Japan’s pop culture is dominated by two inextricably linked industries – video games and animation. The twin forces even form part of the country’s Cool Japan ambassadorial project, pushing Japanese creativity to a global market. Yet in the west, although anime fandom has grown significantly, we still tend to see the fields as separate, aficionados of one medium only occasionally crossing over to the other.
Anime is a powerful storytelling platform in its own right though, and with increased home video releases and a cavalcade of titles available on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Crunchyroll, it’s never been easier for players to explore a medium that has inspired thousands of video games over the last 40 years.
Here are 10 titles absolutely rooted in gaming culture.
Sword Art Online
Isekai – a tale of characters transported to other worlds – is a staple genre of Japanese fiction, but now we’re seeing anime where these alternate worlds are based in video games or virtual reality experiences. The .hack franchise was arguably first to do so, but Sword Art Online upgraded the idea. Based on the novels of Reki Kawahara, the series follows Kirito, trapped inside a massively multiplayer VR game along with thousands of others. The only escape is to complete the game – but dying virtually means death in the real world. It’s a gripping sci-fi thriller that blurs genre lines.
Availability: the first season of Sword Art Online is on Netflix UK, while both seasons to date are also on UK Blu-ray and anime streaming service Crunchyroll.
Ghost in the Shell
Centred on Motoko Kusanagi and the counter-terrorist operatives of Public Security Section 9, Masamune Shirow’s near-legendary cyberpunk manga has lead to movies, TV, and Original Video Animation (OVA) adaptations. Although Ghost in the Shell games themselves are rare (there’s one on PS1, co-developed by animation house Production IG; PS2 and PSP games based on TV series Stand Alone Complex; and a now-defunct online FPS spinoff dubbed First Strike)Shirow’s universe has left an indelible mark on developers’ psyches. Destiny studio Bungie’s 2001 title Oni was directly inspired by it, while GitS’s themes of transhumanism, cybernetic augmentation, and transferrable consciousness find echoes in everything from Mass Effect to Metal Gear. There’s plenty of GitS to watch, but start with the original 1995 movie and go from there.
Availability: Manga UK has released the movies and TV anime on DVD, while OVA reboot Ghost in the Shell: Arise is on Netflix.
Dragon Ball itself needs little introduction – loosely inspired by epic Chinese novel Journey to the West, the long-running battles of monkey-tailed warrior Goku and his powerful friends and rivals is one of few anime series to enjoy mainstream success. Yet when original creator Akira Toriyama drew the manga to a close in 1995, the anime following suit with the the final episode of Dragon Ball GT in 1997, it was the games industry that helped keep the series alive. With numerous role-playing adventures and countless brawlers inspired by Toriyama’s works, a steady flow of Dragon Ball games has helped introduce younger fans to the world. Two decades on, the anime series is back with the TV show Dragon Ball Super – but it likely wouldn’t be here if games hadn’t kept the flame burning.
Availability: Manga UK has released the original anime series and movies on DVD and Blu-ray, while Dragon Ball Super streams on Crunchyroll.
Yes, Digimon. Bandai-Namco’s monster-battling series never enjoyed the success of its rival Pokémon, but its reduced presence allowed the anime adaptations to fly under the radar. The early TV adaptations, while still very much aimed at younger viewers, explored more mature themes than Ash and Pikachhu would ever come across, including abandonment and death. Over the years, Digimon has grown with its audience, culminating in the current Digimon Adventure Tri, a series of full-length movies returning to the original characters as young adults.
Availability: Manga UK is releasing the original series and the Tri movies on DVD and Blu-ray, while Digimon Fusion is on Netflix and Digimon Xros Wars is on Crunchyroll.
Almost any Studio Ghibli film could sit here; the animation house globally renowned for the stunning works of directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata has inspired and influenced thousands of creators and developers. Spirited Away bears mentioning for its similarity to the only game Ghibli was directly involved with, Ni no Kuni. Ghibli provided animated cutscenes for the Level-5 developed RPG which, like Oscar-winning Spirited Away, sees its young hero drawn into a beautiful fantasy world. Studio Ghibli’s influence can be found elsewhere too, from the early PlayStation series Jade Cocoon, which enjoyed a visual closeness courtesy of Studio Ghibli character designer Katsuya Kondo work, to upcoming indie fare such as Forgotton Anne.
Availability: Spirited Away, and the rest of the Studio Ghibli filmography, is widely available on UK Blu-ray and DVD.
Record of Lodoss War
Ryo Mizuno’s series of fantasy novels was tied to gaming from word one, developed from replay dramatisations (think Let’s Plays, only written) of Dungeons and Dragons sessions. First published in 1988, the series followed young knight Parn and his allies as they journeyed across the “cursed isle” Lodoss, with character archetypes, abilities and mythology drawn from the RPG rule set. Mizuno’s books spawned two anime series in the 1990s, countless manga adaptations, and numerous video games (most recently Lodoss War Online), in turn helping define what Japan’s fantasy creators would do throughout the 80s and 90s.
Availability: released long ago in the UK on VHS, the only way to visit Lodoss now is by importing the Blu-ray release from the US, or by subscribing to the Funimation streaming service.