By Alex Kierkegaard / February 21, 2006
I've been to quite a few industry events since I first arrived in Japan, and I have to say that the AOU (All Nippon Amusement Machine Operators' Union) is my favorite show. If someone tells you it's small, boring, and has few games worth playing, they are only lying about the boring part. Yes, the show is pretty small, and there are few games worth playing, but that's why it can be so much fun. You pay 1,000 yen (or 700, if you have a discount coupon) and you get to play a dozen or so great arcade games from 10 am to 5 pm. The lines are generally short, so you don't have to wait long to play, and later in the afternoon you can have some of the less popular games pretty much to yourself. What's important is that you get to play more than you do in other shows, and the games are also designed to be played in this sort of enviroment. They are arcade games after all--think of AOU as one big arcade full of brand new games set on freeplay. Doesn't sound bad, does it?
Now I am not going to try and tell you that Tokyo Game Show is crap and a waste of your time. But, really, TGS is not about playing games (except if you enjoy standing in line for two hours at a time to get a few minutes at a 100-hour JRPG). It's about seeing extravagant booths, watching trailers, and mingling with industry players and not-so-bad-looking girls. (In general, I don't find booth babes very attractive.) It's certainly worth a trip to Tokyo, if you can afford it, but it's not nearly as much fun as AOU for those of us who prefer playing games to... socializing. The irony is that I was done with the last TGS in about 4 hours, whereas I spent a full 6 hours at AOU this year and still hadn't seen everything. Too busy playing games, you see.
It was a shame I missed last year's show. I had arranged to go with DonMarco (from DPS) and Lawrence (from NFG Games), but I had to bail out at the last moment. And now Marco is back in Florida and Lawrence has moved to Australia (of all places), so I was afraid I'd have to make it over there by myself. It turned out that Gaijin Punch (from Japanese Gaming) was coming over from Hawaii on holidays (yeah, he was leaving Hawaii on holidays), so we arranged to go together. Francisco, a friend of mine from Spain, also happened to arrive in Tokyo a few days before the show, and was duly recruited. Finally, Seven Force (from Shmups) joined us at the last minute. And yeah, everyone has a website these days, what's your excuse?
We met up at Tokyo station at 9 am (at the insistence of GP, who wanted to get as much Virtua Fighter 5 time as possible) and took the Keiyo line to Chiba. We got there just as the show was starting. You can see the crew in the first pic below. From left to right: Francisco, Seven Force and Gaijin Punch. Francisco was the only one among us with a real life--hence, no cool nickname (mine is icycalm, if you didn't know).
First stop was of course the Cave booth, which was as pink as they could possibly make it. The giant ugly Pac-Man you can see at the back was, of course, at Namco's booth. It certainly destroyed a perfectly good picture.
Cave had by far the most lively and exciting booth at the show. For one thing, they had the best games. You could play the cool PinkSweets in one of the half dozen cabs they had set up, or you could go to one corner of the booth and play Ketsui, Dodonpachi Dai-Ou-Jou Black Label, Mushihime-sama, or Espgaluda II to your heart's content. PinkSweets attracted a fairly large crowd, but people tended to lose quickly, so if you stayed there all day you could possibly play enough credits to 1CC the game--if you were good at the original Ibara. The recent Espgaluda II also attracted a fair crowd throughout the day, but even the older games were always in use, and that's definitely something if you consider that some of those were three or four years old. In fact, Cave is the only company that can get away with having older games at their booth--no one else ever does this.
Throughout the day I spent a good two hours playing Espgaluda II, and that's partly the reason I didn't cover the whole show. But, hey, I enjoyed myself, and if you were looking for comprehensive coverage you wouldn't be reading this in the first place.
Cave also had the usual cosplayers, including a seven foot tall gaijin and several pink sweets. The girls were certainly cute, but I preferred last year's Rose Sisters, which, alas, I've only seen in pics on Lawrence's site (see here).
Also on display was Mini 4WD Online Racer, which the guys at Cave are making in order to pay the rent. There was so much to see and do that I simply ignored it. But who knows, it might be fun.
PinkSweets looked even better than the last time I saw it. I didn't get a chance to play, but I really enjoyed watching others. Below you can see Seven Force playing and Gaijin Punch filming the game on the large LCD that was set up above the cabs. Watching Cave's games on a big screen is an unforgettable experience. The image quality is naturally not comparable to an RGB monitor, but the sheer size more than makes up for it, I think. The best solution of course is to get a very large RGB monitor, but those are not that easy to find, and they are not that cheap either.
I ended up making a fairly long video of Cave's booth, including a lot of high quality PinkSweets footage. In the video, you can also make out a new Ibara theme song in the background. Somehow, I don't think this will be part of the game's soundtrack, because it really is a bit annoying. The game, however, looks better than ever.
At some point me and Francisco left the others playing PinkSweets and went to check out Namco's booth. Or, I should say, Bandai-Namco's booth. Apart from the hideous giant Pac-Man I've already mentioned, their booth was alright, I guess, if a bit boring.
Time Crisis 4 looked a bit meh. I mean, if you like light gun games then I am sure you'll enjoy this, but there is too much waiting and not enough shooting for my tastes. And they need to upgrade their hardware fast. It looks like a PS2 game.
The video I made is a bit short because we couldn't stand the announcer's incredibly loud voice. I wouldn't have minded a chance to shoot him, if you catch my drift. It was as if Namco didn't want people going anywhere near their booth (his voice was actually a lot louder than what you can hear in the video). They were also showing SoulCalibur III Arcade Edition, but we've been playing the PS2 version for a while now, so we didn't bother spending any time on it. After a couple of minutes we had had enough and moved on.
Next up was Taito. Their booth comprised of a large presentation screen, the Half-Life 2 Survivor showroom, and the Shikigami no Shiro III cabinets located at the back (which we found later on in the afternoon).
The Survivor showroom was very impressive: orange-tinted lighting, girls in shiny outfits, futuristic decor, and matching electronic music. If they were actually showcasing an exciting new game I would have picked Taito's booth as best of the show. GP and Seven Force waited in line to try it out while I went to attend the glitzy presentation on the giant screen next door.
The announcer wasn't really giving us any new information, just the usual PR stuff. Still, it was surprising to see the level of interest from the Japanese press. First person shooters are becoming more popular in Japan, and this game, regardless of how well it does, is only going to help that trend. I am all for it.
After the show, GP and Seven Force were in agreement that the game was deeply flawed. The controls were nowhere near as good as a mouse/keyboard setup and the game was visually unimpressive, with a stuttering frame rate to boot. It must have been running on Taito's Type-X board, which is basically a low-spec PC. It makes you wonder why they'd go to all the trouble building the fancy cabinet and spending all that money on PR, instead of making sure the game runs well.
And here is a close up of the Survivor cabinet. 32-inch LCD, two control sticks and foot pedals, 5.1 surround sound, networking and player data storage card compatibility. I'd love to have one of those at home, connected to a high-end PC with a keyboard/mouse setup.
And then it was time to check out Virtua Fighter 5-unquestionably, game of the show.
I had actually attended a VF5 location test a couple of weeks before at the Ikebukuro GIGO arcade, and I was planning to write my impressions well before AOU. Unfortunately, my hard drive decided to die the day after the test and I lost all my pictures and videos. First hard drive that dies on me... ever! And I've had more than a hundred of the damn things since my first 20 MB monster back in, what, '87? I can't remember exactly. So yeah, that was a traumatic experience. All that porn... gone. Anyway.
Sega's booth was all about Virtua Fighter. It was very spacious and plain -- without excessive decoration, nor any PR bullshit. Just a few technicians and a couple of modestly dressed girls. The girls were there to take you to the appropriate cabinet when your turn came, and to wipe the controls for the next player, after you where finished. The line was pretty short because Sega had a lot of cabinets set up, and the matches only lasted a few minutes. You basically fought against another player and the winner stayed on for a maximum of three fights. We lined up maybe 5 or 6 times to play, and we were never bothered by the 10 or so minutes we had to wait. Time seemed to fly by at the Sega booth and a great time was had by all.
But let's talk Lindbergh first. The cabinet features a high definition 32-inch widescreen LCD monitor, dedicated single player controls, and networking alongside the VF Terminal and VF.TV. The VF Terminal lets players manage and upgrade their character, for a price, while VF.TV lets non-players watch intense match ups. The whole thing works like a dream, and it's obvious that Sega has put a lot of thought and effort into it. The cabinet is a joy to experience. Sitting two feet away from a 32-inch screen takes getting used to, but after a few minutes you are sucked into the game and oblivious to the world around you. It's a true next generation cabinet, and it really is wonderful.
The game itself is, as you'll probably have heard, awesome. It remains very accessible and enjoyable for beginners, but the depth of 4 has been retained. Gaijin Punch, who has spent a small fortune playing 4 in the arcades of Shibuya, says they didn't mess about with the mechanics very much, which is a smart move considering they messed about with everything else. He managed to beat every single oppenent he faced, and every time he had to give up his seat because of the 3-fight limit. The rest of us didn't fare that well. I have played 4 a bit, although the last time was 3 years ago, so I managed to win a couple of fights. Francisco didn't win a single one though, and he felt pretty sore because of that. He loved the game, but his expertise is 2D fighters, especially KOF. Goes to show that fighting game skills are not transferable from 2D to 3D.
In the fourth video you'll see a fight on VF TV, a view of the booth, and, towards the end, GP methodically kicking someone's ass.
After taking a lunch break, and losing Francisco in the process, we went back to the show and tried to find Taito's new Chase HQ game. The night before I had read on Game Watch that they would be unveiling the game at AOU, but no matter how many people I asked I couldn't find it. What we ended up finding instead was Shikigami no Shiro III at the back of Taito's booth, and Triggerheart Exelica, at the back of Sega's booth. Apparently, only Cave dares to proudly display shooters these days.
Shiki III looked alright. A lot of people are bashing this for crappy backgrounds and whatnot, but I don't think they are all that bad. At least not from a distance. And they move very smoothly. Well, the game is actually out in arcades right now, so I'll play a few credits and make up my mind about it. I quite liked the first two games. They don't look like much at first, but they are addictive as crack cocaine. And I should know.
More interesting than Shiki were Taito's new Concept cabs, which featured 16:9 tated displays. Aesthetically, the cabs don't look so hot, but the displays are intriguing. And when are we going to get some wide screen shooters? I bet SKonec is working on one right now. Otherwise, why would they go to the trouble of making brand new cabinets?
Triggerheart Exelica, on the other hand, looked pretty damn boring. I could barely stand to watch people play this for a couple of minutes before my attention started wavering. Only Dreamcast fanboys seem to be getting excited over this. Sorry guys, but you'll have to look elsewhere for more info on this.
But hey, here's a picture of Exelica for you!
At some point we passed Capcom's booth and saw this PR lady giving a War of the Grail presentation to... no one in particular.
I was told that Capcom showed trailers of the game, but I was too busy playing Cave games to care. It's a strategy-action game similar in design philosophy to titles like Quest of D, which are made to take as many of your coins as possible, without any real skill involved. Now, of course, regular arcade games are also designed to keep you pumping coins. The difference, however, is that if you get good at a shoot 'em up or a beat 'em up you can play through the whole game on one credit. That's why I think it's a waste of money playing games like War of the Grail in the arcades. Still, many people enjoy these kinds of games, so whatever.
Shortly before the show ended I came upon this light gun game from Konami, called Cooper's 9. I'd never heard of it before, so I stopped to check it out. I ended up spending more than half an hour there, and quite enjoyed the experience. It reminded me a bit of Sega's Confidential Mission. The graphics are very low-fi, especially when seen on that large screen, but it is just as fun as any light gun game, especially with two players. Since no one was waiting to play I just kept pressing continue, and me and this other guy who was there must have played through at least half the game. It was good to see my light gun skills were still there.
We made one more round to see if we missed anything, and we came upon Sega's pimped out House of the Dead 4 Special booth. This is basically a "ride" version of the regular game, which features a 100-inch screen and spins buckled-in players according to in-game events. Interestingly, even though the show was about to end, there was still a long line of people waiting to try it out, which should tell you something. I am definitely spending a few coins on this whenever it comes out.
The pic below is the closest I was able to get. I presume the lady was giving instructions. Because, you know, this is a complicated game.
And then it was time to leave. At that point I realized that everyone else had scored some blinking rose thingy from the Cave girls, and I decided I wanted one too. I usually don't go for promotional swag but, dammit, everyone else had one! So I went back to Cave's booth to get one and, of course, by that time they had none left. But at least one of the girls was kind enough to let me take a picture for your guys.