During the last two decades, the protocol for anime localization has undergone a massive shift. Simultaneous broadcasts have made subbed anime more popular and accessible than before, and English dubs are generally faithful and well-regulated. The days of heavy Americanization and censorship have long passed in favor of consolidated, up-to-date releases. This trend has affected anime video games as well, often leading anime games to be released stateside without any alterations or English voice acting.
In many ways, it’s never been a better time to be an anime fan outside of Japan. And yet, it’s a little bittersweet. As a full subs-over-dubs guy, I’m happy to see anime properly translated, but I still have some nostalgia for the 2000s era and the weirdness that came out of it. In that transitional era when anime was only just becoming mainstream in the West, some properties became popular enough to warrant video games targeted at Western audiences. Many of these never saw release in Japan. Some were decent, some were awful, and all of them are products of a bygone time, artifacts very unlike the Dragon Ball FighterZ and Jump Force of today.
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Dragon Ball Z: Taiketsu
In the wake of Dragon Ball Z: Budokai’s success on the PS2, Taiketsu was released for GBA a year later. Their naming conventions and boxart are so similar that Taiketsu looks like it could be a direct sequel. Instead, it was likely just marketed to ride on Budokai’s coattails. As it was one of the first games developed by Japanese studio Dimps, Budokai was rough around the edges — but part of what made it remarkable was that it was the first time iconic DBZ moments were recreated in 3D. Unfortunately, where Budokai was faithful, Taiketsu strayed too far. With its horribly off-model character sprites and random canon discrepancies, Webfoot Technologies didn’t seem to be in tune with the franchise. Android 18 inexplicably shooting missiles out of her ass was funny though, and Webfoot Technologies redeemed themselves a few years later with their other GBA games.
Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku (series)
Between its lifeless world and clunky mechanics, The Legacy of Goku was the perfect example of how a licensed game can fail to capture the magic of its source material. But the sequels turned things around. They fleshed out the RPG mechanics, added more variety to combat, and catered to fans more with inclusions like side quests covering the movies. To date, Legacy of Goku II and Buu’s Fury are some of the only DBZ games that let you explore the anime’s world (though the upcoming Project Z looks like it may follow suit). Buu’s Fury was the pinnacle of the series overall just because of its further refined mechanics and wealth of content. Plus, it included one of the most underrated parts of DBZ, Gohan’s wacky high school adventures.
Naruto: Rise of a Ninja
Rise of a Ninja is one of the only games on this list that feels like a Western AAA title. Unlike studios like Webfoot Technologies, Ubisoft has developed multiple high profile titles. And so, it’s no surprise that these games ended up distinct from Japanese Naruto adaptations. While Rise of the Ninja features a major fighting component, Ubisoft’s Naruto game also includes elements of RPGs and 3D platformers, letting the player explore Konoha Village. The free-roaming element is relatively rare among anime games, but the Xbox 360’s poor sales in Japan likely played a role in why this console exclusive never made it to Naruto’s home country.
As a franchise, Afro Samurai stands out as a unique example of international collaboration in anime. While the original manga was first published in Japanese, the anime adaptation only featured English voice acting. With Samuel L. Jackson as the lead and a soundtrack by RZA, the series prioritized African-American talent to suit its themes and aesthetic. Developed by Japanese company Namco Bandai, the game was a decent hack-and-slash with the same all-star cast as the show. But even though the anime still aired in Japan subtitled, the game remained exclusive to the U.S. and Europe. (Not to be confused with its indie sequel, Afro Samurai 2: Revenge of Kuma, which was terrible to the point that everyone who bought it was issued a full refund.)
The 4kids dub of One Piece is notorious for butchering the series beyond belief, with its heavy censorship and Americanization inadvertently ruining the series’ continuity. But the GBA game it inspired? Not bad. It’s a simple beat-em-up platformer hybrid, but it makes creative use of Luffy’s signature stretching powers for combat and environmental interaction. The game reused assets from the Japan-exclusive titles for the WonderSwan handheld, though they were often edited to be in line with the dub’s heavy censorship. Curiously, Sanji’s cigarette was replaced with a drinking straw instead of the dub’s infamous lollipop, though the lollipop made it in as a collectible easter egg.
Sailor Moon: La Luna Splende
In 2010, Toei Animation decided to start their international revival of Sailor Moon with a rebroadcast of the series in Italy. A year later, the DS game Sailor Moon: La Luna Splende was released there and nowhere else. The existence of an Italy-exclusive Sailor Moon game is a strange novelty, though the actual gameplay is just a dull take on a puzzle platformer. Even if this game made it out of Europe, it could never live up to the cult classic Sailor Moon S for Super Famicom, which is still played at major fighting game tournaments like EVO to this day.
Pokemon Puzzle League
Pokemon Puzzle League is a video game based on the English dub of an anime based on a video game. Like the Yoshi-themed Tetris Attack, Pokemon Puzzle League was another attempt to reskin the Japanese Panel de Pon games to appeal to Western audiences. Coming in at the tail end of Pokémania, the game had a few years of dub-exclusive content to work with, including instrumental mixes of the show’s soundtrack album, Pokémon 2.B.A. Master. As another Panel de Pon game, Pokemon Puzzle League is a great block puzzle game, but with the GameCube on its way at the time, it’s understandable that Nintendo didn’t bother with a Japanese release.