Recently I was fortunate enough to get to visit the motherland of all things gaming – Japan. I spent time in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, the hallowed grounds of Kyoto (this is where Nintendo originate you know) and more and was fascinated by what I saw and how my expectations and beliefs were subverted in many ways whilst observing what was effectively a caricature of my expectation in others. Given the changing landscape of the gaming world (mobile phones, Eastern developers trying to be Western, casual versus hardcore) it seems right and proper that the key observations should be thrown out there.
Visiting Tokyo first up and using the wonderful tube system regularly at all times of the day, I was ready with my PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS to get all kinds of StreetPass Mii visits and game goods. I also expected to see everyone with their head in something be it a mobile phone or a classic portable console. Surely, whatever may be happening with sales in the UK and the USA, all was good back home, right? In eight days travelling around Tokyo (plus many others across the breadth of the country) there were no PS Vitas in use, only two Nintendo 3DSs and in terms of older generation consoles a couple of PSPs but nothing else at all. Mystifying? Maybe, until you realise that over ninety percent of folk did have some kind of mobile device, but it was always a mobile phone. I had always dismissed the threat of iOS and Android to the main gaming portable devices; it’s not something I would make the full jump to – but it seems the most hardcore gaming population in the world are doing so. Why? There could be many reasons. My thoughts right now are that iOS coming as it does from Apple, has been at critical mass from day one, even in Japan. From that first day it had a very low price point for any game too and that plus the desire to have miniature devices / fewer devices leads to a mobile phone solution being the number one choice. Nintendo and Sony realise this is happening, don’t they? What they need to do is face it head on, sooner and quicker than they have to date. Another observation - Japanese gamers are capable of playing games from their tube train seat all the way to their jobs, via stairs, crowds and more without once looking away from the screen. What an amazing skill!
The choice of mobile phone is rather revealing, too. To great surprise in a Japanese electronics’ stronghold the illuminating fact is that the majority of folk have either a clamshell phone (long forgotten in the UK) or an iPhone - aside from a select few who have oversized beasts that you can’t get anywhere else in the world. The intrusion of Apple products didn’t make any sense. In all shops there’s just no electronic device which isn’t Japanese - aside from Apple products. There is no Korean product at all – no Samsung TVs, no LG phones. It’s really evident that they trust and believe in the superiority of Sony, Pioneer, Panasonic and so on. Except when it comes to phones, and tablets. Of course Apple is big and perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was. The sheer dominance of Apple products when nothing else not ex-Japan is seen is remarkable.
When I think of Japanese gaming I think of crazy stuff, RPGs, less than fully clothed females with big bosoms and fluffy things. Having been there none of this is untrue. In actual fact, much of it is ramped up to eleven and in certain ways is rather unsettling. Let me explain…
A visit to Akihabara – Akiba, as it is known (Electric Town) – in Tokyo gives you the requisite overview of Tokyo’s Otaku (geek) world and is really the only place you want to go to for gaming and electronica. It’s an immediately wonderful place full of fabulous things to do and warm sensations in the belly of the gamer will be plentiful. There are Sega mega stores! All kinds of arcade gaming from bizarre photo booths to Pachinko to classic beat ‘em ups and more. Lots of games you have never seen, including some wonderful football cabinets and what can only be described as classic PC strategy games. IN AN ARCADE. The toilets themselves are utterly fantastic, too. The urinals are actually ‘Toylets’, where, for example, an LCD screen shows a lovely young nurse holding a phallic beaker and seemingly asking you to fill it. Hit the target, please the nurse and get a score. Have a USB stick on you? Save the score and come back another time to continue your performance. Seriously.
Gaming shops are packed to the rafters with all kinds of stuff, with the platform focus a Nintendo and Sony one, although Xbox does have a presence. PC less so. A lot of games space is taken up by various models and figurines, normally like something from Dead or Alive, or similar. The amount of near-naked cartoon flesh in sculpted form on display is really quite off-putting ultimately, no matter how much you think you’ll like it! The second-hand market is more prominent than the new games, too, aside from the all-format top ten or twenty depending on which shop you go into. Whilst there are some games we have got over here in the charts there’s also titles which we may or may not get – two particularly exciting ones are Tokyo Jungle which many of you will have seen a trailer or preview for (Panda bears at it on the streets of Tokyo anyone?) and One Piece, a cel-shaded hack ‘n’ slash based on a long-running manga series in Japan. The former is definitely coming to the US so we can get hold of an English language version, and the latter is seemingly coming over to the UK thanks to Namco Bandai – at least its trailer is available on the UK PSN store, anyway.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the entire trip, but entirely necessary to experience for the whole picture, was our visit to a Maid Café. Think of a Maid Café as a real life role-playing game, where you are the Master and the Maids (waitresses) are there to serve you. In a very peculiar, cute and fluffy yet verging on morally wrong, way. You enter the café and see the waitresses in full-on Maid’s outfits, bunched hair, knee high socks and so on. Sit down and order some kind of set menu which provides all kinds of fun and frolics in combination with your food (or not, as in our case due to the significant mental disturbance you’re undergoing) and then after taking the order you get to play a game with the Maid which results in your candle (a light) getting magically switched on. Your food can have kittens and hearts drawn on it in ketchup if you desire. You can sing with the maids on stage; play games for prizes and have your picture taken with them whilst wearing rabbit ears. You only get a picture if you pay for it – try and take one yourself and ejection will not be far away. Families, couples, teenage girls and boys all frequent such establishments regularly and it seems entirely normal in Japanese culture, and not just restricted to the Otaku. Honestly, it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences ever – even though on the face of it a fun real life RPG should be entertaining.
So, in the end Japan and its gaming and electronics world was fascinating. Completely over the top versus what was expected in some cases (do you really need three Sega mega stores in close proximity? Hell yes!), surprising in others (how prominent Apple is; how conspicuous by absence Sony and Nintendo are) and altogether scary in others (Maid Cafes!). It’s a world that needs to be seen to believed. It’s a world that exists perfectly on its own but if it wants to maintain its position at the top of the gaming tree, needs to up the pace and tackle head-on the issues talked above. Nintendo and Sony will never (never say never?) go away but to see the prominence of Apple and mobile gaming in the motherland is a massive affront to their - until now - unchallenged dominance.