Mad Mack: Ninja Castles, Giant Arcades And Shattered Myths – A Gamer’s Trip To Japan
So I have been absent from this site for a few weeks now (which, by complete coincidence, happened to be the best weeks we have ever had in terms of traffic) – because I was holidaying in Japan. Yes, the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. Or, if you are from the internet, the ‘Land of Really Weird Shit’. To be fair, this was a family holiday: so there were to be no vending machine used girls’ panties, hentai comics, or soapy wet naked massages.
I was there to explore the culture, and I wanted to soak up as much of it as possible (well, as much of the non-used panties parts of it that is). And it was while I was crawling over ninja castles, saké breweries and fish markets (that’s not a euphemism – I mean the actual fish market in Tokyo), that I realised that Japan is actually not all that weird at all. People are just people, like anywhere else. This was a disappointment to me, as it meant that not only had the internet lied to me, but also that I would not be able to sample the delights of what is considered by many as the video game Mecca.
I went to Tokyo in the hope that just walking down the street would be a cross between a cosplay convention, an anime marathon and a video game themed city. I also expected to see lots of weird TV, bizarre forms of entertainment and used girl panty machines, but really, it is just a country like any other. Sure they have some differences to the west – they love their cute mascots and characters, and use them to advertise everything from tampons to chicken – but apart from that the country is more or less the same as any Western country. Oh, except that everything works, things run on time, people are polite and cities are clean. Imagine London, but not totally teeming with assholes, and you have a good idea of what Japan is like.
One area where the Japanese have clearly distinguished themselves from the rest of the world is in their amusement arcades. The Japanese have defied the rest of the world and decided that arcades are not just places for hobos to sleep and for childhood innocence to be lost when that creepy guy offers to give you some more change for the machines, as long as you promise to play with his bald one-eyed rabbit. Au contraire – despite the massive advances in home entertainment in the last two decades, the Japanese remain as committed to their arcades as Americans are to trans-fats, and Brits are to weary cynicism.
This means that in certain parts of Tokyo, you cannot walk down the block without passing several multi-level arcades (as well as several suggestively-dressed ladies trying to pull you into their ‘Maid Cafes’ – essentially these are bar/restaurants where your waitress also sits with you and chats, flirts and plays games with you, and are the least weird/seedy of the companion establishments, the others being Brother Cafes, which are like Maid Cafes except the waitress sort of role plays as your younger sister – and the Companion Bars, where you get to buy drinks for a lady to blue ball you all night).
Anyway, I went off topic there. So, the Japanese arcades. They are split across several floors, with different floors offering different game types. So one floor might be retro games from the 80s and 90s that you would recognise playing in your childhood (between molestations), another floor might be fighting games, and another would be prize games (the UFO games are really popular, and seem to be a variation on the claw games you would be familiar with in shopping malls and shit beachfront arcades). You get the idea: different floors, different games.
Unsurprisingly, the most common games are mech games. Usually you would have a whole floor of the same game, all linked up so you can play large death matches against upwards of 24 other players. Regular players will tend to have some sort of memory card or mobile phone-linked account so they can rack up experience or credits or whatever, to unlock in game content or generally keep track of their progress/scores. Of course, everything is in Japanese, so I am only guessing here. For all I know the mobile phone thing could just be a system to let parents know that where their kid is.
Obviously I tried my hand at a number of these games. And obviously I got my shit seriously stabbed in. I could not even figure out the mech controls before some 13 year old was all up in my grill slicing me to bits and seriously ruining my day. This happened any time that I tried a multiplayer game and it happened so fast that I honestly cannot say if the games were any good by any objective measure, because I just didn’t get to play enough. Fuck ‘em. X-Box Live is better than this anyway. Fuckers.
So after a fairly unsuccessful try at the multiplayer games, I had a go at the single-players. First, I tried a Punch Out game – an updated version of a title that was released in the West about 15 years ago, where you put on a glove and punch a panel in order to inflict damage on the opponent. It was pulled from Western arcades because some idiots broke their arm hitting it. Well, I was determined to smash the shit out of it. Which I did, defeating my opponent (a T-Rex) and almost breaking my arm in the process. Seriously, my wrist is still sore today, and hurts like a fucker if I punch anything or try to do a press up. Obviously I kept quiet about the pain while I was in the arcade – my ego was already very low from my thrashing in the mech game, and I could not have dealt with the ridicule.
Anyway, nursing my wounded arm, I then saw what I was really looking for. Dark Escape 3 is a House of the Dead style shooter on steroids. First off it is in a booth. You climb in and sit down and are given the option of 3D vs. 2D. “Well,” thought I, “I might as well get my money’s worth out of this laser eye surgery”. So I popped on those 3D glasses and set off on my adventure right into a clean pair of trunks. This game was designed for 3D play. The monsters jump out at you and really look like they are clawing at you from inside the screen. The booth uses directional speakers as well as blasts of compressed air to really complete the set. There are also heart rate sensors in the weapon grip. Suffice to say that within about 30 seconds my heart rate was through the fucking ceiling and there was a brownish trickle of fear poo and urine running out of the machine. It’s mainly jump scares of course, none of this slow burning psychological horror or existential dread that you can expect from Japanese horror, but it was still fucking effective. Certainly as a brief and sudden constipation aid it is unparalleled.
After that I played around on a few more games, but really, there is little to say other than they were shooters or mech games. Just imagine if the effort that goes into the Triple A titles these days was instead invested in arcade games, and you will be somewhat there. It really is a strange experience when you consider that the home entertainment market has all but killed the arcade in the West. And, I would say, probably for good reason. The depth of gameplay you get in an arcade is of course much shallower than what you get with a game like Skyrim or DayZ. The closest we have to a similar experience is probably COD-style multiplayer, and even this is better in pure gameplay terms than the arcades. At least it does not cost you a couple of quid every time you want to play.
Arcades really only work when you consider the extra enhancements they can offer to the gameplay experience through the use of expensive, large or otherwise impractical peripherals. Games like Time Crisis, House of the Dead or Knock Out with their intricate gun or punch-bag peripherals are pretty unique to arcades and while they are fun to use, they are gimmicky at best and not exactly a fair exchange for a 40+ hour campaign in Mass Effect 3. This is most obviously seen in their massive mech games where you actually sit in a pod that resembles a mech cockpit. Some are even mounted on hydraulics so you feel like you are lurching around in the mech as you move around the battlefield. A great experience no doubt, but take away the pod and you are left with a fairly average death match shooter that is less fun to play that Battlefield 3. Dark Escape 3 is a fairly average shooter that is made remarkable through the use of all the peripherals and extra effects, without which it would fall limply on its face.
I suppose the arcades sort of encapsulate the vibe I got from Japan. While some of the games they have are very advanced and use top-line technology, the whole concept is very outmoded when you consider what is on offer in terms of home entertainment. There is a reason arcades have died in the West, and that is because paying a fixed sum up-front so you can sit on your couch and play for as long as you want is a lot easier than going to some dingy, smoky arcade where you pay in micro-transaction amounts for limited, ultimately shallow gaming experiences.
So if you ever do go to Japan, yes it is a fun place and the home of Nintendo, Sega and Sony. But really, when it comes to gaming, we are in as good a position as they are – if not better. If anything their arcades will appeal more to the casual gamer than to the hardcore gamer, simply because the experience is more akin to dipping your toe into the warm bath that is computer gaming, as opposed to slipping all the way in and then beating yourself to a soapy, bubbly climax that is the height of gaming today.
My favourite game from my trip? Taiki no Tatsujin. It’s a drum rhythm game that is amazing for a few reasons: 1) You can play the Super Mario theme, 2) When you get it wrong you can almost feel the machine calling you a cunt, and 3) These fuckers, whatever they are:
Dave McConkey is currently attempting to plough through the massive backlog of amazing games on his Steam account. Mad Mack returns next week…