Visual Novels, A History:
11. Little Busters!
12. Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha
17. Higurashi no naku koro ni
44. Da Capo
45. Angel Beats
77. Shukufuku no Campanella
84. Akaneiro ni Somaru Saka
85. School Days
104. Umineko no naku koro ni
124. Galaxy Angel
130. Amagami SS
149. To Heart
161. Tears to Tiara
So out of the top 200 anime series, 27 of them were inspired by visual novels, many of these top ranking works. 27 isn't an overwhelming number. It's possible to be a good anime series as an original work (like Pretty Cure or Code Geass), a manga, (Like One Piece or Naruto), a light novel (like Haganai or PapaKiki), a film (like Summer Wars or Princess Mononoke), or even a video game (like Idolm@ster or Valkyria Chronicles). But the point remains that there is a lot of gold to be mined from them there hills.
Ranking the top ten visual novel franchises I've actually played through, in order of the value added over and above what you would gain from just watching their respective anime series, it would look like this:
1. Kono Oozora ni, Tsubasa wo Hirogete
2. Majikoi + Majikoi S + Majikoi A
3. Da Capo + Da Capo II + Da Capo III R X-rated + Suika + Dal Segno
6. Grisaia no Kajitsu + Idol Mahou Shoujo Chiru Chiru Michiru + Short Stories + Phantom Trigger
7. Clannad + Tomoyo After Story + Clannad Side Stories
8. Umineko no Naku koro ni Chiru
9. Osananajimi wa Daitouryou + Osananajimi wa Daitouryou Fandisc
10. Shuffle! + Tick! Tack! + Really? Really!
In addition, I've played a few more visual novels through that nevertheless did not make the rankings:
Harmonia, Koichoco, Hatsukoi 1/1, Little Busters!, Hoshizora no Memoria, Imouto Paradise 1 + 2, Muv-Luv and Tsui Yuri.
Visual novels were previously constrained by the limits of computer graphics to the point of just not being possible to be good. Without lots of good music, full voice acting, excellent and plentiful drawings (both for character sprites when they were talking or emoting and fixed events that show off important moments in the story), and a long and involved story with many 'routes' (generally girls you can get to know), it simply wasn't really a visual novel. As great as the content from Key's Air and Kanon were, if you go back and look at these games they look like a child's scribbles, nothing like the beautiful Kyoto Animation adaptions that later graced our screens as anime.
Even as we speak, the ever growing capacity of computers is improving visual novels across the board. They are now HD, widescreen, sometimes with continuous computer graphic animation, full voiced, so on and so forth. The production value of visual novels is much better than it was just a few years ago. This was even more the case in the past, where if we have to painfully remember the super nintendo was the expected level of a good graphics game.
To be a memorable game with super nintendo level graphics is pretty difficult. As such, the past is best left dead and buried in the past, game wise. The first exception to this rule, perhaps the date we can label the 'origin' of the visual novel as a true art form that could actually deliver a positive experience, is the extremely famous Sakura Taisen from 1996, published by Sega. Sega would continue to make many more Sakura Taisen titles all the way until 2005. The next important visual novel franchise came out in 1997, published by Leaf, called To Heart. I labeled Leaf as a human accomplishment for their work on To Heart because it set the tone for the industry forever after. Not only was it a great game in and of itself, it was the origin of visual novels as an art form almost singlehandedly. This wasn't the last good work put out by Leaf either. The To Heart franchise continues to this day (via To Heart Dungeon Travelers).
In 1999 Key began its godlike run with Kanon. It took what it learned from To Heart and changed it into a strikingly sad story that would leave an impression on people long after the reader was done.
1999 also featured the Memories Off series by Kid, which has continued all the way to 2018. We likely haven't seen the end of this series. It has a number of ova anime adaptions so anyone curious can look into what it's about.
In 2000 Type/Moon published its first game, Tsukihime. It's the predecessor to the wildly popular Fate/Stay series and has a lot of fans for its own sake as well. Like every other series mentioned so far, it has an anime adaption, but most fans hate it so it's hard to say how good the game is without playing it.
Also in 2000 came Key's next classic, Air. Kyoto Animation strangely picked up this series to animate first, and Kanon second, so many people think of Air as the 'beginning' of what made visual novels great.
2000 also saw the beginning of the Canvas series by F&C. This series also has an anime adaption for the curious of mind. The latest Canvas game came out in 2012.
In 2001 Suika officially began Circus' rise to greatness. It also has an anime adaption, but this is just a portent of things to come. Suika is an avant garde, artsy work that has all sorts of strange ideas bouncing around. Circus admits learning from Key how to do a genuinely moving and heartfelt story with their next work.
2002 sees the release of Da Capo, Circus's paramount work, and perhaps the most important visual novel of all time. This is because the Da Capo series is so popular and resonates so strongly with fans that endless sequels beyond all number have continued to this day. Furthermore, Da Capo has an enormous anime adaptation which is close to 100 episodes long at this point. Da Capo will dominate the future of visual noveldom henceforth.
2002 also revealed Higurashi no Naku Kori ni by Ryukishi07. Ryukishi07 also says he took inspiration from Key's works, and eventually goes on to work with Key for Rewrite as a sort of natural evolution. Higurashi is by no means the last important work from Ryukishi07. Higurashi and its sequel Umineko continue to have a tremendous impact and following in both the visual novel and anime world.
2002 also sees the creation of Galaxy Angel, by Broccoli. Galaxy Angel in the visual novels was always meant to be a serious love story, which went all the way to 2009 with sequels, but it will always be best known for its comical anime adaption, which it also produced alongside its visual novel stories. The Galaxy Angel anime is enormous and hilarious, so Broccoli did a good job either way.
2002 also sees the return of Leaf with the visual novel/rpg hybrid Utawarerumono. This was the first good hybrid of its kind, so we see Leaf breaking ground yet again. Utawarerumono received an excellent anime adaption that covers the story from beginning to end. Utawarerumono 2 has also been animated, and Utawarerumono 3's visual novel has at least come out in English. Another Leaf hybrid visual novel/rpg, Tears to Tiara, likewise had success, likewise had an anime adaption, and likewise has a sequel visual novel.
2003 features the beginning of the famous Muv-Luv series by Age. Muv-Luv Alternative Total Eclipse got an anime adaption, but that was never considered the best part of the series. Another spinoff, Schwarzesmarken, is a great anime, but the critical actual original series still hasn't been touched. As a result, Muv-Luv may be the most neglected good visual novel series in terms of anime adaptions of them all. Muv-Luv continues as a series to this day.
2004 had a plenitude of heavy hitters, starting with the action packed Fate/stay night by Type/Moon. This was another tradition breaker from what normally are simple romance stories in the rest of the genre. Fate/Stay as a visual novel has had a series of sequels spanning to this day. At least Heaven's Feel is finally getting an anime adaption, though when it will come out stateside is still unknown.
2004 also had Clannad, Key's seminal work and perhaps the closest work of art to perfection ever made. It was adapted brilliantly by Kyoto Animation into the one of the best anime series of all time. If that wasn't enough, Key also released Planetarian during this year, a masterpiece that puts even its anime adaption to shame.
2004 also had Shuffle!, Navel's breakout work, which skillfully melded a lot of fantasy elements into the routine romance story world. Shuffle! has a decent anime adaptation, and continues as a visual novel series at least up until 2011. (Surely they'll announce another sequel eventually.)
In 2005 August emerged as a strong visual novel company with Yoake Mae yori Ruri Iro na. It later received an anime adaption so anyone curious can check it out.
2005 also saw the emergence of a great new company, Windmill, with their work 'Happiness!' Happiness! also received a great anime adaption so it's easy enough to check out.
2005 also saw the entry of Overlook's School Days. This visual novel is historical for its radically bad ending and its atrociously evil protagonist lead. This is the anti-romance of all anti-romance stories, and in this way emerges as a particularly great story alongside the rest of the canon. School Days continued to have a series of sequels until 2014 , but none as notorious as its original. School Days has an excellent anime adaptation, which was so gruesome most Japanese broadcasters refused to air the final episode, replacing it with a 'nice boat.'
2006 features Ef, by Minori. Ef tells a series of improbable love stories normal romances could never hope to match. The game has an excellent and uniquely beautifully drawn anime adaption, but the visual novels actually went on to produce more content that was sadly never covered.
2007 features Little Busters! by Key. Another school romance story that has comedy and tragedy interwoven, and again overwhelming all the visual novel competition. Its sequel, Kud Wafter, was never translated but is now receiving an anime adaption, so all's well that ends well.
2007 also has the first work of Minato Soft, Kimi ga Aruji de Shitsuji ga Ore de. This is the beginning of a successful series which includes Maji de Watashi ni Koi Shinasai! and all of its sequels which continues to this day. Aruji de Shitsuji has an anime adaption under the English name 'They Are My Noble Masters.' Majikoi has a recent great anime adaption as well.
2007 also features the gorgeous Akaneiro ni Somaru Saka by Feng, which has a great anime release.
2007 also begins the story of Koihime Musou by Baseson, a retelling of Romance of the Three Kingdoms where all the characters are cute, datable girls. This tale continues at least until 2019, and has an anime adaptation.
Luckily for me, the remaining history of visual novel classics is covered by the invaluable website resource, http://omochikaeri.wordpress.com
Starting with 2008, omochikaeri's heroic bloggers discuss every visual novel coming out in Japan, every month, all the way until the present day. This heroic blog may be the West's only lifeline to the visual novel medium, and I shudder to think of how we'll learn about visual novels any longer if it is cut. From 2008 on, by having a real detailed view of every game that's come out in Japan, I can decide for myself if a game is good or not, without having to consult 'buzz,' 'sales,' or 'did it receive an anime that got buzz or sales?' Fortunately for us, all the best visual novel series listed above have gotten anime adaptions, but unfortunately, many of them have been too short, too inaccurate, or otherwise unacceptable. But at the very least they serve as a quick reference for people who wish to delve back into the past and benefit from the best of the visual novels of the past.
Starting from 2008 on, with Omochikaeri as my guide, my next visual novel post will be about the ones I particularly think promising, which might stray from what sold well or is critically acclaimed like the list up till now has been.
Visual Novels, Modern Age:
What's more interesting is how many new companies have established their worth than were around in the past. Frontwing, August, Feng, Navel, Minori, Key, Type/Moon, and Windmill we could expect would make more good games. But who saw all these new companies suddenly taking the lead?
Alcot, Lillian, Lump of Sugar, Palette, Sphere, Yuzusoft, Ryokucha, Saga Planets, Nitroplus, Caricature, Sprite, Clochette, Favorite, Asa Project, and Pulltop all climbed to the top of the sales rankings from out of nowhere against established giants like Circus and Key. Now it's just unknown who is the best visual novel company anymore. Everyone has their fans and the consumers are split between many more competing interests than ever before. Let's hope the competition encourages improvement instead of just a series of bankruptcies.
As for the still unnamed companies, I just found their games interesting or uniquely attractive. The general public doesn't really agree with my remaining choices. Rosebleu, Debu no Su, Journey, Moonstone Cherry, Wheel, Sorahane, Onomatope, and Tone Works just put out what to me look like really good looking games.
Of these mentioned titles, Grisaia has an anime, Fortune Arterial has one, Prism Ark has one, Tayutama has one, Mashiroiro has one, Shukufuku no Campanella has one, Oretachi wa Tsubasa ga Nai has one, Yosuga no Sora has one, Steins;Gate has one, Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi has one, Ao no Kanata no Four Rhythm has one, and Koi to Senkyou to Chocolate has one. The rest have been left to the winds of fate.
Furthermore, a lot of games aren't mentioned on this list, for instance Da Capo III. This is because any game that's a sequel or spinoff of an already mentioned game in this list or the previous list isn't necessary to include. Every game I include means I'm including the entire franchise, and consider the whole franchise worth reading/playing/watching. Almost all of these games have at least one sequel, which means this list is actually larger than it seems. If you played all of these games and everything related to their franchises, I suspect it would take years. This is, after all, the entire accumulated art of every last good visual novel ever made by every last good company. It should last a while.
Alcot - Engage Links, Osananajimi wa Daitouryou, Real Imouto ga Iru Ooizumi-kun no Baai, Kimi ni Tonari de Koi Shiteru, Clover Hearts, Shogun-sama wa Otoshigoro
Pajamas Soft -- Prism Heart
Lillian - Twinkle Crusaders
Frontwing - Grisaia, Hatsuru Koto Naki Mirai Yori
August - Fortune Arterial, Aiyoku no Eustia, 'Sen no Hatou, Tsukisome no Kouki'
Lump of Sugar - Tayutama, 'Hello, Good-bye', Hanairo Heptagram
Palette - Mashiroiro Symphony
Windmill - Shukufuku no Campanella, Witch's Garden, Harukaze Sensation, Wizards Complex
Circus - D.S. Dal Segno, Tenpure!!
Eye*phon - Tsui Yuri ~ Okaa-san ni wa Naisho da yo~
Campus - Natsu Uso ~ Ahead of the Reminiscense
Navel - Oretachi wa Tsubasa ga Nai
Sphere - Yosuga no Sora
Yuzusoft - Tenshin Ranman, Dracu-riot, Amairo Islenauts, Sabbat of the Witch, Senran Banka
Ryokucha - Koiiro Sora Moyou
Saga Planets - Kisaragi Gold Star, Hatsuyuki Sakura, Hanasaki Work Spring
Nitroplus - Steins;Gate
Rosebleu - Tiny Dungeon
Caricature - Bitter Smile
Feng - Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi
Debo no Su Seisakusho - Sora o Aogite Kumo Takaku, Toki o Kanaderu Waltz, Hanasaku Otome to Koi no Grimoire, Hanachiru Miyako to Ryuu no Miko
Sprite - Koi to Senkyou to Chocolate, Ao no Kanata no Four Rhythm
Journey - Nanairo Kouro
Moonstone Cherry - Imouto Paradise
Clochette - Kamikaze Explorer, Prism Recollection
Cube - Koisuru Kanojo no Bukiyou na Butai
key - Rewrite, Harmonia
Asa Project - Renai O km, Puramai Wars
Wheel - Bura Bura
Favorite - Irotoridori no Sekai, Hoshizora no Memoria
Minori - Natsuzora no Perseus, Trinoline
Sorahane - 'Sakura, Sakimashita'
Onomatope - Sakura no Reply
Pulltop - 'Kono Oozora ni, Tsubasa o Hirogete', Cocoro Function, 'Miagete Goran, Yozora no Hoshi o'
tone works - Hatsukoi 1/1
type/moon - Mahoutsukai no Yoru - Witch on the Holy Night
Princess Sugar - Hime-sama LOVE Life
Smee - Pure x Connect
Hooksoft - Amenity's Life
Cabbage Soft - Hoshikoi x Tinkle
The Top Eroge Companies When You Put it All Together:
This is just a rough approximation, because I haven't played nearly enough visual novels (and not nearly enough have been translated into English to play in the first place) to be an expert on this matter, but just taking an educated guess these are the best eroge developers in the world right now:
6. Minato Soft
15. Saga Planets
17. Lump of Sugar
18. Asa Project
23. Pajamas Soft
26. Debu no Su
28. Moonstone Cherry
39. Tone Works
46. Princess Soft
48. Akabei Soft2
50. Princess Sugar
In other words, hardly any good games have come out of a company other than the 50 listed above. There are lots of eroge coming out every month, but most of them aren't even worth a passing glance, unless they were made by one of the companies listed above, in which case it's time to perk up the ears and take notice.
Visual Novels in English:
The cure to these frustrations is the website nyaa.si
There we can find english translations of many classic visual novels ready for play. This includes Muv-Luv, Muv-Luv Alternative, Fate/Hollow Ataraxia, Sora o Aogite Kumo Takaku, Clannad: Tomoyo After Story, Utawarerumono 3, Sharin no Kuni, G-senjou no Maou, Ever17, Majikoi S, Majikoi A-1, Majikoi A-2, Idol Mahou Shoujou Chiru Chiru Michiru, Grisaia: Phantom Trigger, Umineko Chiru, Hatsukoi 1/1, Tsui Yuri, Sabbat of the Witch and Harmonia. All classic works, none of which were covered by an anime adaption.
If anime adaptions aren't enough, there's also translations of Tsukihime, Fate/stay night, To Heart 2, Utawarerumono 1-2, Grisaia no Kajitsu/Meikyuu/Rakuen, Canvas 2, Little Busters, Steins;Gate, Phantom of Inferno, Majikoi, Clannad, Air, Kanon, Planetarian, Rewrite, Umineko, Koi to Senkyou to Chocolate, Tears to Tiara, and Chaos;Head. The original Galaxy Angel visual novel trilogy has also been translated into English. Since the games are very different from the anime, it might be worth looking into.
Other good visual novels are in translation as we speak, for instance Irotoridori no Sekai, Rewrite+, Mahoutskai no Yoru, Dracu Riot, Majikoi A-3, Summer Pockets, Aiyoku no Eustia and Tenshin Ranman.
These projects cover a large portion of all the best visual novels that have come out of Japan. Whoever is involved in these translation projects are true heroes for giving access to an art form that so far only Japan has enjoyed. Luckily for the rest of us, it isn't necessary to learn how to read Japanese to enjoy visual novels. All we have to do is wait for the fan translations to finish. Whether that takes months or years isn't that important -- work on the ones that have finished and that will pass the time until new ones have finished and so on. The only thing that matters is the translation eventually is completed. Dropped projects are the only true catastrophes.
If you read nothing else, read Planetarian, Tomoyo After, Harmonia and Rewrite. The works of Key should be known and etched into everyone's hearts in the entire world.
P.S.: Shuffle! and its sequels Tick! Tack! and Really? Really!, Koihime Musou, Imouto Paradise 1 and Imouto Paradise 2, Suika A.S.+, Kotori If/Exp, Ef, D.C. I, D.C. II, D.C. III and D.S., the basic games, are out in English from the company Mangagamer. Osananajimi wa Daitouryou + Daitouryou fandisk and School Days HQ is out in English from the company Jast.
P.P.S.: But you'll still need to learn to read Japanese eventually -- how else will you ever be able to play Da Capo Poker?
Visual Novel Reader, Etc:
The other good news from Aaeru is that Kono Oozora ni, Tsubasa wo Hirogete, the winner of the visual novel of the year award for 2012, is getting a 'restoration patch' that will allow us to enjoy the game as it was originally intended to be viewed, rather than the hack job censored release that Moenovel came out with. Using the translation from Moenovel as a foundation, they should be able to quickly release 'the rest' of the game as a full English visual novel in a much shorter time period than if they had to translate everything from scratch. As a result, I'm deeply grateful to Moenovel for saving fans all the effort of translating the story from scratch. Even so, to take the winner of the 'best visual novel in Japan 2012' and slice it apart and impose foreign values into it is so utterly disrespectful. What the company was saying is that even the absolute best game in Japan is artistically worthless, has no value, and should be changed into some other product because the way it was was 'unacceptable.' If that's how you feel about visual novels, what does that say about every other game below #1? It's basically spitting on the entire industry.
Visual novels come in different flavors, some are 'eroge' and graphically depict sex, whereas others are all-ages 'galge' and don't depict anything Puritan prudes might get upset over. The problem is, Kono Oozora ni, Tsubasa wo Hirogete is an eroge, and to turn it into something else goes against the original intent of the creators, the artists, who, by the way, were awarded the rank of #1 artistic production in the field last year. If the artists themselves had released an all-ages galge version of the game, that would have been fine, because we could be reassured that they still cared deeply about their story and would ensure it was done right. But for outsiders to censor the product as they see fit and deliver something the creators never would have intended is outrageous.
My favorite visual novel is Clannad, which doesn't have any sexual material. My seventh favorite is Planetarian, which again has nothing objectionable. Visual novels don't need sex to be good, nor does adding sex necessarily make a story better. But if a visual novel does have sex, randomly taking it back out again necessarily does make a story worse. Everything in a story is connected, just like the pillars that support a building, if you take a few columns out the whole thing comes tumbling down. Eroge tend to be stories about falling in love with a girl and then consummating that love near the end of the tale. Sex as a part of love is a beautiful thing, there's no reason to hide it or censor it away. It's absurd to say we can't depict sex in art even though people in the real world are doing it like bunnies, with people they care far less about than the characters in these games care about each other. As eroge are supposed to take the reader with them from a somewhat first-person perspective, the reward of getting to have sex with the girl at the end is meant to be just as rewarding for the player as the main character, the two are supposed to be one from the beginning. That's why the main character allows you to choose what to do, including who you truly wish to fall in love with, at every crucial point in the story, because you and the main character are one. Just being told off screen 'congratulations, your avatar has gotten the girl!' wouldn't have nearly as gratifying an impact, you would feel gypped after putting in so much effort to get the girl, a process that takes dozens of hours, hundreds of dollars if you bought the game fairly, and learning a foreign language if you aren't a native of Japan. As visual novels are still games in a sense, there needs to be some sort of reward for winning and a 'congratulations' trophy like all other gamers receive. In some games they give you a high score, in others trophies, in still others bragging rights over your friends, and in visual novels you get to finally get the girl of your dreams. Take that away and it feels like hollow, wasted effort from beginning to end. (Again, if the story is not an eroge from the beginning, then the story develops in such a way that you receive a fitting emotional award that's unrelated to sex, but feels just as rewarding. But the authors of the game need to have that in mind from the beginning to deliver such a promise, it can't just be shoehorned in later after massive censorship took away the original idea.)
I don't know of any eroge that treat sex casually, which makes it completely different from pornography. In the one game where you can cheat on your lover and dump her and sleep around freely with tons of girls, you end up being stabbed in the back and killed for it. (Bravo School Days!) As for everyone else, it's expected for the two of you to marry and live happily ever after together. Many visual novels include after stories where you've already had children together and are living in domestic harmony. This is a positive cultural influence, not a negative one. This doesn't corrupt the youth, it inspires them to seek a relationship as good as the ones they've seen in their fiction. In a world where Game of Thrones is a best-selling novel and HBO TV series, people complaining about sex in art have zero ground to stand on. And in an era when most high schoolers have had sex by the time they graduate, it's ridiculous to complain about how these couples are underage. If two high schoolers fall in love and decide to twine their lives together, this is a totally different concept from an adult sexual predator somehow kidnapping and molesting an innocent schoolgirl. When you add in the fact that these characters are just drawings on a screen, and no actual girl was harmed in the drawing of these pictures, the charges against eroge become ever more ridiculous. And no, there's no correlation between eroge players and child rapists, as Japan has the largest eroge culture in the world and the smallest rape rate in the world. That charge, also, is just ludicrously insulting.
Sex is an important part of life, when art avoids all sexual attraction in its stories, it becomes a poor copy of the real thing, like a mirror so dirty that only a blur can be seen through it. Including sex, not just tangentially or in an off screen whisper, but with the same impact and strength as the real thing, is the only way for certain stories to be told, and for certain art forms to succeed. Specifically, romantic love without sex is a farce. As eroge are generally about romantic love, taking out the Ero portion of the game is insane.
Some visual novels are about quite different subjects. For instance, Clannad is mainly about loss. Planetarian is about the end of the world. Fate/Stay is about winning the Grail War. Higurashi is about solving a murder mystery. Utawarerumono is about founding a Kingdom and defending it against all your warlike neighbors through careful deployment and maneuvering of your elite heroic units. All of this is fine, and if these series don't want to include sex no one will be the worse for it, because they're focused on a quite different story and getting a very different sort of joy out of following the tale. Rewrite is a fantastic story whose main theme was Death, so it's no wonder they decided to make it an all ages game and not worry about the exact opposite theme, the life that's created from sex and pair-bonding. But standing opposite to all of these classics which avoided romance and concentrated on other things, is Da Capo, which concentrated purely on romance and avoided everything else.
If Clannad is the perfect galge, Da Capo II is the perfect eroge. Yes, Clannad is better than Da Capo, but Clannad can't tell Da Capo's story, so a world without Da Capo can't be filled in by any number of Clannad equivalents. No matter how many times you write about themes other than sex, no matter how many good stories you make, the world will be impoverished for not having Da Capo II, the good story about sex. Why wouldn't you want this story in your collection too? Why wouldn't you want to cover this portion of the human experience alongside all the other portions? It's like playing Blue, Black, White and Green Magic decks but refusing to ever touch a Red card. It just randomly spoils your own fun, your own potential, your own opportunities to learn and enjoy more about the game. A good eroge like Da Capo II will add just as much to your life as a good galge focused on something else, and more importantly, it will add that very piece to your life that is missing from all other art forms, like the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Avoiding it only truncates your opportunity to expand your horizons and experience life more fully.
The Da Capo Universe:
Even though Da Capo is a very long anime, it hasn't even come close to fully realizing the franchise's source material. Whenever an anime doesn't keep up with the source, fans have no choice but to switch mediums and continue the story where the anime leaves off. If you liked the Negima anime, you had no choice but to read the manga. If you liked the Sword Art Online anime, you had no choice but to continue the story in the light novels. And if you liked the Da Capo anime, you have no choice but to read the visual novels.
However, Da Capo's visual novels have no English translation and likely never will. Despite Da Capo being the greatest visual novel series outside of Key's lineup, it is a very obscure series with few fans outside of Japan. Since Da Capo started over ten years ago, the fact that the games released in Japan still have no American release or English translation implies no official company will ever take any interest in it. Mangagamer has done a fine job translating and distributing the core Da Capo and Da Capo II titles, but again, that's only a tiny tip of the iceberg, and to make matters worse, a lot of that material was covered by the anime so it doesn't even help fans get more material than they already knew about.
The Da Capo universe is vaster than the Pacific Ocean, one or two translated games are just a drop in the bucket, as are 5 anime seasons and four OAV's. For the rest of Da Capo, there's only one recourse:
Here you can find 'the rest' of Da Capo, short of Da Capo III which might actually get a Mangagamer release some day.
Your targets are:
Da Capo Onsen-hen (clearly vital!)
Da Capo Plus Communication
Da Capo II Harukaze Ultimate Battle
A.C. Da Capo Rumbling Angel
Circus Disk ~ Christmas Days ~
Da Capo II Spring Celebration
Da Capo After Seasons
Circus Disk Christmas Days 2
Da Capo II Plus Communication
Da Capo II To You
Da Capo II Fall in Love
Kotori Love Ex P (Da Capo's Kotori gets her own game long route, nice huh?)
Da Capo Dream X'mas
Time Paladin Sakura (Da Capo's Sakura gets her own game, nice huh?)
Time Paladin Sakura 2 (Da Capo's Sakura gets 2 of her own games, nice huh?)
15 games, none of which have ever been translated into English, nor will any of them ever be. Even if you dismiss some of the silly expansions like Rumbling Angel or Time Paladin Sakura, there are still a tremendous number of plot driven stories that are just as important as the original game they are related to -- To You, Fall In Love, Spring Celebration, Plus Communication 1 & 2, and After Seasons are all just as canon as the original games.
There are a variety of technical barriers that must be surpassed if you wish to actually make the downloaded games play on your computer, but I assume an avid fan is willing to tackle such a challenge or he never would have come this far. Search online for answers if you don't know them yet.
The remaining real challenge, then, is the language barrier. All the games are in Japanese, and they will never, ever be in English. If you wish to be a true fan of Da Capo, your only choice is to learn Japanese. Or use websites like Google Translate and try your luck on how well it turns out. One thing you can try to do is skip everything written and rely on your auditory Japanese abilities to at least translate what the heroines say. In the end, only the heroine's words matter anyway, right? Since you can click on the message as many times as you want to get their voices replayed, you can intently study each line as long as you need to come up with the solution. If you combine the voiced lines, the pictures, and the music, you can probably get 75% or so of the game's worth without even learning how to read kanji.
When you combine Suika with Da Capo, the universe just gets that much bigger. Since Sayaka Shirakawa is Kotori Shirakawa's cousin, the stories both exist officially in the same world. Sayaka even appears in the Da Capo 1 visual novel and engages in a few lines of conversation with you. Da Capo's tentacles are so vast that they even appear in Ef. Chihiro's mouse pad, notebook paper, etc, are totally covered in pictures of Archimedes, the cat from Suika, and Utamaru, the cat from Da Capo.
When I said Da Capo was a once in a decade achievement, this is what I meant. If you combine all the Da Capo games and all the spinoffs, the overall value of the product is something that is only matched by decades of effort by other great groups -- Key (who, by the way, are the greatest human accomplishment of our time), Final Fantasy, Pretty Cure, One Piece, Magic the Gathering, Warcraft, etc. In other words, Da Capo is a human accomplishment on par with Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. ((Actually far superior to both, but at least it gets you into the right frame of mind when these franchises are referenced.)) Just as it would be madness to not listen to Beethoven or Mozart when their music was coming out if you lived in the 1800's, it's madness to neglect Da Capo -- no matter how difficult it is to enjoy it -- when we're witnessing something so great unfolding before our very eyes. I don't know how much longer Da Capo will last, for all I know D.C. III is the end, but I hope it continues forever. Like Final Fantasy, Magic the Gathering, Star Wars or Warcraft, it would be best if the legacy just lived forever and more value was added every year. When people look back, centuries from now, and ask, "What was the 21st century good for anyway?" I want them to immediately answer, "Didn't you know? That was when Da Capo was originally published." That's the scale of greatness we are talking about, when it comes to these fifteen games and counting.
The Expanded Da Capo Universe:
The original Suika, available translated at Mangagamer, features Sayaka Shirakawa, Kotori's cousin.
Circus Land I -- This game includes Kotori as well as many other characters from non-Da Capo Circus games.
Archimedes no Wasuremono -- This game is part Suika, which is already related to Da Capo, part Da Capo, and part other Circus games.
Utau Ehon 4-5-6 Hi! Hi! -- This game is part Da Capo, part other Circus games.
AR ~Wasurerareta Natsu~ -- This game is all Suika, but the existence of Rin Yoshino and Tsumire Shirakawa still ties in to Da Capo.
D.C. II Featuring Yun 2 -- A Da Capo II short story.
D.C. P.K. -- Da Capo Poker! Clearly an essential part of the overall franchise storyline.
Uni -- Located in the same Kazami Gakuen (school) and Hatsunejima (island) setting as D.C.
Fortissimo Exs Nachsten Phase -- A spinoff featuring a slightly different Sakura, Utamaru and Archimedes.
D.C. III R -- The expanded version of Da Capo III, which is just strictly superior to the original version. Whether you go for the all ages version or the X rated version is up to your own soul. Mwahahahaha.
Suika Niritsu -- Has Kanade Shirakawa, so however slimly is still related to Da Capo's Shirakawas.
D.C. III P2: An additional game set in the D.C. III world.
D.C. II Dearest Marriage
D. C. III With You
D.C. III Dream Days
These are the only games we can be sure of receiving, but I suspect if sales continue to be profitable the games will continue. Why stop what's working?
With this, we've just bumped up our D.C. list from 15 games to 30. You could say making this many games about a magical cherry tree is already a human accomplishment. Reading it will take equally Herculean feats of stamina and perseverance. But just imagine the reward!