You enter the train, shoulders sore, joints creaking from a hard day’s work, when you notice several businessmen clad in black dealing with the same trauma the best way they know how: playing Nintendo DS. It’s a common sight in Japan, and not just among the papas either. Whether it be a squadron of pint-sized soccer pros taking a break from practice, or mothers waiting for their teens to finish cram school; video games have a significant place in the daily culture of Japan.
Of course, there are those who feel too old for the flickering electronic screens and outlandish characters, the thought being that gaming is adolescent and a sign of immaturity. However, there are many, many more in Japan that welcome them as dependable escapism, which should not be surprising in a country that is often said to be a little too extreme in its emphasis on work ethic and duty.
Many Japanese toil from morning until night, arriving home when their children are already sleep and leaving scant room for family time, or even “me” time, for that matter. It happens all around the world, to be sure, but in few places where it is so often linked with one’s ethnic identity. Take a peek behind the well composed exterior and you’ll find many Nihonjin suffering, very inconspicuously, from high levels of stress.
Enter the video game. Two of the biggest pioneers, Nintendo and Sega, started out developing slot machines, jukeboxes and playing cards back in the 1940’s-60’s, before entering the home market decades later. Nintendo released their first home system, a dedicated console called the Color TV-game, in 1977. Not one to rest on their laurels, they followed it up with the immensely popular Famicom systems, known simply as “Nintendo” to the rest of us. Sega wasn’t far behind and in 1982 the company previously known as “Service Games” introduced the first three-dimensional game, SubRoc 3D. They later joined the console wars with their first system, the SG-1000, using laser disk technology. After the North American video game crash of 1983, Japan became the dominant player in the industry, Nintendo and Sega soaring to fame with hit after hit. In Nintendo’s corner was Donkey Kong and the Mario Franchise, in Sega’s, Sonic the Hedgehog and Phantasy Star.
Nintendo eventually emerged as the winner of the console wars, but modern Japan’s game culture boasts a colorful variety of brands and alternative modes of play. Nintendo’s own portable DS now contends with systems like the Sony PSP and Vita. Commuters with half an hour to spare busy themselves with everything from puzzle games like Professor Leighton to English lessons programs. On the other end of the spectrum, while many North American 30+ gamers dream of that long-lost golden age of arcades, it lives on in Japan. Need proof? Head to Tokyo’s Akihabara district for the several story game centers lining the streets, each floor usually specializing in a different type of arcade experience. There are the classic genres, fighters (Tekken, Street Fighter) and shooters (Time Crisis series), as well as new simulators that let you pilot huge robot suits, like the many Gundam themed games.
I myself am a sucker for the oldies of the golden age. The 70’s and 80’s produced unforgettable icons like Pac-man, Ninja Gaiden, and of course Street Fighter. I have particularly fond memories of the old Neo-Geo 3 games in one arcade machines. Drop a coin in and choose which button masher to eat up the rest of your money. Times have changed, but you can still usually find a cluster of these games tucked away in most arcades. A word of warning about the late night salary-man crowd though. These fighting game gurus have endured eight hours of being quietly yelled at by their superiors. So if you do decide to venture to their stomping grounds after dark, keep in mind that though they ARE playing “just” a game, they won’t play around with you newbie.
Speaking of new, fresh genres have grown in popularity as well, some of which will come off as eccentric to the average westerner. The first time I saw Namco’s Taiko no Tatsujin, or “Taiko Drum Master”, my kawaii (cute) meter reached dangerous, embarrassingly high levels and I watched from a safe 20 foot distance. However, when I did finally give it a try I found it pretty fun, addictive even. There is also a train conductor simulation, a treat for many young Japanese boys like one of my English students, who goes on and on about his love for all things that go choo-choo. If one arcade was to take the gold for the weirdest though, it would have to be Cho Chabu dai Gaeshi, or “the table flipping game”. Yes that’s right, there is a game where the classic stereotype (…?) of a peeved Japanese father tossing a table in frustration is a digital reality, a reality that awards points with every spilled drink and broken plate.
This sums up, in respectably self-deprecating fashion, what video games are for Japan; a way to relax and blow off some steam. Yet, ironically, using the same imaginative and forward thinking methods that the country is known for.
See you at the arcade!