A Beginner's Guide to Visual Novels on the Dreamcast

Avid fans of the Dreamcast are most likely already aware that the console enjoyed a much longer life in its home country of Japan (the last officially licensed Dreamcast game, Karous, was released in 2007). For this reason, as well as the fact 90s console developers had a track record of thinking Western gamers were frightened of anything even slightly unconventional, there is an extensive list of Japan-only Dreamcast games just waiting for fans to import. The best part is that so many are playable without knowledge of the Japanese language. All you need is a boot disc or a modded Dreamcast and voilà! you've unlocked another section of the Dreamcast library. Check out our A to Z of Dreamcast Games if you want to know the best Japan-exclusives to get your mitts on.

However, for every playable game, there are just as many that are unplayable for anyone who isn't fluent in Japanese. Anyone who is insane enough to try and collect a full Japanese set will soon realise that there is plenty of "filler" - the kind of stuff you only buy for the sake of checking another game off the list and not because you are actually going to be able to play it. You know, those games with the anime girls on the front. Games like this:
Some might mistakenly call these things "dating simulators", but that's a different kettle of fish entirely. No, these are "visual novels", and they do exactly what they say on the tin, they are novels with visual elements. The term was coined by developer Leaf, with their "Visual Novel Series" of text-based adventure games (source). Boot up any game like this and you'll be greeted with nothing more than walls of Japanese text and images of anime characters making various expressions. They are a very niché style of game that have never had a big following outside of Japan, especially back in the early 2000s (hence their Japanese exclusivity). Some may debate whether or not they are actually games at all, but they're still something I'd recommend to keen readers and anime fans alike. 

Their "gameplay" more or less consists of reading text and (in the case of the most common type of visual novel) occasionally answering a multiple choice question on how the main character should react or respond in a certain situation. That might not sound all that interesting to some, but I like to look at visual novels as a more visual version of a choose your own adventure book, and being a fan of anime, the artwork contained within is something I'm familiar with. A lot of the stories are enjoyable, and believe it or not, the plots aren't always romantic; there are visual novels that focus on genres like sci-fi and mystery, for example.

When it comes to visual novels, the Dreamcast is home to plenty. A quick search on the Visual Novel Database for releases on the Dreamcast brings up over 100 games, so if you're aiming for that full Japanese set and can't read the language, rest assured that you're about to become the proud owner of many interactive drinks coasters. But players of visual novels will tell you that the Dreamcast games with the anime girls on the front aren't filler at all, and that Japanese Dreamcast players were gifted with some absolute classics within the medium. Everyone says the Dreamcast has got some of the best games, well it does in the visual novel department too. Here, let me show you.

Something for the Sega Fanatics
Let's start with one that quite a few Dreamcast fans might at least be familiar with: Sakura Taisen (or Sakura Wars). This series is Sega's foray into the visual novel genre, but Sakura Wars is more than a vanilla visual novel, as it combines tactical RPG and dating sim elements. The first two Sakura Wars games were released on the Sega Saturn, but the series found its true home on the Dreamcast, where the first two games were re-released, along with brand new releases in the form of the third and fourth game. There was also a few spin-off games, including Sakura Taisen Online which had players enjoying tabletop games over the internet against each other.

Sakura Wars is a game that always sounded right up my street for its blending of genres, but also because of how its visual novel/date simulation side plays so well into its tactical RPG side. The player's choices and interactions in the various Sakura Wars games play a heavy influence on their storylines and endings. As the player builds up relationships with certain characters, they will perform better in battle and their stats will improve. Think Persona 5, but a tactical version.

This is a franchise that sold well in Japan, and was merchandised heavily, with anime and manga adaptations made, and even a movie. There was also a pretty pink Sakura Wars branded Dreamcast released, along with a controller and a VMU. Sadly, despite its success in Japan, the fifth Sakura Wars game, released on the PS2 and the Wii in 2010, is the only game in the franchise to receive an official English release. Weirdly, the first two games in the series received official PC releases in Russia of all places. 

Thankfully, both Sakura Wars for the Saturn and Sakura Wars Columns 2 for the Dreamcast have been translated into English by fans, with translations for Sakura Wars 2 (Saturn) and Sakura Wars 3 (Dreamcast) currently in the works.

Something that is Considered a Masterpiece
Kotaro Uchikoshi, the celebrated writer/director behind the fantastic Zero Escape series had several of his earlier visual novels ported onto the Dreamcast. A few of the Memories Off games were released on the DC, as well as science fiction visual novel Never 7: The End of Infinity. Most notable however is Never 7's sequel: Ever17: The Out of Infinity, which is considered to be an absolute classic, and in the context of the Dreamcast, probably the best visual novel on the system. RPGFan ranked the game as the eighteenth best role-playing game of the 2000s, calling it "a pinnacle of visual novels" and calling its storyline "one of the most emotionally charged, intense, deep, and compelling [...] ever seen in a video game". 

Released in different variations on the Dreamcast (with the first released in 2002), Ever17 features a plot about seven individuals who become trapped in an underwater marine theme park and their attempts to escape. Ever17 is much bigger that a simple escape story, however. The relationships between its different characters are intricate and deep, and the game's multiple endings, unlockable routes and the mounting conspiracy about the real cause of the accident will have players revisiting many times until they've seen it all the way to the very end. While you won't be able to play it on your trusty white Sega box without knowing Japanese, this one did received an official English release on the PC, and a way of converting it to be played on the Nintendo DS in English exists too.

Interestingly, the premium edition (pictured above) contains a promotional disc for the third visual novel in the series, Remember 11: The Age of Infinity. This visual novel was never released on the Dreamcast, but unused menu items for "Dream Passport" and "VM Icon" exist in the files of its PC version, so it seems like a Dreamcast port was in the works at some point. I am really intrigued as to whether or not this promotional disc is just some kind of media content, or if is actually a playable demo of this unreleased Dreamcast game. If you own this version of Ever17, do let me know.

Update (07/11/18): A fellow called Bill has confirmed via the DCJY Facebook group that the Remember 11 promotional disc contains a trailer and not a playable demo. Mystery solved!

Source: RPGFan - Top 20 RPGs of the Last Decade
Source 2: The Cutting Room Floor - Remember 11: The Age of Infinity

Something for the Hopeless Romantics
If you've ever seen an anime series called Clannad, I'm sorry for reminding you about the time you sobbed your eyes out over a cartoon. In case you didn't know, the Clannad anime is an adaptation of a critically acclaimed visual novel by a company called Key. Key are considered heavyweights in the romantic visual novel genre, and their first two games received Dreamcast ports: Kanon and Air.

Kanon and Air follow a similar kind of plot structure and have similarly likeable characters. Both feature a very dream-like atmosphere and absolutely gorgeous music, with branching plot lines that can be heartbreaking, but heartbreaking is something that the developers Key are famous for: they are the Kings of emotional visual novel writing. The Dreamcast port for Kanon was released in 2000, and Air's was released in 2001. While PSP translations are on the way for both, for now anyone wanting to play either of these visual novels in English will have to get it on PC in the form of a translation patch. If anyone does feel like translating the Dreamcast version of Kanon into English though, I'll buy you a pint for your services. It's my favourite.

Something to Approach with Caution
This thing goes a little bit outside the theme of this article as it was never officially released on the Dreamcast, but I just had to include it because its existence absolutely blew my mind. Believe it or not, there exists an English homebrew port of a visual novel for the Dreamcast. It's a game called Divi-Dead, and the image you see above is a reproduction by Dreamcasting.

Featuring a supernatural horror plot that takes place in a eerie high school setting, players take on the role of a student whose job is to spy on his fellow students in order to uncover a supernatural mystery. Divi-Dead appears to be much more interactive than a typical visual novel, allowing the player to navigate through the game's academy setting in order to encounter various scenes and conversations with other characters. Its art style absolutely oozes that late nineties anime art style which might entice quite a lot of anime nerds out there, but it also contains some extremely dark content, much of which is of a sexual nature. While the idea of an english visual novel being playable on the Dreamcast is amazing to me, and the dark atmosphere of the game seems pretty cool, the explicit themes are the reason I'm giving this one a miss. However if that kind of thing floats your boat and you want said boat floated on your favourite Sega console, it's completely doable.
My mind was subsequently blown when I also came to learn that Divi-Dead received an English homebrew port for the original Xbox too. What an amazing world we live in.

Source: Dreamcasting on Flickr
Thanks for reading my pointless ramblings. My name is Lewis and I'm new here. I run the website Alt:Mag where I talk about gaming, anime and other geek culture-related gubbins. I am ecstatic to be writing for DCJY as it has been a big influence on my own writing as well as my continuing love for the Dreamcast. You can see me ramble more on Twitter, @LewisJFC. Peace.

Recent articles:


DCGX said...

Just after I had my DC modded, maybe around 2003/2004, I started looking into the Japanese library to see what might be worth getting now that I could play Japanese games. More often than not I would find a game, love the cover art, read a brief description and then figure out it was a visual novel (before I knew of the term visual novel), and I'd be disappointed. Not because I couldn't read Japanese and therefore not enjoy the games, though that played a part, but because they weren't really games. Which is fine, but not my cup of tea. I've chosen not to buy the vast majority of the PSVita's releases in the last few years because they're primarily visual novels. Again, not a bad thing, just not my thing. This is a helpful little guide though for those that do like VNs.

hoogafanter said...

I played a few hours of Divi-Dead... I think I was brain-dead by the time I realized I should stop...

Tom Charnock said...

Great article Lewis - these games are a part of the Dreamcast library I know very little about, mainly due to the language barrier. Welcome to the team, look forward to more stuff like this!

Hiro said...

I have a few visual novels, they are distracted, they have minigames or they even mix with graphic adventures like other genres.

With lovely OPs and I advise you to get the limited editions as they include: from PVC dolls of the visual novel, OST, cards, VMU dedicated to the game...