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Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2011

Despite dire predictions, this year's TGS was huge

Special to The Japan Times

Horrible natural disasters. Blackouts. Enduring hardships. This spring, as Japan was pulling itself out of earthquake and tsunami rubble, few thought there was going to be a Tokyo Game Show. Few thought about TGS at all.

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Tied to their work: No TGS would be complete without game girls. Those at the Capcom booth had the 3DS Expansion Slide Pad literally tethered to them. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

When the show's floor plan was unveiled, it wasn't as sprawling or impressive as in the past. The booths weren't as big, and TGS 2011 was looking to be a low-key affair. Foreign game-developers like EA skipped out on having their own booth. Level-5, one of Japan's most popular developers, decided to turn the space it rented into a rest area and filled it with tables and chairs instead of games. But, for a show that was supposed to be small, this year's TGS turned out to be the biggest ever. Thank Sony's PS Vita for that.

On the two business days before the show opened to the public, the assembled media were greeted with smaller booths — causing some of them to dismiss the show before it even began. Yet, even on those business days, the PlayStation Vita, Sony's upcoming gaming portable, was packing them in early — almost as soon as the show had started, the wait for the PS Vita version of popular adventure game "Uncharted: Golden Abyss" was already two hours long.

"Just wait," Japanese game-developer Goichi Suda of Tokyo-based studio Grasshopper Manufacture said. "Wait until the public day. The show is going to be bustling."

It was. During the public days, the crowds — and the lines — were overwhelming. Within 10 minutes of the doors opening, the lines for some PS Vita games were so long that Sony had to close them for the day. Before this year's TGS began, Sony had stated that there would be 80 PS Vitas. That sounded like a lot at the time, but it didn't seem that way on the day as gamers scrambled to get their hands on one.

"If you want to play the Vita," I told one attendee who asked me how he could get his hands on the device, "line up for 'Michael Jackson: The Experience HD.' "

In the middle of Saturday, the "Michael Jackson: The Experience HD" line was a mere 80 minutes — and it was the only PS Vita line still open.

However, it wasn't just the PS Vita that was packing them in. Capcom's booth was teeming with gamers eager to check out the latest "Monster Hunter" for the Nintendo 3DS. The Capcom booth also had the 3DS Kakuchou Slide Pad (3DS Expansion Slide Pad) tethered to women in hotpants. The pad is an add-on second slide-pad control for the 3DS. But, the extra pad makes the 3DS feel bulky, and the quality — with its cheap plastic and exposed screws — is less than desirable. It wasn't horrible; it just wasn't great. And it looks like a dog's breakfast.

Microsoft, who had an enormous booth last year, turned up in smaller digs for 2011. "There have been a lot of factors this year," Xbox Japan boss Takashi Sensui said when asked about Microsoft's booth size, "like the global financial crisis." The earthquake and power shortages also played a part.

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Vita loco: The biggest draw at this year's TGS was Sony's new handheld, the PS Vita, with lines of gamers waiting eagerly to get their hands on the device.

Yet, even with the smaller booth, Microsoft drew crowds. The wait for many Xbox 360 games clocked in at over an hour and a half. The line for the Cero Z-rated (18 years old and up) games got so long that Microsoft had to close them by the afternoon. With so many attendees, Microsoft missed an opportunity by not rolling out a larger booth with more demo kiosks — that would have meant shorter lines for gamers and could also have meant that Microsoft, which struggles with Xbox in Japan, could have introduced its gaming console to more players.

While Microsoft had a smaller booth, social-game platform Gree took up 10 percent of the show floor with its jumbo-sized booth. The booth (and its games) targeted domestic players, but that doesn't mean Gree is content with remaining Japan only. The company purchased OpenFeint, an American social-gaming platform, earlier this year. At TGS, a section of Gree's booth was dedicated to OpenFeint, complete with OpenFeint representatives on hand to describe and demo the service. Gree's presence at this year's Tokyo Game Show was a show of force and a show of power. Social games aren't going anyway, and neither is Gree.

Since the TGS floor space was smaller this year, the crowds felt even bigger. Navigating the floor became tricky, and it was difficult to walk in certain sections of the show, such as around the Sony booth. The cosplay area was packed too, with people holding cameras and others dressed as characters. When people tired of waiting in lines for games, they could always wait in line to gawk at cosplayers.

But people go to TGS to play games, and 86,200 game fans flooded Chiba's Makuhari Messe on the first public day — smashing the show's attendance record. Previously, the biggest day was at TGS 2006, when 84,800 people showed up to play the PlayStation 3 for the first time. Overall, the 2011 show's four-day attendance hit 222,600, making this year's TGS the most popular ever.

Next year's show hopefully won't have to overcome the same tragedies and headwinds as this year's TGS. Though, if Tokyo Game Show 2011 proved anything, it was the resilience of not only the Japanese gaming industry, but of Japanese gamers.

Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.

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