Tag Archives: japan

Games of 2012: Virtue’s Last Reward

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Virtue's Last Reward

Moral choices: so common in real life, so frequently deployed as a game mechanic, and so frequently botched in their execution. We’ve come so far in a short time with gaming being able to tell stories and evoke emotions in the player – but forcing a real and meaningful choice seems impossible.

I think it’s caused by the nature of the medium. We are conditioned to stockpile extra lives, to save frequently, to reload our game if we get a bad break. It’s hard to force a meaningful choice – or at the very least, one with permanence – when the world you are making that choice in is so temporary. And so the choices get watered down (Bioshock‘s “Harvest or Save” mechanic) or don’t really matter (Mass Effect 3’s ending) or come so close to the end of the game they don’t cause much divergence at all (the big decision in Grand Theft Auto IV).

So when I started playing Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, I wasn’t quite ready for what would unfold in front of me. VLR is a visual novel game, a genre relatively popular in Japan but rarely seeing the light of day in the US. It’s the sequel to the very well regarded 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which I hadn’t played but had been told was excellent.

Some spoilers are going to follow because part of what I love about the game is intrinsic to the plot:

The game focuses on the running of “the nonary game”, somewhat reminiscent of what you might see in a knockoff of the Saw movies. 9 people are trapped in a strange facility; they are forced to explore it in groups (which are basically a series of Escape The Room puzzles). On occasion, the teams get sent into isolation rooms to vote whether to trust or screw over their partner(s)[1. If this sounds a lot like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, rest assured the game is not trying to hide that. In fact, it provides you a full logical dissertation on how it works and all the strategies that one might implement.]. Points are gained and lost based on those votes; anyone who reaches 9 points can leave the facility, but once the door out closes, it will never open again. And if your points hit 0? That friendly bracelet injects you with drugs and you die.

From the get go, VLR makes what seems like some odd design decisions. It puts the story tree front and center on the menu screen, telegraphing when the choices that matter (largely those votes) are approaching. You can jump around the story tree whenever you see fit. So it seemed straightforward for me to grind through it: play to the bottom of one decision tree, jump myself back to the last decision point, go the other way, and gradually see all the endings.

I barreled down the right-hand side of the tree in a couple of hours, but something odd happened. I neared the bottom, but the game hit a cliffhanger and I was sent back to the tree. Confused why I couldn’t proceed, I went to the previous choice and went the other way – and got completely mind-fucked when a character was confused why I hadn’t made the other choice. The one I had made minutes prior. (And that still didn’t help me get past the roadblock.)

Virtue’s Last Reward is a brilliant game because the temporary nature of your choices is not merely a gameplay mechanic, but also integral to the plot. The game doesn’t just allow you to you skip around the story tree, it demands it if you’re going to see the complete ending. You will repeat events under multiple circumstances, and the information from one distant timeline may help you get past challenges in another. (Of course, your ability to know about things that haven’t happened becomes concerning to the other characters, who all have their own motivations and backstories.)

Working up and down the story tree is time consuming, although a brilliant “skip dialog I’ve already heard” button saved me from deja vu. But I started from a state of knowing nothing, absorbed the world across multiple timelines, and then suddenly understood why I needed to understand all those timelines. Kotaro Uchikoshi’s script twists and turns in ways I’ve never seen a game manage before.

The biggest compliment I can give Virtue’s Last Reward: its unique storytelling and construction hooked me so hard, I ended up with a platinum trophy on PSN for it. (And I can’t wait for the next game.)

Virtue’s Last Reward is available for the 3DS and Vita. My experiences were with the Vita version.

Games of 2011: Yakuza 4

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games 2011 posts.

I broke out of an island prison for a crime I both did and did not commit, only to wash up ashore at the door of an orphanage run by a retired yakuza chairman.

I honed my fighting style on the roof of a building with a crazed military vet, who shot at me with a machine gun loaded with blanks.

I cared for two kittens that some homeless guys had found, which eventually lead me to find riches in a locker in an underground mall, left to take care of the cats after their caretaker passed away.

I played crane games to win prizes for my girlfriends, warbled karaoke, swung for the fences in batting cages, and played a *lot* of pachinko.

I loaned money to people in need, but rather than charge them interest, I made them demonstrate they were good people. And if they weren’t, I made them pay.

I helped magazine writers find the best restaurants, helped a ramen chef develop a new recipe, and helped an enthusastic foreigner enjoy the local social scene.

I served as a bodyguard, a bouncer, a hostess club promoter, a fill-in for a triple date, and a crime fighting sidekick.

I uncovered a massive web of deceit, brought down corrupt cops, cleared my name, and avenged the deaths of countless friends and family members.


There are plenty of great story driven games in the world, but I can’t think of many that can claim the depth of story, experience, and emotion that Yakuza 4 can.

The plot rotates between four characters – eccentric loan shark Shun Akiyama, gruff convict Taiga Saejima, dirty cop Masayoshi Tanimura, and long standing series hero Kazuma Kiryu. Their plot lines overlap and eventually converge in the final chapter, but for much of the game you’ll just be focused on their own particular domains and relationships across the sprawling city that is Kamurocho.

Let me not underplay the Yakuza world: after four main games and three spinoffs, the [character list](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Characters_of_the_Yakuza_series) is simply massive. The game world is so rich, the game offers players a “Reminisce Mode”, with ten-minute videos that encapsulate the previous games. Spending thirty minutes catching up isn’t necessary, but it certainly helps fill in the gaps.

The series is also notorious for the side activities, both in the form of side missions and just places of business you can frequent. After Yakuza 3 was released in the US with significant missing content, Yakuza 4 was released pretty much complete, and it contains an overwhelming assortment of things to do. The variety of side activities is so great, the main plot often faded into the background for me. Who cares that I can go confront the men who trashed my club? I’d rather help this woman who thinks I’m her fiancee.

Perhaps it comes without surprise that some of the joy of this game gave me came out of my desire to get back to Japan. The city of Kamurocho is somewhat accurately modeled on Shinjuku’s red light district, and feels authentic. The main streets feel busy and vibrant, while the back alleys and underground concourses can have tiny tucked away bars with a few people in them. It’s not without some gaming-induced liberties – there’s almost always someone trying to pick a fight with you – but it operates much you like would expect a real city to.

In that way, it felt like a real solution to my gripes about Saints Row: The Third yesterday. The Yakuza series comes across as unconcerned in appealing to the chaos and carnage crowd. (The breadth of the dialog might cause someone with ADD to give up before the game even starts.) Instead, it is a smart, neatly packaged, intoxicating world, ready to reward those who have the patience and discipline to help right the wrongs that occur there.

Yakuza 4 is available for the PS3.

Tokyo 2010: Appendix

## All Tokyo 2009/2010 Posts

* Prelude
* Getting There
* Grappling With Technology
* Shibuya + Akihabara
* Engrossed
* Cat Room Chamamo
* Harajuku + Ikebukuro
* Akihabara Revisited + Marunouchi
* Tokyo DisneySea
* Fukubukuro
* A Scattered Final Day
* 26 Hour Party People
* Finale

## Photos/Videos

Available on Flickr.

## Survival Guide

I would not have been able to survive in Tokyo without the following:

TimeOut Guidebooks – extremely polished and well written (Pokemon Center location inaccuracy aside), TimeOut Tokyo City Guide this was our life blood for neighborhood specific maps, subway navigation, general information, critical phrases in Japanese, and address information. Doesn’t cover everything, but covers the major points. Available at most major bookstores.

iPhone ApplicationsHuman Japanese ($10) provides a fantastic introduction to the language, including sentence structure, hiragana/katakana guides, vocabulary lists, and cultural interludes. codefromtokyo’s Japanese ($20) provides a well organized (sometimes redundant) dictionary, including phrases and stroke ordering for kanji. It also includes quick look charts for katakana/hiragana, word list functionality, and JLPT study guides. Both are worth carrying on your iPhone/iPod Touch.

smart.fm – recommended to me a day or two into the trip by longtime friend Andy Livy, smart.fm provides learning goals for most languages and topics through a mostly flash-based learning management system. Lots of social networking integration and good tools means this helped me get the syllabary comprehension a little better very quickly. Wish I had known about this before I left.

Citibank ATMs – while I am not a Citibank customer, they are notable because (a) their Tokyo ATMs are open 24/7, unlike many others and (b) they take American ATM cards, unlike nearly every other ATM around Tokyo. Even our hotel ATM wouldn’t take our card. Find a nearby location, because you may need it in a pinch. While lots of places in Japan take cards, many still don’t. Cash remains king.

Suica – the contactless smart card used by JR Railways (and vending machines and lots of convenience stores), Suica made it painless to ride JR’s trains around everywhere. Foreigners can get a Suica/NEX package deal that represents substantial savings. Look for the blue signage near most train turnstiles – English screens are available if you press the “ENGLISH” button in the top right.

Airport Limousine – the last thing you may want to do when you arrive late at night is try to navigate the train system. Airport Limousine is more than likely going to be able to take you directly to your hotel, for about the same cost as a one-way NEX ticket. Ticket counters are on the first floor of Narita Airport and hard to miss.

Skype – so long as you have a good internet connection available to you, Skype remains the best way to deal with international calling. A number of calls home ended up costing us about $1.50. Load up before you go.

Friends – a thousand thank yous to John Scanlan, Richard Whittaker, Richard Bannister, Andy Livy, Ryan Bayne, and anyone else who sent recommendations and cultural advice my way over the last two weeks.

Tokyo 2010: Finale

Shinagawa, South

Today was the first day since Christmas where I did not have something to see, somewhere to go, or anything to do. The hum of the heater has replaced the drone of aircraft; the distant squeal of the Jersey City lightrail turning the corner has replaced the rushing sound of the JR Yamanote line.

Piled across the kitchen counter are the things we brought back – cute dolls, strange snacks, and a pile of CDs. Our suitcases remain nearby, still mostly full of our clothing and charging cords. They will be unpacked in due time. The fridge has been refilled, the laundry is slowly getting done, and I am mysteriously not jetlagged even in the slightest.

I will not return to work until Wednesday, and while I’m starting to respond to work emails again, for now, I sit contently.

Hachiko Crossing

I have spent over five days in a place that was foreign yet welcoming, busy yet quiet, energetic yet polite.

Takeshita Dori

I have walked through neighborhoods I never thought I would set foot in, wandered without purpose in pedestrian malls, and blended into crowded trains and stores.

Waiting for Gold On To Open

I have inhaled the cloud of smoke in pachinko parlors, downed sake and shochu, seen some really weird things on TV, and inadvertently walked into the adult section of more than one anime store in Akihabara.

And yet it still feels like there is more to do. Even with another week, another month, I wouldn’t have been able to see it all. So we will continue working on our Japanese, keep our eyes peeled for new things to see when we are there, and start plotting for the next trip.

I can’t wait.

(Very special thanks to all of you who left comments, suggestions, questions, and encouragement on my blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook over the last week. It felt like you were there with us.)

Tokyo 2009: Akihabara Revisited + Marunouchi

Akihabara

After getting visually overwhelmed earlier in the week, we made our first stop this morning a return to Akihabara. Overflowing with multi-story electronics superstores, anime/manga retailers, and nooks packed with games, it would be a nerd heaven even without an abundance of arcades, street food, and maid cafes.

Maid Cafe Crowd

There’s a definite advantage to trekking through the area during the daytime, as the neon glow from all of the stores combined with an abundance of people makes nighttime a bit challenging for those not native to the area. That said, there is something intangibly wonderful about the area after the sun sets.

IIDX Action

After flitting through a few stores, I settled back into the second and third floor of the Taito Station to get my mandatory music gaming out of the way. One round of Pop’n Music THE MOVIE, one round of DDR X, and one round of beatmania IIDX Sirius all passed by very quickly.

The third floor of Taito station is interesting as it seems to be mostly populated not by native Japanese, but by tourists from around the world. I suppose that after 10 years of DDR floating around the world, foreigners are most comfortable with these games, and are expecting some sort of show. (Fighting games are a floor higher; the “girly” music games like Pop’n and Taiko no Tatsujin are a floor below.)

A little bit more store browsing later, and we were on our way out of the area to head to Tokyo Station.

Under The Tokyo Station

Underneath Tokyo Station lies a maze of shops and restaurants, in addition to at least eight more train lines. It is frantically busy, especially on a day like today where much of the country seems to be traveling.

While wandering here, we found Katsugen in the “Kitchen Street” restaurant area, and we were ready to check another food off the list. I opted for the *Katsuzen* set lunch – red clam miso soup, rice, pickles, the mandatory pile of shredded cabbage with citrus yuzu dressing, and a healthy sized portion of katsu – and a mug of draft beer; Katie went for a different set that she had hoped contained crab croquettes but instead had katsu-fried oysters. (She did not complain.) It would be hard to call this anything other than my ideal Japanese meal.

Marunouchi

The day then turned a bit sour, as our planned shopping destination – the Pokemon Center – was not to be found where our guidebook indicated it would be. We beat up and down the back streets in the hopes that we just weren’t finding the entrance, but to no avail. After a while, the wind began to pick up, a headache began to set in, and we fled the area. (Later, research would prove that the store at that location closed in 2007; the new location is a few stations away. Will try again on Saturday.)

A little wandering around in Shinagawa allowed us to procure desserts and sweets for later tonight. Naps followed, as did a quiet sushi dinner at the proper hotel restaurant.
While it may be fun to traipse to Roppongi to hole up in a bar and ring in the new year, or to push through the cold towards a temple for the midnight bell ringing, we are taking the remainder of New Year’s Eve in our hotel room, quietly enjoying the TV. Happy new years!

Tokyo 2009: Harajuku + Ikebukuro

Climbing The Shinagawa Stairs

Shinagawa Station

One of the things I am really enjoying about Tokyo is how intricate and lively the stations are. American mass transit systems tend to allow only for a newsstand at the major stations; London is slightly better with vending machines near the tracks. But Tokyo has shopping malls surrounding and inside the transit system. The Shinagawa station alone has bookstores, CD/DVD stores, and a whole dessert-focused food court (among other dining options) beyond the turnstiles.

Harajuku

A 20 minute train ride later brought us to Harajuku. While a Wednesday trip doesn’t provide the opportunity to gawk at dressed up teenagers (they tend to come out on Sunday), it did let us explore an area that seems to be a cross between (in NYC terms) Fifth Avenue and the East Village.
The two main shopping streets run parallel to each other and both start at the station. Omotesando is the Fifth Avenue side – lots of international stores like Ralph Lauren, Gap, and Chanel.
Kiddy Land 5F

Omotesando is also where you can find KIDDYLAND, a six store toy store that has been serving happiness since 1946. It’s a worthwhile stop, if for nothing else to see how much floor space various franchises take up. (Pokemon gets about 30 square feet on B1, while Peanuts/”Snoopy Town” gets an entire floor.)
Katie Orders Hello Kitty Pastries

Outside of KIDDYLAND, a bakery turns out fresh baked Hello Kitty pastries with various fillings. A bag of 10 is about $4.
Takeshita Dori

A few blocks north from Omotesando is Takeshita Dori, a pedestrian only shopping mecca. This is the Harajuku you may expect, with ridiculous clothes and accessories and throngs of people. There’s a number of restaurants as well, but most people seemed to be queued up for one of the many crepe stands that all smelled delicious.
Ikebukuro

Our last major stop for the day was in Ikebukuro, a fairly commercial district where the train station is sandwiched in between two department stores: Seibu (apparently meaning “west area railway line”, located on the east side of the station) and Tobu (apparently meaning “east area railway line”, and naturally located on the west side of the station).

(A quick aside: there are ads practically everywhere for Seibu’s WE LOVE BARGAIN sale, and the TV commercial has aired so much I may start impulsively buying Kumi Koda’s music. The ad is damn cute.)

We took lunch at a Korean buffet on the 3F of Tobu Spice2, which required a lot of gesturing and *sumimasen*-ing. On the other hand, it was cheap and tasty. If nothing else, I am appreciative for the patience of the Japanese for those of us who know next to no Japanese.
Sunshine 60 Dori

We then crossed back through the train station to the east side, and made our way to Sunshine 60 Dori – another pedestrian mall shopping strip. We unfortunately didn’t find anything terribly unusual, so we beat our way back to the train and returned to Shinagawa.

For dinner, we opted for the set menu Mizu no Uta, a few blocks from the hotel. Sitting at the counter, we were treated to some of the best tuna I’ve ever tasted – perhaps too much of it. We started to run out of steam around the time we were grilling our own thin strips of tuna, and when a fried rice course came out immediately after, it became a struggle. Still – great food, and I can now cross the “sushi/sashimi” off my Tokyo food checklist. Now I just need to find a proper bowl of ramen and some tonkatsu.

Tokyo 2009: Cat Room Chamamo

While we’re away, we’re lucky enough to have friends in our building looking after poor ol’ Buttons. But after glancing at a picture of him being kept company, we pouted *just* a little. It’s hard being on the other side of the world from a beloved pet.

But we must not forget: this is Tokyo, where there is a solution to nearly any problem. So when serendipity struck in Harajuku in the form of a perfectly placed advertisement, we knew what we had to do.

Cat Room Chamamo

On the fifth floor of a nondescript building half a block south of the (closing) flagship Gap store sits Cat Room Chamamo. It is a cat café, providing visitors a chance to play with any/all of the nine resident cats for a nominal fee. Drinks and light snacks are also available.

There are prerequisites and rules, of course – mandatory hand washing and sanitizing, no picking up the cats, no outside food, etc. But you do get your choice of complimentary cat toys to use to attract the attention of the cats.

Cat Room Chamamo

Leaning Out The Window

Nap With A View

Play Time

Is it a silly way to pass the time? Sure. But I love the idea that if you are away from home, unable to own a pet, or otherwise animal deprived, there’s a place you can go that directly solves that problem.

Katie and Miruku

Count us as fans. A few more pictures are up on Flickr.

(For people with other tastes in pets, you can rent a dog at Odaiba’s Puppy The World, or have a stop at popular bunny cafe Usagi To Cafe in Nagoya.)

Tokyo 2009: Shibuya + Akihabara

Hachiko Crossing

Shibuya seemed like a good district to start our trip in. Easily accessible via the JR Yamanote Line, home to a few specific destinations, it is energetic without being completely overwhelming.

Hachiko Crossing, iconic sight of Japan that it is, is not very intimidating at 10:30 AM. We proceeded across and walked up *Center Gai*, a pedestrian area lined with restaurants, clothing shops, bars, and towering *pachislot* arcades.

Center Gai

Our first major shopping destination was Tokyu Hands, the “Creative Life Store” which holds just about everything in its seven stories. There was a certain bemusement that many things that I’ve seen at AC Gears in the East Village could be found here, often for much cheaper. An hour later, we walked away with a truly mixed bag of merchandise, including a very tasty iPhone case.

Guhroovy Signage

GUHROOVY is a hardcore techno record shop tucked away on an isolated third story in Udagawacho. Run by DJ CHUCKY, the store is somewhat notorious in the IIDX/Bemani community for being a key resource for albums featuring popular artists from the series. It is less than 200 square feet in total, but for techno junkies, it is blissful.

This was the only business that I had gone so far as to print out directions for and to seek out, and seeing as I may not be back in the neighborhood beyond this day, I did not let the opportunity slip away from me.

Fun fact for the Bemani faithful: the store has, with no explanation or price tag, a copy of Beatmania US on top of one of the shelves.

We then started to backtrack, finding that a doll shop that Katie had seen earlier – Doneunyo – was now open. Katie has been collecting Japanese dolls for few years; an opportunity to go to an official Blythe dealer was not one she could resist. (Junie Moon, her go-to destination, had closed for the holiday week.) She walked away very happy.
We stopped into a few SEGA World arcades, where I learned that Katie has a crippling addiction to UFO Catcher machines. I also got a big round of applause, a bow, and a picture taken from two Japanese girls who were astounded to see someone foreign play Taiko no Tatsujin well.

After a quick lunch, we returned to the Shibuya train station, but not before stopping at RanKing RanQueen. Time Out Tokyo describes it as “an intriguing insight into the mind of the Japanese consumer”. All products are categorized and ranked by popularity – so for example, you can buy the most popular bath product, the Bloodtype Bath.


After sundown, we headed to Akihabara. No pictures were taken; had I brought the camera, I probably couldn’t have fit into 90% of the stores we visited.

Akihabara is truly a nerd paradise – stores selling electronics, games, and manga as far as the eye can see. It’s also overwhelming in the crowded dark; after two hours, the jetlagged and fatigue set in and we were forced to retreat. We plan to return later in the week.

I did manage to find Super Potato, famed gaming mecca, and it is as awesome as I had hoped. No purchases yet, although I may return to buy the Takeshi’s Challenge strategy guide.

Tokyo 2009: Grappling With Technology

## iPhone

The horror stories are well known about what happens when you travel internationally with an iPhone and leave “Data Roaming” on. So both of our iPhones have been ratcheted down – data roaming off, email checking set to manual (just in case), etc. We’re bridging the in-room internet into wifi so we can still use our phones while we’re in the hotel.

But two odd iPhone things have come up during the trip that are worth mentioning:

Turns out you **must** have 3G turned on to get a cell phone signal while in Tokyo, even with data roaming off. I tend to keep it off, usually out of battery concerns, but also due to this whole international traveling thing. (If the data does have to go on, at least that way I’ll be rate limited.) But there’s seemingly no GPRS signal, so as soon as I turned 3G back on, I got full signal from NTT DoCoMo.

It gets weirder: despite the settings being the same across the board on both phones, Katie’s iPhone is not able to get a cell signal. The Carrier/Network Selection menu is displaying, it sees DoCoMo and SoftBank, but selecting either throws a “Network Lost” error message. This is baffling and, admittedly, troubling. Only thing I could find as a troubleshooting tip was running a Network Reset, which has done nothing. (If anyone knows a fix for this, I’d love to hear it.)

## Skype

Skype works like a charm on Katie’s laptop, but I really wish the app better defined the preferences. I had to turn off “Use Skype Access”, which is about as nebulously defined as you can get, before it would connect.

Tokyo 2009: Getting There

Farewell, Newark

A few jetlag-induced thoughts/observations about getting from New Jersey to Shinigawa.

Ticket counters at Newark International Airport don’t open until around 4:30 AM. As someone who is habitually early to any air travel, it was hard to reconcile that we had gotten up exceedingly early only to have to sit and wait out about an hour until they opened.

Keeping in mind that this was an outbound flight, not an inbound flight – there were no noticeable additional TSA measures or screenings. Getting through security at Newark was trouble free, perhaps even more so than a few flights I’ve taken domestically this year. We’ll see how this goes on the return trip, where we do a quick up-and-down flight from Toronto back to Newark.

We flew Air Canada for both legs of this trip, one from Newark to Vancouver (~6 hours), and then Vancouver to Tokyo (~11 hours). This wasn’t a choice we consciously made (we played Expedia Roulette for booking the trip), but it is one we’ll make in the future. Air Canada’s planes are comfortable, their crews are pleasant, their in-flight entertainment more than acceptable, and their food edible. Hopefully the remaining two flights back will continue to bear this out.

Speaking of in-flight entertainment: really enjoyed *The Informant*. Glad I didn’t have to pay for *A Serious Man*. Rewatching *Inglorious Bastards* reminded me that my Japanese is going to be akin to Brad Pitt’s Italian. And how have I not been watching *Better Off Ted*? Also discovered that someone at Air Canada considers the Fresh Prince a mystery.

Vancouver International

Vancouver International feels more like a mall than an airport, and gave me some of that empty creeping feeling that I got when I flew out of San Diego a few years ago. Way too big for the number of people there at the time.

While flying into Haneda Airport would have been preferable given the proximity to our hotel, most flights come into Narita, about 40km outside of Tokyo. While the process to get through the airport was lengthy, it was happily multi-lingual and pleasant. Japan’s customs office, like everywhere else, has a cartoon mascot dog named Custom-Kun, but I only saw him once.

Waiting For The Bus At Haneda

At the recommendation of practically every guidebook under the sun, we took the Airport Limousine Bus to get to the hotel. 3,000¥ per person sure beats a potential 300,000¥ taxi ride. The bus experience is pleasant and somewhat bi-lingual; only problem was that after being on an airplane for 17 hours, the seats felt a bit cramped.