Visual novels are a long-running staple in Japan.
Popular titles don't just sell like hotcakes, they go on to influence merchandising of all kinds, manga adaptations, anime version, and even the occasional fighting game spin-off.
For years if not decades, this has largely remained a very Eastern-centric pastime, if not as Japanese as they get.
That slowly started to change, partially thanks in no small part to the popularity of Capcom's Gyatuken Saiban/Phoenix Wright games, which arguably started making the genre a viable one in the US.
With the primary focus being on reading into witness testimonies, and giving the player an attachment to the immense cast along the way, the PW games are solid examples of what makes visual novels appealing.
Still, for the games to have a chance at selling in the US, the publishers and localization teams responsible usually try to find titles that involve gameplay of some kind; not just reading pages upon pages of text with little to no player involvement.
Not very surprising given how American gamers tend to expect some kind of action along the way.
This hasn't stopped die-hard VN fans from giving purist readers their fix, however.
The expansive 'Umineko No Naku Koro Ni'('When The Seagulls Cry') series, for example; an elaborate tale of magic versus reason, murders, witchcraft, and romance.
07th Expansion's PC novels spin one gripping tale, and remain one of the most widely known of the genre. It's also one of the best examples of a solid fan translation.
The Witch Hunt didn't just go all out in their translation works of the Umineko saga; they even got the attention of the series creator, Ryukishi, who went on to sanction their work, and even give them a reference in the story.
That's all good and fine for the comparatively small niche of readers who are savvy in patching Japanese titles, but what about going after the gaming population at large?
Localizing any VN title, even one with VN elements, remains a risky gamble.
RED Company's long-running Sakura Wars franchise, ever a huge success in Japan, finally had a title localized c/o NIS America, only to have an underwhelming performance when it came to sales.
A balanced mix of mecha strategic combat and the wooing of numerous female significant others, Sakura Wars remains one of the more enjoyable and innovative examples of visual novel RPGs.
Despite being a great game in its own right, Sakura Wars V is largely considered the worst in the series. Moreover, it was released both for a dying console(the PS2) and one that left it easily overlooked in a sea of shovelware(the Wii).
Whether it was the wrong game or the wrong time, the failure of NIS's endeavor seems to have largely spelled the end of Sakura Wars' chances in the states.
Fortunately, it didn't end hopes for the VN genre.
Aksys took a considerable gamble in localizing Chun-Soft's DS visual novel/suspsense puzzler, '999'.
The venture paid off in spades. The game went on to sell out all over the country, and continues to be reprinted to this day; up to its 5th printing at last count.
(It very much deserves it: 999 doesn't just tell a great story, it brings a great game along with it.)
With the success of 999, the flood gates appear to have opened, and VN fans have much to rejoice over.
Team GrisGris and 5pb's Corpse Party, a mix of visceral horror and traditional top-down RPG, was a pretty risky venture by definition for XSeed.
It deservedly did well for itself, and remains the biggest selling game on the PSP's PSN downloads this week.
(Which may not say much when the console is on its last legs, but a success is a success!)
Aksys aren't ones to be outdone, either.
Idea Factory's Hakuoki is next on their list, and as a rare first, this one's for the ladies: the protagonist is a female character, out to seek love and vengeance in feudal-era Japan.
As of recent, even some extremely dedicated fans have taken up the mantle, and created a visual novel of their own:
The controversial, and free!, Katawa Shoujo.
One of the more time-honored variants of visual novels, Katawa Shoujo is purely a dating sim: where all the available girls are afflicted with a handicap of some sort.
Despite the shallow-sounding premise, it's the solid writing, charming cast, and the ensnaring atmosphere that makes this one a keeper: and if the GameFAQs top 10 is to be believed, a very popular one.
It's also worth noting that some groups such as Manga Gamer and JAST sell official localizations of visual novels through the web, such as 07th Expansion's Higurashi(the precursor to Umineko), and the well-received Aselia The Eternal, though their works tend to skew more towards the eroge(adult) genre.
So what's next for the genre in the US? Only good things, if all the previous examples are to be believed.
I'm waiting with bated breath for an official Umineko localization, myself.