I wouldn't have tried romance games if not for Thousand Arms
and Harvest Moon
Back to Nature. Around the same era, I played Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure
and realized that I liked cute games.
My specific interest in visual novels began with Three Sisters Story. While I didn't especially like it (frustrating interface, and an unpleasant scene near the end that made me wonder about the main character's morality), it helped me realize that I was Not So Above It All
in regards to NSFW content. Over the next few months, I got to play Season of the Sakura (not bad, despite being basically a fangame full of expies), True Love 95 (which, for years, was the only complex harem game in English), and Kana: Little Sister
. The last one was the clincher.
Around 2005, I was close to giving up on the visual novel scene. That's when I found the first round of freeware visual novels that had been translated by the now-dormant site insani.org. And around the same time, I stumbled into the western visual novel scene, and got to experience some pretty good freeware such as Black Pencil and When I Rule the World.
Ace Noctali mentioned how video game magazines used to discuss import games. Yeah, I remember seeing discussions about Sakura Wars and Tokimemo in issues of Gamefan (sometimes also Gamepro), or Tokyopop's short-lived magazines. It seems so long ago that 1) it was easy to find more than two monthly game magazines in print format, 2) the import scene was more than a few 2D shooters and multi-crossover fighting games, and 3) journalists would discuss the import scene.