Tokyo PC: Pasokon Gemu!
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!
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:
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.