Sunday, October 25, 2009
Unfortunately, my cold arrived at the same time as Alex's friend Darren arrived from the UK. Alex had talked to me about a variety of activities with his friend/podcast partner so I was really looking forward to the visit even though (or maybe because) I've never actually met or spoken to Darren myself. Since I wasn't feeling so bad yesterday and I really had an errand to run in Osaka anyway, I put on a surgical mask (when in Japan...) and went into the city to meet them.
I won't get into what exactly we did because I know Alex has plans to make audio/video materials out of it for his website, but I will say that at his house there was a kind of rapid-fire session featuring a number of video games, some that I knew but many that I never played before. Alex keeps himself very busy on the gaming front and he had a number of brand new shrink wrapped titles just ready to be played, yet he still bought Halo ODST while we were in Den Den Town. It was only 3000 Yen - a bargain for a new game, especially in Japan - but I am envious of the amount of material he has at his fingertips.
Once thing I will talk about is Burnout Paradise, a game that has kept itself in the mass gaming conversation for nearly two years now. At first I ignored it because, quite frankly, I loathe racing games. It's a genre that I've never accepted at home or in the arcades because the experience never feels right to me. Even when there's a steering wheel to play with (which helps in the "feel" department) there's this gigantic gap between what I do and what the car does on screen. It doesn't help that most racing games are as shallow as possible, consisting of nothing but roaring engines and turns turns turns. Of course, I've never been much of a "car guy" which makes most of what happens in the game completely uninteresting to me.
And yet Burnout Paradise blew me away. Darren did most of the playing but as I sat and watched I found myself actually getting excited. The big difference, as I see it, is Burnout Paradise gives you an entire city to play around in. Yes, there are races you can run, but there are other events for the choosing like "road rage," an impromptu demolition derby that has you crashing into sports cars on the streets rather than inside an arena.
More importantly, the city is just there for you to explore. Most of the time we weren't doing anything but screeching around corners and looking for things to smash into. Crashing in normal racing games is a drag, a failure, something that forces you to go back and redo the whole race from the start. In Burnout Paradise you are constantly wrecking your car in awesome slow-motion and all that happens is you "respawn" with your car somewhat restored to working order.
Alex made the comparison to the Grand Theft Auto series with the caveat that you never leave your car (though you can change vehicles in designated locations). I would posit that, based on the brief experience I've had so far, Burnout Paradise is better than GTA because it strips away the drama and violence while still offering an open world for vehicular mischief. There are no people in this city, only vehicles. It's like living inside a Hot Wheels track only the toy cars move a lot faster and can easily be replaced no matter how many times you crash them into a wall at high speeds.
The best news about Burnout Paradise is that Alex gave me a copy of the game for free. Somehow he ended up with two versions of the game (one on PlayStation, one on Xbox) so he handed me the Xbox one and told me to keep it. The downside is that there's no way for the two of us to play together now but the upside is that I have something new to enjoy that smashes my own assumptions about the genre. Few things are as exciting in life as discovering something that you thought you hated but is actually really cool. I haven't been this surprised by my own tastes since I learned to enjoy green vegetables.
Oh one last thing on the subjects of games and Alex. After I wrote about The Fountainhead last week, I uploaded a slightly different version of the piece to Bitmob, adding a few paragraphs to discuss the connections between the book and BioShock. Today I learned that my work was featured in a Spotlight post alongside an item that Alex had written. Small world!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
For those unaware, Super Potato is a videogame store in Japan. There's more than one outlet but it's not a chain on par with Softmap or Yodobashi Camera. The shop I frequent is located at the outskirts of Osaka's Den Den Town and is sandwiched in between two similar-looking stores. Aside from the silly name it's quite easy for the uninitiated to take one look at it and decide it's just another game store before walking off to the nearby subway station.
Certainly, the first floor offers nothing out of the ordinary; their display of Wii and DS games spills out of the shop and onto the sidewalk because those are the hot properties in Japan right now. Even if you step inside, you'll be greeted by the usual Japanese videogame retail environment. The narrow shelves are packed with games (new and used) and there's the din of non-stop advertising, both from full-size TVs and from mini-monitors on the shelves themselves. There's not enough room to bend over to look at the bottom shelves, but if you're quick you can squat down and stand back up before someone accidentally steps on your hand.
It is on the second floor of Super Potato where all the magic is kept. Just climbing a few steps is enough to drown out the aggressive noise of the first floor with the charming tones of the 8-bit Famicom. There's a TV in the stairwell that runs a (seemingly) never-ending countdown of classic Nintendo games. Whether these are best-sellers, fan favorites or simply a random, nostalgia-driven assortment, I couldn't say because I've never asked. What I do know is that I always linger on those stairs to see what's "playing." It doesn't matter if it's a game I remember or one I've never heard of, because I am entertained either way.
The top of the stairs might as well be a time machine, because the entire floor is dedicated to retro gaming. The layout is similar to the floor below: there's still lots of TV screens and impossibly cramped conditions, but while the first floor is a cacophony the atmosphere of the second floor couldn't be more inviting. For starters, the shift from plastic and metal shelves to wooden panels is much warmer and soothing to the eyes. Likewise, the TVs don't show advertisements for games, they just show games. Some you can play, others are just demos, but both serve as a more honest and direct representation of gaming than any commercial.
And then there's the games: thousands and thousands of games. There's a rainbow-colored assortment of Famicom games on one shelf and stark-white rows of PlayStation games on another. Grey Super Famicom cartridges, golden Sega Saturn CD cases, massive black Neo Geo ROM carts, every console of the past twenty-five years has a shelf to call its own. I remember once seeing an entire arcade joystick board for sale, ripped from its cabinet and modified to work on a home console. I would have been tempted to buy it if it hadn't been larger than my dining room table.
For me, the main attraction is actually the "shelf of dreams" as I call it: all the consoles one needs to play the games in the store, individually shrink wrapped (or occasionally in the box) and stacked to the ceiling. I stare at it and think of all the birthdays, holidays and special occasions that these devices represented. I spent months saving my allowance whenever I wanted to buy a new console. Now I can look at this shelf and, with whatever cash I've got on me, walk out the door with at least five or six different machines. If I were to hit the ATM first, I could probably buy enough software for three entire childhoods of memories.
In short, Super Potato is love. There are plenty of retro game stores in Japan and at least ten of them are on the same street in Den Den Town, but none of them will tug at your heart, reach into your brain and ignite your passion for videogames like Super Potato can. I'm no longer into collecting but I still go out of my way to visit Super Potato every few months to bask in its warmth and live vicariously through its stockpile of nostalgia. I can go into an arcade and entertain myself by watching the attract modes and other players, but I can put a huge smile on my face just from staring at all the plastic sitting on Super Potato's shelves.
Which brings me to my original point: in a digital distribution retail environment, there won't be a Super Potato. Sure, the Wii and the PlayStation 3 will eventually be stacked on their obsolete console shelf alongside purple Gamecubes and Virtual Boys, but no one's ever going to be reminded of the summer of 2008 by looking at copies of Braid or Mega Man 9. If (when?) discs are ever completely eliminated from the videogame market, then the products we love will never be enshrined in any dedicated store like this. While I admit the online store model is a hell of a lot more organized and convenient for people like me who deplore the tediousness of handling all these discs and boxes, there's no emotional value to be found by pressing "browse by title."
A great example is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a game so beloved it can be found on both the PSN and Xbox LIVE as well as hidden inside Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles on PSP. I've clicked past it on the list of PSOne titles dozens of times without ever putting it in my shopping cart. But when I saw it among used PlayStation games here in Japan, I felt the memories flood my mind and I ended up buying it at twice the cost of PSN if only to play it in Japanese for a change.
Another example is Doom. Thanks to an insane New Year's sale on Steam, I bought the original and its sequel for ninety-nine cents apiece. I've barely touched them in the months since, but how could I resist such a deal? I've spent more than ninety-nine cents on novelty flavored Pepsi, so two of the great PC games of my teenage years was a no-brainer. However, I can promise you that seeing those titles on my list of installed games doesn't have a fraction of the impact that picking it up in my hands does. Whenever I see a used PlayStation version, I immediately recall the night my friends and I gathered all our resources and rented a copy of the game so we could have two PlayStations running on two televisions in order to play co-op mode. It was only one night but I'll never forget the sheer giddiness of the experience as I cackled at seeing my friend's space marine run across my screen.
I am a realist as well as an optimist. I think buying games online and having them "delivered" instantly to my hard drive is a wonderful thing. I resent juggling Blu-ray discs every time I want to watch a movie because I keep BioShock ready to go in my PS3 at all times, so the ease at which I can go from PixelJunk Eden to PixelJunk Monsters is very convenient. Yet the prospect of an all-digital (or all-streaming) future is a bleak one to me because I'll miss the colorful charm of Super Potato, where the games all cost money but the memories are free.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, March 12, 2009
I was riding the train this morning and taking in the human scenery around me when I made this observation via Twitter:
sitting on a train across from a man (NOT a teen) reading a pro wrestling magazine. Even when I was a fan I knew those mags were crap.In hindsight this sounds harsh but it wasn't meant as a strict judgment of the man, just his choice of reading material. And yet it took less than a second for his magazine of choice to color my whole opinion of him. I started looking at his hair and decided it was weird. I thought the way he ate his breakfast was comically ape-like. My entire opinion of a stranger was dependent on his method of passing time during his morning commute. All this from a man who used to be one of those people who not only watched pro wrestling every week on television but actually spent a good deal of money on attending live events.
After looking across the aisle for a while, I glanced at the man next to me. He was wearing a suit and coat with a briefcase on his lap, and he was reading a Golgo 13 manga. This made more sense to me because Golgo 13 is awesome, but why? Just because I preferred one hobby over the other, I found one guy normal while the other was some kind of primate? That didn't sit right with me.
I know we all have our inner passions, many of which are far from mainstream. Earlier this same morning, I read the following message from Robert Ashley on Twitter:
"... is overrated" is one of the emptiest phrases in the English language. People love everything too much. That's fandom.As much as I agree with his first point (the Internet is awash with cynical morons who declare "[popular thing] is overrated" ad nauseum) his second point is what echoed inside my head on the train. Falling in love with something means getting excited about it beyond the "appropriate" attention level as decided by the masses. Even those niche hobbies that are considered mainstream, like baseball, have their own subculture of intense statistical analysts and historical archivists whose enthusiasm would not have much in common with the casual fan.
Looking back on my own life, I've had my share of (unhealthy?) hobbies and interests over the years. Overlooking my fondness for certain toy lines as a boy, when I was a teenager I spent my free time playing a lot of video games and watching a lot of Star Trek. While I always had at least one friend who shared my enthusiasm at the time, I always had at least two friends who weren't interested at all. There were video game friends and Star Trek friends, but not both. I would bounce between hobbies and fluctuate my passion depending on the company I kept.
Last night I was watching the latest episode of House which featured an unusual "patient of the week" who had lost all impulse control and said whatever came to his mind. This led to a lot of awkward conversations where he insulted his clients, pointed out the doctors' physical attributes (good and bad), and clashed with his wife about her charity work. But hidden amongst the sitcom-level gimmickry was one interesting idea: what is this man's real personality? If this is what he thinks about all day but he chose not to say it before, does that mean he's always been a raging asshole? Or is the way he decided to behave his actual self?
We all have our own little quirks and habits, and we all shift our behavior depending on who we spend time with. Your average man is not going to comment aloud on a new attractive coworker in the office, no matter how striking she may be, but he will certainly bring it up around his friends afterwards. I know my wife talks a certain way around me, a different way around her parents, and yet another way when she talks to her friends. Which one is the "real" Mako? Likewise, I behave in a certain fashion while at home and in a very different fashion when I attend the Tokyo Game Show. Was her panic concerning my gaming around New Year's really a frightened reaction to seeing too much of my geekiness?
I can't help but wonder if the world would be a better place if we had fewer social pressures to keep our interests bottled up. "Honesty is the best policy" isn't always necessarily true, as evidenced by the guy on House, but isn't more honesty better than less? What if Trekkies could wear Starfleet uniforms in public as casually as sports fans wear team jerseys? What if Danny Choo was just one of a million Star Wars fans who dressed up in stormtrooper armor on the weekends?
I honestly believe that half of the people going to conventions are just looking to be "themselves" for a few hours around people who won't judge them so harshly. I've been to more than one Star Trek convention in my life and I assure you, there's not much to do there. Maybe you get to hear one of the actors speak, maybe you even get an autograph, but the reason I kept going back was the opportunity it presented to just immerse myself in all things nerdy. The exact same thing is true now with my love of Den Den Town. I almost never buy anything but I love being surrounded by old games and marveling at the passion surrounding that old technology.
So go ahead - take this chance to leave a confession in the comments section. What hobbies or interests do you feel uncomfortable sharing with everyone? It's the Internet, let yourself go!
PS: What was I doing on the train this morning? Listening to my iPod, specifically a playlist made up entirely of Neo Geo music. Hell yeah.
PPS: Tried writing this without Write or Die. Managed 988 words in 35 minutes. Not too shabby but I'm not ready to move on yet.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, March 02, 2009
Things are looking pretty good here in March too. Spring is definitely starting to poke its head out and deliver the occasional really nice day. After Saturday's disaster outing I hung around with Alex in Den Den Town, buying myself a joystick for Street Fighter IV (and any other fighting games that may surface this year). I was initially nervous about how to tell Mako given her over-reaction to my video game shopping habits. This is a woman who fretted over my purchase of Noby Noby BOY, a game that costs less than a McDonald's combo meal. In the end, I decided honestly was the best policy and she was not at all concerned by the 4500 Yen expense. Indeed, by framing it as a potential training tool that would make her entry into this world a little easier, she almost seemed excited. Almost.
But this post is about May and the incredible potential it holds for excitement. My uncle* recently told me via Facebook that his son Josh would be coming to "the Orient" in May and would be in Japan at some point. Now I haven't seen Josh in at least six years so I don't know what he's up to or why he would come to Japan or who he is coming with. All I know is he is my cousin and I hope I can be of assistance in some way should he pass through Osaka. I know he likes baseball; perhaps I can score us some Tigers tickets.
*Yes, a surprising number of people in my family are on Facebook, including one uncle, countless cousins, Salena and even my mother! Don't think Dad is going to ever get on board though.
Then, over this weekend, I got an e-mail out of the blue from Michael, a friend of Hyde's who I met a few years ago. Turns out that Michael is getting married soon and has decided to honeymoon here in Japan. It sounds like he is going to see as much of the country as he and his new wife can manage in a week, so I can't be sure how much time he will spend in this area. But I certainly volunteered to show the two of them around should they hit Kansai. At the very least they should see Kyoto; perhaps I can show them around the womb.
But this is all icing on a very, very sweet cake. After years of not-so-quiet encouragement and pleading on my part, The Trout is coming to Japan for the first time! I view this as no mere vacation. It was his (and Scott's) initial interest in Japan and study of Japanese that lured me to take night classes at The Japan Society. This experience led me directly to my initial 2001 visit to Miyagi Prefecture, which in turn planted the seed that eventually grew into a desire to return to college so I could qualify for the JET Programme. This is all in addition to being my friend since elementary school and shaping my personality and sense of humor over the last twenty-plus years. As far as I'm concerned, he is ultimately responsible for who I am today: a happily married man with a steady job teaching English in Japan. Were it not for his interest in Japan, my own buried fascination might never have surfaced.
Now I have no way of knowing how The Trout will react to Japan when he finally sees it with his own eyes. He may be put off by all the noise or the staring (he's 6'5"). He may be underwhelmed by the sights or the people. Whatever his feelings towards Japan are now, they are his own and do not confirm or invalidate mine. But considering the impact he has had on my life, I must admit that I am simultaneously excited beyond all reason and more than a little nervous. I want him to come away from this trip with the best impression possible. Not so he'll feel obliged to come back soon (though he is always welcome), but so he'll see what it is that I love about this country.
In a way (and I know this sounds weird but it's too late to back out now) this is similar to what I felt when my father first came to Japan. He didn't have the same interest in the country, culture or language that I did, but I knew how he loved history, particularly military history, and I felt it was important that I make the trip as interesting for him as I could. I guess I also wanted him to be proud of me for getting by in a foreign country that I had been talking about non-stop for years.
With friends, of course, it's different than with family. I wasn't excited to go drinking with my dad, and I certainly didn't want to facilitate any hook-ups with the natives. Likewise, I don't go out with The Trout hoping he'll be impressed by what I'm up to or proud of what I've accomplished. I just want to have fun with him because that's something we simply don't get to do at all anymore. If I wanted my father to see how far I had come, I want my relationship with my friends to go back to the times when we saw each other constantly rather than once or twice a year. The goals are complete opposites but the anxiety I feel is more or less the same.
So YES, May looks hot. Real hot. So much to consider and plan for. So many questions! Where should we go? What should we eat? How much sleep am I willing to forgo?
つづく...(Click here to read more)