Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Tokyo Sandwich - The Meat

"Hey punk, no flash photography!"
One of the first major cultural venues we visited was the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. There are three places one might visit that command a certain level of austere silence when regarding what's kept within. If churches are sanctuaries of worship, and libraries are sanctuaries of learning, then museums must be sanctuaries of memory. The pensive afternoon allowed us to quietly take in a plethora of physical memory spanning much of Japan's religious, artistic, domestic, and militaristic past.

While you can't take the physical memory stored inside a museum with you once you leave, fortunately, I wasn't without a camera!

To start off with, we have what I believe is a representation of Vajrapani, (I couldn't read the kanji on the placard so this is only an educated guess). I like how the flash from the camera really sets off the colors, also providing a drop shadow behind the arms giving the statue a unique dimension that makes it seem to be caught in the midst of movement.

Next, we took in a series of byobuu, or folding screens (the pictures that follow not doing them proper justice). I found it interesting how each could be viewed at a different angle and still provide the viewer with a complete picture that told a separate story. (This may not have been the intention with regard to these specific murals, but I like to think all art can be viewed in different ways regardless of how its presented.)

We also found a set of highly detailed life sciences manuscripts containing accurate hand-drawn representations of flora and fauna, some of these opened to pages displaying an internal cross section of the subject. (And, by Jove! I find that while proof-reading these entries my writer's voice takes on a very precise, scholarly tone, like I'm doing a piece on the Discovery Channel; and then you realize how pathetic you are when you go back to change the words "plants" and "animals" to read "flora" and "fauna," so that the whole thing sounds even stuffier. That's a long ways to go for a self-deprecating joke.) Anyway, here they are – Biology 101, courtesy pre-modern Japan!

Dinosaurs aside, the other type of exhibit that is sure to get my attention is one dealing with weapons and armor. The wing at the museum devoted to Japan's military past was a veritable armory! They had various types of armor including those worn by samurai, called O-yoroi, and others like what were worn by the ashigaru (conscripts).

Meiji Shrine
Later in the week, we visited the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya. We actually ended up there on accident as we were roving the forested park, sort of drifting along with the flow of people, in search of the attention-getting "Harajuku girls" (more on that later!), but we spent a good hour or so exploring the spacious grounds of this famous Shinto site (say those two words five times fast).

Most Shinto shrines are located by the red wooden gate-like presence of a torii, an entrance to the shrine that demarcates the boundaries between sacred and profane ground. In this case, the torii at Meiji was not red, but was very large and required each visitor to walk directly under it before treading beneath the solemn eaves of the shrine itself.

The torii at Meiji Shrine.
The purification fountain where visitors can wash their hands using the ladles pictured before entering the shrine.
The shrine's doorway looking out from inside (the torii visible in the distance). Though the door serves more of an ornamental purpose, everything is constructed of heavy timbers and has a sturdy, fortressed look about it.
A few nishikigoi ghosting about the surface of a pond near the shrine complex.
A wedding procession led by Shinto priests on their way out of the shrine.
The lucky couple (at center), attended by two "ladies-in-waiting," and followed by their wedding guests.

The artificial moat that wends around the Imperial Garden.
One of the last places we visited during the week was the Imperial Palace. Much of the location was off-limits to visitors, with some of the innermost grounds and gardens open to the public only one day a year (usually on New Year's or the Emperor's birthday). But when you're roaming grounds that at one time were said to have more value than all the real estate in California combined, I suppose it's okay to keep certain areas private year-round.

Upon arriving we walked down a long paved causeway flanked on both sides by wide recreation areas where people jogged, biked, and picnicked on low-cut grass. Then we crossed a large gravel lot that brought us to the edge of a moat. From there several directions for touring were available, and we began to plot our way through the maze like confines.

Bridge leading across the moat to the Sei Gate; a portion of the Imperial Palace itself is visible amidst the trees in the background.
The Sei Gate, main entrance to the palace grounds with two honor guards standing at attention.
A swan paddles easily across the moat.
An example of the specially tended niwaki found throughout the Imperial grounds that have a distinctive curving trunk and asymmetrical branches with closely clustered pine leaves.
"Black Pine Against The Sky"
Next time, we get out on a limb a little bit more and add some unique Tokyo flavor to the mix!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Games of Fame (Part 1)

Video games. How can I live in Japan, to many the very beating heart from which electronic entertainment flows (no wonder 5 out of 10 of the games featured here were made in Japan!), and not think about some of the greatest video games I've ever played?

I can't. And so I bring you this.

I love games that you can play through, in what I call, a more "natural sense." This means playing through under default conditions without cheats, guides, hacks, or any mods that would make it easier or harder to complete. I love exploring every inch of the game world in a natural way, without "gaming" the system and avoiding the need for "gamerish" techniques. I love games that are challenging without being punishing. I love games that make you think and surprise you with revolutionary gameplay. But most of all, I love games with great stories.

In considering which games I should harken back to, I've decided to go with a tried and true top-10-style listing. However, to avoid the fuzzy gradient where two or more games occupy the same space on the list and can scarcely be decided upon, I've opted to eschew ranking them and instead list them chronologically, by issue date starting with the oldest.

Also, I've restricted myself to a format that gives at least some recognition to all the major platforms, with at least one title belonging to that of arcade, computer, console, or handheld. I've personally played and owned all the games presented on this list. No game which I wouldn't enjoy playing through again, no matter how many times nor how long it's been, may occupy a spot on this list. (February 2017 Edit: Furthermore, in an effort to be more critical with my at one-time impulsive selections, and to give further depth and meaning to this list, no single franchise is represented more than once.) These are the ones that have left an indelible imprint on me; images and sounds that have never left my mind. These are the best of the best! The crème de la crème! The cream of the crop! The crème of la crop … that even work?

Anyway, here goes!

Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991)
Platform(s): Handheld
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Publisher: Nintendo
Times Conquered: 5+
Interest Level: Old-school gamers, Nintendo fans, fans of the Alien movie franchise
Avg. Playtime: ~5 hours
Expert Playtime: 2 hours or less
Possible Endings: 1
Popular Metascore: ~7.9/10
Key Feature(s): Adds to Metroid legacy and gameplay in memorable, defining ways; "stage-less" design

Though I don't often play handheld formats, Nintendo's Game Boy has the special distinction of being the first game system that I ever owned. Classics like Tetris, Dr. Mario, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, Castlevania; The Adventure, Batman: The Animated Series, Kirby's Dream Land, and Donkey Kong Land brought me back to the Game Boy time and time again as a young gamer, though this handheld follow-up to the original stands out from the rest due to its immersive world design, its simple but compelling conceit, and its analogous appeal.

Metroid II, like most in the franchise (and most games at that time, period), is a side-scrolling platformer. It pits the series' protagonist, Samus Aran, against the series' main threat (and hence the title), the parasitic alien Metroids. The Return of Samus features a kind of proto-open-world design that descends into the alien planet, the only limiting factor being that you must kill all the Metroids at your current depth which in turn trigger earthquakes that lower the lava levels enough for you to delve farther. And the game's more organic map layout is more interesting to explore as compared with the original's boxier design. It's great to play a game that can surprise you on each playthrough, and there's enough hidden power-ups and missable secret rooms in this to keep even the most steadfast explorer guessing after the second or third time. It's also a game that doesn't require of you the need to track down every conceivable item or piece of equipment to conquer it, a fact which can be both reassuring and slightly terrifying as you go.

Despite the fact that the first two games center around the discovery and preservation/eradication of the eponymous Metroids, it is only in this title that you encounter each of their evolved forms (from Alpha, to Gamma, to Zeta, then Omega, and finally the Queen). If the first game is more about the mystery and ultimate purpose/use of these creatures, Return of Samus is about a direct confrontation. It's a bug hunt! In fact, that's what I love most about it. It's uncomplicated, a little more personal, and maybe the stakes are even higher. Should a species, no matter how dangerous, be completely wiped out? I equate it to the distinction between two movies that I love: Alien and Aliens. (And, frankly, I've always liked Aliens a little bit more.) Samus is to Ripley, as the Metroids are to the Xenomorphs, as SR388 is to LV-426, and so on, and so on. There's even a Queen for you to kill at the end!

Today: Copies of the old Game Boy cartridge can still be found on Amazon or eBay, and information on digital downloads for the 3DS can be found at

X-Men (1992)
Platform(s): Arcade (later console and mobile/handheld)
Developer/Publisher: Konami
Times Conquered: 10+
Interest Level: 70s, 80s & 90s comic book fans, beat-em-up enthusiasts
Avg. Playtime: ~1 hour
Expert Playtime: 40 min or less
Possible Endings: 1
Popular Metascore: ~7.3/10
Key Feature(s): Up to 6 players at a time; retro X-Men looks

One of the reasons I was encouraged to get good grades in elementary school was to turn my report card in at Chuck E. Cheese to get extra tokens so that I could spend them all playing this side-scrolling classic from back in the day. And if you played the double-wide cabinet version, the game could play up to six players at once! That's a high mark few games achieve even today. I'll never forget going miniature golfing with my friends one year for my birthday. My lasting memory of that party was not the golf, or the cake, or the presents, but recruiting the others to play X-Men until we savagely conquered it!

Narrowly beating out other arcade side-scrolling greats such as Final Fight, TMNT: Turtles in TimeSunset Riders, and Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara, X-Men reigns supreme due to its unbeatable combination of market appeal and larger-than-life design. There was no franchise more ripe for an explosion of interest at the time than X-Men. The comics were in a golden age, the animated series would soon be big, and the decade would end with the first in the megahit movies, so this game hit me hard in the feels as a budding X-Fan at the time. The game featured a vivid color palette, unlike so much else found in arcade gaming, and its booming soundtrack has remained with me to this day. And its hard not to forget about those SIX player choices! Wolverine, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Storm, and Dazzler (who probably only made the list because she was a noticeable visual departure from the others and featured a very visual mutant power), while their basic move sets were basically identical, played different for their special mutant power attacks. I love games that offer your choice, especially when each choice feels like you're playing the game again anew. And despite the fact the gameplay is simple and the story is very light, it continues to be a fun play with friends even today!

Today: The game can still be found in the better arcades of the world, though it has also been ported to console and mobile devices during limited spans of licensing.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)
Platform(s): Computer (later console)
Developer/Publisher: LucasArts
Times Conquered: 15+
Interest Level: Ages 8+
Avg. Playtime: ~10 hours
Expert Playtime: 3 hours or less
Possible Endings: 2 (plus various "game over outcomes")
Popular Metascore: ~9.2/10
Key Feature(s): Three different play styles; various means to overcome obstacles

This LucasArts point-and-click graphic adventure remains one of my most beloved to this day. Boy, this would have made for a great movie! While Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, of which I was a fan, and Fate of Atlantis do share some interesting otherworldly concepts about lost worlds and their origins, FoA really mines gold with its winning narrative. Its superb story coupled with clever gameplay—neatly including everything from MacGyver-style inventory dependent puzzles, branching dialogue trees, fist fights, and a point-based quest achievement system (cleverly dubbed "Indy Quotient" or "IQ Points"), all with land, sea, and air encounters from Iceland to Central America to the Mediterranean—helped to create one of the earliest video game experiences where I felt truly immersed in the game world. A world, mind you, that easily fits into the one presented by the films (even effectively building on it: set in 1939, has cameos featuring Marcus Brody and Marshall College, same sense of humor and musicality), where the actions performed by the characters are believable and yet still appropriate to the pulp action-adventure feel that should be there.

One of the biggest discoveries with this title is that there are three separate paths you can choose to follow after completing the game's early chapters. These are the "Wits," "Fists," and "Team" paths. Each of them sees you go about visiting most of the same locations throughout, but the specific actions and challenges you encounter along the way are completely different and tailored to the style of play you select. The Wits path challenges you with headier puzzles, the Fists with more bare-knuckle action, and the Team path gives you a sidekick (Indy's one-time fling turned psychic, Sophia Hapgood) and focuses more on social events and character dilemmas. Coupled with alternate endings, these three paths give the title enormous replay value, even compared to many of the most advanced games today! And, for me, FoA will always be a prime example of gameplay and story over graphics. Although there are other LucasArts SCUMM engine-based adventure games with better graphics that followed (e.g. Day of the TentacleSam & Max Hit the RoadFull Throttle, and The Dig), none of them quite have the user-friendly complexity or universal appeal (i.e. the kind that got my dad to play it) that Indy does.

Today: Though the disc-based game can be hard to find, you can get your hands on digital downloads by visiting ScummVM or Steam. Also, efforts are underway here to secure rights and publish a special edition with updated gameplay, graphics, and sound.

Chrono Trigger (1995)
Platform(s): Console (later handheld)
Developer/Publisher: Square
Times Conquered: 5+
Interest Level: Beyond anime and jRPG fans, especially children of the 80s and 90s
Avg. Playtime: ~25 hours
Expert Playtime: 12 hours or less
Possible Endings: 12 (plus 1 bad ending)
Popular Metascore: 9.6/10
Key Feature(s): Time travel and alternate realities; satisfying character synergy

I actually played this game many times on a Super Nintendo emulator on the family's old desktop. A stylish role-playing game with compelling characters and broad genre appeal (from fantasy to sci-fi, and dinosaurs to robots, mixing magic with technology), this title is a triumph of collaboration featuring the artistic look of Toriyama-san (famed for his Dragon Ball series), and the combined story and game design powers of Sakaguchi-san (Final Fantasy) and Horii-san (Dragon Quest), each coming from their already established and successful franchises. Chrono Trigger consumed far too many hours after school racing home to join Crono and the gang to see where the game would take us next. My mom used to place an egg timer on the desk giving my brother and I exactly one hour each day to play games on the computer. Man, was that never enough!

As a time-traveling adventure, Square's Chrono Trigger displays all the same great tropes and consequences of messing with the past and looking too far into the future that one would expect (a la Back to the Future and more). The diverse cast of characters you can include in your party (including a prehistoric "Xena" and an anthropomorphic frog), along with the numerous nonessential but fulfilling side quests, and the freedom with which you can explore them all is a major triumph of the title's core gameplay. In particular, it's all the little things Chrono Trigger does so well, from truly emotional flashbacks and RP moments, like having all the characters sit around a campfire together and chat after a 400-year jump in time, to making your choices in the game have consequences and making you care (actually care) about the result of a court trial where those (at times seemingly innocuous) choices take center stage. The game has an amazing number of hidden outcomes and ways to complete, so many that you're unlikely to play through them all in the natural course. With so much going on you might think the game gets bogged down in the mix, but it never loses track of itself, neatly folding each new wrinkle that developed into the main story through callbacks and shocking revelations. The distinct characterizations, emotional plot-driven storyline, and multiple endings keep bringing me back!

Today: Original SNES cartridges can be cost prohibitive, though ROMs aren't hard to find. The Nintendo DS version of the game can be found on Amazon or eBay, and it's also available as a digital download on the PlayStation Network.

Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Platform(s): Console
Developer/Publisher: Konami
Times Conquered: 15+
Interest Level: Stealth, film, or anime fans (in that order)
Avg. Playtime: ~11 hours
Expert Playtime: 4 hours or less
Possible Endings: 2
Popular Metascore: ~9.4/10
Key Feature(s): Hiding in cardboard boxes; interesting POVs; highest achievement is not to kill nor be detected by the enemy throughout the game; ingeniously breaks the fourth wall

When this game first came out, I knew nothing about it. I watched a friend play it once and thought, "Hmm, interesting. A game where you sneak around and avoid the enemies. Seems hard. Camera's all off, too." That was about it. At the time, I don't think watching a casual player dope around with the controls much helped my early impressions of the game. Then, in college a few years later, I'm watching a roommate play through it again, though this time my friend is hardcore! He knows all the ins and outs, follows the labyrinthine storyline, and earnestly navigates each scenario through to the end. It was amazing! And I've come to learn that one's appreciation of this modern classic is completely dependent on who introduces it to you. So please, indulge me.

Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid is the godfather of the stealth genre in modern video games. At the time of its release, it was set in the near-future (2005) and centered around the actions and discoveries of a former government agent codenamed Solid Snake, sent to investigate an island in Alaska's Fox Archipelago: Shadow Moses. (Just saying that to myself gets me juiced.) Much has already gone on in the storyline when the game begins and you pick things up as you go, necessitating that you focus on one thing at a time. The game makes abundant use of cutscenes and "codec calls" (a two-way internal spy phone that allows you to contact your support team throughout the mission) interspersed between periods of in-game action to propel the story forward. Although the game is considered a stealth title, it also plays out like a thriller-style mystery narrative complete with compelling drama between the characters.

Though there were two titles previous to it (Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake), MGS was really the smash-hit breakout title. In addition to the series' signature scavenger hunts for needed items, subtly integrated problem-solving puzzles, and intense boss fights, MGS was the first to feature 3D-rendered environments and fully voiced dialogue. There is often more than one way you can go about overcoming various obstacles, and the game displays a clever sense of humor and a broad appreciation of Western film tropes, leading to some very unique and innovative gameplay. Having played through MGS many times myself, I can tell you that the characters you meet and the arc you experience from start to finish remains one-of-a-kind. And if games of fame is the name, this game's legacy is heavily felt throughout the rest of the series, with all other subsequent titles featuring callback scenes and unlockable character models (in all their low-res glory) from MGS playable in those later games.

Today: The franchise has produced many successful and award-winning sequels branching off from this trendsetting design (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, infamous for its mind-bending, surprising narrative; Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, known for revolutionizing the series' theme from pure stealth to stealth-survival; Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, known for its technical flawlessness; Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, which again changed things by introducing base building and staff management mechanics; and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, renowned for its open-world play), but at the time MGS was a technical stand-alone. Even though the graphics have certainly aged, this title still sees a great deal of circulation in the gaming community. Pick yourself up a physical copy on Amazon or eBay, or as a digital download through the PlayStation Network.

Go to part 2!