Each game by Vanillaware, ranked
Vanillaware, the Japanese studio run by writer and designer George Kamitani, was founded under difficult circumstances. Kamitani led the development of a magnificent side-scroller called the Princess Crown, which was unfortunately designed for the hapless Sega Saturn; Despite positive reviews, the game failed commercially and the game joined the legion of exclusive Saturn titles in Japan. Kamitani needed a new studio to call home. Thus, Vanillaware was born.
Despite those rocky beginnings, the studio has continued to create some of the most acclaimed games of the past three generations of consoles, specializing in side-scrolling action RPGs with stunning 2D graphics. Their success is proof that adversity can truly inspire future triumphs. But which of their games is the best?
We’re going to start with a game that looks very unlike the rest of Vanillaware’s work. Kumatanchi was a DS exclusive life simulation game that was only released in Japan and is rendered in a cute art style that looks great but is also a huge change from other work at the studio. The gameplay is no less strange. It’s set in an anthropomorphic girl’s zoo, and you’re tasked with looking after the new girl-bear that’s just arrived.
You do this by interacting with her like a Sim or a Nintendog – feeding her, stroking her, and helping her interact with other zoo inhabitants. It was co-developed with studio Ashinaga Oji-San, which explains its aberrant status, but it’s hard to reconcile Kumatanchi’s intentionally silly tone with the epic fantasies Vanillaware has made her name for.
6 History of the Grand Knights
Unlike Kumatanchi, Grand Knights History actually looks like a Vanillaware game. This Japan-only PSP release carries their trademark art style: a richly textured, vividly colored 2D fantasy with detailed sprite work and hilarious, impractical character outfits. It’s even more impressive when you remember that Grand Knights History gets these lush visuals from a portable console.
On a gameplay level, however, Grand Knights History must rank lower than Vanillaware’s signature games as one of its main gameplay hooks is no longer accessible. The game is a turn-based RPG in which you take on the role of the leader of a group of mercenaries, going through battles and defending your home country. Originally, the game also featured a robust online component that allowed you to fight other players’ home countries for domination. However, this feature is no longer available which makes the game somewhat incomplete. Yet if you sort of manage to get your hands on a translated copy, it’s worth it.
GrimGrimoire was the very first game released by Vanillaware, but it showed that the developer already had a perfect mastery of his signature style: fantastic 2D side-scrolling games with magnificent brain-melting art. But GrimGrimoire also stands out in its catalog.
It was co-created with Nippon Ichi Software, a known developer and publisher for the Disgaea tactical RPG series, and that lineage shows. GrimGrimoire is a real-time strategy game inspired by games like Starcraft, which departs from most of Vanillaware’s more action-oriented offerings. The game is a bit rough around the edges, with heavy repetitions and a few control issues, but its atmosphere and visuals are still second to none, and its gameplay ideas would continue to inspire one of Vanillaware’s best games.
4 Muramasa: The Demonic Blade
When you think of “a good looking, fast brawler,” the Wii isn’t necessarily the first console you think of, but Nintendo’s maligned shaking machine has been home to several hidden RPG gems over the course of its life. Muramasa: The Demon Blade was one of those gems, a side-scrolling action game imbued with Vanillaware’s signature style.
Its gameplay is very similar to some of the developer’s other notable titles, but its setting and characters set it apart; the game is set in Edo-era Japan, and its visual style and storytelling techniques are inspired by Kabuki theater and Japanese folklore. It’s not the deepest game Vanillaware has ever created, but its close attention to detail and stunning visuals still make it a pleasure to play.
3 Dragon crown
If you’ve ever begged for quarters to play a Gauntlet game, then Dragon’s Crown will instantly feel familiar to you. It’s a fantastic arcade beat-em-up with a heavy multiplayer focus – up there with the best of the genre – letting you and three friends team up and slash ancient monsters. But it’s just as fun to play solo, with surprisingly deep progression and loot systems reminiscent of more focused dungeon bots.
Despite an extended development cycle, Dragon’s Crown became one of Vanillaware’s biggest commercial successes and even received a high-definition remaster called Dragon’s Crown Pro a few years after its release. It’s playful comfort food raised to the highest art form.
2 Odin Sphere
Odin Sphere is one of the first titles from Vanillaware, released just a month after GrimGrimoire for Playstation 2, but the developer’s brands were already present here. It features beautiful and vibrant 2D art (with some… questionable and practical character designs); a mystical fantasy decor inspired by fairy tales; and fast-paced combat that emphasizes massive combos and rewards quick thinking.
In short, if you’re looking to understand what makes Vanillaware games special, Odin Sphere is a great place to start. And if you don’t feel like bringing out your old PS2, an improved remake, titled Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, came out on PS4 in 2016 – and it’s one of the best games on that system, too. If any game gets a high-resolution makeover, this is it.
1 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
13 Sentinels is the latest release from Vanillaware and represents a huge change from many of the games Vanillaware has built its reputation on. It takes place in 1980s Japan, rather than a fantasy realm; Meanwhile, its contemplative gameplay lets you switch at will between adventure game-style story sections and top-to-bottom real-time strategy combat missions, closer to GrimGrimoire’s mind than more famous actors of Vanillaware.
And yet, despite all these risks, 13 Sentinels is a pure masterpiece. The graphics are gorgeous, taking the hand-drawn style Vanillaware is known for and delivering it in a more subdued and grounded palette. Combat missions start out simple but have grown in depth and complexity throughout. And the story, told in a non-linear fashion, has more twists and turns than a contortionist eating a pretzel. It’s an incredible feat of storytelling design and a love letter to video games, science fiction, the art of storytelling, and giant robots. You have to play this game.
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