Damon’s Blog


Tokyo Game Show 2016

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Tokyo Game Show, and except for a short stint during the recession in 2008-2010, the TGS has more than recovered, breaking records in size year after year. TGS 2016 saw a total of 614 exhibitors (compared to 480 last year), all showing a total of 1,523 different game titles (compared to 1,283 last year).

During our visit, we certainly noticed the difference in size. We remember back in 2006 when two of the giant halls at Makuhari Messe in Chiba occupied all the game exhibitions, while the third consisted of shops and a food court. Last year, all three halls were designated for the exhibitions, while a fourth hall opened for the shops, food court, and some indie game titles. This year however, all four halls were nothing but games, while the food court was moved to a fifth hall. This meant a lot more walking, but a lot more to see.

It was also apparent how much Virtual Reality (VR) is bulldozing its way into the market. Sony, of course, was demonstrating their PlayStation VR, due for release in October, with both titles they showed-off last year, as well as some new ones, such as Batman Arkham VR, The Idolmasters: Cinderella Girls Viewing Revolution, and Resident Evil 7.

tgs2016-2But it wasn’t only Sony featuring VR games, as there were over 110 VR titles at the game show, many of which were developed by indie companies. The most impressive was Circle of Saviors by PD Tokyo Inc., in which players wearing VR headgear and gloves battled in an arena with af laming sword and shield, against a horde of monsters – all in front of green-screen so the audience could see the digital action.

Also, Geisha Tokyo Entertainment had Puzzle of Empires, where players sat in an empty rubber bath while wearing the HTC Vive VR, and are suddenly transported to a Roman-style bath shared with a female anime character.

And the American Vuzix company was throwing their VR headset into the ring by demonstrating their iWear Video Headphones, which can run off of PCs, Blu-ray players, and even smartphones.

tgs2016-3What were we most excited about? The upcoming Gravity Rush 2 looks pretty sweet, continuing the adventures of Kat and her gravity-defying abilities on the PlayStation 4. And Square Enix announced a remaster of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age coming next year to the PlayStation 4. And the wacky D3 Publisher has a few new titles coming soon, including Earth Defense Forces 5 and School Girl Zombie Hunter.

Not to mention all the cool VR stuff, which we can’t wait to start playing at home!





Real Life Mario Kart!

I was wandering through the crowded sidewalk of Shibuya the other day, when I happened to hear – what sounded like – lawnmower engines rumbling down the street. Were times getting tough for the local motorcycle gang? I followed the sound, as did several other curious people around me, and was shocked to see the characters from Nintendo’s Mario Kart.

Yes, real-live Mario Kart!

Maricar1There were seven drivers in total, a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese, each driving an ordinary go-kart down the main street of Shibuya. And all of them were sporting Mario Kart costumes, ranging from Super Mario and Luigi, to Toad, Yoshi, Princess Peach, and several others.

The sight was so surreal, all I could do was stare and watch them drive by, while they waved and smiled, enjoying the attention and fun.

Apparently, as Japan pushes to increase its tourism, one of their recent gimmicks is having people dress up as Mario Kart characters and drive around in a tour, starting at Shinagawa, then heading passed the Tokyo Tower, through Roppongi, into Shibuya, and finally back to Shinagawa, all lasting two hours.

Anyone interested should visit the Public Road Go-Karting Tour office in Shinagawa near the station. Keep in mind, however, that since this is on a public road, drivers will need either a Japanese or International Driver’s License. The cost is 7,000 yen per person, which includes the 2-hour drive, costumes, a guide, and insurance.

While it might be too hot for the Yoshi costume, I have to admit that real-life Mario karting sounds like a fun and unique idea. Just need to get myself a driver’s license.




Are Video Games Getting Easier?

A while back, the Japan Times published an interesting which described the “new fatalism” among young people (teens and twenties) in Japan. Based on research from psychiatrist Toru Kumashiro, young Japanese believe that effort doesn’t reap rewards, so there’s no point in trying.

While I may not disagree with this, Kumashiro then used video games as a determinant to support this new fatalism attitude, saying that 1980’s games required skills, while now, “the biggest hits require the least effort.”

Could this be true? Do video games these days require far less skill and effort than those 8-bit games in the past?

I can remember back in the day spending an entire afternoon playing Ninja Gaiden 2 on the NES. I’d had the game in my collection for a year, and finally decided to get serious and beat the thing. The boss battles were ridiculous, and every time you died, it was back to the beginning. But then, just before my parents called me down for dinner, I finally defeated the final boss and managed to watch the ending and credits. Ninja Gaiden 2 was certainly the hardest game I’ve ever beaten.

boy-playing-video-gamesBut what made it hard? Was it a demand for high skills? Or the fact that each time I died, I had to start over again?

By around the 5th generation consoles, being able to save your progress was becoming common in video games. No longer did you start up a game and have to begin at the beginning. Now, just warp straight to Level 23 and continue where you left off. This certainly made things easier, though I wouldn’t say it diminishes skills – it just meant you weren’t a genius at the first couple levels because you were forced to play them over and over.

I remember playing Tomb Raider 2 on the PlayStation One. Yes, I now had the power to save my progress, which meant not needing to play through the game in one sitting, like Ninja Gaiden 2. But I could never beat Tomb Raider 2, because I got stuck on a level and had no idea what I was supposed to do. With all the skills and effort I put forth, I just couldn’t get passed that part. Remember, this was before the internet. So if you couldn’t figure it out on your own, you were pretty much screwed.

So yes, now there’s the internet. Get stuck on a level? Load up Youtube and see how someone else did it, then copy their method. The internet has certainly made gaming easier, but that doesn’t change the difficulty of the game. It’s still just as challenging as it used to be, only now we have a better understanding of how to beat it.

And with the internet, came online gaming. I’m sure anyone who’s played Battlefield or Street Fighter IV with other players online can tell you, that getting good in multiplayer requires far more honed skills than helping Mario rescue the princess in the castle.

So, have video games required less skill and effort than they did in the past? In my opinion, having been a gamer since the days of the Atari 26  and Coleco Vision, I would say no. Instead, they’ve evolved to a point where we can make them as easy or incredibly challenging as we’d like. Players have the option of going online to learn how to defeat a boss, or simply try it on their own. We can test our skills against other players online, or choose to just play through the solo campaign. We can choose to select Normal, Hard, or Crushing modes when we start up the game.

Perhaps young people in Japan may have a fatalism attitude, but I don’t think it’s fair to use video games as a determinant. I think games require just as much skill – if not more – than those in the past. It just depends on what, and how, you play.




Japanese-English: You Gotta’ Love It

It’s not uncommon for words to be borrowed from one language and used in another.  And Japanese even has a different writing system when using these foreign words, called katakana.  Sandoichi is from the English word sandwhich, rentogen is from the German word roentgen, meaning x-ray, and teeburu is table.

But sometimes these words are borrowed but used with a different meaning in mind.  This can cause confusion when a Japanese person speaking English attempts to use such words, thinking they are normal English words when the meaning is nowhere near the same.  This problem is quite common, and is known as “Japanese-English.”

Here are some examples:

Paprika – papurika (パプリカ), in Japanese, this means the bell peppers, rather than the spice powder.  So if a Japanese person says, “I’m cutting up paprika to put in my salad,” it doesn’t mean he’s using an extremely fine knife.

Claim – kureemu (クレーム) meaning “a complaint.”  So if a Japanese customer says to a waitress, “I have a claim,” he’s not referring to a payment demand from his insurance, but probably talking about the hair in his soup.

Follow – foroo (フォロー) in Japanese, means “to help.’  If a Japanese High School teacher tells you, “I’m always following my female students,” this may not necessarily means he’s a stalker.

Skin-head – sukinheddo (スキンヘッド), in Japanese, means someone who’s bald.  So if your Japanese friend says, “My father is a skin-head,” it doesn’t mean his father is a neo-nazi with swastikas tattooed on his chest, but simply that he lost his hair.

And, my personal favourite Japanese-English word:

Sand – sando (サンド).  This comes from the abbreviation of sandwhich, though it’s so commonly thought to be a perfectly normal English word, you’ll often see “Hot Sand for 300円” advertised on menus.  Now, why would I pay 300 yen for hot sand, when I can get it for free at the beach?




Cultural Differences in Entertainment

Back home, it can be generally argued that North Americans aren’t a big fan of foreign music or films – and by foreign, I mean in a foreign language.  When I used to work in a video store, I remember when the Italian film Life is Beautiful was released.  We had six copies for rental, three that were in the original Italian with English subtitles, and three that were dubbed in English.  The subtitled copies were never rented.  Why?  Because reading subtitles “is a pain in the butt,” according to one customer.  And if you took a look at our Foreign Language Films section, it wasn’t even a tenth the size of our porno collection.

japan-game-shopWhen it comes to music, I feel the same argument could be made.  How often in the Summer, while you’re driving down the street with the windows open, does another car pull up next to you with Chinese pop or French rock pumping from their stereos?  Probably between rarely to never.  One time, when visiting Toronto, I had a Hamasaki Ayumi CD playing in the car – and got some pretty strange looks from the other drivers at the stop lights.

But things are different when it comes to books or video games.  The novels may be translated into English, of course, but you can walk into any bookstore and find novels written by French, German, Russian, even Chinese writers.  Everyone is at least familiar with names like Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, and even Homer.  And video games are the same, with huge hits like Heavy Rain by French company Quantic Dream, or even Minecraft by Swedish company Mojang.  Not to mention Nintendo, with most of its games from Japanese third-party developers dominating the market in the eighties.

In Japan, I’ve noticed, this trend is the exact opposite.

International music is played on the radio just as often as J-pop.  Many Japanese may not understand the English or French lyrics, but they don’t care – so long as the song sounds good.  And Japanese films rarely make as much money as big Hollywood movies like The Avengers or The Matrix.  And when I ask my Japanese friends which they prefer, subtitled or dubbed, they always say dubbed.  “I want to hear the actor’s original voice,” they say.

japanese-book-storeBut foreign novels and video games are different.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions, such as the Harry Potter series which took Japan by storm several years ago.  But most Japanese I’ve met who are avid readers, said they’ve never once read a novel by a foreign writer.  “It’s difficult.  I can’t understand foreign culture,” one friend told me.  And while there’s many gamers here in Japan, most of them have never even heard of Minecraft, much less the Assassin’s Creed series or Call of Duty.  American Microsoft’s Xbox, meanwhile, only makes up 6% of the market, with large electronic shops stopping to sell their games because it’s not worth it.

I don’t have any answers for this, I’m simply making an observation.  If Japanese are fine with watching subtitled movies, what’s wrong with subtitled games?  Disney is huge here in Japan, but the Disney video games aren’t even sold in stores.  I’ve seen a large standee with a display advertising Assassin’s Creed III when it was released, but gamers walked right passed it and straight for the Ryu Ga Gotoku and Shin Sangokumusou titles.  And if novels written by international writers are difficult to understand because of the “foreign culture,” then why don’t Japanese have a problem when watching French or American films?

I’m certainly not criticizing the situation.  I’m just curious why things are they way they are, here in Japan.  I’ve asked several of my Japanese friends why foreign films and music are so popular here, but not games or novels, and they don’t seem to know the reason, either.  My only guess is that international games and novels haven’t been as strongly introduced here in Japan.  But it still remains a mystery to me.




Social Network Addiction Becoming A Problem In Japan

smartphone-addiction1It used to be video games which parents blamed for their children’s lack of study.  But these days, it seems kids are putting down their controllers and grabbing their smartphones to see – and respond to – what their friends recently posted.

In a recent government survey, two-thirds of students spend 2 hours a day online, while 11.4% spend a staggering 5 hours everyday.  When asked what they’re doing online, almost 90% stated they’re using a social messaging application – most commonly Line.

In the least-worst scenario, you might be walking through Tokyo, and suddenly collide into an aruki-sumaahon – a person who’s walking in a zombie-like state with their eyes glued to their smartphones.  In worst case scenarios, the news has been reporting injuries and even death related accidents involving aruki-sumaahon.

Meanwhile, students are reporting a lack of sleep – and study – by feeling the need to read and respond to their friends messages.  Social network apps like Line often state when a message has been read, which means not replying could result in shaming or bullying the next day at school.

So, what can Japan do about this growing problem?

There have been a few various ways to either curb the addiction, or at least reduce accidents.  When visiting crowded areas like Shibuya, you may notice a few signs near the station that warn people not to aruki-sumaahon while walking in the busy street.

In some town like Kariya (the sister-city to my hometown, Mississauga) several PTA groups have created a curfew of 9:00 PM, when students must stop using their smartphones.  Of course, it’s a difficult rule to enforce, but it allows the student an excuse as to why they didn’t reply to their friend’s message.

And the Japanese Ministry of Education has begun creating “Fasting Camps,” where students with serious addictions can spend two months playing socially with other children, without being connected to the internet.

smartphone-addiction2Such technological addictions have been around for awhile, now.  In my day, chatting for hours on the phone and watching too much TV was a problem for some (yes, I feel old).  Around the time of the NES/Famicom, video games were the next addiction.  Then about five years ago, it was online PC gaming.  But at least all those addictions were things you had to leave behind when going to school.  The problem with social network apps and smartphones, is that it’s a portable device.  A 24-hour accessible technological addiction.

There may not be an easy solution to stop or curve the addiction, though banning students from bringing their smartphones to school isn’t a bad start (and not uncommon in a few schools).  I also think cities like Kariya has a good idea with their curfews.  And parents should keep in mind that if their children see mama and papa constantly checking their smartphones, there’s a good chance the kids will pick up the habit.

In fact, I’d have to say that most of the time, when I bump into an annoying aruki-sumaahon at Yokohama Station, they’re not usually students – but adults who should know better.




sankanshionSankanshion (三寒四温) the Chinese characters meaning three-cold-four-warm, is a word used to describe the mini-season between Winter and Spring, meaning the weather constantly changes with three days of cold, then four days of warmth.  It may seem a bit early to be talking about Sankanshion, which normally occurs in late February or early March, but the weather lately has been odd, as though Mother Nature had one too many beers and is stumbling her way out of the Izakaya.

While the North and Western parts of Japan have been experiencing a horrible Winter, with snow storms knocking out train systems and cancelling school sessions, the Eastern side – so far – has been pretty lucky.  In fact, while last week – for three days – the temperature dropped to 3 or 4 degrees Celsius, forcing everyone to stay indoors and keep warm while huddled around their game consoles.  Then over the weekend, it jumped to 16, allowing people to open their windows and enjoy the weather while playing video games.

When I mention this to my Japanese friends, they laugh.  “No, no.  It’s too early for Sankanshion.”  But I’m looking at the weather forecast on my iPhone right now, and I’m seeing exactly three days of 3 degrees, and four days of 14 degrees.  Hmm…

Unfortunately, this constantly changing of temperature means lots of sick people.  Half of the staff where I work have called in sick at least once, and a high percentage of students are arriving wearing masks, either because they’ve caught a cold or are taking precautions.  So far, I’ve been pretty lucky.  Just keep popping those vitamin pills!

But what about the horrible snow storms in the North and East?  Will they eventually make their way to Tokyo and Yokohama?  Will we suddenly get blasted, as punishment for enjoying such a mild Winter, like what happened last year?  I certainly hope not.  I never did buy those winter boots.



A Hatsune Miku Concert

HatsuneMikuConcert01Back in September, the day after attending the Tokyo Game Show, our Korean correspondent Mr. Lee and I attended a Hatsune Miku concert at the Tokyo Taiikukan (Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium) in Sendagaya, central Tokyo.

In case you haven’t been keeping up with our blogs and podcasts, Hatsune Miku (known as Miku Hatsune in the West) is a “Vocaloid,” a three-dimensional character who sings using a synthesizer application by Yamaha’s Vocaloid 2 and Vocaloid 3 synthesizer, and has since grown in popularity to becoming a Japanese idol.

HatsuneMikuConcert02So how does a fictional character perform at a concert?

Not through cosplay.  Alongside a live band, four projectors on the stage create a holographic image, making it appear as though a real, three-dimensional character is dancing and singing.

There were two things that surprised me about the concert:

1)  The type of people.  I was expecting to see the same otaku you would run into at Akihabara or during the open day at the Tokyo Game Show; those older boys and younger men wearing glasses, a bandana, and carying back-packs.  Instead, it was a true mix of individuals.  Both men and women, young and old, families, group of friends.  As Mr. Lee stated, “they’re the same people you would see on the train.”

2)  The number of people.  I’d seen a video presentation of a 2012 Hatsune Miku concert, and it was in a small hall, holding around 80 or 90 people.  Here, there was just shy of a thousand people cramming into the huge gymnasium.

HatsuneMikuConcert03Part of the reason for the sudden burst of crowds attending the concert is due to her increase in popularity.  Another reason is that the number of tours in Japan have drastically decreased.  A few years ago, there would be a number of concerts happening each season.  This has been brought down to only two a year: one in Tokyo, and one in Osaka.  Meanwhile, Hatsune Miku has begun performing overseas, notably in Australia, Canada, Europe, and the U.S., and has even performed alongside Lady GaGa.

So how was the concert?  Personally, I had a blast!  A great song list and a fantastic presentation.  I’ve been to a few concerts in my day, and can say this was certainly the most lively and entertaining, with a vast crowd waving their glow sticks and having a great time.





Tokyo Game Show 2014

TokyoGameShow2014newaVisiting the Tokyo Game Show at Makuhari Messe is always fun and exciting, but exhausting.  After a two hour train ride from my home to Chiba, then countless hours of walking, snapping photos, getting video shots, talking with developers, and gathering catalogues and freebies, I return home feeling as though I’d gone to war.  Do I ever regret it?  Never.

The Tokyo Game Show 2014 was open to the press and members of the industry on September 18th and 19th, with an Open Day for the public on the 20th and 21st.  And this year broke several records in the 24 years the Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association (CESA) has been hosting the event.

Their theme this year was “Changing Games: The Transformation of Fun,” as the business environment of the industry has been rapidly changing due to the continuous innovative form of games and how we play them, both domestically and internationally.

TokyoGameShow2014newbThis year, there were 421 companies and organizations (last year: 352) from 32 different countries and regions.  This resulted in a total of 1,363 game titles being exhibited (last year: 962).  Almost half of these were overseas titles, and so the CESA catered to a more international brand.  Even the official Guide Book now contains five languages: Japanese, English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean, as opposed to only Japanese in the past.

The layout was also changed around.  Makuhari Messe is comprised of three giant halls, and in the past, one would be dedicated to big companies like Capcom, Konami and Sony, the second was indie games and shops, while the third was either a kids play area or food court.  This year, the food court and kids play area were gone, making room for all the new exhibitors.  And each hall was nicely mixed together, with indie companies demonstrating their titles side-by-side with the larger corporations.  In keeping with the theme of Changing Games, perhaps CESA is demonstrating that all these companies, from the small to the large, from domestic to international, can work and play together in harmony.

TokyoGameShow2014newcWhat were the highlights that got my attention?  Having the chance to try out the Rift, Oculus‘ VR glasses in a flight combat simulator – an experience I’ll never forget.  Also, having a chance to play the new OneeChanbara Z2 by sticking my head through an animated breast to view the screen (gotta love the wacky D3 Publisher!)  And seeing so many various titles from countries I wasn’t even aware made video games, such as Cambodia and Myanmar.

Stay tuned for more photos, and a video presentation of the event!




TGS 2014 To Be Biggest Ever!

Tokyo-game-show-2014The Tokyo Game Show 2014 is just a week away, and the Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association (CESA) promises this year to be the biggest one, yet.

This year’s theme is “Changing Games: The Transformation of Fun.” So far, 224 companies and organizations have registered to be present at the TGS 2014, which is a 20% boost from last year’s 181 exhibitors. Also, a much larger precentage of these participants are from overseas, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, in addition to South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, France, Canada, and the United States.

And the number of participating companies is still growing. Thanks to Sony Computer Entertainment‘s sponsor for the “Indie Game Area,” in which SCE is covering 100% of the cost, CESA has received a total of 310 more applications, 161 of them from overseas, seeking to join the TGS 2014.

Also, the exhibition area for the “Smartphone Game/Social Game Area,” “Game Device Area,” and the “Romance Simulation Game Area” will be expanded this year.

Over the last few years, mostly due to the global recession, the number of participants in the TGS had been shrinking, despite the constant increase of visitors. This year, however, it seems they’re coming back in full blast, and ready to break records with an emphasis on the Indie and SmartPhone gaming market.

Business days for the Tokyo Game Show 2014 will be held on September 18 & 19, and will be open for the public on September 20 & 21. As usual, it will be held in Makuhari Messe in Chiba, Japan.

Stay tuned for our review and video presentation of this coming event!



Cafes Give A Hoot!

A large percentage of Japanese live in apartments. And a large percentage of those apartments don’t allow pets. So the fact that a large number of people out there would love to have a cat or dog around but can’t, has opened the doors to several businesses. Most notably, Pet Cafes.

owl-cafeThese Pet Cafes have been around for awhile now, mostly in the Tokyo area. Customers can sit down, buy a coffee, and play with the cats roaming about. Sound like fun? Well, if you’re a cat lover but can’t have pets in your building, it’s certainly a treat. Just be careful not to get any cat hair in the froth of your cappuccino. Almost 90% of the customers at these Pet Cafes are women, usually in their 20s and 30s. Guess the dudes aren’t into petting cats while sipping coffee.

Shortly after the success of several Pet Cafes, new animals were added to the menu…uh, list. The Usagi Cafe Ohisama (Rabbit Cafe Sun) in the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo offers – yup, you guessed it – rabbits, to be petted and played with during your coffee break.

owl-cakeBut quite recently, more exotic animals have been entering the Pet Cafe business.  At the Tori no Iru Cafe (Cafe with Birds) about 20 birds chirp and squawk while you enjoy your favorite espresso – and most of them are hooting.  Yes, many of these birds are owls, ranging from the Rufous-legged species from South America, to the Indian eagle-owls.  Under the supervision of the staff, customers are allowed to touch and pet these nocturnal birds.  Drink prices are around 500円 ($5), or you can order one of their fancy owl-shaped desserts for 700円 ($7).

Think it’s a bit strange for having a coffee shop filled with owls?  Well, guess again.  Currently there are over 10 cafes in the Tokyo area that feature owls, which have popped up in just the last few years.  And like Starbucks, we can expect more to appear in the future.



Japan and Vaginas

Walk into any convenience store in Japan and take a quick scan of the adult manga on the shelves – you’ll probably notice an arguable obsession with women’s breasts. Particularly, very large ones.

Then There’s the Kanamura Matsuri, often dubbed the “Penis Festival,” held every Spring in Kawasaki where enormous phallic symbols decorate the front of the shrine.

But what about vaginas? Don’t they get any recognition? Apparently, the answer to that is a “no sankyu!”

Yet Megumi Igarashi wishes to change all that.  According to her, vaginas are “part of the body…no different from arms and legs.”

Often going by the pseudonym Rokudenashiko (good-for-nothing girl) Igarashi is an artist whose work features primarily on the female genitalia.  Why?  To demystify vaginas in Japan, which she considered to be “overly hidden.”

JAPAN-ARREST-ARTIST-SEXIgarashi was relatively unknown outside the art circle in Japan, until a couple weeks ago when she was arrested for violation of Japanese obscenity laws.  Recently, as the newspapers have been keeping up with the latest bits of news surrounding her arrest, she’s become somewhat of a household name – as well as a symbol against the chauvinistic society of Japan, a defence against taboos, and anything else journalists could come up with that fit the profile.

Her latest artwork was to create a kayak shaped and molded after her own vagina.  In order to finance her project, she raised money (which reached 1 million yen) through generous donations.  In return for the investement, she gave out data which could be used to reproduce her genitals with a 3D printer.  The police didn’t seem to have a problem with the kayak (which tend to look like vaginas, anyway) but were bothered by the 3D data of her genitals.  She was taken into custody in mid July.

On top of the 17,000 signatures logged by fans and supporters in protest, newspapers also criticized the ridiculousness of the arrest.  While the battle with authorities is still ongoing, she was released a few days later.

“I believe this arrest was completely unjust and unreasonable,” she said to the press.

Is there a moral to this story?  Well, there’s about a dozen out there, depending on which newspaper you read.  But regardless if you feel this “scandal” has been sensationalized or not by the media, it does make you wonder: why is it so wrong to send data of female genitalia to the few people who can afford a 3D printer, but it’s completely okay to have your picture taken with your arm around a gigantic penis in Kawasaki?



The Ultimate History of Video Games

the-ultimate-history-of-video-gamesIt may not be as epic as ancient Greece, but the history of video games is still pretty ultimate.  At least, that’s how Steven L. Kent portrays it in his 2001 book, The Ultimate History of Video Games.  Nearly 600 pages long, and filled with some black and white photos in the middle, his book covers not only the birth of gaming, from coin-operated pinball machines and Steve Russell’s Spacewar, but most things in-between, towards the release of Microsoft’s X-box and Sony’s Playstation 2.

This isn’t the first book I’ve read related to the history of video games, but it was the most general, attempting to cover the entire spectrum.  As I’m sure it’s the same for most gamers, I started reading while already knowing most of the basics, such as how a game called Tennis For Two operated on an oscilloscope eventually lead to both the arcade and home console versions of Pong.  How a saturated market filled with poor quality games lead to the Video Game Crash in 1983, and that Nintendo saved gaming with their Famicom.  Yet there were a lot of interesting tid-bits which I did not know.

For example, did you know that a very young Steve Jobs started out working for Atari?  And that, along with his pal Steve Wozniak, they created the game Breakout?  Or that Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, was also the mastermind behind the Chuck E. Cheeze franchise?  Or that Sega was started by an American who introduced photo booths in Japan?  Or why Nintendo sued every software company that created unlicensed Nintendo games, except for Wisdom Tree?

Steven L. Kent writes in a refreshing casual style with added humour, making his book feel more like a narrative and less like a textbook, filling it with quotes from various fathers in the gaming business on their memory of certain events.  Reading Kent’s book will definitely give you – while not whole – a pretty good idea of how video games started and where they went.

My only complaint, is that The Ultimate History of Video Games focuses 90% on the American market.  Granted, that’s where the history began.  But Japan pretty much ran with industry in the late ’80’s, yet we never learn how exactly this all started.  When Kent talks of the history of Nintendo, he begins with how it entered the U.S. market.  But who founded Nintendo?  How did the Game & Watch series come about?  The only Japanese company Kent explores is Sega, which happened to be started by an American, David Rosen.  I also would have liked to learn whether the Video Game Crash was world-wide, or only in the U.S.  Unfortunately, Europe, Canada, and the rest of the world is never mentioned, so we’ll never know unless we look it up ourselves (I’ve learned, from another source, that home consoles weren’t popular in Japan until the release of Nintendo’s Famicom, so no Video Game Crash).

But aside from the focus on the American market, Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games is a fun and interesting read, and recommended to any gamer who wants to know how it all began.




No More Whaling For Japan

It wasn’t the Sea Shepherd’s direct action tactics that put a stump on Japan’s annual whale hunts, but a decision made by the International Court of Justice on Monday, after the case was lodged by Australia.

whale-huntingBack in 1986, Japan had signed an agreement to end the hunting of whales.  However, citing a 1946 treaty that permits killing the giant mammals for scientific purposes, Japan found a loophole to continue hunting minke whales in the Southern Ocean, as well as fin and humpback.  Every year, the Japanese whaling mothership Nisshin Maru and the Activists onboard the Sea Shepherd battle it out over the water.

But on March 31st, the ICJ concluded that the amount of research and the scientific goals behind Japan’s whaling was weak at best, and did not match the number of whales hunted.  And while Activists across international waters are spraying champagne over one another, many Japanese feel their culture is being forced to adhere to the standards of others.

“The Antarctic is an open seat that everyone is entitled to its rich resources,” said Masayuki Komatsu, a former Fisheries Agency official.  “There is no need to concede to nationalistic confrontation.”

“It doesn’t sound right to me,” said Jun Uchimi, who was engaged in the ‘research whaling’ for over 10 years.  “That difference of culture and law in each country are not recognized.”

“I am used to the taste of whale meat,” said one Japanese customer at a restaurant.  “Foreigners eat tuna, which has been also endangered in recent years.”

Japan believes that most whale species are recently no longer in danger of extinction, and is a part of Japanese culture and delicacy, since introduced after World War II as an important protein source when the country was impoverished.  However, despite the disgruntled feelings, Japan will agree with ICJ’s conclusion.  “It is extremely regrettable and disappointing, but Japan will abide by the ruling,” said Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan.

What’s ironic, however, is that over all the nautical battles between the Nisshin Maru and Sea Shepherd, the ICJ hearings, and bad feelings, whale meat is rarely eaten in Japan.  Most people I’ve spoken to have never tried it.  And according to Fisheries Agency statistics, the amount of whale meat stockpiled at ports around the country totaled 4,600 tons in 2012, from 2,500 tons in 2002.  In other words, most of this meat isn’t even being eaten, and compared to 50 years ago, is only served at specialty restaurants at high prices.

whale-meatThe bad feelings, this writer believes, doesn’t stem from Japan’s strong desire to eat whale meat, but being told what Japanese can and can’t eat by other nations.  Those who I’ve spoken, while never have eaten whale meat, still have strong opinions about the matter.  People in India and Kenya aren’t thrilled by the massive amounts of beef consumed in America and Australia, but it’s allowed.  Americans aren’t happy that Koreans eat dog meat, but it’s allowed.  So why can’t Japanese have their whale meat?

If the question still relates to whether or not whales are in fact still an endangered species, than perhaps Japan really should start conducting their hunts for scientific purposes.




Japanese Military and Culture Join Forces

girls-und-panzer1America used video games, so Japan is using anime.

Ever since the LDP resumed power in 2012, putting right-winged Sinzo Abe in the helm, the Japanese government has been moving away from its pacifist state since WWII and moving into a more militaristic one.  Abe-san’s main agenda, aside from revitalizing the economy and restarting nuclear power plants, is revising Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which would allow Japan to aid its allies in militaristic operations, as well as increase the size of the Self Defence Force.  Reasons for this range (in opinion) from the threat from North Korean missles, to escalating tensions with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, to a less dependancy on the American military, to a “return to normality” for the country.  This, of course, is a controversial subject not only for Japan’s Asian neighbours, but for many Japanese as well.

So the question is, how to get the public to view a growing military more favourable?

girls-und-panzer2Lasty year, Bandai ran an anime series titled Gaaruzu ando Pantsaa (Girls und Panzer) about school girls fighting tank battles for sports warfare competitions.  The anime was such a hit, that a manga series has also been launched.  A 2014 film is in the works, as well as a planned video game for the Playstation Vita.  According to Bandai, the purpose of the franchise wasn’t to promote the military, but simply a commercial venture for the company.

However, the Japanese SDF took note.  Not only has Girls und Panzer reinforced their public relations, but they’ve begun using copycat characters in their recruitment posters.

recruitment-posterrecruitment-posterrecruitment-poster-sdfLast year in August, the Ground Self Defence Force held their annual live-fire exorcise, and saw a record of 110,000 people apply for the viewing, many of whom were fans of the anime.  And according to recruitment data obtained by Reuters, only 1 in 10 candidates said they wanted to be a soldier for love of country, a decade ago.  Recently, that number has jumped to 1 in 3.

If the future of the Japanese military is to consist of nerdy otaku operating tanks and running around with bazookas, perhaps bullies at school will think twice of picking on them.




The Playstation 4

It took three months of waiting.  After failed attempts of arranging to ship Sony’s eighth generation console overseas, I eventually gave up and decided to be patient.  All the while, sulking as I pondered over the fact that this machine was designed and built here in Japan, yet we were the last country to see its release – by a whopping three months.

playstation-4-boxFinally, the days crawled to February 22nd, and the Playstation 4 was on the shelves, awaiting only those who had reservations.  It felt like Christmas had come again, and it was all I could think about during long hours at work.  After turning down several drinking and restaurant invites, I dashed towards the Bic Camera electronics shop and picked up my new gaming console – along with a copy of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

So, rather than talk about the specs and technical stuff about the machine, I thought I’d give my general impression of the Playstation 4.

Playstation-4For starters, I like the design of the machine itself, with its rectangular design slanted away from you, the thin power and eject buttons conforming with the vertical grooves, while the disk and two USB slots are hidden under the horizontal ones.  It “looks” like the next generation gaming console.  It’s also quite small, not much bigger than the original PS2, and appears tiny sitting next to the Moby Dick sized Xbox 360 on my shelf.  Sony is obviously learning from their mistakes, and rather than adding a million bells and whistles like they had with the first PS3, they kept things simple.  Everything you need is on the screen.

And speaking of mistakes, one thing Sony always regretted about the PS3 was not including cross-chat.  If I wanted to talk with a friend while playing a game, it would have to be a game that allowed me to do so.  The moment we exited the lobby, we were disconnected.  My friends and I got around this, by chatting on the Xbox while playing games on the PS3.  I don’t think this is what Sony intended.  But party chat is now conveniently available on the PS4.

The other major feature they’ve added were the voice commands and face recognition.  Those of you who haven’t played with Microsoft’s Kinect, will think it’s pretty cool.  “Playstation, go to main screen.”  “Playstation, resume game.”  Nice.  But for those of you who own a Kinect, will feel the PS4 commands are simple and few.  Something I’m sure will be upgraded in the future.

playstation-4-screen1Sony kept the main menu interface somewhat similar to the Playstation 3’s.  why change a good thing?  It’s simple, and not cluttered with advertisements.  You’ve got two vertical rows of applications which you can switch between just by hitting up or down.  The top has all your basic stuff, such as messages, friends list, and trophies.  The second has your games, videos, and music.  It’s nothing complicated, and if you’re already used to the menu screen on the PSP or PS3, you’ll quickly figure out where everything is.

A new feature they’ve added is the What’s New in Activities.  This is something like the News section on Facebook, combining all the activities of your friends, from unlocked trophies, to having played a new game, to finding a pair of magical boots in Dungeon Hunter: Alliance.  At the moment, all you can do is “like” an activity.  Again, I’m sure in the future we’ll be able to post comments or some other interactive ability.

playstation-4-screen2Last, we’ve got connectability with the Playstation Vita.  Once set up, connecting is literally as easy as touching the App on your Vita.  As long as your Playstation 4 isn’t turned off, and you’re in range of Wi-Fi, within seconds the PS4 is now in the palm of your hands.  Any games on your PS4 can now be played remotely, with progress saved to a cloud.  I’ve tried this with Assassin’s Creed IV, and with the disk in the system, the Playstation 4 read the information and streamed it across the internet to my Vita at the speed of light.  So far, no hitches or glitches.  It’s a handy way to continue your gaming while off to work or on hollidays.

My overall impression is that the Playstatioin 4 is very cool, but still in the simplistic stage.  I can’t yet stream it to my PC, nor play music or videos from a portable HD.  But so far, Sony has a good thing going with this new machine, and I look forward to seeing what else it can do as the patches and upgrades become available.



Let It Snow!

February 4th was marked as Rissyun, or the First Day of Spring here in Japan.  Whoever decided this, should take a look out the window.

snow1On the following Saturday, we had one of the biggest snowstorms in decades.  In the fifteen years I’ve been living in Yokohama, I can honestly say it was the worst I’ve ever seen.  Torrent winds brought down anywhere between 20 to 70 centimeters of snow, depending on where you lived.  Buses stopped, shops were closed, trains were delayed, power was lost, and housewives took dangerous treks to reach the Spring sales in Shibuya.

And after being clobbered by that blizzard, there came a sequel the following weekend, this time with ice frozen on the roads.  Tokyu-crashIn some areas (such as around my home) even the taxis weren’t running.  The JR line stopped twice, once in the morning due to ice, and later in the evening when a tree crashed onto the tracks.  Meanwhile, the Tokyu Toyoko Line which links Tokyo and Yokohama experienced a crash due to the emergency breaks being frozen.  Luckily, the train wasn’t particularly crowded, sending only a few people to the hospital.  But the lines wouldn’t be running again for a few days, leaving the nearby residents stranded.

On both snowy weekends, the supermarkets and convenience stores in most rural areas (again, near my home) were all out of stock due to problems getting the deliveries through.  Looking for a light lunch?  How about a bag of Doritos and two Snickers bars.

supermarketThe Tome Highway was blocked for a full 24 hours.  People were forced to abandon their cars on the highway and walk to the nearest service station, where they could find a restaurant or gas station to spend the night.  With the freeway cluttered with empty cars, it looked like something out of I Am Legend, or the Fallout 3 video game.

Being from Canada, I can say that while the double snowstorms were pretty bad, they weren’t comparable to some of the blizzards I’ve experienced back home.  The big difference, however, is that cities like Mississauga and Toronto often experience this kind of weather, and so are better prepared with snowpolows combing the roads and sidewalks, while sprinkling salt to melt the ice.  And most perishables at the local supermarkets are stuffed with preservatives, allowing deliveries to be made weekly.

But here in Japan, reminiscent of the March 11 earthquake a few years back, it felt like the end of the world was upon us.  The cities are severely lacking in snowplows, since they’re rarely needed.  Supermarkets and convenience stores are dependent on being restocked with perishables three times a day.  And the narrow tracks on the JR train systems aren’t built for super high winds and icy rails.  When the snow hits, everything just stops.

snow2I, too, am guilty of the same lake of preparedness.  Back in Canada, I had hats, scarfs, earmuffs, thick winter coats, boots, and even a pair of snowpants in the closet.  Here in Japan, I’ve got office shoes and a trenchcoat.  Not only was I late for work two to three hours on each of those snowy weekends, but I arrived at the office with wet, ice-cold shoes and socks – and I wasn’t the only one.

Hopefully, we won’t see a snowstorm like that in Yokohama and Tokyo again, for a long time.  But with this unpredictable weather from global warming, you never know.  Maybe I should get myself a pair of winter boots.






Test Your Love With A High-Tech Bra


Ravijour, a lingerie company in Tokyo, has developed the ultimate bra that knows if the female wearer is ready to allow her bo to reach second base or not.

Introducing The True Love Tester, a glittery bra that is clasped shut, and only love can set it free.

Connected to a smartphone, the brassier records the woman’s body heat and speed of her heartbeat, while the App analyzes the data and determines if she’s truly ready for that next step with her boyfriend.  If the App on the smartphone decides the woman is truly, passionately in love, then the clasp automatically unhinges and the bra comes off.  This allows for the couple to…well, you can imagine the rest.

true-love-tester-2But before you start running to the store with credit cards in hand, The True Love Tester is not actually for sale.  Though a real working love-detecting bra, it was created as a gimmick as part of a publicity campaign.

Still, if Ravijour were to get enough requests, it could be a fun way to add more rabu-rabu to the relationship.




Is ANA Racist?

A few days ago, All Nippon Airways posted a TV commercial which offended so ana-advert1many people – mostly non-Japanese living in Japan – that it was immediately pulled, followed by an apology from an ANA spokeswoman, “We apologized to each of the customers for having caused uncomfortable feelings.”

The advertisement was to promote their increase in international flights at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, by implying ANA is becoming more open and international.

In the commercial, actor Hidetoshi Nishijima and comedian Hidetomo Masuno, are wearing ANA pilot uniforms and discuss in (very poor) English how they might change ANA’s image to a more international one.  “Let’s change the image of Japanese people,” says Masuno.  “Sure,” says Nishijima, who then turns his head and is wearing a blond wig and extremely long rubber nose.  He then proposes they hug.

After first airing, the commercial immediately created quite a stir online, particularly ANA’s Facebook and Twitter.  meanwhile, the spokeswoman at ANA stated they are planning to modify the commercial before re-releasing it.

ana-advertWhile it’s the first time I’ve seen such a racist stereotype in a commercial, it’s certainly not the first time on TV.  I remember several years ago, while flipping through the channels, seeing a skit on a variety show in which a Japanese comedian was impersonating a “foreigner” who had come to Japan on a homestay.  He, too, was wearing a blond wig and long rubber nose.

What’s funny, is most people I spoke to in Japan about the advertisement don’t understand what’s offense about the commercial.  “Why are foreigners upset?  Because the nose is to long?” one person said to me.

While labelling seems to be the cause of stereotyping in the West, labelling appears to be simply a part of Japanese culture.  Perhaps it makes things easier by categorizing people under particular labels, which help them better understand or at least imagine their lifestyle and looks.  There’s the “oba-chan” (old lady, often fighting for a seat on the train) the “otaku” (anime geeks who are socially inept) the “salaryman” (young male employee, often seen eating alone at a noodle bar, and has no hobbies except work)  the “densha otaku,” the “reki-jo,” and many, many others.  This, of course, crosses over to people from different countries.  Most notably, (and I blame the media for this) that North Americans are “white, with blond hair and blue eyes.”

I once worked with an English instructor who had a hard time convincing students he was Canadian, due to his Korean background.  Student: “Where are you from?”  Teacher: “I’m from Toronto, in Canada.”  Student: “You don’t look Canadian.”  Teacher: “Really?  What do Canadians look like?”  Student: “Like Damon,” he answered, pointing towards my classroom.  True story.  Though for the record, I don’t have blond hair.

Yes, the ANA commercial was done in poor taste.  But rather than purposely causing any offense, I think they simply didn’t know any better.  From their point of view, it was just a gag of having a Japanese person transform into – the Japanese image – of a Westerner, with blond hair and an exaggerated long nose.  I’m sure there were far more offensive commercials in the US and Canada back in the 1960’s.

Will labeling ever go away in Japan?  I seriously doubt it.  But with the internet around, I’m sure at least racial labelling might begin to fade as the media becomes more sensitive to what might offend people outside of Japan.

Though I do find it ironic, however, that the theme of the ANA commercial was to illustrate how open and international the airline was becoming, while instead it conveyed an image of ignorance.




My Biggest Video Game Disappointments

After posting a list of my Top Ten seventh generation titles, I thought it might be fun to list my Top Five Biggest Video Game Disappointments as well.  Now, I’m not necessarily saying these are bad titles (although some of them clearly are) but simply games for either the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 which I had high expectations for that couldn’t be met.  Lost: Via Domus, for example, was a pretty dull game, but I picked up the controller knowing the game wouldn’t be a work of art.  So, without further adieu, here are my Top Five biggest disappointments on the seventh generation consoles:

5.  Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
dis1-msgThis game had a lot of hype here in Japan when it was released in 2008, and despite having not played any previous MSG titles, I bought it simply because everyone else did.  After all, the game scored a perfect 40/40 by Famitsu, and it was selling like hot cakes at every electronic store.  So I figured, why not?

But I just found it boring, and couldn’t get into it.  Spending a game crawling around on my belly at a snail’s pace just wasn’t my idea of fun, and after a few hours, I stopped playing.

Now, to be fair, I’ve been told by friends that I need to have played the previous titles in order to fully appreciate the story of Metal Gear Solid 4.  Despite seeing this as a flaw, I do intend to return to this game sometime in the future.  But at the time, I was just disappointed.

5.  Dead or Alive Xtreme 2
dis2-doaI’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting the next God of War with this title by Team Ninja.  But back in 2006, I thought it would be a fun game with…ahem…nice graphics, that I could use to entertain my guests at game parties.

However, not only was the game single-player, but the collection of mini-games were boring.  The volleyball game was watered down, the jet-skiing got old quickly, and the rest involved hitting certain buttons at a certain time.  If you failed, then you had to go through a long loading process before you could try again.  Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 isn’t a game I’d recommend.

3.  Army of Two
This one’s a special case.  A friend of mine and I had so much fun playing Gears of War online together, that we decided to look for a similar title with the same co-op features.  Then, in 2008, EA Montreal released Army of Two.  We both pre-ordered it, started it up, and tried to connect.  We couldn’t.  After about an hour of trying, we gave up.

What was the problem?  I had an American copy of the game, and my friend had the Hong Kong version.  And EA had decided to region-lock the multiplayer.  Only Americans could play with Americans, and only New Zealanders could play with New Zealanders.  Such a strange move by EA was the first ever done in the gaming industry, and I fail to see the point.  Both my friend and I were so angry, that neither one of us ever played the game.

2.  Final Fantasy XIII
Whenever a new Final Fantasy title is released in Japan, everyone here knows about it.  Everywhere in the city are posters, figures on drink bottles, and jumbo trons in Shibuya displaying the trailer.  And Final Fantasy XIII was no different – with graphics that appeared the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in a video game.  I fell under the spell of the hype, and on Christmas morning of 2009, popped the disk into the PS3 with hands shaking with excitement.

It took about three hours until I realized I was bored.  The characters just weren’t interesting, the story didn’t seem to make much sense, and the battle system was simplified that a monkey could play the game.  I did eventually finish it, and while Final Fantasy XIII certainly wasn’t the worst game I’ve ever played, it was a huge disappointment.

1.  Shadowrun
dis3-shadowrunThe expectations for this game were so high, that several colleagues at work and myself pre-ordered the game.  How could it possibly go wrong?  Shadowrun was originally a book-and-dice role-playing game, with a sci-fi scenario inspired by the William Gibson novels involving computer hacking and cybernetics, blended with the high fantasy of elves, dwarves, and magic.  There is a wealth of source books and ideas out there, and all a programmer needed to do was read through them, and make a fantastic game.  That happened in 1993 when Beam Software created a fantastic RPG on the Super Nintendo, then again in 1994 with BlueSky Software‘s version of Shadowrun on the Sega Genesis.

But Shadowrun on the Xbox 360?  Wow, I couldn’t wait!  This was gonna be awesome!

The game was so bad, that the name “Shadowrun” became a new curse word around the office.  “Aw, shadowrun!  I spilled coffee on my shirt.”  “What’s all this shadowrun doing on the floor?”  “Hold on, I gotta take a huge shadowrun.”

dis4-shadowrunInstead of an RPG with magic and computer hacking, we got an online first-person shooter.  And even FPS fans would be disappointed, because all you did was “collect the relic.”  I only managed to get online once, since no one was playing this piece of shadowrun.  It was the first Xbox 360 title in which console and PC players could join together, in order for Microsoft to promote – ironically – their Windows Vista.

A few months ago while vacationing in Hawaii, I found a copy of Shadowrun in a discount bin at a game shop, for $0.99.  I’m not joking.  The Atari 2600 had Pac-Man and E.T., and the Xbox 360 has Shadowrun.



Happy Birthday, Sega Dreamcast!

It was the summer of 2001.  I’d been living in Japan for over a year, still in a company apartment in Fujisawa, just south of Yokohama.  Unlike my current residence, where the homes are older than Pong, Fujisawa was like a bright little city, with a convenient array of malls, comic book stores, and computer and game shops all crowding around the station.  It was a sunny day-off, and after taking the short-cut which ran through a Yakuza territory, I strolled into one of the many used game shops.  There, I saw the Sega Dreamcast.  And I wondered…what’s a Sega Dreamcast?

Was I living under a rock?  No, under a Playstation 2.

Sega-Dreamcast-ConsoleIt was exactly 15 years from today (technically yesterday, since I’m on Tokyo Time) that Sega released their Dreamcast, the sixth generation console that would rival Sony’s Playstation 2, Nintendo’s GameCube, and Microsoft’s Xbox, and bring Sega back into the ring after being knocked-out by the Sega Saturn.

The Dreamcast, looking back, has been described as a console “ahead of its time.”  It included a VGA adapter which allowed games to be played on a high-def TV in 480p, a VMU accessory which was a memory card that had a small screen you could plug into the controller, and a built-in modem with high-speed broadband capability.  The Dreamcast was released in Japan on November 27th 1998, and sold quite well for almost a year.  Then sales spontaneously plummeted.

What happened?

Sony announced the release of their Playstation 2, set to launch on March 4th 2000.

While the Dreamcast wasn’t doing too badly overseas, the Playstation 2 killed any future for Sega’s console, eventually forcing the company to discontinue the game machine in 2001, only three years after its initial launch, and one year after the release of the PS2.

To compare sales, Sega sold 2.3 million units in Japan, while Sony sold 21.5 million units of their Playstation 2.  Wow.

I remember strolling into large electronic shops like Yodobashi and Bic Camera, and finding nearly 70% of the games section dedicated to the Playstation 2, while the remaining 30% was merely “other,” which included some GameCube and N64 titles, Gameboy Advanced stuff, and maybe even an Xbox title or two.  Somewhere buried in there, was the Sega Dreamcast.

These days however, Sega consoles have developed somewhat of a cult following in Japan, mainly for their release of “adult” games that would never be seen on any Nintendo or Sony system.  Walk into a used game shop, and usually you’ll find the Dreamcast games quite expensive in comparison to GameCube or PS2 titles, as collectors are driving the prices up.

Meanwhile, after rumours of Sega working on a Dreamcast 2, the company eventually gave up on creating gaming consoles all together, and instead turned to what they do best – making pachinko machines.

Rest in peace, Dreamcast.

Oh, and Happy Birthday!



Consider Before Activating Your PS4

playstation-4In less than 12 hours of writing this blog (Tokyo Time) Sony’s new Playstation 4 hits the shelves in North America.  Just fourteen days later, it’ll arrive in Europe and Australia.  And by December, everyone in the world will have access to the Playstation 4 – everywhere except Japan, where it was initially designed, which has to wait until February (no, I’m not bitter).

But for those of you currently waiting for midnight to get your hands on this new eighth generation console, here’s a few things to ponder over while you stand in line at your local electronics shop.

The default hard drive that comes with the PS4 is 500 GB.  While it’s much larger than the 40/60 GB HD with the original PS3, considering we’re moving away from discs and memory cards, many of you may feel 500 GB isn’t enough for purchasing and downloading all your games from the PSN Store.  In which case, you may want to consider getting yourself a larger hard disk.

If this is something you’re interested in, GameStop has a simple, step-by-step video on how to replace the 500 GB hard drive in your PS4.  Note: A screwdriver is required.

Also, as advertised, the Playstation 4 is heavily integrated into the whole social network thing.  How much of your personal information do you wish to share?  Setting up your PS4 online is somewhat similar to the process of getting onboard with Facebook.  do you use your avatar for a photo, or your Facebook image?  Who can see your activities?  Friends?  Friends of friends?  Anyone?  And what activities do you wish to allow friends/strangers to know you’re doing?  Are you comfortable with everyone knowing when you watch reruns of The Golden Girls or listen to your New Kids On The Block CDs?  If not, you may wish to un-click some boxes.

There’s a fair bit to read through give/refrain your permission.  The process might go a bit faster if you’ve already given it some thought.  But make sure you read everything carefully before giving your permission.  The last thing you want is some jerk you played a first-person shooter with online, suddenly calling your house or showing up at your door, because they can see your phone number and address.




Japanese “Visual Novels”

In various podcast episodes, you may have heard Zack and I talk about “Visual Novels” as a popular game style in Japan.  But what exactly are these Visual Novels?

Well, if you’re as old as me, you may recall reading in elementary school those Choose Your Own Adventure novels published by Bantam Books, where you read through half a page, then it says, “If you choose to go through the door, turn to page 27.  If you decide to stand out in the rain, turn to page 34.”  Then flip through the book to the desired choice and continue reading, striving for the good ending while attempting to avoid the bad one.

In a nutshell, Japanese Visual Novels are like Choose Your Own Adventure stories, only on a PC or game console, with a more complex story and supported with pictures.

So, that’s it?  People buy games and simply “read” a story?  Can’t be very popular.

Well, yes they are.  In fact, roughly 70% of titles released for the PC in Japan are Visual Novels.  And back in 2006, when Famitsu magazine took a reader poll for the 100 best games of all time, #5 was a game called Machi – a Visual Novel.

umineko - screenshotWhile the lines are somewhat blurred, bijuaru noberu (visual novel) can be divided into basic classes.  There’s the soundo noberu (sound novel) which traditionally included only music and sound effects, but lacking voice actors for the dialogue.  A popular example is Umineko no Naku Koro ni (when the seagulls cry) released in 2007 by 07th Expansion.  The story was a murder mystery which supernatural elements, with a linear storyline that lacked any choices to be made.  But when it was ported onto the PS3 and PSP in 2010, voice actors were introduced, technically no longer classifying it as a “sound novel.”  But hey, the game was a smashing success, and that’s what’s important.

Toheart2-screenshotA second type is called an adobencha gaamu (adventure game) which often includes voice actors, and multiple choices which can lead to good or bad endings.  In Leaf’s To Heart for example, the protagonist is a high school student with dozens of possible love interests.  Make the appropriate choices, and you’ll either end up with one of the girls, or maybe even sad and alone.

AKB1-149screen1Technically, some renai shimuraashon gaamu (love simulation game) or “dating simulation” games, can also be classified as a Visual Novel.  A recent example is Artdink’s AKB 1/149: Renaisosenkyou, in which players “date” an AKB (or SKE or NMB) member one after the other, read the dialogue which is supported by the idol’s voice over, and make a choice which will either cause the girl to fall in love with you or cease to see you again.  In these types of dating simulations, the goal is the same as in “adventure games” – get the happy ending.

Visual Novels are a cheap product for smaller companies to invest in, since they require nearly no programming and only a handful of staff.  Write a good story, make some pictures to go with it, and there you go.  Voice actors are often hired through an agency.  Particularly in the “adult” genre, where the stories and character don’t require much depth, these Visual Novels are often created by only one or two people and posted online for download, which can receive a nice income if it’s successful.

Personally, I enjoy a good Visual Novel now and then.  After a hard day at work, when I’m too tired to shoot zombies or chase after aliens, I’ll pop in a Visual Novel and just read through the text.  Plus, it’s a great way to study Japanese.



My Top 10 Seventh Generation Titles

Only one month to go, and both the Playstation 4 and Xbox One hit the shelves – at least, everywhere except Japan.  And in honour of the coming eighth generation consoles, I decided to list my personal favourite games from the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 (sorry, nothing on the Wii made my top 10).  This list, of course, is highly subjective.  I’m not saying these were the “best” games on the seventh consoles, but simply the ones I enjoyed the most.

10. Rock Band 2 – It’s Rock Band 1, but with trophies!  84 songs, plus an additional 20 freebies for download, plus you can upload all the songs from other Rock Band titles, not to mention all the others waiting for your purchase.  Throw all this in with two guitars, a set of drums, and a microphone for whoever has the loudest voice, and you’ve got yourself a game party!  Rock Band 2 was released at the height of popularity for music video games, before the market became over-saturated.

ridge-racer-7-screen9.  Ridge Racer 7 – Not only was this one of the original five launch titles for the PS3, but the best in the Ridge Racer series.  The graphics were beautiful, cars could be customized, over 20 different courses, and getting online was quick and smooth.  Anything you did, either offline or online, was added to your world-wide score, while news broadcasted yours and other player’s achievements across the bottom of the menu screen, keeping you constantly connected an challenged.  Unfortunately, the series went downhill after this, with Ridge Racer 3D and Ridge Racer Vita.

8.  Dragon Age: Origins – While not possessing the best graphics in an RPG, Origins made up for it with a fantastic story and interesting characters, and a system which allowed you to micro-manage your team as much as you liked.  I had to perform three playthroughs for the platinum, and enjoyed every minute of it as I continued to explore different aspects of the story.

7.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution – For me, this is what Metal Gear Solid 4 should have been, with the pure freedom to either sneak your way around, run in with guns blazing, or a combination of both.  Upgrading your character didn’t just make you stronger, but really changed up your powers.  A great story which made you feel like a real detective in the future, graphics that blow your mind, and an overall high fun-factor.

littlebigplanet-screen6.  LittleBigPlanet – I had no interest in this game – until I played it for five minutes.  I was hooked.  A complete revamp of the old-school side-scrolling platform games, with graphics that made everything appear as real objects.  Finished playing all the levels?  Then head online and play the millions created by the gaming community.  Or design your own and collect hearts.  Highly original, and so fun that I spent months of my gaming time on this puppy.

5.  Gears of War – This was the first game which truly brought me back into gaming, after having been a casual player for a few years.  Despite being an early title on the Xbox 360, the graphics blew me away.  A fun cover shooter where your goals alter depending on the level and environment, from avoiding darkness, to watching where you step, to riding in a truck while aiming a spotlight, to simply running and shooting.  Never a dull moment, even more fun when playing co-op with a friend, and my personal favourite of the Xbox 360 exclusives.

4.  Heavy Rain – This was one of the only two games which I played and cleared in one sitting, and the first game to actually bring a tear to my eye (yes, I’m a big softy!).  Quantic Dream defined a new style of gameplay with Heavy Rain, giving you choices in not just what you say and where you go, but what you do and how you do it.  While you’re trapped in a car underwater, and only a minute to break free, you start to panic as you try every means to escape.  And if you character dies, your character is dead for the duration of the story.  No reloads, which only adds to the suspense.

3.  BioShock – This was the other game I played and finished in one sitting.  The story begins without telling you anything.  All you know is that you’re a guy sitting in an airplane looking at a photo, when the plane crashes into the ocean.  Who are you?  Was the plane crash an accident?  What’s Rapture?  What’s wrong with those crazy people trying to kill me?  Who is speaking to me through the walkie-talkie?  I couldn’t stop playing until I found the answers to these questions – right up to the game’s twist ending.

2.  The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – This was my first experience playing an Elder Scrolls game, and wow, was I impressed!  I spent months engaging in quests, side-quests, mini-side-quests, customizing and improving my character, exploring the map, and even reading some of the books on the shelves.  Oblivion is the reason why my Japanese studying went on hold for five months.

Uncharted3Screenshot11.  Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – Yes, this is my all-time favourite game on any seventh generation console.  I played it three times, got the platinum, and even played it once more.  An engaging story, fun characters, with settings and environments that change the style of gameplay; all with fantastic graphics that brings everything to life.  If Drake’s Deception is the last of the Uncharted series, then Naughty Dog really went out with a bang.





Japan’s Problem With “Baito-tero”

baito-tero-lawsonIt’s hot June, and at a Lawson convenience store in Kochi Prefecture, a 21-year-old employee waits until after hours for his joke.  He climbs into the store’s ice cream freezer, closes it, and poses while his friend takes a picture, before uploading it to Facebook.  The photo soon went viral across the internet, and rather than receiving “Likes,” it caused criticism and even calling people to boycott the Lawson store.  Shortly after, the owner of the shop lost his license and was forced to close down.

And it’s only the beginning.

These young workers have been dubbed “baito-tero,” a contraction of the Japanese words for part-time worker and terrorist.  Young employees who take pictures of themselves in an inappropriate manner, either as a joke or for the attention, then uploading them to Facebook and Twitter, causing serious consequences for the place of business.

Only two months after the Lawson incident, a photo went viral from an employee at a Pizza Hut in Tokyo.  After hours, the young man grabbed some pizza dough, pressed it over his face to form a mask, and his co-worker took a picture.  It was posted on Twitter, with the comment, “You can’t breathe through pizza.”  Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan, who owns the Pizza Hut chain, was forced to make a public apology.

Needless to say, both of these part-time workers were fired, while also having their futures as a University student severely affected.  But rather than seeing the consequences of their actions, or even realizing how easily these hooligans are spotted and caught, more and more Japanese part-time workers have either been copying the Lawson and Pizza Hut’s prank, or finding new ways to pose for the camera at their place of business and uploading them to either Facebook or Twitter.

baito-tero-pizza-hutIt’s ironic how, only years ago, hardly anyone in Japan used Facebook or Twitter.  Mixi was the social network of choice, since you used a user ID rather than your real name, and weren’t expected to post your own photo.  But Facebook gained fame after the revolution in Egypt, and along with Twitter, became a valuable tool for contacting friends and family members, as well as gather information, after the 2011 earthquake.  Since then, these two social networks have seen an explosion of popularity in Japan.

But Japan seems to be a country of extremes.  For every conservatively-dressed salaryman or office lady, there’s the ganguro who dye their hair, put on silvery make-up, and tan their skin – looking like a cross between a California surfer and a panda.  And for every person who uses photos of their pets rather than themselves on Facebook out of shyness, there’s people taking pictures of themselves locked in an ice cream freezer.

I don’t believe it’s an issue of delinquency.  Back home, anyone who’s worked at McDonald’s or Denny’s knows that a lot of tomfoolery goes on when the boss isn’t around.  part of what made the film Clerks so funny is that it’s close to the truth.  And Japan is no exception.  But the problem is these part-time workers are uploading their pictures to either Facebook or Twitter, where they can easily be identified, as well as fuel the trend.  Not only does it seriously damage business, but the student’s own chances of getting or staying accepted in a University.

But Facebook and Twitter literally became popular overnight, and these kids haven’t had time to consider the repercussions of using these social media networks as part of their pranks.

Will Japan see the end of baito-tero?  Not any time soon, I think.  Businesses are talking about installing cameras, to take better watch of their employees.  But why bother?  Being on camera is the whole point.



Tokyo Game Show 2013

DSCN1211I just returned from the 2013 Tokyo Game Show, and I’m pretty exhausted.  Lots of gaming, walking, and drinking Red Bulls to stay alert.  But certainly worth the trip, and one of the better shows – mainly due to the new eighth generation consoles.

playstation 4I had a chance to play Killzone: Shadow Fall on the new Playstation 4.  Despite sucking at the game, it certainly felt like I was playing a game beyond anything I’ve seen on the previous PS3.  The graphics were incredible, particularly how the leaves blew naturally in the trees, and the water flowing from a fall looked just like real water.  The movement was very fluid, and even the enemy NPC’s motions appeared more realistic.

Also, the new DualShock 4 controller felt comfortable in my hands.  It was just as light as the PS3’s DualShock 3, but the handles were a bit thinner and seemed more ergonomical.  The touch-pad was not only a “touch-pad,” but a small plank which moved, allowing to be used as a secondary D-pad.

photoI also had a chance to try the new Killer Instinct on the Xbox One.  This one didn’t quite strike me as a vast improvement than any other 360 title, but it may have been the game itself.  However, the Xbox One‘s controller felt a wee bit less heavy and bulky in my hands, compared to the 360’s.

Will be posting more photos and a video soon, so stay tuned!




Japan and the Playstation 4

There were a number of reasons why I decided to move to Japan.  One in particular, had to do with video games.  Growing up with the Nintendo Entertainment System, and always seeing that huge list of Japanese names during the credits after beating a game, it simply sunk in my young primary school age: Japan = video games.

This ideology I’d developed never seemed to falter over the years, for despite the growing number of Western third-party developers, as well as Atari still struggling with their consoles, the majority of games and game systems came from Japan, up until the time I packed my bags and hopped on that plane.

Over the last decade, I’d enjoyed not only a slew of games which were either released later or never overseas (though I would need to work on my Japanese language skills to understand them) but the latest consoles as well.  I purchased the Playstation 2 the moment I arrived, received a PSP as a Christmas gift three months before it was released in North America, bought a Playstation 3 on the launch date of November 11th 2006, and picked up a PS Vita two months before it saw the light of day in the West.

Yes, life was good.

But things have recently started to change.  With the game industry becoming shaky, Japanese game designers and console makers are prioritizing the global market ahead of the domestic.  Nintendo released their Wii U in the West in mid-late November, when people generally start their Christmas shopping.  But in Japan, since “Santa” doesn’t start preparing for Christmas until early December, the Wii U was launched here on December 8th.  Almost a month after North America, despite being created here in Japan.

playstation-4Over the last few months, we learned the release dates for Sony’s new Playstation 4: November 15th in North America, then the 29th in Europe, then the same date for Australia.  But, what about Japan?  For a long time, myself and other gamers here were kept in the dark.  I suspected Sony was taking the same route as Nintendo, and releasing it in early December.

Boy, was I wrong.

Last Monday, Sony held a press conference in anticipation of the Tokyo Game Show next week, where they finally announced the release date for the Playstation 4 in Japan: February 22nd 2014.  February 22nd!  Three months later!?  After Christmas!?

The reason Sony game for releasing the Playstation 4 so much later in Japan was to allow more third-party developers to create a larger array of launch titles.  While I believe this to be true, I feel it’s more in relation to Sony’s competition to Microsoft’s Xbox One.

Perhaps it’s not so much that February 22nd is a late release date, but that November is an early release date in the West.  Why?  Well, the Xbox One happens to be released in November as well.  In North America and Europe, that sweet spot on the calendar before Christmas is crucial in getting the jump start over the competition.

But the Xbox One still has yet to announce a release date in Japan other than sometime next year.  So, Sony can relax and release their Playstation 4 in 2014.  During their Monday press conference, they did reveal some big launch titles for the Japanese market.  Koei-Tecmo will be releasing their Dynasty Warriors 8 only six days after launch, and Sega will have Ryu Ga Gotoku: Ishin (Yakuza: Ishin) on the launch date.

It’s disappointing, but I can understand Sony’s sales strategy.  Competition is tough overseas.  But in Japan, where the Xbox 360 only takes up 6% of the gaming market, Sony can focus on just selling systems and games, rather than selling more systems and games than their competitors.  Meanwhile, I still have several Playstation 3 games on my shelf to keep me busy while I wait for February 22nd to roll around.

But if anyone back in North America is considering sending me a Christmas gift, I can think of a suggestion.



Nijo Castle Lookin’ Good!

nijo1It took a year and a half of renovating, but Karamon gate at Nijo Castle, a World Heritage in Kyoto, is now open and awaiting tourists.

Due to centuries of medieval war, Japan has quite a few castles lying around.  Ask any of the locals which one they recommend checking out, they’ll usually say “Himeji Castle.”  Yes, it’s large and quite beautiful standing majestically with clouds drifting in behind.  But personally, I always felt Himeji resembled a “typical castle’ in Japan.  For me, it’s all about Nijo!

For one thing, Nijo Castle – in comparison to others in the country – doesn’t even resemble a castle, because it’s flatland rather than vertical.  In 1601, immediately after taking over Japan, Ieyasu Tokugawa ordered Nijo Castle to be constructed as the Kyoto residence for the shogun.  A sort of “second castle,” or “a castle away from castle.”  It took 25 years – by then, Iemitsu Tokugawa was in rule – to complete.

Nijo2Unlike Osaka or Odawara Castle, Nijo is still in its original state.  No museum, gift shop, or elevator inside.  It’s cool to stroll around and imagine “this is where the shogun greeted visitors,” or “that’s where the shogun sat and ate dinner,” or maybe “this is where the shogun would have played the PS3 if they had one.’  Of course, Nijo Castle has been fixed up and remodelled over the last 400 years for preservation, but you certainly get a feel for what it may have been like as a shogun or samurai living there.

Nijo3What’s also cool, is the way Nijo Castle has been designed to be utterly ninja-proof.  You’ll notice the “sparrow floors” whistling as you walk around.  Each individual board on the floor is connected by a kind of metal latch, designed to squeak when stepped on.  Also, the inner grounds are covered in white stones, making it difficult to tread across silently.  And hidden rooms designed for bodyguards to stand in are arranged sporadically within the castle, where they would await to burst out in case of signs of danger.  Watch out, Shinobi!

So if you’re planning a trip to Kyoto, I’d highly recommend checking out Nijo Castle.  It may not be as well-known as Himeji, but it certainly inspires the imagination.



Cosplayers Take A Walk In The Park

nagoya-cosplay1Tsuruma Park, located in the city of Nagoya, was once a popular locale for O-bon dances, bird watching, and performing morning exorcises.  Though in the last few years, the park has attracted a new breed of visitors: Cosplayers.

If we look at the reasons why this new fad has sprung, we may wonder why Tsuruma Park hadn’t been used for cosplayers sooner.

For one thing, we’ve got the World Cosplay Summit which began in 2003, and has since been held annually in Nagoya; a week-long event where people dress-up as their favourite anime and video game characters, marching in a parade and holding a championship to vote on the best outfit.

Then, we’ve got Tsuruma Park nearby, a large open space which features a mixture of both old and modern Western and Japanese-style buildings.  A perfect location for a photo shoot, just waiting for the right models.

nagoya-cosplay2Then one day, it finally happened.  Word got around of Tsuruma Park’s ideal background for picture taking, and what began as an event surrounding the World Cosplay Summit, has now become a summer-long fad.  Wearing a mecha outfit?  Try posing in front of the Civic Assembly Hall and water fountain.  Dressed as the ninja Kazumi from Dead Or Alive?  Why not use the Japanese garden?  “It’s boring to take photos on the concrete streets,” says one cosplayer.

And besides, considering all the effort these fans and otaku put into creating their costumes, why wear them only during the World Cosplay Summit and Tokyo Game Show?  The summer may be hot and humid, but dressing up as your favourite anime and video game character while posing in Tsuruma Park is cool!  (Well, interesting at least)





The Evolution Of Translating Games

As we’re currently shifting from the seventh generation of consoles to eighth, Engrish-1games are getting more complex, requiring more money, time, and effort to develop.  The 8-bit consoles, such as the Nintendo and Sega systems, has the first games to feature “credits” at the end.  Try beating Contra or Rampage, and you’ll see a list of about 20 or 30 names scroll up the screen, from Lead Designer to QA Team.  Now, after clearing seventh generation titles like Uncharted or Gears of War, sit back and wait 5 to 10 minutes as the credits scroll, equivalent to having finished a movie.

But graphics and level design aside, even the effort Japanese companies put into translating those lucky titles exported overseas have been evolving as well.

Back in the day of 8-bit games, most companies like Konami or HAL didn’t bother with professional translators who were fluent in both languages.  After all, these are just games played by kids, right?  Who cares if there’s an error or two, as long as children have fun playing the game.  So, they’d find someone among their Japanese staff who was confident enough with their English abilities after studying in high school.  This person would sit down with a Japanese-English dictionary, and set to work.  The result?  Some pretty bizarre Engrish text.

Engrish-2Konami’s Metal Gear on the NES, despite spawning one of the most successful game series after Hideo Kojima took the reigns, had some of the worst English in any title.  From the very first level, you have a soldier saying, “I feel asleep.”  Move down and enter the nearby vehicle, and Solid Snake says, “Uh-oh! The truck have started to move!”  Also, take the game title Gradius.  What’s a “gradius?”  Well, a “gladius” is an ancient Roman sword, a weapon, much like the ship in the game.  But the Japanese language doesn’t have a distinction between the letters “R” and “L,” and so we ended up with Gradius, a word that means nothing.

As games became progressively more complex, moving into the 16-bit and disc-based games such as the PS1, Japanese developers started hiring professional translators who were actually fluent in English.  Despite a few titles with some serious wording issues, such as the famous line from Taplan’s Zero Wing, “All your base are belong to us!” the majority of titles showed a vast improvement in translations once this aspect of development was taken seriously.

Engrish-33But wait, games were now featuring voices!  They weren’t just translating text, but the tone and emotions of the characters, as well.  Not to worry – as long as the English makes sense, gamers won’t care how it sounds.  So, rather than hiring professional voice actors, Japanese developers grabbed any English speaker off the street, handed them a script, and told them to read into the mic.  Anyone who’s played Capcom’s Resident Evil on the PS1 will understand the lack of effort put into the character’s voices.  Aside from the corny lines, the characters seem to be either over-acting, or under, making it sound like a B-movie.  The first time Chris sees a zombie, rather than freak out and wonder what the hell it is, he replies in monotone, “Don’t worry, I’ll handle this,” like he’s about to wipe-up some spilled juice.

But this all evolved as well, and by the time we entered the sixth generation, characters in translated Playstation 2 games were starting to feature professional voice actors who spoke natural English.  A whole lot more pleasing to the ear, thereby enhancing the gaming experience.  After all, games aren’t all about graphics.  Like any novel or film, they need care put into the translation of the stories, as well.



Waikiki and the Japanese Tourists

Back in the 1980′s, the Japanese economy was booming.  With all this Hawaii1money and looking for ways to spend it, many turned away from the local hot spring resorts and began experiencing travels abroad.  While neighbouring countries such as Korea and China were popular choices for a holiday, Hawaii dominated – beautiful resorts, safe, and only a 7 hour plane ride away.  And Waikiki, located on the South shore of O’ahu, became a prime target for Japanese tourists, with its white sandy beaches and shopping districts conveniently placed nearby.

Over time, things continued running in a cycle.  More Japanese tourists visited Waikiki, so the local shops catered to their tastes and studied the language, which only brought in more tourists.  Now, the rumour in Japan is that “you don’t need to speak English if you visit Waikiki.”

I recently returned from a holiday in Hawaii, which included a 5-day stay in Waikiki, and found this rumour to be 100% true.  From bus drivers to restaurant waitresses, I heard “Irashaimase” and “Arigatou gozaimasu” and “Ki o tsukete kudasai.”  I, of course, was spoken to in English.  But my girlfriend, whose English ability is rather limited, felt confident to roam around the city on her own, using Japanese to order and buy things, while I stayed by the pool and played video games.

And it’s not just the language.  The stores themselves are obviously catering to Japanese women, who are more prone to travel overseas than men (I don’t know the exact statistics, but my guess would be 8-1).  Louis Vuitton, Coach, Prada, Gucci, and about a million cosmetic stores.  I even found a Book-Off, a Japanese shop which buys and sells used books, games and DVDs.  The lady at the counter who sold me some games spoke very little English.

Due to part of my Italian background and having been depraved of real Italian food for so long, I was anxious to sink my teeth into some veal fried in tomato sauce, or feast on a huge plate of ravioli or lasagna.  We went to an “Italian” restaurant in Waikiki, but unfortunately the menu was just like those here in Japan – paper-thin crusted pizza with corn toppings, and bowls of spaghetti served with tuna.

helicopter1Overall, I enjoyed my stay in Waikiki.  The beach, though crowded, was beautiful with waters as warm as a pool.  I even managed to find a Gamestop and make the owners happy with my vast number of Xbox game purchases.  And riding that helicopter over the volcano was pretty cool!

If you’re Japanese and looking to travel abroad, but worried about the language barrier, then Waikiki’s the place for you.  and if you’re North American who wants to experience Japan but worried about the problems with communication, then Waikiki’s the place for you.

It’s like Shibuya with a beach.



Let The Games Begin! – Xbox One Vs. PS4

It’s an understatement to say that video games have come a long way since the days of 4-bit and 8-bit consoles.  Beginning with the battles between Nintendo and Sega, gaming companies have fought for popularity – and of course, sales – while consumers based their choices on a number of factors.  Which generation console is coming out first?  Which one is cheaper?  Which one has better graphics?  Which one has a better library of titles?

It seems that these factors have become less important these days.  After hugexbox one dualshock 4 controller failures like Atari’s Jaguar, Panasonic’s 3DO, and Nintendo’s N64, companies now learned it’s better not to unleash a console with specs so advanced that they alienate third-party developers.  Yes, it can be objectively argued that the Playstation 3 is more powerful than the Xbox 360, but not by much.  This leads to a new style in business for third-party developers – being able to port the exact same game onto different systems.  Now, the question isn’t which system has better games, but which has better “exclusive” games.

We are entering the eighth generation of game consoles this year, and those factors mentioned earlier seem even less important.  Not only do we have the Playstation 4 and Xbox One competing with a large percentage of their game titles being the same, but this will be the first time the battle will begin at the same time.  While neither Sony nor Microsoft have confirmed release dates, both have stated “this year,” and we can probably expect that to be before the Winter shopping season.

Why does this matter?  For one thing, having the two competing consoles released nearly (or maybe, at) the same time means competitive prices.  Sony and Microsoft won’t be able to release their systems at high prices, wait for the gaming nuts to buy them at launch, then lower the price.  This could mean, in fact, that both consoles may end up having the exact same price.

Furthermore, this means leveling the playing field.  If both the Playstation 4 and Xbox One are released at nearly the same time, and nearly at the same price, and if over 75% of the games are the exact same, then what will make up the difference?  How will gamers decide which console to buy this Winter?

Aside from the personal bias of fanboys, I think it will all come down to what makes each system unique.  There will always be each console’s selection of “exclusive titles,” of course.  And based on the two recent press conferences from both Sony and Microsoft, it seems the Playstation 4 is focusing more on the social connectability, while Xbox One is all about movies and entertainment.  Still, we won’t learn more about their “uniqueness” until E3 in a few weeks.  But it will be interesting to see, when the gates are open and these two consoles start making their way down the track, which system the players will bet their money on.  No one can claim that one unit sold more than the other simply because it was released earlier, or the price was cheaper.  It’s all fair game!


Personally, I’ll probably end up just buying both.
xbox one vs playstation 4 stats





VGAS Game Party!

It’s Golden Week here in Japan, and we celebrated by throwing a party – VGASgame party 01 style!

Four TVs, one of them 3-D, each hooked up to several game systems ranging from old-school Nintento to Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, a table loaded with every portable console under the sun, and nearly 300 game titles to choose from.  Plus all the snacks, dishes, and a main course of foot-long hot dogs.

Some of the highlights included; putting babies through olympic hell in THE Akachan Pion, Zack nearly clearing Ninja Gaiden II before someone tripped over the cord and disconnected the Famicom, trying to figure out how to play THE Paatii Geemu, our Macanese correspondent Ms. Chou managing to drive her car off the track and somehow into the ocean in Bakusou! Manhattan, podcaster from WhereDoesGodzillaPoop Mr. Stillwell falling unconscious after mixing drinks, and Damon getting his butt whipped in Street Fighter IV by the housewife next-door.

game party 02We’d like to thank everyone for the wonderful dishes, bakings and drinks, and for joining in the fun.  Hope everyone enjoys the rest of their Golden Week.






So, You Want To Be A Ninja?

shinobiWhile people in Japan may role their eyes when hearing a Westerner mention the term “ninja,” these mysterious assassins have captured the iimagination and been the inspiration behind numerous sources of pop-culture, from 1970’s martial art films, to James Bond movies, to video games like Ninja Gaiden and Shinobij, to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  But the question is, were the ninja merely a product of this pop-culture, or did they actually exist?

Yes, they did.

While fact and fiction has been blurred, due to what little information has been uncovered (their whole profession was stealth, after all) many historians believe the ninja predominantly existed around the Sengoku era (around 1450 to 1600) when Japan lacked unification, resulting in military conflict and social upheaval.  While the Samurai were all about upholding rules on honour and combat (known as Bushido) the ninja fought “unfairly” by hiding in the shadows and pouncing on unsuspecting enemies.

As their profession grew, Nina Clans began sprouting around Japan – ninjagaidenparticularly in Mie Prefecture – where they would train and graduate, before being hired as either a spy or mercenary, usually by the more desperate lower-class Shoguns.  Some well-known historical events involving the ninja was the Shimbara Rebellion (1637-1638) in which the Shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa hired ninjas to kill the Christian rebels stationed in the Hara Castle in Nagasaki Prefecture.  And in the early 1700’s, Yoshimune Tokugawa started the Oniwaban, a kind of medieval CIA which employed ninjas for their secret intelligence gathering on government officials and Daimyos.

Where can we see ninjas today?

If you head up to Nikko, you can visit the Edo Wonderland, which is mainly a studio set up to resemble an ancient village used for filming Japan’s historical dramas.  There, you can witness mock ninja battles as they fly through the trees on cables swinging their swords, or fighting in a play dubbed “Ninja Kabuki.”

Last month, a “Ninja Training Session” was held in Chiba Prefecture which ran a two-hour course for only 500 yen, teaching the ways of the ninja such as throwing shuriken and climbing trees.  The catch?  You have to be a kid.



Kabukiza Is Open For Business

It took over two years of renovating, but the Kabukiza theatre, located in the untitledGinza district of Tokyo, reopened just the other day on April 2nd.  A parade of actors, as well as a drum ceremony, took part in the grand opening.

What is kabuki, you might ask?

In a nutshell, it’s a Japanese-style play in which actors – all male – dress up in colourful clothing and act out their performance along with a set of dance moves while drums and flutes set the mood in the background.  The word itself is comprised of the Chinese characters “ka” (sing), “bu” (dance), and “ki” (skill).  The kabuki-style drama originated in the early 17th Century by (gasp!) a woman named Izumo no Okuni.  Kabuki quickly grew in popularity, the main attraction being that all the performers were female.  The shogun weren’t too keen on this, and so twenty years later, female performances were banned – and switched to an all-male cast, a custom which remains even to this day.

The Kabukiza is, by far, not the oldest theatre in Japan – constructed in 1889 – but certainly one of the most popular, simply because of its convenient location in downtown Tokyo.

OkuniI had the pleasure of seeing a performance several years ago before the renovations began.  And I can tell you, the tickets are not cheap!  I paid about 12,000 yen (US$130) and I was way up in the nosebleeds.  That price included one long performance (a little over an hour), then a bento meal for lunch, followed by two shorter performances.

Did I understand any of it?  Absolutely!  And not because of my Japanese language skills.  Translators are offered, in which you stick a headphone in one ear, and listen to an English narrator explain what’s happening and what the characters are saying.  These translators were also offered in Chinese, Korean, and (believe it or not) Japanese.  Yes, a Japanese-to-Japanese translator.  Why?  Because the dialogue in a kabuki performance is ancient, and stretched out vocally which makes it difficult for an amateur kabuki-goer to understand.  Much like trying to watch a Shakespearean performance as it’s sung like an opera.

While kabuki is about as common to the everyday Japanese as a Shakespeare play is to the common Westerner, it is a major part of the culture.  It’s interesting to watch, certainly very different than anything shown in Stratford, and would recommend it to anyone visiting Japan and has a free day to kill.



The Sakura Are In Bloom!

Spring is a busy but exciting time here in Japan.  For businesses, it marks the sakura01end of one fiscal year and the start of the next, which means lots of yearly reports and auditing to do.  Companies are saying farewell to retirees, and hiring new recruits ripe from University, while students are starting their next school year.  And in terms of weather, the frigid winds of Winter have finally come to pass, allowing people to escape their homes and enjoy going for a walk or bike ride under the warm sun – before the Summer’s humidity sets in.

The newspapers may report when Spring has officially arrived, but no one really believes it until they see the cherry blossoms in bloom.  The sakura seem to be the symbol of Spring, a sign in Japan that life is beginning anew.

How do Japanese celebrate this festive moment of the year?  By drinking!

sakura02Friends often gather for hanami, which directly translates as “flower viewing.”  Much like a picnic, people gather in a park filled with sakura trees, lay out a tarp, and feast on snacks and chug down beer and other alcoholic beverages, all within the beautiful view of the cherry blossoms.  But since the sakura only stay in bloom for a week or two, the parks can get pretty crowded – even on weekdays.  If the hanami is organized by a company, usually they hand one of the new recruits their first assignment – sit on a tarp in the park all day, holding their spot.

If you can’t find a descent space among the noisy crowds, you may want instead to have a yozakura party, which literally translates as “evening sakura,” a hanami party in the evening.  Maybe it’s a bit harder to appreciate the view of cherry blossoms in the dark, but hey, as long as there’s beer…

But is drinking really that much more important than the sakura themselves?sakura03  For some, sure.  And there’s even a Japanese proverb to describe such people: “hana yori dango,” which translates as “dumplings over flowers,” meaning such individuals care more about the eating and drinking than the event of admiring the cherry blossoms themselves.

But whether you’re there to view the flowers or simply drink with your buddies, having a good time is always the priority.




What Is MMD?

If you happen to search for “MMD” in either Youtube or Japan’s Niconico, you’ll find over a hundred throusand videos of CG girls – many of them starring Miku Hatsune – dancing and singing to J-pop music.  These short videos, however, are not created by professionals but made by amateurs.

mmdMMD is an acronym for MikuMikuDance, a free animation software originally created by Yu Higuchi with the Vocaloid character Miku Hatsune in mind.

What is Vocaloid and who is Miku Hatsune, you might ask?  In a nutshell, Vocaloid is a singing voice synthesizer which allows the user to synthesize singing by typing in lyrics and a melody.  Miku Hatsune was created as the software’s mascot, and has since risen to Japanese Idol stardom.

So while the Vocaloid software allows you to create the music, MMD lets you create the CG videos.  3-D models like Miku Hatsune can either be downloaded freely, or created by the more experienced designers.  The character’s facial expressions and movements are rather simple to create, compared with more complex programs such as Maya or Poser, and MMD even allows users to create motion capture with Microsoft’s Kinect.

Here in Japan, the 10th MMD Cup was recently held; a fan-run online contest of MMD videos with over 500 amateur contenders.  Even the advertising has jumped on the MikuMikuDance-wagon, such as the Lawson convenience store chain with its original Vocaloid character promoting its oden.

What’s the future for MMD?  Its popularity only seems to be on the rise, and while the software supports both Japanese and English, its growing fandom in the global market for 3-D anime hobbyists has encouraged accessibility in other languages to be in the works.  While Japan is well known for its high quality animation, their 3-D film studio struggles to compete with such big-budges films by Pixar and Dreamworks.  Perhaps MikuMikuDance is a way for Japan to sneak in through the back door to the competition arena.



Nintendo has Most Desirable Bachelors/Bachelorettes

nintendomarryThe results are in, and according to an annual internet survey conducted here in Japan, Nintendo ranked #1 as having the most desired marriage partners.

The survey was conducted in late November of 2012, where Japanese men and women between the ages of 20 to 39 were asked which company they would like their future husband/wife to work for.  While reasons varied for the founders of Mario and Donkey Kong, some of the more common responses were “it’s constantly at the top of its industry” and “I love games.”

Behind Nintendo, ranking at #2 was All Nippon Airways, followed by Tanita at #3, Google at #4, and Apple at #5.  Overall, the 2012 survey saw a drop in many electronic giants such as Panasonic, Sharp, and even Sony – which had previously dominated one of the top three slots.  Meanwhile, foreign IT companies strong in the smartphone business, as well as major trading companies, climbed the ranks due to their steady rise in sales.

It seems EA never even made the top 100.  But fear not, guys – there’s always online dating.



Happy New Year!

Well, it’s a bit belated.  But it’s been a busy holiday – thanks to the stack of games I got for Christmas.

So how is New Year’s celebrated here in Japan?  Same as back in Canada?  Nope, not in the least.  In fact, it almost feels like the concept of the two major holidays in December – Christmas and New Year’s – are swapped.

Back home, we might have Christmas parties spread out through the month, ending with the 25th in which we sit down with our family to open presents, and have a huge turkey feast.  Some (non-practicing) Christians may even attend their yearly church service.  While New Year’s Eve is party-night, dancing and drinking as we count down the final seconds, then spend New Year’s Day sleeping until noon and waking to a hangover.

In Japan, Christmas Eve is often more important than the 25th (in fact, if you ask people here when is Christmas, half of them will tell you it’s the 24th) but it’s still just a party night.  A “romantic” time to be with your boy/girl friend on a date, admire the Illuminations in Tokyo and exchange a gift.  If you’re single, then you can spend Christmas Eve with your family, having a feast of Kentucky Fried Chicken (you’ll have to reserve your crispy bucket, because the lines in front of the chain restaurant are longer than at an AKB48 concert) and a “Christmas cake,” usually with cream and strawberries, complete with candles to blow out.  Yes, Kenichi-san, there is a Santa Claus.  But once the kids stop believing, many families stop giving their kids presents.

So while Christmas may seem like a more commercialized, romantic time filled with KFC, New Year’s is where all the family values lie.

Rather than Christmas parties, December is filled with “Bonenkais,” a drinking party – usually at an Izakaya – spent with either coworkers, friends from university, or old friends from high school.  Then, after the “New Year’s cleaning” has your apartments looking spotless, it’s off to the hometown to spend time with parents and grandparents.

New Year’s Eve is pretty quiet here in Japan.  There may be a party or two happening in Tokyo, but in most areas, everyone sits around the TV watching “music battles” while eating Soba, it’s long noodles symbolizing a long and happy life.  Some may visit a Buddhist temple to ring the bell, see the fireworks at an amusement park, or stay up to watch the first sunrise of the new year.  But since it’s colder than a polar bear’s nose, many are happy just to stay indoors with their family.

On New Years Day, the family all get together to have their “osechi,” the traditional New Year’s dish which is a box filled with an asortment of smaller dishes – ranging from shrimp, to seaweed, to black beans, each one possessing a special meaning.  These osechi boxes are either homemade, or bought at high prices from your local supermarket.  Meanwhile, children receive their “toshidama” from adults; a small envelope of money – ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 yen, depending on the kid’s age.  Then it’s off for the yearly visit to the Shinto shrine, to pray for good health and chose your fortune.

When I first came to Japan, I wasn’t too surprised that Christmas wasn’t a big deal here, considering it’s a recently imported holiday.  But I was shocked that there weren’t any count-downs on TV, and how quiet it was outside on New Year’s Eve.  Instead, it’s all about family – and unfortunately, mine are on the other side of the Earth.

In closing, I’d just like to thank my girlfriend’s mother for my toshidama.  It will be well-spent next week in Akihabara!



Japan Has (yet, again) A New Prime Minister!

The election is over, and the results are in!

Sinzo Abe, head of the Liberal Democratic Party, is Japan’s new Prime Minister, winning by a landslide of 294 seats in a 480-seat lower house election.  Are the people of Japan thrilled?  Was this an election filled with hopes and aspirations?  Are Japanese anxious to see not “if” but how Abe-san will pull the country out of its recession, repair ties with China and Korea, transform their energy dependancy from a nuclear to a safer and more ecological power source, stop the yen’s rise, aid those still in need after the 3/11 earthquake, and restore faith in the government?


This wasn’t one of those elections.  More like a game of “Bobbing for Apples,” only all the apples are rotten, and you hope to bite the “least worst.”  In this case, the people bit the LDP.  In fact, in a poll just days before the election, when asked which party they supported, over 50% of respondants said, “don’t know, don’t care.”


Japan has an unusual electorial system.  Rather than a two or three-party system, Japan has only one real party: the LDP.  So who do they run against?  A mish-mash of various groups that constantly change their members, leaders, and even names, depending on the time of day.  In fact, half of the parties which ran in this election didn’t even exist a year ago!

The LDP has been in power nearly consistently for 50 years.  50 years!  Then came the 2009 election, when Japan had enough of the lies, scandals and wishy-washy leaders, and the Democratic Party of Japan rose to power (which were made up of people from the LDP).  What happened then?

Their first leader, Hatoyama-san, quit because he couldn’t work out an agreement with what to do about the US Navy Base in Okinawa.  So then came Kan-san.  What then?  Japan experienced an earthquake and a nuclear meltdown.  Did the LDP work with Kan-san to help Japan in its crisis?  Nope.  They saw this as a chance to declare a vote of no-confidence and get their mitts back in power.  For shame!  Luckily the vote failed, and the DPJ continued to survive – eventually handing power to Noda-san, who ran in this month’s election.  But with high hopes now crushed, the DPJ only received enough votes to gain 57 seats.

Who else was left to chose from?

Well, there was a newly formed party, mashed together with several groups and named the Japan Restoration party, lead by Shintaro Ishihara.  Who is this guy?  For one, Ishihara-san is 80 (yes, 80 years old!), was governor of Tokyo for a few years, started the whole stand-off between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and is known for being a racist against Chinese, Korean, Africans who live in Japan, and anyone from a developing country.  How many seats did his party get?  54.

Great choices.

I personally was hoping the DPJ would get another shot, but I can understand Japan’s disappointment in their empty promises.  When you’re bobbing for rotten apples, all you can do is hope your face doesn’t get too splashed.  Will Abe-san last longer than the average 8 months in power as Prime Minister?

As long as none of this affects the video game industry, then, “don’t know, don’t care.”


Would You Date This Man?

It’s natural for many of us to wear a “mask” during certain events in our lives.  On a first date, being nervous and wishing to make a good first-impression, we may behave a certain way that’s not completely natural to our character.  But to the otaku, this metaphor of “wearing a mask” has become quite literal.

The small town of Washinomiya, in Saitama Prefecture, has become a pilgrimage site for otaku fans of the manga Rakkii Staa (Lucky Star) where the story is set.  The local chamber of commerce took notice of the otaku‘s spending power, and decided – why not hook these people up?  Two incomes are better than one.  The problem, however, is that otaku are generally shy by nature.

So, what if they wore masks?

And so, the local government organized a large goukon – rougly translated as a “single’s party.”  Fifteen male otaku and fifteen females with similar manga and anime interests were invited, each adorning a halloween mask of Mickey Mouse, Pikachu, Doraemon, and various other characters, hoping to meet that lucky someone.

“I feel this is an easier way to talk to people,” said one 27-year-old woman in a bunny mask.  When asked one young male – wearing a samurai master mask – if he planned to go on a real date, he answered, “I hope so…maybe.”

And the result?

Seven couples left the event together.  That’s a 47% success rate!  Way to go, otaku!



Japanese “Obaachans” Kickin’ Balls!

Gotta admit, when I first came to Japan, soccer was not a popular sport.  Everyone was still hung-up on baseball – supporting the teams of their hometown, supporting the Yokohama Baystars (where I worked) or being アンチジャイアンツ  (anti-Giants) since the Tokyo Giants have the cash to buy up all the best players.

Then the World Cup was held here in 2002, and with it came soccer fever.  Since then, it’s never left.  Baseball got left in the dugouts as soccer took over, spawning high school and company teams, and even フットサル (footsal) for those with not enough team members.  So, if all the high school students and salarymen are having fun kicking around balls, why not the grannies?

 In Team Ren from Osaka, for instance, all the members are in their 70s, some with soccer experience from their more youthful days, others just learning how to kick.  Their manager is 79-year-old Yoshiko Hayashi, and their team captain is Shigeko Itani, who is 76-years-old.  “As elderly people,” says Itani, “we all have aching knees and shoulders, but that’s all forgotten when practice starts.”

During a woman’s soccer tournament in Kagoshima in September, Team Higashitaniyama Ogojo, half of whom are in their 60s, played under heavy rain and managed to beat their opponents – most of their members in their 20s.  The Ogojo team meets twice a month for practice, and say the key to staying fit and keeping up their stamina is not trying too hard.

Go grannies!!



What Are These “Otaku”?

In past blogs and VGAS episodes, you probably heard us refer to certain individuals as otaku.  Who are these people, anyway?  Well, it’s a difficult term to translate.  If you look up the word in a Japanese-English dictionary, you’ll find a variety of expressions like “geek,” “nerd,” or even “trekkie,” which gives you some idea.  Though that’s not a clear-cut translation.

In a nutshell, otaku are people with an obsessive hobby.  The word itself is derived from “o” which is originally an honorific term, and “taku” meaning either “home” or “family.”  The term was meant to be uncomplimentary, insinuating these people never go out and socialize, but instead spend all their time at home with their hobby.  Even today, there is a general sense of negativity towards the otaku, with few exceptions.

So, what are they obsessed over?

A traditional otaku is obsessed with anime, manga and video games.  Though recently, the term geemaa (gamer) has surfaced, separating video games and leaving only the anime and manga part.  So, a stereotypical otaku spends their time at home in a bedroom filled with female anime character posters and figures, watching anime or reading comics, and only going outside to read more comics at a “manga cafe” or spend time with a few other otaku friends, shopping in places like Akihabara.  They normally don’t care about fashion, wear a bandana over their head (usually with anime characters on them) and carry backpacks to fill with whatever manga or anime items they’ve purchased.  They don’t make eye contact, lack social skills, and prefer to be alone with their hobby.  This, of course, is the stereotype.  However, you’d be surprised when wandering around in Akihabara, how many people you see who fit this description to a T.

Over the years, there have been other “types” of otaku.  There’s the densha otaku (train otaku) who love standing around stations and taking pictures of trains as they go by.  The aidoru otaku (idol otaku) or now more commonly called wota for short, are obsessed with Japanese idols, like AKB48 or Miku Hatsune.  And recently, the rekijo (shortened form of “history” and “women”) can be seen at popular historical sites, taking pictures and copying down notes on famous Japanese Shogun and Samurai.  But despite this variety, when someone announces they’ve spotted an otaku lurking about, it usually means they’re obsessed with anime and manga.

So maybe they’re not the most stylish people, or lack a set number of friends on their Facebook accounts, but they’re happy with their obsessions.  And maybe that’s what life is all about.





Pay to Sleep with Women in Akihabara!

Let’s face it, otaku are people, too.  And sometimes after a long day of heading up to Akihabara, buying video games and filling their backpacks with anime memorabilia, then sitting alone at a maid cafe for an overpriced cup of coffee and some cake, an otaku might not be ready to head home, just yet.  Maybe they want to rest for a bit, even pretend they have a girlfriend lying next to them, for a few minutes.
Well, now they can!

Introducing ソイネ屋 (Soineya) which literaly translates as “together-sleep-shop,” that just opened this year on September 25th.  The concept isn’t entirely new in Japan, but it’s the first time such a place opened in Akihabara, the videogame/anime district of Tokyo.
So, what is a soineya?  I’m sure by the photo, you’re at least mildly curious.
Well, it’s not a brothel, strip club, or even hostess bar.  Instead, it’s a place where the otaku can pay to sleep next to a young woman.  And it’s not cheap!
After paying a 3,000 yen ($35) entrance fee, the basic rate is another 3,000 yen for 20 minutes.  Prices increase every twenty minutes or few hours.  Or, if you’re really tuckered out, fork over 50,000 yen ($580) for a full 10 hours.
There are optional courses, as well.  For 1,000 yen, you can spoon for 3 minutes.  Or, for 2,000 yen, the girl will sleep with her head in your lap for 3 minutes.
Sound crazy?  Maybe even a little sad?  Well, welcome to the lonely life of being an otaku in Japan.


The Mysteries of Cosplay!

Having been to the 2012 Tokyo Game Show on a “business day,” I can say that the experience was satisfying. No crowds, no pushing and shoving, no long lines to play a game. Unfortunately, that also meant no Cosplayers.

So who are these Cosplayers?  What are they?  Why are they?  So many questions…

In Japanese,kosupureis a messed-up hybrid of the English words “costume” and “play.”  In a nutshell, these are fans who enjoy dressing up as manga, anime and video game characters.  I like to think of it as a kind of Halloween-like sub-culture, as you don’t usually see Cosplayers on the train or buying Big Macs at McDonald’s.  Rather, they usually get together at specific events – such as the Tokyo Game Show.

While it’s possible to buy these outfits at shops in Akihabara and other places, most Cosplayers I spoke to during past TGSs said they made their costumes themselves.  There’s “mecha” Cosplayers who dress as robots made of cardboard, a billion Final Fantasy characters, and Zack said he even saw a Sega Saturn running around.  Hair is either dyed and stylized, or they use wigs.  The outfits themselves are either hand-crafted, or put together using an assortment of clothing.

Makuhare Messe, where the Tokyo Game Show takes place, is made up of three ginormous rooms.  In between are these narrow, outdoor alleys – where the Cosplayers mainly hang-out.  They each find themselves an area near a wall, and a line is formed by the otaku anxiously waiting to take their pictures.  The Cosplayers make several poses, while the otaku click away on their cameras (sometimes requesting specific poses) until they’re satisfied, and the next person in line moves up for their turn.

I personally wouldn’t call this sub-culture a form of role-play, as the Cosplayers don’t usually “play their role.”  I’ve never seen a Solid Snake act out a battle with a Liquid Ocelot (maybe because there’s no room) and if you speak to a Cosplayer, they talk like a normal human being (usually) and not in character.

So why do they do it?  Maybe for the same reason Westerners have fun dressing up on Halloween.  Because it’s fun to dress up.  And having people line up to take their picture gives them a day of fame.

Though I did enjoy the lack of crowds visiting the TGS on a business day, I felt that without the Cosplayers, there was something missing.



The 2012 Tokyo Game Show!

I just got back from a long, exhausting day at Makuhari Messe, where the Tokyo Game Show is traditionally held.

This was my first time visiting during the “business days,” which are Thursdays and Fridays, reserved for the gaming employees and media.  Saturdays and Sundays are open for the general public, where all the otaku come bursting in and crowding up the scene.  And I have to admit, wow – what a difference!  The place wasn’t crowded at all, and *gosh* I even had a chance to play some games!

Some of the hits this year were Monster Hunter 4, DMC (Devil May Cry), a bunch of new Resident Evil games, Fantasy Star Online 2 for the Vita, Yakuza 5, Dead or Alive 5, among many others.  Since Nintendo never makes an appearance at these things, I didn’t see very much Wii U stuff going on.

Was it better than last year?  Well, for myself it was, managing to visit on a far less crowded day.  But there was nothing overtly catching the spotlight this year.  The Vita’s already out, Nintendo’s not there to show-off the Wii U.  Mainly it was just anticipated game titles.


Also, I’ve been attending the TGS every year since 2008, and I notice it’s gradual shrinkage.  This year, even Microsoft didn’t make an appearance, nor Ubisoft.  In fact, the only foreign developers/publishers that made an appearance were Rockstar (with a teeny-tiny booth) and a small Taiwanese company.  The number of Japanese booths remain the same, but as foreign companies continue turning their back on Japan’s market, the TGS just keeps getting smaller.

But overall, I still had a good time.  Managed to play some games, hobnob with a few developers and engineers, and even bought a MegaMan action figure.

Tune in to our next podcast, where Zack and I go into detail on the 2012 Tokyo Game Show.  Also, look for a video coming soon…



The AKB Craze!

AKB48:  Who are they?  What are they?  Why are they?

Well, to answer those first two questions, AKB48 is the hottest thing to hit Japan since white rice.  AKB is short for “Akiba,” which in turn is short for “Akihabara,” a district in Tokyo and the HQ for most otaku.  AKB48 is a girl group, currently made up of 64 members ranging in ages from early teens to early twenties.  They sing, they dance, and they have thus far released 13 singles.

What makes them different from other girl groups?  For one, most groups don’t have 64 members (they even hold the Guinnes World Record for “largest pop group”).  But the general concept of AKB48 is that they’re “the girls next door,” the “idols you can meet.”  In a kind of lottery, fans buy a number of the same album hoping to get that golden ticket which allows them to meet an AKB member for 5 minutes.  You can shake her hand, take a picture, and gush out how much you love her.


And I must admit, their marketing strategy is brilliant.  AKB48 is in everything: stationary, dishes, figures, chocolate, countless commercials, appearing in TV dramas, etc.  In September 2011, the AKB48 Cafe & Shop opened in Akihabara (conveniently next to the Gundam Cafe) where waitresses dress up in school uniforms and AKB videos play on a dozen flatscreens around the shop.  Prices aren’t as expensive as you might expect, and their cheese cake is pretty good.

AKB’s success has lead to other groups popping up in Japan as well as Asia.  There’s now SKE48 from Nagoya, SDN48 short for Saturday Night, NMB48 in Osaka, and JKT48 in Jakarta.  Expect more to come.

So what’s the attraction?  According to our Korean corespondent and avid AKB48 fan; “I like them because there’s [a member] for everybody, and unlike real girls, they’re not there to make you deal with girl related [issues].”  In other words, they’re idols through and through.

Only there’s 64 of them.






The Avengers!

It’s been one comic book adapted film after another, this summer.  After The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, why not end things with The Avengers?
Yes, I know the film has been in North America for a hundred years, by now.  And yes, I know it’s probably already on DVD, too.  What can I say?  Sometimes Japan takes as long to receive movies as their politicians take to make decisions.  The Avengers was released here just two weeks ago.
Gotta admit, when I first saw the trailer, I wasn’t too impressed.  I liked the idea of taking these superheroes who had all been previously introduced in other movies – Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Iron Man – and meshing them all together into one film.  But based on the preview, I thought the movie’s gimick was simply having all those characters, and tying them together with some corny plot about an alien invasion.
Well, basically that’s what it was.  But the film was far more entertaining than I expected.
The movie doesn’t need to spend time introducing the characters, since we’ve met them already in their respected movies.  Instead, it gets right into the action with a plot created by remnants of the stories in Thor and Captain America, while blending a few factoids from Iron Man and The Hulk to explain why these guys are working together as a team, rather than simply because they can kick butt.  Having a full appreciation for this film is based on having seen the previous movies – including the little bits after the credits.  Otherwise, you may get lost or simply have to “accept” certain things in the story.
It’s ironic that Robert Downey Jr. got paid a hefty $50 million for his role as Iron Man, when his screen time wasn’t any longer than the other actors.  It’s also ironic, I found, that despite overpaying this guy – it was the CG created Hulk who stole the spotlight.  He’s big and scary upon first appearance, but his later scenes brought that much-needed touch of humour.
Will there be an Avengers 2?  the bit at the end certainly hints so.  I’d hate to be the producer who has to put that beast of a film together.  But The Avengers made lots of money, so we’ll see.
Did I enjoy The Avengers more than Dark Knight Rises?  No, I think Batman was the hit of the summer for me.  But it still far outranked The So-So Spider-man.




Some films, like The Avengers for instance, take their sweet time making their way to Japan (in fact, it just started showing last Saturday!)  Other films, like The Dark Knight Rises, was released here only 1 day after North America.  Besides noticing a correlation with a film’s distribution company (movies by Fox seem to arrive in Japan quickly, while anything by Dreamworks or Disney takes about 8 months) I don’t understand the reason for these delays.  If anyone has the answer, please let me know.

Anyway, The Dark Knight Rises – if you’re one of the few who haven’t seen it yet – takes place about 8 years after The Dark Knight.  Batman is still hunted by the police, and so hasn’t shown his masked face in public after taking down the Joker.  Wayne himself is secluded in his mansion, beginning to look – and smell – like Howard Hughes.  It’s not until a cat burglar (Catwoman?) attempts to steel his mother’s pearl necklace that Wayne decides to clip his nails and get back into the game.  Good thing, too.  Because we’ve got a big dude in a mask (Bane) who seems bent on destroying Gotham.

One thing I found interesting about Nolan’s Batman series, is that it truly is a series.  Other comic book adapted films, like Spider-man or even Burton/Schumacher’s Batman franchise, are made up of stories which basically stand alone.  The Dark Knight Rises is a direct continuation to the previous two, and makes constant references to them.  If you haven’t yet seen Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, I’d highly recommend checking them out before seeing the third installment.  You can still appreciate the film, but you’ll miss out on a lot.

That being said, I thought Rises was a pretty kick-ass film – and made up for my disappointment with The Amazing Spider-man.  Lots of action, lots of drama, with a climactic end to the series.  Things get so out of hand with Bane’s treachery that you think, “Man, how’s Batman/Wayne gonna get outta this one!” and you watch on with eyeballs glued to the screen to find out.

Was it the best Batman movie ever?  Well, I still liked The Dark Knight best, simply because Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was so fun to watch.  But I’d say Rises was a close second.

And compared to the Schumacher films…well, there’s just no comparison.  Like a diamond to a turd.




So if all the otaku hang out in Akihabara, where do the (less nerdy) hip youngsters do their shopping?  The answer: Shibuya!

A district in Tokyo, Shibuya is not only famous for possessing one of the busiest train stations in the country, but is home to numerous fashion shops, all huddled together under jumbo-trons and bright lights.  Shibuya 109 and the recently errected mall, Omotesandou Hills, are places where you can purchase the latest fashion at steep prices, or simply admire some of the gyaru and even a few yamamba spending their parent’s money.  Fans of the film Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray, may recognize some of the distinguishing spots near the infamously crowded intersection.

Nearby is also the statue of the dog “Hachikou,” who sat waiting for his master at the station for over ten years, unknown that he died since no one told the poor mutt. The story was made into the American film Hachi: A Dog’s Tale starring Richard Gere.  Haven’t seen it, so can’t comment.

So what’s a guy like me to find entertaining in a fashionable place like this?  Well, there’s Mandarake, a gigantic underground comic shop, cluttered with nostalgic toys – both Japanese and Western – as well as old games and consols.  Also, at the top floor of Tower Records is the biggest English bookstore I’ve ever seen in Japan (about the size of a regular bookstore back home).  And if you’re a fan of people-watching like myself, it’s fun to order a coffee at Starbucks, head up to the third floor, and admire the sea of people flood by when the light turns green.

Can’t get more Tokyo-ish than this.





The (new) Spider-man movie

Just saw the new Spider-man movie.  Have to say, I thought it was very, very so-so. I didn’t think it was a bad movie – certainly more entertaining than other comic-adapted films, like Hulk and Fantastic Four– but no where as good as Sam Raimi’s trilogy.

As I’m sure many of you know by now, The Amazing Spider-man is a retelling of Peter Parker’s origin story, with a few alterations, and pitting him against the Lizard.  It goes as follows: Parker has problems at school, visits a science lab, gets bit by a spider, learns to use his powers, love interest blooms, becomes friends with a scientist, scientist turns into a villain, Spidey fights villain, Parker can’t be with love interest because it’s dangerous.  That’s the storyline of The Amazing Spider-man, and if it sounds familiar, it’s probably because you already saw it with different actors in 2002.

The whole time I was watching this, I was wishing this was Spider-man 4 and not a reboot.  While I thought Andrew Garfield was great in Social Network, I didn’t like him as Peter Parker.  Just didn’t feel any connection to the character – any of them, actually.  Like they were all over the place, without any definitive personalities.

Now to be fair, since Raimi, Maguire, Dunst, and everyone else from the previous Spidey films dropped out of the project because they couldn’t agree on a decent script in time, Columbia Pictures had no choice to make a “reboot” with an all-new cast and a (very green) director.  But I didn’t see what was so “rebooted” about it.  The movie wasn’t particularly darker than the others (as other critics have suggested) nor were the characters any more like “real people with real problems.”  If you compare Burton’s Batman to Nolan’s, or Casino Royal with any of the past Bond films – now those are reboots!  The Amazing Spider-man was, I thought, just a straight-up remake.

Overall, I’d give it 6.5 Banzai!s out of 10.  It’s worth checking out; just don’t expect to be blown out of your seat by anything amazing.  Maybe they should have titled it, “The Remade Spider-man.”

P.S.  While I was waiting to see the movie, there was a trailer for a remake of Total Recall. How ironic.



Long live Super Potato!

What is “Super Potato,” you may ask?  No, it’s not the name of a Nickelodeon cartoon.  It is, in fact, my most favourite shop in all of Japan!
Super Potato is a retro-gaming store, located in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, surrounded by maid cafes and electronic shops.   

The moment you step off the elevator, you’re greeted with a circus of bleeping and blooping from the half-dozen game demos that are free to play.  Inside, the brightly lit room is stacked from floor to ceiling with games and consoles, while gaming memorabilia from plush Marios to Megaman action figures hang from above.  “Mama, I’m home!”  This floor consists of 1,000+ Famicom cartridges, Mega Drive titles, Gameboy, Gameboy Advanced, Wonder Swan, Sega CD, Sega Dreamcast, and countless others.  

Take the elevator one floor up, and you’ll notice the bleeps and bloops sound more prehistoric.  Here are the Atari games, Intellivision, the Odyssey, and other systems from the 70’s and early 80’s which fascinated those of us old enough to remember.  Their shelves are shared with more “contemporary” used games like Playstation 2 and Xbox, as well as gaming videos and strategy guides.  

Let’s journey up one more floor, where we have the retro arcade.  A smoking bench sits on one side next to the Super Potato vending machines if you’re thirsty, while the room’s main attraction consists of long lines of classic arcades like Street Fighter and 1943: The Battle of Midway.   Want to feel like lord of the games?  Well, they’ve got a throne just for you, made completely out of Famicom cartridges.  

Super Potato is like a video game museum – only everything’s for sale!  If anyone’s visiting Japan with plans to check out the gaming scene, then Super Potato is a must.







My defence for Trophy Hunters

Why are trophies so important?  Shouldn’t it be about the games?

Yes, it always has been and always will be about the games.  Personally, I wouldn’t waste hours and hours of game-play on something that was an utter bore, just to collect trophies.  But like building a house, the game itself is the foundation, the concrete bottom, the brick, the woodwork, and drywall which forms the shelter.  Trophies, for me, are the painting, wallpaper, and pictures on the wall.  They add the colour and detail which transform a house into a home.

Let me give you an example.  Long before Trophy Support was available on the Playstation 3, I purchased the game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.  The game had a great story, amazing graphics, and I spent hours of fun shooting bad guys and solving puzzles.  I cleared the game, felt relatively proud of myself, then placed it back on the shelf.  Over time, the game collected dust.

Then, nearly a year later, the long-awaited firmware update on my PS3 brought with it the chance to collect trophies, and Uncharted happened to be the first retail game to support it.  I blew the dust off my game, slid in the disk, and set to work.

I spent hours, days, weeks, performing all the necessary challenges.  I searched for every little treasure, made stealth attacks, head shots, used every weapon to collect the required kills, played through on Medium, on Hard, and finally on Crushing mode.  Then came that wonderful “bling,” and I had my first Platinum trophy.

The game went back on the shelf.  But this time I felt deeply satisfied.  I’d completed every possible challenge in the game.  I’d played through the story four times.  I’d beaten Uncharted on its highest difficulty mode.

I’d crushed the game!

Let’s face it, games aren’t cheap, and we want to get our money’s worth.  With trophies to collect, we have a reason to play the games over again, to partake in challenges we ordinarily wouldn’t bother with, to try beating the games on their more challenging settings.

Sure, trophies can be a form of bragging rights, either among our friends or online strangers.  In a way, they show-off how much gaming we do, how skilled we are, and how much patience we have.  But the bottom line, is that we must put in extra effort to acquire these trophies, and extra effort means extra hours.  Game companies are happy, because we’re not immediately handing our cleared games to Amazon or Gamestop for resell.  And customers are happy, because we’re getting more hours of enjoyment out of a product.

And besides, gaming is supposed to be fun.  So if collecting trophies is fun for some people, then why not?



Hamasaki was in the house!

As we mentioned in Episode 42 of our podcast, Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎 あゆみ) was performing in concert just around the corner from where we were recording.  Zack compares her to a sort of J-pop version of Britney Spears, though I’d personally say she’s more of a younger, less controversial J-pop version of Madonna.  While she’s not a big as she used to be, anyone familiar with Japanese pop-culture has probably heard the name Ayumi.

She was huge when I first came to Japan back in 2000, along with Utada Hikaru (宇多田 ヒカル).  Anytime I walked into a 7-11 or Dotours coffee shop, I heard Ayumi’s music playing in the background.  It was catchy, and the style of each song ranged from hard rock to soft pop, fast and slow, with lyrics on a variety of topics from typical lovey-stuff to the more serious like the environment and war.  After hearing her music everywhere I went, the songs couldn’t help but grow on me.  After being in Japan for only a month, I bought Ayumi Hamasaki’s Duty – my first CD by a Japanese artist.

I’ve gotten into many other singers and bands over the years – though I admit, I haven’t listened to many English artists in a long time, due to geographical reaons.  But of all the J-pop and K-pop CDs I’ve collected, Hamasaki still remains a favourite of mine.  It’s not just her music alone, but the nostalgic feel I get from listening to her songs.  They take me back to the Fall of 2000 when I first arrived here in Japan, when everything was still new and exciting.

I’m sure it’s the same for anyone who’s lived in another country for so long, but over the last 12.5 years, I’ve come to think of Japan as home, rather than a foreign country.  There’s pros to that, of course, but cons as well – the magic is gone.  The language becomes more familiar day by day, the culture is now so ingrained that I experience “reverse culture-shock” whenever I head back to Canada, and my days of exploring have turned into usual, everyday habits.

But I can still return to that feeling of a wide-eyed foreigner in a strange new land, just by popping in a Ayumi Hamasaki CD.  The memories come flooding back.

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