2018’s Tokyo Game Show wrapped up last weekend, and we were lucky enough to be in attendance. While PAX, E3, Gamescom and EGX have their own flavour, none of them quite match TGS for sheer uniqueness; perhaps that's a cultural thing - the Japanese do things very differently to the west - or maybe it's because the TGS lacks any kind of surprise factor as the majority of the AAA games have already been seen at other events around the globe. As a result, the excitement void is filled with original content that would perhaps be ignored elsewhere, but can truly shine here. Then there's the cosplay; nobody does cosplay like Japan does cosplay.
Here are five things we learnt from this year's show. If you understand these, you will understand the magic of TGS, and if you ever live the dream of going there yourself, be sure to memorise these crucial tips.
1) Play The VR Games
VR games were plentiful at TGS so it wasn’t all long queues. Plus you’ll probably never have another chance to play them because these are basically prototype theme park installations that depend on large, dedicated, expensive accessories that would never suit private use.
The renaissance of VR came with the boast that head tracking had bridged the uncanny valley. But that bridge is old news – now you can experience flying over the valley on a three-winged unidonkeycorn. Probably.
The VR at TGS is so convincing that its victims are utterly liberated of reality, both physically, so that they will bound around rickety show floor pavilions without fear of collision, and emotionally, so that they will thrust and clap without reserve, like Victorian madmen transported to their uncorroborated realities by opiates, not big glasses.
The fantasy realms on display included an obstacle race with two contestants leaping around the booth, limbs tracked and opponent visible; a two-player sword-and-shield duel, lightning-fast swings and collisions tracked and modelled; and a game whose content was unclear but whose players seemed to be having a lewd dream about skiing.
For ride-ons, there were futuristic Akira-style mega-bikes; Tron but with penny farthings on a rollercoaster; and an actual mum-bike with a basket and a bell. Once-in-a-lifetime stuff, as you can appreciate.
2) Browse The Otome Games
Otome games are romantic visual novels and collect-em-ups. There is a whole hall for them at the show and you only need to walk through with an open mind and a keen imagination to be greatly amused.
VR technology may have subjugated and disenfranchised our brains, but there are two ways to skin our pitiful grey-matter cats, and the other has also been perfected. Otome or “romance” games are not pervy gawp-at-girls affairs – you are entreated to gawp at girls in basically every other game at the Show, and in the Show itself – these, rather, are games for girls to gawp at. (All gawpers welcome, though.)
With technological progress, the ability to ensnare hearts has been refined and weaponised. Step casually around the corner of the VR booths and a ceiling-high face hooks your eyeballs. This man is a dreamboat of aircraft carrier proportions. Any dreamboat that has ever decorated the back of a teenager’s door is an ill-maintained novelty pedalo by comparison. The lair of this Odyssean hunk is an edifice so beguiling, so perfectly calculated to woo, that it is almost spiteful in the ache it forces on your heart. We have never needed anything like we needed the affections of that man.
The strolling staff of some mundane tech-demo booth happen into the gravity of his gaze and are unbalanced, helpless. Faces slack, they can but clasp at their brows in anguish as his beauty melts their self-control. “Don’t be afraid,“ he whispers, “I’m free to play.“ A thousand young women queue to enter his glowing portal. None are seen again.
Unlike VR hardware, love cannot be simply lifted off your head by a glamorous uniformed assistant.
3) Photograph Men Photographing Women
Booths at the Tokyo Game Show are decorated to get attention and to get their image spread around social media. Unfortunately, the most common decoration used in this way is a woman dressed— how should we put this…. Well, let’s say, “dressed for warmer weather”. With aching feet at the end of the day, she can at least be thankful that her clothes aren't heavy.
And the plan works: these women get photographed. Nerds pass, catching ‘em all on their phones, building a Pokédex exclusively of bored, disillusioned faces. But for a pro photographer, while to catch them is, he would have to concede, his real test, to train them is, without wishing to put too fine a point on the matter, his cause. And the training of a warrior model is a sight to behold.
The trainer, bedecked in combat gear, finds his target. But he knows to bide his time. He makes eye contact and approaches, head down. Prostrate, he requests permission to photograph. With a superior nod and smile, permission is granted.
He bows, turns and takes three measured, ceremonial paces. He turns back, weapon drawn: his camera the hilt, its towering flash tree the blade. She reacts, hand to her sword. He stamps his front foot into the dust and slides it forward, digging in. She does the same and slowly draws her katana. They pause, then the pasha-pasha of shutter and flash start beating the ancient rhythms of the dance of combat.
He lunges in, she retreats; he ducks, she swings over his head; pasha-pasha up at her scowling face; she spins back, he stands; he pushes at her face, she steps back to teetering; he goes for the kill, she ducks; pasha-pasha, her warscream on camera; her sword swipes, he jumps; pasha-pasha, she’s a focused ninja, about to clean her blade; he lands; her sword is at his neck. His eyes glisten. She could have killed him, but she didn’t. That is the first step of the training. She stares into him, sword still rubbing his skin. She shows her teeth and they creep towards a smile. Pasha-pasha. Trained and caught.
The two untangle. She flicks clean her sword and it’s gone. His camera is likewise unseen on his back. He bows deeply, she less so. He takes three paces back, bows again, and leaves, eyes down.
4) Go Shopping
The Tokyo Game Show is divided into halls, but a few halls are separated out, relegated to a different building, requiring an outdoor walk (in sideways rain this year). But the trek pays: the apparently second-rate halls are where all the best stuff happens. Everything on this list is in the loser halls – including the shopping.
Several big names have porta-shops set out with their official merch. Sega had their usual TGS-exclusive annual Sonic T-shirt, a Shenmue forklift on Sega blue, a Dreamcast tie, etc. Taito had a pile of Space Invaders stuff, celebrating 40 years of their relentless campaign against innocent aliens. But to be honest, that stuff was all just a picture of a computer game thing on either a black T-shirt or a white T-shirt. Uninspiring.
Stars of the nerd fashion show were Games Glorious and Cassette Disc, Japanese brands selling officially licensed items, from fridge magnets of obscure Famicom cartridges to Sonic the Hedgehog’s actual red trainers to a Mega Drive bicycle. In between were creative designs in tasteful colours making use of retro gaming IP but without being just the 10th black T-shirt in your wardrobe (or screwed up on your floor, let’s be honest). We bought a T-shirt patterned all over with decals from Flying Power Disc, Data East‘s 1994 Neo Geo frisbee simulator (aka Windjammers outside japan). Very Fresh Prince.
5) Play Indie, Not AAA
Journalists who’d travelled to TGS had already played almost everything on the show floor at E3 or PAX, which they said were much better for that kind of thing. The biggest talk was about Sekiro on PS4, which was a two-hour mission to get hands-on and allowed for minimal, shallow, forced Q&A with the booth attendants.
Meanwhile, in indie land, you could see a hundred games in two hours if you tried. Many would be samey, and many, in the cold light of day, would be dog poo. But every single one would be accompanied by the enthusiastic faces of people who had poured their lives into a project and brought it all the way out to Tokyo at no small expense.
At one of the indie “booths” (small tables with no seats) was no less than The Ninja Warriors Once Again for Switch. This is Natsume-Atari’s remake of Natsume’s 1994 SNES follow-up to Taito’s classic 1987 arcade beat-em-up The Ninja Warriors. Stay with me: this game is pure gold.
The booth had a Switch and a SNES playable side-by-side so you could see what inspired the team and what they’d improved. The Ninja Warriors series has an absurd energy to it that is both camp and gritty, and the Switch instalment is overflowing with exactly that.
Sadly, when we went and asked for Ninja Warriors at the grand Taito booth – and this is still their IP, mind, with their logo up first in the trailers – they stared at me blankly. Can I interest you in a Space Invaders shirt…?
So there you go: how to Tokyo Game Show. Yes, there are other games expos. Yes, you should maybe go to those first if you just want to see the latest games. But Tokyo has the power to leave you agape at what the world has been hiding all this time. TGS gives you that in spades.