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.


8bitcity said...

I must read this book. Too much school reading.

Charlie said...

This book's cover is enough to make me want to buy it. Displayed on my bookshelf it will make mortal cower!