Monday, September 28, 2009

Tokyo Game Show (東京ゲームショウ)

*Since I will be leaving Tokyo soon to head back to the U.S., this will be my last major update for a bit.

Readers of the blog likely know (or have been able to infer) that I am a huge gamer. This past Saturday and Sunday, another personal goal of mine came true - I was finally able to attend the Tokyo Game Show (hereafter TGS)!

This year's TGS was held at the Makuhari Messe Convention Center in Chiba City. It was open to the public this past Saturday and Sunday, with two business-specific days before then. The great thing about TGS is that it is an event for gamers. All of the major Japanese developers are present (except Nintendo), and each company designs a main booth and demo stations to let gamers try out the latest software.

Let's get one thing out of the way first, TGS is CROWDED! The thousands and thousands of people present are a testament to the fact that gaming is alive and well in Japan (and abroad!). Just walking from one end of the hall to the other was incredibly difficult. Sometimes you were smashed face-to-neck with people. That's part of the fun though. Even waiting in line gave you a great chance to chat with fellow gamers.

Photos and videos were technically forbidden throughout TGS. They have signs up everywhere and staff members would stop you if they saw you snapping pictures. Needless to say, I managed to snap quite a few undetected.

Overall, the event atmosphere felt a lot like a visit to Disneyland. Each company booth had long queues to play the latest games. They would even write the wait time on a little dry-erase board. Where was my Fast Pass!? Due to the long wait times, you can expect to play 5 - 6 AAA games per day at TGS. I played 11 games in total.

Here's a list of the games I played during the show with my brief impressions. Most of the games were still in development, so a lot can change before the ship date.

Assassin's Creed 2 (PS3 / 360)
I never played the first AC, but I knew what to expect going in. The animation was fluid and the graphics were beautiful. I actually enjoyed climbing around the city more than I did fighting the bad guys. I didn't have enough playtime to carry out the assassination.
VERDICT: Beautiful game with slow pacing.

Bayonetta (PS3 / 360)
This is the "Sarah Palin" game I joke about below. A Sega action game that's 1/2 God of War, 1/2 Devil May Cry. The main character is a witch, and her clothes fall off as her magic gauge empties. "But, I've seen everything!" The imaginative character and creature designs were the strong point. The actual gameplay felt a bit shallow. I was pulling of crazy combos by just mashing buttons.
VERDICT: Sorry Palin...Stick with GoW III.

Biohazzard: The Darkside Chronicles (Wii)
An on-rails first-person shooter for Wii. This could easily be mistaken for the latest House of the Dead. I played co-op with a Capcom staffer. She had the demo memorized and was able to point out where all the herbs and weapon upgrades were. I thought the game was fun enough, but perhaps a tad on the easy side. The graphics didn't seem quite up to par with RE4 on GC, which I found a bit strange.
VERDICT: Shallow shooting fun for a group of friends.

Final Fantasy XIII (in Japan, only on PS3)
The only FF game I've played is VII, so I don't know if I'm the best to judge how the game was. I much prefer real-time action RPGs (ala Kingdom Hearts) to turn-based ones. That being said, since your party characters move around as they attack, the new battle system feels quite dynamic, almost like they could have made it real-time. The graphics are also super beautiful. Square Enix has almost created gameplay footage that looks as good as the CG.
VERDICT: I want to just watch the cut-scenes.

God of War III (PS3)
I'm not a die hard fan, but I am a GoW fan. Having played both I and II on PS2, GoW III felt identical to the earlier games in terms of controls and gameplay. The only real difference I saw was that the graphics are now super hi-res. The animation was also silky smooth with 0 slowdown.
VERDICT: More of the same if you love GoW!

Gran Turismo 5 (PS3)
The graphics are beautiful and the cars are all there. I played GT5 in a racing cage with a force-feedback wheel and pedals. Rather than race, I fooled around with the car. Vehicle damage was fully implemented in this version. It's a bit depressing to see the beautiful cars all smashed up. Also, certain environmental elements (tire stacks / barriers) now interact with your car and go flying if you hit them.
VERDICT: The racing game to own!

Heavy Rain (PS3)
The next cinematic game from the makers of Indigo Prophecy (PS2 / Xbox). This was my must-play game of the show. I thought this game was just too cool for words. The control scheme is super strange at first (R2 to move the character, left analog to move the head, right analog to do onscreen actions), but you quickly get used to it. The character models, animation, and environments were all dripping with atmosphere. It felt like playing a videogame version of Se7en.
VERDICT: Watch out for this one!

Lost Planet 2 (PS3 / 360)
A 180 degree shift from LP1. This game seems like a cross between Gears of War and Monster Hunter. I played 4 on 4 team death match with some Japanese gamers. My team lost. There was a cooperative campaign too, where you worked with your team to kill a giant creature. Everything from the bulky marines to the nausea inducing "dash run" seemed ripped straight from Gears. The graphics were really pretty though. I especially liked the texture work on the monster. Lesson learned: in death match, just chuck grenades non-stop.
VERDICT: Is this just a Gears of War clone?

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP)
Graphics are almost equal to Snake Eater on PS2. I skipped the intro cutscene because I only had 15 minutes to play ;). The game is still quite early in development. The demo mission was a basic sneaking tutorial on a beach / jungle - I beat it easily. The main change is a completely new control scheme. The analog stick moves Snake, L-button to aim, and R-button to shoot. However, when you hit aim, the four face buttons now act as a second analog stick. So to move the target reticule, you have to tap triangle, circle, X, and square.
VERDICT: Controls will take some getting used to. Classic MGS feel.

Red Steel 2 (Wii)
My first opportunity to play with the new Wii Motion Plus attachment. Never played the first RS. My initial impression was, "Man, the cell-shaded graphics look slick". The game really does look great on Wii. The gunplay was spot-on. I was able to pull of head-shots with no problem thanks to the added accuracy of Motion Plus. However, once the katana appeared, things started to get a bit wonky. The game recognized basic horizontal and vertical slashes, but it was nowhere near 1:1 tracking as advertised. I resorted to swinging my arm wildly to kill the boss.
VERDICT: Good first effort for Motion Plus. Swordplay has a way to go.

Uncharted 2 (PS3)
Loved the first Uncharted (cept for the creatures at the end). This one seems like more of everything: more explosions, more gunfights, more puzzles. The graphics and animations are top-notch. The voice acting and environments are all incredibly realistic. This was one of the best looking games on the floor in motion. Feels like playing an action movie. I had fun.
VERDICT: More of the same gameplay. A great AAA title.


My game of the show was Heavy Rain for PS3. If you've played Indigo Prophecy, you have a good approximation for how the gaming experience will be. Thus, this game may not appeal to everyone, due to the unconventional control scheme and the fact that the gameplay emphasis is put on cinematic QTEs and environment exploration.

However, I found the atmosphere, character models, and pacing to be top notch. Here is a game that simply makes you believe that you are in a suspense-thriller movie.

My gameplay demo was of a scene called "Robbery". I played this scene twice. You're an off-duty detective who enters a convenience store to ask some questions about the origami killer. During your visit, a robbery occurs.

The scene can play out in a few ways. The store clerk initially refuses to tell you anything and you go off to get some asthma medicine. Once the robber comes in, you have some choices. If you do nothing, the robber will shoot the store clerk and escape with the cash. As he dies, the clerk points you to a box under the register.

If you sneak around and work up your courage by talking yourself through it (L2 brings up the character's inner thoughts), you can find a wine bottle and clobber the robber. This results in the clerk being spared and you are able to persuade him to talk.

Even from just this short demo, it's easy to see how open-ended the gameplay will be. It's also a bit intimidating to know that the story will continue forward no matter what decisions you make (even, for instance, if a main character dies). Every gamers' individual experience will likely be different. This is truly a choose-your-own-adventure style game. I'm excited to play more!

K, that's my report from TGS 2009.

Happy gaming everyone!


The Tokyo Game Show 2009 (TGS) was open to the public this past Saturday and Sunday at the Makuhari Messe Convention Center in Chiba City.

Various game characters greet you on your way to the convention center.

I arrived at the convention center and the place was absolutely deserted. Gaming is dead in Japan!

Yeah, so it turns out that gaming is quite popular in Japan*.

*This is the queue to get in on the first day, having arrived EARLY!

Time to get your game on!!!

A shot of the show floor at TGS 2009. This was taken at the end of the first day, so there aren't too many people roaming around. During peak hours, the place was absolutely jammed!

Another shot of the show floor.

Here is a quick 360 of the TGS 2009 show floor. I took this video while
waiting in line to play Uncharted 2 at the Playstation booth. Just to give
a taste of the excitement (and the crowds!).

I played Assassin's Creed 2 and Red Steel 2, both from Ubisoft.

This Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG was featured in the Gran Turismo 5 demo. It will also featured on the official box art when the game launches in late 2010.

Waiting in line to play Lost Planet 2 (360 / PS3). I played team death-match on a 360 console. This shot shows what the gaming stations were like. All the monitors were full 1080P HD, and each station had a set of stereo headphones.

Biohazzard (Resident Evil): The Darkside Chronicles was a first-person rail shooter for Wii.

MGS Peace Walker for PSP had the most creative booth. There were foreign actors dressed up in military uniforms that would walk around and bark orders at you in Japanese as you waited in line.

Waiting in line to play the Sarah Palin action game.

I'll use this chocobo balloon to transition into some pics of the various booths.

By far the most popular booth at TGS. Japanese people go berserk for FF XIII and Dragon Quest. Even the Square Enix souvenir booth had a 30 minute wait just to get inside.

I love me my PS3!!!

I felt that the Playstation booth was the most smartly run out of the lot. Since all the games available in this section were rated M ("for mature"), they had people checking your IDs at the gate. You then received a ticket and had to wait in line for your game of choice. Wait times averaged 90 to 120 minutes for a 10 - 15 minute play slot.

Least popular gaming booth...EVER!

You get a lot of gaming swag at TGS. Most companies hand out stickers, art books, or DVDs after you play-test their game. I think the best thing I got was a t-shirt for playing Red Steel 2.

Right before TGS ended, there was a live Konami stage event for Peace Walker, the latest Metal Gear Solid game for PSP. I apologize for the grainy screen caps, but there were literally thousands of people between me and the stage.

This smartly dressed guy is Akio Ohtsuka, the Japanese voice of Snake in all the MGS games. He's a super celebrity - upon joining the stage, he received more applause than Kojima-san.

The Konami event ended with a live stage reading from the latest script. Ohtsuka was joined by a few other voice actors and they ran through a couple of scenes. We all got to hear the Snake voice!!!

Metal Gear Solid series creator Hideo Kojima. I believe this was the part where he announced to the entire TGS crowd that I would be taking over as creative director of MGS Peace Walker.

Oh...and here are some Capcom booth babes. Don't think I forgot!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hakone (箱根町)

I debated whether or not to visit, but in the end, I wound up taking the two hour train ride to Hakone (Kanagawa Prefecture).

Along with Nikko, Hakone is one of the most popular destinations for Japanese and international tourists looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The area is famous for its onsen (hot spring) resorts and majestic views of Mt. Fuji.

The Odakyu Railway Company runs a wonderful deal. For under $50 USD, one can buy a two-day unlimited "Hakone Free Pass", which grants unlimited usage of Hakone's many transportation systems (railway, bus, sightseeing ship, cable car). The round-trip train fare from Tokyo to Hakone is also included in the price of the pass.

With the Free Pass, I was "free" to leisurely explore Hakone. The primary sightseeing route is basically one giant loop that starts and ends at Hakone Station. The course includes a boat ride across Lake Ashi, a cable car ride into the volcanic Owakudani valley, and a train ride back through the mountains.

Hakone is renowned for its beauty, and indeed, the town is quite beautiful. I imagine that Lake Ashi in particular is breathtaking when all the autumn leaves change. However, visitors should be forewarned that views of Mt. Fuji can be elusive, even with clear skies.

There's not much to do in Hakone other than admire the natural beauty and visit an onsen (I did both). Many tourists choose to spend a night in a ryokan, but I found Hakone to be a perfectly manageable day-trip.


Torii gate leading to...

...Hakone Shrine.

Picture of an old Edo Era checkpoint. Gates like this used to exist throughout Japan.

After viewing the shrine, it was time to cross Lake Ashi.

How does one cross Lake Ashi...? a PIRATE SHIP!!!

See, there's a cannon...

...and a treasure chest!

There was even a guy walking around in a pirate costume posing for pictures. All that was missing was the song from the Disney ride.

Hakone Shrine's beautiful torii gate floating in the water.

View from the stern.

Next, it was time to ride a cable car into Owakudani and snap pictures of Mt. Fuji.

Mt. Fuji is a notoriously difficult subject for pictures*. Even though the sky was crystal clear on the day I visited, there was just enough mist off in the distance to make photo taking rather difficult. Still, I think this captures the spirit of the mountain.

*If the weather in Hakone is anything but crystal clear, I would recommend rescheduling your visit. As I experienced firsthand during a tour bus visit years ago, Mt. Fuji is completely invisible in cloudy weather.

Looks a bit like Mt. Fuji, doesn't it?

Owakudani (lit. "Great Boiling Valley") is a volcanic valley in Hakone. The active vents spew sulfur into the air, making all the asthmatics quake in their booties. Though nowhere near as large or impressive, Owakudani was very reminiscent of Mount Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu.

The famous snack at Owakudani are "black eggs". These eggs are hard boiled in the sulfurous water, so their shells turn all hideous looking. Each black egg eaten is said to add seven years to one's life. They come in packs of five. In truth, I was ready to stop after 14 years, but I went ahead and added the full 35.

Never judge an egg by its shell. Inside, a regular hard boiled egg awaits.

Even Kitty-chan's gotten into the spirit!

My other snack was wasabi ice cream. Seems like something they might make for dessert on an episode of Iron Chef. This was the real deal - you could clearly taste the wasabi. The ice cream was rather spicy. An interesting taste sensation!

The Hakone Free Pass gives you free admission to Gora Park. Here's the main fountain centerpiece.

There's also a kamaboko (fish cake) museum in Hakone. The word "museum" isn't quite accurate; the place is more like a giant gift shop. You can buy fish cakes of all shapes, flavors, and sizes. Pictured here are the biggest loaves I've ever seen. You'd only need one slice of this bad-boy for your udon bowl.

Looks like somebody is home in Odawara Castle.

This video was taken while walking back from Odawara Castle. I've never seen so many crows. It's like a scene from The Birds. There must have been a crow convention going on or something.

One final image of Mt. Fuji as we say goodbye to Hakone.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Now That's Good Television! (テレビタイム)

Two weeks and two interviews filmed for Japanese TV. It's a pity I'm leaving Japan next week; my career as a TV personality seems to be taking off!

My first encounter occurred on the Nakamise shopping street behind Asakusa's famous Kaminari-mon Gate. A representative from Fuji TV, clearly targeting oblivious gaijin, approached me and asked me in English if I'd be interested in participating in a short interview. Not having anything better to do at the time, I agreed.

After two large German men finished their interview, I was ushered to a small tourist-free nook, and placed in front of the camera. The segment director was a lanky Japanese guy decked out in a plaid shirt and glasses. He appeared around my age. His thick British accent and excellent spoken English indicated that he was more than up to the task of interviewing oblivious foreigners.

The plump cameraman showed me two videos on a small portable DVD player. The first video was of some middle aged-looking Japanese woman wearing a billowy white dress. She was roaming through an empty house, pausing momentarily at the windows to let the sunlight stream down on her face.

The second video was of a transgendered male to female TV personality named Ai Haruna. In the video, Haruna was singing and dancing one of her energetic musical numbers. You can see her picture below.

Ai Haruna is a popular TV personality here in Japan. Flip through the nightly variety programs and you will almost certainly see her on a guest panel or two. Though she completed gender reassignment surgery and now lives her life completely as a woman, since she is a comedienne, it is part of her act to surprise guests with the "gender bombshell" or make joking references to her past life as a man.

The above paragraph is all information I was not expected to know at the time of the interview. After the videos finished, the segment director began asking me a series of questions in English. Examples included, "which woman do you find more attractive?" and "which woman would you choose as your girlfriend?" After each answer, the director would translate what I said into Japanese for both the cameraman and assistant director (AD).

I repeatedly answered Haruna, not because I wanted to play into their gag, but because the billowy dress wearing sunshine lady was so boring on film. I feared our make-believe relationship would never last.

The obvious slant was to get the unsuspecting foreigner to select Ai Haruna as more desirable. The big laugh would come at the end when she was revealed to have been born a man. After being asked if I'd like Haruna as a wife, I turned to the director and said in Japanese, "Well, I don't really know for sure because she was born a man and all..."

The entire crew froze. The red filming light went off.

Mouth agape, the director, stuttering to get the words out, asked me, "H-How did you know that!?" I responded that she's on TV nearly every night, so her personal history is no secret. The interview was clearly over at this point.

Smile turning to a frown, the director mumbled in English, "So, you speak Japanese then?"

"Yes," I said in Japanese.

"That's wonderful," he replied in English, clearly not meaning it.

All that was left was to cut to the end. I had to hold up a card with the name of my overall selection. They gave me the Ai Haruna card and told me to say her name into the camera. I did just that. I was told that my reading of her name was too "Japanese".

The exact quote from the director was,

"No, no, you sound Japanese. When you say her name, can you say it more 'gaijin-like', if you know what I mean..."

I responded with my best fake smile and foreigner accent.

"Aye Haroonah!"

This brought an end to my time with Fuji Television - don't look for me on the air.

EDIT: I WAS WRONG!!! I made it on the air! I was out of the city and didn't have a chance to see it, but a Japanese friend text messaged me to let me know that I did appear on this show.


My next encounter happened two days ago in Ginza. I was wandering around with my friend, when we spotted a huge queue of foreigners and a TV crew. This time it was a taping for the popular Saturday morning news program "Zoom In!! Saturday". I'd never heard of it, but my friend assured me it was legit. Apparently the announcer conducting the interviews was also quite well-known.

Having had my fill with the Ai Haruna bit, I was set to keep walking, however, repeated pleas from my friend finally broke my steadfast reserve. I waited in line for around 15 minutes before it was my turn to chat with the AD.

Unlike last time, this interview was conducted entirely in Japanese. I soon realized that all the foreigners waiting in line could speak Japanese, with varying degrees of fluidity. Since the AD asked lots of general questions to each participant, all the interviews were completely different.

During my pre-interview, I made sure to drop interesting information like the fact that I'm currently unemployed and that newly elected PM Hatoyama and I both graduated from Stanford. The AD scribbled notes on a piece of notebook paper and said that the interview would likely be about me trying to find a job in Japan. He lied!

With that, he pushed me in front of the camera and we were off!

The announcer and I proceeded to talk about video games for around 20 minutes. The entire interview was the two of us rambling about games. We didn't hit any other topics. I won't give a play-by-play of my interview at this point. Hopefully some of my footage will air and I'll be able to upload a copy on the blog.

Needless to say, the interview was very fun and funny. We talked about blowing into the old NES cartridges, Parappa the Rapper, and how great MGS4 was. The announcer was very knowledgeable about games and was lock-step with me the entire way. It was easy for us to banter back and forth about entertainment.

The final question was what, of all my games, would I choose to grab if running out of my burning house. Though this may not be entirely truthful, I said my "Taiko Drum Master" home version. Everyone in the entire crew, including the announcer, burst into tears of laughter.

...And I didn't even have to speak in my foreigner accent!

EDIT: This video game interview made it on TV as well! Several of my Japanese friends emailed me, saying that they had spotted me on the morning program. Apparently the interview segment they used was quite long.


And now for a few unrelated pictures...

Here's a blimp floating above Tokyo.

I walked around the Tokyo Dome area the other day. There was a Giants game going on at the time. Apparently the team won their third straight Central League pennant that day. Too bad I wasn't inside the dome. Here is Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara. This is the most lifelike manikin I've ever seen!

Most Japanese people I know aren't too familiar with the movie Forrest Gump.

Is this not the most giant platform shoe you have ever seen? I picked this thing up - it was close to five pounds.

These signs are now plastered around the city. Where do I go to get a piece of cake?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Photo Exhibition (写真展)

Below is a grab-bag of completely unrelated pictures I snapped while walking around different areas of the city. Spotting the humorous or bizarre in Tokyo is simply a matter of keeping your eyes open.



This sign from Shibuya cracked me up. I can't believe I've been listening to the fake stuff all these years!!

Condom vending machine. These were once quite ubiquitous on the streets of Tokyo. These days, however, the machines are becoming harder and harder to find. Perhaps to encourage the type of passionate, unprotected lovemaking that results in population increasing childbirths?