Posted on September 30th, 2009 No comments
Temporary hiatus because I got lotsa projects on deadline and my parents are visiting for two days starting tomorrow!!!
Posted on September 28th, 2009 4 comments
Dengeki Games, a new Japanese magazine that launched its first issue last week, thinks so. This shot of a review page (for Pokémon HeartGold/SoulSilver) I swiped from Hachimaki-ko. In it, you can see that within every EGM-style cross review is a little bubble showing how many hours each writer played the game — in this case, 12 and 15 hours each. I figure that if you’ve already played both Pokémon Platinum and the original Gold/Silver, 12 to 15 hours is long enough to intelligently gauge out all the new things in this remake. I’m betting that most readers would agree with me, too.
The mk2 series of websites, popular outlets for user-submitted game reviews in Japan, make writers give out hours-played with each review they submit. Not so in the professional ranks. The only “high-tier” game media I can think of that ever did this before Dengeki Games is Saturn FAN, a Japanese title from Tokuma Shoten that covered the Sega Saturn, and even they did away with it after awhile.
Around 1999 or 2000 (I need to fish out the actual issue), Famitsu published a discussion between then-EIC Hirokazu Hamamura and Japan game-biz problem child Kenji Eno. The two did not exactly have the rosiest of business relationships at the time, and it was one of the better interviews Famitsu ever published, but I remember Eno asking Hamamura at one point why his mag didn’t reveal “time spent in the game” with each review. “I’ve thought about it,” the EIC responded, “but it depends too much on the individual. My one hour of play’s going to be different from someone else’s one hour of play, especially if one of us skips past all the cutscenes. I figure it’s just better to man up and say ‘I play it until I’m sure of what I want to say about it.’”
Whenever some net commenter badmouths “professional” reviews. one of the pieces of conventional wisdom that always gets thrown around is “you know they only play it for half an hour, WTF do they know about this game?” But what do you think? Is printing total play time with the review something that encourages you to trust the reviewer, or would you cynically think they’re lying about that, too?
(My personal opinion: I played through every single game I played for Newtype, including the goddamn Fullmetal Alchemist Trading Card Game. This is a bragging point for me, and I’d like to show it off to as many people as possible, because come on, are you ever gonna play through that game? Hell, if I was still working full-time for media, I’d love to have a webcam pointing at my cube during work, outfitted with timers for this and that game I’m “working on.” Pageviews would be through the roof. I swear it.)
Posted on September 28th, 2009 5 comments
Release Date: 3/4/89
Price: 5800 yen
Media: HuCard (3 Mbit)
PC Engine FAN Score: 23.66 / 30.00
Kōgien: “Proceed through the game’s dungeons, overcoming the traps and auto-generated monsters along the way. A game with a lot of action and pretty graphics. Use the Multitap to play with up to five people at once.”
This is one of those games that’s a bit difficult to gauge by modern standards. It’s heavily inspired by Gauntlet, an arcade game that, in Diablo, has an obvious successor that’s matured for years now. (The two DS/PSP Dungeon Explorer games released last year are basically Diablo clones, thus completing the two-decade-long cycle of idea borrowing.) Its most original gimmick is five-player simultaneous gameplay, which is nothing exciting or innovative to anyone with an Xbox Live account. It looks…well, very old and square and like something from a long, lost, forgotten age. But it’s still unforgettable…to me, and that’s what counts. But why?
Maybe it’s the historical value. This is the first PCE title (that I know of) that was developed by Atlus, just before it grew out of subcontracting and began to publish its own stuff. It’s also the first RPG (I’m calling it an RPG and I don’t want any guff from you homeboys who call Zelda an “action game”) on the PC Engine to support five players simultaneously, and this may or may not make it the first console [action] RPG to allow that period, the NES port of Gauntlet II not coming out for another 18 months.
For that alone, it’s pretty noteworthy, but 5-player isn’t just tacked on, either. The game’s balanced to be easier with more people, and having a “party” in the D&D sense of the term allows each participant to take a specific role — healing, short-range combat, speedily grabbing all the power-up items and pissing everyone else off. By the same token, Dungeon Explorer is frustrating in one-player for the same reason Gauntlet is — you’ve got zero room to make mistakes and (depending on the class you choose) few emergency escapes if you find yourself in trouble.
But maybe it’s the atmosphere. Dungeon Explorer is an aggressively dark game. It takes place in Cornelia, a “nation surrounded by beautiful nature” according to the intro, but in reality one of those abbreviated JRPG realms without any industry, agriculture, police force or any discernible assets apart from castles and monster generators. The entire realm is dark-colored, tiled, and aggressively depressing, like a trip through Pittsburgh in November except with fireballs. It’s hard fantasy.
Then again, maybe it’s the music. No, I’m pretty sure a lot of it is the music, actually. It’s done by a guy named Tsukasa Masuko, credited as “Macco” in most of the games he contributed to; he did lots of work for Atlus through the mid-1990s and still makes occasional contributions to games today, although he does a lot more sound-system coding than actual composition. Masuko got his start composing with 8-bit computers that overtook Japan in the ’80s, and like a lot of musicians from that generation, his stuff is structured pretty simply — lead instrument, bass, percussion and that’s it. But he uses these simple tools to create a very hard-sounding feel that oscillates somewhere between twee fantasy and low-end metal at times. (Listening to this game, I also get the idea that Ys and Yuzo Koshiro were a major influence on Masuko at the time.)
Put it all together, and you’ve got a game all but meant to manufacture nostalgia. The visuals, music, gameplay, and overall feel are made for hardcore folks, and yet the game itself is totally approachable. Atlus did a great job on it, and while it’s understandable that Dungeon Explorer never became a major brand, the sequels it’s received in Japan are a welcome sight.
I can’t find too many decent videos of DE on YT, but some guys over at Nico have posted a series of long videos showing a 5-member party running through the game, with people swapping in and out as the night goes on and everyone having a drunken good time. If you’ve never gotten a chance to see Dungeon Explorer “the way it’s meant to be played,” it’s a must-see. (The Virtual Console version only supports 4 players at once, so a video like this is a rare sight indeed these days.)
Posted on September 24th, 2009 4 comments
- Game system rental (1000 yen for 30 minutes)
Systems: Wii, PS3, PSP, Xbox, DS — you can bring your own games
- Share a tender moment watching a DVD with her. You can bring your own DVD (1000 yen for 30 minutes)
- Mini-games (800 yen for 20 minutes) — cards, The Game of Life, etc
- I’d be happy to massage your hands (1200 yen for 20 minutes)
- Ear cleaning while you rest your head in her lap (1500 yen for 20 minutes, 3000 yen for 40 minutes)
- A Tsundere/deredere slap (1000 yen for a “round trip”)
- Off to dreamland as I read a storybook (1000 yen for 20 minutes)
- A memorial photo of the two of us (1500 yen per)
- Handmade sweets, filled with love (2000 yen; message card included next time)
- Get a hold of my feelings with this love letter (1000 yen per letter)
- Read my [mobile] mail! (photo + message: 500 yen, 3 for 1200 yen)
- You’re looking at meeee! ([mobile phone] movie, 1000 yen, 3 for 2500 yen)
- This is who I am! (Bromide photo, 300 yen each)
- Let’s trade presents! (reservations required; 1500 yen)
Some girls may not be able to engage in all forms of play. Please tell us about your own games.”
The “spa-for-the-brain and relaxation shop” gives you a choice of room themes and costume for your lady companion to wear as she hangs out with you. It costs 4000 yen for 40 minutes, 5500 yen for an hour, or 7500 yen for 80 minutes; the list of “play” activities above are all options. As the website puts it, the environment allows you to enjoy a “2.7D world,” one that’s just a little bit closer to the one guests see in wacky anime love comedies.
What would you do with a girl for 40 to 80 minutes after paying for her company? Well, I can think of a few things, but in Cute Room you’ll be playing games, watching DVDs, getting massages of assorted sorts, and so on — assuming you’ve got the cash. That and you can get slapped if you’re into that Haruhi Suzumiya stuff. Presumably you could experience all of the above if you had a real girlfriend, but if you’re contemplating a visit to Cute Room, you probably don’t have a girlfriend, do you?
If you’re sticking around Tokyo post-TGS for a little sightseeing, come to the grand opening event on October 3 (Saturday), where they’ll let 30 guests in for a sneak-preview look at what 2.7D looks like in action.
The 2ch response:
- Game system rental (1000 yen for 30 minutes)
Posted on September 23rd, 2009 1 comment
The man is saying “Ahh! The flying bed! The bed is flying through the sky again!”
Despite this, it took me four or five tries before I realized that the bed in the upper right is actually meant to be in the air. I must’ve thought that Dragon Quest VI was like Animal Crossing and you could just sort of place beds and furniture and old-time radios anywhere you wanted in town. And I’m not even at TGS, deprived of sleep and writing dozens of previews, either! What the hey, me!
Posted on September 22nd, 2009 3 comments
Maker: Data East
Release Date: 3/3/89
Price: 5200 yen
Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
PC Engine FAN Score: 20.79 / 30.00
Kōgien: “The first golf game for the PC Engine. Features three modes: single-player stroke play, a score-based match game, and a four-day tournament for a cash prize.”
I intended to just sort of zip right this title — Dungeon Explorer, one of my favorite games in the entire PCE library, is next chronologically and I wanna play through it again — but there’s a remarkable amount to say about this heavily-overlooked title, the first one Data East produced for the system.
Winning Shot is the first PC Engine golf game ever released. Golf video games, already a staple on computers, became a major trend among Japanese consoles in the late 1980s. It’s a good fit for consoles — a genre that lots of people can play together, that emphasizes careful strategy over fast reflexes, that appeals to adults just as much as the kids that were still the PCE’s main audience at this point. There’s also the fact that, to the average Japanese person, golf is less a pastime and more a symbol of the genteel life — if you play it avidly, it follows that you must be stinking rich. Lots of people have golf clubs and practice at driving ranges, but few can actually afford to play at a club, and public golf courses aren’t all over the place like in suburban America. Golf is a luxury over there, no doubt, and the government even taxes you around 800 yen per go for playing it — the only sport “honored” this way in Japan. (Gov. Schwarzenegger suggested a similar golf tax late last year as part of his plan for plugging California’s budget hole, sending the Glenn Beck types into a frenzy.)
Despite the fact that the PCE had a gateball game before its first golf sim (part of the reason I ♥ this console so much), the genre is nonetheless extremely well-represented in the system’s library. In fact, not two months after Winning Shot, three more golf games — Ganbare Golf Boys, Power Golf, and Naxat Open — hit PCE store shelves in succession. In 1989 alone, the console had six golf games released for it, reflecting how much of a fad this genre was among publishers. It had legs, too — even during the later Super CD-ROM era, PCE owners got to enjoy sims like Power Golf 2 (1994) and Go! Go! Birdie Chance (1996).
This being 1989, though, Winning Shot takes a pretty orthodox approach to the sport. Shown entirely from an overhead view, the game has three basic modes: stroke play with you and your friends, competitive match play against humans or the CPU, and a four-day tournament, complete with a ridiculous 48-character-long password to save your progress with. You have six golfers to choose from, each with different strengths and weaknesses, and you’re allowed to customize their names and parameters any way you like if the defaults don’t work for you. (The object of the tournament is to win the most money, not necessarily to be first. Like in real Japanese courses, there are a lot of bonus cash prizes for winning nearest-to-the-pin contests, or for scoring a hole-in-one at any point.)
Begin a game, and the first thing that’ll strike you — assuming it was 20 years ago, anyway — is the sheer size and beauty of the golf course. PC Engine games around this era were rarely much different in terms of design from their contemporary Famicom competition, but they made up the difference by adding extra coats of detail to the visual package, an approach that had its good and bad sides. The course in Winning Shot is huge, and you need to scroll around each hole to see all of it, relying on the mini-map on the lower-right to target your shot. Fire it off, and the view scrolls to keep up with the ball, whipping you past the hole at high speed — a nice effect for the time. (Golf on the Game Boy, which I was utterly addicted to the year Winning Shot was released, is also like this.)
Being in the “second generation” of golf games released for Japanese consoles, Winning Shot’s gameplay is pretty well refined. The game automatically chooses an appropriate club and angle for you at the start of each shot, although its choices naturally don’t account for wind or any hazards in your way. I get the impression that the wind doesn’t affect the ball as much as in other games — it needs to get pretty damn windy before it seems to alter the course of the ball any. Reading the greens can also be tough, since the only layout guide you’ve got to work with is the arrow shown in the screenshot above.
A lot of golf games from around this era — and Naxat Open is one of them — feature extremely silly courses that not even the most mean-spirited architect would design in real life. Winning Shot, by this standard, is pretty realistic. There’s one hole dominated by a long, thin island that runs nearly the entire length from tee to green, but otherwise the obstacles are mostly faithful to what you’d see in a real course, with most holes offering an easy path and a more challenging route for pro players. Hole 15 is tough — there’s a sheer cliff about halfway through, and the game has some odd collision detection when it comes to trees and such, so if you land a ball in the wrong place, you’ll wind up consuming strokes bouncing the ball off this cliff face over and over again in a desperate struggle to reach the top. It’s a bit humorous to imagine this happening in real life. There would be a mob of cursing middle-aged men every Sunday morning.
Overall, though, the game’s pretty simple and easy to grasp no matter how old or slow you are. You can follow the computer players’ lead and generally not go wrong with that; once you practice enough, getting below par on every hole isn’t so difficult. This makes Winning Shot a quintessentially “HuCard-like” game — easy to pick up, easy to enjoy with others, and also kinda-sorta pretty.
Posted on September 21st, 2009 No comments
It’s the most exciting (or, at least, most crowded) week in the Japan game industry, but I have been too busy doing research for a new professional project lately — that is, I’ve been playing video games all day ‘n night — to show up in Japan or even know much about what’s being shown later this week. I do know, however, that Brian Ashcraft’s katakana-speakin’ mug has shown up on at least one Japanese blog lately, a sign that he is, in fact, more “with it” than I am.
I’ve attended TGS a handful of times, and the only things I remember about it are the refreshment kiosk and all the horny amateur photographers.
Posted on September 19th, 2009 2 comments
- Famitsu’s mascot is named Necky (ネッキー), which is simply kitsune (fox) backwards in Japanese syllabary. They needed a reader contest, kicked off in issue #7 (9/19/1986), to come up with this name. He is a fox because — as artist Susumu Matsushita mentioned in some interview or other — foxes say “kon kon” (コンコン) in Japanese onomatopoeia, and “kon” is the third syllable in “Famicom” (famikon).
- Like EGM until the late ’90s, early issues of Famitsu featured Cross Reviews written by the same four people every issue until approximately 1992. One of these writers, “Mariko Morishita” (森下万里子), was sort of the casual-gamer version of Sushi-X — she was an imaginary editor whose reviews were written by a variety of people, but she wrote from the perspective of the occasional girl-gamer, as opposed to Sushi’s ultra-hardcore approach (directly influenced by Famitsu reviewer TACOX). Unlike either Sushi or TACOX, Mariko only rarely gave a score below 6 to anything.
- Famitsu’s review scores used to differ pretty widely between the individual editors, but gradually the scores began to converge over time, to the point where it’s now very uncommon for the high and low scores for any game to differ by more than 2 points. This trend kicked into high gear with the introduction of the silver/gold/platinum awards for high-scoring games — a trend that was also noticeable in EGM.
- On top of every review is the publishers’ estimates of what the game’s target audience is and how long an average runthrough takes. Most publishers answer these questions on a per-game basis, but Nintendo is infamous among Famitsu readers for answering “anyone can enjoy this game” (even on titles recommended for older audiences by the CERO rating) and “[length] depends on the style of play” for every single game they release.
- Reviewers have occasionally gotten in trouble for bringing up issues that didn’t actually exist. One example: A reviewer criticized the Japanese edition of Gears of War for not having English voices, even though they’re accessible by changing the language in the 360 Dashboard. Another: The PSP version of Power Stone was praised for its game-sharing abilities, although the retail version requires one copy of the game per player. Sort of reminds me of that time EGM mentioned the nonexistent two-player mode in the Viewtiful Joe 2 review. Now who was responsible for that one…?
Posted on September 17th, 2009 10 comments
TV Tokyo, the smallest of the Kanto region’s six main broadcast networks (channel 12 on the dial), is best known overseas for broadcasting Pokémon and lots of other anime. Within Japan, though, it’s more infamous for never, ever, ever, ever pre-empting regular programming for any reason, from world events to earthquakes to alien invasions, even if every other channel on the dial has switched to emergency news broadcasts. (They do pre-empt sometimes, of course, but you could count the number of times over the past 30 years on your fingers.)
Classic examples taken from this site:
Situation What TV Tokyo Broadcast JAL plane crash (1985) An RC-car race championship 1st Gulf War breaks out (1991) Moomin anime, video-game news show Hanshin earthquake (1995) Moomin anime repeat, video-game news show, Blue Seed, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack (1995) Moomin anime repeat Second plane hits the WTC (2001) Quiz show starring pre-op transvestites 9/12/01 Oha Suta, s-CRY-ed 2004 presidential election Anime Mt. Asama erupts (2008) A travel program about Mt. Asama (3 days later) North Korea launches missile into Japan Sea Anime Plane explodes in Okinawa (2007) Pokémon
The most recent example of TV Tokyo’s lazy-bones approach to news coverage came yesterday. The current big pop-culture news story in Japan is Noriko Sakai, a well-known actress/singer who’s involved in a drug scandal. She was released from custody yesterday and held a press conference held by all of Tokyo’s TV stations…except TV Tokyo, which was too busy broadcasting a kids’ variety show tackling the topic of “excuses to give if you fart during class” (above).
This trend — which started because TV Tokyo (originally an educational station) has a much smaller news staff than the other networks and continues because broadcasting content while all the other stations show wall-to-wall disaster coverage often leads to better ratings — is well-known enough that Sgt. Frog parodied its own broadcast network about it in a 2008 episode.
The common joke is that if TV Tokyo breaks into programming, then Armageddon has to be coming — which, I suppose, would make sense, because if we’re all going to die anyway, you might as well make sure you spend your quarterly budget as quickly as possible.
Posted on September 16th, 2009 5 comments
Hanii in the Sky
Release Date: 2/28/89
Price: 5200 yen
Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
PC Engine FAN Score: 21.98 / 30.00
Kōgien: “An unusual shooting game where your character is a haniwa doll. The most unique feature is your ability to attack in a 360-degree radius. Defeat enemies to earn spirit energy you can trade for power-ups.”
Looking back, it’s somewhat remarkable how many early PC Engine games depicted the Buddha in one way or another. First Yōkai Dōchūki, then SonSon II, and now this game, where a very Amidabha-like god named Izanaki (not to be confused with Izanagi) sends his closest confidant — a dancing haniwa figure named Hanii — into the body of his divine wife in order to clear it of evil spirits and stop her from messing up the world. (Asian religions are generally a lot more chill when it comes to screwing around with their chief figures in popular entertainment.)
It is difficult to find very much information these days about Face, the publisher of Hanii in the Sky. Like a few other publishers around this time (such as Bigclub and Media Rings), they were probably a bunch of PC devs who started releasing PCE games because it was a piracy-free marketplace in 1989 and third-partying for NEC was cheaper than paying Nintendo’s license fees. Only one of their ten PCE titles (Time Cruise) had a US release; the most fondly-remembered ones these days in Japan is either this or their Mahjong Gakuen strip-mahjong series. In 1997 they released Money Idol Exchanger for the Neo-Geo; a more-or-less clone of Magical Drop; Data East sued them in Japan for infringement, but Face went out of business almost immediately thereafter, which goes to show that releasing “falling-thing” puzzle games wasn’t the most lucrative of businesses even back then. As of May 2009, an outfit called Softsign has the rights to Face’s back library, but so far they haven’t used them for anything besides a PS Archives release for Money Idol Exchanger in Japan.
Before all of that, though, there was Hanii. It’s pretty plain-looking, but it’s worth noting because it’s (in my eyes) the first PCE shooter to take for granted that gamers have Turbo Pads and adjust the game design appropriately. As you can see in the video below, you have all-powerful turbo shots from the very beginning; you can also apply turbo to the I button (which changes your firing direction) to give you crazy windmilling 8-way rapid fire, which surely makes you the baddest, raddest, rocket-powered haniwa that has ever existed. Instead of emphasizing rapid fire the way Hudson shooters like Star Soldier did on the Famicom, Face instead treated turbo as a given and crafted the game’s enemy patterns — most of which require a solid strategy to defeat, not just pattern memorization — around them.
So already, in 1989, you’re seeing the evolution of the shooter genre here in this silly game, from titles that emphasized patterns to those that rewarded straight-on reflexes — in other words, bullet-hell. Regardless of what you think of this evolution, games like Hanii that straddle the line between the two trends make for some very fascinating game archaeology.
SweepRecord released an official CD soundtrack for Hanii in Japan…in January 2009. Why they did this, I can’t say. The potential audience for that disc couldn’t have been more than, like, 20. That’s not meant to be a slam on the music, though, which — like the visuals — is plainly-implemented but strangely fascinating.