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Friday, Sep. 16, 2011

Expect tons of surprises at Tokyo Game Show


Special to The Japan Times

For gamers, this weekend will feel like Christmas. Tokyo Game Show (TGS), Japan's biggest gaming event, began Thursday at Chiba's Makuhari Messe convention center and will continue through Sept. 18 (on Saturday and Sunday it will be open to the public). More than 140 exhibitors are on hand, off-site parties have already begun to go late into the night and — most importantly — there are tons of new video games.

News photo
Game face: Research engineer Mikael Le Goff checks out Sony's PlayStation Vita at Tokyo Game Show on Thursday. Japan's largest video-game event continues through Sunday, and will be open to the public on Sept. 17-18. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Not bad for a show that seemed impossible in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11. As the government pushed the summer of setsuden (energy conservation), an energy drain like TGS seemed improbable. Organizers responded to the crisis by implementing measures to reduce the total electricity consumption of the event by 25 percent: turning off escalators, using LED light bulbs and limiting power for exhibition booths.

Energy conservation wasn't the only thing in the minds of organizers: There was a concern that the disaster had derailed the country's game industry, too.

"Although, the earthquake did cause a slowdown in development, we've managed to catch up again," said Takuma Endo, president at Tokyo-based studio Acquire, in the runup to the event. "We'll continue making unique games and bring a little more energy of our own to Japan."

Acquire planned to show its latest title, "Sumioni," for the PlayStation Vita, the latest handheld game console by Sony.

With the March 11 disaster for the most part behind them, Japanese game developers have now gone back to facing a different, growing threat: their counterparts in the West. Over the last five years, companies such as Activision and EA have started to overshadow Japanese game makers like Konami and Sega. At TGS 2009, "MegaMan" creator Keiji Inafune even went so far as to say the Japanese industry was "dead."

Inafune spoke too soon. At this year's TGS, there are a plethora of new titles that should attract both Japanese and overseas players.

"This is a competition with the West," said Akira Yamaoka of Tokyo's Grasshoper Manufacture. "The games that were shown at the E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles and gamescom in Germany were impressive. I'm eager to see what sort of Japanese games will emerge from TGS."

Much of the pre-TGS buzz centered around new gaming machines. Platinum Games, the firm responsible for "Bayonetta" and some of Japan's most innovative titles in recent years, is one of many developers looking at the emphasis on hardware as a new opportunity.

"I'm looking forward to seeing how this inspires a new creativity and originality," said Platinum Games producer Atsushi Inaba, "which is something we can always use more of in the industry."

Sony looked set to dominate this year's TGS, and the company seems to be making the event into its own hometown showcase — which is a smart move. Including TGS there are three major international gaming expos at the moment — the other two being America's Electronic Entertainment Expo (better known as E3) around late May/early June, and gamescom in Cologne, Germany, in August. Game companies are spread thin, trying to exhibit new games, show new footage and hold new demos at each of them. And this steady flow of "new" is necessary to keep the gaming firms in the headlines and in players' heads. By the time TGS rolls around, many firms are suffering expo fatigue. But like an animal hoarding for hibernation, Sony has managed to save a few surprises for Japan.

The Tokyo-based company has rolled out a whopping 80 PS Vita demonstration kiosks for visitors to test out the new portable device. There are around 40 PS Vita games on display. The PS Vita already has a hefty stock of titles to back it up when it is released in Japan on Dec. 17. This should stave off the "no games" complaints that dogged the Nintendo 3DS when it was released in February.

In years past, Microsoft would pull out all the stops for TGS with plenty of kiosks for fans. This year, though, sees one of the company's most scaled-down showings. The Xbox 360 is still struggling in Japan and as a result, Microsoft has become increasingly irrelevant here. Add to this the fact that Nintendo traditionally sits out TGS (the event is organized by the Computer Entertainment Supplier's Association and Nintendo is not a member), and Sony is in a choice position to grab center stage. Nintendo held a 3DS conference Tuesday, where it revealed new titles for the device, but the Kyoto-based company will lose the spotlight now that TGS has begun.

The event epitomizes gamer culture in Japan. With that in mind, it's important to note that TGS embraces an atmosphere of cosplay (costume play). While Japan didn't invent the idea of dressing up as favorite characters (the "Trekkie" fans of "Star Trek" had a head start on that), it has definitely put its own spin on the pastime. Year after year, cosplay at TGS is an increasingly bigger draw. This is what separates TGS from other industry trade shows: it's a chance for people to really geek out. This weekend belongs to the gamers.

Tokyo Game Show takes place at Makuhari Messe in Chiba and is open to the public Sept. 17-18 For details, visit tgs.cesa.or.jp. Brian Ashcraft will review TGS for The Japan Times on Sept. 21.


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