You might have heard the name "Danganronpa" tossed around before and had no idea what it was. You're not alone.
Well before Spike Chunsoft's Danganronpa series made its way to Western shores, it was one I knew only in name and theory, but never in practice. I'd see cosplays of its characters at miscellaneous conventions; frenetic blonde pigtails peaking out of crowds, elaborate and unique uniforms that hardly looked like they were even from the same series. It was always one that intrigued me too—a Japanese detective game by way of friendship-building visual novels. The Danganronpa series carries a framework like no other game franchise.
Technically speaking, Danganronpa is a visual novel series, meaning there's a helluva lot of reading. The game stars a large group of students and a mysterious, malicious teddy bear named Monokuma who tells them at the start that they're all participating in the ominous-sounding Killing Game. To escape the place they're trapped in, they must either survive until the end when only two students remain, or worse, murder another here, and successfully make it through a class trial without being convicted by their peers. In the latter's course of events, everyone else is executed. Also, the game's about making friends too, and bonding with your acquaintances in the dastardly setting.
The series has come far since its humble beginnings on the PlayStation Portable in 2010. It's since explored the likes of PlayStation Vita (where westerners first got their hands on the series), PlayStation 4, PC, and even mobile devices. It's rolled into anime, both in adapting the games and continuing the stories beyond them. It's been scribbled into manga and novels. Danganronpa, despite the oddities that the name carries with it, has become a media juggernaut in Japan.
Yet from an outside perspective, the craze might seem alienating. With a few games, two anime series, and even books and manga to complement them, the story tied to the mysterious school of Hope's Peak might be a hard one to dive into. But worry not, this guide to the series might help you.
What even is Danganronpa, and why do people like it?
Let's start with the name. The phrase "Danganronpa" directly translates to "Bullet Refutation," meaning "bullet" in the literal meaning and "refuting" in terms of refuting statements in the context of a trial. That's really the core of the Danganronpa series: collecting evidence to solve murders after they happen, and putting that knowledge to the test in a literal trial. Evidence is weaponized in the form of "Truth Bullets" that you direct at your peers as they make statements during the trial, whether you're agreeing with them or countering them with something else (hence "bullet" being directly in the name).
But people don't love Danganronpa just because of "bullet refuting," nor strictly for the dense logic puzzles the class trials directly weaponize. They love the series for its zany, multifaceted characters. In a series with dozens upon dozens of heroes and villains, its character designs and strong writing is what makes players cling to them, to the extent of cosplaying as them, writing fan fiction, and more. It's what makes the series standout.
Each mainline Danganronpa game (Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony) has around 16 primary characters. The 16 students are all "Ultimate" students, meaning they each have specific talents they're widely regarded for. The talents characters bear vary drastically, oscillating from Ultimate Programmer to Ultimate Breeder to Ultimate Entomologist per game. Their outfits match their titles, alongside their personalities. Unlike most school-oriented games, every character's uniform is wildly different. (Proving itself perfect for cosplay fodder.) Some might be wearing hoodies, others elaborate dresses. Usually their personalities complementing their Ultimate abilities seem all the weirder, like an Ultimate Nurse who's actually squeamish and extremely clumsy, or an Ultimate Traditional Dancer who is seemingly cute and sweet, but is actually extraordinarily rude with a foul mouth.
When I spoke to Danganronpa writer Kazutaka Kodaka earlier this year, he told me that every character feels so fully fleshed out because he writes everyone as if they were the main character. Along with intricate character designs by Rui Komatsuzaki, every student in the Danganronpa franchise feels fully formed, with their own pasts, futures, and varying personalities. The characters are the main draw for the series, likely because they really do all feel strong enough to be the main character, unlike most other games.
There's also palpable tension between everyone, since this is a game about murdering others after all. That's the central conflict: learning who to trust and if anyone is deserving of said trust. After the 16 students awake in a mysterious, closed off setting, they're baited into murdering one another. In exchange, they ultimately get their chance at freedom. It's tempting, and draws characters into their darkest tendencies, testing what humans are capable of doing in dire circumstances.
The series itself is regarded well for its wild twists, similar to the dizzying Zero Escape series, another Japanese detective-oriented franchise that defies genre boundaries. Usually with a total of six class trials, the games span from 30 to 50 hours usually, with each murder case being just as mysterious as the next one and the one before it. Walking into a trial, and going over your evidence in advance, it's rare to have come to a decisive conclusion. The trials are always shocking, with revelations that make you second guess all the friendships you've built. Danganronpa is a series that dares to ask one single question: is anyone even worthy of trust when they can murder you at the drop of a hat?
Is the anime worth watching?
The first Danganronpa anime, Danganronpa: The Animation, is skippable for players who played the original game. Ultimately an ultra-condensed version of the sequence of events in the game itself, the anime ends up feeling bare, like it only skims the surface in terms of why the world and characters of Danganronpa are so endearing in the first place.
The second animated series, Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak High School, is more worth a watch. (Full disclosure: I have not gotten a chance to watch it, but in preparation of playing Danganronpa V3, read a summary. Shame on me.) Billed as a true end to the original two games, Danganronpa 3 is split into two separate arcs: Side: Despair, which serves as a prequel to the first two games, and Side: Future, which is a direct conclusion to the events of the games.
Where should I start then?
Currently, there are technically seven Danganronpa games, but the only ones we'll worry about today are four of them. (The rest are miscellaneous mobile games, and a PlayStation VR-exclusive rendering of a trial from the first game.)
The first is the one that started the Hope's Peak Academy thread that continues through the games, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. For players starting out with the series, it's an obvious place to start. It establishes the concepts the sequels build on, with memorable characters and a story that has twists at every corner. In my honest opinion, it's maybe the one I enjoyed the least out of the series, but even then, it's essential to enjoying the smaller details of the later game's sequels. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is available on PlayStation Vita, PC, Mac, Linux, and PlayStation 4.
After finishing Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, moving onto the series-defining Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is a must. In the series' best game, the locale is moved to the vast island of Jabberwock, and gone is the so-so first-person of the first and third mainline games. Danganronpa 2 feels more like a visual novel in how you travel, ushering its 2.5D flair into a sidescrolling format. The cast, story, and everything else (except its final class trial, in my opinion) are the best in the series, with some of the most hard-hitting emotional arcs in any visual novel. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is available on PlayStation Vita, PC, Mac, Linux, and PlayStation 4.
This is where you get more options. There's the ultimately-skippable Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, which is a spin-off adventure starring the younger sister of Danganronpa 1's protagonist. There's also the true third game in the primary series: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony. Ultra Despair Girls is quite different from the detective-oriented gameplay the series is known for. It turns the formula on its head, operating instead as a third-person action-adventure-horror. The story is supplemental to Danganronpa overall, but if you enjoy the first two games and are eager for more, it might be worth the dive. Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is available on PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is the latest in the series, and releases September 29th outside of Japan for the first time. In my review, I noted that the game will likely be a divisive one for fans of the series, given some of its controversial twists. For me, that aspect is integral to the series as a whole, and is ultimately what's kept me coming back all these years. Few games truly surprise players, and Danganronpa remains to be unafraid to yank out the rug from underneath you. Danganronpa V3 is a fitting farewell to the franchise, and is a must for closing out the series. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony is available on PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, and PC.
It should be noted though, that any of these games can be jumped into without prior knowledge of the others. Every game starts fresh with a new class, a new location, a new twist on the formula. It's only in the end when their sequel monikers begin to rear their head, and the past knowledge might make the experience richer. But even if you haven't been a Danganronpa player in the past, perhaps Danganronpa 2 or Danganronpa V3 might make you reconsider.