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  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 2

    Posted on May 13th, 2009 keving No comments

    090513-akihabara1

    Looking back, I was amazed I holed myself up in there, ten hours or so at a time, open to close, despite how unhealthy it all was. Odd how it didn’t bother me at all. I was knee-deep in that realm on a daily basis. But the hours spent playing filled me. The feeling I got with every cheer that leapt from the audience when I landed an extended combo, with every complimentary wry smile I shared with my opponent regardless of who won or lost, was indescribable.

    Here is chapter two of The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER, a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa that takes retro games and uses them to weave a tale of suspense and post-apocalyptic sullenness. In a collapsed Japan where all the “poison” has been removed from mass media, the otaku culture of the past finds a way to survive in the wreckage. Ryohei Takamizawa’s job is to find rare and out-of-print games for his nostalgia-happy clients. What’s he up to this chapter?

    Happy readin’.

    ——-

    “I mean, I can’t make any money off PC-98 games,” said the guy at the Sofmap #666 counter, trying desperately to keep the hairpiece balanced on his head.

    There was a marketplace for so-called “retro games” back in the day — one large enough to support used-game shops and even a magazine or two — but nearly all of them dealt exclusively with console titles. Games from the floppy-disk era wind up deteriorating over time, and the boxes were so large that they tended to be the first thing to be trashed whenever it came time to clean house.

    “‘Course, collectors never change over time, y’know? If there’s some loser out there who wants something, there’s always some other loser who’s got it.”

    “Can you think of any leads?”

    “Well, there’s this player who comes in here a lot who was talking about how one of his customers is a huge history buff.”

    With that, the man traded me the address to an underground arcade in the Kabuki-cho district of Shinjuku in exchange for a 10,000-yen note.

    ——-

    Ever since I became a player, I’ve come into the habit of losing myself in memories of the past. My name is Kazuki Noda, and I never even imagined I’d be keeping myself fed doing crap like this.

    The room was filled with the odor of the crowd, packed in like sardines and sweating, as the explosions and game music and punching sound effects mixed together to form an indecipherable ear-rattling chaos. The cigarette smoke wafting in from somewhere was enough to make me choke. Even the seediest of racetracks give their patrons a little more space to work with than this. The crowd’s eyes were fixed on the machine across from mine. No matter how many of them gather around, you almost never hear any cheers or clapping. Looking at them from the outside, staring wordlessly at the player and his console, was a weird experience.

    Looking back, I was amazed I holed myself up in there, ten hours or so at a time, open to close, despite how unhealthy it all was. Odd how it didn’t bother me at all. I was knee-deep in that realm on a daily basis. But the hours spent playing filled me. The feeling I got with every cheer that leapt from the audience when I landed an extended combo, with every complimentary wry smile I shared with my opponent regardless of who won or lost, was indescribable. I couldn’t even begin to put into words how it was, the arcades back then.

    “Hey, I think you got someone.”

    The beer I was drinking to pass the time was stronger than I thought. I was nodding off, and the attendant was shaking me awake.

    There was no noise, no explosions, no body stink. The room was desolate bare concrete, with dim lighting placed on top of a few pricelessly valuable arcade cabinets, along with a few vending machines. It was an underground arcade in Kabuki-cho. After the new Entertainment Industry Act took effect, the legal arcades had nothing but crane games and non-violent, non-destructive titles approved by the government. No business could be more healthy and constructive than these “amusement parks,” as they call themselves.

    Shinjuku Sportsland was the illegal arcade you went to once you were sick of wholesome entertainment. The place was basically a hobby for the owner, the customers mainly men in their thirties who longed for the good old days of fighting games. It was hard to picture a bleaker scene.

    Of course, I guess that’s why I’m able to make a business out of this. I’m a player. That’s my job.

    Whenever some honest, run-down salaryman goes through the door (like the one just now), the first thing he does is look around the room nervously. I guess I could understand it. It’s not like you’d get the death penalty if you got caught by one of the occasional raids and they decided to make an example out of you, but you would lose your social standing, at the very least.

    But once his eyes turn toward one of the machines (like this one did just now), you can tell right off that he’s one of your kind. Slowly but surely, he looked across the machines. He settled on The King of Fighters ’95, a classic from the 2D masters at SNK. The basic concept, pitting characters from SNK’s top franchises like Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting against each other, was such a hit that it wound up outperforming the original franchises themselves. Arcades back then divided their floor plans between 3D games like Virtua Fighter and the 2D titles of Capcom and SNK, the two genres duking it out for share on a daily basis…not that any of that matters anymore. Regardless, gamers saw KOF95 as one of the best games in the series, the pinnacle of the franchise before the glut of characters made it lose steam. To put it another way, this was a customer with good taste.

    As I observed the man, plainly excited to be playing a fighter he rarely gets a shot at, I began to notice that the low skill level the game was set at wasn’t enough for him. Setting the CPU level on the easy side was a service for the customers, most of whom didn’t have the reflexes they had back when these games were new, but it was also what made my job possible. I nonchalantly sat in front of the cabinet facing his, giving him a quick look. He was confused for a moment, but realizing what I was there for, he nodded.

    The man was capable. He was nimble enough with cancels to easily hold his own against the computer, but compared to the old masters, he was frankly nothing. Maybe he used to be better; maybe he was just an average gamer and liked playing anyway. It honestly didn’t matter to me. My job was to fight him on his terms, to bring the battle to a level he was comfortable with. This wasn’t a competition. A player’s job isn’t to win; it’s to give the customer as enjoyable an experience as possible.

    In the case of a team-battle game like KOF95, that means starting by keeping the fight close, then winning with the last guy on your side. The trick here is to work some sort of easy-to-detect weakness into your play style. I don’t make it that easy for him to get, but — for example — if he picks up on the fact that I have trouble defending projectiles after a dive cancel, then he’ll feel like he has a chance at winning. Then I let him win once every three matches or so.

    “Thanks. It was fun.”

    090513-akihabara2The nervousness totally gone, the salaryman was already moving like a regular as he palmed a bill into my hand. The custom was to tip the player the same amount that you put into the machine. You don’t get much in one go, but if you had enough customers in a day, you could keep yourself above water well enough.

    Back when the game industry was a real business, I had a name for myself among the fans. I let it get to my head. Once I started getting a little writing work from it, I actually thought I could make it a career. I was a textbook case: a kid who left school with no job hopes and the idea that he could become a world-famous game designer off of that somehow.

    Watching the salaryman leave the arcade, I threw the bill he gave me into a vending machine and chose the cheapest low-malt beer they had — the only luxury I could afford. When I wasn’t dreaming about becoming a world-beating game designer, I was also imagining myself as a professional gamer. Which I guess I am now. A pro gamer. A player who can take on anyone at anything, from arcade games to net PVP stuff to old Famicom carts. All it makes me is a game panhandler, a man relying on other people’s nostalgia for the golden age of gaming to earn his next meal. That’s what being a “pro gamer” gets you.

    ——-

    “Hey. You the player here?”

    The man must have thought I looked pathetic, sipping my beer slowly to keep the sensation in my throat for as long as possible. I valued my salary too much to get on his bad side. Between the alcohol and my sense of self-loathing lay this man, dead in front of me; someone in his early twenties, someone who couldn’t have been from the game generation.

    “Yeah. You here to play? You’re kinda young for it.”

    Swiveling my unfocused eyes upward, I could plainly see the contempt in his expression.

    “I don’t play games outside of my business,” said the man. His name was Ryohei Takamizawa, and he was a game hunter. I knew my fair share of brokers tracking down the games, the consoles, the arcade boards for the sort of people that underground arcades needed to make their money, but they’re usually nowhere near this young.

    “The Softmap #666 guy told me you got a history fan in your clientele.”

    I don’t spend all day holed up in this arcade. Sometimes I make house calls. A lot of people my age have consoles carefully stored in their closets, or Windows games that shut down their servers and are playable only in standalone mode, and they’re looking for someone to play with or show off to. All well-off enough that they can afford to call me in, of course. Occasionally I get a call from one of these clients to serve as their opponent for the entire day. The base pay’s a bit better that way. They throw in a little more in order to encourage me not to report them.

    “Yeah. I mentioned the guy to him. He made me play Age of Empires, I think.”

    “I want to get some contact info for him. There’s this game I’m looking for.”

    People like these, too young to be there for the golden era, really got on my nerves. They’re arrogant, and they don’t give a shit about games. It’s just a source of income to them.

    “So, how much?”

    Just like I expected, he thought that money could do anything for him. Of course, the bill he showed me was admittedly enough to make me unconsciously clear my throat. It could buy me an entire jug of sake, easy. But I had to stand my ground here. Otherwise, I’d just be a game panhandler.

    “I don’t need your money. Let’s play a round. Beat me, and I’ll arrange a meeting.” I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I sounded like a character from that strip-mahjong game you always found in the corner of the arcade.

    The Virtua Fighter 2 cabinet lay before my fingers. No title symbolized the arcade fighting scene better than this one. There was a moment in time where being good at this game would make you the object of worship; an “iron gamer,” as the otaku put it. What are all those iron gamers doing today? I could see one of them in the same line of work as I was, grimly smiling to himself.

    “Sure. I always wanted to see what a ‘player’ could do.”

    As I sat down next to the cabinet and pressed the start button, I realized that I cared less about the money and more about showing this kid what gamers from my era are made of.

    (To be continued)

    Footnotes

    PC-98: A computer series, launched by NEC in 1982, that ran off Intel processors but was different enough from the IBM PC standard to not be compatible. It had a virtual monopoly on the Japanese business marketplace until the mid-to-late 1990s, and was also a very popular platform (much more so than the X68000) for games and doujin software. Like with old PC games in the US, the vast majority of PC-98 titles are easily emulatable and have little collector value.

    Shinjuku Sportsland: This is an actual arcade located in Shinjuku, one with a bustling fighter scene and one that also plays host to a great deal of preliminary location tests.

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