Thursday, December 31, 2009
First off, the vacation is going great. I was nervous about the baby but it turns out he loves America and everyone in it. Strangers and family alike delight him, he is being spoiled with toys and clothes at every turn, and he is sleeping here like he never sleeps back home. Not necessarily at night, mind you, but a happy, well-rested baby is a hell of a lot easier to manage than a cranky, crying baby.
In professional writing news, Wired Game|Life has been posting best-of lists recently, several of which I got to vote for and contribute towards. While I recommend all of their fine work, readers looking specifically for my words should direct their attention to Top 5 PlayStation 3 Games of 2009, The 10 Best Videogames of 2009 and The 15 Most Influential Games of the Decade. I'm particularly proud of that last one because I got to write about two of my favorite games of the last ten years, both of which will be appearing in my love/hate 00s countdown.
Speaking of which, the countdown is on hold but not over. I haven't had much time to write on this trip, so I'll finish my thoughts about my favorite and most disappointing things of the past decade after it is complete.
In the meantime, enjoy this final day of the 00s. For those of you in Japan, the year is nearly finished, but here in the US we've got nearly an entire day to get through. Wherever you're at, have fun and I'll see you in 2010 (digitally speaking).
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
I'm sure it's very, very hard to make a successful film from a critical or financial standpoint (to say nothing of both). One easy way to get people in the seats is to make a movie based on a known property. In the 1990s Hollywood dabbled in movies based on popular video games. The results were pretty abysmal; I'd argue that the only one of the bunch worth a damn is Mortal Kombat (1995) because it gets most of the characters right and they spend most of the film fighting each other. Then they tried to make a sequel and pissed away what little momentum the series had.
However, it takes time to get these things right. Movies and games are two very different mediums for storytelling, and the latter has only really begun to dabble in that department in the last twenty years or so. As games develop their narrative chops and, in this era of high-resolution graphics and performances from actual actors, crib more cinematic techniques as they go, movies and games should slowly converge, right?
Looking at the past ten years, the answer is a resounding "fuck no." Video game based movies seem to be the dumping ground for any and every cliched action script that only the hackiest of hacks can spit out. The process seems to be: [A] acquire rights to video game license [B] hire somebody to write a script based purely on the title of said game [C] release the resulting mess into theaters and watch it end up on DVD six weeks later. [D] Profit, I guess, because they keep doing this shit.
Look at Uwe Boll's first outing into game cinema, House of the Dead (2003). I'm hardly a fan of the original series of games, but I've played/seen them enough to know that they center around secret agents shooting zombies. Somehow the movie is about a group of teens who take a party boat to "Death Island" and wind up being attacked by the undead. Eventually there is one scene of shooting zombies and it's nothing but a long Matrix-inspired sequence of low-budget bullet time. Curiously, clips of the real game are actually edited into the movie, almost as a reminder as to what the story should be about, but isn't.
By all accounts, House of the Dead was a failure but Uwe Boll got to make another video game movie which managed to out-suck his first one. Alone in the Dark (2005) is the kind of film that routinely shows up on "worst movie ever made" lists and has been thoroughly mocked by the Agony Booth and The Nostalgia Critic, among others. Yet someone made their money back because Uwe Boll kept making movies, quickly cementing himself as a crap merchant dealing exclusively in video game properties. When video game companies license negotiate movie rights now, they demand a say in picking the director solely to avoid this guy (it's known as the "Uwe Boll Clause" and I'm sure they're only half-joking).
It wasn't just Uwe Boll though. Look at the Resident Evil trilogy of films which range from mediocre to OMG-awful yet a fourth film is on the way. Those games are extremely cinematic in their presentations, relying heavily on voice acting and camera angles from the beginning. It should have been an easy adaptation to make, but someone decided to gut the story and just turn it into another zombie movie and not a particularly good one. There's also a litany of forgettable movies based on fighting games like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, D.O.A. with more on the way. No, I won't mention them by name because they make my brain hurt.
The future of video game movies is bright, at least in comparison to what we've got now. The Prince of Persia movie seems to have a lot of money behind it and a decent leading man, but I'm not holding my breath. It's not like Jerry Bruckheimer hasn't disappointed in the past. Even if that movie fails, I hope someone eventually figures out that games have stories worth telling because a good video game movie would be spectacular. If a fan-made zero-budget short like Turbo can at least approximate the excitement of a fake video game, why can't a multi-million dollar production even come close to a real one?
This represents Part 5 in a series of 25 posts about my favorite as well as the most disappointing entertainment properties/trends of the last ten years. To Be Continued!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
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)
Saturday, December 12, 2009
I've already written an essay looking back at the Dreamcast with fondness that appeared on Bitmob to celebrate the console's ten year anniversary. Even though it famously launched on 9/9/99, I doubt I played it much until the year 2000. It was a slow starter for me, something I bought out of obligation or boredom (perhaps both) but then left to gather dust because I was busy with other games. I'm sure The King of Fighters '99 was occupying most of my spare time that fall - that or KOF '98.
Of course, those 2D fighters ended up being my favorite thing about the Dreamcast. There were plenty of other wonderful games for the system (Chu Chu Rocket, Crazy Taxi, Jet Grind Radio and Seaman leap to mind) but the ones my friends and I latched onto were the stunning ports of our favorite arcade fighters. Even games we owned in flawless Neo Geo form (that is to say, arcade-perfect) we ended up replaying on the Dreamcast due to the 3D backgrounds and extra characters.
That love of 2D arcade ports is what kept us playing the Dreamcast long after the rest of US gave up. Whether it was the less-than-stellar sales or the looming specter of the PlayStation 2 (probably both), Sega of America threw in the towel in early 2001. Japan kept going for a little while and I was absolutely the type of gamer who paid big bucks in Chinatown for imported software. Don't forget, I own a Neo Geo. Those cartridges cost more than most consoles, so a $80 disc is peanuts by comparison.
The Dreamcast is typically labeled as "ahead of its time" due to the built-in modem, online gaming functionality and the free web browser that came with the system. Unfortunately, they didn't think ahead to include a DVD drive like the PS2 did. Instead they went with a proprietary disc that, while not an odd shape like the GameCube discs, probably cost them customers who might have taken the plunge if they got a movie player as well as a game machine. But that ultimately was precisely what the Dreamcast was: a game machine. A really, really fun game machine that catered to people who loved video games. Who would have guessed that in the 21st century, that wouldn't be good enough?
Well, Sony did. And Microsoft. And Nintendo, eventually.
This represents Part 3 in a series of 25 posts about my favorite as well as the most disappointing entertainment properties/trends of the last ten years. To Be Continued!
For more on the Dreamcast, I highly recommend comprehensive overview of the console's life and death by Jeremy Parish.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, December 03, 2009
For example, little Go is just past five months old already. He doesn't look any different, but each time we weigh/measure him the numbers don't lie: he's growing by leaps and bounds. Just take a look at the first week's worth of pictures we took and contrast them with these recent Twitpic shots (With Snoopy / With Mom and Cake / On a Scale). Now you see it, sure, but change like that is hard to spot when you see his li'l face everyday.
There's been a minor (major?) development in Go's, um, development. We've been waiting for him to start rolling over for quite some time now. According to some of the books Mako has, he should have done so by now. He certainly kicks a lot and can squirm his way around the bed when he's excited, but so far he hasn't rolled.
On Tuesday night we tried a little experiment. We rolled him onto his stomach to see if he could roll himself back into position. He did, more than once, though our attempts to record the feat have met with limited success. I've been told we should make a habit of these rolling sessions, as it apparently teaches him the coordination skills he needs to start crawling. As much as I'm looking forward to that particular stage, I'm less thrilled about all the cleaning up I'll have to do. There's a whole mess of wires and plugs in this apartment that should never be handled by a baby.
In very different developmental news, my writing was on a roll last month. Besides having four stories posted on Game|Life, my work on Bitmob got a lot of attention. The month started off great with my story about grinding in video games which got a lot of feedback and is, by far, my most popular Bitmob submission to date. More people have read that story in the last thirty days than have visited this entire website in the last three months!
Next, I was pleased to see that my suggestions of cheap/free games completely dominated their Bitmob Budget Games feature. I honestly thought they were only interested in games less than $10, otherwise I would have happily promoted the hell out of the PixelJunk series and given a shout-out to Bionic Commando: Rearmed, still my favorite game of 2008.
I was a little disappointed that no one took an interest in my thoughts on failure in cinematic games. I thought the Uncharted 2 angle would draw readers' attention but I guess all the hype surrounding that game was in October. I'm perpetually playing catch-up when it comes to video games that people are talking about because I progress through them so very slowly. It doesn't help that I have a choice of playing games or writing after Mako and Go fall asleep, and lately I've been choosing writing.
Not that I regret making that choice! I felt so jazzed after seeing Inglorious Basterds that I wrote two different posts on my blog about it as well as one item on Bitmob about how the movie made me want games that rely less on violence to provide conflict. That piece ended up on the front page earlier this week, much to my delight, and I was happy to hear that I'm not the only one out there who wants more non-violent games to play.
You can expect my thoughts on The Road very soon, both here and on Bitmob. I'm not sure what book I want to read next. Atlas Shrugged is just sitting around waiting to be picked up, but I'm not sure if I'm ready for another mega-text from Ayn Rand so soon after The Fountainhead. Frankly, all this fiction has given me a craving to return to non-fiction. I think the last one of those I read was The Chris Farley Show.
One more thing: in case you forgot, the family going to New York later this month. In fact, we're leaving in less than three weeks. Like I side, time is rocketing past my face these days. Slow down, life! I'm trying to enjoy the ride!
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)
Saturday, November 21, 2009
To be sure, Games Japan Festa is a much smaller gathering with a much different focus. TGS is a business event first and a public event second, and the crowds that show up take gaming seriously. At GJF, there were no press conferences, no giant video screens, no real booths to speak of and I only saw one cosplayer all day.
Instead, GJF kept things simple. Far from the gargantuan excesses of TGS, GJF was housed entirely in a single room roughly the size of a gymnasium. Most games were simply shown on wall-mounted televisions without any statues or spinning lights to dazzle the senses. The room was also much quieter, with no music being broadcast and not a single megaphone in sight.
A large number of the games on display at GJF were already on sale, either here in Japan or overseas (or both). In many cases, the software was not a demo version but was the real deal, monitored by a staff member and reset for each player. I felt bad for the people playing Batman Arkham Asylum who had to walk through the entire prison entrance scene.
Microsoft had the largest installation and was the only exhibitor to recruit booth babes, though the word "booth" doesn't seem appropriate. It very much had the look of the TGS space but it was quite open and spread out with no clear division between it and the neighboring displays. There were a few stand-up demo kiosks around the perimeter but most of the gaming stations came with seats. The Tekken 6 display even included joysticks rather than gamepads.
If there is one word that describes GJF perfectly, it is "casual." The event was well attended but was never crowded, and people lined up to play games but without any of the epic waits that visitors to TGS must endure. The attendees were also much more varied than the typical TGS attendees. I saw plenty of young couples, families with small children, even single women. On the day I attended, a popular radio duo appeared on the stage and the entire room filled with the squeals of their female fans. It was the noisiest the show floor ever got.
From a news standpoint, there wasn't much on display at Games Japan Festa that I hadn't seen before but I found a few curiosities that weren't shown at TGS and wrote about them for Game|Life.
Local developer SNK didn't make the trip to Tokyo this year but they were at last week's event, showing off Metal Slug XX and a new 3D Samurai Shodown game.
I played Umihara Kawase for the first time on the DS. It's kind of like Bionic Commando without all that shooting.
I only played two Western games at the show, Avatar and Left 4 Dead 2. I didn't bother writing anything about the second one because I don't know what else I can say about it. Between my preview at TGS and our discussion on The DoFuss Show I think I've exhausted myself of L4D2 opinions.
The only possible thing I could add is that at the show I played it in Japanese for the first time and it was a mess because everything is subtitled rather than dubbed. This means that when the shit hits the fan and everyone starts shouting, the screen is filled with text. What a waste of visual real estate!
In other news, I just got my first check from Wired today. That means I am now, officially, a professional writer. Feels pretty cool. Now all I have to do is figure out how to deposit it in my US bank account, because Japanese banks don't do checks. But hey, it's still a first step, right? Right.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Oh yeah, check out the lovely birthday present I received from my lovely wife:
Speaking of games and fun, I made another appearance on The Dofuss Show, Alex's homemade gaming podcast. Last time we talked about TGS for a couple hours weeks after the show had ended, but this time we are a bit more topical. Here's an overview of what we discussed:
- My recent article on Wired Game|Life concerning crane games filled with desserts
- My fondness for Kongregate.com
- Alex's experience (and general distaste with) Sony's PlayFace campaign
- He has finished Bayonetta and Uncharted 2 but is still plodding through Wii shovelware like Ultimate Band
- I like Burnout Paradise even though I hate racing games
- My Left 4 Dead 2 thoughts segue into the news concerning its censorship in Australia
- Neither of us wants to play Modern Warfare 2 but we have some words over its infamous "F.A.G.S." viral video
- Remember my Bitmob piece on grinding? Alex disagrees with me
- Speculation about the future of the DSiLL, with anecdote from Gwyn's blog
- Darren's Old Games: Cybernator is better than you
In other news, I am in the process of submitting stories to Wired Game|Life concerning my trip to Games Japan Festa last weekend. I will share any posts once they are approved. In the meantime you might be happy to hear that another one of my English stories was translated into Japanese (check it out). This doesn't mean any extra money for me or anything, but I do get a real kick out of seeing my name (and a photo I took) on Japanese websites. Once WiredVision carries a story, other Japanese sites tend to rehash that story elsewhere, so my name does get around.
I'm really looking forward to this three-day weekend. Mako's parents are going to watch Go for us so we can spend Saturday together as a couple. There's also a gaming party on Monday that sounds like a blast. Alas, I'd trade it all for a trip home for Thanksgiving. Turkey is so hard to find in this country!
*Read that Wikipedia article very carefully by the way...particularly the Pre-Release section! OMG
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Sunday, November 15, 2009
This year's seminar was a little different/scarier because I had to deliver a presentation of my own: "Juggling Elementary Schools." I guess I should have seen this coming. After years of complaining that the JET Programme didn't do enough to address the unique issues of elementary schools, it seems I have become the best person to actually talk about those issues. I just wish I had a time machine to go back to 2007 and deliver this workshop to myself because I was still nervous as hell back then.
Funny sidenote: when I was first contacted to deliver this presentation, I was standing on the floor of the Tokyo Game Show back in September. Talk about worlds colliding!
And while we're talking games, I should mention that I went to Games Japan Festa 2009 in Osaka on Saturday. The show lasted two days but to be frank, it was a small show. I will be writing a few things about it for Wired Game|Life but anything that I don't cover there I will report on right here.
And as long as we're on the subject, my story on dessert-dispensing crane games went live on that site late last week. Go on and have a read if you didn't already. For the record I did not win anything in the two separate visits I made but I would absolutely consider going again if I had company, hopefully in the form of someone good at crane games. I want pudding, damn it!
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)
Sunday, October 18, 2009
First of all, I want to reiterate that it is a big deal whenever I visit Tokyo. It's not that far away and I'm hardly living in the sticks here in suburban Kansai, but each time I go to Tokyo I experience a sudden rush. I'm used to living in cities that I can fully comprehend or at least visualize. The number of neighborhoods in Osaka that I've never seen far exceeds those that I have, but I still have a general sense of where X and Y are and how best to travel between those points. Kobe is tiny, all things considered, and Kyoto is actually a grid which makes navigation pretty simple.
Tokyo defies all my attempts to reign in its magnitude and break it into digestible chunks. Yes, the more time I spend there the more comfortable I am with the terrain and the complex interwoven railway maps, but I never come away from my visit thinking "OK, I understand Tokyo now." If I ever learn to accept that, perhaps I will come to love it as a city, but in the meantime its power overwhelms me in a way that is simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating.
Tuesday (Sept 22nd) was actually a quiet day considering I was traveling and attending that party. Checking in to my hotel, visiting Richard out in Chiba, finding my way to the party and then coming to terms with my anxiety were all manageable events. I made it back to my hotel without incident and went to sleep excited about waking up the next morning.
Wednesday (Sept 23rd) was my first chance to meet Chris Kohler and actually talk about the job he had hired me to do. Yes, we had spoken at the party the night before but it was brief. Wednesday we sat down, had lunch, and discussed a number of things relevant to the job, including the technical ins and outs of the Game|Life website. I learned that when I was done with a story I had to submit it and he would then review it before posting it to the site. I found this news to be very comforting. I had never worked with an editor before but I viewed the idea as a safety net rather than a hindrance. Chris has written entire books and covered video games for years; he should be trusted to know what's a good fit for Game|Life or not.
We ended up going to Manadarake after our discussion which was fun for me. That's one of those sprawling Japanese stores that seem to sell everything and anything that relates to games, anime, manga, old toys, whatever. They used to have two outlets in Osaka but both seem to have closed down. I didn't find anything worth buying but I certainly enjoyed the view and I was glad to know they were still in business.
When Chris returned to his hotel, I went back out to see Richard. I knew I would be too busy to visit him once the show started, so it was important to me that I hang out with him while I could. It was also a rare opportunity for me to play games with somebody. I know the Internet has opened up the world of video games so that people don't need to be in the same room to play together anymore, but having a baby to take care of means my gaming time at home is extremely limited. This trip was as much a business outing as it was a chance to get away from that routine of go to work/care for baby/go to sleep.
Thursday (Sept 24th) was the first day of the show. The doors didn't open until ten but being the eager person that I am, I showed up well before nine to ensure that I didn't take any chances. Also, I had to be with Chris to actually register as a member of the media in order to get inside at all. While I waited for him I saw a number of other journalists show up and register, many of whom I first saw at the party on Tuesday. As I hoped, the awkwardness was gone now. I didn't exactly freely converse with them because they're still people who don't know me, but at least I was no longer paralyzed with admiration.
The good news about visiting the Tokyo Game Show on the business days is the crowds are much smaller. They're not gone, of course, but the difference between 70,000 people and 25,000 people is readily apparent. All of the games I tried to see on that first day were easily accessible with minimal waiting. I also felt like I had more time to play the games than I normally would have. There just seemed to be less external pressure to keep things moving.
Internally, however, I was extremely nervous. After I played a few games I found the press room and sat down to write about them. It took nearly two hours to write that first post because I kept changing my mind on how to approach it. Should I try to detail the differences between the Xbox 360 version and the PlayStation 3 version? Is it worth explaining how the two demos were slightly different? Which screenshot should I choose? What kind of a title would go best with this story? Is this post too long or not long enough? It was mentally exhausting and by the time I was through, I was starving. It was also past two P.M. which meant the day was half over already. This made me more nervous, as I didn't want to waste time buying lunch but I couldn't ignore what my insides were saying.
I managed to squeeze in some kind of sandwich and a couple more games before returning to the press room shortly after three. Again, it took me a long time to get any serious ideas onto the screen, but even after the press room was closed I felt like I had accomplished something. There was a tangible uneasiness as I knew that I had a lot more writing to do before I could truly call it a day, but I knew that I could write anywhere at any time. The games were only available on the show floor, and I had seen five or six of them which was enough.
In checking in with Chris at the end of day one, he told me about a party being held by Microsoft at a nearby hotel. I was happy to discover the event was outdoors and relatively spacious, so I didn't have to wait in lines to get a drink and there was plenty of food. Pretty good food at that, particularly the lasagna which is a dish I hadn't eaten since I came to Japan. I had a few glasses of wine (kept it classy - we were poolside after all) and I was thrilled to see a demo of Left 4 Dead 2. Not only was it fun to get my first hands-on experience with the game, it ended up making a nice story for the site.
Day One Stories (based on when I wrote them, not when they were posted): Bayonetta, Darksiders, PixelJunk Monsters Deluxe, PixelJunk Shooter, and Left 4 Dead 2.
I got off to a late start on Friday (Sept 25) but I did my best to make up for it by taking Richard's advice and pulling out my new netbook whenever possible to write. I wrote while riding the train, I wrote while waiting to enter the show, I even wrote while standing outside Sony's booth waiting for a chance to play Heavy Rain. That last one proved to be a stunningly long wait, considering I went there as soon as the doors opened and there were only five people in front of me. Still, I made the best of the time as I finished up stories from the day before. In the end the wait was worth it, as I felt it was the most exciting thing I saw at the show.
I found myself running low on inspiration, so I started wandering around the "game school" area of the show. These were low-budget, independent projects on display, many of them created by students. I also went looking for a game I had seen on the NHK news the night before. The news coverage of the show was pretty broad and gawking, but you can always count on television reporters to dig up something that looks crazy. They spent a long time looking at Project Natal, something I couldn't see (the demo was invitation only) but there was a game that worked by scanning your brain activity. That one I managed to find directly across from another unusual work, a game made for blind people.
I found writing in the press room came a lot easier on the second day, as I had written so much so quickly I was simply getting used to the idea of pouring my ideas out at a faster pace. Due to the submission process and the fact that Chris was busy doing his own thing during the show, there was an odd disconnect where I really didn't know what he though of my work. He was publishing it to the site, of course, but there wasn't much of an opportunity to actually talk about how things were going. Even when we got together with his photographer Jon Snyder and Christian Nutt for dinner, it was less show talk and more casual discussions of Japan and whatever else was on our minds. I felt good, sure, but I was wondering where I stood as far as quality was concerned.
Everyone else at the dinner table made it a point that they were not going out to do anything on Friday night, a decision I emulated. I spent most of the evening in my hotel room polishing up some stories and talking to Alex on the phone. He arrived earlier that morning to cover the show, but since the two of us were busy working for our respective web overlords we were too busy to actually hang out at all. I never made it bed early but it was definitely an indoor, low-key night.
Day Two Stories: Heavy Rain, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker, Quantum Theory, Blind Braver, Neuroboy, and Puyo Puyo 7.
I knew Saturday (Sept 26) was going to be tough because it was the first day of the show to be open to the public. I knew this was going to mean crowds at every turn, so much so that even walking from one booth to another would be an adventure of the sweatiest kind. Chris suggested I try to visit the Capcom booth and play Okamiden as it was the only game he was unable to play at a private event he was attending. I wish I had thought of that on the press days, because it took a solid hour to get in to the demo area (which was actually kind of lovely with its torii and fake cherry blossoms) and I barely got to play the game. Still, I kept working on previous day's stories while I waited so as not to waste my time.
The crowds did have one interesting benefit in that they drove me to seek out the unusual and less popular exhibits. This led me to play a bunch of smaller games that the masses were simply ignoring. In particular, I found a number of games at the back of the Square Enix booth that were being ignored, perhaps because they were behind the booth where few people walk. There were giant, multi-hour lines for other Square Enix games that stretched back there though, so I found it funny that while they all waited I was standing in front of them playing games and having fun - mostly.
I should point out that after my experience on Thursday I learned the best way to eat at TGS is to simply bring something small and keep it in your bag. I would buy my breakfast and lunch at the convenience store on the way to the show in the morning, eat the former while on the train and the latter whenever I found myself yearning for a bite to eat. It wasn't very glamorous but it was tasty enough and it enabled me to keep busy without wasting time at the food court. My hotel also gave me a free bottle of water every day which I took with me and drank as needed. It added a bit of weight to my bag but it was pretty hot in there on account of the thousands of gawkers slowly milling about.
I managed to play games all morning and early afternoon so that when I sat down just after two PM, I was comfortable just writing the rest of the day without feeling the need to rush back onto the floor. Again, it was getting easier to write the more I did so, so I got a lot done in those remaining hours. I ran into Chris in the press room and he told me there would be karaoke later that night in Shibuya. He also told me that I was doing a great job which was exactly the news I needed to hear. I had been building up my own confidence without any feedback from him simply by assuming that my work was worth publishing, so it must have been satisfactory. Hearing him actually compliment my writing was an even better response than I expected.
Alex swung by the press room to say hi and tell me he was leaving. He had decided to keep his trip really short by only spending one night in town and getting in as much gaming as he could before going home to write. I felt pretty strange about being unable to hang out with him at all but he was under a lot more pressure than I was. I was writing for one site over the course of four days. He was writing for multiple sites (at least three) and he had less time to do it in.
On the way out the door I met up with a guy named Kevin whom I had some contact with via Twitter. He had come down from Saitama to TGS and had organized a small group of other foreigner-in-Japan Twitterers to have breakfast together, but I had arrived too late to participate. Instead, we had a light snack at a nearby cafe and just talked about TGS, Japan in general, etc.
Saturday night was the first chance I really had to just go out and see the city while I waited for the call for karaoke. I went to Shinjuku to see the 8-Bit Cafe, a retro-game-themed bar. The atmosphere was really cool as there were toys along the top of the bar and a glass case full of video game memorabilia. There were also a couple of old consoles hooked up to a TV and a bin full of games to play for free. Much like Thursday night, I ended up playing a game that tied directly into my work at TGS. I found the original Thexder just hours after playing the new sequel Thexder Neo at the Sqaure Enix booth. Too bad both games sucked.
The downsides to the 8-Bit Cafe are two-fold. One is the cost, as there's a cover charge of sorts that is added to your bill and everything on the menu is pretty pricey. I really enjoyed my "Nuts & Milk" cocktail and "cake-cheese" dessert, but they were both 150 or 200 Yen more expensive than they needed to be. The other problem is the five flights of stairs patrons must use, meaning that I could never afford to get drunk there else I stumble and fall to my death on the way out.
I knew Richard had been invited to a party somewhere near Shibuya, so I left the cafe after one drink and made my way over there, although my trip to the cafe meant I arrived well after ten PM so the party was dying down. I had time for another drink and we talked for a while, but once eleven o'clock came everybody started bolting to catch the last train home. I was less worried because I knew I was staying out that night. I was prepared to take a taxi back to my hotel if I needed one. Richard lives way outside the city limits, however, so he couldn't be as cavalier. Sadly, he ended up missing the last train after we separated and his phone ran out of power before we could reunite near Shibuya. I'm told he eventually crashed in a capsule hotel.
I spent an hour or so just wandering around Shibuya, witnessing some amusing and fairly depraved behavior. I stopped in Burger King for a Whopper Jr. (my first in years - there's no BK in Osaka) where I waited in line behind what looked like a hip-hop dance troupe based on their outfits. They were all black and sounded American, though at least one of them demonstrated enough Japanese ability to suggest he was a resident. Watching them debate the menu choices was pretty funny to me. Less funny was the abundance of homeless and/or intoxicated people walking the streets. One girl was so drunk there were two men trying to pick her up off the sidewalk and failing miserably. I hope they knew her.
Chris did call shortly after one AM and I was able to find him thanks to the reference point of Mandarake. He was with a large group of people who seemed reluctant to go out singing, as many of them had flights to catch the next day. Eventually he made some calls and we tracked down a different bunch of people (including Christian) who were willing to karaoke it up. We shopped around a little bit (the first place wanted a crazy amount of money considering what time it was) but settled on a joint located above the Burger King where I had eaten an hour earlier. It was small and very low-rent (all the song books were torn and in very poor condition) but the price was right and we sang and drank for three solid hours until the trains started running again.
Snooping around the web I found some pictures of the event in Christian's Flicker stream. You can see me here, here and here.
I knew Chris wasn't going back to the show for the last day so when we said our goodbyes, that was that. He thanked me for the work I had done and told me not to push myself too hard if I decided to go one more time. I went back to my hotel for an extended nap of sorts but I was determined to get a few more hours in at TGS before leaving later that night.
Day Three Stories: Okamiden, Echoshift, Death by Cube, 0 day Attack on Earth, and Thexder Neo.
Sunday (Sept 27) was both the easiest and the hardest day for me at the show. My confidence in my ability to do my job was at its peak, but my energy levels and my overall enthusiasm for TGS were bottoming out. Operating on less than four hours sleep will do that. I figured the best course of action was to just play whatever I could before retiring to the press room and then leaving, writing on the train ride home as needed. Again, I stuck to covering things that no one else seemed to be playing or talking about online. I had hoped to meet Richard at some point, as he came to the show, but since his phone had no battery power we never got into contact with one another.
Ultimately I got in a few quick things, took an hour or so to write down some impressions, then went back to Tokyo station to have dinner and buy the all-important souvenirs for Mako, her parents (who hosted her and Go while I was away) and some of my co-workers (particularly the ones whose school I skipped in order to make the trip). While riding the Shinkansen to Osaka, I tried to play the Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker demo but it proved to be quite deep and I only completed the tutorial. I spent the rest of the trip writing and trying not to fall asleep.
Day Four Stories (some of these were quite late): Game 3 (working title) by The Behemoth, Tekken 6, and a wacky student game.
Overall, I am very pleased with how the trip turned out. The business of attending and writing about TGS proved to dominate my time in a way I didn't quite expect, so aside from the time I spent with Richard and the late-night antics in Shibuya I was too busy to simply amuse myself as I saw fit. I was unable to visit any of the restaurants or sights I had in mind before the trip. However, the show itself was my favorite one yet because I had four days to fully investigate all corners of the exhibition.
More importantly, I was hired to do a job and I did it well. How well? When the show started I told myself I was just a lucky guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time. By the end I realized that being lucky didn't mean I wasn't also a good writer. In a surprise affirmation of that fact, Chris Kohler recently offered me a chance to continue contributing to Wired Game|Life. I've already submitted two potential items and I've got a few other ideas on deck. Plus, there's another game show next month...in Osaka! I will, of course, link to any future posts on Game|Life but in the meantime a complete listing of all my posts is available right here, a link I will add to the Contact page.
Hey, I'm a writer now. Awesome.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, October 12, 2009
OK, I'm rambling a bit. My point is that we had a nice little three day weekend and while I didn't get up to much, I did appreciate the opportunity to sleep in - as much as any parent of a newborn can "sleep in." Having time off also meant I could watch the Yankees beat the Twins in the ALDS. Saturday's* game was a thriller, as extra-inning affairs always are, but today's game was even more fun. I couldn't believe Carl Pavano actually pitched a good game and I almost felt like he didn't deserve to lose. Then I remembered he was Carl Pavano and that made it a lot easier to see that big "L" next to his name.
With three days off I should have found time to write, but instead I used my free time to progress deeper in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The game is fantastic but so many people have written about how fantastic it is, I feel like I should probably write about what I don't like for the sake of variety. It might actually be more fun that way.
I'm hoping to get more writing done soon (especially concerning the tale of TGS which is long overdue) but I might not have much time ahead of me. My father is actually in Hong Kong right now and he's landing in Japan tomorrow for a week. He's come to see his grandson...and maybe his son too. So I anticipate a sudden drop in leisure time, even though seeing my father is a rare treat these days.
You can definitely expect something on Thursday though, if you catch my drift. I shouldn't say anything more, I'm not supposed to talk about it...
*Friday night in New York = Saturday morning in Japan. I live in the future, never forget that.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Friday, September 25, 2009
I just wanted to give everyone a quick update on how things are going - things are going very well. I'm certainly tired from working, and before anyone says "lol you play games that's not work" let me clarify: playing games is fun of course (well, when they're good) but then I have to do my job which involves writing my impressions of those games. Normally when I write about games I take my time, think things over, maybe even let it sit for a day or two and then revisit it. That is not an option here. I've already written eleven posts for Wired Game|Life (not all of them are live yet) and I should probably finish another one before I hit the show floor tomorrow. That's a lot of material in a very short time for me.
Which brings me to the good news: I am definitely getting better at doing this. Writing that first post was without a doubt the hardest I worked all week. I hemmed and hawed. I questioned my skills and my usefulness. All this stress over a game I was excited about and should have had a ton opinions to share!
Today was a totally different story. I took Richard's advice and started typing on my netbook whenever I had to wait. On the train or just in a line, I got a lot of work done during this normally stagnant time. More importantly, I just found myself getting my thoughts onto the screen at a faster pace. Normally I'd say faster isn't always better but this isn't the case. I am becoming a better writer by pushing myself in these conditions.
Tomorrow the general public arrives which I think will make my job a little harder. Certainly it will impede my ability to freely travel the floor as the number of people in the building will essentially triple. We'll see if my press pass grants me any line privileges, but even if it doesn't I'm going back for more. See you on the other side, people!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, September 17, 2009
You're looking at...um, rather, you're reading the blog of a newly-minted freelance writer. I've been hired by Wired to contribute to their online coverage of the Tokyo Game Show 2009. And when I say "hired," I mean I will be paid money to write about video games.
As dreams go, this is certainly a more recent one that I all but stumbled into last year. 2008 was the year I found myself drawn back into the video game culture. It started with a resurgence of interest in PC games (thanks largely to the extraordinary experience I had playing Portal) and then I bought a PS3 to compliment our brand-new television.
Ultimately, it was the Bioshock demo last fall that really knocked my socks off and put me in an unfamiliar position: I was so excited about the game that all I wanted to do was play it and write about how it made me feel. Sure, I had been writing this blog for a few years at that point, but feeling compelled to write was an entirely new sensation.
Ever since that weekend, I've been trying to produce more "cultural" writing whenever possible, be it a game, film or television show that was on my mind. I can't pretend that I ever had a plan or a concrete goal in sight, but I suppose I might have fantasized about it leading to a job opportunity.
When Bitmob launched earlier this year, I saw it as a good place to expand my audience and possibly draw more viewers to my site. The former was a sure thing; in case you don't know, 30,000 visitors over five years is not much for a website. The latter hasn't happened yet, but at least Bitmob (along with Twitter, Facebook, and the like) helped to increase my presence on the Internet beyond this humble, archaic webpage.
Opportunity suddenly knocked last month when Chris Kohler of Wired inquired via Twitter about writers living in Japan who could help cover TGS. This wasn't the first time I saw a chance like this present itself, but this was the first time I responded quickly instead of mulling it over and letting it slip away. After a few days without a response, I figured he found someone else.
Instead, I got a message from Chris asking to see some of my work. Again, I responded as quickly as I could, explaining that I had no professionally published material but I gave him links to a few of my favorite stories, both here and on Bitmob. I didn't just focus on game writing either, I tried to show my take on a variety of topics including the birth of my son.
He wrote back and said I had the job, clearly indicating that he had read more than what I had sent him. He referenced my Super Potato story even though I didn't mention it since he had already written about that store many times before.
So here's what I know: my trip to Tokyo has morphed from "pleasure" to a business/pleasure hybrid, the likes of which have yet to be understood. I was going to attend one public day of the Tokyo Game Show and hang out with some friends. Now I'm definitely going to TGS for both press days and possibly both public days so I'm not sure how much time I'll have to hang out.
What I don't know is anything specific about the job itself. What will I be seeing/playing at the show? How many articles will I write, and how long will I have to write them? Will I need to stay up late working or will there be time for karaoke?
One thing's for sure: I'm really, really excited about getting my shot at professional writing less than a year after the idea crept into my head. What happens after the show is anybody's guess, but I know I'm going to Tokyo next week and I can't wait. Stay tuned to this site (and Wired Game|Life) to read all about it.
Oh, and play that victory sound!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Before I get to that, I should perhaps mention that I have been submitting stories to Bitmob, a new website about video games that promotes fan-written articles rather than simply reporting on new releases. Since today is the tenth anniversary of the Sega Dreamcast (a beloved video game machine that bombed financially), the site encouraged everyone to write something about it. So I did.
I've been putting my game-related writing on Bitmob rather than this site lately because I'm under the impression that my readers are more interested in me than video games. However, my writing is always about me in a roundabout way, so I'm going to do a better job of cross-posting or at least mentioning here when I post something elsewhere.
If you want to read all of my Bitmob postings, you can follow this link. Believe it or not, all this talk about writing and video games might lead somewhere...
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, September 03, 2009
Speaking of looking forward, I hinted on Tuesday that something big in is the works. Admittedly, posting a simple "got good news, can't talk about it" paragraph was a bit unfair, but that was only because the magnitude of the good news outweighed my ability to pretend like nothing's going on. In a perfect world I would have written more that day and simply thrown in the teaser to keep you guessing, but with work starting and Go being a little cranky lately I have had precious little time to write much of anything.
What I will tell you is that I'm going to Tokyo in three weeks. There's a string of Japanese public holidays that happen to all fall together for a change, almost like a second Golden Week except this is a rare event, so I have an entire week off and I feel obliged to take advantage of it. Originally, the plan was just to hang out, see Richard, potentially catch up with other folks I know in the area, and go to the Tokyo Game Show. Alex is going too, so we would no doubt meet at some point as well.
The big news, which I'm still reluctant to fully reveal, is that this trip has changed from simple tourism to business. I'm still hoping to see my friends of course, but I now have a job to do while I'm in town. It's something I'm very excited about and I actually can't wait to discuss it, but until the trip draws nearer I'm going to try and keep my mouth shut. Call it my fear of Murphy's Law or counting my chickens before they hatch, but I don't want to jinx this because it's something I've wanted and now it looks like it's really going to happen.
If you want hints, I can tell you that I've written about this desire before (if not this specific opportunity) and if you read my Twitter feed closely enough, you might just figure it out on your own. Otherwise, sit tight, I promise I'll tell you everything later.
Oh, one more thing: Batman: Arkham Asylum is lots of fun. My copy finally arrived Tuesday night and it's already threatening my ability to sleep. Not only do I want to keep playing instead of going to bed, I actually dreamt about the game last night. Not even BioShock infiltrated my brain like that.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, August 10, 2009
In case you haven't heard, I'm still sick. I've never been great at dragging diagnoses out of doctors in English, so doing it in Japanese is next to impossible, but so far as I can tell I've got some kind of virus. My overall condition has ranged from "ok" to "unpleasant" over the past two weeks, with the lowest points being Monday, July 27 and last Thursday when I was feverish. That second fever sent me back to the doctor for a blood test. He insisted that I get some rest and that this virus should soon pass, but as I begin my third week of not feeling well I'm a little bit suspicious.
The good news is that neither Go nor Mako are showing any signs of catching whatever I've got, so it seems I am not contagious. During both of my fevers they escaped to her parents' house to avoid possible contamination and let me rest, but I must assume that they would have gotten sick by now if that was possible. Still, it is extremely uncomfortable to hold Go in my arms and try to sooth him to sleep when all I want to do is go to the bathroom or lay down.
Lest you think I've been writhing in agony for the past two weeks, I have managed to entertain myself with video games. I actually finished BioShock which was tremendously satisfying. Why I put that game off for so long, I'll never understand. It actually wasn't that long of a game to complete; it just took me two months because I insisted on exploring every corner of the city. Part of me is strongly tempted to start a new game on a higher difficulty setting so I can see what's different (and get more trophies) but realistically, I have so little time to play games I'm better off moving on to something else.
That "something else" could be the upcoming Batman: Arkham Asylum, because I felt the demo was really quite good. Sneaking up behind thugs and silently taking them down was exciting, as was the hand-to-hand parts where I just beat the snot out of three guys at the same time. My biggest concern is that the game will get repetitive since Batman can't acquire new "powers" (he doesn't really have any to being with) but the myriad of options I've had in just the demo is extremely encouraging. It turns out there are an awful lot of ways to sneak up on someone in this game, which means that there isn't just one solution to each dangerous situation. I'm just going to wait and see what people say about it before I consider buying it.
In the meantime, there will be no time for games (or writing) as my mother and sister will be arriving in Japan on Wednesday for their first meeting with Go. It will be wonderful to see them again and let them watch the baby while Mako and I relax for once. Their vacation is our vacation! I'm kidding, of course, but not about being happy to have visitors. But this is one more reason I'm not going to have much time to write, so August is looking like a pretty sparse month on the blogging front. Then again, my sister makes up 20-50% of my readership which means my posts won't be missed much.
See you soon, Salena!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
I woke up Monday morning feeling cold. I knew that meant something was horribly wrong, because there's no way a normal human can feel cold in Japan in summer. I took my temperature and discovered I was one tenth of a degree (Celcius) above normal. I felt funny but figured I would go to work anyway. By the time I got there I felt more funny (although part of that stemmed from waiting outside for ten minutes because nobody had a key to the school) so I checked my temperature again. Now it had risen quite a bit more, so we all agreed I should go home.
I visited a doctor who told me that the fever was so sudden that they couldn't tell if it was a flu or not, so they gave me some standard anti-fever meds and told me to come back that night (or the next day) if my condition got worse. In the meantime, Mako and Go evacuated the apartment because I really didn't want them to get what I had (especially if it was the flu, because that's bad news for babies).
I woke up today still feeling like crap, so I didn't bother going to work. I'm sure I wouldn't have been busy anyway, so that was an easy call to make. Mako and Go stayed away for one more day, just to be safe. In the meantime, my fever has completely subsided even though my head (and my bowels, ugh) are still a little..."off."
So what has that meant for me? Lots of time home alone, which means a whole lot of television and video games. I swear I saw the same episode of Law & Order: SVU four times in the last forty-eight hours. I've also been tearing through BioShock as fast as I can, which in my case is actually quite slow and plodding. I've definitely crossed the halfway point, possibly even the three-quarters point, so the end is in sight. I would love to write more about the game but the mood I've been in hasn't lent itself to writing. Just sitting here trying to finish this post has been a chore because I have constant urges to go to the bathroom.
Tomorrow a new ALT arrives and I'm supposed to be part of the welcoming committee. Will I recover in time to greet the new recruit? I sure hope so, because I've heard she doesn't speak much Japanese. Around here, that's pretty important.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, July 23, 2009
On the other hand, the birth of my son has sent my mind leaping into the future and wondering about the decisions I will have to make that will shape his outlook of the world. How will I explain religion to him? Will he accept my general abstaining from spirituality or will he start preaching to me? What kinds of questions will he ask me about sex, death, morality, and politics? Will either one of us be satisfied with my answers?
Then there are matters of pop culture: which Star Wars trilogy should he watch first? Who should be his first captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise? And whatever shall I do about video games?
It sounds silly to put pastimes on par with philosophical issues, but the reality is that all of this stuff is going to come up. Parents don't get to choose what their kids will be into but they certainly get a vote. I was raised in a Jewish household so Christmas has always felt foreign to me. My parents loved The Beatles so I've always been more interested in their music (and their peers) rather than Elvis. Can I really say that one of these culture-defining choices had more of an impact on me than the other?
Of course, there is no direct relationship between what my parents supported and what I adopted. They both strongly encouraged me to read more books, so much so that I eventually rebelled out of spite. They were fairly ambivalent concerning video games (never outright condemning them but not accepting them either) but I embraced them and continue to hold them in high regard.
So where does that leave me and Go? I haven't started playing music for him yet but I've been considering building him a playlist. Books are going to be important for his bilingual education; I wish there was a local library with any significant English collection but I don't believe there is. Movies will come later, I suppose, and we'll just have to see what's appropriate at that time. I can't wait to take him to a movie theater for the first time. It's just too bad there aren't any cinemas in Japan with gilded lobbies or curtains.
Video games are another story, for where do we begin? In my case, the seed was planted with the Atari and cultivated with the rise of arcades. Over the years, I played everything I could get my hands on and watched the medium evolve from abstract blocks and beeps to hand-drawn sprites to the advanced 3D models used today. Should I try to simulate that experience for Go with a (condensed) journey through gaming history? Or should he jump in at the present level and start his journey with Pokemon or whatever the kids are into nowadays?
The catch here is that the road of video games is largely a one-way street while other media is more timeless. I can read a fifty or even a hundred-year old book and I should be able to comprehend it and potentially enjoy it at face value. Likewise, when the time comes Go should have little trouble understanding Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark even though they were made thirty years before he was born. But if Go even looks at a modern video game, how can he then pick up Super Mario Brothers?
The good news is that Japan offers me a lot of options in this matter. Arcades still exist in great quantities and a number of them carry older games to appeal to older gamers. There's also a roaring retro-game market in this country (which I wrote about earlier this week) so I could pick up an actual Famicom and a few of the classics to give Go his first taste in style. Of course, all three consoles have their share of downloadable versions of old games, to say nothing of emulators on the PC.
So what do you think? Should Go get the history lesson approach to gaming or just ride the wave of high resolution 21st century awesomeness? If so, is it worth picking up the authentic hardware to deliver the complete experience? Am I underestimating children by assuming that they can't simply go back and play old games once they get a taste of HD graphics and stereo sound? Are video games as timeless as films, books, or music?
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)