Review: Shenmue I & II

This is it! My review for Shenmue I & II is finally here! This also marks the last game in my “final four” list. After this review, I will be taking a short break from my “generational-backlog grind” and I’ll be focusing on a couple of fun projects. But for now, let me share my thoughts on this long-awaited collection.

For many, the Shenmue games are often considered to be two of the greatest video games ever made. I have long been aware of the legendary status they hold. But personally, I never had the chance to experience them until now. Both games were originally released on the Sega Dreamcast, a system often considered to be ahead of its time – but one that never seemed to break into the mainstream. For this reason, very few gamers actually got the pleasure of experiencing these titles the first time around. Regardless, Shenmue’s legacy refused to die. Finally, in 2015, a Kickstarter campaign was announced to fund the release of the third installment. The Kickstarter was a smashing success. As a result, the original two games have finally seen a re-release.

These are two games that I’ve wanted to get my hands on for over a decade. Now, having played and completed both entries, I’m excited to finally share my thoughts. Despite being two separate titles, I am reviewing both games together as a single collection. As a result, some parts of this review may contain mild spoilers. Be aware.

So, let’s start with the first game. Aside from taking place in 1980’s Japan, and being somewhat of an open-world title, I really didn’t know what to expect from Shenmue. I think a part of me was expecting some sort of martial arts beat-em-up/RPG hybrid. But that’s not all what I found. Instead, Shenmue ended up being more of an interactive story than anything else. Sure, there are some brief combat and action sequences – a number of which consist of brief QTE-style events. But for the most part, the game is very casual. The main character in Shenmue is Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man who is on a quest for revenge. Early in the game, Ryo witnesses the death of his father at the hand of a mysterious Chinese martial artist. He decides to do everything in his power to learn the identity of his father’s killer and hunt him down.

The game itself consists of open world exploration, as Ryo hunts for clues. He starts by questioning locals about the events of the day his father was killed. With each clue that is uncovered, a trail of breadcrumbs begins to appear that Ryo must follow further down the rabbit hole. His quest takes him from the streets of his local neighborhood into the secret bowels of the Japanese black market underworld.

While there are certainly some action sequences in Shenmue, I was surprised to learn it is more of a detective game than a fighting game. The majority of the gameplay is actually spent talking to NPCs and exploring than engaging in combat. Time passes as you hunt for clues. Ryo only has a few months to piece the mystery together before too much time has passed. That being said, the games gives you more than enough time to explore till you heart’s content. Part of the fun of Shenmue lies in environmental exploration/interaction. Ryo can visit stores and purchase various goods like groceries, toys and cassette tapes. The tapes contain musical numbers from the game’s soundtrack and can be played back on a cassette player Ryo finds in his bedroom. The toys are collectible items  that are obtained at random from gacha-style capsule machines. Ryo can even visit the local arcade which allows the player to experience some of Sega’s classic arcade games first-hand. To be honest, a lot of the game’s content is nothing more than a colossal waste of time. But… that’s part of the charm.

As a consequence of the game’s open nature, some parts of the story do seem to drag on occasionally. For example, anyone who’s really sat down to play Shenmue, will likely roll their eyes at the mention of the phrase, “Do you know where any sailors hang out?”. This is a reference to a seemingly endless storyline thread early in the title. Was it annoying? A little. But that didn’t bug me as much as the portion of the game in which Ryo has to work a nine-to-five  job at the local shipyard. Which of course, requires the player’s interaction. I don’t know about you… but if I wanted to play “Forklift Simulator”, I’d have bought that game instead. Despite these minor annoyances, I completely enchanted with the overall game itself.

Eventually, the first game comes to an end when Ryo departs Japan, headed for Hong-Kong.

Shenmue II was originally released in 2001, two years after the first game. But it picks up right where the first title left off. In fact, you can import data from the save file of the original game into this one. This is a feature not often seen with console titles, but one that I found to be very welcome. A year after its original release, it was ported to the Xbox. The Xbox version of the game is the source for this remaster.

In Shenmue II, Ryo’s search for his father’s killer has led him to Hong Kong. It is there that he must continue his hunt for clues. His journey will take him deeper into the criminal underworld. But not all of his interactions in Hong Kong are bad. During the story, Ryo will also make some new friends. I found the characters in this game to be much more interesting than those in the original title. Often times in the original Shenmue, interactions with NPCs often felt forced or unimportant. Sure there are a few exceptions. But for the most part, none of the NPCs really left an impression on me. That’s not the case at all in the sequel. The new characters are much more colorful. In fact, they often steal the show.

In many ways, Shenmue II is very similar to its predecessor. It’s also is largely an open-world, breadcrumb style game. However, the number of mini-games and interactive side-quests has increased. As players explore the streets of Hong Kong, Ryo can participate in street fighting and wrestling tournaments. He can also try his hand at a number of street-side gambling games. Of course, capsule toys make a comeback as well.

Shenmue II also ups the action a bit. There’s more combat and button-mashing QTE events in this title than were found in the original game. There’s also much more to explore. Players wanting to get the most out of the experience would do well to take their time and explore. There’s quite a few miss-able scenes and even characters tucked away in this game for those willing to dig deep.

Eventually, the setting for this game moves from the city of Hong Kong and further into mainland China, to an area known as Guilin.  The last portion of the game takes place in this locale and, despite being almost twenty years old, it features some of the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen in a video game.

I’m not going to give anything away, but the story for Shenmue II ends with a massive cliff hanger. It’s going to kill me to wait a whole year to see the next chapter in this title, so I can’t imagine how bad it must have felt for original fans of the series.

Shenmue I and II is a great collection for a great price. Many aspects of these games were very much ahead of their time, while others have not aged well at all. Many people call this release a “remaster”. That isn’t exactly true. This package contains both games, presented in an HD format, but aside from being presented in an updated resolution and with a few QOL improvements, they are largely untouched from their original versions. I had a ball with these games, and I can’t wait for the next installment. But, I can also see how these are not going be games that will appeal to just anyone. Still, if you fancy yourself to be a gaming historian, you won’t want to miss out on these classic titles.

Difficulty: Easy – For the most part, these games provide little real challenge. They are played at a very casual pace with only a few tricky QTE-style events to pose any real difficulty. But even these events can be retried as many times as needed.

Story: This is why you want to play Shenmue. The tale told here is out of this world. Each game feels like an episode in a serial, and the storyline rivals any classic RPG you might come across. What starts out feeling like a crime drama, eventually ends up feeling much more epic and mysterious in the end.

Originality: While open-world style games were really nothing unheard of, Shenmue brought the genre to the console in a big way. The way it integrated mini-games into an explore-able environment was a radical change of pace. Another aspect of the game that really broke new ground was the way that it took real world locations and translated them into an open-world video game. Locales found in both games are real places. Dobuita Street in Yokosuka Japan, the walled-city of Kowloon – all of them were locations that were special to creator of Shenmue. In some ways, these games feel like a love letter he composed as a way to share his passion for certain places that were special to him.

Soundtrack: Overall, both games feature a varied and wonderful soundtrack. I have to give higher marks to Shenmue II when it comes to both music and overall audio quality. But admittedly, the voice acting in both games tends to be a bit sketchy at times. In fact, it ends up sounding a lot like an old Kung Fu movie. Which, in a weird way, is oddly appropriate.

Fun: Fans of open exploration and Asian-themed games will love Shenmue I & II. Players who prefer more structured or action-oriented games may be a bit put off.  Personally, I found the games to be relaxing and entertaining.  Despite being a bit surprised by the gameplay itself, I found myself having a blast with these two games.

Graphics: These games were released in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Despite being presented in an HD format, they show their age, but they do so pretty gracefully. At the time of release, they were both top-of-the line visually.

Playcontrol: This is probably my biggest complaint. Both games can be a bit hard to control at times. Ryo moves in a directional “tank-style” way – very similar to the classic Resident Evil games. Thankfully, this scheme takes place during the exploration portions of the game only. The QTE events in both games seem to be a bit touchy and unforgiving, and are often not very clear. Thankfully, the controls in combat are much more intuitive and function a lot like a beat-em-up style game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Martial arts violence, mild language.

Value:  This collection is available for $30.00 and at that price is well worth it. I’m surprised to see bargain pricing for a set of games with a legacy as renown as Shenmue. So, even if you’re on the fence, the prices makes it worth checking out. The only thing that’s missing from this collection is the proper presentation “Shenmue Passport” content – which was online content exclusive to the Sega Dreamcast. However, these were really nothing more than some scoreboards and an online jukebox. The titlescreen for Shenmue II in this collection features almost the game content.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Shenmue I & II are not perfect games. But the quality of the storyline combined with the amount of content and the attention to detail gives this collection a four-star rating. If I had to pick a favorite of the two, I’d go with Shenmue II as the better of the two games. That being said, the first game provides a lot of atmosphere and an overall “comfy” feeling. So it’s hard to say the second is really “better”.  Again, if you’re a fan of Asian culture, or games with great storytelling, this collection is a must-have.

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Steam

Manga: Dragon Ball

It has been a rather busy month so I haven’t had time to make a post until now. What have I been doing? Well, when I haven’t been drilling my way through Xenogears (a really really REALLY long game), I’ve been jumping between RIFT and FFXIV. Also, last week my family went on a Spring Break vacation. During that downtime I managed to get a little reading in. So, as promised I’m here today with my first ever manga discussion: Dragon Ball.

Last month I talked a little bit about my experiences with manga. I was introduced to it during my stay in Japan, but I never really took the time to sit down and enjoy the format until many years later. The first ever manga series that hooked me was Chobits. (I’ll talk about Chobits in greater detail in the near future). When I was done with it, I found myself clamoring for more. Unsure what to read next, I thought back to my days in Japan. Back in those days, the only English-speaking channel was operated by the US military. More often than not, it offered little in the way of kid’s entertainment. So, my friends and I would often flip our televisions over to the local Japanese stations and check out whatever it was they were watching. At that time, Dragon Ball Z was all the rage. Yes, I can claim to have watched Dragon Ball during its initial run – IN JAPAN! (How many weaboo points does that get me?) Now, neither I or my friends really had any idea what was going on, but it was cool to watch nonetheless. With this in mind, I chose Dragon Ball as the next manga series to dive into.

At that time, I read maybe the first five or six volumes of Dragon Ball before monetary constraints put an end to my Manga purchases. But, I enjoyed every second. Recently, I acquired the entire collection. So what is Dragon Ball? Well, it initially starts out as a childish retelling of the ancient Chinese fable Journey to the West. But it doesn’t take long for the story to go off the rails and develop into its own thing.  One recurring theme in the story are the “Dragon Balls” themselves. The Dragon Balls are seven magical stones. Whoever can collect all seven of them is able to summon a mystical dragon who can grant any wish. The story begins when a young girl named Bulma encounters a strange orphan boy while she searches for the Dragon Balls. The boy, Goku, is in possession of one of the balls. The earliest stories in the Dragon Ball series focus on the adventures of Goku and Bulma as the search the world for the missing balls. During this time, Goku encounters an old kung fu master, The Turtle Hermit, and abandons his search to become a disciple. At this point, the focus of the story shifts to Goku and his mastery of the martial arts. (Astute readers of this site will undoubtedly recognize that I have adopted The Turtle Hermit referenced above as my avatar on this blog.)

Admittedly, the actually plot line is pretty darn weak, especially in the later volumes. But, that doesn’t detract from the fun. If anything, the shallow story and innocence of the lead character is part of what makes this story so entertaining.

The original series runs for sixteen volumes. After that, the title switches to “Dragon Ball Z“. In Japan, there’s no distinction between Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z in print, that’s strictly a branding that is used here in the west.

Dragon Ball starts out rather childish, but ramps up in maturity level pretty quickly. By the end of the sixteen-volume series, the target audience seems to shift from children to teenagers. That being said, there’s actually a noticeable amount of mature content in the book from the very beginning. This may seem a little strange considering the books are marketed to children, but keep in mind that Japanese culture doesn’t tend to be nearly as conservative about some things.

All in all, Dragon Ball is an addictive enjoyable manga series. I look forward to continuing my way through Dragon Ball Z and finally seeing what all those old cartoons were about.

 

Nerd Passion: Manga

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of comic books. It is also not a secret that I harbor a deep love for all things Japanese. So why have I never talked about manga? After all, manga are nothing more than Japanese Comic books! Well, there is a story there…

Back when I was a young lad living in Okinawa, my family briefly resided in an apartment building in downtown Ishikawa (now called Uruma).  My front yard was essentially a parking lot for a massive Pachinko parlor. So, for my brief stint living downtown whenever I wanted a place to play, instead of dodging traffic, I’d actually go out onto the rooftop of the apartment. Most of the kids in the apartment building would play up there. One day, while I was hanging out on the roof, I noticed that someone had left behind what looked like a thick phone book. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a Japanese manga. Now, being an American, I had never seen anything like this. The content was much more mature than anything I’d ever come across in a Marvel or DC book. It was some sort of crime story and it was extremely violent. It was interesting, but not really my cup of tea. I flipped through it for a moment and then left it where I found it. Over the course of my three-year stay in Japan, I encountered many other manga books. But of course, not being able to read Japanese, I also didn’t give them much attention.

Fast forward several years later… I’m back in the USA and Japanese culture is gaining in popularity. I now see manga starting to pop-up in local bookstores. On a whim, I pick up a book that looks interesting and bring it home. This book was Chobits, a story about a young man and his personal android companion. I become hooked instantly and ended up reading the entire series in just a few days. Sadly, the cost of these little books was a little too high for my budget at the time. So, I decided to willingly put off this new hobby for the time being.

Time goes by and anime and manga have become even more popular. These days, nearly any bookstore in the US is going to have at least one single shelf dedicated to manga. A few years back, my oldest son talked me into watching the Sword Art Online anime with him. I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected, so I decided to give the manga version of the story a try. Again, I became hooked immediately. In fact, I actually liked it much more than the anime.

At that point, I could no longer deny it: I like manga. Despite my deep-rooted love of Japan, I try my very best to avoid being labeled as a weeabo. Sadly, this is another mark in the “Is Sensei a Weeabo?” column… But I’m still resisting!

So, what does all this mean? Well, it’s simple. I’m going to throw manga into the overall “comic book” topic on this site and include them in my reviews. In the coming days, I’ll be introducing my first manga overview. I hope you enjoy it.

Yatta!

 

It Came From Netflix: Final Fantasy XIV – Dad of Light

Welcome to the very first “It Came From Netflix…” post! If you’re not sure what this is all about, you can read my announcement here: “It Came From Netflix…” – In my first review for this new feature, I will be discussing an interesting Japanese drama; Final Fantasy XIV – Dad of Light.  Since Final Fantasy games are a big part of this site, I thought this show would make a perfect segue into this new series of articles.

Netflix has recently introduced a number of foreign films and television shows. Dad of Light is one of them. Now, let me state of up front that this show does not chronicle the events of a particular Final Fantasy game, nor does it feature characters from the series. Instead, it’s a show about the game. More specifically, it’s a story about a father and son who bond through the online world of Final Fantasy XIV.

The plot is simple, it revolves around a young adult named Akio and his father. Akio works a full time job but still lives at home with his family. When he was a little boy, Akio and his father used to spend time together playing old Final Fantasy games. These days, they have drifted apart. One day, Akio’s father suddenly announces his retirement with no explanation. In an effort to rekindle the relationship with his dad, Akio purchases a Playstation 4 and a copy of the online game Final Fantasy XIV and presents them as a gift to his father. His plan is to secretly meet up with his father in the game and befriend him. Then, eventually reveal his identity in hopes of forging a stronger bond through the experience.

The series takes place largely in the real world. But occasionally, certain scenes are shown from an in-game perspective. A large part of the comic relief comes from the interactions between the father’s character and Akio’s in-game persona. The show itself is presented in Japanese with English subtitles. As is the case with most Japanese dramas, it can be oddly quirky at times. But is overall, very charming. There are a few adult situations but for the most part, the show is largely family friendly.

When the series was originally announced in Japan, it went by the rather unflattering name “Daddy of Light”. Yuck… I’m glad to see that Netflix took some artistic privilege when bringing the title to US viewers. I first heard about the series online, shortly after it’s Japanese release. It was no secret that the production company was shopping the series around to American distributors. I was nearly certain that it would be snapped up by Crunchyroll, a company that specializes in Asian media. But, much to my surprise, Netflix got the exclusive rights to the show.

The good thing about this series is  that even viewers who have no interest or knowledge of Final Fantasy XIV will be able to watch and enjoy this show. Of course, players of the game will certainly recognize certain elements and may get a bit more out of the experience. I watched this series with my entire family, and it was enjoyed by all.

All in all, Dad of Light is a heartwarming series. The storyline is very self-contained and there’s pretty much no chance of a second season. Many Japanese television dramas typically only last for one run. In a way, they could be compared to what US viewers know as a “mini-series”. So there’s very little time investment if you simply want to try something new.

If you’re new to foreign media, this series is a pretty good starting point. It’s familiar enough to comfortable, but it still has just a touch of foreign “strangeness” to stand out on its own.

Target Audience: This show is aimed towards a general audience, but fans of Japanese culture, anime, and Final Fantasy are likely to be more drawn to it than others.  It’s a good launching point for Western audiences who are not familiar with the Asian Drama genre.

Number of Episodes: 8

Netflix Exclusive?:  YES

Score (1 out of 4): 3

 

Record Shop: Princess Princess – Self Titled

So far my Record Shop posts have focused on alternative rock from the early nineties. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were certainly big influences on me in my early Rock n Roll days. But, in truth, I’ve always been a fan of different types of music. As a child, I would often borrow vinyl records from my parents. In their collection I found everything from The Doors to The BeeGees. One of my favorite albums as a young kid was actually the Grease soundtrack! As I grew a bit older my personal collection contained everything from Twisted Sister to Madonna. In fact, by the time I was about thirteen years old, pop and hip hop music were actually my primary go-to. Back in those days, I was living in Japan and the record shop on the Air Force base carried an excess of top 40 albums.  If you looked through the stack of CDs next to my boombox, you’d find artists like Mariah Carey, Bell Biv Devoe, MC Hammer – you get the picture. At that time in my life, rock music was not the primary thing on my radar. Oddly enough, the album that steered me back to Rock n Roll wasn’t Nirvana or Pearl Jam. It was a CD by an obscure all-girl Japanese group named Princess Princess.

It was the Winter of 1990 and my family was hosting a “Homestay Student”. This is a bit like an exchange student, except there’s really no exchange. A Japanese student volunteers to live with an American family for a few days to a week to observe their culture. I think this program was something that was exclusively available to military families, I’m honestly not sure. But it was a program that my family participated in on several occasions. For this particular stint, we hosted a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl for the Christmas holiday. She was a music fan and a fellow gamer. Even though there was a massive language barrier, the two of us hit it off quite well. When we weren’t playing Game Boy games together, we were trading music. I was surprised to learn that many Japanese folks were already very well versed in western pop music. So most of this exchange was very one-sided. She shared with me a number of various J-Pop bands. Most of which I’ll never remember since they were handwritten copies that I could not read anyway. But she did leave me with one cassette tape by the group I mentioned above; Princess Princess. This was my first real taste of Japanese Pop Music.

This is a record that is likely going to be very hard to find. Even with the internet and music sharing scene, this is a bit of a rarity. Princess Princess was not a groundbreaking band. They don’t have the following that other pop idols from Japan do. They do not fit neatly into a certain genre. The songs on this record range from hair metal to cutesy pop ballads. Maybe it was simply because it was given to me as a gift, but I wore this cassette out. Even after returning back to the United States, Princess Princess (self titled) was a record that remained a personal favorite.  Allow me to share this gem with you.

1: ROCK ME –  The first track on this record starts with an electric guitar riff that immediately calls bands like Van Halen and Motley Crue to mind. But as soon as the Japanese female vocals kick in, you know that this is not your average hair metal band. This track is simply stellar. It’s the type of song that you’d expect to hear on any US classic rock station. It’s truly a shame that most people will never have the pleasure of enjoying this song.

2: ティンカーベル (Tinker Bell) – This is a moderate tempo rock track. This one is a bit more bubblegum than the debut song. But it’s catchy and it’s been a guilty pleasure of mine for many years. I’m losing Man Points by admitting that I find this song enjoyable.

3: 台風の歌 (Typhoon Song) – Having sheltered through a number of Typhoons in during my time in Japan, I can honestly tell you that this song doesn’t even remotely call to mind anything close to those dangerous storms. This track is not a favorite of mine, but it’s admittedly infectious. It’s what I call “Candy Shop Pop”. I’m generally not a fan of brass in a rock or pop song, and this song has it’s share. I don’t skip past this track when it comes on, but it’s not one I ever queue up either.

4: 逃げろ (Run Away) – This song rocks. It’s a favorite of mine. Maybe because the first few lines are in English, but this was the first song on the record that caught my attention. I don’t speak Japanese and I’ve never looked up the lyrics to translate them (nor would I, as I fear it might ruin some of the magic), but I feel like this might be a bit of political song. It features a really groovy rock riff and a driving backbeat. Good stuff.

5: ジュリアン (Julian) – This is a sappy power ballad. I remember this track being the favorite of the young lady who gave me my copy of the record. I feel like this might have been one of the singles. Even though this type of song is not really my style, it is a bit of an earworm. I can imagine many Japanese prom dances went down to this one.

6: ROLLIN’ ON THE CORNER – This is another funky rock/brass band tune. Not a favorite of mine, but it has its moments. The chorus is its saving grace.

7: 錆びつきブルース 歌 (Rusted Blues Song) – This is a weird one. It sounds like a Jerry Lee Lewis tune mixed with some weird Asian doo wop group. When I hear this, I see Japanese girls in poodle skirts dancing at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. Again, not a favorite but certainly interesting.

8: 月夜の出来事 歌 (Moonlight’s Event) – This is a pure J-Pop track. Even though I can’t speak Japanese, I don’t need to know the language to hear the universal sound of romance and longing. This is a magical track. It might be my favorite.

9: THE LAST MOMENT – This is an interesting tune. It almost has a Spanish flair to it – until the spell is broken by the unexpected sound of a harmonica. This is a hard track to nail down stylistically. But it works perfectly.

10: HIGHWAY STAR – This song reminds me of Van Halen. Its a rocking tune that’s a perfect mix of well polished hard rock and J-pop. It’s a flawless blend of everything that’s great about this record.

11: One – The album closes with a solid jam. It’s mild pop track, but a memorable one. I remember listening to this one on my Walkman as the plane that took me back to the United States lifted off the ground. I can still see myself looking out that oval-shaped window and watching the island of Okinawa get smaller. It’s fitting that this is the final track on an album that will always remind of that magical place.

Obviously, this is very personal record for me. In most cases, I wouldn’t recommend something this obscure to others. But these days, J-Pop and Japanese culture are all the rage. So, if you’re  fan of Japanese music, I’d encourage you to put down the Utada Hikaru CD for a moment and check out something unique.

When listening to albums, I always suggest enjoying them on a nice Hi-Fi stereo system, or on a portable device with a good pair of headphones. The Japanese are perfectionists when it comes to sound quality. This shows on this record. It’s beautifully mastered despite it’s age.

When listening to a record, always listen from start to finish. Some songs tend to be more enjoyable when following the song preceding them. Put the record on while you’re driving, or doing house work. Let it play in the background. Listen it to a few times. Some records need to grow on you. Don’t skip around. Even if a particular song doesn’t grab you right away, let it play through. Your opinion may change.

J-Pop

extralarge   Princess Princess

J-Pop. AKA: Japanese pop music is another interest of mine that just won’t die. In Japan, young female Japanese singers are often called “idols”. They are often made up and dressed in a completely over-the-top fashion. I’m ashamed to admit, there’s something about these magical singing/dancing pixie-girls that enthralls me. The first time I was exposed to J-pop was days after moving to Japan with my family. I turned on the radio and searched the dial for the military network, upon finding it I heard about twenty seconds of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler and immediately turned it off. It dawned on me that the top 40 hits I had become accustomed to enjoying were likely to be in short supply for the duration of my stay. I sat there for a moment, pissed at realization that my days of being entertained by the radio were probably on hold for the next three years. I flipped it back on and decided to see what type of nonsense was being broadcast over the local airwaves….

What I found intrigued me. I stumbled upon what must have been some type of in-studio concert. Two Japanese men were talking back and forth for a few moments then all went silent and a guitar was heard. The intro consisted of some pretty elaborate and speedy fingerpicking, I waited for the first verse to begin, and I waited, and waited, and waited…. It seemed like 10 minutes before the song actually started. But that couldn’t be right. Could it? Finally, an older sounding man in a raspy voice began to sing. In fact he began to croon the same lyric over and over again. To my young American ears, it sounded like he saying “English! Didi-la-la Didi-la-la”. Who knows what he was really saying, but he went on repeating this for nearly another 10 minutes, over and over and over. I turned of the radio and silently wondered what I getting myself into.

That was the extent of my interest in Japanese music until maybe a year later. As part of a culture exchange program, we had a teenage Japanese girl stay with my family over the Christmas holiday. Among her personal belongings was a tape of an all-girl Japanese rock band “Princess Princess”.  She was eager to share this cassette with me and a quick listen revealed that this was MUCH DIFFERENT from “Didi-la-la”. Before leaving, she let me make a copy and I found myself listening to it often. Despite not being able to understand the lyrics, it ended up being one of my favorites. I kept the tape for many years until finally it simply wore out and quit playing.

After returning to the States, the years went by and I became involved in the whole 90’s Alternative scene. It wasn’t until many years later, after I got married, that my love for J-Pop was rekindled. I had taken a hiatus from video games for most of the mid to late 90’s. After marrying and settling down a bit, my wife and I bought a brand new PlayStation 2. One of the first games we purchased was Kingdom Hearts. This game was a strange blend of both Disney characters and icons from the Final Fantasy universe. It featured a theme sung by the J-pop idol Hikaru Utada. I found the song to be quite catchy and thanks to the Internet I got my hands on some of her other works.

utada-hikaru   Hikaru Utada

Fast forward a few more years, I find myself living in Tennessee working the graveyard shift for a bank. I discover a streaming J-pop station on the Internet called J-Fan Radio. This station opened my ears to even more Japanese artists. I fell in love with idols or bands with names like:  Tommy February6, Dragon Ash, Balzac, Ayumi Hamasaki, Koda Kumi, and Gackt.

In recent years, Japanese culture has entered the American mainstream thanks to video games and various anime. With them has come many original soundtracks featuring J-pop artists. Due to this, it’s very easy these days to get your hands on the latest music from our friends in Japan. If you’ve never experienced it, I recommend giving a listen. They make great soundtracks to late-night video game marathons. I take a bit of pride in being able to say “J-pop? Oh yeah, I was listening to that twenty years ago.” But honestly, I didn’t learn to appreciate it until many years later.

004392w9   Gackt

 

Final Fantasy

If Wizardry is considered the grandfather of western-style fantasy games. Than Final Fantasy is its far-eastern cousin. While Wizardry was rooted in classic Tolkien-style swords and sorcery, Final Fantasy can be summed up as more exotic techno-fantasy type of genre. I was introduced to the series while living in Japan. I had noticed the game in the collection of several of my Japanese friends, and I knew that it was off limits. “No play!” They would tell me any time I pointed to the game. I assume they feared I would accidentally delete their character data due to my inability to read the Japanese menus. Even though I wasn’t allowed behind the controls, I enjoyed watching them play the child-like characters, as they explored weird underwater shrines and did battle with goblins or vampires.

Eventually, the game was translated to English and made available to the western audience. I snapped it up immediately and never looked back. The summer of my post-6th grade year was spent exploring the game to the fullest. I created characters of every class, snooped through every nook and cranny of the dungeons, and defeated the final monster countless times.

I knew that Final Fantasy II and III were already available to my Japanese friends, and I was more than upset to learn that Nintendo of America intended to skip these tiles and repackage the upcoming Final Fantasy IV as “Final Fantasy 2” for the American audience. The original Final Fantasy II and III would not be made available in the west for many years.

As time went by, I consumed every Final Fantasy title made available to me. Eventually, even the elusive 2nd and 3rd games in the series were released in North America. To date, I have played and completed nearly every single-player entry in the series (except for the newly released XIII-2). As far as the online titles go, I was active in Final Fantasy XI from 2003 until the spring of 2011. I have been a supporter of Final Fantasy XIV ever since.

While Wizardry, nurtures the purest part of my dungeon crawling, spell casting, classing D&D spirit, Final Fantasy appeals of me in other ways. The art direction reminds me of my years living in Japan, while the settings and in-depth stories cater to the classic fantasy elements that make Wizardry so appealing.

A few years ago, I thought it might be interesting to play through various game franchises and post reviews of each game, noting how they have matured and developed over time. I did this with the Final Fantasy series.

In the coming months, I’ll be posting these reviews.

Japan

caption-5B1-5D

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I grew up as a military brat. As a result, my family relocated numerous times during my youth. Shortly after starting my 4th grade year, my family moved to Okinawa, Japan.

Living in Japan was one of the most defining experiences of my life. I still remember the shock of exiting the doorway of the climate controlled airplane after a 22 hour flight and stepping into the humid sub-tropical air for the first time. It was was like a slap in the face. It was just like walking into a steamy sauna, only with the smell of salt water and foreign foliage in the air.

The jet lag had really taken a toll on me, and I found myself unable to sleep in the hotel room that first day. So, I flipped on the TV only to find three channels. One English speaking station operated by the US government and two local Japanese channels. Watching Japanese television for the first time was a wake up call like I’ve never had… A cheesy samurai soap opera, followed by a children’s show featuring an octopus farting into a Jello mold made one thing abundantly clear; I was now in a completely different world.

3772349310_7b9de77e47 A bottle of Sake featuring the corpse of a venomous Habu snake in the bottle

Living inside the confines of a military base in a foreign country can be a bit deceiving. Inside the barbed wire fence, you could almost believe you never left the normalcy of the USA. But step outside, and there’s no question… things are very different. One of the first things I learned to enjoy about Okinawa was the food. You can’t take five steps without encountering some kind of noodle dish. They are everywhere. Cold noodles, hot noodles, sweet, spicy, savory – you name it. Over my three-year stay in Japan, I became quite fond of the various flavors the orient had to offer. It’s an obsession that lasts to this day.

The first time you taste something like Miso, or some other foreign spice or sauce, it can be a little off-putting. But once you break thru the defensive concept of “I’m not used to this”, you might just surprise yourself! There’s often a whole world of good food out there that you never knew existed..

One thing I will say about the Japanese people, they certainly like their candy. Japanese snacks and confectioneries are like no other. The variety of flavors seems endless. For example, over here in the US, we have three flavors of Kit Kats. Milk Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, and White Chocolate. That’s it. In Japan, that’s not the case. Over there, on the shelf of any random convenience store, you might find Kit Kats in such exotic flavors as: Wasabi, Orange, Banana, Cheese, Sweet Potato, Basked Potato, Key Lime, Green Tea, etc.

36852835_24b61eb9e6_z

In the short three years I lived there, I was never able to get a firm grasp on the Japanese language.  But I did have many encounters with local kids my age. One thing that we both understood, regardless of our language barrier were video games. The Nintendo Entertainment System, or as it was called in the Japan, the “Famicom”, was extremely popular with the youth in Japan at the time.The two system shared a number of titles as well. This gave both American kids and Japanese kids a common interest. Games like Mario and Zelda didn’t rely heavily on words, so there was no real need to to be concerned with a language barrier when playing one of these games with local who couldn’t speak English. Occasionally,  a Japanese friend would lend me a Famicom game to take home and play. However, the shape of Famicom carts were different than those made for the NES. This initially led to a compatibility problem. But, thanks to the thriving Asian black market, there was an easy solution… Meet the “HoneyBee”:

honeybee_adaptor_gold_60-300x156-5B1-5D

This beautiful piece of engineering made it possible to fit a Famicom game into a standard North American NES. Oh, the fun times that were had thanks to this little devil.

But Japanese video games were not the only media that kids like myself enjoyed. The longer I lived there, the more I became absorbed with Japanese pop-culture. I viewed anime and crazy game shows, I read manga, I collected wacky Japanese pencils, I listened to local pop music. There’s so much I could write about when it comes to my experiences in Okinawa. And perhaps I will do so in future posts. For now, let this serve an introduction into my obsession all things Japan.

I consider myself to be a “Japanophile” of the most distinguished degree. Just don’t call me a “weeaboo”…