This is an article I’ve been meaning to write for a LONG time, and now I’m finally getting around to it.
Many people are aware that there is no territorial lockout on any of Nintendo’s handhelds, and Japanese Gameboy / Gameboy Advance / DS games work just fine in American Gameboys / Gameboy Advances / DSs without any sort of modding. Most Americans don’t know Japanese, however, and are thus reluctant to buy games that they won’t be able to understand.
This is a list of the top five Japanese-only Gameboy Advance games that are not only fully-accessible to people who don’t understand Japanese (either because they’re already all in English or because the gameplay is clear enough that you don’t have to be able to read the Japanese text), but are also so good that they’re worth the extra cost for shipping to import them.
5: Dragon Quest Slime Mori Mori is the GBA prequel to the DS game Rocket Slime. If you’ve already played Rocket Slime, then just imagine it without the tanks and with more challenging gameplay. If you haven’t played Rocket Slime, then here’s the scoop: DQ Slime Mori Mori is a top-down, Zelda-style action adventure game where you play a blue Dragon Quest slime on a quest to rescue 100 of your fellow slimes from an evil platypus and his minions. Since you’re a slime, you don’t have any hands to hold weapons, so gameplay consists primarily of stretching yourself out and shooting yourself like a rubberband at enemies. You can carry up to three things at a time (any combination of enemies, items, and other slimes) by smashing into them, knocking them into the air, and then catching them on your head, and there are mine carts, balloons, and other means of conveyance scattered throughout the levels that will carry anything you toss onto them back to your home town. You use these carts primarily to send home the slimes you’ve rescued, but there’s also a friendly platypus who lives in your town and will build new buildings for your town if you send back the right combinations of items and monsters.
This game has the most Japanese text of any of the games in this list, but the plot is very straightforward, and the vast majority of the dialogue is just slimes thanking you for saving them and making the kinds of painful puns in Japanese that Rocket Slime features in English.
The fourth, third, and second game on this list are all from a series of games entitled bit Generations. The bit Generations games were all designed by Nintendo to promote the “sexiness” of the Gameboy Micro (although they’re also playable on any other Gameboy Advance and on the DS), and are all aesthetically stunning, and minimalist both graphically and in terms of gameplay. They were also all released for around $20 each. Thankfully, because English is “sexy” in Japan, all of the text in all of the bit Generations games is in English to make the games sexier.
4: Digidrive looks exactly like the “competitive video games” you see in sci-fi movies, that look really cool, but make absolutely no sense because they were designed by art designers to look cool in the movie, not to actually be playable games. This one, however, actually DOES make sense, and it’s also a lot of fun. It’s kind of hard to describe, though. It’s a puzzle game based on directing traffic at an intersection. Really. Cars (and by “cars” I mean “triangles”) drive into the intersection, and you can direct them in any of the 3 directions that is not the one they came from. When they reach the end of that street, they stop. Identical cars pile up, and once you pile up 5 cars they “color” that street. On the right side of the screen is a vertical bar that looks like a cross between a shuffleboard and a thermometer, with a puck in the middle and a nasty grindy thing moving steadily toward the puck. “Cop cars” appear randomly (or you can call them by pressing the A button if you have any in stock) and sending a cop car down a colored street “pops” the street, and sends the puck flying up the shuffleboard, away from the grinder. The game ends when the grinder reaches the puck. I realize that makes NO sense at all, but fortunately there’s a “demo” option on the main menu that’ll demonstrate the game for you. There’s also a versus mode, where you and your opponent are launching the puck toward each others’ goals, and can pick up various special attacks.
Here is a video of someone doing incredibly well at Digidrive, which will probably make no sense until you’ve played it, but will give you an idea of what the game looks like. Of course, that’s not the actual music from the game.
3:Orbital is the best game I’ve played with only 2 buttons. It’s sort of like a very abstract and minimalist Katamari Damacy. You play a planet, floating around in 2D space, navigating around other planets using only your 2 buttons: more gravity and less gravity. The other planets are color-coded depending on their relation to you; red planets are bigger than you, and will kill you if you smash into them, blue planets are as big as you, and can be “consumed” to make you bigger, and white planets are smaller than you, and can either be consumed, or picked up as satellites by skimming close enough by them to pull them into your orbit (satellites are worth tons of points, and each one gives you an extra life when they’re tallied at the end of the level). Red planets also each have a ring around them that shows the boundary of their orbit; if you get inside the ring flying tangentially to the planet you can achieve stable orbit and hear a little jingle telling you such. As you become bigger, planets change color to show their relation to you, and once you get big enough one of the planets turns into a yellow sun, which will kill you if you crash into it, but completes the level if you pull it into your orbit. When the sun appears, a little crescent moon also appears somewhere else, which gives you a big bonus if you pull it into your orbit, but is destroyed if you crash into it. Finishing every single level with the crescent moon is the game’s special challenge; I have no idea what happens if you accomplish it, although I did beat all of the game’s 30 levels (and got the moon on about half of those).
2: Soundvoyager is a collection of “audio-only” minigames. Each game starts out with minimalist graphics to help you along, but the graphics gradually fade out so that all you have left is the audio. A blind person would have absolutely zero problem playing this. The minigame menu is arranged in a tree, and every other node of the tree, beginning with the first node, is a “sound catcher”, the only minigame you can’t lose. In sound catcher, you start out in silence, and hear a loop coming at your from some angle. You line up with the loop using the control pad, and if you’re properly lined up with it at the beginning of its measure you “catch” it, hear a little beep, and then the next loop appears from some angle, layered on top of the previous loops. If you miss a loop, it just gets shuffled back in with the ones you haven’t caught yet. Once you catch all of the loops, you hear a special chime, the tune fades out, and two more loops appear, which coincide to the next two nodes on the tree. Catching one or the other will give you access to its minigame, after which you get another “sound catcher”. The other minigames I’ve gotten so far are “sound slalom”, where you must navigate as fast as possible (speed up with the A button) between two alternating points of sound, “sound cannon”, where you have to rotate and shoot down sounds, and “sound drive”, where you have to avoid oncoming audio traffic.
Anyone who’s played In The Pit or Sonic Invaders for extended periods of time knows how relaxing and hypnotic audio-only games can be, and this is by far the best one yet.
1: Rhythm Tengoku (“tengoku” means “heaven”) is the final Gameboy Advance game from the team that made the Warioware Microgames series, and is sort of an extension and perfection of the rhythm games in Warioware: Twisted. Rather than Warioware’s random barrage of microgames, Rhythm Tengoku features eight levels, each of which is divided into five one-minute songs, with each song unlocking when you beat the previous song. Each of the songs is an mp3-quality rhythm minigame reminiscent of the Warioware minigames; for the first song, you control a karate master, punching various things as they fly toward him to the rhythm of the song. For the second song, you control a pair of tweezers, plucking hairs off of the chins of onions with faces to the rhythm of the song. The “boss” of each level is a remix that combines all of that level’s five songs into one medley that shifts gameplay between those five songs as it shifts between melodies. It probably doesn’t sound like much from my description, but all of the songs are extremely catchy, there’s a wonderful and inventive variety to the minigames, and anyone whose played the Warioware games knows how much addictive gameplay its designers are able to squeeze into even the simplest of games. This game is the most expensive on this list at around $40, but it’s absolutely worth every penny.
It’s also worth noting that Rhythm Tengoku can NOT be played on an emulator, because there’s a slight audio lag on Gameboy Advance emulators, and for this game it’s absolutely crucial that the audio and video and input line up perfectly.
So there you go. If you’ve tapped out the American Gameboy Advance market and are looking for something new, or if you just want to feel smug playing a game that almost nobody else outside of Japan has played, you certainly can’t go wrong with any of the five games listed above.
All of these games are available via Play-Asia, an import store that I’ve heard lots of good things about but have never tried myself. You can probably also find all of these games on eBay, but in my experience 99% of the Gameboy Advance games on eBay are low-quality Chinese bootlegs that don’t work at all half the time and will die after a few years the other half of the time (because it’s cheaper for bootleggers to use battery-powered RAM than the permanent flash RAM used in real Gameboy Advance cartridges).