I haven't posted anything since I left, and since I returned I've been feeling a little... unmotivated?
I had all these grand plans of things I would do when I got back, but so far the only one I've managed to accomplish was eating an entire pizza.
I suppose I needed some time to take it all in, and now, having done that... I'm going to tell you about Japan. Not about my trip really, as all of that is covered in our trip blog, but about the video game scene in Japan from the viewpoint of a visitor.
I'll start by saying that it really is everything you have been told. Arcades packed with people, everyone playing DS, and being able to talk about playing games or working in the computer industry without spawning an immediate smirk on the face of the listener.
Having been all over the country I can safely say that this is not a country-wide theme. The nerds are securely nested in the major metropolises, as you would expect.
The definitive center of the culture lies in Akihabara, a part of Tokyo where you literally cannot go ten feet without running into a video game store. I'm not sure a place like this could exist in any other city as it must be due to Tokyo's ridiculously large population that each store can still turn a profit. There's also Den Den town in Osaka, which is sort of like Akihabara's little brother.
I spent hours just wandering from store to store, each stocked with all the usual titles as well as harboring a healthy number of used games. Many stores also have a vintage section where you can pick up everything from Super Nintendo to Dreamcast or Virtual Boy games and while in this age of emulation it seems a little strange to spend money on old systems, it's still a lot of fun to dig through the piles of old games to see what you can find.
Then of course there are the arcades. Japan is really the last line of defense in the war between home consoles and arcades, and while I don't think that arcades are going to be making a real comeback in North America any time soon, I was quite happy to see that they're still alive and well in Japan. Even in some of the smaller cities I visited you could usually find an arcade full of people.
These aren't the arcades you're probably imagining either. My idea of an arcade after growing up in Canada was a grimey, poorly maintained hole in the wall that someone haphazardly placed a bunch of run down ciggarette stained machines in and then hired an equally grimey, poorly maintained guy to give you change for the overpriced machines.
In comparison the arcades in Japan are immaculate. It's comparable to the difference between one of those no-name donut shops that sells stale coffee, and a Starbucks. The machines are reasonably priced, the arcade is well stocked, and the employees are friendly and extremely helpful (as they are in every store in Japan).
What I found most interesting was the games themselves. I had imagined that arcade gaming more or less died out along with arcades in North America but that's not the case at all. New cabinets are being released constantly, and all the old stalwart Fighters and Shmups are still there. I wont get into the specifics about games, if you really are curious to know what the arcade industry is all about these days I would highly recommend the book Arcade Mania by Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku fame. It details all the different genres of games and how they came to be. It's quite interesting and if nothing else it will explain what all those booths constantly surrounded by teenage girls are, as well as how my arch nemesis, rythm games came into existence.
Socially, arcades are somewhat of a grey area. It's not like going out to a bar or a club, but it's easily more respectable than playing over the Internet. As someone who craves competition in games, I can tell you that it's a much better feeling playing that faceless person on the opposite side of the cabinet than it is playing the faceless person hundreds of miles away. There's still some level of apprehension, it's not like you'll be best friends after killing eachother over and over, but no one's going to scream profanities in your face as is the case on the Internet.
Having been ruthlessly dominated by several people in Japan while playing Street Fighter IV, I would get up, give the guy a wave and leave feeling like we both enjoyed our time, where as with an entirely online experience I would just quit in frustration. While the competition itself is still there online, the personal connection is more or less non-existant and it changes the experience into something negative.
The Japanese arcades also managed to change my perception about a certain type of game that I had always dismissed in the same way I do rythm games - the crane game. You've all seen them, those machines packed with stuffed animals with the claw hanging down from the ceiling and painfully simple controls - left right, back forward and go! Then you watch as the claw slowly descends, seemingly right on target, closes right as you had hoped around the object that you want now more than ever - and then raises up with the grip of a 95 year old arthritic grandmother, leaving your object of desire firmly in place.
Japanese arcades usually have a floor or two dedicated to these machines, and while the prizes are often of questionable quality, there's something surprisingly fun about browsing through the aisles of machines. In fact at one point, I went to an arcade just as it was opening at 10am and there were several other people there waiting - all of us immediately flocking to the rows of crane games peering from different angles looking for something the claw could hook on to - an easy grab. The hunt for easy prizes is part of the game and it's actually kind of fun.
A lot of the reason it's more fun in Japan than in other places is because the staff in the arcades frequently shuffle up the prizes. While in North America the machines have been sitting unattended to for years, the Japanese crane games are restocked every day and the employees are devious, knowing just how to position things to make them look easy to get even though it's borderline impossible.
There is however the conundrum of the medal games. Usually one of the upper floors is dedicated to them and I cannot figure out what the draw is. Basically, you buy medals, which are effectively worthless coins, for real money - but the medals only work in the medal machines in the arcade. So you take the medals, play the medal games and you win... more medals?
You can't cash the medals back in for money, you simply keep playing the game with the extra medals you win, until you're out. These aren't typical games either, most medal games are just glorified slot machines. Sure some have extravagent cabinets with all sorts of screens and whatnot, and it's fun to look at for a few minutes but how people can continually play for no real payoff I don't understand.
I suppose a large part of the reason I don't understand is because I never understood the big brother of the medal game either - Pachinko.
Similarly to Akihabara where you cannot move ten feet without hitting a video game store, you cannot go more than 10km in any direction in Japan without passing a Pachinko parlour. That may be a slight exaggeration... actually no, I think that's accurate. While not really arcades in the way we know them, Pachinko parlours are much more common especially in rural areas and while they are referred to as "game centers" don't be fooled as they are much closer to casinos. Especially in the small towns we passed through there were at least one or two Wal-Mart sized Pachinko parlours with a giant neon signs and massive parking lots.
The game of Pachinko itself - and I hesitate to use the word game, is similar to the medal games in that you buy Pachinko balls with money and then play Pachinko for hours on end in an effort to win more pachinko balls that you can then cash in for money or prizes. Much like the medal machines it's really just a more extravagent slot machine for the most part. While I can understand the draw of winning money, what I don't understand is how there are so many of these massive places, and they are always full of people!
There are people waiting for them to open in the morning, people leaving as they close at night, the parking lots are always at least somewhat full and the most curious thing of all is that they're probably the most uncomfortable places in Japan. As you approach a Pachinko parlour it looks interesting enough, plastered with pictures of cute anime girls and advertisments for new machines, it looks like a really fun place to go - and then the doors open.
As soon as you're close enough the sliding doors open up and you're immediately blasted with impossibly loud pachinko machines all blaring their various sound effects. It's like a casino mixed with a club mixed with an arcade mixed with some gino blaring his car stereo overtop of it all. Add to that the air, or should I say, the smoke with some air near the floor somewhere and you have a wholly unrelaxing atmosphere in which to throw your money away.
I've never been much for gambling in general, maybe if I was I would understand it a little more, but even if I fully supported gabling I would still never understand how there are so many of these massive places all equally loud and full of people at all hours of the day.
To each their own I suppose!
Getting somewhat back on topic, I'll answer the question that some people are probably dying to ask - yes there are lots of adult games. In fact, it seems that the entire PC gaming scene in Japan is practically dedicated to them.
Through all the video game stores I visited I rarely would see PC games on the first floor unless they were a really well known franchise like Final Fantasy or Call of Duty. Even the almighty World of Warcraft is nowhere to be seen. Usually I'd have to go up a floor or two to find them and when I finally got to the PC games floor it was completely dominated by adult games. I forget which store I was in but it was literally an entire floor of adult PC games in which I managed to find one corner with some copies of Starcraft II. PC gaming has been having some troubles as of late to be sure, but in Japan it seems even less represented.
I suppose it's possible that I just didn't know the best places to look, but my impression is that PC gaming in Japan is primarily MMOs. As someone who plays far too many MMOs already and spends far too much time reading about them I was really surprised to see so many quality titles that I had never even heard of before.
There's the obvious ones like Lineage, Lineage II, Monster Hunter etc. that are somewhat known in North America, but then there are ten or more titles that all seem pretty popular and are often free to play micro transaction games. At one point waiting for a ferry to Tokyo we spent the night in an Internet cafe, so I took the chance to load up a game called Dragon's Nest. Stumbling through the account creation process with my limited Japanese I finally managed to get into the game itself and I was quite impressed.
While it's nothing groundbreaking it had nice graphics, a clean UI, respectable Japanese voice acting and a seemingly high populatation (granted their were only two servers to choose from). So while it's no World of Warcraft competitor, it was just one of the many games we tried and was drastically better than the majority of free to play games I've tried at home. I would be curious to talk to someone who is more in tune with the Japanese game scene to find out what people there are playing in lieu of World of Warcraft.
In the end it's pretty safe to say that in my experience, Japan is the most video game oriented society there is. While games are becoming more and more popular in North America it's a different mentality over here. To the average North American gamer, games are just like movies while to the average Japanese gamer, games are more of a hobby. Personally I've always considered gaming to be a hobby, so being surrounded by people that seem to feel the same way was a nice feeling.
I find I miss being able to go to an arcade, I miss the country-wide competition and leaderboards of the networked machines, and I really miss the lack of a social stigma associated with games. It's a nice experience for a North American nerd to see cute girls playing Tekken in an arcade, or taking rythm games to such an extreme level of skill that even through my hatred for them, I can appreciate.
So while I'm back in the comfort of home working through the Starcraft II campaign and thoroughly enjoying being able to communicate with no effort, I've pretty much decided at this point that I will be going back to Japan at some point in the future. Not even so much for the games, but for the culture in general which I haven't spoken of much as this isn't really the place for it. But you know, while I'm there... I might visit an arcade or two.