Thursday, December 28, 2006

Can Tactics Save the PSP?

In October of 2006, Girlfriend and I were having lunch with one of her co-workers. We were talking about video games, and at some point in the conversation I said, "Square Enix needs to make a PSP version of Final Fantasy Tactics."

I'm not suggesting that my comment had anything to do with it (although I can't rule out the possibility that I am clairvoyant), but this month Square Enix announced their intention to do just that, in the form of a PSP title called Final Fantasy Tactics: Shishi Sensou, (Final Fantasy Tactics: The Lion War) which is scheduled for US release in autumn 2007.

FFT and its Gameboy Advance counterpart (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance) have the distinction of being the only games in the FF franchise since Final Fantasy VII to hold my interest. And hold my interest is exactly what the original FFT did....for an inexcuseable 80 hours (a personal record: the longest I ever took to finish an RPG). Try as they may, other FF titles failed to get their hooks in me for such a duration. After all, what is Final Fantasy but a lot of repetative monster encounters that always go like this?


Sure, once in a while you might throw in a "LIMIT BREAK" or a "SUMMON," or perhaps even the occasional "RUN AWAY," but that and a lot of sing-song Uematsu Nobuo music is basically all there is to Final Fantasy. And no matter how intriguing the matter how cute the matter how big the rack on Tifa Lockheart...tapping A (or circle, as it were) grows boring eventually. FF Tactics, however, capitalized on brand recognition -- arguably Square's greatest strength -- and provided an unprecedented level of depth to the genre created by titles like Konami's Vandal Hearts. (I'm not kidding about depth, either; The first time I played FF Tactics, I was so turned off by the game's complexity and steep learning curve that I set it aside for almost a year....until I picked it up again and it became one of my favorite games of all time.)

Final Fantasy Tactics is exactly what the PSP needs right now, especially in the midst of rumors that Sony is planning to abandon its handheld console soon.

FOND MEMORY OF FF TACTICS: The game allows players to recruit new soldiers and give them surprisingly long names, so I had a bunch of people in my party named after celebrities. There was Dustin Hoffman the summoner, Jack Nicholson the geomancer, Jenna Jameson the dancer and Leo DiCaprio the chocobo.

Technorati: Final Fantasy Tactics / Tifa Lockheart / chocobo

Christmas Anecdote

On Christmas Day Girlfriend dragged me (almost literally kicking and screaming) to Tokyo DisneySea in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture. Tokyo DisneySea opened five years ago right next-door to Tokyo DisneyLand, and I guess now it's only a matter of time before they open Tokyo DisneyEarthWind&Fire.

Anyway, the current ninki #1 attraction at Tokyo DisneySea is Tower of Terror (or, as I like to call it, "Tower of Homeland Security"). In this ride, patrons enjoy the rambunctious up-and-down movements of a cursed elevator from hell. I was under the impression that Tower of Terror was a ride that just drops you a few stories. Actually, it turns out that Tower of Terror shakes you up and down like a big tourist martini before flinging you down at an unnatural velocity.

Girlfriend and I had the following conversation before we went to experience the big martini shake for ourselves:

ME: We better go to the bathroom before we ride that thing.


ME: Otherwise it's going to be like the Tower of Pee-Your-Pants.

GIRLFRIEND: Yeah. Tower of Shit.

ME: That's gross.

If you're interested in the rambunctious up-and-down movements of real-life cursed elevators from hell, be sure to check out Schindler. One of their elevators, in a very Chakushin Ari/Final Destination moment, decapitated a Japanese teenager in June of 2006. They are also responsible for the chronically malfunctioning elevators in downtown Minneapolis's Foshay Tower, where I worked for almost a year before I moved to Japan. The running joke at Foshay was that the ghost of the building's financier and namesake, Wilbur Foshay, was haunting the elevators and causing them to make alarming movements while the doors were open.

Who ya gonna call?

Technorati: Tower of Terror / Schindler Elevator / Foshay Tower

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Nobody Cares Why You Tube

Go to and type "why do you tube" into the search field. Pick any of the resulting videos and get ready to be bored stiff by some idiot explaining why they make web videos of their own foreheads while they talk about what they ate for breakfast that day.

I swear to Lordy Gordy, everyone who posted a response to self-important cat owner "boh3m3" (who originally posed the question "Why Do You Tube?" and consequently felt really, really good about himself) delivered the exact same meaningless ramble about "putting myself out there" and "honing my video editing skills." They also consistently cite a desire to "interact with people"...even though I'm pretty sure their addiction to YouTube is a symptom of inability to interact with real-life, face-to-face human beings.

Boh3m3 takes credit for turning "tube" into a verb, but he's apparently too young to know that "toob" has been a verb at least since 1988.

Here it is: a real feel-the-burn exercise in internet-induced pain.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Let's Learn Japanese: Karuchaa Gyappu

Karuchaa Gyappu (noun; from English) Culture gap.

Like the all-powerful Japanese phrase "shikata nai" (roughly, "Whaddya gonna do?"), karuchaa gyappu is a tempting way to shrug off some of Japan's harder-to-explain differences with the West.

A: What's the big deal about Koyuki? She looks like a man. She's like seven feet tall and she has a big chin. Why do so many people think she's pretty?

B: [Shrug] I dunno. Culture gap.

I am tempted to use the same phrase to explain the often sizeable rift between opinions put forth by Japanese and Western video game critics. Recently I shrugged and said, "culture gap" when I read Japanese and non-Japanese reviews of Tecmo's girlie vacation simulator Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 for the Xbox 360. The game (although to call it a "game" is to test the tensile strength of the word, since it's more like an interactive Russ Meyer film) deals with the intricate subtleties of all-girl, all-bikini beach frollicking and the Newtonian physics connected therewith. Despite its sparkling water and realistic "tanline" system, however, the game was viscously skeletonized by critics in the US:

Gerald Villoria for Gamespy:
"Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 just isn't as relaxing [as the original Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball], with its frustrating mini-games and flawed core game mechanics."
(Review score: 50%)

Compare that with the Japanese reviews which have been generally more appreciative of DOAX2's decidedly mammalian brand of entertainment (translated to the very best of my ability):

Munetatsu Matsui for Famitsu:
"[It's a tropical game that caters to DOA fans in every way.]"
(Review score: 90%)

Are North American reviewers being pretentiously critical of this game because they're insecure about looking like "nerds?" Are the Japanese reviewers who applaud the game exactly the nerds for whom the North American critics are afraid of being mistaken?

[Shrug] I dunno. Culture gap.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

PGR3 vs. Reality

During her tenure at Microsoft, Girlfriend worked on the Japanese localization team for Project Gotham Racing 3 for the Xbox 360. It was her responsibility to translate dozens of car description blurbs and UI elements for the game, plus the instruction manual translation. If that sounds like a lot of work, imagine how busy she was a few months earlier, when she worked on the translation of one million words of English text (and I don't mean "Dude, it was like a million words!" I mean, literally, 1,000,000 words) for the Japanese version of Jade Empire.
PGR3 has race tracks that very accurately replicate real locations in cities such as London, Las Vegas, New York and Tokyo. In the summer of 2005, while the game was being put together, personnel from developer Bizarre Creations came to Tokyo to research the area that was to appear in PGR3's Shinjuku locale. They used a combination of city maps, sound recordings and an exhaustive amount of street photography to create the best possible in-game rendition of the real thing.
As it turned out, their work paid off and PGR3 blessed racing fans with a Tokyo driving experience almost as white-knuckled and competitive as actually driving through Shinjuku during one's daily commute. On top of that, they managed to accurately recreate a surprising percentage of Shinjuku's urban scenery with stunning attention to detail...right down to the last Yoshinoya. Because I was so impressed with the nice job they did making their in-game Shinjuku, I used the game's robust camera mode (in conjunction with my actual camera's own robust...uh, camera mode) to present this comparison of some of the area's most recognizable spots as they appear in the game versus their counterparts in reality.
Exhibit A: Bic Camera
It's hard not to notice the hulking, white monstrosity that is Odakyu Halc (Hulk). The same building is home to "Biku-Biku-Biku" Bic Camera, my preferred source for game-related wares. I actually bought my Xbox 360 here, but nobody on PGR3 voice chat believed me when I told them that.

Exhibit B: First Kitchen
A major landmark of the Shinjuku Station South Exit district, First Kitchen's mighty red clock watches over us all. It sees you when you're sleeping. It knows when you're awake. It decides who lives and who dies. Look closely and you'll see accurate imitations of signs advertising loan brokers Honobono Lake, Promise and Acom. And don't forget adult manga dealer Comics Toranoana...they also see you when you're sleeping.

Exhibit C: Paloma
North of Halc there is this huge red, white and blue sign that says "PALOMA." Paloma is a water heater company that made headlines earlier this year when it was revealed more than 20 people living in homes with Paloma heaters had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. You can't see it in this shot, but there is also a sign here which incorrectly alludes to an office supply store called T-Zone. T-Zone has been gone for years, replaced by Office 24, but the sign remains wrong, both in the game and in reality.

Exhibit D: Yasukunidori
Below is the Ichibangai entrance to Kabukicho, as seen from across Yasukuni Street. Coffee shops Doutor and Pronto are faithfully reproduced on either side of the red Ichibangai gate. The game's so-called Kabukicho Loop track passes this very "colorful" section of town without actually entering the neighborhood which is its namesake. I shudder to imagine a street race through Kabukicho, anyway...the streets are way too narrow and you'd probably end up running over a guy who was trying to lure you into a strip club.

Exhibit E: Don Quixote
If you like "Biku-Biku-Biku" Bic Camera, you'll love "Don-Don-Don-Donkey" Don Quixote, fine retailer of beach furniture, cheap jewelry and novelty underwear. In the game the store looks closed. In real life Don Quixote stores don't close during the daytime unless they've fallen victim to an arson attack by some crazy lady. Incidentally, Don Quixote is the last place I'd want to be during a fire. The place is stacked floor-to-ceiling with sex toys and Sailor Moon costumes which, in the event of an actual emergency, would probably all come crashing down on me at once.