The Dot Hack series was developed by CyberConnect2 and published by Bandai-Namco in 2002. They started as a series of games exclusive to the PlayStation 2 right after the release of their first anime series .hack//SIGN, during the vast “cyberworld” craze of the early 2000s. What seemed impossible came to life, thanks to virtual reality video games.
Let’s back up. In the early 2000s, the internet started changing how people lived their lives in just about every way. Google revolutionized research. Wikipedia became the bane of every teacher’s existence. Social media bloomed. The internet even changed how we played video games.
Eventually, the concept of an entirely digital world developed mass appeal. While Hollywood film The Matrix and the anime Ghost in the Shell pushed forward with that concept, there was another one that almost went under the radar, also in anime.
However, even though Dot Hack seems like it should be a classic, it’s not nearly so well-known as its often-compared inspiration, Sword Art Online. How is it, then, that Dot Hack is relegated to the realm of cult fandoms?
What is Dot Hack?
A massive multiplayer role-playing game called The World sweeps across Japan. People of all ages log in to play a game where they can fight monsters and collect rare treasures. Yet, what seems like fun and games turns out to have a deadly secret.
The World is not what it seems in just about any sense. Players get trapped inside the game. A virus causes error codes that put players in comas. Players even kill other players in real life.
A party of players soon realize that The World is more than just another fantasy RPG. Instead, it functions as a front for a mysterious organization.
Adding to the tension in this series, these players in question are mostly kids. Hence, seeing some get hurt and even their in-game character getting killed can be hard to watch.
Twice The Digital Adventures!
CyberConnect2 created two projects for this franchise. Both have their share of games, anime, books, and manga. Although they were only a couple of years apart from each other, they each had their purpose and gained popularity in Japan and even in North America.
The first project was named Project .hack, which was the start of the franchise. Project .hack introduced fans to the mystery of The World and its iconic characters. Two years later came .hack Conglomorate. Let’s take a closer look at each to see what they brought to the table.
Dot Hack: SIGN
The first anime of the series was .hack//SIGN. Funimation and Bandai Entertainment released this anime in 2002, and it received an official international release the next year. It detailed how, after a massive cyberattack, a company revived the internet by creating The World. By 2010, it was the most popular game in the world, with millions signing up to play.
The story revolves around Tsukasa, a player who believes he is truly part of The World and not a logged-on player. He has no memory of how he got there or why. Thus, everyone’s suspicious of him. However, after meeting some friends and gaining notoriety with the Crimson Knights, Tsukasa and his friends try to find out his history and why he’s trapped in the game.
What makes this a great entry into Dot Hack is that SIGN adds a level of mystery. Is magic involved? Tsukasa struggles with internal conflict, and viewers start to sympathize with him. He is not a perfect player in every way. Instead, he’s a victim of something outside of his control.
Dot Hack’s Four-Part Games
After the anime’s release, CyberConnect2 worked with Bandai Namco to bring out the Dot Hack series onto home consoles. Four games were released on the PlayStation 2, making it something of a mini-series. They released just a couple of months after SIGN.
These games follow the tale of Kite and BlackRose during a very unusual time in The World. After their friends fall pinto comas, Kite gets a book from a mysterious girl. Through this book, he gains access to an artifact known as the Twilight Bracelet. This bracelet, in turn, grants Kite incredible power: he can infect his enemies with viruses.
This gains him the attention of hackers who view him as a threat.
Throughout the four games, Kite and BlackRose try to uncover the mystery surrounding the Twilight Bracelet and its ties to their friends’ comas. These games are very unique in presentation and feel like they came straight out of an MMO. In fact, after the four games launched, this even inspired the company to create an online multiplayer game under .hack//fragment.
Dot Hack: Legend of the Twilight
.hack//Legend of the Twilight was a manga series published by Tokyopop in 2002. It received an anime series a year later. Although there were polarizing opinions on it, fans gave Legend of the Twilight high praised for its cute art style and faithfulness to the franchise.
After participating in an event in The World, twins Shugo and Rena win themselves chibi avatars of Kite and BlackRose. From there, Shugo finds himself in possession of the Twilight Bracelet after meeting with a mysterious girl. Yep, we know, it’s almost beat-for-beat with the plot of the first game. However, Legend of the Twilight maintains a distinctly childlike tone.
While Legend of the Twilight can’t hold a candle to SIGN, it never needed to. It had its place and even to this day, it remains unique in the Dot Hack franchise.
Dot Hack: Pushing the Tempo in a New Way
In 2006, CyberConnect2 decided to continue the franchise by working with other companies along with Bandai-Namco. They named this project .hack Conglomerate. Once again, they released a new generation of games for PS2, as well as more anime, manga, and books.
This project aimed to revive of the series and excite the next generation of gamers. They were even hoping to bring Dot Hack back to popularity before the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 would eventually take over the gaming scene.
Dot Hack: G.U.
Taking a much more edgy take on the series, .hack//G.U. was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2006. This Dot Hack series fell into three volumes of games that follow the chronicles of Haseo. These games also ended up adapted into an anime series, a movie, and manga series.
After the servers of The World were shut down, the company rebooted a new version of The World for others to play. This new version advertises itself as darker, better, and more intense. Millions log in for a good time. Yes, we see the meta similarities.
Everything changes, however, when Player Killers started showing up. Aptly named, these players preferred killing other players for sport over completing quests.
Haseo, a player dubbed a Player Killer Killer, embarks on on a warpath to find a player named Tri-Edge. After Tri-Edge put Haseo’s friend into a coma, her player character got killed. On Haseo’s journey, he starts building a new group of friends to find Tri-Edge and put a stop to the player killings once and for all.
Although the game originally had three volumes, the recent remake collection for the PlayStation 4 added a fourth volume to tie everything together. It only took fifteen years, but hey, better late than never.
Dot Hack: Link
.hack//Link is one of the more interesting games for the series, as this was a PlayStation Portable exclusive. It released in 2010. For a while, most considered it the final game of the franchise. However, this was never official.
In 2020, The World once again reboots as The World R:X. During his first dive into it, Tokio and his friend Sakai run into the legendary player, Kite, after Kite protects Tokio from an attack from a mysterious group. From there, Tokio and Sakai decide to help Kite find the Twilight Knights. Along the way, they encounter enemies from the former days of The World.
Story-wise, .hack//Link is very interesting and engaging for a Dot Hack game. However, as a portable title, it received mixed reviews that claimed that the game was too boring in the gameplay side of it. When your game is boring at the actual gameplay, well, you know you’re in trouble.
Dot Hack: The Movie and Dot Hack: Versus
There’s a reason we’re grouping these two together, we promise. The game and the movie actually released alongside each other. .hack//The Movie and .hack//VERSUS came out in 2012. Until 2022, they were the last entries in the franchise.
The movie takes place in 2024, when The World reboots under a new name and causes problems in the real world. Sora Yuuki tries to uncover the truth and return everything to normal.
The movie premiered as a Japanese exclusive. Yeah. Unfortunately for fans, it never released in North America.
As for the game itself? .hack/VERSUS was the first fighting game for the Dot Hack series and in some way, it nails it.
Players get 8 characters, each spanning from every Dot Hack game in the franchise, to choose from. The combat contains lots of unique moves and fast combos, making it pretty fun. No, it’s not at the level of Street Fighter but again, it doesn’t need to be. The graphics are decent, the gameplay’s fun, and the characters look like they came straight out of their games.
Considering the amount of time and effort CyberConnect2 poured into this franchise, you’d expect Dot Hack to be competing with the likes of Genshin Impact and Final Fantasy 14. The question remains: how is it that it just fell off into obscurity?
We don’t claim to have all the answers. It’s not just that it’s a product of its time, considering that the G.U. franchise getting a remaster on PS4. If anything, the Dot Hack games were well ahead of their time, since they simulate an MMO in a single-player experience.
The gameplay, then? Sure, it’s an issue. Yet many remember plenty of other games despite lackluster play.
Bandai-Namco actually form the most likely answer. The company produced many, many excellent games. Dot Hack was just one of their more successful and profitable franchises, and others were even more successful and profitable.
It could have also been a case of too much competition. By the time .hack//SIGN arrived in North America, Yu Yu Hakusho, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, and Dragonball GT already ruled the anime roost. As for the games themselves, 2002 produced many games, some of which were much more critically acclaimed than the original four.
As of July 2023, modern gamers can only access .hack//G.U. Recoded. Dot Hack‘s cult following, though, routinely begs for a remaster or rerelease of the original four games. Sadly, at the moment, the only way to play them is via the PS2 or through emulation. Although it seems like CyberConnect2 is still planning to keep the series going.
In an interview during the 20th Anniversary Event of Dot Hack, Hiroshi Matsuyama hinted that the company is currently working on a new game for the series. While he gave no promises about a release date or remarks on what system it would be released on, fans were overjoyed.
Dot Hack may not be for everyone. It’s heavy on lore, for example. Still, considering that this series formed the bedrock for the isekai genre in anime, it deserves remembering.