At the end of the story, Rhondson finds that her missing husband Hudson has made friends with the monstrous Hinox who’s always snoozing away on the citadel’s parade grounds. She realizes that both the Hinox and her husband need a renewed sense of purpose, and she encourages Hudson to direct his energy into rebuilding the ruins of the Akkala Citadel into a place better suited to cultural exchange.  

This story about archaeology, castles, ruins, giant monster friends, and what it means “to live happily ever after” was written for Memorabilia, a Breath of the Wild fanzine​ that you can check out on Twitter (here) and on Tumblr (here). The accompanying illustrations are by the stylish scholar Pocketwei, whose art of handsome characters and beautiful landscapes can be found on Twitter (here) and on Instagram (here).

You can read “A Noble Pursuit” on AO3 (here).

Link Loves Revolution

After Nintendo premiered the new Breath of the Wild sequel trailer during E3, all sorts of artists rushed to draw illustrations of the mysterious hero in the sky, but all I can think about when I see these handsome young men is how Link canonically eats bugs. In this house we love our feral son, and I couldn’t resist drawing the Ponyo meme.

The Legend of Haiku

The Legend of Haiku celebrates the natural environments and quiet moments of the games in the Legend of Zelda series. This 46-page zine collects the work of 28 poets and artists from around the world who have pooled their talents to create a gentle adventure into a beautiful green world filled with mystery and discovery.

🌿 You can download a free digital copy on Gumroad (here).
🌿 There are a handful of physical copies available on Etsy (here).
🌿 You can download the digital zine directly from Google Drive (here).

This project was a journey. I had initially planned to release the zine in November shortly after the end of the submission period, but I received such an incredible diversity of submissions from such a large number of people that I found myself at a loss regarding the best way to move forward. In addition, the pandemic resulted in severe delays with the United States Postal Service, and I actually had to close my store on Etsy because nothing was getting where it was supposed to go. I therefore had to put the project on hiatus for three months, and I was only able to resume work in March.  

If I learned anything from this process, it’s that most people are lovely and patient and kind. I was expecting to encounter more frustration, but everyone was very chill and nice.

I also learned that it’s good to take a big project like this in baby steps until I reach a sense of critical mass and can work for longer periods as I get a better sense of what needs to be done and how best to do it. I wasn’t prepared for the incredible response I got concerning this project, but I’m very grateful for the support of the contributors as I muddled my way through.

Thankfully, the zine turned out to be gorgeous, so it was all worth it in the end.  

I want to give a special shout-out to the cover artist, who goes by @flyingcucco on Twitter and @acro_bike on Instagram. Trina was an absolute pleasure to work with, and she put an extraordinary level of thought and attention into creating a design that captures the themes of the project. The full, unedited wrap-around cover illustration was awarded the honor of being a Daily Deviation on the portfolio hosting site DeviantArt, and I highly encourage you to check it out (here) if you’d like to read Trina’s concise but insightful artist statement.