What Is An ‘Anime Game,’ Anyway? – This Week in Anime

Chris and Lucas try to quantify the ‘vibe’ that makes something an anime game; is it point of origin, art style, or something else?

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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, God Eater, Muv-Luv Alternative and Sakura Wars the Animation are currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Two summers ago, I was waiting in line at Anime Expo (as one does) and struck up a conversation with the person ahead of me. They were tucking their Switch into their backpack, so I asked them, “Hey, what games do you play?” They replied, “Oh, ya know, mostly anime games.” I laughed as I could have guessed the answer and said, “Makes sense, and me too! Have you checked out Neon White? It’s rad as hell!” Their brow furrowed in ignorance, “No, but I’m playing Master Duel and Genshin. Are you into those?” My smile went from friendly to a facade as I answered: “…No.” We then listed nearly a dozen games that neither of us had played! So, my question for you today, Chris, is, “What the hell even is an anime game!?”


Ah, gaming. The only pastime more engaging is pedantically arguing semantics, so sure, I’ll head down this rabbit hole with you, Lucas. Let it be known that this go-around, we are This Week In Games—wait, no, can’t use that, our good friend Jean-Karlo already has that as his column. Oh well, I’m sure we’ll figure something out before this is over.

Or maybe not, since you’d think the answer to what an “anime” game is would be quickly deduced: a video game based on an anime. Boom, dusted.
Damn, speaking of gaming, we’re speed-running this TWIA installment! I can’t think of a single game more anime than Naruto: Ninja Storm for the PS2, my childhood licensed anime fighting game of choice.

Though, at the risk of going on an immediate tangent, are any of these kinds of licensed anime games good? I know Dragon Ball FighterZ is still quietly huge, and I’m hoping for good things with the Sand Land game, but these kinds of games usually feel more like a cash-grab than anything else.
I never got around to the Naruto games myself, but running in fighting game circles as I did in that era, I heard a lot of good things about them. That was before they were licensed for English release, back when people were importing and talking about these rad Gekitō Ninja Taisen arena fighters. Stuff like those and the concurrent Dragon Ball Z Budokai games were a damn sight ahead of schlock like Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout from the previous generation. You can see their engaging quality paving the way for the success of stuff like FighterZ today.

Oh man, now that you invoke Budokai, my body is READY for DRAGON BALL: Sparking! ZERO! It has so many Gokus and Vegetas to choose from!

Amongst other licensed options, the anime-based fighting game is a subgenre with a pretty robust selection. Dragon Ball has solid entries going back at least to the SNES years. And I fondly recall the region-free abilities of the Nintendo DS and the PSP, allowing me to import and play multiple Bleach fighters before they came out here.

Forget FromSoft’s offerings, this will always be my Dark Souls.

Still, while fighters based on anime series make for an easy “anime game” designation, they also provide a handy segue into the more nebulous definition that kickstarted your conundrum. After all, “anime fighter” is a recognized subset of the broader fighting game genre!

That’s a good point! I did some research, and it seems like anime fighting games dominate the larger fighting game genre right now! EVO’s 2024 lineup consists mostly of fighting games with anime aesthetics and vibes, with titles like Guilty Gear, Granblue, and two different Street Fighters!

That raises the question—how do games that evoke anime fit into the “anime game” umbrella term? Or what happens when a game is so popular that it gets an anime adaptation, like the aforementioned Street Fighter, or a title like Bayonetta?
Hell, I’m particular enough about this that I’d argue that Street Fighter isn’t an anime fighter. Save for maybe the Alpha series. See, it’s murky!

Still, stuff like Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, and French-Bread’s Under Night In-Birth are built on the same aesthetic sensibilities as popular Japanese anime and manga that they fit right in with that fandom. Heck, BlazBlue is another one that has its own anime adaptation, though I haven’t seen folks talk about it much. They can’t all be Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie.

If aesthetic signifiers are all it takes to be an “anime,” then any video game made in Japan thus counts under the “anime game” term. However, that might speak to the multimedia sensibilities of so many of these productions, wherein you can wind up with something like Melty Blood, which encompasses fighting game, visual novel, manga, and out there in the tangential adaptational ether, anime.

Ah, the classic, “If it looks like an anime, it’s an anime argument!” Usually, I’m down for this broad-stroke inclusion in genre discussions, but I think this evaluation process is a bit limiting. For one thing, it leads to categorizing something like the delightful visual novel Class of 09 as an anime game when it’s actually a pretty spirited critique of the worst elements of the anime fan community.

Also, this definition leaves out the Monster Hunter games, and I don’t believe there’s a single person on the planet who’s played any amount of a Monster Hunter game without having watched at least an episode of an anime!
This is why Bandai Namco gave us the God Eater series, games which aimed to be “Monster Hunter, but more visibly anime.” It’s another one that got an anime adaptation nobody talks about!

You also bring up an important distinction, which is that there is a metric crapton of games that lovingly ape that anime aesthetic but weren’t produced in Japan and have bugger-all to do with the art form. And while I love stuff like VA-11 Hall-A and Helltaker, it’d be disingenuous to say they belong to the same ilk as anything from, say, the Type-Moon Industrial Complex.

Oh man, “Can anime be made outside of Japan” is going to be a point of discussion in this community until the sun explodes. Though, I will say, if you remove regionality and art direction from these evaluations, and just focus on narratives, character writing, and mechanics like turn-based combat and romance-able companions; Baldur’s Gate 3 sure does have a lot in common with the current king of anime games, Persona 5.

Astarion is a bishie anime boi confirmed!
There’s plenty of convergent evolution of the dense, plot-driven RPGs between both the Eastern and Western sides of gaming. It’s been nice to see stuff like Baldur’s Gate embrace the dense romance options codified by Japanese gaming’s entire extremely anime dating-sim genre.

Now, if only we could get them to stop doing dating sims as jokes for April Fools’ Day.

Oh my god! I’m not even super into visual novels or dating sims, and I always find those super tacky! It feels more disrespectful to games as an art form than anything else when we get groan-worthy games that are glorified commercials like I Love You, Colonel Sanders! or The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog.

It certainly speaks to a disregard for that particular side of culture, even as whatever “anime games” are has become increasingly mainstream over the console generations. It’s particularly pointed because visual novels and dating sims are so foundational to big crossover hits like the Phoenix Wright series or the just-mentioned Persona.

You don’t get here without Tokimeki Memorial, and that’s to say nothing of several of those fighting games and indie hits I rattled off that also owe their existence to VNs.
You’re completely right, both about the silent and seismic influence of Tokimeki Memorial and about how the genre should be a way to trace the genealogy of influence over iterative bodies of work.

This is why franchises like Armored Core and Virtual On are 100% anime games despite not sharing anime visuals or the social elements pioneered in Tokimeki Memorial. They’re both explicitly engaging with ideas and storytelling conventions in mecha anime, making them “anime games.”

That lays out what tends to be my platonic ideal of an “anime game”: a game that lets you feel like you’re playing an anime. To get back to the RPG precedent of Persona, this is one reason playing the Lunar games back on the PS1 was so formative alongside my anime fandom. Yes, the actual anime cutscenes were a big part of that, but their stories and characters were rooted in the same broad appeal of the stuff I’d seen on Toonami at the time.

Oh dang, another blind spot for me! What happened in the Lunar games that earned them this special place in your heart?

Also, fwiw, the Monster Rancher games are my underappreciated PS1 anime game darlings!

LMAO! Noting gets me nostalgic faster than PS1-era localizations! I was replaying the first Persona game Revelations: Persona (totally legally) recently, and there’s a character who shouts “Kick it” right before he blasts a hoard of demons with an SMG. Truly this is where video games peaked.

Gotta love Atlus‘ attempt at using “Revelations” as an English equivalent of the Shin Megami Tensei name, reflecting the tenuous state of Japanese franchises here at the time. Luckily, that didn’t last.

Now if only ATLUS would drop their habit of releasing enhanced and extended additions of games that are already too long for their own good…

Decidedly “quirky” adaptational choices aside, plenty of PS1 games were selling themselves on that anime identity. Wild Arms featured an opening animation that played each time you loaded your save file, like the beginning of a new episode. Galerians sold all of its cutscenes stitched together on DVD (and PSP UMD!) as an “anime” OVA!

This gets into the idea that the definition of an “anime” game isn’t just one of aesthetics or story influence, but the delivery of that material. It’s why one of the most “anime” games in my recent memory is the 2019 soft reboot of the Sakura Wars series. Sure, this game has Tite Kubo character designs, and an anime OP like so many others, but it also has next-episode previews.

Also another hot springs scene, so at least my standards are consistent.

A funny story about that Sakura Wars game. I tried to get into it by watching the related anime released around the same time, and nobody, not even Funimation, felt the need to mention that the anime was a direct sequel to the game and that newcomers would have no idea what was going on.

And you’re right that this categorization comes down to vibes more than anything else. If a game makes you utter the iconic Metal Gear Solid line, you’re playing an anime game, my friend!

Anime adaptations of storied Japanese game franchises like Sakura Wars can have a hard time catching a break; just ask Muv-Luv.

While I can confirm that those vibes are important, I would round back to my earlier point that these things still require some confluence of Japanese production and anime aesthetics to meet the qualifications. Otherwise, we’re dangerously close to considering Doki Doki Literature Club an “anime” game, and I ain’t about that.
Ah, Doki Doki Literature Club. A respectable meta-horror visual novel, but is it an anime game?
Also, while we’re talking about older, semi-forgotten anime games, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Fate/stay night franchise! Where, as far as I can tell, developer Type-Moon really wants folks to forget the more adult focus of the first game in its now money-factory multimedia machine.
You can fight Saber in multiple crossover anime fighters now, she’s got better things to do than Shirou.

Though notably, the original Fate/stay night is hardly forgotten. It’s finally getting an English release later this year, along with Tsukihime, progenitor of Melty Blood.

That only took twenty years and the most successful mobile game on the planet.
Aw yeah! Bring on the (presumably tasteful) smut!

Wait, I just read the fine print, and it looks like this remaster is based on a version stripped of adult content. Still, I’m sure it’ll serve as an onramp for me to finally check out one of the most anime-ass gaming franchises around today.

Oh yeah, that’s been the case for Fate/stay night since the first time it was remastered. It serves as an indicator of how the ambitions and influences of these series have always spread beyond their humble illicit origins. Maybe that’s just one more ingredient in the anime qualification cocktail: Sure, outsiders looking in may know something like Kill la Kill as that thing with all the fanservice, but anime viewers know it for its stirring storytelling and eccentric animation (and all the fanservice). So the same goes for a steamy start-up like Fate that introduced the world to a dense, well-loved anime setting.

And maybe that’s a great definition to help wind down this convo; if a game’s a little horny, there’s definitely a seat for it at the anime game lunch table!

Hey, I can discuss horny. Don’t ask me about my other recent favorite anime adventure: All fans of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim know we can’t talk about our game!

Fingers crossed I have just as good a time with Vanillaware’s most recent title, Unicorn Overlord, as you did with 13 Sentinels. Though I’ll have to get through Final Fantasy VII Rebirth before I give it a shot, and I feel like those end credits are still a long way off.

Look, if Advent Children was an anime movie then the FF7 remakes are absolutely anime games. But maybe that’s for the best that we can’t get video games in as easily for these discussions as we do anime, so this probably won’t become a regular focus of the column. Like I said, Jean-Karlo’s already got the “This Week in…” front locked down for games. Plus it turns out I wasn’t able to figure out a proper name for this iteration of TWIA after all. “This Week in Anime…Games”? We barely managed to figure out what those were!

Hey, we’re plugging other regular segments across Anime News Network in between being incredibly pedantic; if that’s not in the This Week In Anime spirit, I don’t know what is!

You know what, I’ll take that win.