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)
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, April 30, 2009
I bring this up because when I bought my Xbox the first game I wanted to play on it was Braid. The game was released last summer and I had heard all of the acclaim surrounding it, but aside from seeing a few bizarre screenshots and having a brief playthrough of the first World in February, I hadn't a clue what the game was actually about.
One of Braid's strengths is its simplicity, at least as far as the controls and premise are concerned. You're told that you're trying to rescue a princess and your character jumps on monsters' heads to defeat them. This has all been done many times before, and playing the game in this way is extremely simple. I would wager that any player could "traverse" the first five worlds in a half-hour without much effort.
Of course, Braid is not simply about running through the levels and looking for a princess. Each World contains a number of puzzle pieces scattered throughout and in order to reach the epilogue, players must find them all and correctly assemble them. The pieces are not hidden and do not require any searching at all, nor are the puzzles themselves hard to put together. However, almost all of the pieces are located just out of reach or behind locked doors. Discovering exactly how to obtain them is the real puzzle of Braid.
Making all of this more complicated (and more entertaining as well) is the player's ability to manipulate time. There are no lives or continues to worry about in Braid. If you screw up a jump or run into a monster, you just rewind into the past and try again. While this proves instrumental in solving certain puzzles as the game progresses, I really appreciated this feature from a pure convenience standpoint. As an adult without much time for games in my life right now, I find the "punishment" notion that most games apply to be a real turn-off. Rather than being sent back to replay the previous stage or restart the game from the beginning, Braid allowed me to just play at my own pace thanks to the built-in "undo" function. This didn't make the game any easier to complete either, it just meant I wasn't frustrated by pointless repetition.
That lack of frustration was the key that made Braid so much fun for me to play. I never felt lost because the levels were small and completely linear (even when they went backwards). There were plenty of head-scratching moments when it came to collecting the puzzle pieces, but this never led me to get pissed off and run to the Internet for help. Instead, careful experimentation and the occasional night's rest led me to discover the solutions on my own, each time resulting in that same wonderful "Ohhhhhh..." exclamation that The Usual Suspects elicited all those years ago. The puzzles were just hard enough to make me stop and think about them, but easy enough to let made me feel smart by solving them without much personal anguish.
If anything got to me, it was a few of the trickier, timing-based puzzles. It's ironic that a game where you control the flow of time would have challenging portions that required precision timing, but there were a few parts where I struggled. It was during these sections that I grudging went online for tips, feeling a little guilty in doing so because Braid really rewards self-discovery. Amazingly, during my online searches I discovered that the game features a completely hidden bonus section that requires finding eight stars across all six worlds. I had never even seen a star in my playthrough and the game's Achievements did not mention them. I hope to replay Braid at some point to see if I can discover these incredibly well-kept secrets.
Another reason I have for going back to Braid is to try and make sense of the game's rather clunky story, which I am still struggling to interpret. While I have no doubt that the in-world gameplay, the paintings that are assembled via the puzzle pieces, and the final stage play a larger role in the game's story than I understand at this time, the primary on-screen story is delivered through long passages of text at the start of each world and in an extremely verbose epilogue. I have nothing against reading but considering how well the game handles teaching you how to play without using any words, flipping through pages of exposition feels terribly awkward. I cannot hold this against the game, however, because I am positive that there is simply something I have missed and must further consider to understand the story. Unlike The Usual Suspects, there is no dramatic unveiling of the game's secrets in the finale. The curious decision to make "World 2" the first stage and "World 1" the last one is another hint that the game's story is another puzzle that needs to be solved rather than simply read through to the end.
Braid may be a very short game that seems expensive compared to other XBox LIVE Arcade titles, but the simple fact that I continue to think about my experience with the game weeks after "completing" it demonstrates its long-lasting impact on players. It is fun to play, yes, but solving those puzzles was an absolute thrill. Until I manage to solve them all, including the game's deceptively complex story, I shall revisit Braid again and again. That's more than I can say for the big-budget disc-based games I've purchased. Hell, that's more than I can say for most of the movies I watch or the books I've read. With the game's recent release on PC I strongly recommend that everyone, not just Xbox owners, give Braid a try.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, April 13, 2009
I took advantage of the beautiful weather this weekend to fit in a bit more sakura time with a long walk on Saturday to a nearby park. Mako and I are very fortunate that we live less than a mile from a major hanami destination in Osaka. Since she wasn't up to joining me last weekend, I felt pretty strongly about trying to spend some time as a couple in the presence of all this pink and white wonderfulness. Unfortunately, she's still super pregnant and cannot lounge on the ground for a picnic, but we settled for walking through the park and just looking around for about forty minutes.
For lunch, we had very un-Japanese pizza at an Italian-style pizzeria in Ikeda. We hadn't been there as a couple since summer (at least) and I last went there in November with Chad. It's a great little place and I hope someday to break my habit of always ordering the quattro fromage pizza that includes just enough gorgonzola to blow my mind without overpowering the other cheeses. Yet every time I go I see it on the menu and remember how awesome it is, so I fold and settle for an extraordinary pizza experience. I mean, I love variety but how I can refuse culinary greatness that I already know exists?
We hit the video store on the way home and then checked out the brand-new supermarket that opened on Friday in our (figurative) backyard. Our neighborhood is pretty small and relatively quiet despite the proximity of a train line, but we have been seeing a lot of growth in the past year. New houses are springing up all around us, usually three or four in every lot big enough to fit one normal American house. We already had a local supermarket but it's closed every Monday and the prices aren't so hot, so we usually do our shopping at the next-nearest market a mile away. It was convenient for Mako to stop there on her way home from the station, but since she doesn't commute anymore it's become considerably less so.
With a new supermarket and lots of new houses, I can't deny that this neighborhood is looking better and better the longer I live here. I'm still not convinced this is the right spot for me - it's nice to be near a train station but I want to be closer to Osaka - but I wonder if I'll ever become convinced that my placement was perfect. I can get to work in about an hour and the heart of Osaka in only thirty minutes. Supermarkets, restaurants, city hall, a 100 Yen shop and two video stores are within walking distance of our apartment. The only issue left is the apartment will soon become too small as our baby grows up and needs more space to himself, but why do I still feel like something's missing? If we moved into a house a few stops closer to the city, would things really be better than they are here?
After all that walking Mako needed to crash and take a nap, so I took the opportunity to finally sit down and watch Tropic Thunder. The movie was every bit as funny as my friends had told me it was. Indeed, I was laughing out loud before the studio logos even popped up because the movie was preceded by hilarious mock advertisements that both introduced the main players in the film and set the tone of the story. Making fun of Hollywood actors and politics is hardly a challenge but this movie still nails every target it sets its eyes on. The fake trailers for movies that do not exist are simultaneously absurd and completely plausible. I fully expect to see "The Fatties" turn into a real property by 2010.
I was also impressed at how un-controversially the allegedly controversial comedic material was handled. I remember being weirded out when I saw pre-release photos of Robert Downey Jr. in "blackface" and when I heard the film made liberal use of the word "retard." Yet when watching the actual movie and seeing/hearing this stuff in the context of the satirical story, it all made perfect sense. It was also hysterical. Tropic Thunder is one of the few movies I've rented that I immediately wanted to watch again. Sadly, being a new release I only paid for the one night rental, so I had to bring it back on Sunday...which is basically the only thing I did all day.
I did manage to connect, however briefly, with a few friends online this weekend though. The Trout's visit to Japan is less than three weeks away at this point and we had been meaning to have a conversation about potential activities and sights during his stay. However, when we actually got to talking things became preoccupied with the Xbox. As I feared, it was impossible to discuss his visit while navigating a zombie-filled hospital in Left4Dead. On the bright side, I got to play an Xbox game with my friends 7000 miles away. The experience was pretty seamless too; there was a hint of lag between when I pulled the trigger and when zombies fell over dead (um, again), but all this meant was I had to adjust my aim and fire a bit sooner. They seemed to run past my shots but then they would suddenly rupture and collapse. It was like I was killing them en passant.
I also got Mike on the horn via Skype yesterday morning. He is in Kuala Lumpur and doing fine, although he has yet to move into an apartment. It was great to check in with him, even if it was briefly and over a pretty poor connection. I hope we can see each other in real life before the end of the year, in any country.
In the meantime, I'm back at work and I'm now expected to teach again. Of course, they haven't finished created the lessons plans for this semester yet, but that's another story. An old and repetitive story which I am sick of dealing with every semester, but another story all the same. Good night.
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)
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
On Saturday, Mako and I watched a few more episodes of Prison Break. Two things continue to impress me about this show. First, each new episode fits tightly with earlier ones, and no matter how many new developments unfold the writers keep acknowledging earlier unsolved problems. It's like the exact opposite of Heroes, where characters seem to appear and disappear at the writers' convenience and past episodes are similarly ignored whenever it suits the latest crisis. Prison Break also manages to keep ratcheting up the tension and the already-high stakes with each new twist, even though (as I remarked yesterday) I know that the two main characters are going to escape...eventually. Again, contrast that with Heroes which has enough magical healers and time-traveling characters to undo anything and everything, leaving me to wonder why I even bother to watch.
Saturday night I went out and had a blast hanging out with Alex. I should explain who that is, shouldn't I? Alex is a fellow foreigner in the area, an English teacher (as in "from England")/video game enthusiast/blogger who I managed to "run into" on the 1UP forums. We had a couple of drinks last month at my favorite bar, Captain Kangaroo, where we got along quite well. Meeting people (male or female) after an online encounter is always a shaky prospect. You never know if the humor or mood of your e-mails will carry over into the real world. Alex and I, as it turns out, have a great deal to talk about and we both appreciate the occasional alcoholic beverage.
This time, we started our evening at Captain Kangaroo but then went to his apartment for a few hours of (drunken) gaming on both the PS3 and the Xbox 360. Ever since Mako flatly insisted that I never buy one, I have been tormented by my interest in the Xbox and a few of the exclusive games that it offers. Thanks to Alex, I finally got my hands on three of those games: Braid, Castle Crashers, and Left4Dead. Castle Crashers was not as much fun as I had hoped, but Braid and Left4Dead were even better than I had anticipated. Fortunately, L4D is also available on PC (if I ever upgrade) and Braid might very well turn up there by the end of the year. They both felt good with a controller in my hands though...Mako, won't you reconsider?
Sunday was the first of the month which in Japan means cheap movie tickets for all. At last, Mako and I went out and saw the latest James Bond film Quantum of Solace. Odd title aside, I loved everything about this movie, mainly thanks to the risky decision to make a direct sequel to Casino Royale. I say "risky" because Bond doesn't normally roll that way. He and his supporting characters may have existed for 40+ years and 20+ films, but rarely does any film have any significant connection to any of the others. Sure, he got married and his new bride died in one film, but other than the occasional acknowledgment of her death, he didn't change. This time out the entire film is a continuation of Casino Royale, picking up where that film so dramatically ended and featuring nearly every character in a return engagement. This sudden embrace of continuity added a lot of weight to the film: the customary opening action sequence actually means something for a change. I'm willing to admit that Casino Royale was a better film but that's honestly the strongest criticism I can muster for Quantum of Solace. Mako loved it as well, but she says that she still prefers Sean Connery. No argument here!
Yesterday was Monday and a work day but it also managed to be Super Sunday thanks to a Super Bowl rebroadcast after dinner. I was tired as hell and a little frustrated by my internet withdrawal but it all paid off beautifully. The game was terrific, packed with much more drama than I could have imagined from two teams I don't care a lick about. If anything, that neutrality helped me enjoy the see-saw of the final few minutes, though any game with more scoring in the 4th quarter than the previous 3 quarters combined should win over even the most disinterested fan. Or a non-fan, as Mako doesn't know a thing about the game but she got completely caught up in the intensity, especially that endzone-to-endzone interception return and the fast-paced touchdown passes of the last few drives.
So to wrap it up, I am feelin' fine. Great even, despite the long week of work that still lies ahead. TV, video games, James Bond and football are just as thrilling as ever. What did you people get up to this weekend?
つづく...(Click here to read more)