January 4, 2009 4:00 PM | jeriaska
[Continuing with a series of GameSetWatch-exclusive interviews exploring alternative looks at gaming, Jeriaska sits down with Arcade Mania author Brian Ashcraft to look at his and Jean Snow's new book about the Japanese arcade game scene.]
A new generation of console games equipped with internet connectivity has allowed for the return of a key feature of the arcade game experience: joining in a game with another human being you’ve never met before. Combine this phenomenon with the thriving retro game scene and there could hardly be a better time for an overview of the past and present of the arcades.
Enter Arcade Mania!: The Turbo Charged World of Japan’s Game Centers, a book by Brian Ashcraft with Jean Snow. While out in Japan since October, care of Kodansha International, the book arrives this week in English-language territories.
What many who grew up frequenting arcades in North America and Europe will notice in Mania! is a brew of the nostalgic and the not-so-familiar. There are trips down memory lane with racers like Out Run, light gun titles like The House of the Dead, and 2D hop-and-bops like Bubble Bobble. Then there are glimpses of gaming experiences that may be altogether new---through sticker pictures, pachinko parlors, past mahjong tiles and collectible card games.
Here to offer us a walkthrough of the book’s trip through Japan’s game centers is author Brian Ashcraft, editor for Kotaku, whose writing has appeared in Popular Science, Metropolis Magazine and Japan Times. The discussion offers both an introduction to the action-packed read and some insights into the making of Arcade Mania! .
GSW: Arcade Mania! is divided into nine chapters, each focusing on different realms, past and present, of Japan’s arcade game centers. Along the way we are introduced to nine players, including Daigo Umehara, the 2D fighting game champ, and Aaron Chmielowiec, the rhythm game phenom. At what point in writing did you decide to make arcade gamers a prominent voice in the book?
Ashcraft: That was one of the main impetus for writing the book. When I came up with the idea for doing an arcade book, I didn't just want to focus solely on the games and the people who make them. That's the obvious approach, I think. Instead, I wanted to showcase the players.
Games need players. Players are the final puzzle piece that is gaming. Players are what take gaming out of the abstract and put them in the real world. So, I thought from the beginning if this book is going to have any weight, we need to do more than trace the history and talk to developers: We need to talk to players.
One of the things that inspired this was superplay DVDs -- DVDs that show recorded footage of famous arcade players' spectacular gameplay. Those DVDs often have interviews with the players and even commentary. That was always fascinating watching them play and hearing them describe how they got good or why they liked a certain game.
I figured that would make fantastic material for a book.
So early on, I wanted to divide the book up into genres and peg each player to that genre. The player would be a vessel for telling not only his story, but the genre's story. This is good structure for telling stories and makes the information more human and approachable.
Often game writing focuses either on very technical things, and some of the humanity is lost. I wanted to focus on the technical, while at the same time, bring out something real, something personal.
Another thing that inspired the book was a Kotaku post I did on the UFO catcher queen, Yuka Nakajima, about two or three years ago. The post was some Japanese TV clip showing her catching prizes in some game center. At the time, I thought, "Wow, there's someone in Japan who specializes in crane games?"
When I was dividing up the chapters into the various genres, I wanted players that would represent each of them. She immediately came to mind. Same for Daigo Umehara, Kenta Cho and Aaron. And so I was able to start fleshing out the book and laying out the chapters.
GSW: I like that Aaron has the chance to point out some of the finer points of arcade social norms in the chapter on rhythm games, like that in Canada leaning against the support bar while playing DanceDanceRevolution is frowned upon because it takes away from the spectacle of the performance, whereas in Japan it’s more widely accepted as necessary to maxing out your dance points. Have you found there are other surprising or significant cultural differences when comparing the arcade scene in Japan with that of North America or Europe?
Ashcraft: Oh definitely. Perhaps the most notable would be with fighting games. In North America, fighting game cabinets typically have two joysticks and button layouts side-by-side. You can see your opponent, he or she is standing right next to you.
However, that's not true with the cabinet set-ups for fighting games in Japan. Fighting games in Japan typically have two cabinets back-to-back. You cannot see the other player, and it's considering bad manners to look over the cabinet to see whose ass you are kicking or who is kicking your ass. That's quite a discrepancy.
Co-op two player games like beat 'em ups and shooting games have the joystick and button layouts side-by-side. That's a telling insight into Japanese culture.
Author Brian Ashcraft with giant, marauding Norton Fighter
GSW: Your book comes replete with interesting facts about the history of the game center. There are some insightful comments from Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado and Xevious mastermind Masanobu Endo. One thing I found interesting, not everyone might be aware that Sega was an abbreviation of “Service Games,” and that both that company and Taito were founded by people born outside of Japan. Have you found in your writing for Kotaku and other publications that you’ve had the chance to explore a history of arcade gaming in such depth?
Ashcraft: Interviewing both Nishikado-san and Endo-san was a real treat. Both have contributed tremdously to basic gaming grammar, and gaming owes them a great deal for their work. It's easy to forget just how big "Space Invaders" was in Japan, and "Xevious" too, for that matter. Both Nishikado-san and Endo-san are more than happy to talk about their games, arcade history and arcades today. They're a fountain of knowledge and insight.
The nice thing about writing for Kotaku is just the plethora of stuff we cover. We do something like 60 posts a day, so we get all the news, we break news, and then we can post about stuff that's off the beaten path -- stuff that isn't news, but hey, it's interesting to us at least. It's because of that I was able to post that clip of the UFO catcher queen all those years back and get the wheels churning for this book.
GSW: In terms of your own background with arcade games, are there any memorable experiences that come to mind?
Ashcraft: Oh definitely. There was an arcade called "Tilt" at Prestonwood Mall in Dallas that I went to a ton as a kid -- "Crystal's Pizza" also had a pretty good arcade from what I remember. Memories of things like playing "Pole Position" at Chuck E. Cheese, beating "Final Fight" with a friend and trying to figure out how the hell to control "Dragon's Lair" are still vivid. Arcades have a nostalgia factor that's different from game consoles. I don't know what it is exactly, perhaps it's that you had to leave your house, or the weight of the quarters in your pocket, or the smell of cigarettes and Orange Crush on the carpeting, but they aren't the same -- for me, at least.
GSW: The book includes conversations with a number of prominent game creators working in the industry today. Hearing from Suda 51 of No More Heroes about his love for Elevator Action, or Parappa the Rapper’s Masaya Matsuura’s thoughts on arcade rhythm games, gives an idea of how deeply game centers have been in informing the development of software on home consoles. Had you known that these designers had a love of the arcades before starting work on the book?
Ashcraft: That was a little trickier than, say, featuring Yu Suzuki. Suda and Matsuura are primarily console game developers. Fortunately, I have friends that work for them and who were willing to gauge their bosses to see if there was any interest. I did want to feature game developers in not the typically developer sense, but as players.
Before they made games, they only played them, so I really wanted to capture that -- especially with Suda, who talked a great deal about his childhood playing arcade games. It's a side we don't usually see.
GSW: How did you find Player 9, Ren, who introduces the section on collectible card games?
Ashcraft: Ha! Easy. That's my oldest son. He plays tons of card games and likes arcades, so he seemed like a good fit. I wanted a wide variety of people in the book -- female players, extremely famous players, regular people, developers, non-Japanese folks. Basically, I didn't want it to be an entire book of dudes. After a few chapters, that would have gotten stale.
Finding Renny was simple. Finding some of the other players was extremely hard. Like, we all know who Daigo Umehara is, but how do you find Daigo Umehara? It's not like he has some website we can get his email address off of. Same for people like Clover-TAC and Clover-YMN.
Even tracking down Aaron, the DDR player, and Sakurina, the sticker picture model, was challenging. We sent Aaron several emails to the address on his website, but through some coincidence, the book's editor, Cathy Layne, knew someone who knew Aaron.
And then even after locating them, it was always a matter of whether they wanted to be in a book or not. Some people are shy and maybe reluctant to be interviewed. We didn't find that to be the case, but there was always a bit of nervousness and uncertainty while I was writing the book. What if we don't get this person? Who can we interview?
GSW: What are some of the advantages that you have found of working in print that are not afforded by net publications? Also, for bloggers who might be pursuing a book publication for the first time, what warnings should they receive in advance?
Ashcraft: The big advantage is time. You have time to go back, pretty up your sentences, check things, double check things and triple check things. With online, you are writing in the moment. Brian Crecente, Kotaku's Managing Editor, often compares online writing to TV and not print. That's a fair assessment, I think. Many times you're writing about something as it happens.
Because time moves quicker for online, your copy tends to be raw. You don't have the luxury that print writers do of typing something up, putting it aside, coming back to it and sprucing it up. So when people compare online writing and print writing, I do not think it's an accurate comparison.
Then again, one of the big disadvantages is time. Print moves slower. There is the fear that you're idea will get scooped by a magazine or, especially these days, a website. You can't relax really until it's in print.
For those pursuing a book, just keep this in mind: It's a year of your life. You cannot get it back. Make sure you're writing about something that engages you, something that helps you grow -- not just as a writer, but as a person.
I really hope this book does well and inspires other publishers to take a chance on doing other game books from other writers. There's no shortage of strategy guides published, but there is a shortage of books examining social or cultural trends. We've seen some published recently -- I'd like to see more.
Game books are a hard sell for publishers. As my editor pointed out, many book stores don't have a "Game Book Section" per se, so it's hard for retailers to know where to put something like "Arcade Mania." It's changing, but slowly. Fingers gently crossed that we'll get that more books and more stories from more writers.
GSW: In closing, in talking with game creators today, do you get the sense that they are pessimistic about the future prospects of the arcades, as seems to be a prevailing vibe in North America? Or is there more of a sense that continued innovations, like the ones featured in Arcade Mania!, will see the arcade game centers of Japan through to a bright future?
Ashcraft: Some of the genres, namely fighters and shooters, seem to be going through a Renaissance of late. That's great for fans of those types of titles.
There does seem to be something in the air, a feeling of nostalgia, or something. Maybe it's just me, maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I do hope that Japanese arcades continue to evolve just as they have since SEGA introduced those mechanical games in the Post War Era and right up to today with card games.
As someone at SNK told me, "If we didn't release our games in arcades, no one would buy them."
[Arcade Mania!: The Turbo Charged World of Japan’s Game Centers can be purchased online at Amazon. Interview conducted/ photo by Jeriaska. ]