Tuesday, May 25, 2010

No More Famitsu for Me

In 2006, when Japanese game rag Famitsu gave Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 (Xbox 360) conspicuously high review scores despite a consensus in the Western gaming community that the game wasn't that good, I shrugged and said, "culture gap." Any game publication could be expected to hand out an evaluation that differs -- sometimes wildly -- from the general consensus, especially in cases where a game had been localized for a foreign market. But, as I intend to illustrate below, an outlandish review score can also be an indication of plain, old-fashioned corruption.

Consider the history of Famitsu, a magazine once revered for the infrequency with which it gave out tens (Famitsu reviews games with a four-person format mimicked by EGM and others). In the first 12 years of its existence, Famitsu never gave a full 40/40 score to any game. Beginning in 1998 with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, as many as fourteen games that may or may not have arguably deserved perfect scores started getting them. The trend accelerated, with three games winning perfect scores in 2008, and four games in 2009. At the same time, Famitsu started winning exclusives left and right, often reviewing games prior to their release dates. Together, these phenomena formed a strong suggestion that Famitsu was squarely in the business of hyping games, not criticizing them.

When Famitsu gave Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP) a perfect score of 40/40, it was a confirmation of prior suspicions for many. In particular, Gawker Media's game blog Kotaku pointed out that Famitsu's adulation for the game reeked of dishonesty (citing product tie-in agreements between Konami and two major Japanese game magazines, and an advertising campaign in which Hirokazu Hamamura, former Famitsu Editor-in-Chief and current president of the magazine's parent company Enterbrain endorses the game).

In response to the accusation, Konami and Famitsu teamed up in joint opposition of Kotaku, a move which only served to cement the idea that Famitsu could no longer be trusted as an impartial critic.

Those who remain unconvinced of Famitsu's conflict of interest needn't look any farther than the current print issue of Famitsu Xbox 360, in which three games, Lost Planet 2, Super Street Fighter IV and Splinter Cell: Conviction, have all been given scores of three nines and a ten (92.5%). On Gamerankings.com, however, Lost Planet 2 averages 68.87% over 24 reviews (at the time of this posting) from various English-language game websites.

Now, before you shrug and say "culture gap," consider this. I've singled out Lost Planet 2 for the Xbox 360 because it disproves the suggestion that the disagreement between Famitsu and Kotaku is founded in cultural difference between consumers in different countries: On the Japanese Amazon website, the very same game averages a measly 60.6% over 32 reviews (at the time of this posting), all from Japanese-speaking customers.

That's not a gap between cultures. That's a gap between advertisers and consumers.

In a world where consumers can go online and make decisions based on reviews from so many different sources, there is no demand for a biased print periodical like Famitsu. If the management of that publication aren't willing to abandon their current formula of charging people for the chance to be advertised to rather than informed, then they deserve the extinction to which they are doomed.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Comments Moderation

Perhaps inevitably, it has become apparent that I must be vigilant about who is and isn't allowed to comment on my blog. After about one instance per week of someone posting spam ads (always consisting of a nonsense English sentence, followed by a series of about twenty links to various Chinese-language websites), it seems like it has become a necessity. So from now on, everyone who comments will have to sign in, and all comments will be moderated before they appear online.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Digital Harinezumi 2++ review

In university, I practiced creative photography using my mom's Pentax SLR, a camera older than me. I became quite fond of the camera's honesty, not to mention the tricky, low-light bulb photography I could do with a tripod. But unlike many purists in the photography world, I found myself easily seduced away from the personality and warmth of film photography by the instant gratification and convenience of digital photography in the years that followed.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between the digital photography's convenience and analog photography's personality, Japanese cult camera maker SuperHeadz released the Digital Harinezumi (Japanese for "hedgehog"), a digital camera that emulates the lo-fi feel of old film shots with carefully tweaked saturation and contrast settings, in spring of 2009. The camera also boasted a video mode that did its best to imitate 8mm film. An upgraded sequel, the Digital Harinezumi 2, followed in November.

Currently the latest version of this product, the Digital Harinezumi 2++ offers greater convenience and image quality than its predecessor, while maintaining the same toy camera quirkiness that collectors and enthusiasts seek. Wife and I spent a day in Ueno with this little device and put it to the test.

Our first destination was the National Museum and Nature and Science and its temporary land mammal exhibition. The camera has two simulated ISO settings, 100 and 800 (the latter of which is sensitive enough for shooting in a dark indoor environment such as a museum without a flash). As a result, I was able to take a lot of goofy headshots of taxidermied animals...like this bear, who looks like he just heard a dirty joke.

I also grabbed the rare opportunity to use the Harinezumi to take a picture of a harinezumi:

Outdoor photography, especially in bright sunlight, is where the camera really shows off its characteristics. Its image processor washes certain tones out while boosting others. Which colors receive which treatment depends on the individual Harinezumi you buy; in keeping with the haphazard toy camera aesthetic, SuperHeadz thought it would be more appropriate if each unit had a slightly unique eye.

After leaving the museum, we headed for Ameya Yokocho, Ueno's famous street market district. It's a colorful place, ideal for testing out the camera's tendencies. It's also a good place for buying seafood.

The Harinezumi 2++, unlike the original Harinezumi, allows the user to use the camera's LCD screen as a viewfinder in all modes, but toward the end of the afternoon, I began to notice that some of my best photos resulted from ignoring the LCD screen completely and going for "lucky" shots.

The camera also shoots in a flattering monochrome mode, which I didn't use much on this outing, but plan to exploit in great depth in the near future.

As I said before, Ameyoko is a good place to buy seafood. We got a steal of a deal on some scallops and frozen salmon. Wife used those to cook up one of the best dinners we'd had in a long time:

So now that you've seen the pictures the Digital Harinezumi 2++ can produce, here's a breakdown of how I feel about it as a product.

What's Good

• It's small and light. Although its predominantly plastic construction also makes it feel cheap, it fits in a pocket and hardly weighs anything.

• It does what it's supposed to do. Manufactured nostalgia is what the Harinezumi is all about, and in that department, it delivers. Color exaggeration, contrast boosting and corner vignetting come together to produce some very convincing results.

• It offers a level of control. Although it's meant to recreate the chaos and unpredictability of low-tech film photography, the Digital Harinezumi 2++ sports two ISO settings, color and monochrome modes, a ten-second auto-timer and macro mode. And if you feel like you still have too much control over your shots, you can turn the preview mode off and use the folding plastic viewfinder (or no viewfinder at all).

• It's not too electricity-hungry. It runs on a single CR2 battery, admittedly not my favorite power source, since they are pricey (and rechargeable CR2s don't exist in Japan), but one CR2 will let you shoot constantly in video mode for almost two hours. To help you conserve power, the camera turns itself off after remaining idle for sixty seconds.

• The mic is surprisingly capable. I don't really recommend that anyone buy this camera mainly for the movie function, as the video you get is small (640x480) and poorly compressed. And it's likely that the vast majority of Harinezumi videos that appear on YouTube will be set to ambient music tracks (Four Tet comes to mind for some reason); it's just that kind of camera. All the same, when I did take video with sound, I was surprised at the fidelity of the tiny built-in microphone.

What's Bad

• It's overpriced. The camera can be purchased on its own for around ¥15,000, or in a "Box" that comes with a carrying pouch, a strap, a CR2 battery and a 2GB microSD card with USB reader for about ¥20,000. You could make the case that $150 is or isn't a reasonable asking price for such a simple camera, but let me be very clear about something: The Box version isn't worth the extra fifty bucks. The strap and pouch are nothing special. And if you own a Mac, I definitely cannot recommend the Box, as the included microSD card does not work with Mac OS.

• Menu navigation is cumbersome. Granted, this camera only has a few adjustable settings, and two of them (still/video and normal/macro) can be toggled with a single button stroke. But every time you want to change the image resolution, ISO speed, timer, review on/off, preview on/off, color/monochrome setting or sound on/off for video mode, you'll have to cycle through all seven of those options, each of which gets its own screen in the menu. I found myself muttering "come on, come on" more than once while fumbling with the menu mode.

• Video recording is 640x480 at 29 fps and that's that. Come on, SuperHeadz, really? 640x480? In this day and age? Do I have to remind you that analog film, the medium you're trying to emulate, had better resolution than the majority of 20th century televisions? I know you're going for retrograde, but spring for a bigger video resolution with your next upgrade.


Official website (English)