Waiting on your next trip to Japan can feel long and tedious, especially when travel may not seem possible in the short term. However, that’s not a reason to stop exploring Japan, and it’s here where video games come in! We’ve done a deep dive into “video games set in Japan” where you can continue exploring and learning about the beautiful country that we all love. These games give a unique opportunity to explore, learn and enjoy Japan from the comfort of your sofa, while you wait for your next Japan trip to come closer.
Table of contents:
The Ryu ga Gotoku (published as Yakuza in the west) series is a long-running and beloved series in Japan. Games are set in an open world that combines elements of action-adventure, role-playing and turn-based strategy with a fun and engaging story that touches many Yakuza related matters. What makes the games engaging is that the developers have recreated real life locations that can be explored into detail. Including an almost limitless amount of side activities that can be enjoyed such as eating and drinking at various restaurants, visiting the video arcade, singing karaoke and hanging out at a hostess club.
The Yakuza series is as close as it gets to virtual tourism with places to explore that closely resemble famous real life locations including Kabukicho (Shinjuku), Dotonbori (Osaka), Nakasu (Fukuoka), Isezakicho (Yokohama) and the quaint harbour town of Onomichi. In the past JR Pass users have written to us that they enjoyed the games so much, that they used the pass to tour the real locations featured in the game.
Finally, don’t let the name Yakuza give you the wrong impression of the game. While serious topics related to Yakuza are touched, the protagonist is a chaotic good person. Not just that, the developers have filled the game with creative, fun and unexpected characters, side quests, mini-games and Easter eggs.
Editors note: Within the Yakuza series, each game stands on its own and can be played without having played the prior titles. The first game was released back in 2005 and has since a received a good remaster. If you want to understand each reference of the story then the remasters of Yakuza 1, 2 & 3 are a good place to start. At the same time, the latest game Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon features a complete new cast of characters also offers a pleasant starting point.
Available on: PlayStation, Xbox and PC
Pokémon and Pokémon Go
There is no other game or anime as popular and iconic worldwide as Pokémon. With the first games released on the original Game Boy, Pokémon has only grown and gained a wider audience, and it's not strange to have multiple generations in the same household enjoying the series. These days Pokémon is everywhere, and nowhere more so than in Japan. Playing the games is a great way to get familiar with elements of Japan and make new friends along the way.
The original catch-em, train and battle concept is still core of the latest Pokémon games on the Nintendo handhelds. There’s no better time to start playing Pokémon than the present. Start to play at home to get engaged and waste some time, then when you travel again start trading and battling with others.
Pokémon is set in a fictional world, yet much of the design and locations are inspired by real-life locations in Japan. For instance the first generation is set in Kanto, a reference to the greater Tokyo Area, while the 2nd generation is set in Johto which is west of Tokyo and reaches as far as Kansai. Newer generations are set in Sinnoh (Hokkaido), and Sevii Islands (Ogasawara islands). Much of the game design is inspired by Japanese landscapes, architecture and culture. Just playing the games and then arriving in Japan will give you a feel of homecoming.
In addition to the traditional console games, Pokémon Go makes the genre available on mobile and accessible to anyone with a smartphone. Almost 5 years after its release Pokémon Go remains excessively popular in Japan. When going around town you might just see getting a group of random people coming together all holding their smartphone, that probably means a Gym raid battle is going on, and the best thing is: you can join in with your own Pokémon Go team. You never know who you meet this way, and it can be a great way to connect with the locals.
Editors note: While Pokémon started as a kids game, these days the franchise is open for the whole family. In Japan especially it's not strange to see the older generation play Pokémon together. There’s no age excuse here!
Available on: Any recent Nintendo console or handheld. Pokémon Go is available on both Android and iOS.
The World Ends with You
Originally released back in 2007 on Nintendo DS, the World Ends with You (tWEwY) is set around Shibuya scramble crossing and explores the local youth culture of Shibuya. Within the game are landmarks, like Shibuya 109, Shibuya station and the statue of Hachiko. Not to forget about the local shops, restaurants, and side alleys. For those who have visited Shibuya before, the tWEwY will be very recognizable and for those that haven’t, the game is a great way to get familiar before your trip.
The World Ends with You is an action RPG with different duel and collection mechanics. The player collects “pins” which represent different powers and abilities that levelled and mastered, with their own impact on combat. The story plot is progressed by exploring the different districts of Shibuya and interacting with other characters that often lead to riddles to be solved.
The character design of the game is featuring unique characters.The protagonist, Neku Sakuraba, a punk-like fifteen-year-old who does not care much about others but is forced to team-up with different characters that all leave their mark. As the game processes Neku slowly opens up and learns to accept them as friends learn that there is more to life.
Editors note: The game was designed to play Nintendo DS and has seen a later release on iOS and Android. The game plays arguably best on DS, and we recommend getting it there if you have the chance, that said, its certainly worth playing on iOS and Android as well. At the time of writing, tWEwY has received recent updates on iOS but unfortunately not (yet) on Android and may not work fully on newer devices.
Available on: Nintendo DS, iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch.
On the surface Persona 5 is a J-RPG, that feels like a playable Anime where you explore the world with party members and go through dungeons, at the same time you also go through normal high school life and manage your daily tasks. Having said that, the game goes much deeper than that and is actually hard to explain without first having played one of the games for several hours.
In the latest instalment of the series, Persona 5, there are two worlds to explore, the real world and shadow world. The real world setting is for the greater part set in Tokyo and where you live your daily school life. The main location based on the Sangen-Jaya district in Tokyo, with other locations featured like Shibuya, Akihabara, Ginza, then there are other scenes set in other places around Japan like Sendai, Sapporo and Okinawa. Some locations are almost a one-on-one replica of how they are in person and playing the game will make you feel like you are there! The shadow world is more like a fictional world where almost anything is possible, where everyone wears a mask that symbolizes their special powers.
Compared to the other games on this list, Persona certainly takes a bit longer to get into, just because of the extensive story and rich world building, and it will take some time to learn the combat mechanics. At the same time you can easily spend over 100 hours in game and feel there’s more to explore.
Editors note: Each game within the Persona series stands on its own and other than the name and some combat mechanics there is not much that ties them together. Persona 5 is likely the best part of entrance for people new to the series. As the graphics are by far the best and the game feels fresh and new compared to older instalments.
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation and Windows (PC).
Steins;Gate is best described as a science fiction animated visual novel. Set in the district of Akihabara, Tokyo and touches upon different parts of Otaku culture. The gameplay mostly consists of reading the story with the player making choices that may branch the story plot or impact the plot at a later point. Resulting in an experience that is closer to reading a book than playing a traditional video game. This makes the game uniquely suited to be played while commuting, an occasion where you’d typically read a book.
The story revolved around the flow of time and potential time travel and receiving text messages on your phone from the future. Making for interesting twists and confusing moments alike. The story is very well written, with elaborate characters, a variety of emotional, comedic and philosophical moments. Progressing takes place from reading scene to scene with notifications popping up on your in-game mobile, it is then up to the player on how to respond to them.
Editors Note: Steins;Gate is something entirely different from what you’d typically find in a video game but closer to reading a novel. Yet the engaging story and multiple endings add great replay value traditional novels simply can’t offer. Due to its success the game also received a remake where all the original scenes were fully animated. This version of the game called Steins;Gate Elite might be better for those who prefer watching than reading. Furthermore, the game spawned a series of side stories, anime and manga to further enjoy the universe.
Due to its visual novel, we recommend playing on a larger screen like an iPad.
Available on: iOS, Android, PC, PlayStation and Xbox.