Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 11


To juxtapose a half-nerd day on Thursday, on Friday we caught the regional train to Nara, which was only about an hour away from where we were staying. The town promised plenty of awesome, and it certainly delivered.

After getting off the train we headed down to the sightseeing bus terminals and jumped on board to see Toudai-ji, or as we remembered it – the temple with the giant Buddha. Nara is a really pretty city – not too fast-paced with a blend of old and new that was reminiscent of Kyoto, but more welcoming in some intangible way that’s difficult to describe.

After arriving at our stop we wandered through the park that lead to the temple, going through the closed-off pedestrian street with souvenir and food shops to one side, with the native deer walking or lazing around the place. It’s amazing to see all the deer at relative ease with everything without the need to have the areas closed off with fences and what-not.

Following the growing surge of tourists, including hordes of amusing middle school students attending as class groups, we made our way to the enormous outer gates, then followed the crowd to the main entrance. After paying the fee to attend, we walked through the inner entrance that opened up to a stunning view of the carefully cultured lawns and gardens that led the way into the main temple. In all seriousness, I figured the place was going to be big, but the scale and immaculate state of everything really was incredible.

After making an offering at the gates of the main temple and lighting some incense, we crossed the threshold to behold the amazing statues therein. It is inconceivable that human hands so long ago put such amazing works of art together. Like a lot of the aspects of this trip, it’s hard to succinctly put into words the awe and reverence of this place, suffice to say that it was an intense and awe-inspiring experience.

After picking up a couple of goodies from the temple we exited back onto the main leading street after I made a stop at the men’s room (and was greeted by another amusing drop toilet) to adjust my prosthesis for the wander back to the train station. On the way we picked up a few more skewered dango from a street vendor and Wifey fed some of the native deer. Because I’m daft I decided to grab another matcha soft-serve ice cream cone on the way out and we walked back probably about half way to the main Nara train Station before jumping aboard another sightseeing bus for the final bit.

As we were pulling up to the final stop opposite the train station I spotted a shop out the corner of my eye that might have been packing nerd stuff, so after jumping off the train we walked around the corner and came upon a local Geo store. Having never been inside one I wasn’t sure what to expect, but drilling to the back of the store was the game section. Like most of the mainstream second hand places the majority of the stock was NDS, PS3 and PSP games, with a small selection of PS2 and PSone for reasonable prices. I decided to snap up a handful of PSone titles, then we were off again on the train back to Osaka.

The original plan was to grab some ramen at the Osaka station, so we assumed this wouldn’t be an issue given the prevalence of amazing (and cheap) ramen places in all of the other major stations we travelled through. After hunting through the convoluted complex several times, it appears as though Osaka Station, unlike pretty much every station we had travelled to at this point, had no cheap and awesome ramen places, at least that we could find. Instead we eventually settled on tea and waffles in a posh-looking restaurant modelled after the Japanese interpretation of an English tea house. It wasn’t what we were craving, but it was still yum!

While we were at Osaka Station we also had another stop, this time especially for Wifey – we visited the official Pokemon Center! The massive store is located within the labything selection of buildings and is packed with all sorts of goodies that celebrate the franchise’s past and ongoing evolution. We picked up some plushies, candy, bento boxes and all sorts of stuff here. We were tempted to pick up some of the Pokemon-themed kitchen appliances and bakeware but decided to err on the side of caution since we only had limited space and weight for our luggage.

With our fun over, from Osaka Station we travelled back to the Dotonburi shopping precinct, with Wifey getting some overdue shopping for herself (instead of being dragged by me to nerd places). We ended up dropping into the Sakaisuji shopping mall (near/off Dotonburi, I can’t remember exactly as we approached it via the Crystalis underground mall), and lo and behold if I didn’t see the warming glowing warmness of a Book Off towards the tail end of the mall.

Like most Book Offs, the selection was mainly geared towards current gen consoles – PS3, XB360, NDS, PSP and PS2, with a reasonable selection of cheap PSone titles and a smaller selections of Famicom, Super Famicom, Saturn and Dreamcast titles. I picked up a couple of games across most of the systems (including some very reasonably priced Famicom titles), and from there we made the trek back to the hotel.

We decided to eat lightly that night since we were catching a 3-hour Shinkansen ride back to Tokyo the next day, so we ate some delicious sushi at a place near our hotel that served up fresh morsels of yum on a conveyer belt (just like our beloved Sushi Train at home), and grabbed another crepe to eat back in the hotel.

We did the usual pack-up when we got back to the hotel, this time taking advantage of the extra piece of luggage we picked up at Tokyu Hands the day before, and got ready for an entertaining day of travel to follow!

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.

Japan 2012 Travel Diary, Day 10


The first full day in Osaka was set as a half nerd/half not-nerd shopping day. Osaka houses the west-coast equivalent of Akihabara, Nipponbashi or Den Den Town, so we had planned to head over there in the morning and then jump over to the Dotonburi shopping district in the afternoon. To make things more time-efficient, I used Sebaattori’s excellent blog entry on retrogaming in Osaka as a base and headed to the Ebisucho Station via the Sakaisuji line, exit 1-B, and found Super Potato two meters to the right of the exit once we got out onto the street. We ended up crossing over the other side to check out the Sofmap over there only to realise the Sofmap on the same side of the street as Super Potato (and our other destination, Game Tanteidan) was where we needed to go.

Before going on, I have to say that Nipponbashi is a completely different beast than Akiba. Where Akiba is gaudy but full of life, Nipponbashi is gritty, grimy and dark; Wifey commented the same, and where in Akiba she felt pretty comfortable and found the spectacle entertaining, she felt a bit uncomfortable in comparison in Nipponbashi. We started off hunting for LDs in a store on the corner before starting the nerd run, and once again inadvertently walked into the porn section on the second floor (which felt a little more seedy than the other accidental walk-ins). Exiting, we headed to Sofmap and found their retro collection was located across 6 bins (3 x 3 – so two rows), where the whole thing was a bit of a mess. Games in there were certainly cheap enough (I grabbed Virtua Cop 2 for only ¥50), but it was a lot of effort for comparably little return time-wise, so we left after grabbing the above and headed to Game Tanteidan (or to use Sebaattori’s translation, Game Detectives).

The store isn’t massive, but the selection is fantastic and pricing wasn’t too shabby either considering we were shopping in an urban area – on the whole, it was probably 10% to 20% cheaper than Akiba, though in some instances it was also more expensive (consistently inconsistent then!). The bottom floor is where the hardware is (they had a set of boxed Virtual On Twin Sicks for the Saturn for only ¥960!!), as well as most of the software. The Famicom selection is extensive, but being conscious of time I wasn’t in a position to go through everything individually, and instead prioritised the Saturn and DC, and checked out a couple of Super Famicom games and some Mega CD titles. Upstairs is dedicated to MSX, collectible cards, game music and art books (and probably guide books as well). Up here I was fortunate enough to find a copy of the Phantasy Star Compendium art book for around ¥3500 and snapped it up, then grabbed some titles from downstairs on the way out, with my amazing and patient wife helping by holding onto games while I shopped (and by now I’m sure you’ve noticed that Wifey being amazing and patient has been a continuing motif throughout this entire trip!).

I was debating whether to go to Super Potato as I heard the prices there were really expensive, but Wifey said I should still go in, and as always she was right 🙂 We skipped the bottom floor as per Sebaattori’s advice and went straight to the second floor where the retro love is. Since the shelves weren’t quite as packed as Game Detectives, more games were facing with the label-side visible rather than the spine, so it made it faster than relying on my not-so-speedy ability to read Japanese to trawl though carts 🙂 I ended up buying some more gear from there, as price-wide they were often similar to Game Detectives, with some titles more expensive and some gear cheaper (they had piles of Model 1 Mega Drives for around ¥1500 a pop which was pretty cool, and Saturns for ¥3500), but of course the selection was a bit different which was great. We passed a couple of other gaijin in the shop taking turns playing Super Mario Kart which was pretty awesome too.

Where this Super Potato really came into its own were some readily accessible premium titles I was after – I snapped up Radiant Silvergun for a shade under ¥8000, Asuka 120% Final Burning Fest. for under ¥5000 (closer to ¥4500 I think) and a few other titles I hadn’t seen elsewhere (like Dead of Alive on the PSone for a cheap price too). Wifey, again being amazing, pointed me in the direction of the bargain bins towards the back where I snapped up a whole heap of goodies for ¥50-¥200, including a boxed Bishoujo Senshi Sailormoon and some loose Sonic carts for the Game Gear, Godzilla Generations and a few other DC games and a DC lightgun as well.

After exiting Super Potato, we headed back to Ebisucho Station and took the Sakaisuji Line up to the next stop (Nipponbashi) and jammed the nerd stuff into a coin locker (note to all tourists – coin lockers are amazing and should be utilised to reduce shopping fatigue!), then walked out and passed a couple of dodgy looking pachinko parlours (pachinko is huge in Osaka) before arriving at the start of Dotonburi, which signalled the end of nerd shopping and the start of food and Wifey-friendly shopping!

The general perception is that in Osaka you eat and drink your fill when you’re out, and the proliferation of so many places to grab a bite down this street was impressive and set your belly rumbling. We passed all manner of cuisine, but being Osaka we knew we had one destination – takoyaki.

We ended up stopping off at a place with an impressive line-up considering the time of day (close to 3pm if memory serves), so I jumped in and managed to order a small selection of takoyaki to share with Wifey. As much as I enjoyed the goodies from the night before, I’m pretty confident that these topped them and were mouth-burningly delicious. With our belated lunch sorted out, it was time to work off all that yummy batter with more shopping.

Doutonburi is a long and densely-packed open-air mall, with shops initially sitting along the main street when you enter it from where we came from. As we progressed though, the foodie haunts gave way to all manner of shops and amusement centres, and these eventually gave way to labyrinths of other enclosed strip malls spidering off the main street. The scale really was impressive and we barely scratched the surface, instead prioritising a visit to H&M across a bridge that showed off some amazing views of the concrete jungle that is Osaka (no H&M locally and the EU sizes meant it wasn’t too tricky to work out what to buy).

As the afternoon wore on, the middle and high school students hit the pavement and Doutonburi became alive with a sea of people. Apart from catching up and going shopping they were also checking out some live performances on one of the bridges that lead over to H&M and all manner of other gear was happening in the area. We ended up doing some shopping and purchasing around this part of Doutonburi, and I have to take this spot to give huge credit to the incredible pride the Japanese guys put into looking the part when they head out. I felt comparatively under-dressed sporting jeans and a t-shirt (the humidity meant I couldn’t layer stuff otherwise I would have become a sweaty gaijin, which isn’t a good look!), but it was great to see pride in appearance and passion in the stores with guys out shopping in force. There was also an abundance of headwear that I picked up while we were over there (one of the catches with being a ranga with a thinning hairline means hats are a bit of a necessity these days!), and they’ve certainly been put to use as the Australian summer kicked in locally.

After finishing up there we wandered our way to the nearby Tokyu Hands department store at Wifey’s very sensible insistence (passing a Konami fitness club on the way!).

I didn’t know much at all about Tokyu Hands before we visited, but I cam away really impressed with it! It’s a multi-story department store with a tip towards the more affordable end of the spectrum, and while we were there we bought a couple of souvenirs and a lightweight piece of luggage to accommodate all the crap we had bought to date (I can’t recall the cost, but it was incredibly lightweight and strong, with four wheels on the base for easy movement and was extremely good value). The only trick with purchasing the luggage was that I got my Japanese mixed up, but between my command of the language and a touch of English, everything got sorted out and after 5-10 minutes a staff member brought out a fresh, new piece of luggage from the storage area out the back. With the new luggage in hand, we headed back via the train station to grab the nerd haul from the coin locker to take home with us. Turns out it all fit quite nicely inside the new piece of baggage too and made it very easy to take all our shopping back to our hotel!

We dropped our collective haul off at the hotel before hitting the Universal City Walk again for dinner (yes, we were being a bit lazy by relying on going somewhere so close to the hotel rather than exploring more of Osaka at night!), settling for Mos Burger as Wifey was interested in more comfort food as she continued to fight off her cold, and then picked up a banana and strawberry crepe from the crepe stand and more drinks from Starbucks (being the manly-man I am, I continued my addiction to their mango passion iced tea, while Wifey grabbed a mocha espresso to warm up) to finish off at our hotel.

Osaka continued to gel with us after a day of shopping – while not as clean as the other cities we visited, the place was full of life and everyone seemed to be milling about with purpose. The nerd run to Nipponbashi blew a reasonable wad of cash, but it was so much fun and while you’re paying a bit extra for the convenience, when you’re strapped for time it’s a pretty good compromise in my opinion. Time’s the central key point here I guess – there was so much more to explore in Osaka and we only touched on Nipponbashi, Doutonburi and the immediate surrounds of our hotel during the day. We also needed bigger gaijin appetites to take advantage of all the amazing street food, and that’s not even counting the copious flow of cheap and tasty beer on offer either!! I have a feeling we’d have trouble keeping up with the locals, but I’m sure if Wifey and I get back to Osaka in the future we’ll be ready to give it another crack!

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.

Reviewing… Secret of Evermore (SNES)

Secret of Evermore PAL box

Secret of Evermore is a curious beast. At release it caused a stir amongst the press and the wider gaming community for (a) not being a true sequel to Secret of Mana and (b) taking the role of the scapegoat in light of Seiken Densetsu 3 being skipped for localisation in the West. While time has allow that last point to be corrected, it has also allowed the dust to settle so that the game can be experienced free from the enthusiasm the Seiken Densetsu franchise traditionally emanated (which in itself is a relic given the downward trajectory of the franchise in a post-16-bit world).

Back in 1996 when my younger brother and I finally joined the SNES bandwagon, a handful of games kicked-off the collection – Killer Instinct (no laughing!) and Secret of Mana, closely followed by Super Mario Allstars, Super Mario World then Zelda. Knowing my gaming habits, I would have picked up Secret of Evermore some time between May and September (thanks to Retro Gaming Australia for the reference – Secret of Evermore received a score of 92% in the April 1996 issue of Hyper), given the release date of April-ish (with a few exceptions, back in the mid-90s we didn’t really have release dates) and my historic purchase of a Sega Saturn in September (yes, it’s historic, even if it’s only in my head). After enjoying Secret of Mana (who wouldn’t?), picking up Secret of Evermore was a no-brainer. What eventuated out of that purchase though, was a bit of an anomally. The UI and a large portion of the game mechanics were familiar, but the premise was a little different and the presentation (audio and visuals) was certainly a departure from its namesake prequel.

1996-Sean didn’t really let this bother him – the game in some ways was disappointing, as it lacked a persistent connection with the familiar world of Secret of Mana, lacked polish, didn’t seem quite as broad in scope and the multiplayer was sorely missed. On the flip-side, the music was great, the locales were certainly interesting and some of the mechanics were well-implemented. The story also made a bit more sense, though this is easy to identify retrospectively given it’s now much more common knowledge that Secret of Mana suffered from being abruptly hacked together in light of the Super CD falling by the wayside, and the ongoing issues with space and programming logic inherent to localising 16-bit JRPGs.

From a historical perspective then, the game was enjoyed and appreciated, but ultimately fell shy of filling the impressive shoes left in the wake of Secret of Mana.

So what does 2011-Sean think of the game?

For me, it was an altogether different experience. It had been over 15 years since I last fired up the game, and in that time a lot has happened. Aside from getting older and having less hair on my head, we’ve had the internet come in and fill the gaps around the game’s genesis, development and its place amongst other Square RPGs of the time. Seiken Densetsu 3 has been unofficially translated, which means the blind faithful (like yours truly) can sup at the table Square denied us in 1996. There has been distance gained beyond the various threads spun of rampant fanboyism that only the changing guard of 1996 could have produced.

Perspective, as it is, continues to be an interesting creature, and in the context of this review, has made Secret of Evermore a better game.

The soundtrack continues to impress despite its differences in thematic composition to Kikuta’s soundtrack in Secret of Mana. Especially worthy of note is its progressive implementation of atmospheric noise in place of background music during some key areas (Hardcore Gaming 101’s excellent thoughtpiece lists a few poignant examples). The game looks far less “squishy” now that I can play the game in 60hz, it controls well, the worlds are imaginative, and alchemy is fun when you get your head around it. I even enjoyed the collect-a-thon in the markets, though I admit to seeking some help from GameFAQs on that one to clear things up.

I’m not saying the game isn’t flawed – it is, but it doesn’t mean the game is any less endearing. The writing is a little hokey, but at least it isn’t the fragmented mess that was Secret of Mana and there are some nice (predictable) spins in the narrative. The graphics teeter between very good and drab depending on the world you’re playing in – world three is an example of the good, while the swamps in world one float the other way. Multiplayer continues to be a sticking point, but I appreciated the functionality offered by the dog in tracking down ingredients this time, rather than sulking about the lack of multiplayer.

Even the game length was well balanced. There are a few spaces where tedium kicked in (such as the dessert in world 2 or the grinding required when levelling up your weapons), but it wasn’t enough to present a roadblock to progress. Being time-poor these days, it took about a month or so of casual play during weekends to finish up the game, which was perfect for me. The 60+ hour marathons common in later generations was thankfully absent, which for me is also part of the appeal of 16-bit JRPGs. Interestingly, the game length seemed pretty reasonable from 1996-Sean’s perspective, despite the price of entry – I don’t have the docket, but I’m pretty sure my (now-defunct) local independent game store charged $89 for the game, which equates to $128.23 today. Despite this, I don’t recall ever feeling short-changed by the game.

So, Secret of Evermore – flawed and often misunderstood, but ultimately a very solid game.

Autumn reminds me of Secret of Mana

Back in 1996, my younger brother and I pooled our money together and bagged ourselves a great little SNES combo – coming to the end of the 16-bit era meant that there were good opportunities to see the other side of the fence for a small outlay (our household was a staunch Sega proponent) and enough time had passed to bury the proverbial hatchet. If memory serves, we put together around $200, which bought us a SNES Killer Instinct pack – SNES console with RF lead/AC adapter, controller, as well as a boxed copy of Killer Instinct (don’t laugh :P) and an extra controller as a bonus. We’d been thinking about it for a while at that point, as one of my brother’s mates had a SNES and had brought it over a few times and I’d been able to play some Zelda here and there, and one of my mates, McAdam, had snapped up a SNES the X-Mas prior to ’96 and had introduced me to the awesomeness of a rented copy of Secret of Mana one weekend. To complete the peer pressure, another mate from school got me hooked on Killer Instinct (again, stop laughing!). So, we took the plunge. Or rather, my little brother went away on camp for a weekend, so Mum and I went out to the mall and grabbed a SNES pack, and I picked up a copy of Secret of Mana for myself. The only catch was that I wasn’t allowed to play the SNES or even open it until he came back from his trip. It did make for an awesome Sunday evening of gaming though, and 3:30pm couldn’t come fast enough the next day at school 🙂

The time of year we got the SNES was when it starts to get a bit of a cold snap in the evening (well, “cold” by Australian standards anyway), so whenever we get a burst of cold like we’re getting at the moment, it reminds me of cranking out the SNES for the first time, and just as importantly, playing Secret of Mana with my brothers.

There was so much about the game that made it special – despite the nonsensical plot thanks to the game’s initial development as a Super CD title, there was so much to love about it. The graphics were pure 16-bit era Japanese development – colourful, charming and packed to the rafters with great animation and flourishes. The music was absolutely amazing – the SPC700 was able to do some amazing stuff, but the quality of the compositions for Secret of Mana were enchanting, especially since my other 16-bit adventures were dominated by the Mega Drive’s synth which didn’t have anywhere near the range of features of the SNES’ audio system (that being said, there’s a particular charm to what some of the better developers were able to pull off with the Mega Drive’s audio setup). But more than all of that, the game was so much fun to play and accessible. While the AI was a bit stupid, playing the game with someone else made it so much more fun and broke down a lot of barriers that surrounded the RPG systems in the 16-bit era. While I was already a JRPG convert thanks to the sublime Phantasy Star 2 (thanks to my brother Miguel on that one, and for starting me on the RPG path with the SSI-developed D&D games on the C64 and PC before that), it was great to see those concepts presented in such a different format. The only bummer is that I never got to play through the game on 3-player mode – my younger brother managed to do this with some of his mates when they rented a multitap from one of the neighbourhood video stores, and he assures me that it was awesome.

As much as I adore this game, there are two things about it that saddens me – first of all, the direct sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3, never got an official English release by Squaresoft (instead we got Secret of Evermore, which while not as polished, actually isn’t too shabby if you can psychologically separate it from the former when playing it). Secondly, all the games since the SNES games have arguably been rubbish. I remember downloading trailers for Legend of Mana on the PSX off Gaming Age on my old dial-up connection and being absolutely gobsmacked by some amazing hand-drawn visuals and sublime audio. Sadly, the final game featured a terrible translation and didn’t carry anywhere near the charm and persistent game world that the SNES games had. Fast forward to the PS2, and we get Dawn of Mana, yet another terrible interpretation of the franchise. Thankfully, the 3-party action-RPG spirit lived on in the excellent Kingdom Hearts games, but even that’s bittersweet – the natural extension of the engine that powered Kingdom Hearts would have made a natural base to build up a living, breathing and colourful world to set a new Mana game that echoed the successes of old. Such a wasted opportunity.

If I could make one last-ditched and naive request to SquareEnix, it would be this – create a HD remake of Secret of Mana with glorious 2D artwork, and tell the story that you originally wanted to tell before the game got chopped apart to fit the limited space of a cartridge. I’m not asking for voice work or anything like that (because in all likelihood it means they won’t make it a bilingual release) or animated cut scenes – 3 players online or offline simultaneously, great music, beautiful spritework, the full story, digital distribution (to reduce costs, though I’d love a physical release). I have a feeling SquareEnix like money, and this kind of project would be a virtual printer of cash. At least in my naive view of the current state of video gaming.

The Rocket Knight Adventures revisit looks promising (new trailer!)

Rocket Knight Adventures on the Mega Drive was/is awesome. When I was reading up via 1up and heard via their awesome nerd podcast Retronauts earlier this year that it was getting a revisit via PSN/XBLA, I was mildly excited. Some of the early promo artwork looked like it had potential, but I was still sitting on the fence.

However, after checking out an update over at PALGN and watching the trailer, I’m pleasantly surprised by how it’s shaping up:

I’m really loving the visual aesthetic here – there’s a classic storybook fantasy feel to the visuals that looks great, and the animation and particle effects are spot on. I didn’t have the speakers on while watching it though, so not sure on the direction with the audio. Hopefully it’s not poxy!

The original Mega Drive game in the series featured everything that made Konami such a powerhouse back in the 16- and 32-bit eras, with loving attention to detail on the visuals, great music perfectly suited to the hardware, plenty of colour, passion, spot-on controls, innovation and even a little story to boot! While the sequel on the Mega Drive was in comparison pretty disappointing (I’m guessing a different team handled it), the concept was still fun. The only game in the series I never got a chance to play was Sparkster on the SNES. I really should track it down though, Konami made some brilliant games on the SNES.

So yes, new Rocket Knight Adventures game for May. Can’t wait 😀