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  • When 16-shot gamemaster power isn’t 16-shot gamemaster power

    Posted on May 22nd, 2013 keving 1 comment

    375031

    Terrifying shockwaves are coursing across the Famicom world as we speak. Why? Because allegations are spreading across Twitter that Takahashi-meijin’s skills at pressing the “shoot” button 16 times per second were actually pretty useless, since most Famicom games’ programming couldn’t register more than 15 button presses anyway.

    Takahashi himself explains the issue in a 5/17 blog post reported upon by Inside Games.

    “Japanese TVs use the NTSC encoding standard, which updates the screen image 60 times per second. As a result, games tend to operate in slices of 1/60th of a second at a time, making it easier to sync its operations with the game screen. For modern consoles like the PS3 or Xbox 360, I imagine buttons would be polled 60 times a second as well, but with the Famicom of the time, there was no meaning behind doing that — there weren’t games that demanded that kind of precision.

    As a result, most games cut the number of polls per second in half — in other words, 30 per second. Each poll returns whether or not a button is pressed, so there was no point in pressing the button more than 15 times because it wouldn’t work anyway.”

    Shocking! Does this mean that the events of Game King, the famed 1986 home-video release that was the closest to real-life Video Armageddon we ever got, are as tainted as modern baseball records? Not so — Takahashi went on to explain that this was the case for most FC games, but once the whole “16-shot” thing became a huge deal among Japanese kids in 1985 or so, Hudson took action to make sure it was more than just an ad slogan:

    “With Star Soldier, Hiroshi Kudo (vice-president of Hudson at the time) said “Kids are going crazy for Takahashi’s quick-shot skills right now, so why don’t we have them try their hand at the record, too?”. So Mr. Nozawa, the programmer, upped the number of button polls so they could. As a result, for Star Soldier at least, you have the Lazaro enemy which requires you to shoot it 16 times in 1 second to fully defeat it.”

    By the way, whether or not the Famicom could recognize it is irrelevant, because Takahashi definitely could do 16 shots in a second. In fact, people have played the Game King video in slow motion and have made an astounding discovery — in parts of the video, Takahashi is actually achieving 17 shots per second. (Nowadays, in his comfortable retirement from the game-master throne, he averages around 12 or so.)

  • The greatest website in the world is closing

    Posted on May 15th, 2013 keving 126 comments

    Capture

    Of course, I’m referring to the homepage for the Aiseikai Hospital in Saitama prefecture, a small facility mostly specializing in ob-gyn work. (Clicking on that link may or may not trigger security blocks on your PC. Viewer beware. Totally worth it, though.)

    Featuring MIDI music, a wealth of nonsensical imagery alongside  their office hours and photo tours, and a vivid, psychedelic design straight out of 1998, Aiseikai’s page has been notorious among Japanese net users for years now, in part because it’s  remained doggedly impervious to change for over 16 years. However, sad news trekked across the net today: The hospital chief’s son reported on Twitter that his dad intends to close the site within the next two months, triggering a firestorm of nostalgia on 2ch and other forums.

    Aiseikai’s site has often been cited by Western Web designers as a classic example of Japan’s zeal for garish, cluttered, eye-destroying websites, despite being the culture that gave us finely-crafted paintings, Zen gardens, and an art style that emphasizes saying the most with the least number of strokes. It’s true that a lot of Japan’s web-dom is still stuck in 2005, sticking with Flash and tables and designs optimized for gara-kei feature phones. (Uniqlo is an oft-cited exception.)

    Time, however, apparently waits for no ghost website, even if an entire nation’s worth of nerds adore it for nostalgia’s sake. I fear that he’ll just replace it with a boring old WordPress setup and it’ll look just like every other listless, yawn-inducing website. It’s the passing of an era.

  • “Game Bar A-Button” in Akiba

    Posted on May 14th, 2013 keving 40 comments

    game bar a button

    ED: It turns out this post references a blog post from 2008 and is therefore probably really inaccurate. Never mind. Apologies for not noticing that. Original post follows below.

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  • Akihabara has hit “peak maid cafe”

    Posted on May 8th, 2013 keving 3 comments
    Inside a maid cafe in Den-Den Town, Osaka (Vitalie Ciubotaru)

    Inside a maid cafe in Den-Den Town, Osaka (Vitalie Ciubotaru)

    I know many people think that Japanese nerds are all perverts who see women as desirable yet inherently inferior to themselves, but the full story is a bit more intricate than that. I say this because Sankei Biz reported a couple days back that less than half of all the maid cafes that set up shop in Akihabara over the past ten years still exist.

     

    Maid cafes aren’t an easy to make money with because they work with a completely different cost structure from normal cafes. They have to cover the inventory costs for food, rent, utilities and so on, but also must devote a larger chunk of their budget to employee wages. To a maid cafe, the “maids” are a vital business resource, and the cafe needs to retain at least a certain amount of them at all times. As a result, wages are always difficult to keep in check, and running the cafe like a regular one results in reduced profits and even losses. Once cafes begin to have trouble keeping up with expenses and fail to pay their staff, rumors begin to spread quickly and the business never lasts long afterwards.

    As more than 2ch commenter noted in response to this article, part of the issue is that Japan doesn’t have the tradition of tipping at restaurants. It’s not something you run into at all. As a result, Japanese guidebooks to the United States have to explicitly explain the concept to readers, reminding them that while a tip is “a symbol of your appreciation for the service provided” (the way a free Japanese-language Seattle tourism brochure I have bumping around puts it), it’s not something to be considered optional, either. As a result — for better or for worse (I know a lot of food-service folks here who’d say “better” by a longshot) — the maids get their full wages paid by the company, and the company’s only recourse for the higher fees popular maids may ask for is to try and make it up in prices and get customers in and out of there as quickly as possible. Hence why your average cup of coffee in general isn’t cheap at traditional, non-Starbucks kissaten and never, ever goes below 500 yen at maid cafes.

    The most surprising part of the article to me: Even though maid cafes are on the decline, there’s apparently still 132 of them in Akihabara as of the start of 2012. I don’t know where they all fit. (Ko Ransom on Twitter informs me that the number is likely for all maid-oriented joints, like massage / “refresh” places, not just traditional cafes.)

    A related article from Searchina that came out at the same time covered American tourists’ responses to cat cafes on travel review sites. The article’s conclusion: While they had good things to say about the courtesy and kindness of the staff in letting them in and dealing with the language barrier, visitors “wondered if the cats there were really happy”. As a 2ch poster put it: “The cats in places like that are like the girls at cabaret clubs, right? None of those girls are happy while they’re on the clock either, so…”

  • Masayuki Uemura and the Family Computer project

    Posted on April 30th, 2013 keving 4 comments
    Picture stolen from Weekly Playboy (Eigo Shimojo)

    Picture stolen from Weekly Playboy (Eigo Shimojo)

    I mentioned in Episode 1 of FUN that Masayuki Uemura, chief hardware designer for many of Nintendo’s consoles, did an interview with Weekly Playboy magazine in Japan last week to commemorate the Famicom’s 30th anniversary. (I said that the Famicom came out 1982 in the podcast; it was actually July of 1983.)

    As Uemura explains in the interview, he began work on the console that became the Famicom in 1981, not long after Donkey Kong hit arcades:

    “I was in the arcade-game development department, and the president at the time [Hiroshi Yamauchi] sent us a missive to ‘make something that’ll let you play arcade games on your home TV’. I, personally, really didn’t have any prospects of success.”

    Why not?

    “The Game & Watch series was flying off the shelves at the time, so I figured Game & Watch was where our company was going to go for a while to come. Just the fact you could carry those around and play whenever you wanted, I thought that was huge. What’s more, they were taking more and more people away from my department to work on Game & Watch, so my team only had three people in it. So we were given this mission when it was already like we were fighting a losing battle. I still have my notes from the early stages of the project, but it’s filled with all of this pessimistic stuff, like ‘I don’t see any future in this’.”

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  • Japanese developers who care about looking tasteful in public

    Posted on April 24th, 2013 keving 1 comment

    nagosi
    Toshiyuki Takahashi posted on his blog yesterday about his appearance on SegaNama, a Nicovideo live stream hosted by Sega now and again. That’s him on the right, with Sega chief creative officer Toshihiro Nagoshi in the center.

    The photo reminded me of the fact that Nagoshi — the chief creative mind behind the Yakuza series, and a man who frequently shows up in the Japan gaming press to represent his company and comment on issues — has gradually gone more and more…um, what’s the word? Concerned about his personal appearance. He bucks the trend of nerdy Japanese game developers posing awkwardly in Famitsu interviews and actually spends a bit of cash on things like clothes and hairstyling. Here’s what he looked like in 1996, back when he was chiefly known for producing Daytona USA:

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  • Writing about games, not making money

    Posted on April 18th, 2013 keving 6 comments

    MsbVteA

    I thought I’d talk about a bit about “Ad-blockers, the games press, and why sexy cosplay galleries lead to better reporting,” an article posted on the Penny Arcade Report site a day ago. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you do, because it neatly encapsulates the existential crisis facing “game media”, which now more than ever probably deserves to be put into scare quotes. (Tl;dr: The only way good writing about games will be supported in the future is if all sites turn into Bleacher Report, and also pleeeeease stop adblocking us.)

    When I got out of college, I joined GamePro. I was hired to work on their website, but that’s not why I applied; I wanted to work on a print magazine, because in my mind that was prestigious. I was a 12-year-old subscriber to Nintendo Power and I grew up envious of the people who produced these mags. They seemed like the ultimate in “cool big brothers”; just sitting around an office, playing Super Famicom games, and typing their reviews into fancy Wang word processors like what I saw on L.A. Law. (I later learned that this image in my mind was essentially true, and the only reason I wasn’t one of them was that I was born too late and didn’t know the right people.)

    Even in 2002 when I got my GamePro job, game media consumers didn’t really idolize game media producers the way I did growing up. GamePro still acted like they did, with the personas and the “one united voice” editorial approach they took, but it was flying in the face of reality. Gamers were getting older, and really quickly too, and they where intelligent enough to realize that the guy on the other end of that review of Whiplash or Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles or whatever may not have known what the hell he was talking about half the time. If I wrote a preview about something like Age of Empires for GamePro off of PR material, a game in a genre I knew nothing of and cared even less about, it was guaranteed that the potential audience for this preview would know more about the game than I did. They had every right to regard paying for that sort of content as silly.

    That sort of traditional “previews/reviews/features” approach to both running a magazine and keeping a game-media website going is outdated. Gamers no longer go to IGN or whomever first to find out more about a new video game; they go on Google and from there they move on to forums or YouTube. Publishers are aware of this, and they aren’t afraid to remind media outlets about it whenever something comes up they disagree with or it’s time to discuss ad rates. And we’re now at the point where, as the PAR article points out, the sort of readers you think would appreciate good game media the most — intelligent, technically capable adults — are the exact audience most likely to use ad blockers. Every time the topic comes up, whether on PAR or Destructoid or elsewhere, commenters bring up their pet peeves about popups and interstitials and IGN’s still-fondly-remembered 2003 McGriddles re-skin by the dozen. It’d be a lot easier if we all ran just ran coupon affiliate sites or something.

    The parallels to the music/TV/game publishing industries are obvious. We have a commodity that used to be seen as worth paying $3.95 a month or $20 a year for, and we thought the people behind them were geniuses. Now, in the era of Big Data, we expect everything at once and we balk at paying any more than our ISP bill for it. Like with music, lots of people want to write about games, but nobody wants to pay more than a pittance for it, and even then only on very rare occasions and with a lot of prodding and whining on the part of the producer. (Part of the reason iOS gaming still doesn’t get a lot of respect, after all, is that charging more than $2 upfront unless you’re Square Enix all but guarantees instant obscurity.)

    Except for the news articles I write sometimes for Polygon, all my work these days is for professional translation companies and agencies. I’m glad for that, even if working freelance presents its own stresses now and then. After years of hard work, tight deadlines, and a general sense of “why am I doing this”, I’m in no hurry to get back to game media. And even if I were, the jobs I’d be qualified for seem to be more PR-y, pageview-driven, and originality-draining than they ever were when I worked at Ziff Davis et al. One thing I’ll say about all of the bosses in game media I ever had is that they never pressured me to write brainless articles to drum up pageviews. I’d feel horrible doing that today. (Fair disclosure: For GamePro I did put together one or two booth-babe galleries for E3 2002 and ’03. Apologies to Ms. Alexander.)

    Ben Kuchera is optimistic that a happy balance will be found sooner or later. I’m not. I don’t think there’s an answer to the question of “How do we fix game media”. You might as well ask “How can I make the Internet do what I want it to do,” and no government’s been entirely successful at that, much less any media publisher. I think you’ll see fewer game media sites overall and more Cracked.com-style “top 20 pairs of tits” articles going many years into the future. Of course, you’ll find more “boutique” sites that do neat things with games writing and find creative ways to stay in business doing it…and you’ll also find the editors of said sites taking side jobs in order to make ends meet. Ain’t being a creative type in the digital generation grand?

  • There’re 7% fewer arcades in Japan now than there were a year ago

    Posted on April 10th, 2013 keving 1 comment

    sevenislands

    This is according to Law Enforcement for Crimes Related to Businesses Affecting Public Morals in 2012, part of the annual white paper released last month by the public safety department of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. It was reported upon by Game Machines, an amusement-industry publication in Japan that’s been in business since 1974.

    According to the white paper, the number of businesses defined as “game centers” that have sent the correct paperwork to the government to remain in business (following the stipulations of Japan’s entertainment-related business law) was 6,181 as of December 2012. This is down 7 percent from 6,648 establishments at the end of 2011.

    I think it’s fair to say that there are two kinds of “game centers” in modern-day Japan: Places by rail stations or inside large-scale supermarkets (which are often almost, if not completely populated by skill cranes, medal games and other amusements), and facilities like the lovely, eye-catching one in Yokohama pictured above that focus on traditional video games. I probably do not need to prove my case too rigorously when I claim that it’s mostly the latter kind of establishment that’s dwindling in number over there.

    Looking at previous years’ Tokyo Metro Police white papers (and confirmed by the JP Wikipedia), Japan reached “peak arcade” a quarter of a century ago in 1986, when there were 26,573 registered game centers across the country. This went down to 19,540 in 1992, then 11,499 in 2002, and after that it’s been falling by a remarkably even pace — 500 arcades a year ever since. At the current pace, therefore, there will be no game centers in Japan by 2025. (I love flawed statistics.)

  • More on Tokuma’s Mario Guide

    Posted on May 4th, 2011 keving 6 comments

    Back on Monday I talked a bit about Tokuma Shoten’s Super Mario Bros. strategy guide, the one that sold 630,000 copies in 1985 (1.3 million overall, in the end) and became the bestselling book in Japan for two years straight. What I failed to mention — because I completely forgot — is that you can read the guide today even if you don’t know Japanese, because Nintendo of America translated it verbatim into English and sold it via the Fun Club News and early issues of Nintendo Power under the name How to win at Super Mario Bros. (This book was never sold outside of mail order and is now extremely uncommon, but .cbz scans are available on the net thanks to Retromags.)

    The book was entirely written and designed in house by the editors of Tokuma’s Family Computer Magazine in Japan. The first half of the book was largely recycled from coverage originally printed in the November 1985 issue of the mag, while the writing and screenshot-snapping for World 5-1 through 8-4 was handled by Naoto Yamamoto, who was a part-time writer that mostly worked for Technopolis, Tokuma’s computer hobby mag, at the time.

    Here’s a word or two on the ’80s Japan game-mag scene from Yamamoto, courtesy of his weblog:

    “We had planned to launch the guide in Japan with a run of 130,000 copies, but we already had plans for subsequent printings before the book was even released. Tokuma Shoten at the time held itself up to a very refined and literary image as a publisher, so it often divided up publication into several divided releases so it could produce a large number of printings and claim that as a status symbol for the book.

    Famimaga continued on with strategy guides for Pac-Land, Mach Rider, Twinbee and Spelunker, but there was no such thing as a specialist strategy guide writer at this point. They would get written by production outfits that dealt in children’s magazines, or by part-timers hired by those outfits if they had no previous game experience. I moved on to Pac-Land right from Super Mario, and I remember that the sample ROM Namco gave me to work with had a completely faceless Pac-Man in the game. They told me it was in order to keep the ROM from leaking out somewhere in the middleman process, but of course I couldn’t take any screenshots off of that thing. I wound up having my bosses go through these tense negotiations with Namco in order to get me a usable ROM, and ultimately the schedule got so tight that I had to spent four straight nights staying in the office.”

    If you think spending four straight days playing the FC version of Pac-Land sounds like fun, think again.

    “I wound up passing out in the office, I guess because of all the fatigue that had accumulated since that summer, and I was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The hospital was really close by, to the point that the rest of the editorial staff arrived before I did, which became a funny story at parties afterward. I received some gifts and new clothes and such, and ultimately I rested up for about four days. Thus, the release date got delayed. Afterwards — and not that I was the reason for it or anything — but subsequent guides were written by outside production firms. They still had me running around for them with the Twinbee guide, though, since they had trouble finding anyone to play through the game’s ‘second quest’ and they needed screenshots.”

    How much money did Yamamoto earn for co-writing the most successful book in Japan for two years running?

    “The Mario guide was done entirely in-house, so I received no royalties for it outside of my hourly salary. My writing fee, in other words, was zero. Outside of physical production, [Tokuma] spent zero yen making the guide and sold such a vast number of copies of it. I did receive royalties for the English version, though, which arrived in my bank account a long time later — a grand total of 5,555 yen [about $37 in 1987 dollars].”

     

  • Mario Mania I (1985-6)

    Posted on May 2nd, 2011 keving 3 comments

    How popular did Nintendo’s Family Computer become after Super Mario Bros. was released on September 13, 1985? So popular that, as it turns out, a third-party Super Mario Bros. strategy guidebook was the top selling non-manga book in Japan for the entire year of 1985. And 1986.

    Super Mario Bros.: The Complete Strategy Guide (スーパーマリオブラザーズ完全攻略本) was produced by the editors of Tokuma Shoten’s Family Computer Magazine, the highest-circ game mag in Japan until Famitsu hit it big in the late 1980s. Simultaneous day-and-date guide releases alongside games didn’t really happen until later, so this book didn’t hit shops until October 31 — and still it managed to sell 630,000 copies before the end of the year. What’s more, the 10th best-selling book of 1985 in Japan was another SMB strategy guide — Futami Shobo’s Super Mario Bros. Secret Tricks Collection (スーパーマリオブラザーズ裏ワザ大全集), shown below.

    (In what was perhaps a sign of the times, the book that Tokuma’s Mario guide beat out to be #1 in 1985 was the Japanese translation of Iacocca: An Autobiography.)

    Mario Mania didn’t truly take hold in Japan until 1986, though. In that year, Tokuma’s guide was again the top-selling book in the nation, with Futami’s getting bumped up to third place. What’s more, those two books were joined by five other guides in the top 25 — strategies for Twinbee, The Goonies, Spelunker, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken. In 1986, you could sell anything Famicom-related and rake in massive profits, basically — and then it happened all over again in America two years later. I knew I was born too late.

    Sadly, the guidebook boom faltered in subsequent years as competition increased. From 1987 onward, the only strategy guides that made Japanese bestseller lists were Enix’s official guides for whatever Dragon Quest title they most recently released.