Saturday, January 17, 2009

Book Review: Arcade Mania!

Arcade Mania! is a new book from Kotaku editor Brian Ashcraft about Japanese arcades, the games inside and the people who play them. That might sound like a fairly narrow focus, but Ashcraft smartly chooses to center not just on traditional joystick-based video games (played primarily by dudes with rich parents for 6 hours a day), but on UFO Catchers, sticker machines, and the amazingly sophisticated network-based Mahjongg and card-based arcade games that are both insanely popular and also nearly totally unknown in the West.

He's also made an interesting structural choice - the chapters of the book are organized the same way that the average Japanese game center is, with UFO Catchers up front, followed by music/fighting/shooting games, dedicated cabinet games, and so on.

Each chapter is a snapshot of the history of arcade games. Yu Suzuki and Hang-On are the lynchpin of the dedicated cabinet chapter, but it's not just about the 80s and 90s - the chapter also gives us a glimpse into the history of the non-video amusement games that eventually inspired Suzuki and others to put plastic motorcycles and Ferraris in game centers. The shooting game chapter covers the Space Invaders boom and Xevious, leading us right up to the present. There's even an interview with Minoru Ikeda, the guy who runs superplay DVD publisher INH, including an attempt to explain why he thought "Insanity Naked Hunter" would be a good name for a DVD publisher.

There's more fun reading in here - the fighting game section has interviews with Daigo Umehara, of course, but it also has chit-chat with Arc System's Daisuke Ishiwatari, SNK producer Shinya Kimoto (choice advice to future game designers: "Punching is important. That, and the sound effects of smacking someone."), and Virtua Fighter 5 director Daichi Katagiri. There's nothing earth-shattering in here for people who have been paying attention to these games for a while (You wa Shock from SNK exec Soichiro Hosoya: "We have to release our fighting games in arcades. If we didn't, no one would buy the console versions."), but Jean Snow's page layouts are clean and Ashcraft's newspapery-prose is consistently engaging and informative.

Even for people who already think they know everything about Japanese arcade games, though, the chapters on mahjong and card-based arcade games are pretty dang interesting. If you've used MAME at all in the past few years, chances are that you've noticed the enormous back-archive of utterly bewildering strip-mahjong games, and have since written off the concept of arcade mahjong as pandering bullshit devoid of any value whatsoever. Arcade Mania! is here to prove you wrong, son. Specifically: man, Sega's Network Taisen Mahjong and Konami's Mahjong Fight Club series are ridiculously sophisticated networked, touch-screen affairs with IP-card tracking and everything. Hell, Sega and Konami even have their own competing rosters of real-life pro mahjong players who are basically paid to play their respective arcade games all the time - the chance for regular players to run into pros is a big draw.

The one sorta-weak link in the book is the chapter on Retro Games, which consists primarily of an interview with Goichi Suda in which he talks about "maybe opening a retro game center" across the street from Grasshopper Manufacture, and some quotes from Toshiyuki Kanbayashi, the owner of Shibuya Kaikan Monaco, a fairly popular retro game center. It feels weirdly under-researched, and Suda is practically the only source quoted in the entire chapter. Oh, and the other weak link: Ashcraft fucks up during the music game chapter when describing DDR's double mode, which is expressly designed for one person to play with what appears to be two players' worth of inputs - he makes the rookie mistake of thinking that his interview subject is rad enough to be playing the normal game, designed for one player, on both the one and two-player side... actually, considering how confusing that last sentence is, his mistake was totally understandable.

Besides that, though? I dug the hell out of this book, and I bet you will too. It's about $15 or so over at amazon, and comes in the adorably-compact-by-western-standards A4 size. People walking by your bookshelf will be practically magnetized to the damn thing. Oh baby.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Grab bag update #2

In lieu of providing new content, here are a couple of links that deserve your attention:

First up
is a Gamasutra interview with Arc System Works, the awesome men and woman behind the Guilty Gear series, the thoroughly under-appreciated Battle Fantasia, and a slew of other 2D fighting games, including the recently released BlazBlue. There's a lot of interesting information in here, most of which has handily been digested by David Cabrera (protip: if you don't read his blog on a regular basis, you totally should be), but I was most amused by BlazBlue director Toshimichi Mori's issue with the way Capcom has been presenting Street Fighter IV:
Toshimichi Mori: I'm not trying to pick a fight with Capcom or anything, but with Street Fighter IV, they made a big deal about how the game was designed to be accessible to people new to the genre.

I remember when I first read that in an interview, I was like, "What? How can they say that?!" I thought maybe I was seeing things. I think they need to take a second look at the list of moves for that game before they make a claim like that.

Sure, people like us who work with games, or fans of fighting games can do a hadouken or a shoryuken without thinking much about it, but for somebody just getting started? Those moves are pretty tough! You can't expect new players to just whip those moves out every time.

To fill your game with moves like that and then emphasize how simple it was for beginners to pick up seemed irresponsible to me. Street Fighter IV is not a game geared toward people who've never played fighters before. If they were really interested in making a beginner-friendly game, they should've made included a few impressive moves a player could do with the press of a button.

That is some curly-mustache-grade irony, right there.

Second - while 1up is sorta dead, their Retronauts blog, which boasts the talents of Jeremy Parish and Ray Barnholt, among others, is rockin' harder than ever.

Case in point: their recent interview with Famicom-era Konami musician Hidenori Maezawa. This guy is one of the mystery heroes behind the memorable music of many Konami games. Best part is by far this factoid on the Parodius soundtrack:
Maegawa: "When I was working on Parodius, we had a very short time with the game, so I wasn't able to compose a new soundtrack for it. But you know, classical music is public domain -- once the composer has died, 50 years later we're free to use it however we wish and the music belongs to the public....that's why we used classical music for the game. We only had one month to create the Parodius' soundtrack!"
There's lots of other cool stuff on the Retronauts blog besides this interview, anyway. I recommend checking it out.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Semi-Capsule Review: Ketsui Death Label (DS)

Ketsui Death Label is a DS port of the arcade shooting game from which this blog's title is uneasily derived. The original game (developed by the genre-defnining Cave) has practically taken on the status of myth among shooting game fans - it's never been ported to a home console, you can't emulate it, and the arcade board itself sells for something like a thousand bucks last time I checked. It's also purportedly really good, with a scoring system that rewards getting up close to the enemies. Plus, there are lots of mesmerizing, colorful bullet patterns and excellent music courtesy of Manabu Namiki. And helicopters. Awww yeah.
Death Label, developed by those Tetris Grand Masters over at Arika, is the most glorified boss rush ever made. Instead of a set number of stages like in the arcade game, the DS version consists of different courses, each one sending you up against different bosses from the arcade version of the game in a row. The play mechanics have been reappropriated a little bit for the small screens, but the end result still requires you to stay as close to the boss as long as you can without getting killed.

Interestingly, you also get a ton of points for carefully using up all of your bombs at each boss encounter, turning all of the bullets onscreen into big multiplier point items with each use. That's a scoring mechanic that doesn't show up very much in these kinds of games, which usually reward you for bombing as little as possible. Unfortunately, it also means that in a lot of cases you end up spending most of your time shooting the boss until near-dead, then waiting around until a particularly big bullet pattern comes out, bombing, and then waiting around some more.

Besides the steadily harder set of courses, the game also has an Extra Mode which replicates the fifth stage of the arcade game on the DS with a pretty absurd level of difficulty. There's also Doom Mode, in which you fight the true last boss of the arcade game over and over, with the difficulty ramping up each time.

The game has an art gallery that unlocks as you complete the equivalent of achievements ("destroy this boss," "destroy that boss," "don't bomb," etc.), which in turn unlocks a bizarre little side mode called "Oshiete IKD-san!" in which Cave head-honcho Tsuneki Ikeda instructs various characters from Ketsui itself on the game's play mechanics. There are also mini-superplay videos and assorted meta-weirdness from the development staff of the DS game. Most of it is beyond my rudimentary Japanese ability, but it, along with the included superplay DVD of the arcade version, show that Arika wasn't willing to just push this thing out the door. Sorta. It feels apologetic, like "hey, sorry we couldn't make a real game for the DS. Here's a bunch of unnecessary stuff for you to peruse as compensation." That's the kind of vibe I get, anyway.

Second opinion: here's a video review of the game by shmups forum member Rob, who lives in the great state of Alaska. You may find that he is pretty picky about these kinds of games (and maybe a little insane), but he is an important voice, nonetheless.