Recently we've been seeing a lot of talk about how behind the times Japanese developers have become. From notable names like "Itagaki" and "that dude who made Fez", to your random forum goers, it seems like almost everyone has written off that part of the world as a lost cause, so far behind the times that they could never hope to move the industry forwards like their Western counterparts. As you probably guessed by the title I don't agree with that sentiment, so this is a list of games that I think are not only good to great games, but that do something different and have ideas that the rest of the industry should pay attention to, no matter what side of the Pacific pond you hail from.
Gust's entire game catalog is unique, with their focus on item synthesis over other game elements, but that's not what makes Atelier Totori in particular unique. It's the game's progression system that gives you complete freedom in how you progress through a rigidly linear storyline that makes this one in a million. Playing as Totori your main goal is to get a license as an adventurer, and to do that you'll need to complete objectives and get points, but you have access to all of these hundreds of objectives right from the start, with far more points available than you actually require to finish. Stay in your workshop and focus on alchemy, go out and explore to find new areas and materials, or kill every creature you see; any and all of these will give you points towards your goal without you ever having to focus on any specific objective. It's a lot like the general concept of achievements, but used as the primary progression system for a JRPG. The upcoming sequel Atelier Meruru focuses a bit more on specific objectives but still gives you a lot more freedom in how you progress than your typical JRPG. It's a unique system that allows a small company like Gust to give its fans freedom in how they progress without the budget requirements of scripting and voicing a thousand different side quests, and it's nothing less than brilliant.
Romantic relationships in games are almost always relegated to an afterthought, or an excuse for eye candy. They're either added so that JRPG main characters have someone to fawn over, WRPG main characters have someone to pursue and conquer, or Leisure Suit Larry has someone to ogle. Catherine goes against this trend by having a game that focuses not just on the beginning of a relationship, as so many do, but the decisions and events that occur while trying to maintain or dissolve that relationship. Atlus is able to broach the idea of sexuality while never showing more skin than your average James Bond flick. I'm sure a few prospective buyers passed over this title based on the overly sexual cover art, but they did themselves a disservice as this game is so much more than that cover art would have you believe. Give it a chance and I'm sure it'll surprise you with just how unique and witty it can be.
The Zelda series is in this list as well, but if there was one game I think Nintendo should look at for how to evolve Zelda it would be Demon's Souls. Not for the acclaimed difficulty or the superb atmosphere, but the perfect online system for a genre defined by its single player campaigns. Demon's Souls and its spiritual successor Dark Souls both utilise online systems that perfectly blend into their single player experiences without ever overtaking the campaign or being a detriment. Hints on the ground from fellow travelers, bloodstains that show you their demise, and requests for help all fit perfectly into the mythos created for both games and serve to enhance the story and atmosphere instead of ignoring it as most online multiplayer modes do. You can totally avoid it if you don't care for the online aspects, but I'd suggest against it since you'll be missing out on one of the most brilliant online systems ever devised. Take a close look Nintendo, because if you ever decide to introduce online components to the Zelda series then From Software are the first guys you should call for advice.
Innovation can be found in even the most established franchises. Mario's is about as old as the average gamer these days, but even he has a few tricks left up his sleeve. The whole world is going bonkers for 3D and it seems like everyone is trying to get their piece of the pie, but every now and then you get something that seems like it was truly made for 3D and couldn't exist without it. For our medium that game is Super Mario 3D Land. Not satisfied with just using 3D to make Mario's nose look like it's coming right at you, Nintendo has actually put in gameplay elements that make use of the 3D. Not only do three dimensions make all of the platforming in a 3D platformer that much easier but turning on the 3D will allow you to see secrets that would have been otherwise hidden. As development continues on the 3DS I can only hope that developers try to live up to the lofty heights of Super Mario 3D Land.
The recently-released Star Wars Kinect might be giving a few people concerns about whether they'll ever play a well balanced and fully motion controlled sword fighting game. Well have no fear, guys, because Nintendo already did that in The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword. One to one motion controls for your sword using the Wii motion plus remote, as well as a plethora of other actions that all use motion controls makes this one of if not the most critically acclaimed motion based game ever made. It's always appropriate, and accurate use of motion controls is something most developers couldn't dream of accomplishing, all while trying to please some of the most demanding fans on the planet. It's Nintendo's own hardware, so by all rights they should be the masters of it, but taking the risk of doing something new like motion controls for such a revered franchise as Zelda takes courage in its own right. Take note all you Wii, Move, and Kinect developers, this is how it's done.
The World Ends With You was one of the first DS games to really feel like it was built from the ground up to take advantage of the system. It featured full use of everything the device offered, including dual-screen combat (with the D-Pad controlling the top screen), touchscreen control, and even use of the speaker. Attacks were performed by making a variety of touch screen gestures, including some pretty complex ones. Some attacks were even activated by shouting into the system's microphone. Between the unique combat and sleek, modern RPG design, The World Ends With You was one of the most innovative games to ever hit the Nintendo DS.