The MoeGamer Awards are a series of “alternative” awards I’ve devised in collaboration with the community to celebrate the sorts of things that never get celebrated in end-of-year roundups! Find out more here — and feel free to leave a suggestion on that post if you have any good ideas!
It’s nearly the end of a decade, and you know what that means: looking back over the last ten years to arbitrarily decide what was “best” from that equally arbitrary length of time.
I was just going to do a “games of the decade” sort of affair, but I realised while putting my provisional lists together that I had enough visual novels to do them in their own dedicated, separate list. So the “Ten Years, Ten Games” award will be following next week, and for now let’s talk visual novels!
For each year of (English language) release, I’m picking a visual novel that I found personally significant. This doesn’t mean that it was necessarily the “best” that year had to offer — whatever that means — but it was important to me. So let’s delve in… and note that at the time of writing, there are holiday sales going on all over the Internet, so you can pick up many of these for pretty cheap right now!
And the winners are…
2010: Kira Kira
This visual novel by Overdrive, which originally had an 18+ English release in 2009 via MangaGamer before getting an all-ages edition in 2010, was originally positioned to me as “K-On! The Visual Novel”. Since at the time it was recommended to me (which was somewhat after either of its release dates) I had recently watched K-On!, this description naturally appealed to me.
Despite a superficially similar setup — dead-end school club decides to start a band, discovers they actually rather enjoy it — Kira Kira is most emphatically not K-On! The Visual Novel. Rather than a cheery Cute Girls Doing Cute Things slice-of-life affair, here we have several heartfelt, deeply emotional stories that deal with matters of finding your place in the world, growing up and dealing with unexpected, devastating tragedy. It’s a beautiful VN with, as you might expect, an absolutely rockin’ soundtrack — and I highly, highly recommend it.
2011: My Girlfriend Is the President
I knew absolutely nothing about Alcot’s peculiarly named visual novel when someone from localiser and Western publisher JAST USA approached me about covering it. It sounded absolutely ridiculous, though, so I was excited to give it a look.
To cut a long story short, aliens crashed to Earth, accidentally killing the entire Japanese government, so they decided to fix the situation as best they could. Unfortunately, they only had the American TV shows they’d managed to see to refer to when attempting to rebuild the country, and as such they end up implementing a presidential system. The one in the hot seat ends up being the protagonist’s childhood friend Yukino Ohama… and things only get more barmy from there.
My Girlfriend is the President is an absolutely bonkers comedy visual novel, but it’s not just random silliness for the sake of silliness; there’s a series of rather heartwarming love stories among all the chaos, too.
2012: Katawa Shoujo
This is probably one of my two most personally influential interactive experiences of the last decade — and a visual novel with a remarkable story behind it. Essentially it’s the result of doujinshi artist RAITA sketching some girls with various physical disabilities, followed by a crew of developers from all over the world deciding that it would be super-cool if those girls actually had a full, substantial piece of media to call their own.
The result was Katawa Shoujo, which remains one of the most inclusive, respectful stories I’ve experienced in any form of media, highlighting the fact that no-one, regardless of whether or not they have any sort of physical or mental affliction, deserves to be treated as anything less than a person.
2013: Corpse Party: Book of Shadows
The original Corpse Party is the game that made me switch from dubs to subs once and for all. The binaural “3D” stereo audio coupled with the absolutely spectacular (Japanese-only) voice acting made the whole thing grab hold of your emotions and not let go until the whole, horrifying experience was all over and done with.
Book of Shadows offered the same terrifying atmosphere as its predecessor with a stronger emphasis on traditional visual novel-style presentation — and its structure as a series of short stories that asked “what if…?” with regard to numerous scenes from the original Corpse Party was fascinating to me. It’s an underappreciated horror classic and well worth your time… if you’ve got the stones for it, of course! Wear headphones.
By the time JAST USA released the first PC localisation of Steins;Gate (for some reason, there have been several English releases at this point, across multiple platforms), I already knew how legendary it was — and how many fans had figured it was something we’d never see officially in English. I was pleased to discover that its glowing reputation was well-deserved — it featured a compelling narrative with numerous endings, fascinatingly plausible science fiction, unusual interaction mechanics, wonderful characters and absolutely beautiful art.
The story centres around self-professed “mad scientist” Rintarou Okabe and his attempts to invent weird and wonderful things; one day, he accidentally discovers a means of sending electronic mail into the past, thereby causing “worldlines” to diverge and outcomes to drastically change as he subtly influences events in ways he can’t possibly predict. Can he and his friends navigate the increasingly chaotic multiverse and put things right? Only one way to find out!
2015: The Fruit of Grisaia
I don’t go on Reddit much, but one day a friend, knowing that I’d been enjoying some visual novels, pointed me in the direction of this thread on GameFAQs, which listed the top ten visual novels, as voted by r/visualnovels. The Fruit of Grisaia was top of the list. I’d heard of this previously — and had, in fact, backed its localisation Kickstarter in late 2014 — but knowing that it was so highly regarded caused me to push it up my priority list.
I was not disappointed. To explain too much about the Grisaia series in general is to spoil some of the wonderfully enigmatic stuff that goes on, particularly in this first installment, so I’ll refrain from giving too much away here. Suffice to say, The Fruit of Grisaia, its two follow-ups and its numerous spin-off titles are all very worthy uses of your time, featuring an immensely memorable cast, one of the best visual novel protagonists of all time and some of the best use of “sex as narrative” I’ve ever seen.
2016: Nekopara vol. 2
I can’t talk about influential visual novels from the last decade without mentioning Nekopara at some point; its second volume fits neatly into the 2016 slot and, conveniently, was probably my favourite from the set to date.
I actually came to this series rather late, but I was glad I eventually got around to it; the stories of the protagonist attempting to open and grow a successful patisserie, assisted (and sometimes hindered) by his family’s devoted catgirls are heartwarming, hilarious and super-sexy.
I find Nekopara particularly noteworthy not just because of how much I enjoyed it, but also because of how much it did to make visual novels rather more “mainstream” than they had been previously. Yes, the all-ages English Steam release was initially something of a “meme game” that people bought for one another as a joke — but over time the series has developed quite a following, and its characters have become truly beloved by the community.
2017: Ne no Kami: The Two Princess Knights of Kyoto
Publisher-localiser Denpasoft — an arm of prolific localiser Sekai Project — approached me about covering this one and, despite it being a seemingly small-scale project that I didn’t know much about going into, it became an all-time favourite. Blending elements of Shinto, Lovecraftian horror and Norse mythology together — along with some cheek-flushing yuri funtimes — Ne no Kami tells a compelling fantasy story with some wonderful characters and fascinating interpretations of traditional mythology.
Now I really should get around to the second part sometime, since the first one I’m talking about here ended on one hell of a cliffhanger!
2018: 428: Shibuya Scramble
This is another one of those games that people assumed would never get a Western release, but much to everyone’s delight, we did. And it was quite a remarkable experience, blending beautiful, high-resolution, dynamic photography with full-motion video sequences, excellent writing, a fascinating and mind-bending multi-perspective narrative and a really interesting progression structure.
This is another one of those games for which explaining too much will spoil part of the fun; suffice to say that what starts as a relatively straightforward day in Shibuya — albeit with the police in the midst of a kidnapping case — becomes anything but over the course of the subsequent hours.
2019: LOVE³ ~Love Cube~
I must confess, I went back and forth on this one a bit. A lot of great visual novels released in English this year, and Cover Game The Expression: Amrilato, a VN where you can learn some Esperanto as well as enjoy a charming yuri story, was certainly one of my favourite experiences. So a definite very honourable mention to that.
But when I think back over the year gone by, LOVE³ ~Love Cube~ left a huge impact on me: it pleasantly surprised me with its heartfelt tale about polyamory; it impressed me with its beautiful artwork by Ishikei; it wowed me with its incredible character animations; and, more than anything, it inspired me to be more open and honest about sexual matters — both for myself, and in print.
While I doubt it’s going to go down as an all-time classic or whatever the gaming equivalent of “literature” is, it’s a visual novel that inspired me greatly, and I’m hugely grateful that it’s an experience I got to enjoy in 2019.
The MoeGamer Compendium, Volume 1 is now available! Grab a copy today for a beautiful physical edition of the Cover Game features originally published in 2016.
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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