Genre Breakdown: Video Game Adaptations

These posts on video games and manga are co-written with Matthew Hawkins, a librarian and video game expert with a decades-long resume as a journalist, developer, and curator of video game-related art. As you might gather from the name, Matt is also my husband.

Video game adaptations and manga about video games are such a significant subset of manga that I will actually be breaking them down into two parts. This post will discuss only manga that adapts existing video games. In the following long post that will come this Saturday, I will discuss manga that has video game elements or utilizes video game culture.

The Japanese Video Game Industry

Sega Akihabara 1st, is an iconic arcade building in Tokyo. 

In Japan, video games are a significant and vital industry. Most video game enthusiasts associate Japanese companies such as Sony, Nintendo, and Sega with the “Golden Age of Video Games.” This is an image that Japan as a nation works to propagate through initiatives such as Cool Japan. Yes, there really is an initiative funded by the Japanese government to make Japan look cool to foreigners (and it’s unclear if this initiative actually works, especially at this moment). Regardless of whether or not the government has convinced the rest of the world of its “coolness”, the impact of the Japanese game industry cannot be denied. The importance of this industry means that video game manga and light novels are an inevitable byproduct of the games themselves.

Fully articulating what a massive presence video games are in Japanese society is beyond the scope of this one single article. Nothing best sums up what a big deal they’ve become than how they’re no longer a big deal. Video games are simply an everyday staple played by all, mainly because many grew up with them; it has become part of one’s personality or daily routine.

While the same obviously holds true in America, there still remains a stigma despite it being deeply ingrained in our society, to the point that the term Gamer (with a capital “G”), which in recent years has become a badge of honor among hardcore players whose entire personalities have become entirely defined by said interest, as well as large companies that seek to market their good and service to such a demo, one that loves to spend a copious amount of cash.

That is not to say that there is no Japanese equivalent, there certainly is, plus the Japanese have become famous for their dedication to a variety of subjects and pursuits. You have video game otaku, alongside pro wrestling otaku, computer otaku, train otaku, and of course, manga otaku. But the critical difference is how the subject of video games themselves are viewed, which, compared to America, has less negative connotations and, if anything, has elements of hometown pride.

A Japanese video game otaku’s home collection.

Author’s disclaimer: It is essential at this point to note that the subject of Japanese game culture is still very much a mystery. Never mind how the concept is not yet fully acknowledged or grasped in America; much of what is known about Japanese game culture, the finer details, is locked away for those interested in the West by language barriers.

The same could also be said about the history of video games as a whole; for the longest time, what we know in America about Japanese games has been ascertained purely by afar observation and via information conveyed secondhand. Only in recent years has said intel begun to be scrutinized; alas, we’re now discovering that a considerable portion of what we have been told is not necessarily true, either due to various aspects being lost in translation… or worse, willingly changed to fit whoever’s or whatever’s narrative.

Recent years have seen various parties attempting to set the multiple records straight, aided by those trained in library sciences, but much work has yet to be done. But on with the educated speculation based upon observable facts…

As noted, the “Golden Age of Video Games” can be attributed to Japan, which is closely tied to a time in which the nation’s influence, mainly in the form of consumer goods, found great success across the globe. The rise of video games in the late 70s and early 80s can be attributed to Atari, with examples such as Pong in the arcade and the Video Computer System (otherwise known as the VCS, later rebranded as the Atari 2600). However, various Japanese exports were along for the ride, such as the arcade hits Space Invaders and Pac-Man.

In 1983 was the famous video game crash in North America, which mainly affected the home market and was due to an overabundance of poor software, along with increased competition from the rise of home computers that could also play games but also be used to do homework. In tandem was the bad reputation that arcades had developed as an epicenter for juvenile delinquents via a smear campaign that was primarily driven by elected officials looking for the latest boogeyman to attract the scared parents’ vote (as well as the music industry, which was concerned that money spent on at the arcade meant less money spent at the record store). The point is: video games in America were bad. Not so in Japan.

Whereas arcades began to flounder in North America in the early 80s, homegrown technological innovations in the form of low-cost yet high-performing hardware meant game developers were constantly pushing the envelope. And speaking of finances, whereas such places in the United States were often associated with teenagers, not so in Japan, which often attracted adults, primarily salarymen seeking a place to blow off steam after work or to kill time while waiting for the next train home.

A row of Japanese salarymen men play a shmup or “shoot ’em up” game at a game center.

This in turn led to game centers (the generally accepted term for arcades in Japan) having later hours than their American counterparts; they were not necessarily every parent’s nightmare because many parents actually spent time there, and such individuals often had more money in their pockets to help ensure relatively healthy profits. Also helping is how Japanese arcade operators didn’t have to worry about the high cost of overseas shipping for new games, plus direct lines of communication between arcade game developers & operators led to the development of hardware that allowed for the swapping out of components to have a new game, instead of the burden of acquiring a totally new machine (the inability to keep up with marketplace demands is was what ultimately did American arcades in)

Meanwhile, whereas the home console market was floundering in America, things were finally taking shape in Japan. The VCS and its contemporaries were available in Japan, alongside a few homegrown offerings, such as the Bandai TV-Jack and Epoch Cassette Vision, yet none of them were truly remarkable. But everything changed when Sega’s SG-1000 and Nintendo’s Famicom (the Nintendo Entertainment System aka the NES in the USA) hit the marketplace. As noted, video games had a bad rap among American parents, but not so in Japan for various reasons. While the Famicom (which is a portmanteau of Family Computer) itself offered a rather engaging centerpiece in many homes, particularly the best home conversions of popular homegrown arcade hits like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, it too was another immensely popular piece of consumer technology from Japan that found itself in the domiciles across the globe. As such, the Famicom helped to foster a lot of goodwill and a positive attitude towards gaming as a whole among the Japanese public, including members of the media, far more so than in America. Admittedly, video games did receive some bad press in Japan on occasion, with the most famous example being how the release of each entry in the pioneering JPRGs (Japanese Role Playing Game) Dragon Quest, at the height of its popularity, led to both schoolkids to skip class to stand in long lines for a copy (to be fair, salarymen were not showing up to work for the exact reason as well). Yet that’s far more benign than US news outlets’ portrayal of video games as a gateway to a life of violent crime and even illicit sexual activity.

The cover of Dragon Quest I in Japan.

The generally speaking positive portrayal of video games in Japanese society can largely be attributed to a single factor somewhat unrecognized by many Americans: access. Whereas both the games themselves, though more so the individuals behind them, were shrouded in mystery in America, both were heavily profiled and discussed via various media outlets in Japan, and (most important of all) there was a lot to talk about and quite a few to talk to. Obviously, the lack of a language barrier cannot be ignored. Still, the aforementioned sense of pride that comes with locals whose name is known across the globe is an undeniable factor. One cannot help compare and contrast Nintendo winning the hearts & minds of Americans was seen as a feather in Japan’s cap in the 80s to how Nintendo was often targeted during the rise of anti-Japanese sentimentality in America circa the 90s.

Even among pro-gaming enthusiast members of the press in the West, i.e., those who produced video game magazines, there was a disconnect between author and subject. Not helping the lack of resources necessary to track down and translate information from another country were the editorial constraints inherent to covering a subject in which access was limited (Nintendo’s US division definitely took advantage to drive their own narrative), as well as tight deadlines inherent to a monthly publication, especially one that competing with others for a limited pool of readers (because video games are “niche” you see). Meanwhile, the greater level of access combined with the Japanese’s far more prolific and robust publishing industry allowed and necessitated a more nuanced view of the subjects.

Meanwhile, there were far greater numbers of video game publications in Japan, some of which were not only produced monthly but weekly. Such an aggressive publishing schedule would include not only the inclusion of serialized manga to explore whatever game had just come up and also lay the groundwork for an eventual next chapter, but game makers themselves to both explore whatever game they were working on as well as themselves. The source of everyone’s favorite games was no stranger and instead became personalities, which would ultimately help form a far deeper bond for the player. It could be argued then that there is an ever so slightly more humanistic side of game culture in Japan, which has been explored to a far greater degree than in the West. The only truly noteworthy example of this would have been 1989’s The Wizard starring Fred Savage, which was only really devised to promote Nintendo’s upcoming Super Mario Bros 3.

The Japanese movie poster for The Wizard.

Meanwhile, the identity of the player has been explored in manga since at least 1978 via CoroCoro Comic’s Game Center Arashi, as well as live-action dramas such as TV Tokyo’s No Continue Kid: Our Game History in 2013, and the stage adaptation of TOKYOHEAD in 2015, itself based on a memoir published by Gichi Otsuka in 1995. All three listed works pertain to the player’s identity in an arcade setting and touch upon the social interactions that took place, resulting in personal developments, and the games played as a marker for the times in which everything takes place. But of course, you have the rise of the video game-related isekai and the plethora of adaptations of spin-offs that relate directly to games.

Manga Adaptations of Video Games

What’s really interesting when looking at video game adaptations into manga is the sheer volume that doesn’t get licensed in the West, despite the popularity of these properties. More units of Dōbutsu no Mori have been sold in the United States than in Japan, but we only have one of the seven manga written about this game series.

Not sure what Dōbutsu no Mori is? It’s the Japanese title for Animal Crossing, the game that students play with complete dedication on their Switches at lunchtime.

Tobidase Doubutsu no Mori aka Animal Crossing: New Leaf. 

Nintendo publishes a lot of manga based on their intellectual properties, a large amount of it being marketed to children. Certain properties do get localized with high frequency by VIZ- The Legend of Zelda, Splatoon, and Pokemon have almost every manga available in Japan also available in English. Notably lacking in licenses are the manga adaptations for Mario, Kirby, and Donkey Kong. I am aware of a whopping 35 Mario manga for which no license or localization exists.

VIZ is the primary publisher for Nintendo, but Udon Entertainment has a substantial presence in video game content, particularly in fighting games and Persona. However, there’s a lot of this content that Udon has not brought over, most notably when it comes to Persona. There are 88 manga that are associated with the Persona series that I am aware of, and only six of those adaptations have been licensed in the US. Notably, the main Persona 5 manga was released by VIZ. 

Will we ever see Persona 5: Comic a la Carte?

When it comes to adaptations of visual novels, Japanese role-playing games, and otome games, Yen Press really takes the lead. They have the license to the extremely popular Kingdom Hearts franchise, which has an original cast of characters interacting with Disney and Final Fantasy characters. The blend makes for an action-based adventure with an all-ages appeal. Yen Press brings over the Kingdom Hearts manga and light novels with extreme fidelity.

The Kingdom Hearts manga is a guaranteed hit, and all of it has been localized by Yen Press.

While we get a good chunk of video game content, it’s only about a quarter of what’s being produced. I was honestly surprised. I was also surprised to learn that some characters, such as the ever-famous Sonic the Hedgehog, are Japanese-created but have no manga series! This is actually because Sonic is nowhere near as popular in Japan as he is in the West. There are many reasons for this, but that in and of itself would require a detailed breakdown of Sega’s history and missteps with the Sonic franchise.

As time progresses, we might see more manga adaptations of video games make the jump to localization. While I don’t think we need everything, it would be great to have access to more.

Video Game Manga In Libraries

There’s a sizeable amount of video game manga available for purchase in North America, and I’ve created a list that includes age relevancy ranges. I have also made sure to leave off adaptations that are not relevant to school libraries. Here is the list to help you make decisions.

What makes things messy for librarians looking to stock video game adaptations is that it can be confusing. Do I need to have Persona 3 before I can get Persona 4 or 5? For that matter, where are 1 or 2? Why are the mangaka all different? It’s confusing to an outsider, especially if you don’t play video games AND don’t read manga.

(The answer, by the way, is that each of these are totally different stories that share some core elements and a particular character and do not need to be read in numerical order. 1 and 2 do not have a manga licensed in the West, and most gamers under 30 haven’t played them, so your kids don’t care about them unless they are HARDCORE Persona fans. The mangaka are different because these are all different manga released years apart.)
So, what can you do if you are not a complete nerd married to a video game expert? Well, you can use your research skills to see what you find. Typically, searching “[series name] reading order” will get you a guide because many fans will start off confused. Or, you can just ask me on Twitter because although you might not be a complete nerd married to a video game journalist, you know a complete nerd married to a video game expert. But, to help you out, here’s a general guide to the reading order of video game adaptations that might not be easy to follow by series:

Alice in the Country of…

Each of these stories stands alone, so it really doesn’t matter, but this order is what makes the most sense according to fans:

Alice in the Country of Hearts

Alice in the Country of Clover

Alice in the Country of Joker

Alice in the Country of Diamonds

Danganronpa

Danganronpa: The Animation

Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

Danganronpa 2: Ultimate Luck and Hope and Despair

Kingdom Hearts

Kingdom Hearts

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days

Kingdom Hearts II

Kingdom Hearts III

Persona

The reading order of the main Persona titles doesn’t matter, but Persona 5: Mementos Mission will not make sense to readers who have not either read the manga or played the game.

Pokemon

It doesn’t matter which order you read these in. Every story stands alone or doesn’t require a previous story arc to comprehend.

Sword Art Online

SAO is probably the most complicated of these series.

Main Story:

SWORD ART ONLINE: AINCRAD
SWORD ART ONLINE: FAIRY DANCE
SWORD ART ONLINE: PHANTOM BULLET
SWORD ART ONLINE PROJECT ALICIZATION

Side Story:

SWORD ART ONLINE: CALIBUR
SWORD ART ONLINE: MOTHER’S ROSARIO
SWORD ART ONLINE: ORDINAL SCALE
SWORD ART ONLINE: KISS AND FLY

Progressive Story:

SWORD ART ONLINE: PROGRESSIVE
SWORD ART ONLINE: PROGRESSIVE: BARCAROLLE OF FROTH
SWORD ART ONLINE: PROGRESSIVE: SCHERZO OF DEEP NIGHT

Spin-Off Story:

SWORD ART ONLINE: GIRLS OPS
SWORD ART ONLINE ALTERNATIVE: GUN GALE ONLINE

Gameverse Story:

SWORD ART ONLINE: HOLLOW REALIZATION
SWORD ART ONLINE: ALICIZATION LYCORIS
SWORD ART ONLINE: AINCRAD NIGHT OF KIRITO

The Legend of Zelda

It doesn’t matter which order you read these in. Every story stands alone.

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