Tuesday, December 15, 2009
I've often communicated my enthusiasm for the PixelJunk brand of games on the PlayStation Network. Every since I bought a PS3 last year, I have found myself drawn towards their distinctive, addictive little games. When they finally released PixelJunk Shooter last week, their first completely original product of 2009, I was incredibly excited. I played through it as quickly as possible so I could write a review.
That review is on Bitmob right now, but after posting it last night I was stunned to see another writer had posted his own thoughts on the game and they were already splashed across the front page. It was an awkward moment for me, because while I was disappointed that someone else got the front-page treatment over me, I was really impressed by what he wrote. Bottom line: we both love the game, so you should consider buying it. Even though I've "finished" the game I've still got things to go back and collect.
Look for my list to continue very soon, although some year-end writing opportunities may cause additional delays. But hey, either way I'll be writing something, so be sure to stay tuned.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Bronchial issues aside, I had a terrific weekend. On Saturday we dropped Go off with Mako's parents (with their blessing!) so the two of us could just spend the day together. Mako was nervous that something would go wrong and that they would never agree to watch him again but I can't imagine why. If anything, Mako's mom is better at getting the baby to fall asleep than either of us!
The first errand of the day turned out to be buying my birthday present. I have been without a wristwatch for the better part of three years now, perhaps longer. I guess when my last watch disappeared/died/whatever, I figured there was no rush to replace it because I already carry around a device that keeps time: it's called a mobile phone. Why bother strapping a completely redundant device to my wrist for a singular purpose?
What I've come to realize during that time is that using a phone as your primary timepiece is a major pain in the ass. First of all, it's always going to be in a pocket somewhere, which means to check the time I have to pull it out. This can not be done in a subtle fashion and we all know there are a variety of social situations where noticeably looking at a clock is a faux pas. Standing in front of a room full of children is certainly one of those situations, and while they are not offended per se it is impossible to look without creating a major distraction.
So after a few months of contemplating a watch, my wife listened to my murmurings and decided it would make a good birthday present. She also wisely realized that picking a watch without my input would be foolish, so we chose one together in Yodobashi Camera. It's probably the most expensive watch I've ever owned, but that's not saying much because I have always favored low-end digital watches. In my mind, wristwatches are like sunglasses: they are entirely too fragile to bother spending a lot of money on. But not this watch! It's a G-Shock with a stainless steel band, black with bronze "highlights" if you will. It feels heavy and looks good.
After buying the watch we went upstairs to Yodobashi The Dining (I love that name for a floor of restaurants) and had a terrific Chinese buffet lunch. It cost too much money, I suppose, but it tasted great and it was a special occasion of sorts. Here's a brief glimpse of our food and my watch as seen on Twitpic:
The main event of the day, by far, was our trip to the movies to see Inglorious Basterds which only just opened in Japan. Given Tarantino's fame here and their absolute adoration for all things Brad Pitt, I'm really surprised it took so long to show up in theaters. Then again, compared to most of the movies I wanted to watch in 2009, it arrived relatively quickly. A three month wait to see Inglorious Basterds is nothing compared to, well, FOREVER for the various indie movies I've been reading about all year. If I'm lucky, District 9 might show up on DVD sometime next winter...and that's a big if.
This sounds like griping but there is a point: in a movie-starved year for me, Inglorious Basterds was the best movie I've seen in a long time. I was a little uneasy about the premise, if only because I feel like I've seen enough World War II movies to last me until World War III, but Quentin Tarantino somehow made a war movie without much of a war in it. Even though nearly all the characters are soldiers, there are no scenes of combat and only a few minutes of gunfire ("few" being relative to the film's substantial length). Nearly all of that action takes place in the finale which is all the more powerful given the scarcity of violence leading up to it.
This is not to say the movie isn't tense; I would argue it's his most riveting film to date. The opening scene felt like it was an hour long but I say that because I was going out of my mind waiting for the hammer to drop. It's ostensibly a conversation between a high-ranking German and a French dairy farmer, full of conversational pleasantries (i.e. "Would you mind if I smoked my pipe?") yet I was on the edge of my seat. I don't know how he does it, but QT's dialogue continues to impress me with each and every picture he makes.
There's also the little things, small moments and quick shots that have no apparent meaning to me but I delighted in each one: Brad Pitt's character has a giant scar on his neck that is never explained. Julie Dreyfus' ridiculously gaudy wardrobe, particularly that leopard-like hat. Landa forgetting about the cream for the strudel, then insisting on waiting for it to arrive, followed by close-ups of it being served. Zoller's increasingly ostentatious uniform. The SS officer drinking beer out of a glass boot. The dwarf painting Hitler's portrait. Hitler's fucking CAPE.
The only thing that really confused me about the movie was its title. Not the misspelling of "bastards" but the decision to name the film after such minor characters. The team is introduced early in the film but few of them have any lines and none of them are on screen for very long. I suppose a few of them are integral to the finale but without giving anything away, there's a larger story at work which they are completely independent of. They are largely forgettable as characters with the exception of Donny and perhaps Hugo.
The real star of the film, both from a character and acting point of view, is Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz). He's mesmerizing and I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've ever used that word (I had no idea how to spell it). From his conversation with the dairy farmer to his strudel moment to his extended laughter in the theater lobby to his last moment on screen, I could not take my eyes off of him. Here's a guy who has never been in a Hollywood movie before, playing a goddamn Nazi, and yet he's so charming he's almost sympathetic. He owns every scene that he's in, easily outshining Brad Pitt for sure. I hope when the time comes he is lauded like no other actor has been lauded before.
So yeah, I love the movie. Loved it. I spent the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday just thinking about how much I loved it. I didn't have much else to do at the time, which helped.
On Monday I made a hell of a long trek down to southern Osaka (yes, past KIX) for a gaming party thrown by fellow JET Graham. With the baby around and my relative isolation from other JETs, I suppose it was also the closest thing I'd have to a birthday party this year, so I was pretty excited about it. I was among the first people to arrive although my unfashionable earliness was intentional. Since it was so far away I knew I'd be leaving pretty early, so I wanted to get in as much gaming/socializing as I could before making the trek back home.
Graham's setup was really impressive. There was a big screen TV with a PS3 and all variants of plastic instruments hooked up in the main room of the party, which obviously spent most of the afternoon engaging in one kind of music game or another. However there was also a Wii and an Xbox in additional rooms, plus a computer with all sorts of emulators and two gamepads. Truly, there was something for everyone.
The first game I played was one I was kind of excited about, New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Graham and I played through the entire first world together, taking advantage of the game's simultaneous co-op mode. It's funny how easy it was to accept a two-player Mario game even though it's a completely new experience in the twenty-five year history of the franchise. Sure, we got in each other's way a few times and maybe he grabbed a mushroom that totally should have been mine, but for the most part we were working together in delightful ways. Your characters have a lot of interactivity potential, from bouncing on one another to outright picking up another player and throwing him.
My biggest complaint was, sadly, my predominant one with Wii games: controls. The Wiimote does not feel comfortable when held sideways. It might resemble a classic controller in that position but it certainly doesn't feel like one. Also, the inclusion of motion controls (shaking, twisting, etc) is downright obnoxious. I understand the fun of pretending to swing a baseball bat or a golf club, Nintendo, but don't force me to jerk my hands around just to spin jump. Considering how often the simplicity of Wii controls is touted, this strikes me as a grievous miscalculation. Still, if I can convince Mako to try it I will absolutely buy this game for our home.
Next up was an "oldie" (from five months ago) that I had been very curious about, Prototype. You might remember it hit shelves around the same time as inFAMOUS did with a very similar premise: ordinary dude gets extraordinary powers in an open-world city environment. While inFAMOUS had a demo (which I absolutely detested) Prototype did not and I didn't really hear enough glowing praise to make me take a chance on it. I was also in the middle of BioShock at the time and, let's face it, that's a hard game to put down.
I'm happy to report that Prototype is a lot of fun. It opens in medias res with your character Alex rampaging in Times Square. There are soldiers, tanks, helicopters and mutant things all around you and none of them are friendly. There are also hundreds of civilians, taxi cabs and other elements that are neutral towards you but you are free to dispatch them if you feel like it. Indeed, a well-aimed automobile is the easiest way to take down a gunship.
The carnage abruptly ends and you return to the start of the story with Alex waking up in a morgue. While many of the outrageous powers you just used are no longer available, Alex is still perfectly capable of leaping tall obstacles and running up the sides of buildings. The game gives you a few quick objectives (elude the military, find Alex's sister) but it quickly opens up and lets you do whatever the hell you want. I spent a good half-hour or so running around (and up) Manhattan fooling around with Alex's super powers. There is a Grand Theft Auto-esque warning system where you can attract the authorities' attention by acting suspiciously, but it's refreshingly lax. It wasn't until I started smashing police cars together that anyone seemed to take notice and even then a few minutes of not acting like a monster was enough to make everyone calm down. Compare that to GTA IV where I swear a single bump of a patrol car can force you into a high-speed chase.
I suppose the big moment of the day was when I caved to peer pressure and picked up a fake guitar to play Beatles Rock Band. I am absolutely terrible at rhythm games and would have been much more comfortable grabbing a microphone instead, but my throat was pretty raw from coughing all day so I was in no condition to sing. At the very least, I can handle the bass on the Easy setting as there's only three buttons to worry about. I had fun despite my gross incompetence, especially as the game allows for up to six players (three on instruments, three on vocals) and we had more than enough willing participants for that.
The overall party experience was most pleasant. I am, as always, a poor mingler but I had a few nice conversations about games while indulging in junk food and many glasses of Coca-Cola. I honestly came home feeling like a kid because that about summarizes most of the parties I attended in my youth. The only thing missing was the pizza and the chance of a sleepover.
So to sum it all up, I ate delicious Chinese food and saw the best movie of 2009 on Saturday, lounged around the apartment on Sunday, then gorged myself on games and snacks on Monday. Pretty great weekend if I say so myself. And hey, I just realized that I'm flying home in a month!
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)
Friday, July 17, 2009
My respect for the quality of BioShock overwhelms me; I do not know where to start in proclaiming how much I enjoy this game. Back when I played the demo last fall, I already explained how the game got me hooked right away with its distinctive art style and captivating world. For all the first person shooters set in outer space or on alien planets, BioShock is grounded on Earth in the 1960s. Admittedly, this is a steampunk/alternate history 1960s where humans have the technology to build massive underwater cities and genetically empower themselves with downright magical abilities, but the world of Rapture immediately enthralled me. Lots of video games have random stuff scattered in corners to encourage players to take their time and search their surroundings. BioShock might be the first video game I've ever played where the surroundings alone convince me to slow down and take a good look around (although there's certainly an abundance of items to be found as well).
As a game environment, Rapture is dripping with style and atmosphere. A typical first person shooter game has levels that are about as interesting as a trip to a self-storage warehouse. Graphical fidelity may offer us more visual detail than when the genre was new but few game makers take advantage of that to give their worlds character. Rapture, in contrast, is a underwater city that feels lived-in, making the chaos that tore the city apart all the more chilling. Banners hang from the ceilings proclaiming the ideals of the city's founder while hand-written protest signs, discarded luggage, and corpses litter the hallways. Audio diaries dropped in corners or left on desktops deliver stories of individual residents, warnings and cautionary tales to outsiders that never reached the surface. Was there a singular disaster that drove Rapture's citizens mad, or was the descent a long and torturous process? Did the violence and mayhem come from the top or rise from the bottom? What kind of a society would stock vending machines with food, alcohol, and ammunition? These are questions I ask myself over and over again.
For all its artistic merits, Rapture is also an exceptionally well-crafted space for the player to navigate. These are not linear levels full of monster closets and constrictive hallways, nor are they labyrinthine in their layout forcing the player to run in circles. They feel inspired by mission-driven games like GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark where running straight through to the end was not an option. In the two areas I have seen thus far, the exit has been easily accessible from the start but in order to use that exit, I had to accomplish certain tasks first. The in-game map and navigation system made finding what I needed a breeze. Also, crouching and jumping are refreshingly kept to a minimum. Ever since first person shooters realized that such abilities were necessary, game designers seemed to include lots of elaborate jumping puzzles or cramped air ducts that need to be crawled through to justify those motions. BioShock thus far has entirely omitted the former and made sparing use of the latter and I greatly appreciate it.
If the world of Rapture is what's holding my attention, it is the unparalleled emotional content that BioShock delivers that keeps me up at night wondering when I'll play it again. More than any so-called "horror" game, BioShock frightens me constantly, and not just with cheap tricks like enemies who leap into the frame. I dread each new door I open and each new staircase I climb because I fear for what I may find next. The first full area of the game is the "medical pavilion" which includes a funeral home, a crematorium, and a mad surgeon who found frustration with the human form so he just kept operating and operating until he ran out of patients. This is the stuff of real nightmares, not demons or aliens or zombies. I'm already scared of hospitals and mortuaries and who doesn't get anxious about getting anesthetized, wondering if you'll wake up or not?
Beyond the thrills and chills, BioShock also offers something few other games do: sympathetic foes. Unlike the clearly insane Splicers and security automatons who attack you on sight, Big Daddies and Little Sisters are content to ignore you as they go about their own business in Rapture. While the option to rescue or kill the Sisters is one of BioShock's most talked-about feature, it is the choice to fight or avoid the Daddies that I find more compelling. Dealing with the Sisters is not nearly as emotional as the game would have you believe; whichever you choose, it's just a matter of pressing a button and watching what happens next. The characters in the game tell you that "harvesting" the resources in Little Sisters kills the host, but from a player's perspective you never see anything unpleasant. Your character simply picks up the girl, who looks positively monstrous with her glowing eyes, and in a flash she is replaced by a slug and you are rewarded with more power. If this is supposed to give me pause or make me question my actions, it's not working.
By contrast, the Big Daddies are formidable opponents who lumber about Rapture, emitting whale-like moans and shaking the ground (and your controller) with each step. In order to reach the Sisters, you must first take down the Daddy guarding her and that is no small feat. The stakes are high when fighting a Big Daddy and as such, the choice to fight one has much more meaning than the harvest/rescue option the game is so famous for. Killing the Splicers is self-defense, killing the Sisters is abstract, but killing a Big Daddy is deliberate and in the end, they crumple to the ground with more of a whimper than a roar. The Little Sister he was guarding will run to his side and tearfully plead "Wake up, Mr. Bubbles!" Enemies that leave behind grieving children? That's the most powerful moment I've seen in a video game since Aerith died in Final Fantasy VII.
If I were to complain about BioShock, I would point out that there are some minor oddities with the controls that can lead to confusion. The SQUARE button both reloads your equipped weapon/ability and will begin the hacking mini-game when near certain machines. Since the window to hack machines can be brief, this has resulted in a lot of unnecessary reloads because I pressed the button too soon (or too late). Likewise, the X button is the generic "interact" button and is used both for searching objects/enemies and for picking up items. Holding the X button will replay the most recently discovered diary entry in your inventory. In tight spaces, the multipurpose nature of this button can lead to frustration. Say I pick up a diary that is on a shelf with other items. I cannot listen to it until I look away from everything else and press X or else I will start picking up items or searching random boxes.
Of greater concern to me over the long-run of the game is the combat, which is not particularly engaging thus far. The enemies may have lots of personality and talk to themselves for extra creepiness, but they are not very clever. They do not so much "take cover" as run in circles, occasionally disappearing behind an obstacle only to emerge from the other side. Thanks to their manic shouting, they are easy to get the jump on and they almost never ambush me. However, because new Splicers will turn up in areas I previously cleared, the tension level of the game is well-served by their blabbering. I can never feel safe in Rapture; no matter how many maniacs I put down, more will come to loot their bodies and attack me.
That raises another one of BioShock's elements of intrigue: who am I? The nature of a first person shooter is such that I cannot see my on-screen avatar; instead, I see the game world through his eyes. Yet nearly all games in the genre celebrate the hero on the cover of the box, in the main title screen or through cut scenes. Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, two of the most influential first person shooters, even included the character's face in the heads-up display. BioShock does none of these things. I have no idea who my character is, what he looks like, nor do I even know his name. He had a single line of dialogue at the start of the game, but since then he has been silent. The only hints I have received so far are the photo of his parents he was looking at on the plane and the curious tattoo on his wrist. This clever embedded mystery is yet another factor that keeps me chomping at the bit to proceed further into this world.
I could probably go on discussing minutiae but I feel like I've said what needs to be said: BioShock is an excellent video game. In a market that is absolutely swamped with first and third person shooters with increasingly interchangeable characters, settings, and stories, BioShock stands apart with its unique ideas and rich storytelling. There was once a time when all first person shooters were known as "Doom-clones" because they sought to emulate the success of that title so closely. This name fell out of favor as new ideas crept in and the genre developed. If we video gamers are lucky, we can expect some BioShock clones in our future, and I very much look forward to seeing where the genre goes from there.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, April 09, 2009
Tuesday night I went out to meet with Alex. He wanted to share some of his (substantial) Xbox collection with me and I graciously accepted his offer. I now have absolutely, positively no reason to buy any Xbox games for months considering the amount of material he has loaned me and the lengths to which these games can last. Fallout 3 alone could easily occupy me for the rest of the year. Of course, we all know I want what I want when I want it, so it's entirely possible I'll end up shopping before I realistically should be. But at least my wallet is safe for the short term.
I wanted to return the favor to Alex by loaning him games, but the fact is I don't have much that he doesn't. He already owns most of my PlayStation games on Xbox and I've shared all of my downloaded PSN games with him. So I lent him Resistance 2 since I recently finished the story mode and grabbed all the trophies I'm probably going to get. If he likes it enough to buy it, I hope we can play the co-op mode together because that was my favorite part of the game anyway. I suppose Alex is thinking the same thing about loaning me notoriously engrossing multiplayer games like Gears of War (both of them) and Left4Dead.
After our game trading and some light drinking was complete (it was a weeknight after all) I said goodbye and then met Greg and Robin for one last time. We had said goodbye on Sunday but when Alex and I agreed to met on Tuesday I contacted them and arranged for one last meal. It was, fittingly enough, sushi. I successfully led them to a nice kaiten restaurant in Namba (one that Scott first took me to) and we had a quick but satisfying dinner. It was actually the first sushi meal I've eaten all year, save for the odd piece or two that turns up in bento boxes at school staff lunches. It was long overdue, I say.
Greg and Robin have since left the country to head back to America, almost as the same time as a good friend of mine left America to head for a new life in Kuala Lumpur. I've extolled Mike's musical talents before but when his longtime girlfriend (at what point does that word become childish?) got a job in the Malaysian capitial, he decided to follow her to Asia and leave New York behind. This is very exciting news for a number of reasons, the least of which being that Kuala Lumpur is a hell of a lot closer to Japan than Brooklyn is. I hope to have more online contact with him as a result and maybe visit him before the year is out. I've never been to the city (save for stopping in their airport en route to Singapore) so the trip will double as an exploration of new things as well as catching up with an old friend. Mike's birthday is also just days away, so I'm going to say Happy Birthday now and wish him the best.
Along with all this human traffic, yesterday was the day for entrance ceremonies for the elementary schools in Hana Town. I attended one last year but I neglected to write about it, so I feel I should explain a bit about what goes on. It's a lighter version of the graduation ceremony I saw in March only it celebrates the arrival of brand-new first graders. It was obviously less emotional because introductions are a lot easier than farewells, but the tone was pretty much the same. Lots of stiff walking, endless empty "congratulations" from an array of guests who barely have any connection to the school (let alone the new students) and a couple of songs from the assembled student body. I felt really bad for the new students who had to sit in their chairs in front of the audience and just wait for over an hour.
While I came to appreciate the formality and somberness of the graduation ceremony because it reminded me that I was losing something important in saying goodbye to my sixth grade students, I found the entrance ceremony completely unrewarding. I can only assume it is designed more with the parents in mind, although I saw considerably fewer family members for this ceremony than the graduation a few weeks earlier. Mind you, these events were at two different schools but I suspect that graduation just means more to everyone and therefore warrants more attention. Only three fathers showed up, so clearly the other dads had better places to be.
As far as I'm concerned, this is simultaneously the best and worst time to be working in Japan. The end of the bitter winters, the start of spring and the beautiful cherry blossoms have made this week a delight. I can't tell you how nice it was to go into the city on Tuesday night without wearing a coat. However, I have had all I can take of the endless ceremonies, introductions and farewells that plague this time of year. I just fail to see the point of all this chatter.
Consider this: before yesterday's entrance ceremony began, the regular students and all of the staff gathered in the gym to commemorate the start of the school year in a separate, slightly-less formal assembly. The principal actually introduced every single school employee to the students. Not just the three new faces, but everyone. The guy who answers the phone in the office, the ladies who make the school lunches, even the "security guard" who dutifully protects the kids by sleeping in his booth all day; all of these people were introduced, one by one. I got my turn after all of the other teaching and administrative staff had been called, but I did rank ahead of the lunch ladies, the old woman who serves tea and the guard. In your face, gramps.
With all that having gone down, guess what happened today? We had two ceremonies to say goodbye to the teachers who left this school to work somewhere else. I've mentioned before that Japanese schools shuffle around the teachers every Spring in a confusing fashion that (in my opinion) destroys any real, cohesive atmosphere of teamwork in these schools. Obviously the Japanese don't feel this way, but I just can't see why these folks were clearly struggling to hold back tears when some of them had only been working here for one or two years. I guess there's no minimum time for creating an emotional attachment to a job or coworkers but one year seems awfully brief to me, especially considering two of the departed are now working at the elementary school that is literally up the street from this one. These kids all own bikes - they can say hi whenever they feel like it.
So yeah, I saw a lot of new faces and bid goodbye to some familiar ones - all while a close friend embarks on a crazy adventure that bring him a little closer to my own ongoing foreign experience. Funny how that transition, which I had no way of seeing or participating in, means a lot more to me than any of the ceremonies I sat through this week.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Saturday, April 04, 2009
"what, what WHAT?" you say? No doubt you recall the near panic Mako flew into earlier this year when she thought I was playing too many games. Perhaps you also remember my repeated laments about Mako all but forbidding me from buying an Xbox 360 because we already own a PS3. Well I'm not sure how it happened but today she abruptly caved.
Whenever we go to the electronics store I always kid her that I'm going to pick one up. I do it just because her reactions are so funny. Sometimes she does a double-take, sometimes she just says "OK, right after we sell the PS3." Either way we both end up giggling. But when I made the joke today, she looked at me and said it was OK. I needed to negotiate a little bit (promising not to buy a new phone or PC this year) and I had to convince her that the base model which lacked a hard drive was not suitable for my needs, but otherwise she let go of all her past complaints with surprisingly little resistance.
When I decided to buy a modern gaming console last Spring, egged on by the shininess of Grand Theft Auto IV, I chose the PS3 over the Xbox because it offered free DVD & Blu-Ray playback as well as free online play. I was also encouraged by its general absence of region-locking, a practice that essentially ruined what little fun I was having with my Wii. I do not regret making that choice as I continue to play my PS3 regularly. Indeed, I played it this afternoon and managed to earn two more silver trophies in Resistance 2. Yet the more I read about the world of video games, the more I came to covet the Xbox as a means to access a greater variety of experiences. In particular, Left4Dead and Braid were two games I had briefly gotten my hands on and I knew I wanted more.
I bought the console at our local electronics outlet (the same place where I bought my PS3) and I was surprised to learn that the unit included two free games. Not just throw-away kiddie software either like in the US, but games I've actually heard of. I got Ace Combat 6, a game I can recall from the old PlayStation 1 days, and Beautiful Katamari, my first chance to play a Katamari Damacy game. Of course, even with the freebies I still bought Braid right away.
Which brings me to my next point: I was immediately impressed by how easy it was to set-up the Xbox, register my gamertag and start buying games online. It seems the system was not as hampered by region-locking controls as I once feared. I was able to set my country to "United States" and enter my US banking card information (complete with New York City address) without any silly restrictions or roadblocks. I was then able to visit the US Xbox Marketplace and browse the English-language software. So far the process is even easier than using Steam, a PC gaming platform that refuses to accept payment in dollars or even sell me certain games because they are not available in Japan. The Xbox is all too eager to accept my money, which I guess I should be worried about if I weren't so happy to just get what I want when I want it for a change.
It remains to be seen what problems may occur when playing disc-based software as it is no doubt more restrictive, but if the Xbox is at all like the PS3 I should be able to buy Asian-version games with full English support and a lower price tag. However, I did get to play the Katamari game in English even though the disc is Japanese. It seems that it smartly detected my language settings and simply booted up as such.
So i had a pretty good day. For the first time in years, I have a full set of video game consoles so I don't have to worry about exclusives anymore. In the end, I think it's sad that the system I bought first and was the most excited about is the only one of the three that isn't even hooked up anymore...yet the Wii is far and away the most popular video game console in the world right now. Weird.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, March 30, 2009
I had a very pleasant weekend and I feel good about nearly everything that happened. If anything, there were times where I could have had less fun and I would have had just as good a time in hindsight. So you could say that my only regrets are enjoying myself too much, as if there is some finite supply of happiness in my life and I squandered it.
Saturday was my day to go out and spend time with friends while Mako relaxed at home. It was also, not coincidentally, the opening day of Watchmen here in Japan. I mentioned just last week my enthusiasm for this film and of Mako's evident indifference to it. Picking up on her coolness and anticipating another drawn out experience where she doesn't just tell me she's uninterested in seeing it in theaters, I made it simple for her. I told her I wanted to see the movie on opening day and asked if she wanted to go. She didn't, and I did.
But not alone! I met up with Alex to eat lunch and then watch the film. Over some spicy Thai-style pizza in Namba, we talked about games, his upcoming podcast, and the new T-shirt line at Uniqlo. He also revealed that he has not yet read the original Watchmen story but is, in fact, in the midst of reading it now. I don't think I've ever seen a movie based on a book I was actively reading at the time, but I suppose it can't be much different than going into the movie blind.
The movie was preceded by two trailers for American films which I am still thinking about two days later. The first was the new Terminator movie which I cannot begin to understand. The original film and its stunning sequel were fantastic and continue to linger in my mind as two of my favorite science-fiction stories. The third, for all its flaws, was an enjoyable romp that ended very well. Considering its very existence nullified the solid ending of T2, T3 spun a remarkably appropriate conclusion for itself that improved my view of the entire film.
While I am a sucker for good time travel stories, the real appeal of the first three Terminator films was rooted in a gritty contemporary setting. All three showed visions of humanity's nightmarish future and the war with the machines, but the story was firmly modern-day and a good deal of the tension revolved around that restriction. The heroes often lament that the technology available to them in the 80s and 90s is insufficient to take down a superior foe. Likewise, the Terminator itself experiences routine setbacks when forced to constrain itself to the society it seeks to destroy. The Terminator films have always been fish out of water stories where the two fish are trying to kill each other.
So what does the T4 trailer offer viewers? Explosions and giant robots with Christian Bale shouting at people. This is (apparently) an entire movie dedicated to those short segments in the earlier films where everyone has laser blasters and is covered in grime. Maybe someone out there saw those scenes and said "Man, when are they gonna tell me the rest of that story?" Whoever that guy might be, he's not me or any of my immediate friends. Hell, most of them thought T3 went off the rails into Silly Town. While I managed to enjoy it, I can't say the new movie appeals to me at all. I may rent it if only to bring some context to the awkward audio clip of Christian Bale chewing out a guy on the set. I just need to know what he was doing at the time.
The second trailer was also full of explosions and giant robots because it was for the new Transformers movie. This falls squarely into the category of "fool me once, shame on you/fool me twice, shame on me." I knew the first film would be awful and despite all my efforts to lower my expectations and open my mind to the possibility of it being dumb fun ("my efforts" largely consisting of drinking heavily before going to the theater that day), it was even worse than I could have imagined. The new film seems to have learned nothing from the first, as everything I saw was nigh-incomprehensible. Even by movie trailer standards the action was splintered and disjointed, which is exactly what ruined the first movie for me. Well, that and draping a dull-as-fuck high school romance over the entire story. But what do I know? The movie was a huge hit and plenty of people I know and respect managed to enjoy it. Go on without me fellas.
After all that noise and dubiousness, the movie I actually paid to see began. Watchmen surprised me right away with two curious choices. The murder of The Comedian became a spirited fight scene and there was actually an opening credits sequence (a rare sight in action movies). The fight scene represents my biggest problem with the adaptation while the credits got me excited to see the rest of the story unfold. Those initial few minutes turned out to be a microcosm of everything I liked and didn't like about the movie.
As the fight scene demonstrated, everyone's a bad-ass in the Watchmen movie. The Comedian is supposed to be a tough guy who's way past his prime, yet he's punching through walls and getting up after having his head smashed into tables. His mystery assailant is likewise incredibly strong and fast and the two of them duel with rapid-fire punches and kicks rather than brawling. Later in the film, all of the heroes demonstrate that they are incredibly gifted martial artists and gymnasts rather than just being motivated to fight crime while wearing costumes. This transformation of the "costumed vigilantes" to legitimate superheroes is Watchmen's greatest translation error. The original story was dedicated to deflating the comic book hero by showing his (and her) flaws. These characters still have their problems but completely devastating regular people isn't one of them.
On the other hand, the opening credits demonstrated a real affection for the original comic by delivering a slick, streamlined history lesson of the major events that precede the "present day," which in Watchmen is 1985. This is what the movie unquestionably gets right; it preserves the overall story of the original and presents it in a modern comic book movie aesthetic. Even if the action seems out of place from a logical perspective, I could not deny that I still got caught up in the excitement. Director Zach Snyder has given us hyper-real action setpieces before, but only in Watchmen is there a story worth telling alongside all the slow-motion combat. And while his bright ideas for "improving" 300 were laughably bad, Watchmen survives the inevitable hurdles of adaptation and actually thrives.
Rather than detail things I noticed about the movie being different than the original, I will simply point you to this article in The A.V. Club that goes through both works in their entirety. It's been a few years since I read the comic and I hadn't recalled exactly who did what to whom. Watching Watchmen has reminded me of why I was excited about the movie at all and I feel compelled to revisit the comic to make my own comparisons now. That may be the best thing anyone can say about an adaptation: it doesn't require you to know the entire backstory and watching the movie should encourage you to read the original afterward.
After the movie Alex and I swung by Uniqlo to check out some of the new video game themed T-shirts they're offering now. All of the shirts are cool but the only one I wanted (among those that are on sale now) is their Resident Evil T-shirt that is nothing but a list of enemy names. Unfortunately, they had no XL-size shirts and only one L-size which Alex claimed. I am torn between going to their website to buy one or just waiting for more shirts to come out so I can buy all of them at once, which will likely lower the per-shirt price. My only worry is that hesitation will result in the shirts disappearing, as Japan has a tendency to offer new and incredibly cool things for a limited time. I'm still waiting for the White Chocolate Maple Kit-Kats I ate in 2005 to make a return to the shelves.
With our (ok, HIS) shopping done, Alex ran off to handle his own affairs while I wondered what to do next. I sat down for some dinner and called Kazu out of the blue. I had debated for a while whether or not it would be "right" to just call him and see what he was doing. I don't know why I treated the whole situation like some kind of first date. Kazu is someone I've known for years; there's no reason to be anxious about calling him on the phone. As it turned out he was shopping in Umeda and he was eager to meet. We had a few drinks at the same bar we hit last week before parting ways around 10.
(This post has turned out longer than I expected but I'm just going to continue rather than cut the story in half)
Spending all day (and night) out on Saturday made me more eager to spend Sunday relaxing at home with Mako. We had lunch at a little place called "Kitchen Pot" that we had been meaning to try for a long time and it turned out to be really good. The portions were large and the prices were more than reasonable. There was a friendly vibe to the place that I dare say had something to do with their choice of oldies music. I got burned out on those tunes due to continuous over-exposure during my time in the post office, but something about hearing Elvis' "Return to Sender" again made me smile.
After our meal and some shopping, we settled in for the last day of the sumo tournament. It didn't end so well as many of the wrestlers I like ended up losing or just finishing with poor records. I was especially down about the final yokozuna match. Even though Hakuho had already secured the championship, I still wanted to see Asashoryu beat him to spoil his unblemished record and save some face. It didn't happen. Drat.
For dinner we tried making nachos again. We are slowly but surely getting the hang of the taste but we need to work on our form. As seen here last week, our nachos take the shape of a burial mound with the chips smothered in a heap of toppings. Last night's version turned out the same way, except we added guacamole and sour cream to the mix. The results were delicious but we still needed to dig our way through to the chips beneath. Mako said she was full halfway through and I pretended to be disappointed in her. Meanwhile, I could barely fit another bite into my mouth but I soldiered on to avoid the nasty leftovers we would end up with. I think "burial mound nachos" is a good name for our dish because if we keep eating like this we'll both be dead in six months.
With both of us beyond satiated we collapsed onto the couch with nothing to do. I received the green light to play video games and decided to finally try the last level of Resistance 2. While playing too much of the enormously entertaining co-op mode got me into trouble in January, I have been quietly making my way through the single player mode over the past few months. I can't say I was into the story or the characters, but I did find the game provided me with enough thrills and big "moments" to keep me coming back for more.
The basic premise (bald space marine fights aliens) is beyond cliche at this point, but Resistance 2 has its share of action setpieces that made the experience worth it. I remember coming out of an underground bunker and seeing San Francisco burn while a massive enemy fleet hung in the sky above. I remember going through abandoned homes and dark warehouses that were full of nasty zombie-like creatures gestating in pods. I remember fighting a skyscraper-sized foe in Chicago who found my rocket launcher more of an annoyance than anything else, but shooting him in the face with it was enough to convince him to throw me through an glass-enclosed catwalk and onto another building five blocks away.
Unfortunately, the ending of the game didn't offer much in the way of memories. In fact, my memory was a hindrance because playing the final level made me think back to earlier stages and older, better games I had once played. Sure, it was really cool to look out the window of that Louisiana estate and see what looked like a fire-breathing dinosaur stalking me. I also got a kick out of fighting my way onto a large steamboat and going cabin to cabin looking for monsters. But the entire finale of storming the mothership with a nuclear bomb in tow felt exactly the same as the mission where I flew an enemy craft into another vessel and set off charges on the bridge. Both had me explore metallic alien corridors and then make a "daring" escape while a clock ticked down in the corner of my screen before flying away with just seconds to spare.
The final showdown with a flying psychic cephalopod was uninteresting at best and lacked all the polish of previous boss fights, even the really hard ones. Fighting a giant alien swarm halfway through the game had been so frustrating I actually got angry, but at least it was something new. The last boss encounter didn't offer a challenge so much as it did closure. You see him escape capture in the first level and then you get to put him down in the last one. Justice/vengeance is served, ho-hum.
The actual ending cinema of the game was abrupt, extremely anti-climactic and could have been handled much better. I thought I had reached the "bad ending" because I played the game too slowly. The main character is trying to finish his mission before the alien virus in his body destroys his humanity, so I thought I missed the deadline. According to the Internet, that's the only ending there is.
Having said all that, I will not dismiss Resistance 2 for its lackluster conclusion. The single player game was more than adequate and the co-op mode was genuinely exciting in ways I would never have expected. Hell, it still is genuinely exciting, I just don't have much time to play online anymore. I feel like taking a break from shooting aliens for a while...right after I finish Half-Life.
To get back to my point (huh? oh, right..."too much fun"), this weekend I ate more food than I needed to, stayed out drinking when I could have gone home, and kept plugging away at a video game to reach the end rather than put down the controller and finish it the next day. I say this not because I think I made the wrong choices, but rather to remind myself of how fortunate I am. There's nothing wrong with a little excess after a long week of not working.
Hey, speaking of work, it's almost time to get going. I wouldn't want to miss that one o'clock bus home.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, March 16, 2009
Maybe I should have known it was coming. Indeed, maybe I wanted this to happen. It's not like I finished PixelJunk Eden. Hell, I didn't even come close. It was the first PlayStation Network game that I bought and I played it a lot, drawn in by the stylish graphics and hip tunes. After a few weeks, though, I drifted away. I suppose it could have been the game's frustrating timer which seemed so out of place, but I suspect it was more about the call of other, newer games that pulled me away.
In late January they released a patch for the game, tweaking a bit of the rules in the player's favor. The timer is still there, sadly, but it has been greatly neutered. Falling down and catching up is no longer an impossibility, and even if the timer runs out there is now a continue option. I remember giving the game another go to see the changes and I came away impressed. But I still went away to shinier pastures.
I had a lot of gaming time this weekend, for which I am grateful, and I decided to fire up Eden again on a whim. Blame my laziness; it was easier to press play than it was to get up and put a disc into the machine. Having completely explored the first four gardens, I took a look at Garden 5 and I was immediately taken aback. The fragile, pollen-laden enemies were no longer pushovers that broke apart when they touched your thread. They demanded more precise leaps and swings to be cracked open and harvested. With a single change, the entire game felt new.
While I can recall reading about this development on message boards in the past (usually along the lines of "The game isn't fun anymore") for me it was just the opposite. By the end of Garden 4 I was getting tired of the pattern. With such plodding creatures the only challenge of the game was dealing with the timer and the ever-increasing height of the garden's fauna. Garden 5 offered something truly different and I was excited about playing again. I had to think more about when I jumped and how long I could swing around. Who knew I wanted the game to be harder?
It wasn't long before I found the first Spectra and left Garden 5 when I made another surprising decision. Rather than return to 5 and dig around for more Spectra, which had been my pattern for the first four gardens, I went ahead and took a peek at Garden 6. Again, things were immediately different. Instead of wide-open spaces and large plants, 6 is cramped and rocky. The twist is that "portals" are laid out in order to get through solid obstacles. I call them that rather then "teleporters" because, like Portal, the way you enter one affects how you exit the other. If you leap in from the right, you will come out on the other side retaining your previous heading. Again, having a new method of transport in game was enthralling.
After taking a Spectra from Garden 6, I decided to push myself ahead even further and look at Garden 7. Right away I was struck by the incredible visuals: the background has glowing dots that move like digital raindrops in slow-motion. I would compare it to The Matrix except the colors are totally different. The Matrix is black & green and feels cold. Garden 7 is an amber color which feels somehow inviting and intimidating at the same time.
A bit of exploration led me to discover the real secret of Garden 7. The "rain" isn't just for show. Creatures can change the direction of gravity in Garden 7 and the background flow indicates which way is "down." Needless to say, this was a huge change and it threw me for a loop. Again, much like Garden 5, I reacted to this challenge with enthusiasm rather than frustration. I was eager to figure out a way around these radical shifts in gameplay. I wanted to keep going to see what craziness might lay ahead. In other words, I was re-hooked on Eden after months of near indifference.
I put in about an hour into Eden before bed last night trying to finish Garden 5. While garden-hopping was great fun and showed me that the game has so much more to offer, the realities of the game itself demand that I go back and actually collect more Spectra before I unlock more space to explore. I haven't quite finished Garden 5 but I have opened up Garden 8. Whether I continue clean-up duty (more trophies, yay!) or keep pushing ahead for exploration's sake tonight, I can't say. But I know I am looking forward to getting home and leaping around the gardens of Eden again, and that's incredible in this current gaming atmosphere.
The giant gaming conversation on the Internet is always looking forward, not backward. Even new games aren't "new" for very long as trailers and developer previews entice players to start anticipating the next game rather than enjoy the ones they've got. I'm not pointing fingers here; from day one I have owned more PS3 games than I've known what to do with. Indeed, the first game I bought for it (Grand Theft Auto IV) is the one I've spent the least amount of time playing. The fact that Eden has pulled me back in after so long is a testament to how solid the game really is. If you've never tried it, you should. It's only $10, honestly. And if you played it last year and then moved on, give it another look.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, March 09, 2009
In other words, I was trying to beat Street Fighter IV.
The real predicament had nothing to do with a lab or or an opponent or fighting at all, of course. Everything that took place was between me and my PlayStation 3. But when playing a game like SFIV, I get very...what's the word...agitated. Excited, yes, but agitated. When things go right, there's a moment of pleasure, a feeling of a job well done. But when things go wrong and my opponent wins (be it human or computer controlled), there is the painful sting of failure. Worse, it hurts because I feel frustrated. I don't understand why I didn't win. Soon, I perceive victory as an impossibility. I couldn't have won because he/she/it was being unfair - "cheap" is the term used in fighting games all too liberally when we see tactics that we do not approve of. What's "cheap" can vary player to player and game to game, but rarely does it actually apply to cheaters. No, "cheap" simply labels a strategy or style of play as something that is inappropriate in the eyes of the defeated. In SFIV, this usually involves throwing.
Fighting games have long featured throwing as a close-combat tactic and it has always garnered the most anger from players, even though we couldn't play the game without it. Since fighting games require blocking to protect combatants from attacks, players could theoretically do nothing but defend and hold off an opponent forever (such a strategy is known as "turtling"). By using throws, which cannot be blocked, it forces players to keep moving and be alert. However, the ideal time to execute a throw is ambiguous, as there are many (including myself) who feel downright insulted or cheated when an opponent is aggressive with throws. There's no particular word to describe this strategy of attack, but players who throw a lot are often accused of being "cheap." As someone who is quick to throw that word out there, I honestly can't justify my angry use of it.
Yet I digress. The actual methods of playing Street Fighter IV are of little importance today. What I need to ask myself, and all of you out there reading this, is why do I play this game if it gets me so riled up? Why did I invest over a hundred dollars (if you include the joystick) in bringing this game into my home if turning it on takes me to such an ugly place?
Not all games do this to me, of course. This weekend, the critically-acclaimed World of Goo was offered on Steam for the insane price of five dollars. As Noby Noby Boy can attest to, I will play just about anything for five dollars, especially when it has such a glowing reputation. I put in about thirty minutes with this puzzle physics game that involves building rudimentary structures out of "goo." It's much more adorable and enjoyable than it sounds and I was quite taken in by the whole experience and look forward to playing it again. However, it paled in comparison to the feeling I got playing SFIV later that same night when I finally managed to smackdown that silver jerkoff Seth and beat the game, unlocking a new character in the process.
In answering my own question, I suspect the reason I keep coming back to games like SFIV over much more relaxing fare like World of Goo, PixelJunk Eden or any number of free web games over at Kongregate is that the peaks are very high, even when the gameplay takes me through some particularly low places. I get downright wicked when I play SFIV. I smack my hands onto things in anger, I raise my voice even though no one is listening, and I declare that the pile driver that just floored my on-screen avatar was "cheap." Who am I yelling at? Who cares about my complaints? No one; I just get so emotionally involved that I must let out the twisted, gnawing feelings inside me by any and all means available. If I lived alone in the woods I'm sure firing a weapon into the air would suffice.
So what is it about games like this that appeal to me? Is the brief, warm embrace of success worth all the aching failure that precedes it? I spent at least two hours playing SFIV on Friday night before I went to bed, facing a variety of opponents online and off, and I'm sure that I was in a foul mood for no less than three hours as a result: about 1:45 of the time I played the game and at least another hour after I quit in frustration. But those isolated moments when I pulled off that tricky combination of moves or beat some guy on the Internet in a close contest? Those were fifteen sensational minutes.
This may strike some of you as completely insane. Maybe you're starting to side with Mako in her quest to keep the Xbox out of our apartment and sell the PS3 while we're at it. I don't blame you for not understanding. But let me ask you this: don't we all have things that frustrate us again and again until we get it right? Isn't most of life about pursing X despite the problems that pursuit may bring? Aren't all successes, no matter how trivial, weighed against the struggles that were overcome en route?
Consider this radically different example: I know when I look back at my dating experiences of 2005, I remember an entire summer of being rejected and rejected and rejected again. Trying to meet someone on Craigslist is like a failure marathon. You have no choice but to repeatedly offer yourself to anonymous strangers in the hopes that they might write you back, and in the tantalizingly rare cases where they DO respond, there are a surprising number of people who will abruptly decline to reply to your follow-up email. Was it something you said? Was it the picture you submitted? You never know and it kills you inside trying to figure it all out. But I couldn't just stop and play "World of Goo" all summer instead, if you catch my meaning.
Because when it works...when you encounter someone who does think you're funny and clever...when you agree to meet in the real world and there's a silent acknowledgment that you like each other...when you first kiss each other in Hankyu Umeda station after watching a terrible movie but it didn't matter because the two of you were busy connecting on an emotional level...well, I need only to think about the brewing baby boy inside my wife's uterus to think about how great it was that I risked rejection and responded to her online personal ad in August of 2005. That was a "game" that I definitely beat, and the best part is there's no end in sight.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
What makes people collect things?
I feel like I should know the answer inherently because I have, at one time or another, collected all kinds of things. There were toys at first, mostly Transformers but also G.I. Joe and the like. I didn't just play with the ones I had, I always wanted to get more. In fact, when my friends and I would play with one another, if there was a character we didn't have we would actually build a proxy version out of Construx. I can't say what motivated us to keep expanding and expanding our rosters. It's not like we could ever possibly play with all of the toys we had, but somehow more toys equaled more fun in our young minds.
It wasn't long before I moved on to video games. My parents were passively accepting of my video game habits without actually aiding me in my efforts to buy games. Aside from an initial compromise from my mother who agreed to pay for half of an NES if I achieved a certain amount in the sixth grade, I was always on my own for purchasing new software or hardware. I found it surprisingly easy to meet my goals by saving my allowance, money from my paper route or whatever other funds I happened to come across.
Once I bought a game I played it as much as I could. Even if the game wasn't good (Anticipation, anyone?), I always kept at it for a long while before moving on. When a game was "done" (a state which varied from game to game) I just put it aside and thought about what might be next. Certain games were never "done" while others were occasionally resurrected when I learned something new about them or when a friend came over and had never played it before.
It was years before I even considered selling old games to make way for new ones; eventually that became my modus operandi. I was in a near-constant state of flux, selling and buying, trading things for store credit then immediately cashing out. Since the process was never a one-for-one deal, my collecting days were over as I began playing more and more titles. As the console competition began to increase, I actually sold entire systems in order to buy new ones. Maybe it was commercial peer pressure that drove me to cannibalize my collection so that I could keep buying newer/faster/bigger games and systems, or maybe I simply realized that holding onto games I didn't play was meaningless.
Then again, perhaps I just substituted one collection for another. As my stockpile of games and paraphernalia decreased, I started spending more money on movies. At first it was VHS tapes, but I became one of the "early adopters" of the DVD format. My interest in movies was nothing new, as I had always been nuts about going out to see new films in theaters and I was the major catalyst in our family's video rental membership, but it wasn't until high school or so that I really started buying a lot of movies and keeping them in a closet. Part of it had to do with my new-found interest in foreign films and anime, few of which were even available for rent in our local store, but I owned plenty of mainstream Hollywood films as well. My collection certainly wasn't just for show - I actively watched and re-watched everything when I had time, and I took great pleasure in loaning or showing new things to my friends. At my urge's strongest point, I honestly had a "buy first" rather than "rent first" attitude. Sometimes this led to pleasant surprises (Unbreakable is still my favorite M. Night Shyamalan film) while other times it led to extreme disappointment (insert random kung-fu flick here, especially since they often cost double or triple a domestic film).
Things got really ugly when collecting became a means to an end. Owning more toys, games or films doesn't enhance your ability to enjoy them - it just means you have more stuff. When I discovered Magic: The Gathering, that was not the case. Buying more Magic cards gave me more options for playing the game and the constant introduction of new cards, combined with the power of rare-by-design cards, drove me to spend thousands of dollars on the game when I rarely earned more than a hundred in a week's paycheck. Once I started working at the post office and earning a real salary, I spent even more. The game was, and still is, tremendously fun. I cannot deny enjoying those late-night sessions I spent facing off against my friends using our various decks of cards. However, the collection aspect of the game demanded too much of me. Not only was I spending money on new packs of cards in the hopes of finding rare cards, I was buying individual cards to strengthen the decks I already had.
As my collection grew I needed to spend money (and goodness knows how many hours) on binders, boxes and folders just to keep all the cards in order. Then came the magazines and buying guides that both showed me what cards might be useful to me and how much my current cards were worth. I spent less time playing Magic: The Gathering and more time just Gathering my Magic. Looking back it was a kind of sexy nightmare; a gilded cage I built for myself, loving every minute of it even as I poured money out the window. When the time came to shed my massive collection, the whole thing netted me $300 - surely less than a tenth of what I had spent.
So what now? All my collections from the past have been scattered to the wind and now sit in at least three separate locations, sitting in someone's closet or basement thousands of miles away. I no longer buy any toys or movies (at least, not since dropping 9000 Yen on that Japanese copy of Grindhouse *_*) and while my video game buying habits are still strong, you could hardly describe my handful of titles a "collection." Have I gone cold turkey? Am I just one new obsession away from succumbing to the cry of the collector?
At this point I believe my collection needs are being met virtually-speaking, thanks to the PlayStation 3's trophy system. They are the perfect collectible, honestly. They have no mass and cost no money. There are no "limited editions" or artificial scarcity. I will never need to re-acquire an old trophy or replace one with a newer version. They cannot be broken or stolen. All I can do is earn them by playing video games which is a hobby I already practice. Best of all, they have no use whatsoever. I am free at last.
Today's post was inspired by the second episode of Robert Ashley's brilliant
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
I'm happy to announce that this evening I earned my 100th Trophy on the PlayStation 3. If you've never heard of them, they are ultimately meaningless "awards" (or "trophies" if you hate variety) that you earn while playing games on the PS3. Finish a level, defeat a certain monster, or maybe just let the game sit quietly for a few minutes - these trophies are determined by the individual game and can be obtained at just about any time.
My milestone empty accomplishment today came while playing Noby Noby BOY, a game that defies all categorization. All I will tell you is that I love it and I earned a trophy for eating a human and a dog and then excreting a single hybrid creature. No, you get no context for that. I certainly didn't get any.
In much more exciting but still PlayStation-related news, I got my hands on Street Fighter IV yesterday. I only had enough time to install it (over two gigabytes) and mess around with the single player stuff, but so far it looks just like the arcade that I last enjoyed back in October. It feels as good as the old games did while the new high resolution graphics are seriously impressive, especially when you consider that my TV is bigger and brighter than any arcade cabinet!
While Mako initially regarded this purchase as another colossal waste of time and money, she surprised the hell out of me by asking me today if she could play against me sometime. It seems she brought up my hobbies at the nail salon this afternoon and a member of the staff told her it was imperative that she try the game. We haven't yet tried it and I am a bit wary as to how this will work, as fighting games are notoriously difficult to the unfamiliar player. Hell, a bunch of the professional game reviewers on 1UP were complaining on their podcast how they suck at the game. Does Mako have any hope? Will this attempt at fusing my gaming and my marriage end in tragedy? Or maybe, just maybe, will everything work itself out?
There should really be a trophy for that. Make it a gold one too.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Don't be silly. Thursday is always Thursday.
The worst thing about today was the fact that I'm sick. It started as a simple cough over the weekend, but by Monday evening I was sniffling and my voice was struggling. Yesterday was a challenge, to be sure, especially because I had another after-school class that made it a very long day of teaching. I must have sucked down at least three Vitamin C candies during the last hour of work. I feel better now, thanks to a full day of very little talking (and absolutely no shouting). Maybe the worst of it is behind me now...or maybe another day of shouting will bring it all back tomorrow.
Mako and I spent the morning on the sofa watching Prison Break and we are oh-so-close to the end of Season One. Indeed, we'd be watching the end right now if it weren't for her sudden desire to step on the brakes and slow down. Sure, there are other shows we can watch but after so many hours, how can she stand to wait any longer to find out who makes it and who doesn't? Now I'm going to spend all day tomorrow wondering about it. She told me to pop in Battlestar Galactica instead, but seeing as how I'm almost at the end of their Season One as well, I just want to wrap up one show at a time.
We had a terrific, curry-soaked lunch where I experienced something pretty crazy. As usual, I ordered a bit too much food and I had to help Mako finish hers at the same time, so towards the end of the meal I was really, really full. But the more I ate of my bacon & eggplant curry (with cheese) omurice, the hungrier I felt. If you've ever read The Phantom Tollbooth you might remember "subtraction stew." For the first time I can recall, I actually understood what that might feel like.
With Mako and I both filled to capacity we took it real easy when we got back home. Mako needed a straight-up nap, leaving me a few hours alone with a television and my PS3. I muscled my way through two more stages in Resistance 2 alone and then played a bit of LittleBigPlanet with Richard. I enjoyed the freedom of the afternoon immensely even if both games did their best to drive me a little nuts.
In Resistance 2 I found myself straining my voice just so I could complain aloud about the circumstances I found myself in: two boss battles where the game just wasn't throwing me any bones. The first was me versus a giant something-or-other, a moment that was initially really cool. I was on top of a tower littered with guns but there were no soldiers to be seen. It wasn't until I looked up that I saw...it, and that began the fight. Unfortunately, the designers made a baffling decision to not give me any visual hint that my bullets were, in fact, hurting this massive, crawling monster - the usual red reticule was not present - so it took several failures before I just looked to the Internet for answers. It turns out the answer is just shoot the damn thing until it falls down. I did that.
The second boss was even more bizarre in form and even more irritating due to its ability to kill me instantly if it touched me. It wasn't an "it" so much as it was a "they," a "swarm" of beasties massed together, super-charged with bolts of energy. The first time you see it the game tells you to run away, but doing that means it catches you and kills you. No, you have to walk backwards and shoot at it, somehow slowing it down even though a gun versus a swarm of smaller-than-a-bullet monsters doesn't sound like a winnable fight. Eventually you face off against the swarm in a giant cavern where you must use generators to trap them and kill them with a special weapon. Of course, all the generators look the same and are connected by identical looking corridors, so I kept dying while some voice shouted at me "Get to the first generator!" I asked, alone in my room, "Which one is the 'first' one, you dick?"
LittleBigPlanet is a great game that looks adorable even when it's smashing your little character between heavy objects and driving you nuts. Richard and I actually "finished" the last level today, although the magic of LBP is that the game has an ever-increasing number of user-created levels to play. Indeed, having run through the normal levels, the idea is that I should try and make one myself. I do have an idea or two, but I have the nagging feeling that it will take me as long as it did to complete the other levels just to finish one of my own. I'll let you know if I make any headway in that department though.
My Wednesday/Sunday holiday evening is drawing to a close. I'm keeping my fingers crossed over the next two days to make it through with my vocal cords intact. Candies, you're with me!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, January 05, 2009
Let me back up a little bit. I bought my PS3 early last Spring after we got ourselves a new widescreen TV. After an extended hiatus from video games, I was back on board with a bright, shiny, new console. But even though I bought Grand Theft Auto IV right away and spent the rest of 2008 grappling with PixelJunk Monsters, PixelJunk Eden and Bionic Commando: Rearmed, my gaming habits were still very much in the background. Part of this was Mako's work schedule which allowed me time to play before she got home, but mostly it was the nature of those games. I don't want to get into the whole "casual vs hardcore" nonsense that surrounds video game culture right now, but all of those titles I mentioned are extremely easy to pick up or put down. A spare twenty or even ten minutes is all I need to get a satisfying dose. I suspect that was a big reason I never fully embraced the impressive GTAIV because I was unwilling (or unable) to really commit an evening to the story and the lengthy gameplay sessions that go with it.
In the last week, however, a new development has come up: Resistance 2. Richard bought me the game as a Christmas present while getting a copy for himself because the game has been lauded for its online cooperative mode. Up to eight people can join together and fight hordes of monsters and the catch is that the gameplay is centered around teamwork. By that, I mean that each player chooses one of three different units (soldier, medic, special ops) and they must work together to survive - no unit is strong enough to fight alone. As a game enthusiast who has always resisted online competitive battles because I'm not good enough to defeat strangers, the opportunity to really be part of a team and fill a specific role was instantly appealing. There's also an RPG element to the game as your chosen unit will gain experience and "level up" as you play. After just one session, even though we failed, I was hooked.
As you might already suspect, a team-based eight-player cooperative shooter does not allow for quick sessions. Between starting the game, logging onto the network, joining a party of my friends, and finding an available session (or starting one of our own), that's at least six or seven minutes. Finishing one stage takes at least fifteen minutes and can easily take much, much longer. Gaining enough experience to level up takes even longer still: on one late-night session I spent three hours on the game and I only advanced one level during that time.
Even though I tend to play when Mako is out or asleep, she has taken notice of my sudden interest in this game and the PS3 in general. I can understand her reservations and her surprise, because this is the first time in our entire relationship that I've exhibited this kind of behavior. What I can't understand is her reaction - it varies between silent rage and self-doubt. For some reason she seems to feel threatened by my interest in games. She has accused me of playing "nothing but games" on a day where we spent hours together shopping at the mall, eating lunch and watching a Keanu Reeves movie just because she loves him (spoiler alert: it's not too good). She has actually asked me whether I love the PS3 more than her - or the baby. She wants to know if I will ignore our future infant's needs because I'm playing a video game. No amount of reassurance or denials on my part seems to persuade her otherwise.
From my perspective, I feel unfairly pressured by all her dramatic behavior. I recognize that too much game playing is a selfish dick move in a small apartment with one TV that must be shared (regardless of our marital status), but despite her hyperbole this game is not dominating my time or infringing on the attention I spend on her. Most of my playtime has come when Mako is asleep, and when she is awake I always ask her if she minds if I play before turning on the machine. What I've learned is that even when she says "Yes" she sometimes means "No." I really don't appreciate the deception or the notion that playing a game is somehow "wrong" instead of watching TV or using the Internet, our usual nighttime activities.
Obviously, this is a new issue and things will take time to settle. No major action is needed and no confrontations are forthcoming. We're just going to have to wait and see how this matter resolves. The only thing that worries me is this sensation I have that she doesn't even want to talk about the problem and that's a much bigger problem than anything that's happened thus far.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Friday, October 03, 2008
As predicted, I had a busy week. Beyond the usual work issues, the weather was so unpleasant that we had to leave our laundry hanging inside and perform multiple loads mid-week. It felt like I was coming home to a laundromat every day and nothing seemed to be drying as it should. It wasn't much, but juggling soggy shirts and towels felt a little taxing this week when combined with job stuff. Of course, the gloomy weather that forced our laundry inside in the first place wasn't helping my mood either.
Today was different. Very, very different. Sure, I was busy, but on Fridays I don't mind busy. Yes, I had to scold several children who were ignoring me or fighting with each other in class, but on Fridays I don't mind discipline. And when I was teaching class entirely by myself because the teachers either left the room or sat completely silent while I struggled to explain things in Japanese (that's their job, of course), I smiled and reminded myself that on Fridays I don't mind doing everything myself. Little did I suspect what this particular Friday would have in store for me once work was over.
I came home and clicked on the PS3 to check out what new offerings, if any, were in store for me. The PSN Store is updated every Thursday but that's on US time. Here in Japan I'm asleep when those changes are made, so my first chance to explore it is on Friday afternoon. I didn't have anything particular in mind that I wanted, so if nothing of interest popped up I guess I planned on buying Mega Man 9 so I can stop wondering how hard it might be, geek out, and just play it already. But I discovered there was something that is definitely "of interest" to me: a demo version of BioShock.
Let me explain the situation a little bit for those unfamiliar with this game in particular or video games in general. BioShock was released last year on PC and Xbox 360 to tremendous professional acclaim, so much so that its reputation as a must-experience title became a given among gamer-types on the Internet. Much like Portal, its quality was so widely praised that it became an "instant classic" of sorts and I found it repeatedly pushed before my eyes as something I should be playing. After a little research and a lot of tweaking, I did purchase and play through Portal this spring. It didn't look so hot because I had to compromise some settings in order to get it running on my two-year old laptop, but it certainly lived up to the hype. More than a great game, I felt it was one of the greatest science-fiction stories I had ever experienced. If I ever find the funds to get myself back into PC gaming-proper, I will definitely play through it a second time just to experience it again with the proper aesthetics.
BioShock, on the other hand, proved to be beyond my reach. No amount of tinkering would get it to work on my computer and it's not even available for sale in Japan, so the monetary and logistical investment needed to play that game was simply out of the question. Contrasting console platforms and PC system requirements are among the most frustrating elements of being an avid video game enthusiast, for these barriers are unique among major forms of entertainment. International-release schedules aside, there's nothing to stop me from selecting any film in the local DVD store and watching it at home, because I own a DVD player. Video games are only available in specific formats that require specific hardware. If you don't have it, you cannot play that game. I could do nothing but continue to hear of it lauded as a magical superlative of gaming while I sat around and played other, non-BioShock games.
At least, that was the case until this evening, when I discovered a demonstration version of BioShock available for download. It's coming soon to the PS3 and this was going to be my first hands-on experience with the ferociously-celebrated game. When I fired up the demo I was immediately impressed by the art-style, a kind of Miami art-deco mixed with The Hudsucker Proxy. It was a snap judgment on the most basic of elements, but I took it as a good sign.
More importantly, the publishers made sure to launch the player (um, that's me, I guess) directly into the environment while still maintaining a user-friendly system that explained to me what control options were available. I've played a lot of very poor demos on the PS3; some that felt way too hard (Mega Man 9 for sure), some that didn't clue me in on what the game was about (Mercenaries 2 and Haze just toss you straight into a war zone with virtually no orientation or guidance) and some were just plain boring (Star Wars: Force Unleashed). While I have no confirmation on this yet, I suspect BioShock did the right thing by making the demo the same as the opening of the real game. On-screen prompts and a mysterious voice on a radio gave me a steady stream of necessary info and the Pause menu featured a ton of material on the rules of the game.
Best of all, the whole thing just explodes - literally - from the start and demands your full attention. When the opening animation featured a guy sitting on a plane and thinking out loud, I was preparing myself for a long backstory or a text crawl of exposition. Instead, the plane crashed and my character was alone in the water, gasping for breath and surrounded by flames. Again, I expected some animation to show my guy find his way to shore or be rescued by a passing ship. Not at all: this is the beginning of the game. I was stunned to find myself in control when I tapped the joystick out of curiosity.
It didn't take me too long to find my way onto some sort of island where the story started to unfold one step at a time while continuing to leave me in control at all times. No long cinematic sequences (save for a brief, creepy encounter with a little girl), no prophetic documents explaining who I was or where I was going; I took what facts I could from my surroundings and kept moving forward, gathering what little new information I could. The demo doesn't go very far (as one might expect) but when it ended I felt positively exhilarated. My heart was racing and my mind was flooded with anticipation - I was, rather, I am roaring to experience more of this world. I know I've only played a minuscule portion of the game thus far and the story or gameplay may yet turn out to be more repetitive or laborious than I might enjoy, but considering the mountains of recommendations the game has received combined with the stellar opening chapter (or possibly half-chapter) I saw this evening, I am sold. Bring it, BioShock. I want it.
That would have been a very exciting end to a post mostly about video games, except my evening wasn't over. Hell, it was less than two hours later when I got the e-mail telling me I qualified for a free beta trial of LittleBigPlanet, another upcoming game I have a considerable interest in. Of course, as video games go LBP couldn't be more different than BioShock and my head is spinning from the juxtaposition of the two titles in a single night. However, it is getting quite late right now and LBP is the kind of game that needs a lot more than a summary of why I want to play with it (note my choice of words). So I'm going to go to sleep and I'll let you know what I think of that game in a couple days. It deserves that much.
Still...even at this hour I am positively blown away by what I saw tonight...BioShock...you son of a bitch...what if you are as good as they say?
つづく...(Click here to read more)