Tokyo PC: Pasokon Gemu!

By Quintin Smith on August 11th, 2008 at 10:25 am.


One of our roving reporters, Quintin Smith, reports on the state of commercial PC gaming in Japan, with observations on a Gundam horse-touching subgame, a careful look at Hentai sales, and a wacky touchscreen card game that doesn’t have anything to do with PC gaming. Onwards, for Japan and some NSFW content.

Hi! So I’m in Tokyo for a few months right now, and recently Jim got to asking if I could write something about the state of commercial Japanese PC gaming. At least I think that’s what he asked.

Having IM conversations with Jim is kind of tricky ever since This Gaming Life got released, since he’s become prone to giving up on words entirely and just spamming you with pictures of naked ladies with his book photoshopped over their boobs.

But we must accept that success changes us all in our own special way, so I’ve gone ahead and written up a little something for you guys on what PC gaming is like in Japan. What’s hot? What’s not? And isn’t it mostly just crap hentai porn games? Read on!

Well, the idea that hentai makes up most commercial Japanese PC games is a misconception. Hentai, to varying degrees, makes up all commercial Japanese PC games.

I’m serious. It’s a tragedy. With the exception of the gaming ultrastores in Akihabara, Nipponbashi and so on, which stock repackaged Western PC games, visits to game shops in search of PC games are mostly going to go like this:

Here’s your average aisle in your average game shop. Apologies for the terrible photography, but by this point I’d already had an arcade attendant literally call the cops on me for taking photos and I could not be bothered spending another 15 minutes politely answering different variations of “What’choo doin’ in our country, whitebread?”

Follow the signs to PC software and there’s a good chance you’ll find it divided off with something like this. In we go!

Yep.

Yep.

Yep.

Sometimes you will find a PC game which does not look like porn, but you must remain vigilant. Here’s the most innocent looking game I could find. Let’s check the back.

Hmm. Still nothing.

Enhance 44129. Move in, stop. Enhance 24 to 29. Pan right.

Yeah. Give me a hard copy right there.

They covered up the sexy screenshots with a sticker, the fiends!

What does all this mean? Well, it means PC gaming is far more niche and geeky in Japan than it is in the West. As to why this is, I can only offer a few educated guesses.

First, while gaming with friends and family in Japan is far more common than in Europe or the US, you might be surprised to hear that long distance online gaming isn’t at all popular. Yeah, you’ll see guys making their girlfriends carry their crap while they display freakish skills at the arcade, and you’ll see groups of schoolkids huddled in the corners of train stations playing Monster Hunter 2nd G together on their PSPs, but online gaming? No dice. Over 80% of Japanese PS3 owners have never even taken their consoles online.

Second, demos. Until recently they’d been an advantage that PCs had always held over consoles, but they’re seen as a sign of weakness in Japan. The Japanese way of thinking is that if a games company is putting out a limited amount of their product for free in the form of a demo, that company must have no confidence their product. Demo comes out, sales of that game always drop. Fruity, huh?

Third, hardware aesthetics are infinitely more important in Japan. For a consumer product to take off over here it has to be something you’d be willing to take into your home, so to speak. That means it has to be pretty and it has to be as small as possible. Hence the Gamecube, hence the Wii, hence the redesign of the PS2 that turned it into a pop tart. But it’s something we in the West barely consider. Maybe it’s also the reason we have yet to develop a successful handheld games machine. Hell, if we’d invented the DS then the DS Lite would have been the same size but with pop-out floodlights and phat rims.

To reiterate, in Europe and the USA we can joke at how ugly the original Xbox was, or at the little Playstation logo you can spin round depending on whether you stand your console up or not, but it’s honestly no laughing matter in Japan. That stuff determines whether a machine flies off shelves or gathers dust in warehouses. Now consider that most PCs are not only hideous and huge, but hot and noisy too. They’ve got the feng shui of land mines. It’s no surprise that most Japanese people are going to avoid them.

That brings me neatly onto manga cafés, these internet cafés / manga library hybrids that are on every other street corner. They’re where a lot of Japanese people get their hot PC action, and sometimes more than figuratively! Before I found a room at a guest house I spent some nights sleeping in them, and once woke at four in the morning to the gentle wet slapping noise of someone enjoying themselves in the next cubicle over. But yeah, because fewer people buy PCs these places are absolutely everywhere, and because they’re everywhere fewer people buy PCs.

I don’t want to give these places a bad rap with my wanking story, come to think of it. They’re plush. You get a private booth, cosy leather seating, big headphones, a TV, a PS2, a comprehensive free soda-fountain and coffee machine, and you can call the front desk to have rewritable CDs and, uh, tissues and stuff sent up.. The place I stayed at had an ice cream maker too. Not bad for £2 an hour.

As for games, the PCs at manga cafés always have about a dozen Asian MMORPGs installed. This makes sense since that’s the only genre the consoles and arcades don’t have covered. And before anyone mentions simulations, know that Japanese dev teams churn those things out for consoles by the hundreds. Tokyo Bus Guide and its ilk are honestly as far from aberrations as you can imagine.

Course, all this isn’t to say the Japanese are completely cut off from the choice produce of our PC games industry. Feast your eyes on HALF-LIFE 2: SURVIVOR.

Not actually a photoshop! They carved up the assets of Half-Life 2 and turned it into a deathmatch arcade game you play with a joystick. You can check out the official site if you want. If you do, please notice some new black haircuts such as cornrows and afros on familiar character models! It’s because the game came out during the height of Japan’s love affair with hip-hop fashion. Oh, yes. You can also check out the latest news update, which talks about some kind of new game mode involving melons. I don’t know. I could try and decipher some of that stuff but reading back the results would probably make me impotent for weeks on end.

My original plan for this article was actually to get Youtube footage of myself playing Half Life 2: Survivor and talking you through it, but following my exciting (really tedious) official police warning the fight’s kind of left me. So instead I’m going to talk about a different kind of arcade machine that’s become popular out here which doesn’t quite fall into the remit of PC gaming but Rossignol said “looked amazing” so I’ll go for it anyway. And besides, I’ve just spent like 1,000 words explaining how Japan doesn’t have some games that we do. Seems fair to chat about a new type of game those guys have come up with that we can’t play. You may consider this the Bonus round!

Have a look at this:

Neat, right?

It’s called Lord of Vermillion, and it’s the latest of about a dozen different trading card/arcade machine hybrids that have been released out here over the last five years.

I’m aware I’ve been beaten to the punch on these by a load of other gaming news sites, but no one else seems to have talked about them both in detail and with use of a shift key, and we should be talking about these machines in detail and with a shift key. They’re extremely cool! Besides, they now take up about a sixth of the space of Japanese arcades. Considering another sixth of that space is UFO catchers, the next third is fighting games and another sixth is virtual motherfucking mahjong, the videogame equivalent of waterboarding, these card games deserve a little more press.

The way Lord of Vermillion works is as follows: The arcade machine can recognise the trading cards related to the game when you place them on its touchscreen, and represents them accordingly onscreen. You buy your starting cards from a vending machine next to the tables themselves, and this starting deck includes your own personal stat card. You then sit at a free table, insert more yens into the machine as well as your stat card, and from there you can either enter some kind of freeplay or progress through story mode.

When you finish playing the machine then coughs your stat card back up with your progress saved on it. You could therefore conceivably call Lord of Vermillion an RPG, but that’d be pushing the term further than I personally am willing to go. And that’s pretty far, considering what an unbelievably, blindingly stupid term it is to begin with.

Now there are two clever twists in this electric card game business. Twist one is that doing well in Lord of Vermillion’s story mode causes the machine to eject special booster packs of cards for you. Twist two is that individual cards have limited uses and soon become as worthless as the fancy card they’re printed on. Oh, snap!

Most of the controls can be pieced together from the video. As you can see, angling cards affects which way the characters you place on the table move and attack. The trackball on the left activates attacks, and special ability cards can be placed along the bottom of the table if you’ve got them. The pro players (read: Japanese people from precisely two weeks after the game’s release) have the entire bottom of the table crammed with cards, and more cards stacked up on either side of the touch screen for emergency use.

Like I say, there are plenty of different types of these. The Gundam one, Gundam Card Builder, is fun because the way the players all share a big central screen makes them look like scientists at NASA control room. And the horse-racing one is amazing too because it features a subgame where you have to groom your horse by rubbing the touchscreen. You’ve got to imagine a dozen Japanese men in suits, all of them smoking and wearing dead serious expressions while they methodically run their fingers over a picture of a horse. It is beyond perfect.

But I’m willing to bet that what’ll really get you guys longing for a global release of these card tables is Sangokushi Taisen, or Battle of the Three Kingdoms. In a nutshell, it’s an arcade Total War where the collectible cards are your regiments, generals and equipment.

Here’s a tutorial on how to use archers:

The game itself is all about protecting your fort and your confoundingly powerful generals while damaging the fort and butchering the generals of your opponent. As with Japanese arcade fighting games the machines are system linked and you play the people around you. It really does look like a lot of fun. I mean it must be, since it’s currently on its third official update. The commercial advantage of these tables is that once they’re in place you can easily update the software and release new cards to go with it, and that’s exactly what happens.

Phew! Alright. It’s dawning on me now that not only have I again written enthusiastically about a completely impenetrable game, this time I’ve written about a game you’d have to physically travel to the other side of the world to even try. Time to wrap this up, I think. If anyone has any questions about hentai or card tables or virtual mahjong, please go ahead. Also if anyone would care to actually photoshop Jim’s book over a girl’s boobs I would be much obliged.

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47 Comments »

  1. Arnulf says:

    Now consider that most PCs are not only hideous and huge, but hot and noisy too. They’ve got the feng shui of land mines.

    Now that’s just brilliant. Pure brilliance.

  2. Skalpadda says:

    Japan really worries me sometimes. I guess there’s worse things serious men in suits can do than touch horses though.

    One question: Is there any motivation behind considering a demo release as a weakness? I can understand that it might show weak trust in your other PR (well, it makes some kind of sense), but in the product itself?

  3. Thingus says:

    One part of me is somewhat disappointed by the money-grabbing nature of these tables. But it’s being shouted down by the parts of me in charge of japanophilia, strategy games and shouting OMG TAHTS AWESUMN!

    Also, is that you playing in the first video?

    As to the demo thing, Skal, I’m guessing the idea is that the game should be strong enough that people don’t need to be persuaded to play it by the company. Taking it to it’s extreme, you shouldn’t need any PR at all, the game will sell by word-of-mouth alone.
    Isn’t culture fun?

  4. feitclub says:

    Great read, but could you tip us off as to where you got some of this information? Specifically concerning online PS3 usage and the perception of demos in Japan. I’m inclined to believe you because surveys indicate the Japanese think the Internet is “scary.”

    http://whatjapanthinks.com/2007/12/10/cyberspace-scares-over-three-in-four-japanese/

    (and that poll was conducted online!)

    Also, I know by viewing the Japanese PSN store, there are much fewer demos than the US store. Indeed, many games will have a US demo but a Japanese one, even if the game is available in both stores!

  5. brog says:

    Remember, you can’t hit dashing Calvary!

  6. Sarin says:

    feitclub said

    I’m inclined to believe you because surveys indicate the Japanese think the Internet is ‘scary.’

    http://whatjapanthinks.com/2007/12/10/cyberspace-scares-over-three-in-four-japanese/

    (and that poll was conducted online!)”

    That classic. I guess they suscribe to the ‘face your fears’ mantra

  7. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    I’ve been waiting for a new entry on your blog since Men’s Egg, and then one pops up on the RPS mainsite! Excellent my dear fellow! And most interesting. *strokes chin*

  8. Arsewisely says:

    Thanks for that – an interesting read.

  9. MetalCircus says:

    Loved the Blade Runner referance here

  10. Smee says:

    I was in Tokyo two years ago and remember being utterly astounded by my discovery of the Half Life 2 arcade game. I managed to get about a minute of gameplay footage on my camera before I was thrown out by the security guards (oh how we must suffer for our passion), but unfortunately the hard drive upon which it is stored on is in another country at the moment, so no hope of a YouTube anytime soon.

    My favourite thing about it was the intricate, overblown HUD that had invented an extra dozen stats to keep track of, and the onscreen “Critical Hit!”-alike messages during the action. One thing of note however is that you can actually play through the entire Half Life 2 single-player story on them (albeit a much more streamlined version). You just save your progress on a card when you’re done like the strategy card games you mentioned.

    I also vaguely remember a female Combine model in the deathmatch mode, which would be neat if correct.

  11. dartt says:

    The total war game looks like great fun, very tactile.

  12. Andrew says:

    Very good article.

  13. surprise says:

    Actually Just right now I am doing a internship in Nagoya(Japan) in a company that creates games for mobiles.

    Not sure if thats interesting on a pc gaming blog, but the same question can be asked for arcades I guess :-)

  14. Rook says:

    Desktop PCs may be ugly, but laptops aren’t, wonder if that’ll change anything?

  15. Babs says:

    Smee: The website backs you up, see this picture http://hl2survivor.net/news/images/head_ico_common01.jpg
    Very bizarre.

    The Total War game does seem func, though a little arcady for my taste. I long for a fully tactile Cabinet War Room style interface where you can move units around with long sticks!

  16. JJ says:

    Nice article, makes me want to visit tokyo some day even more.

  17. Noc says:

    Hmm. Electronic pay-per-play interfaces, and limited use cards. The Japanese have taken the money-making scheme that is the collectible card game and taken it to the next level.

    We balk at micropayments for videogames, but as long as you’re getting actual paper cards for your money it’s alright. I remain impressed.

  18. Birdoman says:

    The female Combine looks a lot like the Combine Assassin concept art (page 99 in the hint book if you stupidly bought the HL2 Collector’s Edition…like me)

    http://hl2r.tripod.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/conassassin.jpg

  19. Sum0 says:

    I remember seeing that card game (or something similar) in an arcade in Akihabara, though like 90% of arcade games over there I couldn’t even begin to work out how one goes about starting to play. (I tracked down a room of those awesome Gundam VR-ish pods, waited for a round to end, happily leapt into the nearest one, and was gently led out by a politely disgruntled customer and an attendant who led me to the clipboard where you reserve your place in advance. I got to play it eventually, and it was awesome.)

    During the many, many hours which I utterly wasted in Akihabara, it never occurred to me that all PC games I saw were hentai, more like all hentai games I saw were on PC. Or… so I heard.

    I’d wager that the reason why PC gaming is less popular is just because consoles are so huge – and Japanese. After all, Nintendo, Sony, Konami, Namco, Taito, etc. are Japanese; Microsoft, Blizzard, Valve, etc. are American. It’s not a xenophobic thing (any more than sales of ultra-train-sim Densha de GO are, in the West, precisely zilch), it’s probably just because the big Japanese gaming companies naturally concentrate on Japan.

  20. Gap Gen says:

    Any RPS people going to the slightly closer Edinburgh Interactive Festival?

  21. Smee says:

    @Birdoman and Babs: Thanks, glad I’m not going crazy.

  22. Jae Armstrong says:

    AH! It’s EIF time? I forgot all about that for the third time in a row, and I’m from Edinburgh. :(

  23. Half Broken Glass says:

    Japan really worries me sometimes. I guess there’s worse things serious men in suits can do than touch horses though.

    They could be touching little girls. Oh wait, they already did in Doki Doki Majo Saiban. And most likely beyond in many other games, they just had enough common sense left not to export them.

  24. EyeMessiah says:

    When I visited Japan I was pretty miffed when I saw how awesome some of the gaming facilities were, compared to what we have in the UK. I wondered why arcades and things were such big business over there, and over here they are basically dead in the water. (That said, this was 4 years ago maybe and some nice gaming centers have opened up now, even in Glasgow.)

    You just have to look at floor plans for affordable Japanese flats\houses in a city leasing agents to see why arcades and those awesome manga library\internet cafe\lan party\booth places do so well. Imagine being a teenager living in the city with your familiy in a space the size of a couple of bus shelters and suddenly paying a premium so you and your friends can have your own space becomes very attractive and some of those booths are huge and have couches & DVD players & networked streaming movie collections & consoles – basically all the stuff you and your mates would want, but might struggle to squeeze into your bedroom\living room – that and also that your tsundere sister would terrorize your friends.

    I think PC gaming gets left out in the cold a bit in Japan because the whole console thing has more continuity with the whole arcade \ social gaming thing which is a pretty mainstream scene over there. Traditionally, PC gaming has always been about sitting at a desk in a dark room on your own.

    .
    .

    Also, playing True Love on drugs while listening to Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions is one of the purest gaming experiences I have ever had.

  25. Grey_Ghost says:

    I freaking love much Anime, but there is a lot of stuff in Japan that just scares & confuses the hell out of me. The majority of random Japanese media I come across just gives me the creeps!

  26. DSX says:

    Superb read, almost did a real rofl at “Enhance 44129. Move in, stop. Enhance 24 to 29. Pan right.” BR quotes FTW.

    I’m surprised all the the ATX mini’s and the all-in-one models in past couple years haven’t had more market penetration (no pun) in East Asian PC sales. Many are fanless and sexy with superb gaming specs.

    I wish more cheap internet cafe’s existed in the States: they are a great way to take your game addiction public and you can make some great contacts for other LAN events etc rather then spiral socially downward into seclusion as some of us *cough* tend to.

  27. Dreamhacker says:

    I guess you either love Japan or hate Japan. I’m sticking with the former.

  28. Flint says:

    HL2 Survivor PC port please.

  29. Vollgassen says:

    Can’t I just loathe Japan?

  30. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    I hadn’t realised quite how much they’d changed Half Life 2 for Survivor until looking at their website. I’ll second Flint’s request for a PC port as I’d be quite interested to see rebel soldiers with cat ears, Alyx armed with a sword and be-horned Combine soldiers in the HL2 mix.

  31. Paul S says:

    I find Japanese culture pretty unappealing in general, and their game scene in particular leaves me stone cold. I mean, the Wii is fun and I enjoy my DS in short bursts, but imagining a world in which consoles (without the western developed console titles which I occasionally enjoy) rule supreme is rather unpleasent.

  32. Phil White says:

    Agreed Paul. Japan is a country full of people who’d happily kill you, were it not for pesky national civility getting in the way. Dark heart, as they say.

  33. Quinns says:

    Also, is that you playing in the first video?

    T’isn’t. I just found it on Youtube. If it were me you’d be able to tell from the outrageously muscled forearms, assorted designer bangles and bracelets and my collection of faded Russian prison tattoos.

    Could you tip us off as to where you got some of this information? Specifically concerning online PS3 usage and the perception of demos in Japan.

    Normally this is of course the question that turns my journalistic sphincter into a hula hoop. However, this time I’m safe. Truth is I’ve been spending a lot of time hanging out with the game designer of a famous Japanese game development studio. Guy’s been very enlightening. It’s from him I got the PS3 stat.

    Desktop PCs may be ugly, but laptops aren’t, wonder if that’ll change anything?

    Good point! Problem is that gaming laptops make for bigger, noisier and hotter laptops. I haven’t seen a single Windows laptop being used in public since I got out here, come to think of it. It’s all Macbooks.

    Can’t I just loathe Japan?

    There speaks a man who’s never played Bushido Blade or eaten dirt cheap tempura. This country’s got a lot going for it! Don’t be hatin’.

  34. Paul S says:

    Um. That seems to be going a bit far. I say that I don’t like the cultural output, and your response is to declare that whole country are repressed killers?
    Blimey.

  35. Phil White says:

    I just wouldn’t go there on holiday. I don’t think Westerners are welcome, but they’re too polite (mostly) to say anything.

    Bushido Blade, though.

  36. propanol says:

    What I don’t understand about Japanese arcades is how people are able to stand the aural assault you’ll be subjected to upon stepping into one. Seriously, noise levels approach around 60dB or more inside most – datacenters are probably more benign to your ears and that’s saying something.

  37. malkav11 says:

    There are a fair number of non-adult “visual novels” on PC as well, and a few other things – a couple of the Ys games (like Ys VI: Ark of Napishtim) originated on the PC, for example.

  38. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    Well, Japan isn’t the friendliest place in general, if you get past the most immediate politeness layers. Though you could generally get by with folks being politely condescending, especially if you’re only visiting for a bit.

    I can’t say I’m especially a big fan of Japan’s gaming scene. Or their culture in general. (The “no demos” thing is only one of their several consumer-culture quirks that just strike me as terribly silly and impractical.) The pretty pictures pop culture, on the other hand, I actually like quite a bit.
    Divorced from their proper context, of course.

    One should add that the not-entirely-inaccurately-perceived shallowness in their over-emphasis on aesthetics over substance, such as what manifests in their physical products, does make for some nice-looking stuff. Such as handhelds, which they’ve down pat.

    And I’ve gotta say… When I originally read up on HL2 Survivor, I was first amused, then dismayed.

  39. lgm says:

    Awesome article. Any chance of this turning into a regular column?

  40. Andrew says:

    Interesting article. I’d have loved to know what those briefly-mentioned importers/big stockists do. Surely there are Japanese localisations of some PC games, or are they all imported American versions?

    I mean, yeah, arcades are nice, but this is a PC site, and if I wanted to waste money in an arcade I’d not need my PC :)

  41. EyeMessiah says:

    Sometimes I just stuff pound coins into my empty fdd bay when I die in Bioshock. The vita-chambers make so much more sense that way!

    Has anyone on RPS ever lived the dream of building a PC with arcade emulators into an Arcade cabinet with working coinslots?

  42. Real Horrorshow says:

    I remember back when I played Battlefield 2, there was a fairly significant community of Japanese players, for some reason.

  43. James Lyon says:

    I saw two of those card-based arcade games in London’s Trocadero the other day: a football one and a horse racing one. Even translated into English they look confusing as all hell, although even saying that I’d probably get more of my money’s worth than the two minutes I spent on House of the Dead 4.

  44. Quinns says:

    No way! I had no idea any of the card arcade machines had made it further than Singapore. This bodes well. And also not well, as arcades in the UK are sad, expensive affairs.

  45. Anonymous says:

    Oh, yes. You can also check out the latest news update, which talks about some kind of new game mode involving melons.

    Watermelons, presumably.

  46. squarebab says:

    Well, this explains Japan’s low birth-rate crisis. Instead of the Japanese government paying couples in cash to have children, they should give them game cards instead. HA!

  47. Brian Lee says:

    Sega had interesting arcade game back then.

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