Thursday, January 02, 2014

Viva la Vita

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my gaming habits have undergone a shift away from console platforms toward handheld ones since the birth of my daughter. My Playstation Vita and 3DS, once merely distractions for my daily commute, have now become my preferred medium. Being able to play without tying up the T, as well as play for short periods without having to sit through a console's lengthy startup, proves attractive for a new parent.

But since the release of the Vita, I've run across article after article calling Sony's current-generation handheld words like "embattled" and "struggling." Whether the blame is pinned on disinterested consumers, smartphones and tablets encroaching on the games market or a lack of third-party software support, the Vita has been branded as a lame horse in the US.

The concept didn't really hit home for me until I went shopping in Wisconsin last month, eager to find post-holiday deals on Vita games (which are particularly convenient by virtue of their lack of region coding). I visited two Target stores, both of which had the exact same selection of only six Vita titles in stock. Gamestop had similarly sparse pickings. And one Best Buy store I visited seemed to have scrapped their Vita section completely. It was as if retailers were under the impression that the Playstation 4 would somehow replace the Vita (which it won't, nor was it ever intended to).

Maybe I wouldn't have been so surprised at this, had I not spent the last decade in Japan, where the Vita is comparatively very healthy. Every electronics retailer carries a wide selection of titles -- and rightly so, because the Vita's Japanese library is much bigger than its American counterpart. In comparison to the barren desert that is the Vita scene in the US, in Japan it's like an oasis full of palm trees, free beer and bikini models. What ever the cause, it would appear that the Vita has seen very different days on either side of the Pacific.

Which brings me back to the question of what's causing the Vita's demise.

If the ever-increasing presence of mobile game developers at Tokyo Game Show is any indicator, then the aforementioned encroachment of smartphone and tablet games on the market is the primary culprit. And this is unhappy news for people like me, who prefer to play games on machines that were built for playing games. As fun as it is to kill five minutes with a few stages of Angry Birds on my iPhone, limiting my game library to titles that can be played with only touchscreen and accelerometer controls is not a bright picture of "the future of gaming."

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Walkers

A nightmarish struggle with Blogger.com's template customization engine has led to the new look CIC now sports. I'm not thrilled with it, so you might still see a few changes around here in the coming days.

With my parents chomping at their respective bits for a chance to hang out with Daughter (the family's nine-month-old celebrity VIP), Wife and I decided to bring her overseas for a ten-day visit to the US. That meant ten days of frantic eating, drinking, shopping, gift giving and jet lag, all made even more frantic with the addition of an infant (not to mention the fact that my American driver's licence had lapsed, meaning we had to depend on family members for transportation at all times; in that respect it was like being 14 again).

I don't mean for this post to become another trite "reverse culture shock" observation (e.g., "OMG you guys, the American medium-size Pepsi is totally a Japanese large"), but on this trip I noticed something I've never noticed before:

Wisconsin needs more walkers.


OK. No. That is not what I mean.


Also not what I mean.


Oh, god. Anything but that idiot.

What I mean is that Americans are violently allergic to walking. I don't think it's our fault, exactly. Residents of the USA live in an environment that fosters an acute dislike -- you might even call it a phobia -- of walking. For example, my mother's apartment is less than a five-minute drive from the shopping mall, but the notion of walking instead of driving is discouraged by a perfect storm of inconveniences. No sidewalks, no crossings, no way to safely traverse the nearby highway exit ramp and about six feet of filthy snow piled up on both sides of the road where the plows have pushed it.

The result is a culture in which people have been conditioned to dread even the shortest pedestrian undertaking. In the parking lot of said shopping mall, my mother drove around and around looking for a spot closer to the doors, the farthest spot being less than a hundred yards away.

You'd think a country so preoccupied with NFL football would find the thrill in covering those hundred yards on foot.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Busy holiday weekend: Sumo

Monday was the Autumnal Equinox, a national holiday in Japan and the third and final day of my busy weekend. Around twenty co-workers and I went to Ryogoku in east Tokyo to watch an afternoon of the clash of the titans that is sumo wrestling.

Although simple in concept (you win by getting the other guy to either step out of the ring, or touch the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet), like so many other things in Japan, sumo's simplicity is negated by aspects which are astonishingly complex. For example, in contrast to the two basic methods of winning I described above, there are technically more than 80 different winning scenarios, called kimarite. And even though a typical bout only lasts a few seconds, it is always preceded by several minutes of ritual leg stomping, salt throwing, hand clapping and mouth rinsing. The ratio of action to waiting approaches that seen in the NFL.

Despite getting cheap tickets and consequently being seated near the back of the balcony, sumo was more easier to enjoy (and to photograph) than I had expected. Using my zoom lens, I was able to capture a good number of decent shots.



Clap your hands ♫
Stamp your feet ♫
Throw the salt ♫
Slap him around ♫
Everybody ring out! ♫




Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Busy holiday weekend: Tokyo Game Show

Sunday I attended Tokyo Game Show. My relationship with TGS has been a strained one. Since my first time attending in 2005, the event has seemed to reduce itself in some way or another, ever so slightly with each passing year. This year, I found the whole thing very tiresome.

One reason is that the crowds get bigger every year, but the event itself does not. My hopes were higher this year because the floor plan had been expanded to use Exhibition Hall 9 of Makuhari Messe (to house the cosplay area, some shops and for some reason, a Konami booth very far removed from the rest of the attractions.

But what I had heard was misleading. This year the cosplay area, which used to consist of the nicely shaded gap between two halls, was an even more cramped outdoor area beyond Hall 9, with the dressing area taking up more room than the Xbox booth (no exaggeration). It boggles my mind because, assuming the dressing room was full, there was not room for all the cosplayers. And by putting all the cosplayers outside in the sun, it seems they are just tempting heat stroke (not to mention the frustration caused by half of all photography subjects being back lit by the afternoon sun).

Why am I even complaining about this? I used to make fun of cosplayers. Well, with Tokyo Game Show's ridiculous crowds, meager demo offerings (seriously, most of the games you can "preview" have already been released. What's the point?) and an ever-increasing amount of space being taken up by mobile game developers that don't interest me in the slightest, taking pictures of girls dressed like fictional characters becomes the main draw. Unfortunately, it's also the main draw for a lot of dorks with gigantic cameras who really take their time shooting pictures, so waiting in line to snap the cosplayer you want involves the science of careful subject selection:

Let's say you want to photograph a girl in a very well-executed costume of Xiaoyu from Tekken. You have to line up and wait for half an hour behind the world's slowest photographers. But you don't want to jump on the end of any line that's too long, or guess what happens. Xiaoyu gets heat stroke and has to take a break, which means the line disperses and your waiting has been for nothing. Your only recourse is "stealing" photos from your place in line by shooting a model while she's posing for someone else. It makes you feel dirty.

This whole event makes you feel dirty. Anyway, on with the pictures.


It's not TGS without at least one Tifa.

K (right) was wearing some suspicious flesh-colored support garments beneath his jacket. Either he's a drag king, or he's hiding a very un-KOF-like amount of chest hair.


Sometimes you get lucky. This was a "stolen" photo, but both subjects looked right at me. The girl on the left is the aforementioned Xiaoyu. I remember her from last year.

I'm not gonna lie. I have no idea what character this is.

This guy was a good sport. He gave me the choice of upward, downward or straight ahead for his kamehameha pose.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Busy holiday weekend: Kuroyama


In September Japan has two national holidays falling on consecutive Mondays. For me, the latter of these formed a three-day weekend jam-packed with things to do. This post will be the first in a series of three on the topic of my BUSY HOLIDAY WEEKEND.

I had tentatively planned to do this year's Big Walk on Saturday, but was hesitant to try anything too ambitious. For some reason my work shoes have been causing mysterious discomfort in my left foot. (I mean, I think it's my work shoes that are doing it. My feet don't hurt as much when I wear my sneakers. Funny, though...when I got these work shoes, I remember making comments out loud about how comfortable they were.) So fellow Big Walker Craig and I decided to further postpone the Big Walk and instead take a "leisurely stroll" in Ogose, a town in the hilly interior of Saitama Prefecture, about midway between Kawagoe and Chichibu.

I had visited Ogose once before. It's home to a mountain called Kuroyama, and a collection of waterfalls called Kuroyama Santaki. For residents of Saitama City, it makes for a relatively easy getaway from the suburban sprawl. We decided, rather than use the bus like normal folks, we would walk the 8.5 km from Ogose Station to the entrance to Kuroyama.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Ogose Station on the Tobu Ogose Line
And why not indeed? It was excellent weather and the route was simple, albeit out-of-the-way. The Kuroyama entrance is on the far side of another mountain called Otakatoriyama, which meant (as far as I was aware at the time) that we would have to walk halfway around that mountain to get there. Later I would learn that there are hiking paths over that mountain, but I don't think we'd have had the energy to hike Kuroyama if we had done that.


It was a good couple of hours' walk, but there wasn't a lot to see on the way. Unless you count this Optimus Prime-looking lawn decoration...


...and this giant insect.


Actually, oversized arthropods were a theme on this walk. In addition to the mantid pictured here, we saw more gigantic spiders than I care to count, and a few hornets that I was worried might be this kind of hornet. Luckily we made it all the way to the Kuroyama entrance without being stung, bitten or otherwise preyed upon by bugs.

At the intersection where we leave Route 61 to enter Kuroyama, there is a restaurant/tourist facility called Yozantei. According to this billboard we saw, they specialize in nabe (hot pot) cooking using the meats of all the animals pictured. From left: wild boar, bear, deer, pheasant and duck.


Holy shit, bear meat? I didn't even know that was a thing! I absolutely regret not eating lunch here. Instead we ate at Nekkoshokudo, a zelkova woodwork-themed restaurant where we ate noodles. Little did I know that a big bowl of salty ramen was probably not the best choice to prepare me for the walk ahead.

Here's where our visit to Kuroyama begins to differ wildly from my visit last summer. At a fork in the path, we were faced with three options: an easy walk straight to Otokotaki and Onnataki (the biggest waterfalls in the vicinity), a 1.3-km path to Kasasugi Ridge or a hike of undisclosed length to something called "En no Gyoja Site." We had no idea what En no Gyoja meant, and 1.3 km sounded long, so we opted for En no Gyoja, assuming it would be shorter and easier than Kasasugi Ridge.

What I can tell you is that it was neither short nor easy. It's probably just that I'm out of shape (and that I had a stomach full of rapidly-expanding ramen), but hiking up Kuroyama was the first rigorous exercise I'd gotten in months and I wasn't ready for it. I didn't even get my camera out for most of this part of the trip because I needed both hands to keep my balance. What began as an obvious path quickly dwindled to little more than a the vague sense that "we must be going the right way because we haven't fallen down the mountain."

Ropes and shit? What is this, American Gladiators?
And the worst part of it is, when we finally reached En no Gyoja, which turned out to be a little altar with some stone statues, we couldn't go any further. Our desire to see the top of Kuroyama was foiled by the fact that it was not obviously named; it turns out the peak of Kuroyama is Kasasugi Ridge, which was a shorter distance from the fork in the path than En no Gyoja was.

At least we got to see...whatever this is.
This sign reads, "Do not enter." But the unspoken message is, "Have fun walking back the way you came, sucka."
So, we turned around a walked/slid/stumbled back down Kuroyama feeling like we had just been run over by cars. On the way, we hooked around for a look at Onnataki and Otokotaki (literally, Woman Waterfall and Man Waterfall).


Japanese tourists flock to waterfalls because they are full of mainasu ion! (negative ions) and are supposed to be pawaa supotto! (power spots). I don't know anything about that, but after the ordeal of visiting En no Gyoja, being near a big waterfall did feel nice.

We took the bus back to Ogose Station and returned to civilization by train. After I got home, I was so tired that I slept from 10pm to 9am, which meant I was rested and ready for Day 2 of my busy holiday weekend: Tokyo Game Show. Coming up next.