Finally, I had made it to the Tokyo Game Show. Back when it started in 1996, I would have given anything to come here. Nowadays the gaming scene has changed. It's not all about a few big players revealing consoles destined to rule the living room. Now we have a nerfed, consoleless Sega and a catch-all Sony nodding at indie and mobile, but shouting as usual about the Triple-As. Microsoft are in the game now, but not at the show - neither are Nintendo. Nevertheless, as I walked into the Makuhari Messe exhibition complex with a camera and a press pass around my neck, I was still hoping to fulfil a childhood dream.
What appeared as eight exhibition halls on the map was actually one enormous space notionally divided by high-hanging numbers. The big players were front and centre. A Sega man lectured charismatically under a towering projection of himself that did not befit his meagre audience. The PlayStation booth had a huge computer face on a screen. When the PS2 launched, a tech demo showed us that it could render an impressively detailed face. It looked like a face. Now, after 18 years of technological leaps and bounds, there is no doubt: this one definitely looked like a face. Capcom seemed to be running a beauty pageant; it had a bigger crowd than the Sega man.
The hall was busy but not overwhelming. The atmosphere was muted. I was there on the first "business day", so, to be fair, things hadn't really picked up: the cosplay area was closed and the Street Fighter V tournament was in two days' time.
The day's tone was set on the morning train, where white shirts and black trousers pressed silently together and every ad seemed to be for a job agency. One had the slogan, "Just anything better than I have now". At the Game Show, too, there was plenty of business attire, I noticed, as I strolled round in my shorts. At Anippon Sneakers – a very cool videogame clothing retailer – a man came to introduce himself to the manager. Some sort of work acquaintance, he was dressed in niche youth fashion but even so he bowed and spoke honorific Japanese, business card offered in both hands.
Elsewhere, there were special business meeting tables, because business, of course, you do at tables, wearing a tie.
Game, Set, Match-Three
Apart from the household names – and the merch, more of which later – the show was teeming with smartphone games and VR. In the smartphone section, row after row people eagerly handed me fliers saying that in their game you have to match three shapes and it's free to play. It seemed like a waste of paper.
Meanwhile on a VR stage, a visitor in a headset appeared to be riding a struggling miniature donkey while gently shooing a bee from his sandwiches. On the screen behind him he was racing a flying rocket unicorn while slaughtering gargoyles with a magic sword. This is the great power of VR: the bounty to be had on entering its fantasies is so great that the worldly concerns of looking like a dork are readily disappeared into some other dimension. In the near future, humanity will trade in its dignity and we reading this, when we are old, will tell the young that people used to stand straight and present themselves with conscious consideration to those around them in the same physical space. They won't listen. They'll just shrug and go back to dinosaur polo or elephant dressage or what have you.
This Game Stinks
There was one piece of VR tech I was very keen to try. A company called Vaqso had issued a press release for its VR device that "Shoots out multiple smells". A kindly booth attendant explained that it's the smallest VR smell emitter on the market (apparently there's a market) – the size of a Snickers bar. Ironically, Snickers is not one of the smells it shoots out. (I asked.) In this first game, he went on, you are in a bedroom with two girls in school uniform. While you play, you can smell the smell of women. Of course the question arises: what kind of smell is the smell of women? He hung his head sheepishly and mumbled "perfume". And what do you do in the game? Just look? A quiet voice: "Yes, just look."
He was nervous as he introduced the second game, but he needn't have been. "The goal is to make ramen." Awesome! This one I tried. As I fried gyoza and shuffled seaweed and pork against the clock, smells were indeed shot out, which was surprisingly engrossing. I had truly been transported to a ramen shop, one where all the odours smelt like they had come through the air conditioning unit from another ramen shop next door. Pretty good then – but I have not tried playing with an actual Snickers under my nose so I cannot say which is better. Afterwards I felt sick – perfect: it was lunchtime.
The food court looked like an industrial scale project to smoke 2,000 people with the fragrance of grilled Japanese stall food. It was set up in a vast, closed indoor arena. A beige cloud had already swamped the gargantuan rafters and was working its way down. My steak don wasn't bad, but Vaqso's synthesised ramen shop had seeded an unpleasant association that was inevitably brought to mind by the greasy potpourri of the lunch-stadium fug.
Till You Drop
Now let's get to the real star of the Tokyo Game Show: the merch. The major official shops – Sega, Capcom, Square Enix – were ready to manage a diluvian otaku rush with queuing systems that led you tidily past all the goodies on display. Shoppers ticked off product numbers on a form and paid and collected on the way out – max two of anything per person.
There were several more shops stocking miscellaneous official licensed goods for a huge number of games. Products ranged from the nerdy (Dreamcast T shirts) to the super-nerdy (£100+ mecha figurines) to the super, super-nerdy (superdeformed bikini girl beach towels). From fashion to cosplay to limited edition collectibles, TGS is a gamer-shopper paradise. Some things were selling out on Day 1 though, so I would recommend getting straight to the merch hall if you're ever at the show.
Acknowledging The Good Bits
All in all it was a bit of a weird day at the Tokyo Game Show, but I feel it did justice to the hopes of my playground days. Of course I haven't even mentioned all the great new games you could play, the fun of the build-up while you wait, the luxury of booth attendants guiding you through a demo, the enthusiasm of long-travelling indie exhibitors, the camaraderie of gamers slogging through a long day, the devotion of the cosplayers and the readiness of everyone and everything to be photographed. I guess all that good stuff has been in the news already – and not just this year, and not only in Tokyo – so it was all the other little surprises that stood out to me, weird or not.
It is common for Japanese shops, on reaching closing time, to pipe in a Casio keyboard version of Auld Lang Syne. (New Year's Eve will now always be evocative of the shutters rattling down on a ¥100 shop I should have left by now.) The Tokyo Game Show closed in just this tradition. Throughout the three aircraft-hanger-sized halls, the odorous food arena, and all the event spaces and corridors in between, the old refrain chirped over the tired, summative activities of 5pm.
It had been a good day, and gave fitting closure to the dreams of times long past.
Roland Ingram runs Arcade Tokyo, a project devoted to covering the coin-op sector in Japan.