It’s not really a secret that Japan is absolutely crazy about cell phones. And even though domestic makers churn out more than 100 different handsets every year (some of which are simply amazing), the iPhone is selling over here. SoftBank Mobile, the country’s exclusive iPhone provider, doesn’t release official data, but estimates put sales in Japan at well over one million units so far – not bad at all in this hopelessly over-saturated market. In other words, Japan doesn’t hate the iPhone, as some blogs suggested in the past. It never did.
The local developer community has noticed and produced a slew of apps aimed at a global audience. What follows is my subjective selection of the “best” of these made-in-Japan apps, all of which are at least available in English. (I left out iPhone games released by big companies such as Capcom, Konami, Sega or Namco to focus on apps created by startups or individuals based in Japan instead.)
My personal favorite is a free (and fantastic) GPS-based photo sharing app called Memory Tree (just like all the apps in the following list, it works worldwide). But here’s a round-up of all the 32 apps I chose, grouped in six categories (games, productivity, tools, photography and art, music, and everything else).
1. Gang Street Wars by DigiDock (iTunes links: $1.99 for a limited time / free version)
Addictive mix between real-time strategy and (side-scrolling) tower defense game with cartoon graphics and random gore effects. You play a gang leader whose mission is to conquer bases of rivals by sending out gang members with different combat skills.
2. Broadway Cafe by Artscape and Istpika ($4.99)
Pretty deep and professionally designed restaurant simulation game that lets you assume the roles of a waiter, manager and owner. Dash around taking customer orders, serving meals in time or doing the dishes. But you also take care of the interior design of the restaurant, its personnel, finances etc. (the app contains more action elements than it sounds). Broadway Cafe also connects to its Facebook counterpart from where you can recruit Facebook friends to join the game (demo video).
3. Glandarius Wing Strike by IZUMOGASIN ($4.99 / free version)
Great-looking 2D shoot ’em up aimed at hardcore gamers. This vertical scroller features six long stages, boss fights, chain attacks and a cool soundtrack. The initial version of the game was so hard that the maker later decided to add an “easy” mode. Definitely the best 2D shooter for the iPhone.
4. Samurai Chess by Conit ($2.99 / free version)
As the name of the app says, it’s a Samurai-themed chess game (in 3D). Players can challenge both the CPU or Samurai Chess players anywhere in the world (provided they’re online via 3G or Wi-Fi).
5. iYamato by Geppetto ($0.99 / free version)
2D shooting game in which you defend legendary battleship Yamato against aerial attacks. Not really a deep game, but it’s action-packed and ideal to kill 10 minutes from time to time (demo video).
6. LightBike by Pankaku ($2.99 / free version)
LightBike, which made it to the No. 1 in Apple USA’s app sales ranking a few months ago, is a 3D motorcycle racing/action game whose design resembles the setting of the Sci-Fi movie Tron. Up to 4 people can battle it out by using just two iPhones and Wi-Fi (demo video).
7. Vay by SoMoGa ($4.99)
Originally released in 1994 for the Sega CD system, Vay is one of the best 2D RPGs ever made. Cute anime-style graphics, retro-Sci-Fi setting, voice output in English, animated cutscenes and most importantly, dozens of hours of old-school gameplay. SoMoGa (based out of Florida) puts the complete original game in your pocket.
8. newtonica by Field System ($ 4.99)
Strange, but beautifully designed action game in which you rotate a sphere so that incoming meteors hit the cores with the matching colors. A bestseller in the Japanese App Store with a great soundtrack (demo videos).
9. newtonica2 by Field System ($ 0.99/ free version)
The sequel to newtonica is a mix between action and puzzle game, cheaper than the first one and better gameplay-wise. The game’s 36 stages will keep you busy for a while (demo video). There’s also newtonica2 resort, an add-on or remake of sorts (available for $0.99).
10. iNinja by Geppetto ($1.99 / free version)
One of the few Ninja-themed action games actually made by a Japanese company. Deflect oncoming Ninja attacks with shuriken (throwing stars), eliminate enemies with knives, land combo kills or set booby traps in 28 levels. There’s also a two-player Wi-Fi mode.
11. ExZeus by Hyper Devbox ($0.99)
3D rail-shooting game with fantastic sound and graphics in Space Harrier style. You control one of three giant robots to fight off an alien invasion. It’s not the longest game out there, but a total steal for this price (demo video).
12. Zeptoliner by Ubiquitous Entertainment ($6.99 / free version)
This “outliner” app helps you to arrange your ideas in a systematic way. You can jot down thoughts and then use a number of functions to structure them hierarchically. It’s also possible to import OMPL files to edit documents you created on your computer (demo video).
13. ZeptoPad 3.0 by Ubiquitous Entertainment ($19.99)
This note and whiteboard app isn’t cheap, but it’s an extremely versatile, vector-based illustration program. It lets you stream what you do on your iPhone to a computer screen or projector in real-time and has simply too many functions to mention here (click here for details and make sure to check out the video below).
14. gottaDo2 by Istpika ($2.99)
A social task manager that lets you knock off tasks from your to-do list to feed the cute little monsters living inside the app. You can watch them grow or punish you if you’re too lazy. It’s also possible to sync tasks with the gottaDo Facebook app.
15. PokéDia by s21g ($2.99)
A daily diary/planner app that’s available in 16 different languages. Each page of the virtual diary represents one day, and you can turn pages (move to certain days) by flicking to the right or left. The app lets you jot down notes anywhere on the screen and move the entries around on the page itself and between days. It can be used as a task manager, too (demo video).
16. TapNext by Conit ($3.99 / free version)
This app turns your iPhone into a remote control for presentations. Maker Conit says it’s the only software of its kind that’s compatible to Powerpoint, Keynote and OpenOffice Impress and can be used via Wi-Fi or 3G. You can theoretically use a PC located in Europe to deliver a presentation in the USA with TapNext through Skype (details and demo video).
17. ServersMan by FreeBit (free)
Launched in February, this app, which turns your iPhone into a personal web server, is still one of the most popular apps in the Japanese App Store. And it has become even more useful with OS 3.0b, adding a number of functions to the already impressive list of features (read more here). And the best app of its kind is free, too.
Category: Photography and Art
18. PlayPix 3 snaps by LivingImage ($2.99 for a limited time)
PlayPix is like a lighter version of Animoto’s iPhone app. Select three pictures from your photo album, choose a graphical theme and the app will create a slide show with background music for you. You can save the slide show on your iPhone, upload it to YouTube or Facebook and share it via Twitter or Email. During my test, PlayPix actually worked faster than Animoto’s iPhone app (demo video).
19. Memory Tree by XeNN (free)
A GPS-based photo sharing app with a fantastic big idea: Take a picture anywhere in the world, “drop” it on the spot you took it at (simply by shaking your iPhone) and add a text to it. This geo-tagged picture can later be “caught” by other Memory Tree users who are in the same area by swinging the iPhone “like a butterfly net” (“Same Place” function).
If you click the “Same Time” button, you can catch and view countless photos the users of the app took around the globe in the last hours (regardless of your location), thereby creating common photographic memories worldwide. This is just very cool.
21. TiltShift Generator by Takayuki Fukatsu ($0.99 for a limited time)
Takayuki Fukatsu is offering seven different photo apps that proved to be so popular that some of the pictures created with them were used in a real-world exhibition [JP]. TiltShift Generator is Fukatsu’s newest app, and it lets you shoot miniature pictures in retro style (samples). But you should check out his other apps, too.
22. Art Remix by Appliya Studio (free)
This app is based on a pretty cool idea: Tokyo-based iPhone app publisher Appliya is providing a platform called Appliya Studio [JP] that turns the creative work of artists and photographers into iPhone apps that are then distributed worldwide through the App Store. One of the many apps already available is called Art Remix. It lets you modify a total of 23 artworks with a set of customizable icons and then save and share the remixes with friends.
23. Ukiyo-e Beauties by Appliya ($3.99)
A historic Japanese art app that offers a total of five different paintings and 20 woodblock prints from the traditional Ukiyo-e art form (in 1,150 x 800 resolution and 4xzoom). It took maker Appliya several months to create the app in collaboration with two professors of art history (demo video).
24. NESynth by New Forestar ($1.99)
For game geeks who happen to like music: This virtual synthesizer simulates 8-bit sounds from games people played in the glorious 80s. In P2P mode, you can hear what the other person plays on your own iPhone (demo video).
25. Rekords by Delaware ($1.99)
Rekords is a Japanese music label that distributes songs solely within the iPhone/iPod touch ecosystem. I bought their first record (iTunes link). The music is weird, but you get two English songs and can switch the virtual vinyl record you see on the screen from side A to B by flipping your iPhone. It’s also possible to jump to a certain part of the song by moving the record player’s arm.
26. PocketGuitar by Shinya Kasatani ($0.99)
Already a major global success, this app displays a set of virtual guitar strings that you can strum and press with your fingers. Users can choose between six virtual guitars (even a Ukulele is available) and modify the sound with a number of different parameters (demo videos).
27. iShakuhachi by GClue ($0.99)
The Shakuhachi is a traditional bamboo flute that’s unknown even to many Japanese people. Users can play it by blowing into the iPhone mic, tilting it and covering the five holes with their fingers. GClue offers an iKoto (Japanese Harp) app, too.
Category: Everything else
28. Quick Pigeon by Ubiquitous Entertainment (free)
Cute push notification messenger app that uses a “virtual carrier pigeon” to send a quick “yes or no” question to people in your contact list. The recipient(s) view the email on their computer or iPhone, press “yes” or “no” and the message reaches you via push notification (along with a twitter sound).
29. Bijin Tokei by PHIRIA ($2.99)
This clock app brings 1,440 pictures of Japanese girls to your iPhone (Bijin Tokei means Hot Girl Clock in Japanese). The pictures fade in and out every minute, and each of them is showing a different girl who holds up a sign displaying the current time (to be exact, the models themselves change just every few minutes).
30. Wikiamo by Satoshi Nakagawa (free)
Wikiamo is better than the official app for Wikipedia (iTunes link) that launched just a few days ago simply because it makes Wikipedia pages much easier to read. The app also appears to be faster, lets you browse through certain articles when you’re offline (via page-caching) and has some other functions the official app doesn’t offer.
31. NatsuLion by Takuma Mori (free)
This app might be a good alternative for people who are still looking for a simple iPhone Twitter client that’s very quick and easy to use. It’s completely ad-free, too.
32. Amamiya Momo by Xtone ($2.99)
Amamiya Momo is a virtual anime girlfriend who lives in your iPhone, interacts with you and gets moody quickly. For example, she’s nicer when your’re home than when you’re out on the streets. Her mood also depends on which time of the day it is. There are 200 different pre-programmed patterns of behavior and Japanese voice samples (subbed in English). More info on this GPS-based app can be found here.
I sifted through countless app descriptions and sites from Japanese companies in the last weeks and have to say the vast majority of the English texts I stumbled upon are of horrific quality. Some were even so bad I couldn’t understand what the app is about. This is absolutely embarrassing, especially when you expect users to pay.
And why some of the apps have been available in the US App Store for months but never made their way to other countries (i.e the German store where I mostly buy from) is totally beyond me, too.
Special thanks to Nobuyuki Hayashi for his contribution to this article.