If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably aware that I went to Japan again over the holidays. My trip was a good one: I went to Comiket with a bunch of cool people from Lab Zero, went to the annual Fighting Vipers 2 crew bounenkai, dropped by Osaka to see rad folks and acquire a Raimais PCB, and somehow wound up in two different Sega-themed cafes over the course of my visit. Among other things!
Of course, I made sure to swing by a few arcades in the process. Much to my anger and disappointment, Akihabara HEY stopped selling its most recent round of exclusive merch the day before I got to go there, but I still managed to bring ANN’s Mike Toole inside and inspire a column in the process. TRF in Nakano was another stop, and it’s still as full of beautiful poverty fighting games as it ever was — though they seem to have brought in some Magician’s Dead machines as of late.1 And, of course, I swung by Mikado to do some work there (stay tuned for more on that).
There was one arcade I had to go to this time around, though. Last year, I saw pics a buddy took of a place referred to as the “Kawasaki Warehouse.” What I saw looked incredibly bizarre: an arcade modeled after the infamous Kowloon Walled City of Hong Kong, filled with decaying signs, dim lights, and musty, decrepit structures that appeared to be falling apart. Among all of this was a swath of arcade machines: white cabinets, bright screens, and colorful lights standing out starkly against the tarnished brown and gray of the surroundings. I knew this was something I’d have to see for myself.
That’s exactly what I did. And now, I come back to you with pictures in hand of what might be the coolest “theme” arcade I’ve ever been to, Anata no Warehouse.
I first heard rumblings in some of the Discord channels I hang out in that Twitch was planning something interesting in the fall. It was going to be a charity marathon, but with a twist: a focus exclusively on arcade games, a segment of gaming that didn’t really get much exposure outside of a few select streamers and the occasional arcade game run at a GDQ. I received a message from Romscout, Symphony of the Night speedrun superstar and Twitch charity event manager. Was I interested in helping out the event in some way?
I swiftly answered. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. Jeez, you had me from the words “arcade event!”
The idea was a 48-hour marathon to raise money for Save the Children, to be held in October. The event would have players showcasing both classic and newer arcade games, from Donkey Kong and Track and Field to things like Tetris the Grand Master, some modern pinball games, and Beatmania IIDX. I wanted to at least help promote the event and get the word out, but I wondered if there was anything I personally could run at the event…
Oh, right. There was Raimais, a game I had spent a month writing a novella’s worth of text about. But despite having written extensively about it, I had yet to actually complete a single-credit clear (commonly referred to as a 1CC). There was a little over a month until the event. Could I manage to not only juggle work and site responsibilities, but also route the game and master a path that would take me to the end with as few deaths as possible?
It was a daunting proposition, but after proclaiming so much love towards this obscure little Taito game, I felt like I had to carry its torch at what came to be called Arcade Superplay Expo.
“Put me down for Raimais,” I told Romscout. From that point on, I was officially committed.
It definitely wasn’t an easy task: for the first week or two I was diligently making notes, drawing powerup locations and scribbling level notes in a small Ubisoft notebook I’d been given for being runner-up in PAX West Jeopardy. When Jed from our discord channel showed me a custom Raimais level viewer he had whipped up, I was floored and overjoyed. This was going to make the process so much easier!
Finally, after hours of diligent practice, I got my first Raimais 1CC a week before the event was set to start. Now I had to find a way to try and make it consistent for my run, which had been slotted in at a risky 3:20 AM PST timeslot in the schedule. (It was originally set for around 7 AM, but I felt it would be better to try and stay up late than attempt to wake up early.) The event was fast approaching, and I had a review of a big-name JRPG on my freelance plate at the same time. There was so much going on, so much to do… and I couldn’t have been more excited for what was to come.
I knew the day would come where I’d be reviewing a figma on this site — Max Factory figmas, along with Bandai’s Tamashii line, are essentially the standard for Japanese pop-culture action figures in terms of size, quality, and price. There are a ton of figmas based on a wide spectrum of anime, manga, games, and the occasional real-life figure, all recreated in 1/12 scale with a good amount of articulation. Of course, not all figmas (figmae? figmata?) are made equally: some are clearly better-made and more interesting than others, but generally, the quality baseline for them is pretty solid — the “bad” figmas aren’t so much poorly-made as they are a bit on the dull side in terms of playing with them.
I was actually expecting the first figma I’d review here to be Kazuma Kiryu from the Yakuza series, as he was due out in August, but he got hit with a serious delay, pushing him all the way back to a December release… which makes me think that the manufacturer discovered some horrible engineering flaw as they were wrapping up production and they needed to redo the whole thing. It’s okay though, we have something that’s just as blue-blooded Sega as our hot-blooded ex-Yakuza pal: Virtua Fighter figmas!
If you’ve been following the site for a while, you probably remember me being really excited about these back when they were first announced at Wonder Festival a few years back. Hell, I’ve been a VF fan for most of my life, why wouldn’t I lose my mind over VF characters finally getting the figma treatment? Sure, they were the polygonal VF1 models and not the slick, realistic models of VF5, but at least they were something! And let’s face it, there’s something really lovable about that flat-shaded model 1 look.
But enough talk. Let’s review some plastic! Ready… GO!
A constant throughout my life is loving the hell out of games that few other folks seem to. No, I’m not talking about kusoge, here – I’m talking about games that are actually good, but which are unknown and unpopular. Case in point: my enduring love affair with Fighting Vipers 2.
That’s far from the only obscurity that really stokes the flames of burning game love within me, however. Over the years, I’ve come to have a deep appreciation for Taito’s late-80s and early-90s catalog, with a few titles in particular standing out as treasures that have gone most unrecognized by even devoted retro fans. But while one of my favorite lesser-known games, Night Striker, has seen a recent resurgence in popularity — well, in Japan, anyway — there’s another Taito title that wormed its way into my heart that remains mostly buried in their sprawling back catalog: a little game called Raimais.
Raimais, at first glance, doesn’t seem like the sort of game somebody would develop a deep affection for. It looks like a fairly standard-issue dot collection maze game — a genre that had mostly fallen out of favor when the game hit in 1988 and seems even more dated now. But there’s a lot about this game that’s interesting, from how it aims to modernize one of the earliest gaming formulas to its rather unusual-for-the-time cutscenes and surprise ending… along with how its tendrils crept into another Taito title we’ve covered on this site. Not to mention its strange console offshoot…
Yeah, there’s a lot to cover here. So much, in fact, that I’ve actually had to separate this into several smaller pages. (Yes, the biggest article on gaming.moe so far is for a Taito obscurity that even Japanese players don’t discuss much. Is that really a surprise?) So, without further ado, let’s brave the labyrinth!
It’s been argued that one of the most interesting things about games is that they allow the person engaging them to feel guilt and responsibility for their actions, something that can’t be done in more passive forms of media. Designers have actually been utilizing this since the early days of the medium as a way to belittle players’ lack of skill (and, hopefully, inspire them to invest more time/money to get better): think of how Missile Command used “THE END” when you lost all cities instead of “GAME OVER.” Guess what, jerk, your failure with the trackball just doomed humanity! Even a small change like that left a big impact on player psyches, and the medium has since evolved, finding plenty of new and exciting ways to make you feel really bad about what you do in games.
But for whatever reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the game over guilt trip. While most games just come to a screeching halt once the lives and health have run dry, others really go the extra mile to make you feel awful about your failure. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years looking into these , and over the course of my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of disturbing game overs:
A. Things are exceptionally grim, and only the power of a continue can stave off this impending doom! You will continue, right? You don’t want this horrible thing to happen, right?
B. YOU DONE FUCKED UP BUDDY, NOW DEAL WITH IT
Both of these are fascinating in their own way, but as a fan of old arcade games, A is particularly interesting. Arcade games are about spending money for play time, and the end goal for the operator is to maximize profits, so keeping play time down (so other folks can spend money for a turn on the machine) is an ideal. Continues might seem opposed to this concept, but they actually play right into it: You’d get more time-for-money-spent value if you started the game over than you would if you credit-fed, as difficulty tends to scale higher the further you get and credits usually last for shorter and shorter stretches of time. It’s why the one-credit clear is such a mark of pride among the biggest arcade: you’ve basically given “the man” trying to squeeze you for money the middle finger with your mad arcade game skillz.
So, in the interests of getting players to continue more, the devs began to put in continue screens that insinuate that a terrible fate awaits if you don’t put that next quarter/yencoin in. Some, like Blue’s Journey/Raguy by ADK, make a heartfelt emotional plea (and then call you names).
Others, meanwhile, place your character – or their loved ones – in more immediate danger. Won’t you spare a quarter to save our heroes from their doom?
I’ve mentioned Game Center CX more than a few times in my writing, and for good reason – it’s a fantastic show that everyone who enjoys older games will appreciate. But while the most popular segment of the program among most fans is the Arino’s Challenge portions, I personally enjoy the “Tama-ge” bits a lot more. In these parts of the show, Arino travels to visit various arcades, large and small, across Japan. It’s a wonderful combination of travelogue and nostalgia, showcasing the (sometimes very odd) places where arcades turn up, the games and atmosphere that make that particular arcade experience interesting, and the people who maintain these game centers. It’s both inspiring and a bit depressing, as the number of mom-and-pop arcades in Japan has been plummeting over the last decade. Oftentimes, it feels like Arino’s travels are an attempt to encourage people to help preserve a dying cultural institution (the segment’s title means “You should visit this game center sometime”).
When I was a teenager, I used to love doing what Arino did during my family’s trips across the country – looking up arcades in the area, visiting them, and seeing what they had to offer. (I was especially devoted to this when Virtua Fighter 3 was really, really hard to find in North America outside certain urban areas – my hunts were often targeted towards finding that particular game.) Nowadays, this is hard to do, because the state of Western arcades is utterly miserable. Most arcades these days – the ones that are still around, anyway – are parts of massive “entertainment centers” that make far more off of redemption games than dedicated video cabinets, and what they do have for games is often old and suffering from disrepair. But there are enthusiasts out there trying to find ways to preserve the more traditional, video-game-focused arcade experience: one of the more popular modern concepts is the “barcade,” a combination of pub/eatery and retrogaming arcade catering to an older clientele.
Generally, most of my experiences with said “barcades”1 have been kinda blah – the alcohol part doesn’t do much for me since I’m one of those irritating teetotalers, and the game selection is generally pretty similar across many of these establishments: Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, a bunch of Donkey Kongs, some Space Invaders, probably a Tapper or two to fit the bar theme, Robotron 2064, and a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat to get some 90s kid cred. These are good and all, but they’re also pretty easy to find. What I’m interested in are titles that you don’t see everyday, particularly Japanese games from the mid-late 80s – stuff that came out after the crash-correction of the Western video game market in the earlier part of the decade and is considerably less common as a result.
I discovered one such arcade on a recent trip. While I spent most of my life in Iowa, my parents retired to the Boise area in Idaho a couple years ago, so I went to visit my parents there over Mother’s Day weekend. My dad suggested stopping by a few arcades while I was there, and one of them was a place called the Grinkers Grand Palace in the Boise suburb of Eagle. It’s nestled into a corner of a strip-shopping center that doesn’t look like the kind of place that would host a bar-arcade. When I stepped inside, however, I knew I had found someplace very special. So today, I’m going to imitate our beloved Kacho Arino and tell you: you should go to Grinkers sometime!
Ahh, the early 90s. It was, indeed, time for Klax, but also time for a sharp rise in popularity of rap and hip-hop music. Anyone who was a kid watching cartoons on North American TV during the late 80s and early 90s was well aware of how companies quite cynically exploited hip hop music and culture to look “cool” and “with it” to the youth. We got all manner of terrible faux-rap theme songs, new and improved character designs with backwards baseball caps, and some of the most hilariously awful commercials ever transmitted through the airwaves.
Game companies were no exception when it came to utilizing hip-hop’s popularity for commercial means, with predictably bad results.
(To be fair, Nintendo would eventually improve Zeldarapping significantly.)
Making a commercial with a rap theme song was one thing, but taking inspiration from hip-hop and combining it with game music was something else entirely. The rapidly improving sound quality of VGM, bolstered by the introduction of CD-ROM redbook audio, gave enterprising game music composers the ability to implement things like samples and voice into their songs, allowing for them to create original rap and hip-hop tunes for games. The songs were still predominantly hilariously bad, of course, but there’s a weird and lovable kitsch to them that makes them incredibly fun to look back on. Most of them, anyway.
So today, we’re going to be looking at several of these awkward game-related attempts at jumping on a musical fad. I’ll be leaving out one really obvious track – the Street Fighter III Third Strike character select theme – since we featured it previously. (I’m also leaving out Parappa because it’s just too obvious.) Everything else on here should hopefully either jog memories or be completely new to you lovely readers. So put on your Reebok Pumps and bootleg streetwise Looney Tunes shirts, and get ready for a game music time warp!
First off, I apologize for this review taking so long – I haven’t been in the best of physical health this week, and that combined with the craziness of family obligations over the holiday weekend meant that I couldn’t update the site as I wanted to. I’d intended to have this up around last Monday or so, but those plans came crashing down fairly quickly. I don’t want to disappoint gaming.moe supporters with a lack of site content, but alas, sometimes real life foils even the best-laid plans. I’m working on a manner of contingency plan for the next time such a thing happens. Anyhow, on to the main piece!
A while back I wrote a piece for WIRED about the subsection of the Japanese doujinshi subculture that caters to gaming devotees. Part of the reason why doujin fascinates me so much is because of the sheer variety of stuff people create under the term, and the fact that there are other extremely passionate nerds self-publishing books about all manner of delightful gaming minutae makes me very happy indeed. I interviewed a publisher under the name Zekuu for the piece, as his circle, Game Area 51, does some of the most impressive and in-depth doujin publications on retrogames and important people involved with their creation. Thanks to his work, I’ve become more aware of the contributions of many creators to games and companies that have notable places in gaming history.
Such is the case with Zekuu’s books about Shigeki Toyama, who has a lengthy history at Namco. I was mostly unfamiliar with Toyama’s contributions to gaming, but the two volumes of doujin Zekuu published – two interview books and an artbook – have taught me a great deal about the man who designed Mappy, the iconic graphical imagery of Xevious, and several arcade cabinets and logos. He was also a robotics designer, helping create everything from small animatronics to massive amusement attractions (such as the gigantic Galaxian³ setup at the Osaka Expo in 1990). Later, he’d also be a key contributor to the design of Sony’s AIBO robot dog. After learning so much about everything Toyama had helped create, I found myself filled with a profound respect for his incredible talent. (And, to be honest, I felt a little bit embarassed that I hadn’t properly recognized it sooner.)
Out of the three books, I chose this one for review because it’s largely art-based – and since I’m writing for a primarily English-speaking audience, it doesn’t really do folks much good to recommend an interview book in Japanese. It’s 242 pages long, B&W, and contains a truly astounding amount of design material for some of the coolest, most ambitious stuff that Namco ever produced. Without further ado, let’s look over….
Like many folks in the games media, I got a copy of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U a few weeks before it released to the public. Priority #1 was unlocking as much stuff as I could (A task that’s proven surprisingly tough – I’m still missing a few stages), particularly the extra stages and music. Among the unlockables is Pac-Land, which is an extremely cool stage with a lot of neat implementations of the progression and hazards found in the original arcade game.
Pac-Land, however, doesn’t include the original Pac-Land theme, probably because of rights reasons (it’s a chiptune version of the old Hanna-Barbera Pac-Man cartoon theme song). There’s no shortage of songs to pick from in the stage, though, and among them is a medley of music from something called Libble Rabble.
I’m pretty sure most folks outside of Japan are going to look at this and just say “Libble Rabble? What the HELL is that?” If you’re here, however, you more than likely took that next step of actually attempting to find out what the hell Libble Rabble is. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you all about it. Get your magic ropes ready, ’cause we’re going to take a good look at Namco’s beloved-among-devout-Japanese-retrogamers-but-utterly-unknown-in-the-West arcade cult classic.
So the time change happened here in the USA this weekend, and like many folks subjected to Daylight Savings Time, the combination of bio-schedule disruption and winter shift to having less sunlight during the day makes me rather moody. Not to mention how cold it’s suddenly getting! Fortunately, we all have videogames and their blue, blue skies to make up for the seasonal loss of sunlight, and there’s no bluer skies than those of Sega arcade games! And what Sega arcade game is filled with blue skies, sandy beaches, and hot cars? All-time classic Outrun, of course!
Outrun, along with Space Harrier and After Burner (II), is one of the all-time classic soundtracks from the old Sega S.S.T. Band (now called H.). Hiroshi Kawaguchi was the maestro behind all of these scores, and he’s still kickin’ it as the veteran of Sega’s sound team.
Personally, I put Outrun’s tunes into two tiers: “Magical Sound Shower” and “Other Songs That Are Pretty Good I Guess But Why Would I Choose To Play Them Instead of Magical Sound Shower.” All of the songs from the game have been remixed and redone over time, most notably getting a modern makeover in the recent arcade and console updates for Outrun. These are all pretty fantastic, as well, but only Magical Sound Shower got the Hatsune Miku treatment in the Project Diva titles. It’s probably my favorite version of the tune.
One of the game music trends that I’m really, really sad kinda died around the early 90’s was the existence of named company music teams that would put on live shows and events. You had Zuntata (Taito), the JDK Band (Falcom), S.S.T. Band (Sega), Alph Lyra (Capcom), Gamadelic (Data East), and others that are probably skipping my mind. JDK Band is the only one that still really exists in a form like it used to have – most of the old Zuntata crew went off to do solo stuff, Alph Lyra just kinda petered out, and Gamadelic died along with Data East. While you still have some live game music events, they’re usually either medleys or planned for a composer or series rather than encompassing the works of a whole company with a rock-concert-like flair.
Why am I talking about this? Because I want to show you this awesome clip of a live S.S.T. Band performance of Magical Sound Shower from 1989, that’s why! Get a load of that atmosphere and the enthusiasm. I really, really feel like I missed out with never having had the opportunity to go to one of these.
EDIT: GSK linked me to a video of the late, great Kenji Eno, along with Sega musicians Tomoko Sasaki and Naofumi Hataya, performing Magical Sound Shower at WARP’s booth at Tokyo Game Show 1997. It’s really, really good, to the point where I’d be remiss if I didn’t add it in! (Also awesome: Jun Senoue was the guy who provided the upload!)
So yeah, Magical Sound Shower is great, a true classic piece of game music. But you know what? It’s actually not my favorite piece of Outrun music. Yeah, it’s my favorite piece from the original Outrun, but my personal most-beloved Outrun tune actually comes from 1989’s Turbo Outrun. Rush A Difficulty is a tune with a delightfully memorable Engrish title that plays for the first portion of the game, and it’s absolutely fantastic.
Why do I like it more than Magical Sound Shower? Well, I think it conveys actual the feeling of racing and speed more effectively. You hear this and you know damn well it’s videogame driving music. It’s fast, it’s upbeat, and it’s got a catchy but complex melody that gets you pumped just thinking about it. Now that’s what I call game music! Alas, it’s a lot harder to find alternative/remixed versions of this song, but I’m still pretty darn happy just having the original to listen to. Maybe we can convince Takenobu Mitsuyoshi to slap lyrics on it someday. Ah, a girl can dream…