I really hate the PSP. There's just so much to hate about it. I hate how covered it gets in fingerprints. I hate how ghosty the screen is. I hate how god-damned tiny the sound output is. I hate how the square button on my version 1.0 firmware PSP catches against the side of the screen so hard that it only registers the input maybe once in eleven button presses, thus rendering that particular PSP completely useless for running emulated Super Famicom games.
I hate the directional buttons, how my thumb can slip off without my noticing, and suddenly my on-screen self is not moving anymore.
(I hate the Xbox 360's directional pad as well, while we're on the subject. I mean, I understand that Nintendo apparently owns the patent to a cross-shaped directional key, right? Sony's method for getting around that -- splitting the directional pad into four distinct "buttons" -- is pretty ingenious. Microsoft's circular d-pad is awful. I used to hate when I was navigating my iPod song selection and I'd try to press down and the d-pad would register a left or a right. There was this one time this summer, during the menu screen for Zegapain, in which I missed a "down" input something like ten times in a row, prompting someone to ask "Are you drunk?")
I hate the UMD drive. I hate the way the power switch feels against my finger. I can feel its little plastic teeth massaging the calluses of my fingers. It feels like it's tying my skin into infinite hard knots on a molecular level. I hate how it takes like forty-five seconds to start up any game. The PSP becomes a dead weight in my winter coat pocket; when I'm on the train for just a few minutes, and the PSP's start-up time plus the amount of time it takes to load my saved data plus the loading that leads into the game -- that is to say, when the amount of time it takes me to get into the action in a game is a significant fraction of the amount of time I have to kill, I'm pretty likely to just stand around looking out the window at buildings and trees whipping by. Or else I'll flip open my cellular phone and browse mixi, a Japanese social networking site that's a lot like MySpace, except it works perfectly.
To tell you the truth, mixi is pretty great. The subtlest hook of it is that you can click on a little tab called "footprints" and view the screen names of the last thirty people to visit your page. Click their names to go to their page. Its effectiveness is psychology in motion. Say you have an ex-girlfriend, and you stumble upon her name. She's posting a comment on a blog by a person you know. You can click her name and see her page -- her latest photos, blog entries, CD reviews, community posts -- though if you do that, she'll see that you've been there. As a result, mixi is a mind-boggling civil internet community.
And when the girls do show up, they're usually just guys in offices in Kabukicho, guys with catcher's mitt tans and cubic zirconium studs in their noses, manufactured brush-applied paste-on "tough guy" stubble looking like a mudstain. Beehives of frosted, syruped hair on their heads, suits that will never be not three sizes too big. Shills, is what they are. For cellphone dating sites, working deep into the night. Basically, it's the yakuza lashing out angrily at the fading of one of their small, plastic glories. They used to run all of the mobile dating sites. They used to love it, too. They'd offer actual cash to any girls who joined the service -- you'd have to prove you were an actual girl by showing up at their office -- because the sites were so flooded with dudes, and a bunch of dudes get extremely angry if they're confined in a place without girls. See: prison. They get even angrier than dudes in prison if they're in a place where, quite frankly, girls are expected. The yakuza paid mobile dating sites don't ever promise girls, though you'd expect them, wouldn't you? Sometimes, desperate for a break, in need of something to keep the boss from chopping off pinky fingers left and right, these guys will come up with the nuttiest things. For example, they'll take a genuine girl's profile from the website and then duplicate it a hundred times with a hundred different names. They'll surf mixi and swipe a hundred photos of a hundred girls who are cuter than prostitutes: in other words, girls who are "good enough" for guys who would put out 3,000 yen a month for a chance of meeting girls for sex on a mobile messageboard.
There's a hell of a lot to it. It's a weird little inverse Ferris wheel is what it is: the higher up you go, the less of the world you can see. Any guy with a half a liter of self-respect floating in the soup of his gut can tell you that anything worth getting takes time. You spin your game. You say "What's up?" to ten girls, and just maybe one of them will reply with a "Not much." This action, what people sometimes call "spinning some game" never actually feels like a game. It merely feels like existing in the world. Games are about the weird disconnections more than anything else. About how pressing the X button makes character who looks nothing like me jump in one game, and makes a spaceship in another game fire a laser cannon. In real life, all of our buttons do the same thing. Likewise -- and I know what I've been told -- there are girls in the cold, dust-free filth of Kabukicho who will talk to you if you buy them a drink for the price listed on the sign board outside; they'll touch you if you buy an even more expensive drink. Keep paying, and who knows what might happen. Along with power and chocolate, money is a hell of an aphrodesiac, though seldom when it's being handed over in a brown envelope; fiction has taught every man, woman, and upper adolescent that women like to see men use money. There's no woman more beautiful than the one gripping a sexy man's bicep as he rolls dice at the craps table with a cool expression that snaps into an affable grin. This has been documented in both novels and films, so it simply has to be true. This is where the rules come from in a hostess bar; buy an expensive enough drink, and there's a contract -- written on a sheet of paper rubber-cemented to the bottom of each and every table -- that the girl will take your chivalrous disregard for the price of alcohol for what her bosses say it's worth, and she'll say she falls in love with you. Think of green card interviews satirized in pop-culture: the law never doubts love. A massive, sweating man in a polo shirt and cargo shorts, face frosted with stubble, hairline slowly working its way back home, sits next to a Russian woman with skin clean as a Saran-wrapped handkerchief, in a tube top the color of the sun as seen by a schizophrenic. And the man in a black tie asks, "Where did you meet?" The woman replies: "In St. Petersburg, we fell in love." Say it once, and it's legal to not believe it. Say it twice: "Where did you go on your first date?" "In St. Petersburg, we fell in love." And you've just signed a contract on the wind. In this world, the law don't ever doubt love if it's said twice. What it all comes down to -- the point I'm trying to preach, here -- is that everybody wants something. We certainly know what the guy is expecting when he puts down the money for a Million Yen Brandy. To him, spending the money is just about as much of a rush as what he's going to get when the evening is over.
You put this all into the internet and it becomes amazing. It becomes the GAME OF THE YEAR. You make this kind of courtship something you can do relatively for free (you will, of course, need a monthly cellular phone contract) from the comfort of a speeding train, and you might not feel like doing much else. It's more of a videogame than the best videogames. It's like a slot machine you enjoy even though you've never won -- it's like Metroid when you were a kid and rented it six times, never once getting anywhere in it. Instead of the black background and the blips and bloops of the videogame void, we have black text on a white background, and whatever music is on your iPod today. Why, with just mixi, one can write a blog entry in hopes of eliciting responses from female readers; since everyone is participating in this "game" together, since there are no "experience points" and "levels" aside from the intangible number of people you have reading your page and leaving footprints, everyone is equal. No one is put off. You can be honest with these people. It's a hang-out. And unlike an MMORPG -- or unlike that abomination Second Life -- there is no retarded facade thrown up in front of your eyes to convince you that what you're doing is worthwhile. I tell you, man -- I've watched people play World of Warcraft, and I've seen the oceans of the internet aflame with some people trying to convince other people that "You might enjoy it, really!" I tell you, man, that World of Warcraft is a teeth-only blowjob. It's a house made out of newspapers where all of the articles on the walls are about the same thing. "Dudes playing as orcs attacked some monsters and killed them yesterday at twelve-fifteen." People will tell me that girls play the game, too, and I don't doubt that. I am not sexist, and I will gladly admit that girls can be stupid, too. Yes, I'm calling MMORPGs things for stupid people. Please don't tell me I'm underestimating the players. I'm estimating exactly as much as I mean to, and exactly as much as I plan to. If you don't agree with me, that's quite alright -- I don't agree with you, either! Rather than gain levels in an imaginary world, I'd rather, I don't know, do push-ups and sit-ups? Run a couple of miles a day? I'd rather sit down on the sofa after a shower after a run and think, "I think I ran a little farther before getting tired today." I don't carry a stopwatch and I don't measure the distance of my run by anything except landmarks. When I want to "assemble a party" and go "challenge a quest", I call some friends and we sit around a restaurant talking about things like philosophy or politics or art or -- hey! -- videogames. You know, videogames where you solve problems, test your reflexes, and come off feeling like you've wasted your time with maximum efficiency. Games like New Adventure Island for PC Engine, or Super Mario Bros. 3, or something else you'd expect someone who looks like me to enjoy talking about these days. As guys who were the age I am twenty years ago were obsessed with The Beach Boys, so I am with Super Mario Bros. 3. There's a certain prolific goofiness that can't be nailed down. I'm not ashamed -- or, perhaps, I lack the common sense to realize how ashamed I should be -- that this is, pretty much, all I did when I was a child. That game gave me context for problem-solving, or something. No, no, it gave me context for nothing; it was simply well-made and it endowed me with a sense of achievement when I finished it. Notice, though, that you don't see any five-year-olds learning anything from World of Warcraft. Okay, to be fair, maybe that's because they're never leaving their houses. World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs seem to replace the grind of life -- that is, the grind with real consequences -- with a grind in a computer screen. I'd much rather go to punk shows, or the dentist. To stand or sit somewhere I can hear noises that are real (and electrically generated) and feel like something is happening. There's just no spirituality in what most people do with their computers.
This is why I'm trying to tell you about mixi. There's always a chance that something spiritual will come out of it. And then you peel back a layer, in the months after the right to explicitly solicit sex (for free) was torn from the citizens. You go to sexi, the community of sex-wanting refugees, and you find a just about even split between young horn-dog males and exceedingly oversexed young girls posting pictures of their breasts. The latter, with about 99% efficiency, according to my results, tend to always be being controlled by yakuza thugs in rumpled suits. They're trying to get you over to their paid dating services. They neeeeeed you over there! They knoooooow that you don't possess the active testosterone to shoulder-bump a girl in public and say hey, wanna fuck? They know what's wrong with how you're wired! So if you enter this website as a normal human being, and you rotate with your hands on your hips, arms-akimbo style in the middle of this Chinet ballroom we call internet dudes with erections, and you let a low slow growl roll out of your mouth, eventually you'll find a harmony. It might take, say, a couple weeks. A girl might appear before you. You tell her, what's up. She says, not much. You see that she uses her sexi blog to just cross-post her mixi blog entries. She doesn't write a ham-fisted account of her weekend beginning with the line "I masturbated in bed Saturday morning" and ending with "and then I realized I didn't have any condoms! Someone, save me!" Instead, she's talking about going to see a movie and eat lunch with her friend. What is she doing here, if she's not going to play by the rules? Lonely people are beautiful and fascinating and vigorously frightening. You'd behold both profiles -- in mixi, with the pastel orange borders, and in sexi, with the magenta borders -- identical in their written content, as a Dragon Quest fan would behold the new Akira Toriyama character designs. As in: they're par for the course. They're wholly expected. It's just so amazing that the effort was sustained.
The girl links to her mixi profile from her sexi profile; she doesn't link to her sexi profile from her mixi profile. This is situational poetry. Basically, it's saying that sometimes, simply by existing where you are, simply by standing where you're standing, you're telling everyone everything that you want them to know about you.
So, just last night, to seek material for this writing, I picked a girl at random on sexi -- a girl who was subtle-obviously a complete fake -- and sent her a message. She said she was looking for sex friends really badly because her desire was topping the charts. "Message me about sex pleeeeeeeeease." I emailed her, saying, "Hey. Do you like American guys? Are you free tomorrow? Let's meet in a super-public place where you would feel no girlish danger!" She replied, saying, "My name is Yuuki! You're interesting already! I think we're going to be great friends! I work at a clothing shop in Shinjuku!" She's needle-in-a-haystacking herself. Or, well, at least promising that there is a needle in this haystack. She continues: "I don't know if I could trust just any guy, though. Why don't you tell me your cellular phone email address? Just log on to this TOTALLY ABSOLUTELY COMPLETELY FREE website RIGHT NOW and enter your phone number and phone email address? Then look up my screen-name."
"Why do I need to use this website? Why can't you just, I don't know, ask me to write something on a sheet of paper, and then take a picture of myself holding the paper, with my face in plain view? I'll even tell you my cell phone email address right here in this email. If you don't want to tell me your phone mail address I'll set up a Yahoo! mail account and send the email there; I'll then tell you the user name and password. In fact, I already have such a Yahoo account I could use for such a purpose."
"I have no idea what you're trying to say! My friend ran into some trouble when meeting guys on the internet recently, and she said this website works! It guards against spam! Why don't you tell me your cellular phone email address? Just log on to this TOTALLY ABSOLUTELY COMPLETELY FREE website RIGHT NOW and enter your phone number and phone email address? Then look up my screen-name."
"Yuuki-san! You're very good with copying and pasting! Such a pretty young girl should spend less time learning about computers and more time doing her nails. Let me try some copying and pasting, too! Why can't you just, I don't know, ask me to write something on a sheet of paper, and then take a picture of myself holding the paper, with my face in plain view? I'll even tell you my cell phone email address right here in this email. If you don't want to tell me your phone mail address I'll set up a Yahoo! mail account and send the email there; I'll then tell you the user name and password. In fact, I already have such a Yahoo account I could use for such a purpose."
"Because I don't know if your Yahoo! account is real! It has to be this website! You're not playing fair!"
"How many people do you fool, usually? I mean, I know never to trust you people when you stress that something is free."
"I don't know what you're talking about! Look, here's the link again."
"It's three in the morning! This job must better than 7-Eleven, right?"
"I don't know what you're talking about! Look, here's the link again."
"Look, I know you're not real. Don't worry. I'm not going to tell anybody. I was just wondering if you could answer a few questions for an article I'm writing about internet culture and the receding hairline of organized crime."
"Fuck you. I'll fucking find you and tear your intestines out you piece of shit."
Wow! See? That is the insertcredit.com GAME OF THE YEAR, 2006, right there. And the point of this piece is that this is what adults do with their spare time: they toe lines. They drop nickels in slot machines, whether they're looking for sex or, like me, the postmodern thrill of having one's intestines threatened. There was a chance that girl could have been real. She was a slot machine. I didn't expect to win. I only go to Vegas to feel like I'm part of something, not to actually be part of something. There's a chance I could drop a nickel into that slot machine and go home crunkified with ice teeth and everything. It's just that, aside from being very improbable, it's just not something I think about. I derive more pleasure from a hot bath than many people could from skydiving. Feeling pleasure is something of a talent; I like to think I'm kind of talented at it. It does, unfortunately, tend to make me exceedingly angry about stuff I don't like, though hey. That's another one of life's so-called gambles. The faceless void is just another slot machine -- and it's not some videogame facsimile of a slot machine, where you can stop the wheels manually -- oh no. It's just one of those hopeless spinners. The wheels stop where they will. I ask a girl if she wants to have sex, and there's that small possibility she'll look at my web profile and think, "Yeah, why not" -- it's all in the timing. It's all about how exactly she feels at that exact time. Only I never think about it this much. I just plug away, wailing at that brick wall. I don't want the results either way. Yet, I fire off that missile into the void, and you know what? I feel like part of the world, somewhere, completely changes color, from black to white or orange to blue or what have you. These experiences turn up the contrast in this world I see out the window. And I can do this by staring at a device in the palm of my hand.
In other words a virtual slot machine of semantics that may miraculously result in actual sex is, at present, the number-one rival to portable gaming.
It may shock or frighten you to know that there are people who don't care for media consumption! People who don't even listen to music or play videogames or even watch movies! These are people who buy magazines with pictures of clothes, imagine themselves in the clothes, and then, without considering it much of an accomplishment at all, they buy the clothes and try to look like the people in the magazines. They get a thrill out of being looked at by people. These people would never buy a PSP, though they seem to be the kinds of people the PSP is marketed at. Three times this year, there have been fashion tie-ins for the PSP. The damned thing has been featured in fashion magazines -- once, most notably, in a gaudy pink patent leather case studded with horrific rhinestones. Some sort of prestigious fashion designer got paid to do that! Shit! It makes my skin crawl to think about it!
That the people who actually do use the PSP on the train are only using it to watch videos saved on their Memory Sticks, or else play ROMs, and that they only play the actual games at home, is kind of soul-crushing. It's morbidly fascinating, from a neutral market analyst's point of view. The number-one selling PSP game in 2006 was Gundam Battle Royale, a game in which Gundam giant robots punch each other; the number-two game was (I think) a port of a Gundam tactical game for PSOne. Other hits included other ports of other decade-old games, such as Valkyrie Profile -- now with added movie scenes! Toward the end of the year, Sony started offering selected PSOne games for download from the online PlayStation Store. They're about five hundred yen each, which seems like a good deal, until you consider that the controls are slightly messed up because the PSP lacks buttons that the PSOne controller had. There's a guarantee from Sony that "only games that we are confident are fully playable" will be released, though really. That's like admitting that compromises have been made. Just before the announcement of the downloadable PSOne games for PSP was made, Square-Enix at last lowered the prices on all of their hit games from the PSOne and PS2 eras. Finally, you can buy Final Fantasy IX for less than 8,000 yen! Only 2,000 yen, in fact. That Square-Enix is slowly rolling toward making the games available for download and play on PSP is a possibility. Man, there's so much to say about people milking something for money. It never gets old, and it never gets satisfying.
Let's talk about the creative endeavors, then. 2005 poisoned the way Japanese business people think about portable games: Nintendo's Brain Training was a fully qualified mega-success; meanwhile, Animal Crossing succeeded in selling the idea of "community gaming" to three million gamers in record time. So what did developers of third-party software for the PSP do? To put it simply, they shat all over the place. The PSP was a mildew-soaked, electrified graveyard of game concepts that had died and been buried (without being developed or released) during the brainstorming processes that led to Brain Training and Animal Crossing's qualified successes. How many god damned kanji training games do we need for the PSP? I mean, doesn't the DS make more sense -- if you're going to be learning to write Chinese characters, you might as well be doing it with the touch pen and a touch screen, right? PSP training games star, in addition to horrible loading times between questions, multiple choices where each choice is a button on the PSP. They use high-resolution hand-drawn graphics on that flickering screen that was so pretty at the wedding two years ago. They pump in digitally reproduced elevator music. Put in yur headphones, and now you can feel like you're in an elevator -- while you're in an elevator!
The most insulting, bowling-ball-handed game design of the year goes to Bandai-Namco for their twin terrors of Portable Island: Resort in the Palm of your Hand and Magic Taizen -- actually, the latter was for Nintendo DS.
Portable Island was a piece of brain shit. The developers cheeked it up during interviews, saying that the game's design staff were "Totally shocked!" when they ewre told they would be making a game with no goal. "How do you get extra lives, then?" the team members were asking, bewildered, the producers beamed during interviews. What a crock of shit. In interviews, they mentioned games from Xenosaga to Boku no natsuyasumi, ignoring the obvious influence of Animal Crossing -- the most successful "non-game" in recent Japanese history. Boku no natsuyasumi ("My summer vacation") is a cute little adventure game, with a story, with weight and merit, about a young boy in the 1970s, and a summer vacation where something happened. There are characters with personalities. In Portable Island, there are no personalities. The game is supposed to psychologically "relax" you. You can put it on a PSP Official Stand and play the ocean sounds through your headphones while you slam away at a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet that very seriously catalogs the phone numbers of everyone in the office in case they need to be reached in an emergency. It's Monday morning, and you're the boss -- open up that Lotus Notes and type up that email: "Dear all. It is excellent to be able to speak with you again. Please forgive me for leaving the office so early Friday, three-point-two seconds before everyone else. It was a pleasure simply being near you. I am contacting you all to ask that I might please perhaps be able to obtain your updated private telephone information. It will take the greater part of my day to coordinate this, so let's make it take as long as possible." Good thing you have your ocean sounds.
Basically, the game was an insult. It is not virtual reality and it is not the Holodeck on "Star Trek the Next Generation". It's just a tiny little window in to a fake world where you're dead-alone on a beach. That the producers possessed the gall to say that they like to think of the game as Boku no natsuyasumi "for adults" shows a reckless disregard for good taste. Boku no natsuyasumi is for adults already, you fucking jackasses. Why would a fucking kid want to play a game about being a kid on a summer vacation? He wouldn't get the point. The poetic beauty of Boku no natsuyasumi is that, unlike a game that lets men with bad haircuts pretend they're piloting giant robots (something they will never do in real life), it lets men with any haircut pretend they're a kid on summer vacation at his country home (something he might have actually done in the past). More than, say, any downloadable version of Super Mario Bros., Boku no natsuyasumi can invoke a feeling of nostalgia for something. Nostalgia for Super Mario Bros. -- what is that, really? Did Mario communicate anything worth communicating with us? Or did he just waste our time and poison our pop-culture tastes? We're all pixelantes to a certain extent; the challenge is getting old fat hipsters with unexplainable pompadours, who spent their formative years listening to their dad's Gershwin records to play Boku no natsuyasumi for PSP on the bus. That is to say, getting people who already care about art on some level, to care about videogames. People. We can't all go from Tetris Quilts to "Is Wanda art?" What we're doing is basically shitting in the reservoir of the future. I'll shut the fuck up if you will.
Then there was Sega's Homestar Portable for the PSP. Man. It was a PSP software based on a home aquarium so popular I saw it once for 500 yen in the Bic Camera bargain bin. You're looking at constellations on your PSP. What the fuck for! Do you look at that on the train, in the middle of your daily grind, and wish you were in fucking space?
The biggest insult comes in the form of an advertisement for Portable Island: to coincide with the game's summer release there was an ad on the doors of the Ginza subway line. A picture of a beach and the words "Sir, would you like a tropical island?" Beneath was the slogan: "On Portable Island, it's always summer." Yeah, it's also always summer on a fucking actual tropical island.
The gall! The bullshit! The balls! This is what keeps getting vomited out onto the PSP. David Jaffe, producer of God of War, recently had some interesting words to say about downloadable online games being the future -- about their being "pop songs" as opposed to wannabe operas. This wasn't a bad thing for him to say! Now if only many hands could put much money where many mouths are, maybe PSP would be able to ditch the fucking UMD crutch and become a personal player of pop songs. I really mean it. Sony wants the PSP to be the "New Walkman"? Please. The iPod is the new Walkman, jackass. The best you can do is make the new iPod. Make something compact and inviting, with a nice directional pad, buttons that press in all the way, a brilliant screen (keep the size, please), some actual sound output capabilities (yes, I've turned off the Automatic Volume Limiter System (AVLS! They have a trademarked acronym for it! Shit!) and some gigabytes of internal flash memory. Please. That way, I won't have to weep, as I did thrice this year, when a staggeringly awesome game is released on PSP and I wouldn't dare touch it with a fourteen-foot pole.
Of course, I ended up touching them, with fifteen-foot poles. (Or, well, that's how it feels to control anything with a PSP.) There was Brave Story, by Game Republic, with a scenario based on a film based on a manga based on a novel by novelist Miyuki Miyabe, one of Japan's most prolific and versatile writers of modern fiction. Miyabe is so fond of videogames, in fact, that she wrote a novel based on the game ICO, and has been eager to work on a videogame ever since. Brave Story is pure sixteen-bit RPG, grounded firmly in the flavor of late 1980s sub-Disney animation. ("Sub-Disney" is an extreme compliment in this case.) Just as in the film's (and manga's, and novel's) story, you're a young boy from the modern age with an injured female in your life. (In the movie it's the boy's mother; in the game, with a slightly original story, it's a female friend who suddenly falls into a coma.) In order to CHANGE YOUR DESTINY, you are spirited away to a fantasy world where the citizens refer to strange fallers from the sky as "Travellers" -- who come into the fantasy world and are always heading in the same direction. There's a subtle poetic undertow to the story. It pulls you in. And Yoshiki Okamoto, who crafted Street Fighter II and Onimusha, manages to take an old-school turn-based battle system and make it pretty amazing. Basically, you get a "brave" modifier if you continue to attack uninterrupted. This means that any character who attacks continuously will see incremental increases to the amount of damage he does. Break the chain by using an item or defending, and the modifier drops away. This sounds very simplistic, and it is -- in extended battles, however, it works amazingly. The music is pure Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda rip-offage, and it just shines. We here at insertcredit.com call it the best sixteen-bit role-playing GAME OF THE YEAR, 2006.
Sadly, I stopped playing the game when, after saving and turning it off and leaving the PSP untouched (and plugged into the recharger) for a week, I came back to the PSP and flipped the POWER switch, and felt that bad bad bad knotty feeling in my index fingertip, and shivered. The screen flicked back on. There I was in that town. The PSP had been asleep for a fucking week. What the hell! How long do you have to hold that god damned switch down to actually turn the PSP off, anyway! It felt too creepy to finish the game from that point.
Another epicly awesome game was Taito's Chronicles of Dungeon Maker. I'm too lazy to write about this right now, so I'll just cut and paste something I wrote about it for a feature I got paid for. About 90% of this was cut out of the final printed version. Take a look:
"Square Enix's Akitoshi Kawazu, producer of the SaGa series of games, once semi-famously commented during an interview that Taito's game EXIT is exactly the kind of game developers need to make in order for the PSP to actually entertain people. EXIT is a simple game of brain-teasing, involving a slick little presentation and simple goals: rescue people from obstacle-filled buildings within a time limit. Judging by the swarms of ill-executed brain training games (there must be a half a dozen games teaching players how to write kanji (Chinese characters)) and who-cares PSOne remakes released on the PSP in 2006, the message doesn't seem to be getting through. Attempts to use the PSP as a universally-appealing entertainment device capable of displaying universally-appealing characters, such as Sony Computer Entertainment's LocoRoco, have ultimately fallen quite short in depth. LocoRoco was expected to be a huge hit with girls, for example. Was it, really? The PSP is currently something of a moldy graveyard for game design. It's getting a little embarrassing.
In comes Taito's Chronicles of Dungeon Maker. Together with EXIT and Heaven's Will (a dark dungeon-hack RPG set in a futuristic prison), it's the third original series Taito has created for PSP. And, wonder of wonders, it's also the third wonderful videogame they've made for the system. And, um, the third wonderful videogame on the system.
What is Chronicles of Dungeon Maker? It's hard to describe in a few words. For starters, it has amazing box art. Secondly, it's an RPG geek's nightmare -- if, by "Nightmare", you mean "a terrible dream that you will enjoy telling your friends about for years to come".
In this game, you play as a single hero, heading into a dungeon. The dungeon is only one room in size. You choose which way the dungeon tunnels are dug. You have to find the pre-placed exit. You carve out rooms, and move forward. When the in-game clock advances to late in the day, you head back to town and sleep. In the morning, you head back to the dungeon. On the way to the dungeon, you can buy supplies at stores. Put new curtains in a room in the dungeon, and it might change the mood. The next morning, maybe there will be monsters in that room. Kill them to earn money and experience. Use the money to buy new items and weapons; maybe put weapons in treasure chests for future use. Use the experience points to get stronger, and survive at deeper levels.
Sound monotonous? It is, kind of. Yet there's the hook -- you aren't merely moving forward in the dungeon. You're moving forward AND backward. You are entering, penetrating, and then leaving a dungeon of your own design. This means that the traps you lay are no mystery to you -- and that you obviously can't make roads impassable, because then you can't get out. In other words: your dungeon is fully playable by another player. This is where the game's Ad Hoc dungeon-trading function comes into play. Your friends' dungeons have names, and are permanently placed on your world map as "ancient ruins."
It's almost an exercise in amateur psychology, to see what kind of dungeon your friend made. To see how deep it goes. To see simple trap placement and think, "that seems like something he would do." To see how many megabytes it is in size.
The only complaint I can summon about this game would have to be that I'd enjoy it much better on DS, if the DS had some kind of flash storage built in to store the dungeons of friends. That way, maybe I'd have more friends willing to play this game with me. Oh well -- one of the more underrated games of the year. Taito, please feel free to continue making games with such a spirit in the future."
Actually, here's how it was ultimately printed:
"Play as a single hero, heading into a dungeon. Choose which way the dungeon tunnels are dug. Kill monsters to earn money and experience. Use the money to buy new items and weapons; maybe put weapons in treasure chests for future use. Use the experience points to get stronger, and survive at deeper levels.
Sound monotonous? It is, kind of. Yet there's the hook -- you're entering, penetrating, and then leaving a dungeon of your own design. This means that the traps you lay are no mystery to you. Your dungeon is playable by another player. Your friends' dungeons have names, and are permanently placed on your world map as "ancient ruins."
See what kind of dungeon your friend made. To see how deep it goes. To see simple trap placement and think, "that seems like something he would do.""
Yes. Yes. Look out. We've got experts working in this industry. Beware.
At any rate, yeah Chronicles of Dungeon Maker is definitely the insertcredit.com PC GAME OF THE YEAR 2006
Heaven's Will . . . well, we're not going to talk about that. I was thinking of writing a review of that one, actually. It's got some grand flaws that make it wonderful.
The best PSP GAME OF THE YEAR 2006, though, was definitely Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner. Here's what I wrote about it for another source; I won't paste the way it was edited, because, well. That'd just be depressing:
"In 2004 and 2005, many esteemed veteran Japanese videogame developers grew suddenly upset with the current, money-grubbing state of their industry, grew full of artistic desire, and ran away from their life contracts to start their own studios. Most famous among them is Hironobu Sakaguchi, who fled Square Enix to start Mist Walker, and took half of the development staff of Final Fantasy XII with him. Another big one was Yoshiki Okamoto, mastermind of Street Fighter, Megaman, and Onimusha, who left Capcom to form Game Republic. His Genji on PlayStation 2 was a bit of a moneymaker; a cute little hardcore action game wrapped in ingenious premise, underappreciated because it also offered the player an opportunity to enjoy it as mainstream entertainment. Sakaguchi has just released Blue Dragon, and will soon release Lost Odyssey, two crushing RPGs for the Xbox 360; Okamoto's Game Republic is hard at work on Monster Kingdom: Unknown Realms (do not blame him for how much Genji 2 on PS3 sucks) for PlayStation 3.
When one examines what exactly Monster Kingdom: Unknown Realms for the PS3 is, perhaps the most poignant story or a runaway Japanese game developer comes to life: Kouji Okada, creator of the Megami Tensei series, has left Atlus -- a company he founded -- to start GAIA, a company devoted to making new IPs on various systems. His first major effort (after an unknown game for mobile phones) was Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner for the PSP.
So, wait -- why is Okamoto making the sequel to Okada's game? Consider it a friendly rivalry. One could say that Okada and Okamoto (whose names both start with the same kanji, meaning "Hill") are dead set on establishing a new series on par with Namco's "Tales of" series. Only Monster Kingdom, judging by its first installment and luscious screenshots of its sequel, is set to be on an entirely different level of artistry.
The PS3 game will be an action-adventure; the PSP game is a rather simple monster-collecting RPG a la Pokemon with a much heavier story. Players control multiple party members, each of whom has a small selection of monsters to use. The dungeons are big and vibrant; the dialogues are fully voiced and sometimes amusing. It winds up to a nice climax.
Most interesting, however, is Okada's decision to recruit no less than ten renowned game music composers to score the soundtrack. Most notable are the two lead soundtrack producers Yasunori Mitsuda (who exuded virtuoso with Chrono Cross and commanded the London Philharmonic with Xenosaga) and Hitoshi Sakimoto (who also scored the acclaimed Final Fantasy XII this year). Greats such as Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Super Mario RPG) and the master Kenji Ito (SaGa) were also hand-picked for composing, and not a single track feels wasted or wrong.
Okada looked within the videogame industry and invited composers whose work he personally enjoyed. He said in interviews that the multiple-composer soundtrack was "precisely the kind of idea" that Japanese videogame executives would perfunctorily shoot down to keep a project "simple". The reasons why are certainly comprehensible; still, in execution, I have to say the idea shines through as genius, and that this kind of thinking is quite encouraged. We need more guys devoting themselves to the finer qualities of a game experience."
Man. I feel kind of like a fool when I read over that. Hell, I feel a lot like a fool. Look at all the nonsense I write on my free time, and look how I clean up for money. I had half the intention to drag this out, and bring this all back around to sex. I was going to seamlessly integrate a description of Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner into a reprise of the mixi/sexi dating site thing. I was going to say that, when you're dealing with the PSP, it's not about portable media so much as it's about the bigger picture -- thinking in terms of all of the air molecules that graze the outside of the box, not about the box itself, or even what's inside it. It's about providing interesting entertainment. I was going to talk about the 1seg device for Nintendo DS, which expands the DS's reception to something like miles. You can play Pokemon online, and voice chat with a friend in Bali, while riding the bus. You can browse the internet -- and though Nintendo is peculiar about not letting you voice chat outside of any voice-chat supporting games (they owe a duty of respect to the cellular phone companies, see), this is still starting to look like the future. If portable gaming is to be the future, we need some hardcore entrepreneurial jerk-like beings to strut in with tons of money and make a gaming device with a pre-installed devoted fanbase and huge balls. The PSP, really, could have been that. Coming soon, you can use it to browse your PS3's hard drive while you're out of the house! Only -- you need to be both out of the house and near a wireless internet connection. Also, even if you access music stored on your PS3's hard drive, how are you going to hear it with that shitty sound output? It's fucking madness is all that it is. Ditch the UMD, make the unit slick and iconic, like an iPod, and use it to sell the god damned PS3. Let the two machines support one another! Make a better screen! Buttons that work! Then, when games like Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner show up, it'll feel good and right to talk about them in public places.
The other tangent I was planning involved talking about a SECRET DOCUMENT I saw for Jewel Summoner, in which the main character is described as being "wary of the world, introspective, and introverted" because "this kind of character is very popular with middle and high school students." Also, "the main characters bicker and argue constantly in a realistic fashion" -- that one's a doozy, I mean it. I was planning to tear this tangent off and say that if the corporate "Executive Producers" of Jewel Summoner wanted the game to be something of a Pokemon for "grown-ups", they should have put some sex in it. Let the main character have sex with the girl once or twice. To wit, NANA, the most popular manga in Japan right now, is both suitable for sixteen-year-old girls and features sex that isn't disgusting in any way on the second page.
Then I was going to make some "non-sequitir" comment about how the real "Pokemon for adults" is called "hitting on girls at bars". "Hey baby what's up with you." (No question mark.) The Pokeball thrown. "Fuck you loser." (No comma.) The Koffing breaks free! In between Pokemon and this, that is, in between a cartoony, happy videogame and a smoke-stinking reality, we should probably put some standardized education. What I'm saying is that I am honestly of the mind that a public school class that teaches sixteen-year-old guys how to treat girls on a date would probably hold better long-term benefits than a game like Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner, bitching as the music is. (Every track has a perfect three-minute pop song quality!)
Yet I still enjoyed the game enough to play it for forty hours, and its "sequel" Monster Kingdom: Unknown Realms (confusingly similar to Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom, yes -- no worries, though, because I think Monster Kingdom will actually be good) is my number-one most-wanted game for the first half (uh . . . actually, quarter) of 2007. The main character is a guy with glasses and long hair and a trench coat! He's a freelance journalist! He "writes an occult column for a third-rate magazine"! And he will battle monsters -- in the spirit realm. And it will have amazing music. If nothing else, it'll be something to do when I'm not on the bus. In the dead of winter, the idea of waking up in the morning to shave in a frigid bathroom in front of a steamy mirror is pretty insulting. I don't want to get on the bus or the train. I want to stay home. Maybe that's my problem with portable gaming -- I only play portable games when I'm on the way to work, and I never feel good on the way to work. By principle, you see. I want quality games and a blanket. Or else air-conditioning in the summer, or an open window in the spring. Even so, well, I suppose I could carry my PSP someplace pleasant.
Oh. Wait. Any place I carry my PSP becomes an unpleasant place.
[next: expansion and descent]