If you want to import Japanese games, the WonderSwan is exactly the sort of thing that may interest you the most. It’s a regional exclusive, but it’s not a huge old computer that you can’t afford. It has franchises you may know, and many games that simply were never ported anywhere else. Oh, and it’s weird and you can carry it around with you to show people that they should talk to you about weird stuff. Read on for our recommendations!
Before we continue, some things to know about the WonderSwan:
It’s not that import-friendly. Sure, it was never marketed outside Japan, but the earlier hardware models’ ghosting issues meant most games were slower, more text-heavy affairs instead of action-based, easy-to-learn fare. The Neo Geo Pocket Color this isn’t.
You really want a SwanCrystal. The WonderSwan Color is so cheap and ubiquitous that buying a black-and-white model is a waste of time, and it’s tempting to get in at that lower price point. But if you want to actually play anything very well, you’ll want the best screen possible, and though it still isn’t backlit, the quality of the SwanCrystal’s display is enough of an upgrade to make it worth shelling out the not-insubstantial sum.
It’s a system largely for fans of Gundam and Digimon. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as those have been the big Bandai game properties for a while, but keep that in mind. There’s a crazy amount of games for those franchises and less for really anything else. (That said, there are some great ones on this list that aren’t related to either.)
If a game got a port, it’s probably better. This list is going to focus on games that are better played on the WonderSwan. For some other influential games that made their way elsewhere, check out this guide.
Now, to the games!
Rhyme Rider Kerorican
Do you like Vib-Ribbon? The cult-favorite PlayStation game never really spawned the genre it seemed like it would, but it did inspire this stylish little title on a system that wasn’t exactly known for its audio. The game’s short and the timing requirements are punishing, making it not for the faint of heart, but it just feels so cool when you get everything right and saunter along to Rhyme Rider‘s offbeat beats.
Named after WonderSwan creator Gunpei Yokoi (the guy behind the Game & Watch, Game Boy and… yeah, Virtual Boy), GunPey was intended as the platform’s Tetris, an engrossing puzzle title that would sell systems and keep them in owners’ pockets. You move around various diagonal lines to create connections across the play field and clear them. The EX version of the game adds color and a few other improvements, making it the best version to try, but all variations make great use of the system’s Vertical Mode and are worth your time.
Kaze no Klonoa: Moonlight Museum
Do you like the GBA Klonoa games? Well this is one of those, but with an experimental edge that will delight most importers. Sometimes it switches to Vertical Mode for levels, and it tries more things in the platforming itself than the later releases, which had mostly settled on a few things that worked best and iterated on them until they couldn’t anymore. So yeah, those GBA games may be better, but they’re not more interesting.
Wuz↑b? Produce: Street Dancer
Rhyme Rider Kerorican was far from the only rhythm game release on this system, which, again, weird: sound was not a thing it did particularly well. Still, Street Dancer was a more traditional take, with button prompts to songs, but the style of this release is what makes it special: Japan’s idea of 2000-era hip-hop is very entertaining. The gameplay’s cool enough, too: the game has you rotating the system and using the buttons available to you on different sides for rhythm challenges that feel varied.
Digimon: Anode/Cathode Tamer: Veedramon Version
This one’s not so easy to track down these days, but it’s worth it. Why? Because it’s a full Digimon strategy-RPG localized into English for the Hong Kong and South Korea markets. There are so many deep, tactical experiences on this handheld, which makes sense with a screen less suited to action, but most of those are buried in text you can’t read. Anode Tamer and Cathode Tamer, both included here, allow you the opportunity to play the system as most Japanese people actually did.
Developed by HAL Corporation (not to be confused with HAL Laboratory), Mingle Magnet is a simple little puzzle game that combines Same Game with the ability to change which way blocks fall. The game’s a cakewalk on the default difficulty levels, but harder modes unlock as you play to truly test your skills.
Rockman EXE WS
If you’ve played Mega Man Network Transmission, you’ve experienced the successor to this WonderSwan-exclusive action-platformer in the world of Mega Man Battle Network. Not just using the setting of the games for traditional Mega Man action-platforming, it has you grabbing chips from enemies and hidden areas to put to use yourself. It’s a bit slower-paced than Mega Man proper, but there’s enough thinking involved to make it just as challenging.
Another Vertical Mode gem, Wonder Classic has no problems emulating the strengths of the Game Boy Mario Golf titles. It doesn’t have an overlaid RPG mode or anything, but it’s a solid enough title in the golf alone, and that longer screen helps more with aiming your shots than you’d initially expect!
Judgement Silversword and Dicing Knight
I put these on the bottom of this list because they’re great games that deserve recognition, but also profoundly rare and expensive to import. The two games were developed by independent teams before that was a thing, and published as part of a contest for the WonderWitch consumer development hardware. They’re great, and the developers went on to great things. But please don’t start here if your bank account is anything resembling normal.
For more helpful advice for budding importers, check out our Guides section.