Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 1


We arrived at around 6am in Tokyo via Narita after a pretty reasonable 9 hour flight out of Sydney. By the time we got through customs and were ready to hit the airport limousine bus it was a little after 7am. The toilets here are weird, but in a cool way. At this stage I wasn’t game enough to use the bidet and shower functions yet πŸ™‚ I tried speaking Japanese to the customs agent, but had to ask him to repeat everything in English because I got confused πŸ™‚

The bus ride into Tokyo from Narita to Shinjuku station was amazing. We passed through rural areas and towns that we could see from the highway that immediately made me think of Shenmue, perhaps even more so because of the cloudy, rainy weather. Soon we found ourselves hitting Tokyo’s urban sprawl – it’s an amazing amalgamation of concrete, steel and insane yet orderly traffic. We drove past massive office buildings and apartment complexes intertwined with inner-city rivers that reminded me of, wait for it, the apartment complexes in Digimon Adventure πŸ™‚

Soon enough we hit Shinjuku station, in itself a pulsing centre of activity. Thankfully we disembarked, picked up our luggage and turned our heads to spot our hotel, the Sunroute Plaza Shibuya (even though it’s more accessible from Shinjuku). We wandered down and checked in and asked the friendly staff to look after our baggage since we weren’t able to jump into our room until after 2pm. A few doors down from the hotel was a Segafredo coffee place (which we would later discover to be a readily accessible franchise around the traps), so we headed there to grab a morning set – combos/meal deals in Japan, we quickly found out, are called sets. A quick bite and some people watching later (and an induction to Japan’s prevalent indoor smoking allowances, something that’s generally been outlawed back home), we were ready to head off. So, fighting a crappy night’s sleep we decided to hit the Oedo subway line to head out to the Tsukiji fish markets.

Tokyo’s public transport system looks like a rat’s nest to the uninitiated, but it’s not too tricky to navigate once you start using it. After a short subway ride and a quick walk we arrived at the fish markets. This was an awesome way to start out, though it was a shame that we weren’t hungry as the seafood there looked amazing. After managing to not get in anyone’s way, we then proceeded to get lost while trying to find our way to visit Ginza. We’ll call it the scenic tour, as it sounds better. We ended up at a place with a big sailing mast sticking out the ground, and eventually found an Oedo subway station and managed to get to Ginza, while at the same time finding a Pasmo vending machine so we could use a pre-paid IC card to take care of getting through any non-JR lines without having to worry about tickets (individual fare tickets confuse my brain).

Ginza looks and feels like the luxury end of town, even down to the subway station. Very fancy. Apart from a bit of window shopping, we were down here to check out the Sony building. Since the building is nice and big, it’s hard to miss, so off we went. The main reason for dropping by was to check out the recently-installed 4K Experience show.

Being a bit of a technophile, I was keen to see how much of a jump the move to 4K would be. The session began with a dramatic unveiling of an 85″ display showing off some unbelievable high resolution photography, and my gawd, the future of video is spectacular. Next I got to sit down in a fancy-pants driving setup to play Gran Turismo Concept on a massive projector display running natively in 4K (not sure what hardware it was on – the rumour mill online suggests Polyphony Digital are running a few PS3s in parallel), which was also delightful. The final interactive display involved sitting in a fancy wicker seat and watching some 4K footage of provincial Italy.

After that we picked up some amazing lunch from a Japanese family restaurant, which was also my first attempt at ordering a proper meal since we arrived. The waitress did a great job deciphering my poor Japanese, and Wifey enjoyed a deconstructed burger (meat pattie, rice, chips, steamed veg and a crumbed/fried prawn), while I had a sizzling stone bowl of something yum. After finishing eating, it was time to hit the public transport system again as we went to Harajuku.

Even though it was only a weekday afternoon, Harajuku was alive and well. After gushing over something as mundane as pedestrian bridges over main streets (blame it on Jet Set Radio), we wandered around the place, being amused and entertained in relatively equal amounts.

The typical gaijin assumption and assertion about contemporary Japan is that it is a country of contrasts. While I don’t necessarily agree with this as a standard maxim (I prefer the anthropological assertion that it is a harmonious melting pot that is happy to blend history and contemporary values much alike any developed country with a rich history of societal growth [and in many ways parallels its development towards modernism with the way it blends different religious belief within the traditional Japanese lifecycle], but that’s my wanky undergrad side so let’s not dwell on this too much), the juxtaposition of having the Meiji Shrine sitting at the tip of Harajuku’s shopping district is entirely palpable.

Utter tranquility hits once you get off the streets and the shrine is beautiful and peaceful. We did the usual tropes – cleaning yourself prior to entering (which you do by rinsing your hands and mouth at a well at the entrance, with Wifey helping to fill the blanks since I missed that part of my etiquette research!), offering a gift and prayer at the shrine, and behaved ourselves by not taking any photos inside the main part of the shrine (unfortunately not all the gaijin present were being similarly respectful).

We ended up heading out the way we came in to avoid a repeat of getting lost as per the morning’s Ginza incident, jumped onto the Yamanote JR Line in what was becoming peak time, then proceeded to become utterly lost when exiting Shinjuku Station. It wasn’t all for nought as we picked up something for dinner at the Takashimaya department store during this latest misadventure – a selection of sushi and sashimi, apples, cinnamon buns and Snoopy Water – props to the checkout staff as the service was better than anything I’d ever experienced in Australia.

We finally got back to our hotel around 6pm, finished the check-in process and headed up to our room. With the first day sorted, things seemed a lot less intimidating after a decent shower, something to eat and watching a movie on the iPad before going to bed at 9pm. While a whirlwind, the first day went well and we managed to get everything done that we wanted to.

To view all posts on the Japan 2012 Travel Diary, just use the 2012 Japan Trip tag, as the whole series will be added to it over time.

Yes, I’m still here


Looks like the last time I posted was back in October – yikes, even by my standards that’s a bit shonky!

Anywho, I do have a good reason for the break – Wifey and I recently returned from a mind-blowingly amazing trip to… Japan!

And the best part is that you’ll all have the chance of reliving it in pictures and blogs, as I kept a long-winded daily account of what we got up to. This should not only make for general entertainment, but hopefully a bit of genuine fun learning (but the real kind of fun learning, not the 1990s edutainment software on a PC or Mac version) as I’ll be sharing all the nerd places we hit up while over there too.

Oh, and the above image is a cropped snapshot of an ingenious use of goodie bags from a Club Sega to keep all the nerdy goodies together. I can’t take the credit for that idea though, that lies entirely with the Amazing Wifey (who is amazing – obviously).

I’m aiming to start posting up content over the next few weeks and will group everything under a single tag to make it easy to check up on things, similar to what I did with the Astro City overhaul project. Given my time commitments as we head into the silly season, I’ll aim to get at least two posts up each week with each post recapping a day’s eventfulness (trust me, it would be overkill to include more than one day’s exposition per post as it’s pretty wordy). Oh, and there will be some fun images to accompany things too!

So yes, as the old adage goes, stay tuned πŸ™‚

New section to the site – wallpapers/photography

I added a new section to the website a few weeks back, but thought I’d point it out for those curious.

Wifey and I picked up a DSLR a year or two back and while playing through Phantasy Star 2, I decided to try taking some interesting-ish shots of some of the things around me – close-ups of the hint book, wide shots looking at my gaming setup with Phantasy Star 2 paraphernalia scattered across my coffee table and a super-scanline photo of the CRT blaring at the camera.

I’m still learning about how different functions work, so the shots are by no means amazing or anything, just an experiment. I’ve long admired the beautiful hardware shots of various consoles and accessories over at NFGgames, so that was probably my inspiration for taking an interest in hi-res photos of consoles and games.

All the wallpapers are cropped, processed and then output in 1080p resolutions that should hopefully suit PCs and consoles supporting custom HD wallpapers if you’re so inclined. I’m not quite ballsy to work on stuff in 4K yet (especially given the woeful real-world performance of my ADSL2 connection – 3.5mb down/500k up – which leaves me upset that the Coalition want to replace FTTH NBN with FTTN, which conversely means I’ll probably only get ADSL2 speeds on their terrible NBN proposal if I’m lucky), but I’m pretty sure the original resolution of the shots would would be able to accommodate this without too much trouble.

I’m not sure how frequently I’ll be adding to the gallery, but I’ll upload and post an update here whenever I add something new. The main gallery is under Image galleries » Wallpapers, but if you’re keen, follow the (only) link to the Phantasy Star 2 section.

Or, if you’re lazy, below is the full set:

Playing through Phantasy Star 2… in 2012

Phantasy Star 2 blew my prepubescent mind and tugged on my heartstrings at the tender age of 11. The game was released in 1989 in Japan with an ambitious localised version hitting the English-speaking market in 1991. In an environment where Japanese RPGs were incredibly niche, the decision to translate the game was a risky, but ultimately it was a sensible move – without it, we may not have had the amazing Phantasy Star 4 or the Phantasy Star Online titles released in the West, games that have captured nerdy hearts, minds and wallets for years since and hopefully years to come.

My first exposure to RPGs came from my older brother. Miguel had the delightful thought of getting the D&D Gold Box for the C64 in 1990 as a pressie, and there was something about this 8-bit fantasy world that clicked with me. While I tried to get into the games, with multiple half-arsed save files to show for my efforts, it was watching my brother play through these challenging and detailed worlds that drew me into appreciating the broad scope offered in RPGs.

We picked up our Mega Drive in 1993 after selling off the SMS and all our games to bring in the $299 for the retail pack (it came bundled with Sonic 1 and redemption vouchers for Alex Kidd in the Enchated Castle and Columns). Somewhere over the next couple of months while shopping at the now-defunct John Martins, Mum had my brothers and I in tow and we naturally migrated to the video game section. I can’t recall if I picked up anything for myself, but that fateful day saw my brother pick up Phantasy Star 2, complete with hint book and foldy map, for what I hope was a reasonable retail price.

For my brothers and I, this was our first experience with a console RPG. I remember Miguel renting Ys for the SMS from our local video store (same with Golden Axe Warrior), but there was something mesmerising about this brightly coloured, electric-pop RPG. I remember watching my brother play through the game as he slowly hammered through this detailed world and its insanely complex dungeons. What impressed me most, as daft as this sounds, was how you could save your game and it would be instantaneous. This was a crazy notion to us having being used to the save process on the Gold Box titles on the C64, which took a couple of minutes each time you saved your game to the floppy disk.

But I digress.

The turning point for me was when the jet scooter took my brother’s party underwater and there encountered one of the lynchpins of modern RPGs, the tragic heroine. Between those amazing still images, melancholic soundtrack and just enough reasonably-translated text to convey what was going on, this was the point that convinced me that I needed to play this game.

So I jumped in, started a party and began that journey. Phantasy Star 2 was (and still is) an incredibly punishing RPG, but it is also very rewarding. Somehow Phantasy Star 2 manages to get a balance that keeps you enticed if you’re committed to the journey, helped by the way it presents its world in an utterly engaging way.

The hint book that was included was crucial to make progress without causing nerd rage. While there were a couple of misprints in there, it was critical in getting through the game. To this day I still have the hint book, complete with scribbles from my brothers and I, and its amazing how much sentimental value I attribute to the thing.

Phantasy Star 2 was followed up by Phantasy Star 3, a sequel that was too ambitious for its own good. It was also a game I didn’t get a chance to play until I was at uni thanks to some eBaying (so, over 10 years ago), as I could never find a copy of it anywhere at retail. I can even recall hitting the local shops during the atypical family trips to country towns around Australia in case they had old stock, but never had any luck. The break wasn’t necessarily too bad, as it meant that my next experience came in the form of the sublime Phantasy Star 4 in 1995. Couldn’t have asked for a better way to follow up the defining game that convinced me that playing RPGs was well worth my time.

The Sega Ages 2500 release of the Phantasy Star Collection featured all the games emulated to anally-retentive accuracy by M2. One of the amazing features of this release (aside from forcing the PS2 back to 240p and displaying this over component video) was the ability to switch the games’ respective difficulty levels. The difficulty switches simply performed on the fly hacks to the game code and multiplies the amount of meseta and experience points you get for each battle, but in doing so they bring Phantasy Star 1 and 2 back into the realm of approachability that suits the lifestyle of someone at my stage in life where I don’t have the time to grinds my levels in RPGs as punishing as Phantasy Star 1 or 2. This meant I was able to finish Phantasy Star 1 for the first time, which has helped in filling in some blanks as far as the series goes. It also meant I was able to go back and revisit Phantasy Star 2 in a way that meant I could play through it again on a console that is more compatible with my free time these days.

So, all that out of the way, how was revisiting my watershed RPG experience?

In a word – awesome.

The game still kept me riveted throughout the whole experience, despite some of the light grinding that’s still required despite pushing it into “Easy Mode”. The visuals, though simple, are efficient, clean and charming. And that portrait art? Tight, endearing and brilliant.

The game world is still genuinely intriguing, despite the flaws in the translation and the breaks in consistency. The soundtrack as well – Bo, you are a genius. What I hadn’t noticed before was the stylistic similarities between Phantasy Star 1 and 2 if you compare PS2 to the FM synth version of PS1, but it’s in there. Slowly uncovering the game world, exploring Mota then Dezo, all those crazy dungeons and the abundance of primary colours with incredibly detailed sprite animation? Still a great experience.

Phantasy Star 2 fans have waxed lyrical over the years over the trend-setting elements in the game, and I’m inclined to agree, though with the usual rose-tinted glasses caveat πŸ™‚ The game revels in juxtoposition – Mota is lush, green and the image of a utopian future. The core of the game centers around unwrapping this outer layer to start exposing the truths of how the universe evolved between the two games, and humanity’s response to a technologically-managed future. There are thematic links that suggest commentary on the reliance on technology and evolving standards and expectations of laziness wrought by apathy that has been brought about by government control. There are government conspiracies, hidden layers that hint at the externally-based surveillance state, hidden historical layers and tight links back to the prequel that bring up the kind of tingles associated with getting to the second book of a long-running series that you only “get” because you shared the experience playing through the first game.

Then there are the plot twists. Nothing terribly crazy, but there are enough twists and hints in there that suggest much more beneath the surface of a game crammed into a tiny cartridge and developed as a response to late-80s sci-fi anime and manga.

The only problem going back was lamenting the lack of a solid JRPG follow-up to the core Phantasy Star games. PSO and PSU both contain plenty of hints back to the old games (the first time I picked out the melodic homages to PS1 and PS2 in PSO Episode 2 gave me goosebumps), but we still haven’t seen a proper follow-up. The Japanese-only remakes of PS1 and PS2 are good if you can speak Japanese, as there’s so much more content in there. Unfortunately, the difficulty is still unforgiving and the game was never officially translated, thereby rendering it relatively inaccessible in the West (though that being said, the first game has recently received an amazing fan translation). The remakes were also done a slim budget, so while it was great to see the game coasting along in 480i, it lacked the kind of polish that still shines through with the original games.

It is wankery to assign hyperbolic phrases like “ahead of its time”, “best JRPG ever”, “set the pace for RPGs”. There’s really no need to debate that one, as objectively the game is flawed and probably an acquired taste. However, as someone who cut their teeth and who also developed an unnecessary emotional attachment to the game as a child, I still have a soft spot for Phantasy Star 2, and playing through it again in 2012 has not shifted that belief.

Phantasy Star 2, as a gamer, coloured my entire perspective of what was possible in video games. My brother had planted the seed of interest in RPGs with the Gold Box releases on the C64 and with his purchase of PS2, he cemented my obsession with the genre. Looking through my pile of games I’ve accumulated, RPGs are a running theme, and the experiences that they have brought with them have forever coloured me as a JRPG fanboy, even if their relevance is considered antiquated since the dawn of the current generation.

So yes, the game is flawed, and playing it in 2012 cements this. But this step back in time was priceless, much like my original playthrough of the game in 1993 and 1994. That was probably the best part going back to it – while my broader experience with games has coloured my interests accordingly, Phantasy Star 2 has remained, to me, an excellent game and an amazing experience.

For those curious, I followed through with taking snaps of my progress throughout the game – the image gallery is here if you’re keen on following the journey πŸ™‚

Phantasy Star: Generation 1 has been translated!!

The amazing Phantasy Star: Generation 1 remake has been translated into English!!! Phantasy Star Cave has reported that member Kyence has worked her magic and the translated patch is now available over at Phantasy Star Cave.

This is unbelievable news given the game never received a translation by Sega. What’s even better is that she’s indicated that she’s keen to give Phantasy Star: Generation 2 a whirl next πŸ™‚

In the meantime, grab the patch and download it. If you’re having trouble getting through the game (though I’m sure some FAQs will follow), you can always go through some of the tips I put together when I played through the game in Japanese.

Props to Retro Gaming Australia for the source!