Portrait of a bender on foreign soil, well underway.
It's 01:39 on a crowded, narrow neon-constellationed lane in the entertainingly-sketchy red-light district of Kabukicho, Tokyo (it hardly matters which lane, as they're all crowded, narrow, and neon-constellationed by this point). If you've played Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne or Sega's Yakuza series, you've already had a fictionalized—albeit fundamentally correct—exposure to the essence of the area (there are, in fact, a lot of actual yakuza clustered in this particular district, largely undiscernible to visiting round-eyes such as myself—not as many as there were just five or so years back…but not an inconsiderable number, either).
I've only got a few more usable hours to get hammered before I should probably get back to my hotel and sleep a little before Day One of Tokyo Game Show 2009. I've just staggered past the apparent beginnings of some kind of confrontation between two glaringly-obvious cops and a number of headset-sporting 'greeters' outside one of the dicier-looking 'hostess clubs.' Since this very same club tried unsuccessfully to draw me in not ten minutes previously, I happily loiter and watch this spectacle for a while, an oversized can of Kirin “Strong” lemonalcohol in one hand and a squid-burger in the other (of course Tokyo has squid-burgers; don't be an idiot). All the while, a nearby pack of about seven young Japanese guys—all done up like well-dressed glam rockers, with long, wild hair that could hardly be any more cooked if an H-bomb went off in the vicinity—are attempting to press various dubious flyers on any and all passing females who happen to be good-looking, which is all of them, so those guys' work-schedule is sorted out for what remains of the wee hours.
As I stand there—munching happily with pedestrian traffic streaming around me in the sorts of automatic, effortless airflow-patterns usually found in wing-test chambers—I am approached by the inquisitive, doubled image of a miniskirted, bare-legs-and-thigh-boots girl wearing a raggedly-collarless Mickey Mouse shirt off the shoulder, as if she's channeling the entire cast of a Tokyo Disney Sea production of Flashdance. I blink—and when the doubling-effect doesn't go away, I discover that I am, in fact, looking at an actual, corporeal pair of identically-dressed, identically-coiffed Shinjuku-bopper chicks (this is, of course, pretty much the functional opposite of the way these optical illusions usually play out). Not far behind me, the everpresent, shrieky, boing-boing soundscape of a glaringly-bright all-night video game arcade is competing with Nine Inch Nails' “The Beginning of the End” blaring from, presumably, some fellow gaijin's portable speakers.
I've only just finished cramming the rest of the squid-burger in my mouth when a way-too-enthusiastic ponytail with eyes invites me down some stairs into a sort of themed bar-court in front of a stage where a Japanese belly-dancer is whirling to some appropriately middle-eastern sounding music; when she finishes, she sits down at my table, and in the space of five minutes introduces me to the bar owner, the guy playing her dance-music, and at two other people who I don't remember because they weren't drinking enough to keep up with us. When I finally leave an hour and a half later, I've only paid for a single beer. The lesson here, all other things being equal, is this: Make Friends With The Japanese Belly-Dancer First. That's all I got for you.
On the way back to the hotel at oh-dark-thirty or so in the morning—still a good handful of hours before I have to get on the 40-minute train ride to the Makuhari Messe convention center—I stop by a convenience store for spicy string cheese, a hip-bottle of Suntory Whiskey and a 4-gig flash drive to replace the one I'd managed to lose the previous day near the train station, by the first of many, many beer vending machines, while looking for the shop that sells the Nintendo DS title about the cursed role-playing game that kills its users seven days after they play it.
I love this country so much.
Next up Day One at the show! >>
TGS, DAY ONE: GAME, IT'S SO ENERGETIC! WRITE, IT'S SO DRINKING!
8:00 AM: Yeah, yer ass.
10:21 AM: I pick up my oversea media badge without incident—except for the incidental fact that I seem to have forgotten my confirmation notice, have no registration paperwork or article-printouts, and for a short, worrying time can find neither my business cards, nor about three hundred bucks in yen I seem to remember having when I woke up, nor my passport. Finally find them all inexplicably jammed into an obscure and completely unsafe, exposed, mostly open-zippered pocket on my incredibly manly Badtz-Maru shoulder bag, under a mostly-empty hip bottle of Suntory Whiskey—which suddenly answers a few questions—and for some reason, a stuffed green frog I have no recollection of acquiring, which gives rise to many more.
10:30 AM: On to the bright and booming—albeit scaled-back from last year—show floor proper. I head for the Konami booth, to which I return later for some hands-on time with Metal Gear Solid Peacewalker for PSP. The game is set between Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. The Metal Gear 'verse has once again made a nonsense of the natural order of game/sequel progression, and players take the role of Naked Snake, only this time in 1974—having founded a merc army of his own, he's tasked with freeing Costa Rica from unknown invaders. Great controls, a present but less-prevalent stealth element, and more context-sensitive Close Quarters Combat.
11:00 AM: I pop around the booth-corner to a hands-on area for Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. It'll be on PSP and PS2 as well, but I go for the Wii version since it just seems so wrong to have something this messed-up on the cute, friendly-looking little white Nintendo box. If you haven't checked our our preview on this game, you can find it here.
11:30 AM: As always, Capcom has their conveniently tucked-away little hands-on suite in the fancy-pants New Otani Hotel—low-pressure setting, nice big flatscreens, a table full of caffeinated soda and bits of Capcom swag (including some extremely-useful Japanese-style folding-fans, which I imagine were quite popular with the visiting 'foreign' press; personally, I'm enjoying the hell out of the warm and slightly muggy Tokyo September…but I'm getting no end of ancillary entertainment value from hearing passing packs of big, sweaty white nerds bitch about the heat. Mind you, this year is a relatively cool September).
I get some hands-on time with the newest installment of Capcom's Darkside Chronicles for Nintendo Wii—nothing too deep, but a good old reliable, first-person gun-fest for one or two players. Also get a little jet-pack air-time with Dark Void—think of a sort of spiritual fender-bender between Uncharted and The Rocketeer with pray-and-spray cover mechanics and you're arcing your Tesla-bolts in the right direction. From there, it's time for a little Tatsunoko vs. Capcom action: Would you like a heapin' helping of Frank West with your character lineup?
On my way to the Lost Planet 2 side of the room, I get sidetracked by, of all things, a bizarre little DS game tentatively titled Ghost Trick: Players take the role of a main character who is—well, actually, turns out he's murdered right from the outset of the game. Well, hell. You play as his ghost, a ball of spectral energy that can influence objects and events within a certain radius around it: Drop a crossing-gate, strum a discarded guitar, possess a nearby cat—do whatever you have to do in order to cause chain-reactions of events, a sort of “I [Heart] Geeks” for the apres-vie set. Even the poor guy who was left to do the demo of the all-Japanese build wasn't entirely clear on all the details, but it's from the folks who wrote and created the Ace Attorney games, and looks like an intriguingly oddball little title. I might even do a proper preview soon, once they nail down precisely what this game is going to be called.
12:20 PM: Out of whiskey—and they don't sell any at the convention hall. Shit. Wonder if there's time to swing by the nearby train station.
12:21 PM: I have taken fifty or so steps toward the station when I realize the NIS lunch is starting in eight minutes at the other nearby hotel, the APA Tokyo Bay Resort. There will be a speech, some announcements and some very good food, so it stands to reason there may even be some booze, too. At the very least, there is this: I have long had a private suspicion that NIS has some kind of deliberate, commendable company policy revolving around the mandatory hiring of hot PR girls, so it's probably best to arrive not too much later than the stated 12:45 start-time.
12:28 PM: I arrive at the NIS event-space—a banquet room, the length of whose entire wall gives a paralyzing, 46-story-high view down on Tokyo Bay, and a nearby baseball stadium that looks impossibly small from this high up.
12:29 PM: Cannot help but notice there is no booze in evidence. Probably just as well, considering the altitude, the glass wall, and the whole 32-feet-per-second-per-second thing. The food is delicious and, in some cases, completely unrecognizable in terms of actual food groups. I look around the room. I am happy to note that NIS hiring practices are, evidently, still very much in force.
12:45 PM: The speech is short and sweet. Among the new titles announced is: Disgaea Infinite (a 'play-novel' style game—the form is popular in Japan, not as well known in the U.S.; this stateside release will be a first in that regard); a follow-up to Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do to Deserve this? (exact title TBD, but seems to be along the lines of “Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman, Time to Tighten up the Security!”); Atelier Rorona, slated for next summer; and an original RPG with the tongue-twisting name Zettai Kaikaku Hero Keikaku Something-Something (this sounds like a game name that NIS would actually have on shelves…but it is partly, in fact, a result of a glitch in my audio notes that I'm not able to double-check just now—anyway, trust me, it's close enough). The NIS folks don't actually devote any speech-time to their forthcoming Sakura Wars, since it was announced prior to TGS, but it's worth getting excited about, too—think “Valkyria Chronicles, but much weirder,” and you'll be in the ballpark.
1:15 PM: In the middle of a bunch of otherwise predictable, game-journo style questions, I suddenly throw NIS' president/creative director something of a curve bean-ball: Which, of NIS' Japan-based and America-based offices, in his creative professional opinion, actually has the hotter women? Inquiring minds want to, you know, know. The girl translating my questions into Japanese (who is, in fact, herself included among the subjects of my question) looks at me in for a moment, first in confusion—obviously thinking she must have heard me wrong—and then in something like tight-lipped, giggling horror when she realizes she must have heard me right. “I can't ask him that!” she stammers to me in cute, flustered English (with a nervous smile that, in Japan, is a sure signal that you've really managed to land the cruise-missile right down the central ventilation shaft). But I indicate that the camera—which, coincidentally, I have asked yet another NIS girl to hold, recording the interview—is still running, watching everything with its unblinking video eye; so she braces herself and asks my question between her laughs. “America,” answers the smiling, good-sport president, immediately…and now it's official, by Etna. So there's that.
3:00 PM: I wander into the retail-goods sales hall, and instantly regret it on a number of levels: The Capcom store, which last TGS promised such a tempting array of extremely-deadpan Resident Evil gear—STARS and BSAA garb, UN SPACY jackets, patches, hip-holsters, etc.—has once again failed to sufficiently stock up on any of said gear…and damn it, I was actually planning on tangling with some zombies the following evening; meanwhile, the Square Enix store has two of the most truly gaudy (and awesome) Smile Slime Hawaiian-style shirts… but only in one size: “Not American.” They do, however, have an entire glass case below that, full of Smile Slime-intensive products.
3:05 PM: My wallet whimpers, yields its payload of Japanese yen, and implodes into a velcro-flapped neutron star before magically transforming into a plastic sack full of assorted Slime-merch. Like I didn't have enough shit to schlep home on the subway.
I'd love to continue this Day One recap—but as I write this it's Friday afternoon, and I've got a Dead Rising 2 zombie-fest in the Shibuya club-district to get ready for (for which, alas, I will be less than properly attired; thanks a load, Capcom store). Providing I survive that, I'll be back with more show updates sometime tomorrow.
In the meantime, I will leave our info-hungry, learned readers with a few handy rules-of-thumb to keep in mind, should they happen to visit Japan any time soon.
Nine tips for visiting Japan >>
1 – When crossing the street, do NOT look in the direction you're used to looking at home—this is as good a way as any to die before you even clear the vicinity of your hotel.
2 – When entering a department store and being greeted by the lovely, smiling lady politely bowing to you, DO NOT BOW BACK. I learned this way back on my first trip; you may mean well, but you may as well have 'HAYSEED' printed across your forehead in searing white neon.
3 – Protip: In conversation, you may want to bear in mind the difference in pronunciation between the similar-sounding words “kawaii” (cute, pretty) and “kowai” (scary, frightening)
4- When on a subway, in a bar/restaurant, or in pretty much any other public place: If you must answer or talk on your cell phone, be quiet, discreet and quick about it. In the States, we are used to people obnoxiously yammering into their cell phones like they're trying to be heard over static on the other side of the Horsehead nebula, but over here you'll only look, and sound, like a putz.
5 – Many, many Japanese honestly like it when you at least try to speak their language, even if it's only a few words, and even if you mess it up, badly. They either appreciate the sincere effort, or they get a few yucks out of it—you'll never know for sure anyway, so just roll with it.
6 – Very rarely—maybe one or two times out of fifty, unless you're really unlucky, or your mom just plain dresses you funny—you may ask a passerby a completely polite, innocent question, in Japanese…and be totally ignored, like the ghost that nobody at the table wants to acknowledge has just knocked over a wine glass. It's very rare, but it happens. Don't take it personally. Some of them figure they won't be able to cope with your—or perhaps their—hobbled foreign-language skills; others may be, frankly, a little freaked out by foreigners.
7 – Try a squid-burger, if only once, even if it's on a dare. Trust me on this one.
8 – All that comforting, common-'knowledge' stuff about Japanese police officers never having guns is, in a word, horseshit. (trust me on this one, too).
9 – Last but by no means least: If you've got even a cheap electronic language-translator (pocket-sized, maybe $30 value, a few hundred common words, crappy little LCD display, the damned thing will probably break before you fly home), a positive attitude, the ability to communicate concepts not available via said cheap translator in pantomime, AND the willingness to do so in public without minding how silly you may look… then you have the makings of GREAT drinking night/informal meeting/first date or what have you, even with people who can't speak five words in your own language. Tokyo is just the city for this kind of thing. Heed these words, reader: Print out hard copy, keep it folded in your wallet/purse for future use—and say it with me: Squid-burger.