Tag Archives: Japan

#85: Sega Superstars

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Party Released: 2004 Developer: Sonic Team (Sega)

When I was teaching in Japan, I lived in the party house. Whereas most of my fellow assistant language teachers (ALTs) were living in one-room apartments, by sheer luck I was placed with a school that owned a two-bedroom house, so naturally I ended up playing host to lots of parties (thankfully, I had very understanding neighbours).

The Japanese cover art for Sega Superstars.

I loved my house. When I first arrived, my supervisor couldn’t stop apologising about it: she kept saying sorry for how old it was, and how the school was sorry that it couldn’t get me a new apartment, and there’s me thinking, “Blimey, I’ve got a house, woohoo!”. Of course, it wasn’t all brilliant – although I loved living in a traditional Japanese house with wooden walls and tatami flooring, this meant there wasn’t much in the way of insulation, and it got so cold in the winter that my olive oil actually froze solid in the kitchen.

But the fact that I had so much space more than made up for the lack of creature comforts, and as an added bonus I had cupboards full of random stuff that had been left by previous residents. As well as piles of books and suspicious looking bottles of spirits, I inherited a huge collection of Friends episodes taped off Canadian TV, as well as about a year’s worth of Hawaiian local television broadcasts (which were strangely compelling).

I don't fancy the bloke on the left's chances.

But the main plus to having a house was that fact that I could invite people over without any worries about fitting them all in, and I played host to a fair few parties: as well as my birthday, I held the Festivus (for the rest of us) after-party at my house, we shaved off Matt G’s massive ginger beard for charity (and everyone turned up at my door with fake beards), and of course there was the legendary Halo 2 gaming night. But whatever we were doing, we always seemed to end up playing Sega Superstars sooner or later.

I first saw Sega Superstars at the Tokyo Game Show in 2004: the game is basically a collection of twelve Sega-themed minigames, all of which are played using the EyeToy. To be honest, not all of the minigames were up to much: in particular, I remember the game based on Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg was almost unplayable (what do you mean you don’t remember Billy Hatcher? Come on, surely everyone remembers Billy Hatcher? No? OK, moving on…). However, most of the games were pretty good fun, and a few were absolutely brilliant.

"Take that evil undead!" The zombies were as surprised as anyone when the 100-ft-tall Japanese woman loomed over the hill.

The House of the Dead game was the one that initially drew us in at the Tokyo Game Show booth, and it also proved to be one of the best on the disc. There wasn’t much to it really – just whack the zombies as they amble onto the screen – but it was compelling, and whenever we had a party, this was always one of the first games to be played. The other big hit with party guests was Virtua Fighter, where you had to punch and kick your computer opponent, occasionally raising your hands to block. This one was a constant source of hilarity for onlookers, and it led to several ‘near miss’ incidents involving wildly mistimed kicks and desperately fragile paper screen doors.

The control system wasn’t perfect though – often the EyeToy found it hard to tell whether you were punching or blocking, which led to some frustrating losses. The Space Channel 5 dancing game suffered particularly from this: the dance moves required pinpoint timing and accuracy, but sometimes the game just wouldn’t register your move, making it all but impossible on the higher levels. This was a real shame because along with HOTD and Virtua Fighter, Space Channel 5 was one of the games people often requested.

This was actually one of the weaker games in my opinion - you were simply required to move Sonic around a tunnel by waving your arms.

I know I moaned about Kinect earlier this week, but it would be great to see an updated version of Sega Superstars released for Microsoft’s system. I have such fond memories of this game that it would be fantastic to play it again, and playing it on Kinect would (hopefully) eliminate all of the annoying flaws of the original, whereby the EyeToy would struggle to disentangle your impressive kung-fu moves from the outline of the sofa behind you. Having said that though, Sega Superstars was undoubtedly the best EyeToy game out there, and although many of the games were fairly similar to previous EyeToy offerings (in particular, HOTD was almost exactly the same as that ‘whack a ninja’ game from EyeToy: Play), the slick presentation and the use of Sega characters really made it stand apart.

Still, regardless of whether it was any good or not, Sega Superstars made my life better because it reminds me of all the fantastic times we had in my little wooden house in Japan: the party house.

A scene from the 'Wear An Engrish T-Shirt' party (I think Laura's T-shirt says 'Let's Playing In The Dramas'). I've just been given the underwear as a present.

Two years after I left Japan, my successor, Eben, got in touch to bring me the sad news that the party house was scheduled for demolition. In the end the school had decided it was costing too much to maintain, and Eben was left with the sad task of sifting through all the many years of ALT detritus left in various cupboards and crannies around the house, selling what he could and binning what he couldn’t (history doesn’t record what happened to the Hawaiian local programming). I was pleased to find out that Eben had continued the tradition of partying in the house, and he was just as devastated as I was to find out it was going to be knocked down after he left – he even offered to send me a piece of the roof as a memento.

It’s sad to know the party house is no longer with us… but the good times were fun while they lasted.

Lewis

(Screenshots from puolenkuunpelit.com)

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Filed under 2004, Party, Playstation 2, Sega, Sonic Team

#62: Bushido Blade

Format: Playstation Genre: Fighting Released: 1998 Developer: Light Weight

Playing Bushido Blade for the first time was a very frustrating experience indeed. Your first instinct, as with any fighting game, is just to rush at your opponent, whacking all the buttons in the hope they might fall over. Although this strategy is usually fairly successful in games like Soul Calibur, in Bushido Blade it will get you killed in about three seconds.

Bushido Blade isn’t like other fighting games. There’s no health bar, no time limit and being hit full force with a sword has roughly the same effect as it would in real life – i.e. you die immediately. If you’re lucky, your opponent might only give you a non-fatal wound to an arm or leg, but this is likely to mean that limb will become unuseable. One time, when I was playing against a friend, my character was reduced to shuffling around on the floor, all four limbs rendered useless – it was a bit like that bit with the Black Knight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, only with samurais and fewer jokes (although with plenty of annoying sniggers emanating from my boastful opponent).

Chopping down the bamboo was fun. Must have been ghost bamboo though, because it disappeared as soon as it fell over.

Fights in Bushido Blade were cautious, strategic affairs – the fact that you could die so easily meant that the onus was on defence rather than attack, and you’d often find yourself stealthily circling your foe, waiting for them to make a move and leave themselves open to attack. Using the environment to your advantage was also key – the open 3D levels were enormous and offered huge scope for various ways of attacking. Luring a quick opponent onto a narrow wooden bridge was a often good way to gain an advantage for a slower character with a heavy weapon, and likewise the quicker characters performed better in the open. Like in Monty Python, running away was often the best strategy.

The player on the right is in a bit of trouble here. A critical blow to the legs means you're reduced to crawling around.

Graphically the game really wasn’t up to much – the character models and environments are bland and blocky, but as my mum always says, it’s what’s underneath that counts. Underneath, Bushido Blade is one of the most revolutionary and unique fighting games ever created, and it’s just crying out for a modern update.

Lewis

(Screenshots from www.eurogamer.net)

2 Comments

Filed under 1998, Fighting, Light Weight, Playstation

#44: Dog Walking

Format: Coin-Op Genre: Miscellaneous Released: 2001 Developer: Sega

As I’ve said before, this list isn’t just about the best games ever made – it’s also a chance to honour games that might not have won any awards but that nonetheless improved our lives, if only by raising a smile. Sega’s utterly random ‘Dog Walking’ coin-op (or ‘Inu No Osanpo’ to give it its Japanese title) is just such a game – hardly a world-beater, but bonkers enough to merit induction into the 101 Video Games hall of fame.

A wonderfully random promo pic for Inu No Osanpo.

I first encountered the game in 2004, when I was living in Japan. It became something of a hobby of mine to search out random Japanese arcade machines and, despite fierce competition from various taiko drumming simulators and trading-card-based soccer games, Inu No Osanpo stands out as one of the most bizarre – and compelling – coin-ops I’ve ever played. Naturally, it was only ever released in Japan.

The aim of the game is to exercise a dog by walking (or running) on a treadmill. The on-screen dog is controlled by a lead originating from the neck of a plastic dog in front of you, and the aim of the game is to steer the dog away from danger (like cars or other, bigger dogs) and towards points of interest (like cats). The idea is to get the pace just right so that the dog is happy – walk too fast and you end up dragging the dog along behind you, but walk too slow and it pulls at the lead impatiently.

Here's me suffering on Inu No Osanpo back in 2004.

In practice, playing the game is utterly exhausting. (See? Way before the Wii came along games were keeping people fit.) The treadmill is quite stiff, so getting up to speed is quite an effort, and slowing down is just as hard. The controls are also fairly lackadaisical – your dog never seems to go in the direction you want it to (a bit like the real thing I suppose).

But whether or not the controls are any good is rather beside the point – this game made it onto the list because it’s totally unique and brilliantly fun to play (and even more fun to watch, especially if someone falls off the back of the treadmill). Sega, we salute you. Now can you release this game in Europe please? Thanks.

(Here’s some (American?) guys playing Inu No Osanpo. They haven’t quite got the hang of it… The dog starts barking when you’re walking too slow or fast, and the musical notes appear when you’ve got it just right.)

Lewis

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Filed under 2001, Coin-Op, Miscellaneous, Sega

#21: Okami

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: RPG Released: 2007 Developer: Clover Studio (Capcom)

I’ve just finished Okami, after playing it for an astonishing 40 hours. The developers have obviously done something right, because games that can hold my attention for that length of time are very few and far between (thankfully, otherwise I doubt I’d get much done). Wow, 40 hours. When you write it down like that it seems like an enormous amount of time – nearly two whole days of gaming… And considering I only bought the game for a tenner, that’s some seriously good value for money.

Okami PS2 box

Without a doubt, Okami is one of the best games I have ever played. The production standards are amazing throughout, and the artwork is just stunning. The game is presented in the Japanese ‘sumi-e‘ style of ink painting, so each character has a bold, black outline that is juxtaposed to great effect against the dreamy watercolours of the scenery. However, the screenshots on this post really don’t do this game justice – in motion, the stylised art and fluid animation looks truly astonishing. Having said that, some of the static storyboard screens you are presented with, such as the dramatic image below, also manage to be breathtaking.

okami artwork

In fact, the game’s artwork is so good, its been immortalised in a coffee table book, and there can’t be many games that can claim that accolade.

The game itself plays a lot like The Legend of Zelda: the real-time action and simple combat makes the game instantly accessible but belies iceberg-esque hidden depths. Just when you think you’ve got the game licked, it throws out another twist, and the plethora of quests, sub-quests and collectibles provided me with hours of entertainment – and even after 40 hours playtime, there were still plenty of quests I had yet to complete and combat moves I had yet to unlock.

Okami Amaterasu

Speaking of combat moves, I have to mention my delight at unlocking the legendary ‘Golden Fury’ technique, which involves humiliating your opponent by – wait for it – cocking your leg and urinating on them (accompanied by a ‘tinkling’ sound effect). As of the time of writing, I have yet to amass the 2,000,000 yen needed to unlock the ‘Brown Rage’ technique, although I’ve got a fairly good idea as to what it involves.

Okami black tree

Whilst on the subject of the game’s humour, I have to mention the excellent localisation. All too often, the European localisation of Japanese RPGs falls a bit flat, with any nuances or humour in the dialogue either being totally bulldozed or sounding utterly ridiculous. Happily, the script for Okami is a delight, and Issun, your ‘wandering artist’ companion, gets some genuinely funny lines that still work despite the Japanese-mythology-oriented setting and characters (incidentally, the enemy characters in Okami have to be some of the most brilliantly realised and unforgettable baddies yet seen in a video game – my favourite being the Igloo Turtle).

Okami brush

The most memorable feature of Okami is your ability to affect the world around you by pausing the action and using your tail to draw sumi-e-style patterns. These patterns, or ‘brush techniques’ (which are unlocked as the game progresses), allow you to slice enemies in twain with a simple flick or conjure up a gust of wind at will, to name just two. As you unlock more and more techniques, the game throws up more and more ingenious uses for them, leading to some brilliant ‘Aha!’ moments as you finally figure out a tricky puzzle or use a new technique to access a hidden area in a previously explored realm.

Okami Battle with Orochi

For all these reasons, I cannot recommend Okami enough – it really is one of the best games I’ve ever played. The only downside is that with the demise of Clover Studio, a sequel seems highly unlikely… 

Lewis

6 Comments

Filed under 2007, Capcom, Clover Studio, Playstation 2, RPG