AOU 2004

by Lawrence, 02222004

<Editor's note: the AOU stands for the All Nippon Amusement Machine Operators' Union, and this is the yearly showcase for the newest in stand-up machine technology.>

The AOU show is about Amusement, not Arcade. It's about the games as well as those other, lesser things that keep the operators in cigarettes, and surly instead of outright mean. If games could pay a hundred percent of the bills you'd better believe the AOU would be all about them, but as a true reflection of the industry the AOU show had sadly little to do with games.

What games were on show weren't new. Nothing much was announced or shown for the first time at this show, the closest attendees got to a new product was a 60% finished version of Chaos Field, a new vertical shoot-em-up from Able Corporation. You've never heard of Able before I'm pretty sure - their other products on show included a miniature bowling alley that looks like it would be most at home near the food fair in a shopping mall, a me-too selection of crane machines filled with stuffed animals, and a twin-cab version of EA's Need for Speed, which looked for all the world like a re-badged San Fransisco Rush.

Taito was making a lot of noise about Zoids, a Virtual On clone of some description, and they also had their arcade port of Success's ZOOO (And I wonder why Success didn't do this themselves, since they already have an arcade presence with Psyvariar 2...) and Eolith's Chaos Breaker. This latter title looks great, visually a blend of WeaponLord and Guilty Gear. Glorious 2D sprites and smooth action with great looking backgrounds. I much prefer this kind of burly-man beater to the effeminate skinny-boy crap most games seem burdened with these days... There were lots of Taito-branded cranes.

<Editor's note: Chaos Breaker is a retitled Dark Awake; Eolith's first 2D fighter since they broke from SNK.>

Konami had only one new game - another gun game with dual screens and four ridiculous rifles - and a handful of Bemani game sequels: Pop n Music 11, Guitar Freaks 22, and BeatMania 2nd Coming 3rd Mix Final Edition plus Alpha. They also had some fanciful gambling games, with pretty lights and neon-pearl dragons, as well as a wrestling-themed collect-em- up multiplayer card and video game.

Poor old Capcom didn't bring anything to the party, just a tiny selection of redemption machines and a kind of apologetic "Just wanted to show we're alive" look on the faces of staff.

Namco was all about Bayside Midnight Maxi Boost, and some gambling game or other. Also, cranes. The Namco women were very friendly but didn't want to be photographed. Maybe they were embarassed that Dragon Chronicle and Taiko no Tatsujin were still being shown so long after release.

Sega had a lovely black stage with flashing blue lights, but for the hours I was there nothing happened on it. Two enormous motion cabs were showing off the aged F-Zero AX, and in the back Ollie King was present. The NetCity cabs look nice painted over in black and yellow, with speakers bolted to what used to be the control panel. No doubt loaded with paid-for advertising like Top Skater, money which Sega won't use to reduce the price for struggling operators... In a weird fit of japanese lunacy they also had a 'no pictures please, it's not quite done' foot-massage thing which would show a palmreading-style image of your foot while it relaxed you. I took a picture of it like the sneaky corporate spy I am. They also had cranes.

Sammy is a real mystery to me. They were the only company excitedly presenting new gear, with a line of Atomiswave branded sit-at cabs for the asian market and uprights for overseas, and a bunch of new games to run on them. Rumble Fish looked great on their astonishing high-res four-foot-tall clearer-than-your-TV monitor. The rest of their library consisted of the older Atomiswave releases, and some new stuff: Driving Game, Gun Game, etc. While I was yawning my way through their booth and weaving around the sweathshirt- wearing boothbabes I noticed they have been putting their Sega IP to good use: Sonic Pachinko machines. The idea that gambling and kids' characters should be kept separate doesn't really have a lot of weight in Japan.

Sammy seems to be very hit or miss, with no middle ground. Their games are either exceptional and advance the genre - Guilty Gear, Rumble Fish - or stale imitations of games we've seen before, like Dolphin Blue and whatever those driving and shooting games were. So incredibly unremarkable I don't know if they even had names. They are the company to watch for sure, in these dark days they're the only company actively expanding their arcade offerings. I want to laugh at them for being such useless bottom feeders, but no one else is even trying, so I feel they deserve my support... Such a quandry.

<Editorís note: the driving and gun games are made specifically for wal-marts in the US, which should tell you something.>

Sammy also didn't want anyone to take pictures of their gear, which seems odd at a show designed to get exposure. I was politely stopped after taking about 20 shots in their booth. Attentive they're not, but neither am I - I didn't notice the signs.

Sanwa and Seimitsu both had lovely arrays of buttons, sticks, trackballs and adaptors on display, and in a surprising twist they were available for sale as well. If I'd realized how much cheaper the show prices were than their online ones I'd have bought a lot more than thirty buttons, I assure you!

Why this event is open to the public is a mystery to me. The best theory I can come up with is they had to pay for three days and while they can justify the third day for packing up and going home, the second day is just wasted. A show this small wouldn't take a blind man two days to sort out, so I'm sure legitimate businesses would be done twice over on day one. So why not open it to the public? The hall was fairly crowded with families lining up to play the free crane games and take home a stuffed animal or six. The poor guys running the lock+key stand were grimly standing at attention trying desperately not to look like they weren't planning the pack-up-and-go-home phase in their heads over and over.

As a public event it's kind of a waste of ten bucks but maybe the kids get to press their nose against a display of stuffed animals from a prize distributor. As a video game event it's pretty depressing to see how small a priority video games actually are for the operators. It was worth it for me to see Chaos Breaker and buy some buttons, but I'd suggest anyone thinking to attend an AOU show in the future consider Disneyland instead. Or even staying home.

Lawrence is scared of clipboards.

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