The following story was written in 1999. It’s interesting to look back at it now, because nothing much has changed. Substitute Game Cube for Nintendo 64 , PS 2 for PS1 (and disregard X-Box, as much of Japan has), and it still works. Anyway, I thought retro gamers might like this flashback….
Regardless what any European hype machine may declare, the inevitable truth is if you really want to see how the game terrain lies, you need to visit the neon chaos that is Akihabara (aka Electric Town), Tokyo.
Just a few stops off the Yamanote line, from my hotel base in Shinagawa, I went on a fact finding mission to Akihabara, via Ginza. For those who’ve never been there before, Ginza is the shopping area for Tokyo’s affluent elite. And it’s here that you’ll find the imposing Sony Building: a multi-floor showroom to the most famous consumer electronics
brand in the world. It was only a few years ago that Sony stepped into the games world, then dominated by Sega and nintendo, and cleaned house. Now it’s influence dominates the games selection in every software shop in town.
But it was my journey to Akihabara that cemented in my mind the Playstation’s total dominance. In the towering ‘soft’ stores of Electric Town, which contain probably more CD, laser disc, DVD and games material per square inch than any commercial properties on Earth, I was to learn the shocking truth: Nintendo is dead. You may still find a thriving N64 section at your local games supplier, but in its heartland Nintendo is nowhere to be seen. No N64; no Mario; no Game Boy – no Colour Game Boy. Even the much-delayed revision of the world’s best-selling handheld doesn’t seem to have reversed Nintendo’s sliding fortunes at home. I searched high and low. But Mario and Yoshi just weren’t in town. Instead, I encountered rack after rack of Playstation stuff. The PSX shadow loomed large over every game and accessory; memory cards at bargain prices, loads of light guns (many of which were actual replicas of real fire-arms,
not bright blue plastic toys) and every conceivable variation of joystick. And if you were turned onto to RPGs by Final Fantasy 7, then you would freak at the mountains of tasty looking RPGs available. Sadly, unless you can read Japanese, though, their playability was severely limited.
Also surprising, was the resilience of Sega’s Saturn. Officially dead in Japan, it still commanded reasonable games space in the various software shops.
But as usual, the landscape in Japan fluctuates with thrilling rapidity. While I was in town, Sega had begun it1s TV teaser campaign for its new mega console, the Dreamcast. And Nintendo has not yet given up the ghost yet. Also on TV, were ads for the much-anticipated Zelda. Certainly the game looks sensational. The ad, in which a beautiful Japanese girl is seen to be
completely enraptured with her Zelda adventure, promised much. I was left with the impression that Nintendo has all its hopes riding on the back of this adventurous new title. If it fails, then maybe Nintendo should start to move their next generation console ahead of schedule.
Much depends on Sega’s success with Dreamcast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the games giant has given its most famous character a Dreamcast makeover. But is Sonic The Hedgehog (whose games reputation was flattened in the multimedia highway by the juggernaut that was Sony) the right way to relaunch their brand. personally, I think not.
Despite it’s relative old age, I found plenty of new Playstation releases that were innovative and entertaining. Of course, in Japan the big thing is manga, and at times it’s difficult to tell where anime action leaves off and the games begin. Consider the latest disc based on the Mobile Suit Gundam series. The TV show is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary, and a new game title Char’s Counterattack, has fully animated cut-scenes that rival anything released on VHS. Quite splendid. Strange but true: You can also buy a Gundam digital camera.
Although it looks like a toy, with its Earth federation Space Force embellishments, it’s £250 worth of fully fledged digital camera! Finally, a nod of the hat to another phenomenon peculiar to Japan: the soundtrack CD. Every big game appears to have spawned an audio CD containing the soundtrack and various ‘aural’ themes. Love the symphonic tracks of Final Fantasy, why not buy the CD. This is the new classical music. Beethoven? He’s the end-of-level boss on R-type 10 isn’t he?
God, I love Japan.