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Holiday Break Part 1 [Uncat]
Nov 24th, 2009 by Dan

Thanksgiving approaches this week and my posting will get sporadic. Go hang out with your family too!

Lazy Luigi [Embedded Reporter]
Nov 23rd, 2009 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

A lot of you have already seen this, but I think it’s pretty amazing stuff. Watch as the other three players beat the level for Luigi, earning him plenty of lives in the process.

On Tim Schafer, Apotheosis, and Video Game Rockstars: A Brütal Legend Review [Game Overview]
Nov 20th, 2009 by Dan

Apotheosis -
1. The fact or action of becoming a god; deification
2. Glorification, exaltation; crediting someone with extraordinary power or status.

Do you know who Tim Schafer is?

When I still lived at home, my dad used to ask me, “When are you gonna grow up and stop playing video games?” He tells my mother that he’s sure I’m addicted to the medium. It’s true that I spend the vast majority of my free time playing games. I can name developers, producers, writers, designers, and even composers for games from my favorite series of games. This vast information age enables me to know everything about a game, down to its minutia, just by checking an online database. If there’s not enough information there, I can almost guarantee there are five or six fansites devoted to uncovering every last detail. It must be daunting for developers nowadays to produce in this environment.

My dad says these things, but I’m not sure he understands that this is just the nature of hobbies nowadays. Not too long ago we could almost justifiably claim an unhealthy obsession with the works of Deepak Chopra and transcendental meditation. Eric’s life revolves around photography nowadays almost as much as mine involves interactive entertainment. This is what hobbies are like now. Think of an obscure hobby, like stamp collecting, and I’ll guarantee you that someone out there spends a couple of hours a week producing a podcast for tons of people to listen to.

The point is, there’s a growing number of people who actually know just who is behind the games they play, a huge contrast to the early Famicom days.

It’s not exactly the fault of the developers that we had no idea who was behind our games back in the day. Standard process for Famicom-era games was to credit oneself via a pseudonym to prevent talent poaching. How would you be able to tell that seeing Gondamin credited as a composer meant you were listening to Junko Tamiya’s music? Famed Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune still goes by INAFKING in some games.

Now that games are actually credited properly, it’s not uncommon for people to know that Bioshock was the brainchild of Ken Levine or that the wackiness of Metal Gear comes from Hideo Kojima. Nintendo actually keeps Shigeru Miyamoto’s hobbies on the down low because they don’t want people to speculate on what ideas his brilliant mind will come up with next. We’re talking a complete 180° shift here.

Eddie Riggs: “Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?”
Roadie: “Like the seventies?”
Eddie: “No. Earlier… like the early seventies.”

Embedded within all enthusiast cultures is the cachet that comes with either “being there first” or experiencing a unique experience that the ignorant masses overlooked. Go to Brooklyn, grab the first guy with crazy hair and skinny jeans you can find (protip: you won’t have a hard time finding one), and ask him what his favorite bands are. Chances are, unless you’re from the Brooklyn scene too, you won’t have heard of any of the groups he’s mentions. He will consider you a barbarian for liking commercial music and you will consider punching him in the face.

I think it’s clear where I’m going here, so I won’t belabor the point.

Have you ever played Grim Fandango?

We arrive at the natural conclusion: these developers, thanks to the power of the Internet and rabid fans like myself, are now legends in their own right. When Miyamoto talks, everyone listens and when Tim Schafer makes a game, I buy it (we’ll ignore the fact that I don’t own Psychonauts or Full Throttle). All this devotion and dedication to one man is based on the strength of four games: The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango, the last of which is the only one solely under Schafer’s artistic control (the true Monkey Island games were made by the holy trinity of Gilbert, Grossman, and Schafer while DotT was a Grossman/Schafer collaboration). When I played Grim Fandango for the first time in 2002, it was on the strength of Schafer’s Monkey Island reputation, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you his name until 2007 when I started listening to video game podcasts.

The press gushed and gushed about how good Schafer’s games were and how Psychonauts was criminally under appreciated and created the image of a brilliant game designer whose games featured great comedy writing and stories, but mediocre gameplay. Think about this for a second: Tim Schafer is famous for being a commercial underdog whose games are only hampered by mediocre controls. Before Psychonauts, Schafer’s only games were adventure games. Controls are irrelevant in that context, so Schafer has a reputation based on one game.

What’s worse is that I totally bought into the hype. I found myself thinking, I hope poor Tim Schafer isn’t underappreciated yet again. Really? After one game? This is the industry. This is modern, enthusiast society. This is madness.

Did you buy Psychonauts?

I can’t say that it started there, but the first time I ever saw an editorial campaign intended to raise a game’s sales was back around 2003 at IGN. Matt Casamassina, a fellow fan of Eternal Darkness, was bummed about the lackluster sales of what was actually a really great game, but its downsides were twofold: it was a new IP and it was a dark, mature game launching on the Gamecube, clearly the wrong platform for the game. The point of the campaign was that mature games would not continue to launch on the Gamecube if no one bought it, so everyone should take one for the good of the team and play this game. As you might expect, the plan failed and, for all I know, Casamassina still does his best to drum up sales of mature games on Nintendo platforms (he was back in 2008 when I still listened to IGN podcasts) with the same results. The Internet’s a tricky place. Everyone will agree that these games are criminally underrated by their sales numbers, but no one is willing to actually open up their pocketbooks.

Well, there is at least one. At some point I got it into my mind that if I wanted to keep seeing good games, I should support the ones that are trying to innovate in the field, regardless of whether I want them or not. It’s why I own Zack and Wiki and Little King’s Story, despite having no real interest in either. I just wanted to support good, non-minigame collections on the Wii. Lucky for me, nine times out of ten the stance that I want to support means that I’m supporting a game or series that I do truly love. Paying for the Day 1 DLC in Dragon Age: Origins is a hot issue for many who are morally opposed to content appearing on Day 1, despite the fact that this stuff probably wasn’t ready for a Day 1 launch. Regardless, I own both packs because I love Bioware as a developer and I want to see them continue to make good games. Likewise, it might have been a few parts my completist nature, but I used to buy every bit of DLC offered by Harmonix for the Rock Band series because I wanted to support their philosophy on music gaming over Activision’s (I also don’t buy used games for a similar reason).

It’s an attitude not limited to games either, I no longer pirate anything and actually buy CDs, .mp3s, and DVDs to support the artists that I treasure. It’s kind of foolish and I get burned sometimes with mediocre stuff, but I think it’s still worth it.

The take home message here is that my purchase of Brütal Legend comes from a complicated place. Tim Schafer, a man elevated to game-god status, a rock star, if you will, being the primary catalyst while the rest of my logic amounted to a combination of wanting Double Fine to find success in their game releases for once and rewarding EA for picking up this title after Activision so unceremoniously dropped it.

Was that a good idea?

It may not be the truth, but it’s the better story.

Brütal Legend is the worst kind of lie. It’s singing love songs with the girl of your dreams on a road trip, but you’re the only one who means it, while your best friend is sleeping in the backseat, blissfully unaware of the metaphor. That’s not to say it’s an evil, insidious lie, it’s just pretending to be one thing while slowly guiding you toward another. Boot up the game, watch Jack Black, go to the Land of Metal, and you’re expecting a 3rd person action brawler. Not too long into it it’s become an open-world brawler, complete with vehicle sections. An hour or two after that and you’re partaking in a hybrid RTS/3rd person action brawler/open-world driving game. It’s bait-and-switch executed marvelously. You might hate the RTS portions, but you’re already hooked on the story and you’ve got to begrudgingly see the rest of it through.

I’ll guarantee that most players didn’t even know that their game had RTS elements before purchasing it. How would they have when all the advertising campaigns featured only the 3rd person combat? Was this an evil move on EA’s part?

As a supporter of Tim Schafer, I say no. It’s a lie, no doubt, but it serves a greater purpose. This game cannot be distilled into its distinct parts in a 30 second action reel. Why not bring in the sales on the game on this promise? It’s not like it’s a total lie, it’s more like a half-truth. You will be fighting in the 3rd person for majority of the game, you’ve just also got to manage your troops well or you will lose. Then again, I have a hard time defending deception to the consumer on such a grand scale. Did Brütal Legend lie to all of us? No one went out and outright said it was one thing, but gave you another. There was even a demo out there. Is it really “Buyer Beware” to give the impression of one thing in your advertisements and deliver a slightly different thing? This isn’t like giving top billing to an actor who only appears for three minutes of a movie, is it?

“We say, over and over again, that the default player actions in a single-player game should be compelling enough to make you believe with all your soul that a two-player deathmatch situation using two player character clones and said default player actions would be at least as compelling as the actual game.”

– tim rogers in his Bionic Commando: Rearmed Review

tim rogers makes a point in countless reviews that a game’s core mechanic should be good enough that you can play it in multiplayer ad infinitum and have just as much fun with it. Brütal Legend takes that just a touch too literally. Double Fine so desperately wants you to love their multiplayer that the entire singe-player campaign is a training mission to prepare you for multiplayer. The final units and mechanics are all finally nailed down for the player in the penultimate battle. I’m not kidding, you can’t do everything until right before you fight the final boss. It goes against everything that “we,” the player, knows about games. When you play the campaign in StarCraft, haven’t you gained access to the entire tech tree after maybe four of the ten missions in the campaign? Maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t true, but it’s certainly not right before the final boss.

I see what the intention is. Strong multiplayer drives down the resale of games. Pre-owned game purchases are money lost to the developer. We’ve seen this trick already, EA, it’s why Dragon Quest made you grind for ages and why DLC and special pack-in unlocks are so prevalent in the games of today.

Back on message, the problem with this structure is that I didn’t want to play multiplayer once I finished. I’ve yet to boot it up once. That’s not to say that the game is terrible, it’s just not mechanically sound (and, lo, we now have a pattern that we can apply to Schafer).

“The road is fuckin’ hard,
The road is fuckin’ tough-ah”

-Tenacious D – “The Road”

Before I dive even further into the mechanics, perhaps a look into the raison d’être for Brütal Legend, its story, is in order. I should start by saying that the most surprising thing about this game is that the player is controlling Eddie Riggs, not Jack Black. Despite his tendency to be Jack Black in almost every role he plays, credit has to be given to Tim Schafer and Double Fine for writing him as someone completely different. There’s not one “skedoosh” uttered by Riggs in the whole game and even the part where Jack Black is Jack Black is decidedly restrained and non-Jack Black-like.

So the player controls this guy, Eddie Riggs, who is a roadie for a fictional metal band, Kabbage Boy, that’s all kinds of terrible in the modern, faux-metal, emo kind of way. The intro has this great part where the band starts off with an appropriately epic power cord, only to have a DJ break in with some scratches while the song devolves into a pop-nonsense song about the lead singer’s girlfriend. After saving one of the band member’s lives due to some reckless climbing (all while staying out of the spotlight), Eddie is crushed by some of the stage and his blood lands on his belt buckle, summoning the Metal god Ormagöden, who kills the members of Kabbage Boy and transports Eddie to a mystical world of METAL (if I could make flames burst out of this review, I would). For a guy like Riggs, this is a dream come true since the entire landscape looks something like the album cover to the metal records of old. Demons rule this world and enslave humans, but there is a small resistance group led by a man named Lars that Eddie joins to get closer to Ophelia, a woman he meets when he first teleports in.

The beauty of Schafer’s tale comes from the heavily enforced role of the roadie. Eddie Riggs is not out for glory and, despite the fact that he is the resistance and the main character throughout the entire game, he is not the hero. Maybe it’s Eddie’s personality, but he is firmly devoted to being a roadie and unused to the spotlight. It’s so ingrained in his character, that the narrative only addresses the discrepancy between what Eddie does and what he gets credit for maybe twice and both times he quickly brushes off. The story isn’t about Riggs becoming a hero in a world in which he belongs, which is strange, because it clearly features him uniting humanity and freeing mankind. Instead it’s a (METAL!) love story between Eddie and Ophelia and a damn good one at that.

Both the characters of Eddie and Ophelia are believable and both the dialog and voice acting between Eddie and everyone else is among the best I’ve seen in any game (top marks also go to the Uncharted series, the second of which I played right before Brütal Legend). The metal legends chosen to make cameos (Ozzy Osbourne, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister among others) do fantastic jobs of being both themselves and (especially in Ozzy’s case) fucking metal. Even the professionals like Jack Black and Tim Curry do some of their best work while industry veterans Jennifer Hale continues to prove that she’s one of the best in the business (don’t believe me? Check out her gameography).

At the end of it all, it’s clear what Schafer’s true strength is: world-building. Grim Fandango takes place in a wholly unique, single-serving world inspired completely by the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico with a dash of hell, demons, and the 1920s mafia. Psychonauts takes place within the brains of its cast of characters, with each mindscape inspired by psychology featuring wildly different neuroses, themes, and ideas. Brütal Legend, as you know, is inspired by heavy metal and creates a world where bass notes can heal, guitar strings are crafted by metal spiders, and guitar solos have the power to literally melt faces off. In each case his brilliance and creativity shines through and the player never wants to leave. He is unparalleled in this respect.

Brutal Legend draws itself up proudly. “I am a bastard child of the schizophrenic postmodern age. Know only that I am metal, and that I was forged from the raw materials of innumerable genres. No single acronym can contain my all. I am pure hybrid.”
-Chris Clemens. “At the Gates of Genre

Should Tim Schafer give up on games? I refuse to go on the record as saying that Brütal Legend is a bad game. Trust me, it’s not. On the other hand, it’s also not very good. It’s wild hybridization of multiple game styles and mechanics don’t combine for the better and the game winds up a jack of all trades, but, well, you know the rest. No one aspect of the actual game mechanics make me want to boot the game up again. Melee fighting is shallow because only two buttons can be allotted (you need to be able to control your troops and play guitar with the others). Driving is just a faster way of getting from point A to B and feels unsatisfying.

Quick Aside Time

I understand that this is hard and that resources are better spent elsewhere (not to mention that invisible walls serve to keep the player within them), but we, as gamers, need to take a stand against the goddamn trees in video games. How many fucking metal :throws up horns: nitro boosts did I waste because a thin, pathetic looking tree turned out to be The Epic Tree of Arrested Momentum. Seriously, if you’ve got small logs that I can drive through at low speeds, then why can’t I drive through a thin bit of underbrush? Then again, my car can fall thousands of feet and take no damage, so maybe my car and the trees are made of the same mystical, physics-distorting material.

Back to the review…

I can go on ad infinitum about every system in the game: the guitar solos are shallow, the RTS-style mechanics are frustratingly imprecise, the quest structure is repetitive, and the collectibles are annoyingly difficult to track and collect. Tell me Schafer, if I’ve got a map that automatically draws itself as I discover new parts of the world, why can’t it have a toggle switch to show me which collectibles I’ve already found? Ask my friend Ian how many hours I spent searching for the last (of 120) Bound Serpent in the game. It’s MADDENING.

At the end of the game, when evil has been vanquished and all the credit and accompanying hero worship has fallen on Lars and his sister, Lita, we see Eddie drive away, content to be a mere footnote in history, despite being the only reason that the history of that world continues. I return to the question, should Schafer stop making games himself? Wouldn’t he be a much better world designer for other projects? Isn’t Tim Schafer a better Eddie Riggs than a Lars? On one hand, I want him to continue to have the freedom to make his own full, artistic visions come true, but with two consecutive commercial failures under his belt (Brütal Legend has reportedly sold only 200,000 or so copies in Rocktober, but we’ll see what Christmas brings), will the industry keep giving him a chance?

Lars: “What do you do with a bunch of kids that just wanna bang their heads all the time?”
Eddie Riggs: *tears in eyes* “You start a revolution Lars…”

Tim Schafer is a rock star. There are few people in the industry who get what it means to craft a world, but the staff at Double Fine, Schafer-included, need to sit down and think about game design a little more. It’s got to be hard to reign in Schafer’s monstrous creative energy, but it would be a good idea to try to focus on getting fewer things perfect in their next game. The sad truth is that they haven’t got many more chances. Most of them could probably find jobs elsewhere, but the only member of their team with absolute job security is Tim Schafer. He will always be a Lars in the industry. Developers would be nuts not to give him top billing of some kind (note that the boxart for Brütal Legend explicitly states “A Tim Schafer game” above the title) and he deserves that kind of praise. So, to answer my previous question, Tim Schafer should absolutely make games, but perhaps he needs to narrow his sights a little bit and focus more on his core mechanics. Less can be more when you have to sacrifice quality.

Furthermore, have I learned anything about hero-worship in the industry? If anything, I think that writing this review has caused me to reevaluate the stances I take for granted on game companies and the artists I love, in general. I still think that the most effective way to lobby for anything in this industry is with consumer dollars, but I’m finding myself increasingly disenchanted with how little the sales from a small, dedicated fanbase amounts to. I mean, look at what my money did for the MLB Power Pros series in America? Given the decision again today, I would still go out and buy Brütal Legend. I like it that much, game mechanics aside, but with only 200,000 in sales, I’m pretty sure it will be a while before Double Fine is able to round up as much capital as I’m sure they did for this game (which may be to their benefit). On the other, Dan-has-learned-something hand, I’m pretty sure that I’m no longer giving everyone a carte blanche license to earn money from me. Metal Gear Solid 4 was such a disappointment to me that it will take some prodding for me to really trust Kojima again. Nintendo has flip-flopped around so much with Mario that I’m unsure where I stand. Mario Galaxy was not the breath of fresh air I thought it would be, but New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a masterpiece of sharp, 2-D game design combined with the brilliant addition of 4-player co-op. I no longer buy mature titles for the Wii. DVD box sets of shows that I casually want to remain on the air no longer get bought. Some things have been learned.

Take Home Review Message:
Brütal Legend is a definite rental, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending that you buy it until you’ve tried out the multiplayer.

L4D2: Great Game or Greatest Game [GO]
Nov 19th, 2009 by Dan

I honestly can’t stop gushing about L4D2, it’s that good. Since I last wrote I’ve played through the Swamp Fever campaign (still haven’t beaten any on expert) on cooperative mode too and every map but The Parish (final map) on versus and I’ve been enjoying every minute. BULLET POINTS ARE GO!

– As predicted, the special infected were able to do a good job in the hotel, but it wasn’t as imbalanced as I thought. I’ve since learned that a charge toward the abyss or a jockey ride off of the building would be a better choice than a drive down the ledge.

– Speaking of Chargers, those guys are brutal. In the first map of Swamp Fever, the survivors have to call a slooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow boat over to them to cross into the swamp. Guess where you shouldn’t stand: with your backs to the water. I got charged right on the edge and the charger and I went flying into the river where I drowned. Jockeys are dangerous here too, since they can run you off the edge. I wonder if Smokers can stand on the other side and pull you in too?

– NEVER gather your entire team into a small, enclosed space if you even think that one of the special infected is a Spitter. She will decimate your team. I watched my team climb underneath a truck to fight off a horde for some reason. They were trapped down there because the horde kept advancing and one spit knocked the three of them out. It was embarrassing.

– Adrenaline is the best new item in the game, but I always forget to carry it with me. Increased run speed and zombie slowdown resistance are nice, but the real draw is how fast it allows you to pick up incapacitated survivors. If I can remember to keep some on me, tanks will have a real hard time keeping us all down.

– The AI Director 2.0 hates humanity even more, if that’s even possible. I don’t know what malicious code they put in there, but spawning three special infected all at once seems cruel. Even worse, the AI knows when they don’t have to use their abilities. I tried (in vain) to kill a charger as he jumped at me in a house and punched me in the face. He didn’t even properly set up a charge because he knew he didn’t have to. Meanwhile, the AI Jockey won’t bother with its pounce move either if it knows it can sneak in with a horde and melee your health to bits.

– The Sugar Mill level goes something like this the first time you play: “HOLY CRAP, TANK! I’ll run around the edge of this…AH WITCH!” and then you die.

– Hard Rain’s weather effects are fantastic. That thunderstorm REALLY comes down and the Burger Tank finale is a really sharp place for a finale crescendo.

– The new scoring system for versus make a whole lot more sense. I’ll miss health bonuses, but it’s great to see the status bars and understand more of where the scoring comes from.

– Dark Carnival is my favorite campaign so far. One of the maps has you running along a roller coaster and the finale has you starting up a rock show to attract a helicopter. There’s a level that takes place in the Tunnel of Love! You can play Mustachio games! The only downside…clowns. So many clowns. They’re so evil looking.

– The new finales are all really interesting and cool. I like that there’s so much variety between them and even some neat ideas with the campaigns. Doubling back over slightly modified versions of the same maps in Hard Rain (with accompanying weather) is super great.

Can’t wait to get back into the game tonight.

World and Japan Series Results [WMQ]
Nov 18th, 2009 by Dan

It’s time for Wednesday Morning Quarterback, your weekly sports round-up.

It’s all old news by now, but the World Series champions for this year were the New York Yankees. Powered by a ridiculous performance by Hideki Matsui, the Yanks pulled far ahead early in the game as Matsui clobbered anything Pedro Martinez threw at him. It wasn’t a massacre, but it wasn’t pretty either.

World Series Time-Lapse by Robert Caplin from Robert Caplin on Vimeo.

Across the pond (the other pond…the one to the west), there was much disappointment to be had too. Not wanting to be left out, the Giants ended their drought (since 2002) and won their 21st Japan Series title (NOTE: Yankees are on their 27th). In the end, Darvish didn’t get to pitch again, but that’s probably a good thing for his health.

The NPB also had its amateur draft happen and my beloved Carp got themselves some great talent. Top pick, Yusei Kikuchi, selected by six teams, went to the Seibu Lions via lottery, continuing the trend of fantastic pitchers headed to Saitama started by Daisuke Matsuzaka. Whether or not he will make an impact remains to be seen, but expect to see him starting the season off in Ni-gun (that’s their AAA) and pitching in the NPB next year. He may not pitch as fast as Strasburg, but I have a feeling both will end up on a professional roster before year’s end.

NSMBW and L4D2 Impressions [Game Overview]
Nov 17th, 2009 by Dan

Last night was most definitely a game night, the likes of which I haven’t had in ages. Ian and Darek were both over to play some New Super Mario Bros. Wii and I was curious about whether or not I could ruin more friendships, so I started the evening with tomfoolery in mind.

In our marathon session (from about 1800 to 2300) we played through worlds 1, 2, half of 3, and 6-8. Like most Mario games, the first two worlds were pretty simple and there were few instances where we all died that weren’t caused by stupidity, so we really started to let our jerk flags fly. Some things we discovered while being tools:

– So long as there is one player physically interacting with the course, it will continue. That seems obvious, until you realize that at any time a player can press A to go into a bubble. Having taught that little trick to Darek and Ian, Darek was quick to learn a use for it that I hadn’t even considered. If I threw him off the level or he was about to die, he’d bubble up right away and float back to me. Ian and I picked it up soon after, but there were cases where we were all about to die, so we all bubbled up. Guess what, that’s a fail state. All players are returned to the world map, no lives are lost, but all power-ups are now gone.

– You can butt stomp another player off of their Yoshi to steal their ride. The stomp knocks them off and the continued downward momentum puts you in the saddle.

– While we’re still talking about Yoshi, he can eat almost anything. Shells, fireballs, hammers, other players, enemies, and berries. He can also hover.

– Butt stomping is a great way to kill a buddy. Depending on their reaction time, they probably won’t be able to bubble up in time to avoid falling off the platform you just knocked them into.

– Pounding down a chain chomp’s stake will launch it at full speed in the direction it was facing. Make sure it’s facing someone else.

– Fireballs are dynamic light sources in dark, cavernous levels. Great news, unless your partners are shooting fireballs alongside Fire Brothers and it becomes too confusing to tell which balls are safe and which aren’t

– The music in the game is so infectious that the enemies dance to it at certain times. Be aware of this if you’re trying to time a tricky jump.

That’s it for random things I noticed that aren’t completely obvious. A quick break for a coin battle after World 2 honed our competitive edge, but we quickly found ourselves teaming back up as we got closer and closer to World 8 and its mega-tough levels. One level, 8-5 or 8-6, had waves of lava obscuring platforms that we had to get across. A complex system was developed because I refused to just bubble up and let one person carry us across, so we ended up all trying to make our way as we lost tons of lives, but we had a lot of fun doing it and victory was sweeter at the end.

I won’t spoil anything about the final boss, but let me just say that it was appropriately awesome. We plan to team back up to take on the rest of the levels we skipped (along with the bonus world) soon. It’s just too good not to.

L4D2

I got less play time with this than I hoped, since Valve’s releases went in waves and my copy of L4D2 wasn’t activated until 0130. Since I had work today, I didn’t want to stay up too late, so I booted up a single player game (less chance of me continuing all night if there aren’t real people to guilt me into staying) and started in the first campaign, Dead Center. It’s been widely mentioned that there’s more of a narrative arc to this game and what I’ve seen so far seems to support that claim. There was no opening cutscene for the campaign, like I thought there might be, just the survivors all on the roof of a hotel watching a gunship leave them behind. With that, it was time to climb down to the ground floor of the hotel.

Unlike Left 4 Dead, the survivors start with next to nothing available to them. The opening weapons table contains only health, melee weapons, and a pistol. No submachine gun. No shotgun. In fact, this entire first campaign seems like it will be an exercise in absolute domination by the special infected. I think that the best move in this situation is probably to let the best marksman in the group dual-wield pistols by having the worst marksman sacrifice his pistol for a melee weapon.

The hotel plays out a little like the Mercy Hospital from the No Mercy campaign of L4D in that it’s littered with tons of rooms to explore and search for ordinance. There are some neat little easter eggs peppered throughout about the special infected, but not much beyond that, until things start to get real. Not content with letting the survivors calmly climb down to the ground floor, players are eventually forced to traverse the outer edge of the hotel by climbing through a window. The reason: fire. Somehow this hotel keeps catching fire in various places, conveniently blocking easy exits and forcing you onto ledges. I’m not sure how this will play out in versus, but it seems terribly unbalanced. A charger could easily knock guys off the edge, a jockey could ride them off, a smoker could pull one off, a hunter’s pounce could knock them off, or a boomer’s boom. Not to mention the tight spaces make the survivors easy bait for the spitter!

After finally spotting a working elevator, the survivors enter and introduce themselves. It’s kind of a neat moment and it shows how the whole narrative arc will play out (if I’m right). No cutscenes, just moments of calm where personalities will be expressed and fleshed out. Then I started to notice smoke creeping into the elevator…

That’s right, the entire bottom floor of the hotel is burning down. Escape is hindered by flames blocking paths and thick, suffocating smoke. I’m pretty sure the smoke does no damage, but it makes it almost impossible to see much of anything down there. It’s a special infected playground, provided they don’t set themselves alight. They’ll be murdering survivors like it’s their job.

The second map in Dead Center takes place in Savannah proper and has the survivors wandering through the city in the daylight, headed to a gun store that Ellis knows about. There’s a neat moment where Nick is a jerk and Coach tells him off and we’ve had our storytelling for the map. This level plays out a lot more like a traditional L4D level, but in the daylight. I suppose the increased visibility lowers the tension somewhat, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any easier. Witches wander in the daylight and AI partners are typically too dumb to leave them alone.

Broad daylight hurts the special infected more than anything for versus mode, so it seems that Valve compensated for this by creating tons of nooks, crannies, and tall buildings for the infected to ambush the survivors from. All that said, I still think this shifts the balance back in favor of the survivors after that first map. The gun store features plenty of tier 2 weapons to have some fun with and even a gun modification in the form of a laser sight. I’m pretty sure that these will randomize some, but it was a neat little thing to have with my burst-firing rifle. This is also where Valve is able to highlight their first “new” crescendo event. L4D had you mostly hunker down and defend against the horde until the craziness wound down. L4D2 makes you progress or the craziness will NEVER wind down. So call the horde I did and all to get soda for the guy who owned the gun shop so he would let me pass. Not the best motivation, but I guess it works ok.

The third map takes place within the aforementioned Center. Malls are a staple of the zombie repertoire, so it’s no surprise that Valve finally sent some survivors in to check things out. To recap: the first map seems horribly imbalanced in the special infected’s favor. The second feels pro-survivor, but the new crescendo events have the potential to end many a playthrough. This third level is definitely a special infected wonderland. Aside from a few spaces where a skylight shines in, the entire mall is pitch black. I’m pretty sure that a zombie could slowly follow you the whole way through and you’d never know it if he kept quiet about it.

Halfway through we found that we had set off a security alarm and had to climb to the third floor to turn it off. AI Director 2.0 must have been feeling particularly malicious, because she sent us a tank to help us get there stress free. Hoping that my buddies would survive long enough, I made a break for the room and was lucky enough to not get pounced along the way. As I made my way back, one of the computer-controlled players was dead, one was incapacitated, and the other was low on health. He was incapped soon after and I got pounced with a tank running right at me. Map over. Time for bed.

If there’s one thing I can tell you with certainty, it’s that Valve has not hit a sophomore slump with the L4D series. Dead Center is full of great new ideas and amazing refinements on the first game, which is a lot like NSMBW, when you think about it. Who would have thought that there were still so many good ideas left in both series to do such great work? The only complaint I have about the new campaign so far is that getting soda feels like an uninspired catalyst for a crescendo event, but I guess the apocalypse brings out the crazy in everyone.

More impressions as I actually play with people tonight. Maybe I’ll even try Realism mode.

NSMBW Ends Friendships [Embedded Reporter]
Nov 16th, 2009 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii came out yesterday to the delight of many who missed old school Mario adventures and were looking for a chance to relive the fun of the old days with their family and friends. It also shipped with a 4-player mode that I’m convinced will end friendships, break up marriages, and devastate any other relationships you might have. Just one person acting like a jerk (hint: it was me) in the 3-player matches I played with Eric and Danielle was enough to have her swear off of the multiplayer modes, so imagine four people going nuts.

Oh, wait, you don’t even have to imagine. Watch the Giant Bomb crew go from 0 to pissed at each other as Ryan makes a mess of their attempts to get through the game for this quick look.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog W Jersey Special [II]
Nov 13th, 2009 by Dan

The pride of my trip to Japan no doubt has to be the 12 jersey collection I brought home with me. Here is a quick rundown of each of the jerseys, a little background behind each, and what I think of it. I’m gonna cover them in the order that I got them, so that puts the Giants jersey a little later, even though that was the first game I went to.

Jersey #1 – Orix Buffaloes

The genesis of the Jersey Project began on a ridiculously sunny day outside Skymark Stadium. As you may or may not remember, I collect fitted, official baseball caps at each of the MLB stadiums I go to, so I was looking for something similar to collect at the Japanese parks. Unfortunately, neither of the two teams I’d seen had fitted caps. I had initially ruled out jerseys in the states because I knew how expensive they ran, but then I noticed that the Buffaloes jerseys they had for sale in their outdoor stalls were only ¥3500 (about $40 at the exchange rate I suffered). That was only $10 more than I was used to spending on caps in America!

My first NPB jersey!

My first NPB jersey!

It’s a pretty nice jersey and after I tossed it on in the ballpark I was certain that I’d made a good souvenir choice. The B’s on the front and the Orix patch on the left are both legitimate, sewn on patches. It’s a pretty sharp color scheme too. The white contrasts very nicely with the dark blue and the red/yellow trim around the sleeves and patches looks pretty good. All that said, it’s still kind of a generic jersey. There’s no team name, no city name, no prominent company name. I like it, but the other, more creative jerseys just look better.

Rank: 8 of 12. Solid, but just too generic.

Jersey #2 – Hiroshima Toyo Carp

Hiroshima is a city that’s really dear to my heart. Of all the places I visited in Japan, it left the most lasting effect on me, both from the team spirit and the indomitable spirit of the people who rebuilt the city with vigor. Beyond all that, the team’s most prominent color is red and, to quote Andy Bernard, my blood runs Big Red. Housed in Mazda Stadium, a brand new ballpark with all the amenities, the Carp had one of the more robust team stores filled to the brim with red from boxer shorts (complete with catcher signs over the crotch) to the all-important jerseys and caps.

One of my favorite jerseys.

One of my favorite jerseys.

This time the jersey fetched a heftier fee, ringing up at around ¥5500, if I remember right, with the premium version selling for ¥6500. Concerned with saving money, I’m pretty sure I went with the cheaper edition of the jersey, which is kind of a shame now that I think about it. I’m not sure if the more expensive one actually had sewn on names (or even if the real jerseys do), but the names on the jersey are printed on and it lacks the ridges on the premium jersey. Despite all of that, the Carp jersey gets extra points from me for being red, quite fetching to look at, distinctly Japanese with Hiroshima printed across the front, and it features my favorite Japanese ballplayer, Akihiro Higashide.

This guy hit his 1000th hit with me in the stadium watching. I love this guy.

This guy hit his 1000th hit with me in the stadium watching. I love this guy.

With all of these things going for it (and it being the jersey of my favorite team), one would expect it to top the bill, but I have to take some points away for its cheaper design and printed text. If it weren’t for those things, it would definitely rate higher.

Rank: 3 of 12. Ok, it doesn’t rank all that low, but still, it’s not #1!

Jersey #3 – Saitama Seibu Lions

You all remember how this jersey believes lions, right?

Makes me laugh every time...

Makes me laugh every time...

There’s one thing that the brand-conscious among you will notice right away upon viewing a picture of the jersey. I’ll give you a second to check it out…

Kind of plain, but made with nice material. Whats up with the armpits though?

Kind of plain, but made with nice material. What's up with the armpits though?

That’s right, the Lions are sponsored by none other than Nike, no doubt a deal that was penned (if it wasn’t already in place) following their victory in the Japan Series last year and, wouldn’t you know it, a brand-name jersey costs a lot more than the regular Joe editions pushed by the other teams. Already not a fan of the Lions because they play in the Pacific League in a strange quasi-dome, here I had to pay something like ¥7200 for this jersey. My little quest was starting to get quite expensive and I wasn’t happy about it.

Beyond that, there’s nothing really wrong with the jersey. It’s got a solid, old-school baseball look, but there’s not much to it beyond that. Grey is a terribly bland color (I suppose I could have bought white, but those were even plainer. There weren’t even blue highlights, if I remember correctly. The Saitama patch on the right arm and the Lions-ball-grasped-in-a-paw patch are both pretty generic looking too. The best feature is the “i believe lions,” but you can’t see that if the jersey is buttoned up or even in normal wear. All of that pales in comparison to the bizarre underarm of the jersey. For some godforsaken reason, the jersey does not have full armpits. Instead there are these vents, I guess to help get air to the underarm. I always wear an undershirt, but with these little vents exposing my armpits to the world, this jersey kind of forces the point.

Rank: 7 of 12. What’s up with the armpits on this thing?

Jersey #4 – Tokyo Yakult Swallows

By the time I showed up at Meiji Jingu for the Swallows game, I’d already seen the team play once. Counting that day, I was to see them play three more games. If you’ve been reading the blog, you know that I’m not a fan of this team, but they’ve actually got one of the nicer jerseys that I picked up.

That top red button really sells it for me.

That top red button really sells it for me.

The Swallows have a jersey that’s just different enough from the MLB sets that it really sells the whole “Hey, we play baseball in Japan, not America” thing. From the red accents on the side (can you tell I love red?) to the great patches on both the arms and above the team name, to the coup de grace, the red top button, it’s just a well-designed jersey. I don’t have the other buttons done, but they’re white, not red, which would normally annoy someone so obsessed with symmetry and patterns, but I love it in this case. It’s like the rising sun sits right at the top of the jersey. Best of all, the jersey returned to a more reasonable price. I don’t remember how much I paid for it, but it was definitely between ¥4000 and ¥5000. I still can’t believe how much I paid for a Lions jersey that doesn’t even have a marketable player’s name on the back.

Rank: 5 of 12. It’s the Rising Sun on my jersey!

Jersey #5 – Yomiuri Giants

The Yankees of Japan. What team do I hate (fourth) most in the states? Which jersey do I loathe from my collection?

This one hurt to buy.

This one hurt to buy.

I’ll admit, this is a jersey I hate for completely non-aesthetic reasons. Aside from being rather plain, I am a fan of the orange and black on the jersey. Beyond that, there is one major reason why I hate this jersey. Make that 12000 reasons. That’s right, I had to pay ¥12000 to get this thing. Why?

1. They’re the Giants. The most popular team in Japan
2. It’s another name brand. Adidas

I dont even know who this guy is...but he does have a great number.

I don't even know who this guy is...but he does have a great number.

Since I didn’t know that I was collecting jerseys on this trip when we saw the Giants the first night, this one comes from the day Dave left and I went to Tokyo Disney Sea. I will say that I saw the jerseys in the store that night and thought they were far too expensive, but here I was, stuck buying the premium jersey. Why? I hear you ask. It’s because there are no non-premium jerseys. Pay less than ¥12000 and you can get a t-shirt that looks like a jersey, but you will never get a jersey. I bit the bullet and bought the thing, but I still get mad thinking about it.

Rank: 11 of 12. Sure, I’m being petty, but it’s my list and my criteria.

Jersey #6 – Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

After paying so much for my Giants jersey, prices became mostly trivial, so my dislike of the Hawks jersey comes not from paying between ¥6000 and ¥7000 for the thing, but more from an aesthetic dislike.

White jersey with yellow armbands. Way to break the creativity bank guys...

White jersey with yellow armbands. Way to break the creativity bank guys...

Uninspired and lazy is what I think when I see this jersey. The most creative part of it is the goofy-looking Hawk mascot on the right sleeve and we all know how I feel about that bird and his kin. Two yellow stripes? That’s the best you can come up with?

Worse, the Hawks are thinking of changing their jersey next year to be more like the BayStars. Just you wait until I get to that abomination…

Rank: 9 of 12. Stupid mascot and yellow bands.

Jersey #7 – Chunichi Dragons

It’s probably time to call me inconsistent, but I rather like the Dragons jersey. Maybe it’s the old-school look with the linked ‘C’ and ‘D’ or maybe it’s the delicious shade of blue that the team uses (it’s the closest to Cubs blue that I saw in Japan and I love me some Cubs blue), but I really like it.

Its all about letter design.

It's all about letter design.

The player is pretty forgettable, but they don’t really sell Fukudome jerseys in the stadium anymore. I hear he’s a veteran who’s been playing a long time and he had a decent game, but he didn’t call out to me like Higashide or Toritani.

Araki is getting close to the end of his career, but I love his number and the fact that he plays second base.

Araki is getting close to the end of his career, but I love his number and the fact that he plays second base.

Beyond that, I like the wedge-shaped highlights on the sleeves and up the sides, but it’s a shame that the jersey doesn’t really have any patches.

Rank: 6 of 12. A solid effort, but the ones above it either have more sentimental value or sharper designs..

Jersey #8 – Hanshin Tigers

This is a jersey done right. Everything about it just exudes tight design. Pinstripes are a staple of baseball while the black and yellow interact fantastically everywhere they’re paired together.

Sharp.

Sharp.

Even the textures are nice on this sucker, with everything sewn on and a ridged surface, it’s also really nice to feel. Check out that fierce Tiger patch. Scary.

Toritani! My second favorite Japanese baseball player.

Toritani! My second favorite Japanese baseball player.

I almost unintentionally ended up falling in love with numbers and players that were part of the middle infield. While I’ve got a few pitchers thrown in there (and a first baseman), I’m pretty sure most of the jerseys I own with names belong to the middle infield. If that’s not supported by the data, then my favorite ones do, so can it. Takeshi Toritani is a fine shortstop and he was a clutch performer in the games that I saw.

Rank: 2 of 12. The highest ranked “traditional” jersey, this guy just gets it in all the right places. Pinstripes, black accents, yellow trim, and a badass tiger.

Jersey #9 – Hokkaidō Nippon-Ham Fighters

Back-to-back superstar jerseys. The Nippon-Ham I bought has everything going for it that you’d want in a Japanese jersey. How’s about a quick peek before we go over all the highlights.

Worth it just to see the faces as they read Nippon-Ham

Worth it just to see the faces as they read Nippon-Ham

Sure, Fighters jerseys fetch about ¥9000, but you really get what you pay for in this case. When the Fighters moved to Sapporo (they used to play in Tokyo and share the Dome with the Giants) they totally revamped their image and went with this completely non-traditional look. The most glaring difference is the left sleeve. Beyond the nifty, sewn-on patch, it’s an entirely different color from the rest of the jersey (this is the case for the home, away, and interleague versions of the jersey too). That bold accent, coupled with the hilarious Nippon-Ham adorning the front already seal the deal on this being my favorite jersey, but the best part is the player I got.

I was so close to seeing Darvish pitch...

I was so close to seeing Darvish pitch...

Yu Darvish is a superstar. No other pitcher in Japan approaches how great this guy is right now. He was hurt for most of the season, but he even came out to pitch in Game 2 of the Japan Series while hurt. Instead of pitching to his usual velocity, the guy just relied on curveballs and other tricky pitches and still only gave up two runs on one home run. The guy’s a stud on the mound. I really hope he comes to pitch in the states one day.

Rank: 1 of 12. Darvish + the off-color arm = win

Jersey #10 – Yokohama Baystars

From first to absolute worst. I don’t even know where to start with this guy…

Worst. Jersey. Ever.

Worst. Jersey. Ever.

Oh wait, how about the fact that its NOT EVEN A JERSEY! The traditional jersey has buttons. There are no buttons on this jersey. Everything on it is printed, even the cheesy stars on the shoulders that, I kid you not, I did not notice until two minutes before I wrote this sentence. Everything about this jersey screams forgettable.

Is he any good? Who would know on this team.

Is he any good? Who would know on this team.

At the very least Uchikawa is pretty good. He led the league in 2008 in batting average, but, beyond that, I couldn’t care less. He plays for a garbage team.

Rank 12 of 12. I’m so glad I only had to pay ¥4000 for this thing. It’s not even a jersey!

Jersey #10 – Chiba Lotte Marines

When I first saw these jerseys I thought they looked kind of cool. The different colors and zig-zag of the sleeves look kind of cool from far away, but something about this jersey soured me to the idea not long after I got it.

What kind of a jersey sponsor is The Hartford?

What kind of a jersey sponsor is The Hartford?

When you look closely at the jersey, the most bizarre thing pops out at you. They prominently display the logo of The Hartford. An investment firm on a baseball jersey? Just doesn’t feel right.

I think I have more corner infielders than middle. Oh well, I still like the middle fielders more.

I think I have more corner infielders than middle. Oh well, I still like the middle fielders more.

I know I’m being nitpicky here, but I don’t really like the design they chose for the numbers on the jersey. I also don’t like that it cost me ¥11000 and it doesn’t fit all that well.

Rank: 10 of 12. I can’t explain precisely why I don’t like it, but it’s not that great.

Jersey #12 – Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

I was really pulling for the Eagles to make it to the Japan series this year. After seeing them battle back and beat the Hawks with a grand slam and watching Masahiro Tanaka turn in a stellar pitching performance, the team became my favorite in the Pacific League.

Check out the wings on the team name!

Check out the wings on the team name!

Beyond that, just look at what they did with a fairly simple jersey design. There are no fancy patches or color swatches, but they did do something neat with the logo on the jersey. Instead of going with the regal, refined look, they put freaking wings on the thing. It’s sweet.

Tanaka - my second favorite Japanese pitcher.

Tanaka - my second favorite Japanese pitcher.

The plentiful red is always appreciated and so is Tanaka’s name. A fine jersey and one of the better teams I saw on the trip.

Rank: 4 of 12. Wingtips! On the name!

What do you think of the designs? Would you arrange them differently?

Truly, This is the Age of Trailers [Embedded Reporter]
Nov 9th, 2009 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

What did I spend most of this weekend doing? Playing Dragon Age: Origins and watching The Wire. Only one of them is new and only one of them has a fancy new video review to watch.

As a special bonus, watch the Giant Bomb guys Quick Look the demo for Left 4 Dead 2 and miss the best graffiti in the first safe room.

The holiday rush is nearly over. We’ve only got a few more huge games coming down the pipeline before the Christmas lull, but the rush will be back in force come January once everyone feels that Modern Warfare 2 is no longer going to kill them in sales.

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part XIX: Epilogue [II]
Nov 6th, 2009 by Dan

No Game Overview today, we’re gonna finish this up since I didn’t get to it today (World Series business)

And so it came to pass that I went to Japan, saw some baseball, and came back home with a greater appreciation and understanding of Japan. If you remember the first entry in this series, I outlined a set of questions that I wanted to try and address while I was out there. Here’s what I found along the way:

1. What do they do during the 7th inning stretch out here?

I’ve addressed this myself in a previous article, but there are slightly different customs in the 7th for a Japanese baseball team. As recently as last year, there was a tradition of firing off a stream of balloons that make a streaming noise. It’s a really striking and cool sight, at least in video, but I didn’t get to see it in person.

Sadly, the tradition seems to have ended this year thanks to H1N1. When you’ve got a whole stadium full of person-filled balloons flying around, launching spittle everywhere, I guess you can forgive them for changing their mind about this tradition this year. I can only hope that it will return when the flu concerns start to disappear, but it’s also possible this great tradition is gone forever.

2. What kinds of crazy foods do they serve at the concession stands?

Yet another question that I’ve done my best to highlight as many times as I could in each entry. Each stadium had food ranging from typical American food, like hamburgers and hot dogs, to more typical Japanese food like takoyaki, miscellaneous bento, and curry. I’d say it was the highlight of the trip really, especially that seafood pizza I got in Fukuoka at the Hawks game.

3. Just how rowdy do the fans get during games?

Given the more typically restrained culture in Japan and the insistence on not bothering others (combined with the supposed American boisterous, wild behavior), I thought that Japanese games would be more restrained, controlled, and structured. I was half right on that.

The Japanese are plenty loud in baseball games, but in a very structured way, like I thought. Each team’s fans cheer for their own hitters with specific cheers for each batter, but, beyond that, they keep quiet and definitely don’t really boo the other team at all.

There’s only one rare exception: drunk fans. Since beer flows throughout almost the entire game, some fans drink without restraint and end up screaming randomly, but it’s rare. Very unlike a passionate fanbase.

4. How different is it to fly internationally on a Japanese carrier compared to a domestic carrier?

There was another article almost completely about this, but the differences are subtle and distinctly Japanese. I hoped that we might have more space on the plane, but the space was tighter, due to a smaller average size for Japanese people. Other than that, the expectations I had were all spot on. The food was way better, the service was more polite and more attentive, and, overall, I had a much better time of the flight than I’ve had on domestic carriers.

5. Do cities outside Tokyo get crazy during game releases? At least one major game franchise (Pokémon) will have an iteration released while I’m out, but I won’t be in Tokyo when it comes out.

I was a day off from catching this release and it didn’t seem all that wild out in the area, but within all the stores, the game was sold out and impossible to find anywhere other than a Pokémon Center.

6. How rock and roll do the Japanese get? If I can, I’m going to try and make it into a show somewhere.

Didn’t make it to any shows. I’ve got no opinion on this.

7. Is the fashion at Harajuku as crazy as everyone says it is?

Another shame, I was in Harajuku on a school day and during work/school hours too. I hear Sunday’s the big Harajuku day, but I didn’t see much.

8. Sumo. Great sport or greatest sport?

I’m torn on this one. Sumo is a great thing to see and experience, but I’m a little bummed at how long it takes for a match to happen. Just as soon as we’re ready to finally start, it’s done. It’s great to see and all, but I think that it might be better to just watch the highlights reel the way they do it at times on ESPN 2.

9. Is Akihabara still the mecca of electronics that it once was?

I don’t know why I end up inflating expectations on this sort of thing, but I always figured Akihabara for some kind of wild, Neo Tokyo, super-exaggerated, sprawling, mega-techno city. Instead Akihabara spans, at most, 6 blocks by 3 or 4 blocks filled with curry, music stores, movie stores, anime shops, video games, and straight-up electronics shops.

Was it ever bigger? I have no idea, but it doesn’t quite feel like the one-stop shop that it should be and it feels a lot less epic than people made it seem.

10. How much cool stuff can I find in a used game store?

Lots of cool stuff. From arcades with vintage games to the most obscure Famicom or any other random Japanese system you’ve never even heard of. The best thing I ever got were those great Mario noise keychains. Good stuff.

I wish I bought me a Dragon Quest slime too.

11. Is Coco Curry House Ichinbanya still amazing?

YES! So good. Oh man was it great. I need to go back out there or buy some curry mix and get it shipped in.

12. How long can Dave and I sing in a karaoke box before we’re kicked out to salvage what’s left of the clientele’s hearing?

Two nights, but, to be fair, we did travel from Hiroshima back to Tokyo to avoid the karaoke police. It was definitely fun.

13. Do I have the nerve to go to a public bath?

Turns out I don’t, but I also didn’t really go looking for them. It’s also possible that I wouldn’t have been admitted since there can be some anti-foreigner sentiment in those types of establishments.

14. Is the Japanese train system as punctual and efficient as advertised?

While it has its share of idiosyncrasies, the train system runs punctual to a ‘T’. Not only do they show up precisely when they say they will, but they almost never miss their arrival time. The only time a train was even remotely late was the shinkansen to Fukuoka. Even then it was only 10 minutes and I’d bet that the Amtrak never keeps it that punctual.

15. What’s the strangest item I can find in a vending machine?

Turns out nothing too bizarre for the States. Soda and the occasional alcohol or cigarette machine. Even those suckers are harder to buy from nowadays thanks to a crackdown on youth consumption of both.

Capsule machines are kind of a different story, I guess, but they’re mostly anime, video game, or sports team merchandise. Nothing like the famous women’s underwear stories.

16. Are Japanese arcades really dying?

Well, I saw a few, but it’s not so easy to tell what’s going on with arcades when you’re looking at them in Akihabara. I do know that I didn’t see all the fighting game cabinets that I thought I would, but they seemed to be doing ok when I saw them. I didn’t get enough exposure to the arcades to have an informed opinion.

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