Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Crazy Trip Dispatch #7 From Doug Walsh

Here's a nice surprise: a travel post from Doug Walsh. Even better, there's a ton of interesting information about Japanese arcades. Enjoy.

March 30, 2015

Greetings from Japan. That’s right, Japan. We shouldn’t be here. But we are, and extremely glad for it. Our month in Morocco led to a month of cycling in Italy, landing in Rome on Christmas Eve’s eve. Everything was going according to the plan we laid out over a year ago when we left, but then a feeling came over us. We had to go home. Kristin’s father was battling an advanced rare cancer -- he had been doing so for two years – and a feeling deep within us welled up to tell us our opportunity to spend quality time with him was slipping away. So we hopped a flight back to the States and surprised her folks in early January. We stayed for just over two months, finally leaving for Japan a week after his death. Listen to your gut; it knows what’s best for you.

So, with our bikes stored safely in Rome, and with some final familial obligations to attend to this summer, we decided to pursue a life’s travel dream and follow the cherry blossoms as they spread across Japan. Spring broke today in Nara and the cherry blossoms, sakura, are finally beginning to unfurl their petals. This time last year we were but a week into our journey, crossing our third mountain pass and battling a snowstorm in the Cascades.

We’ve been in Japan for two weeks and will be here through the end of April. Pinch me. I came to Japan once before, a six-day teaser to meet with Platinum Games in Osaka about Mad World and Bayonetta, and had been wanting to return ever since. The more we see and do, the longer my list of things to experience grows. We’ve packed a lot into these first two weeks: hiking the Old Tokaido Road, criss-crossing mountains by cablecar, taking in views of Mount Fuji, attending the final day of a sumo tournament, suffering the feelings of despair and sadness that comes from visiting the Hiroshima Peace Museum, and even visiting an onsen town where we whiled away two full days clad in cotton robes and wooden sandals, clap-clomping our way from one hot spring to another.
But, with no bicycles to maintain and ample access to arcades – remember those? – not to mention electricity to charge my 3DS, I’ve been dutifully tending to my neglected gaming talents. Japan will do that to you. Japan’s five- and six-story arcades are known the world over and though I had visited Namco’s towering monument to coin-operated gaming in Osaka in 2009, I wasn’t prepared for how ridiculously advanced the games inside had gotten.

For starters, many of the games were touch-screen. One, called Maimai, consisted of a large circular touch-screen with a tap-sensitive outer bezel that housed a rhythm game where, to my sincere noobness, appeared to be rather simplistic at first glance. Then I watched a young man step up, gloves on so as to not smudge the screen, and begin tapping and swiping in a flurry of motions, in a beautiful synchronicity to the music, playing a song as arrow-shaped icons spread, dashed, and encircled the screen. On Youtube I found this video of someone playing two Maimai cabinets simultaneously. Other music-based touch-screen games filled out the room. A once above-average Guitar Hero and Rock Band player, I tried a guitar-based game in the corner. The guitar had heft to it. As much as the Fender my wife gave me with a copy of Rocksmith some years ago. I failed miserably. Even on the second-easiest mode, the notes poured down the screen at a ridiculous tempo. It was the J-Pop equivalent of “Through the Fire and Flames” and the only thing melting was my ego.

Another arcade had ten consoles set up on a LAN for a wall-sized screen for StarHorse 3, a horse-racing simulation. We watched as six men touch-fed, petted, and trained up their horses for the next race. This one game alone took up as much space as a couple of bowling lanes. Remember those?

Each of the arcades had player cards where you can carry your credits, rankings, scores with you from machine to machine. It was all so much, but nothing I had seen compared to the wizardry of Lord of Vermillion III. At first look, it was a frenetic touch-based MOBA. My eyes glaze over whenever I watch someone play DOTA or League of Legends and I was keen to keep moving, but then I noticed the cards. Lord of Vermillion III is a trading card-based MOBA (vending machine standing nearby for more cards) that not only features a large touch screen for issuing commands and launching attacks, but there’s a card-reading field where you arrange and shift your physical trading cards in and out of the defensive and offensive zones. Players had one hand tapping away at the screen while rapidly shifting and sliding their cards around the playing surface. I recalled watching an expert drummer play Taiko Master – he arrived with his own drumsticks and improvised his own drumrolls and twirls during the song – and realized that arcade gaming in Japan requires an athleticism and level of coordination that I’ve never even considered, let alone possessed.

But, despite the craziness of the arcades, the devotion of Japan’s gamers was most impressed upon me during a train ride from Kinosaki to Nara. I left my 3DS in sleep mode while I read, only to find that, for the first time ever, SpotPass had picked up a number of other players in my vicinity. Suddenly the Happy Homes Association in my copy of Animal Crossing: New Leaf contained the model homes of players I had passed in my train journey. A dozen players were added, all of them with an impressive collection of furnishings decorating their digital homes. Many also played Pokemon Shuffle, yielding some free hearts and gems for my game. But one of the AC players stood out. You see, each home is given a score by the HHA. Mine stands at around 6,000 because I don’t buy furnishings and focus my efforts on fossil hunting and fishing as a means of paying off my various home expansions. And because I seldom play the game with any consistency.
One of the players’ homes, now favorited in my HHA showcase, had a score of 1.7 million! I was unaware scores in excess of 100,000 were even possible. I toured this house with slack-jawed astonishment and awe. Every room contained a full suite of items from the rarest of the rare themed sets. And not thrown around haphazardly but delicately placed in a way that an interior designer might arrange things for a photo-shoot. I wanted to move into this house. The player’s profile showed nearly a full collection of badges indicating hundreds, nay, thousands of hours of devotion.

I had left my 3DS on in sleep mode while in Rome and Naples, Italy. I left it on periodically during my wanderings in New Jersey and even on a daytrip to NYC and never once did I get a single SpotPass.

I’ll be keeping my 3DS in sleep mode throughout my time in Japan. Not just for the free hearts in Pokemon Shuffle, but for the next inevitable dose of inspiration, envy, and awe. It won’t take long.

Doug Walsh

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