Every boy needs a hobby, they say. Well, I'm inclined to agree. Without my hobbies, I'd have no choice other than to fall over dead.
However, no one I can think of says that every boy needs a hobby that consumes our cash and our souls. I spend enough money on games now as it is; were I to start playing DDR, I'd have to spend a lot more. Making dancing platforms, for DDR Guy, was the equivalent of a drug dealer selling drugs just so he can continue to do them. Every five hundred dollars he earned on his platforms went directly into procuring more obscure Japanese rhythm-related games.
I was talking to someone on IM the other night. We were talking about how companies today don't cater as much to the hardcore gamers as to the entry-level gamers, and how this is neither a good nor a bad sign. It simply is what it is.
With the coming of the original PlayStation, game designers were given a powerful tool -- and it wasn't polygons: it was mass appeal. Games like Tomb Raider showcased game designers' ability to use trivial details like polygons to fashion truly important objects like triangular boobs that could be stared at and run into a wall by anything fourteen years old and/or going through puberty.
Tomb Raider was made by students -- nay, lovers -- of games. Young as the "next generation" yet was, Tomb Raider threw back to the old generations of Prince of Persia or even Out of this World. It could give one so inclined lonelier flashbacks to Flashback. It was a game that the horny could marvel at and the gamers could play to completion and feel like they're doing something.
My friend and I, the other night, were actually quite pleased with the current state of games and game perception. These times of near systemic-equality have forced developers to think up more cunning methods of presenting their goods -- gone are the days when a swimsuit-wearing Lara Croft centerfold can sell magazines: despite her spread in Maxim, Aki Ross's appearance in a bikini couldn't save Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within when it came to making a mark on cinema. Acclaim's recent gutsy advertising ventures -- graves on tombstones for Shadowman 2 and that God-dreadful "Name your child 'Turok'" campaign for the someone-cranial-bore-me-now Turok: Evolution couldn't save their respective games from dismal failure.
Though this could be attributed to something entirely different, I'm going to go ahead and say it has something to do with the gaming public's now being educated. Those whose first system was a PlayStation have now moved on to PlayStation2, Gamecube, and Xbox. They're through being pandered to and ready to play good games -- like Metroid Prime, for example, which is selling reassuringly better than any of the numerous Mary Kate and Ashley games ever will.
We no longer dream of flying cars. We are more realistic in our dreams of the future. We look back at the past as something gaudy, like a house in "The Jetsons." We want things we can look back on without feeling embarrassed.
It's important, then, to stop trying to talk about games as art or as culturally acceptable, and just let things flow.
This little "kids vs. grownups" duel we've got going on, the kind that pits Nintendo against Sony for all the wrong reasons, the kind that makes my dad remark on the cleverness of the Ratchet and Clank commercials -- it's not the point.
There's something bigger going down.
That said, you may be wondering: what does this all have to do with DDR?
The answer: everything.
I take it DDR Guy would have some interesting opinions on how bored he was with the demo of Metroid Prime. I can't say for sure. I've slipped out of contact with him since last January.
I was in Tokyo the last time he contacted me. He was trying to set up an arcade in Boston. It was to be called "DDRcade." It was going to be exclusively for Bemani games. To cut costs, he was going to populate this DDRcade (which was to have a bar and pool tables, as well) with Japanese PlayStation2 consoles. Hopefully, he told me, business would pick up, and he could afford big TVs and even bigger sound systems. First, though, he needed some games. And a few Drummania controllers.
DDR Guy needed a contact in Japan to export some things to America. Since I apparently was the kind of guy to hang out in Akihabara every day, why wouldn't I be that contact? DDR Guy knew I would see the connection. He promised me full reimbursement for all the money I spent. I told him I'd look around the next time I went to Akihabara, and see what I could do. No promises, though.
So I hit Akihabara that weekend. My protégée in unemployed, punk-rock novelist life, Masako, accompanied me to the neon Electric Ghetto. Our first priority was to look at guitar amplifiers. After that, we stopped in the Akihabara LAOX Sofmap, and found the Drummania controller. Its box weighed about thirty pounds, was the size of a baby rhino, and cost over ten thousand yen. In the Trader2 game shop, we found a Keyboardmania controller for eight thousand yen. I'd been warned about the new Beatmania DX controller -- don't get the old one. Get the new one, the two-piece one. And don't get it used. And try to find a couple used Guitar Freaks controllers in good condition.
"Damn," Masako said. "This stuff is expensive."
She was right. DDR Guy also wanted numerous copies of the Japanese DDR games -- three of each mix would do, he assured me.
"Is what he's doing even legal?" Masako asked me.
"I don't know."
"It sounds a hell of a lot worse than the Korean bootleg machines."
Bored and hungry, we went first to a cheap tempura shop to satisfy our hunger, then to a big arcade to satisfy our boredom.
On the ground floor of the Bigass Game Fortress (not its actual name), a hundred kids were crowded around, looking at the new DDR. Seeing their enthusiasm awoke in me a memory of the time I went to the Putt-Putt mini golf with my friend from ninth grade. We'd gone to play Mortal Kombat II. We ended up playing that and racing a hell of a lot of go-karts.
In this new version of DDR (I don't know its name), one player can dance on both platforms in some kind of special dance mode. This requires one to keep track of eight buttons with his or her two feet. On that rainy, gray day in Akihabara, two kids were playing this special one-player mode. They were two guys, with dyed hair and short-sleeved shirts, alternating between sides as they bounced and jumped and did headstands and handstands and break-dancing moves.
They missed not a single button press. The crowd of Ganguro girls and schoolboys almost cheered -- such was their Japanese enthusiasm, that of silent onlookers in a match of Capcom vs. SNK, with the occasional "Raaaor" of the Super Nintendo version of Super Street Fighter II. Masako and I were, quite honestly, quite impressed.
So impressed we went inside and beat the hell out of Namco's Taiko game with excited fervor. Two girls were playing Drummania and laughing. Two guys watched them. Masako looked at them, and sniffed. We were drinking Kirin Afternoon Tea on the steps. We were kind of loitering. What can I say -- that's the sort of thing we do.
"Look at those girls," she said. "They're probably going to all go have sex in the photo booth."
It was Masako who told me about the girls in loose socks and the photo booths. She'd read an article about hikikomori, a kind of problematic, eventually violent solitude that supposedly has been plaguing Japanese youth of the last decade. Alarmists blame videogames and cellular phones for the tendency of Japanese youth to distance their selves from their families, lock themselves in their rooms, and eventually commit acts of perhaps-sexual, perhaps-suicidal, perhaps-homicidal violence. Masako, a recent high school dropout, blames the examination-heavy Japanese education system.
Looking at those kids playing DDR, I didn't know who to blame. I was further puzzled as Masako and I ascended stairs into the heart of the twelve-floor gaming Mecca: at the top, we found a three floors full of Virtua Fighter 4. Every single machine was a sit-down unit. A hollow near each joystick held an ashtray. Hundreds of Japanese salarymen sat, playing Virtua Fighter 4, alone.
At another arcade, it was Tekken 4. The players were still alone, and still smoking.
A little more arcade-adventuring hit me with the cold truth: those sit-down one-player units of Virtua Fighter 4 were actually linked to other units. They were versus machines, linked back-to-back, intended for players to play versus games against human opponents -- without ever seeing that human opponent's face. This is, after all, the country that respects ties in baseball.
Weeks before our DDR adventure, Masako and I had hit Akihabara with the intention of finding me some headphones I could use with my PlayStation2. I had been playing Metal Gear Solid 2 pretty hard back in those days, sometimes staying up well into the night. I needed headphones, to keep from sharing the game with my neighbors while they were trying to sleep.
A Japanese guy in one of my English classes was the first one to tell me: he'd been playing games with headphones since Super Famicom. He had since grown up healthy, with a son and a daughter. He played Dragon Warrior VII every night, with his headphones on.
So I was starting to get the idea, however slowly: Japanese people prefer to play games alone. This became old news rather quickly.
In America, it's perfectly kosher to challenge a person you don't know to a game of Mortal Kombat -- at least, that's how it was when I still went to arcades. In many arcades in Japan, you aren't even given the opportunity to play against a human opponent in Virtua Fighter 4.
I distinctly remember how much fun I had with my brother when we rented Mortal Kombat 3 for Super Nintendo. To imagine not being able to play the game with a second player, and to have to pay 120 yen a play -- it just doesn't sound like a good idea.
A game like Mortal Kombat 3 is pretty much no fun without a second player.
As evidenced by a Japanese Final Fantasy X commercial in which a boy's mother walks into the room during the "Suteki dane?" scene, games like Tokimeki Memorial 3 are pretty much no fun when someone else is around. When my roommate in Japan walked in on me playing Dragon Warrior VII, he stopped and looked at it with the fascination of a strict Christian seeing pornography for the first time. After a moment, he declared his boredom, and asked me to turn down the volume. I was so riveted I didn't hear him.
Mortal Kombat 3. Tokimeki Memorial 3. Aside from the numeral in their titles, these games have pretty much nothing in common. Yet they're useful in our model: they are bookends in our bookshelf of multiplayer gaming.
In the middle, sandwiched together, we have the fighting games in the sit-down cabinets in every arcade in Tokyo, and the DDR machines where two players happily perform a one-player routine.
In other words: multiplayer games made single-player; single-player games made multiplayer. A lonely guy rounding out his item collection in Mario Party 2; a happy couple huddled up playing Resident Evil on Gamecube in the dark.
In America, I take it, Sega didn't make more than a couple sacks of nickels on their arcade version of Virtua Fighter 4. Two players though it is, even the glitzy big-screen unit at the United Artists GameWorks at the MGM Grand on the Las Vegas Strip sits untouched in favor of a giant blue-screen room-thing where people's body movements translate into vague button presses in a PlayStation version of Tekken 3.
I figure: if not there, then why anywhere else?
And what's the deal with DDR?
I'd always thought DDR Guy was pretty good at the game that makes up half of his namesake. He could jump, and spin, and look like he was having fun doing it. He would fall into a groove, and keep dancing, and keep sweating. My Korean girlfriend thought he was impressive. I wagered he didn't even know what a paso doble was.
Those two Japanese kids wowing that crowd in Akihabara could quadruple the DDR damage of DDR Guy, all without breaking a sweat. They probably didn't even know what a foxtrot was.
It's one of those "game that can't be won; only played" sorts of things.
Distracted by hunger for dinner and cheap wall-to-wall Super Famicom games, Masako and I never got around to filling DDR Guy's order. I never contacted him about it, and he never talked to me again. I assume the open invitation to stay at his place if I'm ever in Boston is canceled. I've lost my Boston game store connection.
With my move back to the States, I've outlived my usefulness to DDR Guy. Like a kid who watches too much TV, DDR Guy has flipped over to the next channel, and is looking for someone else. Though his taste in programming varies, DDR Guy will not step away from the television, or from his DDR. His dancing partners change; the dance stays the same.
You get the idea.
[next: part three: that i could build you a world with my adam's apple]