This girl who would move to Egypt not five weeks later was sitting on her bed, feet flat on the floor, in a pink Indian cotton bathrobe reading a magazine-like book about low-sugar diets that her mother had bought for her father. Her father was a diabetic. That didn't explain why his daughter fifty-six minutes down the train line (and thus fifty-six minutes closer to Tokyo) had the magazine-like book about sugar-free diets that his wife had bought for him. The girl was eating a tangerine as big as a small apple. Her hair was squeezed up with a tiny little jaw clip in the middle of her head. It had two rhinestones on each side. If she was in the low, concrete-walled shopping bunker of Sunshine City in Ikebukuro, where we used to wander when we hadn't yet touched one another, she'd have been the kind of person to stop in at the Claire's Boutique. Aren't those shops for little American girls still in elementary school? This girl I knew told me she was twenty-five, though later casually admitted she was only twenty-one. She was kind of gangly tall, with long fingers. If you saw her from behind with your head at the proper downward angle, you'd have thought she was attractive. She was a secretary, and would wake up to the sound of bicycles grinding on their brakes down the hill outside her window. She had a balcony that looked across the hill street to another balcony. She put Jennifer Lopez MDs on the stereo late at night and chewed apple slices in time, with the window open. The bobbing of her head while she read a book or a magazine was so appealing that I never dared to educate her about music. How did I know I was right, anyway? The thing about music, you see, is that everyone has good taste in music, so long as there's anything that they like. This girl didn't have time to question what she liked and what she didn't, maybe. If the music was part of her routine, it was part of her routine. She did her nails at night. She owned a foam-rubber toe-seperator. She would wake up at six in the morning to brush her teeth (two years before, I heard, she'd equipped speed braces to straighten them out), meticulously do her hair, and then put on her sharp business suit. It was a black jacket, a black skirt, and a white shirt. She had nice breasts. I'm sure the white-haired, steel-faced men in her office appreciated it when she showed up with white earbuds in her ears every morning. I'm sure they liked when she brushed the hair away from her ears and popped those earbuds out. Her room was quite small -- carpeted like a music classroom in a high school built after 1991 -- and always smelled like potpourri she imported from Oregon, though only accidentally (her yakuza-owned company imported the funniest things). She kept her suit in a garment bag on the wall by her bed. In the bottom of the garment bag is also where she kept the condoms. She and I didn't spend so very long together, though I can still recall the muscle memory of reaching up there. On Monday mornings, she would sit in the middle of the bed while I squinted -- she'd chosen that apartment because the window faced north, which offered an optimum angle of sunlight in the morning for an early riser -- in her pressed suit and perfect makeup and perfect hair, feet flat on the floor, eating a bowl of yogurt with bran flakes crushed in. She would silently chew and stare at the turned-off television. On Saturdays, she'd wake up at six and sit there in her bathrobe in the same posture, staring at the bottoms of her eyes in a handheld mirror. When I awoke, she'd ask me if I wanted some yogurt and cereal, and I'd say sure, and she'd tell me where it was. It was never in the same place. Around eleven in the morning, she would announce she wanted to go to the local housewares store and look at puppies.
"If someone doesn't adopt this chihuahua before he grows up, do they just throw him away?"
She was never as talkative as she was when she was around the puppies.
One Saturday, as we're sitting on her bed in sleeping outfits, not a week before the beginning of March, her with an empty yogurt bowl and me with a full one, she stepped out of character.
"I was thinking of going to Akihabara today," she said, in the most formal tone.
"Oh yeah? Wh . . . why?"
"I was thinking of getting a Gameboy Micro? The thing Kimura Kaera is playing on the TV commercial? It has Super Mario Bros. on it. It's very tiny."
"Oh. Oh. Kimura Kaera, huh."
Kimura Kaera -- or, uh, Kaera Kimura -- is / was (maybe was? no new single for a while) a musician of sorts. A young girl with pseudo-punkish fashion and a habit of actually using guitars in her stuff. That might make her sound like Avril Lavigne, I don't know. She was a bit different. She didn't sing about retarded shit and she didn't try to look or even act wild and/or crazy. She was a down-to-earth teenage girl who produced bouncy, bitterish 21st-century pop music in the late-1960s jangle style. She made a small splash with a self-produced song in late 2005, and had admitted in interviews that her most-respected muscian was none other than Tamio Okuda, former frontman of legendary Japanese pop-rock group Unicorn. Hey. He's one of my favorites, too. Tamio Okuda, after busting up Unicorn, went on to a solo career, and shortly after the start of this solo career (which continues even today), he announced he wanted to play guitar in a girl pop-rock band. The girls would, of course, sing his new songs, with which he would attempt to subvert the habits of modern female Japanese speech (he wanted them to feel more comfortable using male first-person pronouns -- a noble quest). He put out a casting call, and ended up with two girls -- Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura. That is, Ami and Yumi, who would be called "Puffy", and then "Puffy Amiyumi" many years later, when sued by a guy who calls himself P. Diddy, which sounds really silly. I mean, he wasn't even calling himself "Puffy" anymore. And I mean come on, it's just an adjective. Still, I guess hip-hop stars get murdered via handgun more than any other genre of musicians, so you probably wouldn't want to tease them too much by using their obsolete nicknames. Tamio's work with Puffy was pretty great. You can hear some really excellent guitar on their first three LPs. If you love a good hollow body electric twang-smack, you're in luck. Eventually, though, drummer Andy Sturmer took over and started producing really sugary shit, which somehow swam upstream to America. For fuck's sake. Tamio Okuda went on solo, and at one point in the summer of 2005 played a three-hour (!) acoustic live session to a sold-out baseball stadium in his hometown of Hiroshima. The stage was, of course, the pitcher's mound. Apparently, Kaera Kimura was in attendance. Hey. She was putting out some music and saying she liked Tamio Okuda, probably just for street cred purposes. Hey. When the streets are as crowded as they tend to be in Japan, the cred usually revolves around guys who can sell 70,000 tickets simply by promising to bring only an acoustic guitar. What ended up happening was, Tamio Okuda became her producer and guitarist. I wonder if that was supposed to happen. So yeah, she was on a Gameboy Micro commercial early in 2006, this deal that was supposed to be like captured with a hidden camera. It was in kind of over-saturated color. She was sitting on a sofa at a popular cafe in Shibuya. Unicorn's final single, 1994's "Subarashii Hibi" ("Spectacular Days" -- and a spectacular song -- off the "Springman" LP, which had a cover drawn by Parappa the Rapper artist Rodney Greenblat) was jangling airily in the background, piped out of what sounded like a countertop radio boombox. Ambient noise buzzed. The din of a cafe. The hand of an off-camera man plunked a Gameboy Micro onto the plush coffee table / ottoman hybrid. Kaera Kimura picked it up with a "what's this?" Purposely messy editing snapped to show her going "Oh my god -- is that Super Mario in there?" "What the heck?" "Man this thing is tiny" "Man this thing is great". She had a real personality for it. It all looked so not fake that it was obviously fake. At the DS's launch, Nintendo had used pop idol Hikaru Utada, who speaks fluent English because she went to Columbia University (that's the legend handed up through these current generations, at least). Earlier in 2006, and then later, Nintendo had made and would make use of Nanako Ohshima, a dramatic actress, to similarly tout Brain Training, More Brain Training, and then New Super Mario Bros., all from the comfort of what might be her actual living room (and then bedroom). While Sony was showing artsy, flat-falling angles of girls on buses playing with Toro on PSP, Nintendo had a mature, bona-fide gorgeous woman, who could stand in a criminal lineup of supermodels and have "That's her! That's the one!" screamed by at least three out of ten witnesses (in the world of beauty, this is a miracle percentage) being utterly, naturally amused (probably fakely) by their lifestyle software on their soon-to-explode handheld gaming device. Every girl Nintendo used -- the point of this paragraph -- had a rich back-story, had led a very real life, had been involved in scandals that were not scandals (was Kimura dating the much, much older Okuda? why was Utada getting so fat? don't get me started on Nanako?), and were all simply beautiful, down-to-earth-seeming people. I tell you, some of these Japanese girls they put on television these days. They're the new classic Greek sculpture, arms pre-broken-off, these TV commercials. They're better than videogames.
Somehow, it was around this time, in this tight vortex, this hot knot in the universe called this girl who'd move to Egypt's apartment, that the world started to change in Japan. Her announcement that she wanted to go to Akihabara triggered it. "So. Let's go to Akihabara. We can just ride the Keihin-Tohoku Line straight there, right?"
She'd never gotten off at the station before. She put on a sky-blue zip-up hoodie and a pair of deliciously tight jeans. I put on my jeans, my fruit-pink XFm T-shirt, and my new leather jacket. We were a couple of ordinary people getting on an ordinary train. She didn't seem scared at all of where we were going. We shared an orange-flavored Canada Dry gingerale. Man, it was a really nice day. Benevolently overcast. It wouldn't end up raining.
Why Akihabara, though? Why not go somewhere else? We could have bought her a Gameboy Micro in the department store in her hometown of Akabane. Or we could have gone to an electronics store in Ikebukuro, just two train stops away. (Akabane has convenient access to both the east and west sides of central Tokyo.) Well, I guess it's a Japanese nuance thing. She wanted to go to Akihabara, because that was the place people go to buy videogames. It's a cliche, yeah. Still, it was her cliche, and everyone's cliche. At a point, cliches become social responsibility. I guess this started a long time ago. One ramen shop opened in Ikebukuro, and got popular enough for people to line up. Then another ramen shop opened up close by, hoping to catch some of the customers who got tired of waiting in line. It kind of worked. That second shop eventually folded. Then a third shop tried, and people liked it better than the first shop. See, it took confidence in his ramen for that chef to open his shop near such a highly renowned one. The confidence paid off. People liked this new ramen better. And so the war began, and so, today, there are over a dozen ramen shops competing for elbow-room on that street. Akihabara kind of got started the same way, except no one there cooks videogames. There are comic and toy shops as well, though the rumor goes that the place got started because of do-it-yourself stereo component shops. I guess there's a ramen-like nuance in running a stereo component shop. You can't make heads or tails of an order form without a hell of a lot of studying, I guess. I sure as hell wouldn't know what to do with a stereo component order form, even if I was making just one stereo for myself.
We get to Akihabara, and I walk her down the street, past the Club Sega arcade and a bunch of shops where men with Microphones are screaming because it's been documented somewhere that doing so isn't a terrible way to sell things. If you go into the Yodobashi Camera super store in Akihabara, you'll see guys on ladders, with megaphones, screaming. The goal is to evoke something of an auction-house atmosphere. Only there's a lot of noise. The guy with the megaphone might not even be putting together actual words. Seriously, it takes some actual skill to be an auctioneer. You have to be actually pronouncing everything or there could be some serious liabilities. You're like a tennis chair umpire, except you're playing with lives, and bank accounts. At least in an auction house there's only one guy screaming. In the Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara there are a good two dozen on each floor. I was at that Yodobashi on the day it opened, and those guys were there, on ladders, in bright-colored kimono shirts, shouting into plastic megaphones. The most common thing for a store employee to shout at a customer in Japan is "Irasshaimase!", which means, clearly, "Come in!" I mean, I'll be browsing jeans, and there'll be a guy folding shirts a meter away, and he'll keep shouting that at me, even if I'm the only guy in the store. I mean, hell, man, I'm already in your store! Stop telling me to come in! I wouldn't take an issue with such semantics -- by the way -- if, you know, the Japanese ever resorted to, I don't know, using, like, idioms for everyday conversation. Or, at least, using metaphors or other distilling verbal agents in their idioms. Then again, if "Come on in!", when shouted forcefully (or pleasantly -- some places go for that archaic vibe, yeah) to a person who is already inside the store is what the Japanese consider an idiom, then it is a situational idiom, which makes it its own unique and beautiful snowflake.
To this girl, though, the shouting was obnoxious and irrelevant. Plastic speakers that looked like gas cans sat duct-taped and blaring on the street of that gray-skied day, and not a single word got through to anyone. Is the idea of such sales tactics that you annoy and disgust enough people to have them stop in their tracks and think about setting yoru store on fire, and then they look and say, "Hey, off-brand keyboards for a hundred yen!" I tell you, Tokyo is at once the quietest and the loudest place on earth, in every way possible.
"Let's go inside somewhere," she said. We went into my favorite store, a place called Furuhon Ichiba -- we call it "The Good Store". It's in a building called Akiba Place. Around last February, it was easy to get up to The Good Store. All you had to do was press the elevator button. Good Store is on the fifth floor. Now, though, they put two Japanese-style scream-off nude-clown-rodeo-like low-ceilinged restaurants in there, one on floor two and one on floor three, so that businessmen in suits precisely the right size can sit indian-style after-hours and drink and bleat and honk one another's noses and eventually stand in front of the elevator arguing for three fucking minutes about who gets in first. The elevator arrives on the ground floor as packed with suits and sweaty bodies as a sausage is packed with meat molecules. On the way up to the fifth floor -- if this is after, like, six PM -- the elevator stops on the second floor and a drunk man with wet gray hair will clutch his neck and spasm while another guy slaps him hard on the back and tells him not to fuck with elevator buttons, because it's not nice. Since the elevator took a fucking half a year to get down to the ground floor, it's obviously filled to the gills with men who look like they love used comic books. The men in suits argue for a little bit. One says, let's just get in the elevator and ride it all the way up and then down! The other says no! Yet he's got his foot in the elevator door anyway. You try to press the button to close the doors, and fuck! You have to deal with this every time you want to go to the good store. Where do these guys come from? Kanda? That's a station away. I always notice that the individuals who are grimmest of face get off the Ginza Line at Kanda. Maybe they take taxis to this place. I guess it doesn't bother them that it's beneath a love-hive of videogames, what smells like a new car and everything, 24/7/365 (the 24 indicates, yes, that it smells like a new car even when people aren't in there, that is, during hours when it is closed). I guess it doesn't bother them, then, that they're in Akihabara. I guess, then, for all the raging there might have been over the last couple of years, about Japan's culture becoming composed entirely of otakus -- a terrible way to put it (an even more terrible one being the weird little bloom of girly writings about how marrying an otaku might "soon become the only choice") -- might have been for nothing.
Akihabara is changing; the Yodobashi superstore was the proposed coup. It has videogames, and toys, yes; though it also has a beautiful, large Tower Records, and a wonderful bookstore. A huge bookstore, even! I love that bookstore like an adopted kid brother who wants a soccer ball for his birthday. There's a restaurant keep on the upper floor, and a golf shop, too. The games are on floor five, a suitable place for them. The place is like a cruise ship that doesn't go anywhere -- and why would you want it to go anywhere? I mean, it's already in the best city in the world (lol).
The swiftest motion in the redefinition of Akihabara would have to be the new station exit. See -- Yodobashi rose from one of those Perpetual Construction Sites (PCS) that just hover behind all the train tracks of the world, forcing people to wonder what's going to happen there, if anything at all. It was a triumphant arrival. Not only would it be the largest electronics super store in the world (beating out a Bic Camera in Osaka -- Bic is planning a retaliation, and Yodobashi is planning a re-retaliation), it would also stand directly above Tsukuba Express Akihabara Station, the terminal stop for the Tsukuba Express, the fastest commuter-class electric train on the face of the earth. On the TX, one can travel from Tsukuba, the proud home of the Japan space project and a research institute that is, in truth, working on giant robotics, past bending trees and far off lonely cityscapes into a low black tunnel and eventually Akihabara, home of stereo components and videogames. Tsukuba is where the dreams of what Japan would be were born. There is even a city on the way to Tsukuba, I kid you not, with the Japanese word for "Future" in its name. Akihabara is, well, what Japan ended up being. There are no two more fitting cities in the world to connect on one train line. Or so one could argue. Yet as of late, Akihabara faced a great divide. Weird things started happening. Weird trends starting being born. Things were going so well for a while -- videogames and electronics. Computer and stereos. Used books. Then these . . . maid cafes started showing up. Places you can go sit for a little bit of money, and have a girl in a home-made (or else mass-produced to seem home-made) maid outfit serve you coffee or tea and call you "Master" and "Sir". There were maybe two of these in Akihabara prior to 2003. Now the damned things are all over the place. It's true, yeah, what some people would try to tell you -- some of these people are indeed slipping away from themselves. Some of them are going nuts. All they can think about is pretending they were something else. There is a pre-established kind of bearing customers need to carry into the places, as well. You must be as polite (or, if not polite, at least socially inept and creepy) to the maid as she is to you. There is simply no tolerance for over-the-top, boisterous role-playing. You mustn't clomp your booths down on the table and say "Your master was chased through the desert forty miles by rapscallions last evening! Coffee or tea won't do -- you bring a cold glass of water, or I'll see that head shaved!" You'd probably get lisped at by the manager until your face turned magenta and you were back on the street, forgetting your umbrella. So yeah, in a nutshell, this is kind of the problem -- and joining the problem, also in the same nutshell, is the rather overflowing overappreciation of hand-drawn little girls with elephantized breasts, or else no breasts at all. There's a word they put on it; I guess it's called "moe", and I don't want to get into any arguments about it. You'll see it on posters -- girls can be dressed up as nuns or pixies, and they're all saucer-eyed and meant to evoke a feeling of "I'd give all I could to protect her" in a passing male with no desire to, well, talk to people. Hey, there's nothing wrong with not wanting to talk to people. You avoid a lot of fuckin' bullshit that way. So long as you got income and discretion, and so long as you're not chopping people to bits, do your best to go wild, jack. Akihabara, though, man -- you see posters of these girls, moist with indiscernable liquid, all over the place. If the maid cafes are the cup, moe is the funnel. That is, if you exit the Electric City Exit of the train station. The backside of Akihabara Station, where there'd been a portapottyful construction going on for something like six years, sprouted into a new, grand ballroomesque atrium in light of the opening of the Tsukuba Express and the Yodobashi Camera. On one day in August 2005, the face of Akihabara changed, all thanks to semantics: the exit is called "Akihabara Station Central Entrance". Semantically, Akihabara has turned its back on the bullshit. It wasn't a week before two 7-Elevens opened up. Man, they should make TV dinners of those things. Heat it up in your microwave, and you can turn your apartment into a 7-Eleven in fifteen minutes. Man, they should make a 7-Eleven-themed love hotel. They have ones done up like train cars. I'd pay at least sixty bucks for three hours with a girl in a realistic convenience store. Man, I should work in marketing. Wait, I already do. Oh hell. Why am I not actualizing this stuff? It'd be tough to explain to the stone-faced, white-haired old men who run Japanese Business that we'd just have to trust our customers not to shoplift the real merchandise in the convenient store, or else not to go out of the way to splurt their bodily fluids onto it. I'd probably end up eating lunch alone the day I gave that presentation. Then again, my tactful, slow-burning presentation about how cellular phone companies should just let the old generation die without learning of the joy of technology instead of making their mobile phone interfaces easy to use for old people did win quite a vicious round of applause and even an invitation to go out and get hookers. So hmm.
Then again, you know, back then, that is, back in February 2006, things were starting to turn. Akihabara Station may have turned its back on the more maniacal side of Japan's technological heritage (that is, videogames), and may have been pointing toward the frozen north and the giant robots of the future, though the videogames, very subtly, hadn't given up on the people. The Brain Training games and the non-game Animal Crossing had captured many non-gaming Japanese hearts late in 2005; early 2006 was giving birth to a swell in demand. So yeah. This girl wanted a Gameboy Micro, though when she actually tried to hold one in her hands, she found it uncomfortable. Maybe this is because the Nintendo-sanctioned demo units required the damned thing to be bolted to a hulking metal harness that holds the unit steady at roughly an adult female's stomach level, which is too far a distance to see that postage-stamp-sized screen even if you don't consider the fact that the Gameboy Micro is hovering over a three-foot-wide endcap of copies of Super Mario Bros.. I tell you -- the Famicom Mini Gameboy version of Super Mario Bros. had been the number-one game in Japan for several weeks after the Gameboy Micro hit. It was nuts -- a port of a game that had been first released 20 years ago, which had been released in portable format twice, had reached the top of the game sales charts after being rereleased a year after its most recent rerelease. What the hell was going on? I introduced the girl who would move to Egypt in a few weeks to the Nintendo DS. I told her, you can play the Super Mario Gameboy game on this, and also these Brain Training things. And there's this English Training game coming out next month. You might like it. She picked up the gaudy teal display model, and then removed one of the gloves she always boasted about having possessed for ten years.
Just a few weeks later, she'd email me: "I just saw on TV that they're making a new DS Lite, with a brighter screen! How could you know your way around Akihabara and not know there was a new DS coming?"
I told her I was sorry. Around the time I'd told her to buy a DS, Nintendo had just issued a statement about having "No plans whatsoever" to update the hardware. So, hey.
DS in a shopping bag with Super Mario Bros. and Brain Training, we went to a comic store to buy a volume of one of the girly comic books I make way too much money by translating. It was wrapped in paper and I was being thanked too profusely when I wondered where the girl was. She was in the corner, staring at a life-size model of a saucer-eyed little anime girl in a schoolgirl outfit. She put her hand on the fake girl's forearm just as I put my hand on the real girl's back. "Hey, it's time to go." "This is really creepy." I put my hand on the plastic girl's face. It was clammy and soft. The real girl put her hand up the plastic girl's skirt, with a widening grin.
Then the grin fell away.
That was the last day I ever saw a Nintendo DS of any kind in a store anywhere in Japan.
The girl moved to Egypt, and then came back to Japan two months later and sent me an email. I already had a new girl by that time. Her email came when I was sitting in a restaurant with the other girl. The girl who had just come back from Egypt said she missed me and wanted to talk about something. Who knows what it was? I asked her what she wanted to talk about. She didn't reply. She emailed me two days later, saying she was inside a Boeing 777 that would be taking her back to Egypt, this time indefinitely. I never heard from her again.
I suppose the Brain Training games are pretty good. There's a lot of good they do. Performing a lot of basic mathematical calculations every day is good for you. It probably does keep your brain working, just like the Professor says it does. Will the games prevent Alzheimer's? If they don't, and if our generation becomes as misty-headed as the men and women we leave behind in nursing homes, the professor can always say that it's just because we didn't keep up on our daily brain-training exercises. Certainly, though, people like seeing their "Brain Age" go down. The games give people a weird little hope. Of the dozen or so "normal people"-turned-Brain Trainers I am occasionally subjected to, about half of them still play the game two or more times a week. I did a quick survey, via cellular phone email, just for the purpose of this paragraph. Two results haven't come back yet, though hey. The writing moves on.
Videogames you play like you brush your teeth. Vitamin games. Games that make you feel better when you play them every day, games you can buy as a present for anyone, so long as you know that person doesn't already have that game. Games that sharpen various skills. Eventually, these games make you feel like shit if you don't play them everyday, though for the most part, they are the closest we've yet gotten to "evergreen products" in the Japanese videogame industry. You certainly can't sell some graphical adventure about a detective disguising himself as a schoolgirl and infilitrating a high school to your grandfather.
It is, however, precisely because the concept is so simple that there are literally millions of ways to fuck it up entirely. Nintendo hit a homerun with the first Brain Training title because it works just about perfectly in execution, and it is never obnoxious. (The reported voice-detection bugs of the English version are not present in the Japanese version.) The Professor is as unobtrusive a character as you could hope for. He's not mean and he's not even ugly. I remember when this game was announced for release in America, and Gamesarefun.com reported on it, saying that it was "for children" to learn "Basic math", and some of the commenters on the news story said they should replace the professor with Super Mario's face because Americans "wouldn't get" the idea of a polygonal face of a Japanese man, who they didn't seem to realize was a representation of an actual human being who actually developed this method, and I felt my liver about to implode from some violent feeling.
There are some bad training games. Why are they bad? They just don't feel right. All of the ones for PSP feel bizarrely wrong. The questions are all multiple choice, for starters. Not having the touch screen is a huge handicap for anyone trying to make such a game on the PSP. It was kind of funny, back in 2005, when Sega, of all people, released the PSP version of the official Nintendo Brain Training. It was like 1992 all over again. They should have said the game used "Blast Processing" to let you enter in answers without using a touch pen ("touch pen" is what they call the stylus over here). Most of the "training" games for PSP right about now are released by one-off publishers like Success or D3. There are a couple of "Simple Series" training games, most of them teaching things like Kanji (that's Chinese characters used in Japanese writing, yes), though they can only, ultimately, teach the method of reading the kanji, not the method of writing them. There are these "right brain drill" games with ham-handed Game Sharing options that let you send something like ten questions over to another PSP so the other player can "experience the fun" and then hopefully be inspired to buy the game on their own. What the hell? Why not just hand the person your PSP and let them feel how much the game sucks? That the PSP versions all use Memory Stick saves kind of ruins it, too. The UMD of the game never feels like "your" thing. I prefer how DS cartridges are all, you know, self-contained worlds. Meanwhile, a couple of off-brand kanji training games came out for DS -- one of them, Kanji no wataridori, tries to be like an adventure game, and it ends up just blowing a whole lot. It's really bad. The response and the context both are lacking. Success and D3 put out kanji games for DS, and they sucked as well. Human minds rejected them like kidney transplants. And then Nintendo released a kanji game, and it was perfect.
It's mind-boggling, to a certain extent, that Nintendo's training games are so infinitely better than anyone else's. Why does this happen? Their quality is the trickiest thing to quantify.
The big rifts are easy to point out, of course. While Nintendo was raking in non-gamers with games like Animal Crossing and Brain Training, the more highly stressful game designers in Japan raced to put out competing games that were heavily inspired by Nintendo without showing off that inspiration too much. Portable Island, by Namco, for the PSP, was pretty obviously a riff on Animal Crossing, only it failed by having the personality of shoe leather, loading every five fucking seconds, and by starring gameplay that essentially left the player dead alone on a boring, faceless island. Taking into account other "developments" in nongaming, Portable Island was also usable as an alarm clock, a personal organizer, and a ukulele simulator. The whole package was so shoddily thrown-together it felt like something you'd pick up for 99 cents on a whimsy whirl along with a "HOT BABY NAMES FOR 2006" magazine booklet at the checkout lane of your local supermarket. Sega's Homestar Portable was a similar ghost of a feeling. It sought to expand players' minds by teaching them about constellations by showing them videogame constellations -- white stars on a black sky -- on a fucking portable videogame system with the shiniest, glare-hungry screen of maybe any portable electronics device in existence.
In July, Nintendo put out their "Noble Pink" DS Lite -- they released it on a Friday in the middle of summer, yeah, and there were people lined up around city blocks to buy the damned thing at seven in the morning. Most of the people lined up were dudes, though many of them told the grinning TV reporters that they were buying the pink DS Lites for their girlfriends. Hey, man. On the same day, Nintendo released "Talking Cooking Navigator" for DS, which is kind of ironic, because that game isn't meant for girls, or even people who would buy and use a pink handheld videogame system -- any dude that in touch with his feminine side, so speak the lawyers in the marketing departments of corporations in this land, probably already knows how to cook. Yes, it's basically a game that teaches you how to cook various dishes. You can set the opened DS on top of your cute little half-sized Japanese refrigerator and hear a female voice telling you to "start stirring the curry now". Eventually it'll tell you to stop. You can look on the screen for basic instructions.
About two months after the release of this game, Bandai-Namco released a ham-fisted (I love that expression, lately) "training" "navigator" game called Magic Taizen, which gets the insertcredit.com award for worst GAME OF THE YEAR, 2006. Magic Taizen, essentially, teaches you card tricks. What the fuck for! It comes with a deck of cards so you can try the tricks out on your friends. When the game "demonstrates" the tricks to you by asking you to use the stylus to pick a card, it seems so ugly and fake; it's not a person teaching you card tricks -- it's a computer program. How do we know he's not cheating? Games have evoked accusations of "the computer is cheating" from gamers on thousands of instances in the past -- it's just never felt quite so fatalistic as in Magic Taizen. In the case of Cooking Navigator, if your friends all have the game, then you all know how to make beef curry; you go over to your buddy's house, and say, hey, want me to make some curry? And he says, nah, I'll make it this time! (Maybe.) In the case of Magic Taizen, if all your friends have it, you can . . . do what, exactly? Guess one another's cards? Fuck that shit. The reason magicians don't reveal their tricks? Simple: then everyone would know them, and no one would derive pleasure from them anymore. I'd like to think that if gamers want to learn card tricks, they'll buy a fucking book on the subject. I mean, for fuck's sake, just because a person uses videogames sometimes doesn't mean they have this burning desire to use them for everything.
And now the Nintendo Wii is out, and Namco has released something like four "shake the controller as fast as you can to beat your other three opponents at this minigame and win points that will eventually win you the entire game" games. Give people something innovative, and they'll -- well, they'll let you make innovative, superstar products while they just, yes, shit all over the ballroom floor and laugh when a couple in the midst of a very serious tango falls down and suffers a dual concussion.
Why, around August, Nintendo announced their "Common Sense (General Knowledge) Training", the full title of which includes a Japanese relative clause that roughly translates to "Things no adults would feel comfortable asking one about at this advanced stage in their lives". I knew from a screenshot that the game would be solid gold: the top screen showed a drawing of a man in a wig, with a caption: "Which of the following three compositions is by Mozart?" The bottom screen showed four big, colored buttons, one of them marked "continue". Immediately, I knew precisely how the game worked. And immediately, I knew that all around me, in would-be skyscrapers (earthquake precautions prohibit any actual skyscrapers in Tokyo) all around this city, this game was being misinterpreted, and all because Famitsu had put it into a few words that, maybe, they shouldn't have put it into: "This is shaping up to be an even bigger success for Nintendo than Brain Training!!"
And yeah, there were pre-emptive copycats of this game. There were trivia games starring Gundam, for example, for PSP. Nothing like having a giant robot flashing a bitchin' thumbs up ask you which of the four names on the following list represents the current Prime Minister of France. Hell, there was even a trivia game (in arcades) starring Capcom characters, a long time ago. There was a lot of speculation around the time of Common Sense Training's announcement about what kinds of questions, exactly, it would ask. Eventually, just weeks before the game's release, a screenshot buffet on Game Watch would answer everything.
This one comes from the insertcredit.com archives:
"The betting stations are now officially closed. The insertcredit.com GAME OF THE YEAR, 2006 is officially Nintendo's Common Sense Training for Adults for the Nintendo DS. It meets the criteria for a great many reasons. Here are just a few of them:
1. It isn't out yet (released October 26th, 2006, for 3,800 yen).
2. I haven't played it.
3. I'm probably not going to play it, either.
4. It's totally in Japanese.
5. It might change the world.
Allow me to go off on a tangent and elaborate why this game is so brilliant. See -- much like the Brain Training series of games, this game is by Nintendo and it plays like a multivitamin. A little bit each day. You answer ten questions a day, and then the game tells you if you're becoming a better person or a worse person or what. Only this game isn't testing your mathematics skills -- no, it's testing to see if you're a an inconsiderate moron, a jerk, a know-nothing jerk, or just a run-of-the-mill jackass.
The picture to your left is one of the game's 1,800 questions. The question reads: "When riding in a taxi with three other passengers, which seat do you offer to the most valuable passenger?"
Previous copy written on the game had said the game would "test players' common sense"; at the earliest stage, the game was set up as interesting. Then the "common sense" became "common knowledge", and I got kind of worried. The first screenshot showed a picture of a man in a wig and four clickable buttons. The question was "Which one of these compositions is by Mozart?" I thought, well, that's kind of clever. Still, though, I'd rather the game be a drill on common sense.
Well, today's orgy of screenshots on GAME Watch brings the hope back. This game is a world-breaker. I type this, excitedly, just six minutes before the Nintendo Wii announce-everything press conference here in Tokyo. It doesn't matter what they say there! Not to me!
I reckon that anyone who needs this game right here wouldn't have the common sense to buy it. And anyone who wants it has already admitted they're lacking in knowledge, which indicates a desire to improve. Therefore, this game is one that, upon being merely touched by the player, is completed, which makes it, quite abstractly, the greatest videogame ever created. To wit:
Dear You, that guy in my company who gets on the elevator at floor eleven and stands right in front of the doors: people push past you to get out. You notice them and apologize profusely, like your mother taught you, to all of them. I can forgive you for wanting to stand in front of the doors. You're eager to get back to your telephone and your old-school calculator, I imagine. However, I cannot forgive you for what you do when the elevator crosses floor five. You put your hands on your hips and swivel around and look everyone in the forehead. The elevator stops on floor four, which was the button you'd pressed when you got on, and you swivel around again and ask, politely as they come, "Is anyone getting off?" I look you right in the eye and maybe show a couple of teeth. You have to stop the doors from closing with your foot, and then you get off when they open again. I get off behind you.
I doubt you have the means to buy this game on your own. You probably work so late every night out of filial duty to the company (partaking of their overtime pay by pretending to be busy and/or constipated) that you can't remember what an electronics store looks like when it's open.
I notice (from your wedding ring) that you're married. May your wife have mercy, and buy you this game as a present. You'll look at the package, read the back of the box, and think, "Why and how did this game come into my hands? What have I done, or not done?" And you will be changed, and maybe I'll say hello to you in the elevator next time.
At any rate, the question presented here is a tricky one. Which seat do you offer to the most "valuable" person boarding a cab? Moreover, how do you answer "All men are created equal"? Do you leave the console plugged into the wall for 255 hours, at which point a solemn voice declares, "YES. I SUPPOSE YOU ARE CORRECT," and the game shuts down, and the cartridge explodes?
Readers of insertcredit.com, tell me -- which seat would you offer to the "most important" person? All participants will be publicly shamed as "wrong" or publicly lauded as "right" in the next post."
Only one person got the question right, and that person was a Mr. Aaron Novak. His answer was "The seat behind the driver." The reasons for this answer's being correct should, well, be obvious: because you let the most important person into the cab first, and you wouldn't sit in the passenger's seat, next to the driver, if you were alone. Congratulations Aaron Novak, for being the insertcredit.com READER OF THE YEAR. You also rode in a Humvee limo with our senor editor (damn it can't do tildes here) Brandon Sheffield, by all reports, so I won't flatter you too much, because you obviously don't need it. Congratulations on the common sense.
Me and my friend Eiji Morikawa obtained this game ahead of its release and guffawed aloud at it. The stares of family restaurant patrons felt like the good part of bad medicine. It was a rollicking good time, like the weekend my friend in elementary school -- that friend I had before I became fat and mutely antisocial for a couple years -- got Gotcha! for NES. You know, the lightgun paintball game. Man! We hated that videogame! And man! Me and Morikawa loved Common Sense Training like it was a teething baby and neither of us hated babies (full disclosure: we both hate babies). We talked long and hard about setting up an event at a jazz bar in Roppongi to celebrate inventions that become useless the moment their assembly is completed. One of those was a visualized weight sensor for elevators, which would assess the weight of passengers waiting to board the elevator, cancel the elevator call if and when the potential passenger stepped off the weight sensor, and prevent the elevator from stopping if the weight of a single passenger on the weight sensor would cause the elevator's weight to exceed the maximum allowable; however, its existence, once installed, would instill all would-be elevator-riders with a conscience, thus eliminating the buffoonery that causes people to press a button, get tired of waiting, and then just take the stairs. The invitations to the event stated, in addition to the time and date and price of entry, "If you think this event is a good idea, you probably don't need to show up. If you don't think this event is a good idea, you probably wouldn't learn anything." The event ended up not being held; that is to say, it was a smashing success.
Way back in March, though, sitting mostly naked, with a damp towel around my waist, I fingered this girl's teal Nintendo DS. She was in the shower. I started it up, and saw that the DS cartridge inserted happened to be English Training -- the official, Nintendo-published English conversation training game. I thought, if there's any game more fitting for me to review, be still my beating heart. I loaded it up and played a little bit on a fresh profile. How nice: the game doesn't mind being shared by up to three family members. I had the game assess my English level. Basically, it did this with multiple choice questions that tested my grammar -- though mostly by asking me to hand-write entire sentences as they were spoken.
Ultimately, the game would give me an "SS" rank, tagged with the warning, "Your English is just about perfect! If you don't keep practicing it every day, though, who knows what might happen?" I snickered and thought about the internet, and realized I am indeed getting enough practice.
I played through the test again -- I'd get the same score -- and recalled a curious feeling of invincibility. I remember back when Super Ghouls 'n' Ghosts proved to be too much for my more laddish state, so I threw on the invincibility code. And yet, the game was still hard. And yet, I kept remarking to myself, in my mind, how well put-together the game was. I recalled, then, Chrono Trigger on "New Game Plus" mode -- retaining all of the experience from my previous playthrough, I was strong, I was overpowered, and yet the game was still excellent fun, the story splendidly paced.
So I acknowledged the quality of English Training. The clicky sound effects when you hit menu choices. The little "swish" when you input a correct letter. The "pop" when you get a correct answer. The monotonous "beep" (not a harsh buzz -- this is important) when an answer is wrong. The "bonk" sound when you too hastily write a letter, and the game doesn't recognize it. The clean, dry, almost-mechanical female and male voices, alternating like dancing, reading the prompts. The suitable headphone volume of the Nintendo DS. The clean white of the game screen. The quick, elegant appearance of the letters on the top screen as you input them correctly on the bottom screen. The solid colors of menus and borders -- no ugly gradients.
Why do all of the other would-be "Training" games fail? Because they lack the proper feedback, and attitude. They try to be too "entertaining" and end up not being "fun" -- the game developers plant their white-gloved hands firmly on the backs of cartoon characters and stuff them into the already-full subway train of life. As what they are, Nintendo's training games are already very much videogames, yet they exceed any "entertainment" because they try to make us better at what we want to be better at; basically, we're stating our desire to improve as individuals when we drop these games down on an electronics store counter and tell the man to wrap it up. It's self-help, and it's clean, and it's pop -- and it's also videogaming. Nintendo wouldn't dare be so presumptuous as to make a training game to teach you card tricks, or help you grasp music theory, or teach you exclusively French history. They will make sequels, and they will make add-ons, and they will continue to refine these games they have already put out. And they will, ever so gently, let you use your sharper brain or smoother English or even-headed common sense precisely how you will. There's more than plenty to cheer on about that.
And then, the girl had moved to Egypt, and I had another girl. I was in that other girl's living room, sitting on a vinyl sofa she must have picked up at a junk shop. It smelled like world records. I picked up her pink Nintendo DS -- not a Lite, for they were too scarce, and even this girl, a girl who was used to getting whatever she wanted, didn't see it as worth the fight with probability (or with Amazon.co.jp) -- and booted it up silently. I turned up the volume so I could hear the wonderful, pleasant sound of the menu selection cursor. (I have a knack for sound effects. I hate forks on porcelain and love chopsticks on smooth Styrofoam, for example.) I booted up the DS cartridge -- English Training. If you haven't played the game in more than a week, instead of a title screen, the game begins with a presentation of your pronunciation of a randomly picked phrase at the last time you played. Hey, that's clever. (Or maybe it does this every day. I don't know. I don't own the game, because I don't need it, yeah.) This girl hadn't played in more than a month. The sentence about to be presented was "I love you." I felt cold to the tips of my toes.
The native English female voice spoke: "I love you."
And then came a scathing imitation: "I looooooooooove you."
It was a white American man's voice, followed by a high-pitched, Japanese girlcackle. The cackle was coming from roughly behind the very sofa I sat on. I coughed to measure the acoustics. My approximations were correct. I felt empty for a second, and then full, and then half of either.
I ended up in an email staring contest with this girl, say, seven months later. I told her I would consider us broken up if she didn't email me by midnight on New Year's Eve.
I remember thinking about the girl with the teal DS on New Year's Eve, playing Lufia 2 with a dude on my sofa after binging on French toast the way the girl with the pink DS had binged on strawberry shortcake on her own birthday. We turned off Lufia 2 to watch the Japan Countdown New Year's Eve special -- this other girl, who didn't own any color of DS (just an old PC-Engine Duo), had designed the kimono for the host of the show, promising to make the host wear something made of yellow terrycloth because of an off-handed suggestion I'd made on her blog. I was checking the show to see what, exactly, the host was wearing that was made of yellow terrycloth. It turned out to be the whole damned kimono. That's when I remembered the girl with the teal DS: she'd come out of the shower in her ratty pink bathrobe and squealed to see me playing her English Training. "Don't look at my quest!" she exclaimed. The thought hadn't crossed my mind. Though when the test was over and I'd been awarded an "SS" (the Japanese need to learn that "S" does not come before "A" if they're to actually truly master English, I dare say (facetiously)), there I was, returned to the file selection screen. The only saved file wore a rank of "D". She grabbed the DS out of my hand and turned red, and her robe fell away and I could see her naturally brown skin. Many months later, on the other side of town, as I eyed another "D"-rank English Training data file, the girl with the pink DS would come out of the shower wearing just a blue pair of panties and tell me she thought the DS was really boring. Months removed from all of this, and no more lacking, and no more possessing in common sense, I'd be sitting there figuratively alone, wondering what kind of dream I was living, or if someone might not be able to make a videogame out of it, and if they did, what sound the pen might make against the virtual paper.
[next: and then you call her name]