2017 – Game of the Year — Pokemon GO

This year was one of my best years for gaming in quite a long time. A lot of really fun games came to my attention, including Battle Royale games (I haven’t played the real PUBG yet, but there are a couple of knock-offs that I have liked)…

But one game has stood above all others, and that game is Pokemon GO.

I played casually when the game was released last year, but it didn’t really take hold.

That changed when I redownloaded it this summer to have something to do in case my son and his friends needed entertainment at the park one day. It turns out there is a LOT going on in this game that I had no idea about.

Playing together with the kids got me and Adamu Jr. hooked and now it is basically our number one topic of conversation. Every night when I come home from work he asks “Did you catch a new Pokemon?”

And when we can play with other kids too it is always a good ice breaker and bonding experience. I was happy to learn that the game is pretty popular in the US too and not just Japan!

The fun of this game has been slowly figuring out how it works – it requires a lot of intuition, research, and practice because the game itself doesn’t have much in the way of a tutorial.

Some of the fun elements include:

  • Catching new Pokemon – Right now there are 300 some-odd Pokemon that you can catch with various strengths and rarity. This is the part that energizes Adamu Jr.
  • Figuring out the Pokemon stat system – Every Pokemon caught has a CP value, level, and HP, but these are abstractions from their “real” stats, which is a system too complicated to get into here.
  • Walking around and exploring – There are a lot of incentives to get out and explore in the game – you can go find Pokemon, battle in gyms, and walk to hatch eggs. A downside of this is there is an incentive to walk while looking at your phone, which makes players basically an accident waiting to happen. Fortunately I have not had any issues so far.
  • Gym battling and raid battles – Taking over a gym and keeping it for long enough to earn serious gold is quite satisfying. And there is a sense of accomplishment from taking down a tough raid boss. Playing in Tokyo makes it easy because there are tons and tons of players that will gather to take down raid bosses, especially the legendary ones.

As fun as it is I still have my gripes – until the new generation of Pokemon was released just recently, it could get pretty repetitive to constantly catch the same Pokemon all the time.

And there are lots of weird bugs and quirks – for instance, there is a hard cap that limits the amount of gold you can earn by defending gyms to 50 per day, which creates a lot of complicated issues that are too dorky to get into here

But overall it is a lot of fun and something that I have really enjoyed playing both on my own and with my son.

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Game review: Abe-pyon is a fun, free, no-nonsense smartphone game; political propaganda at its best

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A couple weeks ago the Japanese ruling Liberal Democratic Party released Abe-pyon (Abe Jump; iOS link / Android), its first official smartphone game. The release was timed ahead of the upcoming Upper House election to try and reach voters that might otherwise not be interested in politics.

You control a cartoon version of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he jumps higher and higher. Hitting springs gives you an extra boost, and as you go higher you reach more elite government/party titles (LDP Youth Division Director, Minister, Secretary General, etc. all the way up to Prime MInister).

For a low-budget simple game, Abe-pyon has been very well received, but I am not surprised — the game is actually quite fun and addictive, it’s free, and unlike virtually all other high-profile smartphone games (that I have played at least), it is a pure and complete game with no in-game purchasing whatsoever. To control Abe you tilt the phone from side to side, and this is the first smartphone game I have played where that was actually fun and even doable on the train. It is a lot of fun to try and slip Abe between two platforms to get at one of the red super-bonus springs.


This person made it to 11,000

You might complain that you are being propagandized by a political party, but if this is what it takes to bring an actually enjoyable and no-nonsense game to my iPhone, then that part doesn’t bother me a bit.

The game’s simple but well-done mechanics remind me of some earlier endless runner type games I have played, most notably Nanaca Crash, a Flash game (and Mutant Frog favorite) where you control a bouncing boy who was sent flying by a girl who was apparently stalking him. That was back in a the good old days before Facebook games taught every game maker of the potential to get rich through microtransactions.

The sound in the game is also pretty great. You get to hear comical boioioioing! sound effects whenever you hit a bonus spring, and Abe lets out a panicked squeal when he dies (sadly that isn’t his real voice). There is a rollicking Blues Brothers-style rock song which is also pretty fun (though I keep it off if I am listening to podcasts).

Abe pyon high score

My current high score

That being said, there are a few drawbacks, most of which have to do with the nature of the game. For one thing, you have to start from the beginning every time, so it takes a while to get back near a high score. You can pause the game and come back, but my iPhone 4S has so little memory it often loses my progress if I open a few more apps. I find that my hand tires out a little after getting to 800 or so, so I tend to mess up after that. If the LDP decides to sell the game to an actual business, offering continues might be a good way to monetize.

All in all however, I have shocked myself at how long I have been willing to stare at Abe’s face (albeit in cartoon form) to play this game. That speaks to how enjoyable the game is, so I definitely recommend trying it out if it’s on your local app store and hope more political parties will get the idea to curry favor with the populace by making great video games.

Update: It has come to my attention that this game is very similar to a popular game Doodle Jump. I haven’t played that one but the screen shots seem very close. Thanks Dan and Emily!

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Legend of Koizumi anime

Yes, “The Legend of Koizumi”, a completely gonzo comedy manga in which international affairs are all settled by world leaders playing mahjong that was once described by an eminent critic as “the best manga ever,” has finally seen n anime adaptation. It is being released as an OVA instead of being shown on TV, and will go on sale in late February for ¥2940. (Watch this space for news.) In the meanwhile, the first section has been uploaded to Youtube, and with English subtitles for those, like myself, who can’t follow all the mahjong talk.

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Incidentally, I love all the little references in there, like Kim Jong Nam’s Mickey Mouse ears, recognition that Taro Aso was on the  Olympic rifle team, and a GWB reference everybody will get, but what I really want to see is an adaptation of the storyline that shows Pope Benedict employing ancient Catholic magic to win at mahjong.

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Underground Gamblers and Academic Grants

This week’s Metropolis has a feature on underground gambling. It’s an interesting read:

The gambling professional is, in general, not who you think he is. For a pro gambler, Rei looks pretty normal. He has an average build, wears average clothes and works a regular day job. He lives in a messy six-mat apartment. The paint on the walls is peeling off, and his stuff is strewn about the room. In the corner lie a couple of duffel bags thrown there the previous night. By all appearances, it’s a standard Japanese bachelor’s apartment.

Except that those bags contain enough ¥10,000 bills to wallpaper the entire room.

Later on in the article, there are short notes about gambling in Japan. Academics may be surprised to read this:

Doing research on Japan? There’s a good chance you’re being supported by the gambling industry. Every year The Nippon Foundation donates roughly ¥30 trillion to charitable and educational causes. It all comes from boat racing.

For the most part, this is true. The Nippon Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in Japan, receives over 3% of kyotei (motorboat racing) annual revenues.  According to the 2006 Government Whitepaper on Leisure, the total market for 2005 for kyotei was 978 billion yen. In the early 90s, it was about double this. More details can be found in David Plotz’s Pachinko Nation. (Incidentally, Plotz’s research was supported by a Nippon Foundation grant.)

Of course, this isn’t to criticize the foundation itself, which has supported good works around the globe. Apparently some academics in Japan do look down on their grants, however. Last year, a friend of mine was faced with the choice of either a Fulbright or a Nippon Foundation grant for her dissertation research. When she told an academic friend of hers about this, the friend closed the door and quietly told her that she risked a small amount of stigma were she to go with the latter.

If this is how some Japanese academics deal with researchers whose grant is merely peripheral to gambling, I wonder how they will treat someone whose research is on gambling…

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Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein

Tokyo Vice
Tokyo Vice

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan came out this past Fall. A tale of sex, scandal, and gangsters, it was written by Jake Adelstein, a former vice reporter for the Yomiuri and the only American to have been admitted into the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department press club. If you’re interested in hearing more about the seedy side of Tokyo, I recommend picking up a copy. It’s a great read, at least as interesting as Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld.

Some of you may have heard of Adelstein when his name popped up a year or so ago as the author of a Washington Post article about the yakuza (Japanese mafia). He is an interesting fellow; besides his unique former press credentials he also was instrumental in the 2006 TIP report that embarrassed Japan into adopting stricter anti-trafficking measures. Additionally, he runs the “Japan Subculture Research Center,” a blog devoted to the Japanese underground. He is currently running around the world promoting his new book. This isn’t just to generate sales. The publicity he generates keeps him alive.

Continue reading Gambling and the Yakuza: An Interview with Jake Adelstein

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Which Japanese prefectures sell the most lottery tickets per person?

Ever wonder which parts of Japan gamble the most? No? Well, stick with me and you might learn something about which prefectures are most willing to line up and pay the poor tax.

Each year, Mizuho Bank (which has a special relationship with the lottery from its days as a government bank) tallies the total number of lottery (Takarakuji) tickets sold and divides that number into each prefecture’s population to obtain an average per capita spending total. According to their numbers for fiscal 2007 (as reported in the Nikkei), the top ticket buyers were Tokyo, Osaka, and Kochi prefecture in Shikoku. There was a huge gap between the top of the list (Tokyo’s 12,933 yen) versus the bottom (Yamagata’s 5,328 yen). The top prefectures tended be prefectures that house large cities, such as Aichi.

UPDATE: A typical lottery ticket in Japan costs around 300 yen, meaning that Tokyo residents buy around 43 tickets a year or just about one every week.

Prefectures with the lowest home ownership rates tended to buy more lottery tickets. Tokyo and Osaka, the first and second highest per-capita lottery players, also have the two lowest home ownership ratios, in the same order.  Okinawa has the third lowest, and its residents are Japan’s sixth biggest lottery gamblers. On the other hand, Aichi, another prefecture full of takarakuji hopefuls, had the seventh lowest home ownership ratio. (Bonus fact: Toyama prefecture had the highest home ownership rate in 2003 (around 80%). Toyama residents play it relatively safe with a middling per capita lottery spend of between 7,000-7,999 yen).

The outlier was Kochi prefecture, however, indicating that low home ownership, a signifier of relative poverty, does not make up the only factor explaining the results. An official from Kochi prefecture’s budget division speculated, “Perhaps the prefecture residents’ nature of determination and love of gambling had an impact.”

A brief overview of Japan’s lottery system

Though it only brings in about 1/20 the revenue of the almighty pachinko, Japan’s lottery, with its estimated 15,000 or so ticket booths outside train stations (more booths than pachinko parlors, one for every 8,600 people), has been a highly visible form of legal gambling in Japan throughout the postwar era, along with horse racing, yacht speedboat racing, bicycle racing, and mahjong.

According to Wiki Japan, lottery-style gambling in Japan got its start in the Edo period as Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples offered tomikuji (essentially the same as a lottery) in order to raise funds for repairs. Over the years, tomikuji faced various bans from the authorities, and private-sector lotteries remain criminalized to this day. In July 1945, a desperate wartime government instituted a lottery, but Japan surrendered and chaos reigned before a drawing could even be held. A national government-backed lottery was re-instituted during the US occupation in 1948, though it was abandoned in 1954, leaving only regional lotteries. Takarakuji took its current form in 1964 with the foundation of the Japan Lottery Association, a grouping of the regional lotteries.

According to association data, in fiscal 2007 (the period covered by the above survey) Japanese gamblers bought 1.0442 trillion yen in tickets, or about 8,200 yen per person. The US doesn’t have a national lottery per se, but the UK does – on average, UK residents spent 80 pounds (12,905 yen by the current exchange rate) per capita on national Lotto in 2008. The UK lottery’s press kit (PDF) claims that 70% of adults are regular players (but doesn’t cite a source), while a 2007 poll from Japan’s lottery association found that 55% of those polled had purchased at ticket at least once in the past year. The UK system, in which operations are contracted to a private company, appears to be more efficient than the one in Japan. According to the UK press kit, 10% of every pound spent on lottery tickets goes to operations and expenses (5% in dealer commission, 4.5% in operating costs, and 0.5% in shareholder dividends), versus 14.4% of each ticket in Japan (with 45.8% going to paying winners and 39.8% going into the general accounts of each prefecture and major cities).

The odds of winning a current popular Japanese game Loto 6 is 1 in 6 million, which is comparable to other lotteries I am familiar with in the US (and of course less likely than getting hit by lightning).

See the full list after the jump!

Continue reading Which Japanese prefectures sell the most lottery tickets per person?

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Bloomberg on Pachinko

Great article from Bloomberg on the Pachinko industry:

Japan’s Pachinko Parlors Beat Vegas as Gamblers Defy Recession

As Japan’s economy shrank at an annual 12.1 percent pace in the last quarter and revenue slumped at Las Vegas casino companies like MGM Mirage and Las Vegas Sands Corp., the 23 trillion-yen pachinko industry is on a roll. Sales from the machines, which resemble upright pinball games, rebounded 0.5 percent in last quarter, reversing a six-year decline, and rose 0.9 percent in January, according to government statistics.

Kyoto-based Maruhan Corp., the biggest pachinko-hall operator by sales, forecast net income will rise 11 percent to 20 billion yen in the fiscal year ending today, according to a statement on its Web site. Operators aren’t publicly traded and typically don’t provide financial information.

Casino gambling revenue in Las Vegas fell the most on record last year and dropped 15 percent in January as the U.S. recession curbed spending on travel and betting. Shares of MGM Mirage and Las Vegas Sands fell more than 95 percent in the 12 months through March 27.

Introduced in the 1920s, pachinko is played by about 13 percent of Japan’s population, who fed 23 trillion yen into the machines in 2007, according to the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-Economic Development.

Numbers are down from 16 percent of the population and 29.6 trillion yen in 2003, a drop that was caused by a regulatory crackdown on types of machines that encouraged heavy gambling, according to a February 2007 report by CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets.

13,000 Parlors

Japan’s 13,000 pachinko halls — more than one for every 10,000 residents — are located throughout the country around train stations, along highways and in entertainment areas.

Pachinko players seek to amass piles of small steel balls that can be exchanged for prizes. Because casinos are illegal in Japan, cash can’t be paid out on the premises. Prizes can usually be exchanged for money at a nearby booth.

Operators are luring customers with new high-stakes machines that yield bigger profit margins, while lowering fees for others to 1 yen per ball from 4 yen.

“Parlors are thinking more carefully about which machines customers like, which machines are the most profitable,” S&P analyst Miyuki Onchi said. “Sales have come up bit by bit.”

Lower-fee machines have widened the customer base at Maruhan, the company said in an e-mail. Founded in 1957, Maruhan said it has 242 parlors, up from 225 a year ago, and about 12,000 workers.

Spending by Japanese households dropped 5.9 percent in January from a year earlier, the most in more than two years, the government said last month.

“It’s an industry that in the past, when the economy has slumped, it has improved,” Kobayashi said. “But this time we don’t know how bad the recession will be.”

That’s a whopping 13,000 parlors, compared to:

For some reason the article doesn’t mention that part of the new attraction of these “new high stakes machines” is the aggressive advertising and licensing deals. Recent titles have included EvangelionSpace Battle Ship YamatoKorean drama Winter Sonata, and even Tensai Bakabon. There is also a difference between pure pachinko and pachinko-slots (“pachi-slo”) that I still don’t really understand.

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The origins of Nanaca Crash

One of our more popular posts continues to be Roy’s link back in 2005 to addictive flash game “Nanaca Crash” in which you try to control how far a young man bounces after being run into by an anime Japanese schoolgirl on a bicycle. Give it a try!

Four years later, I am only now learning of the game’s hentai origins:

Cross Channel (officially spelled CROSS†CHANNEL) is an eroge for the Windows and PlayStation 2 platforms. The Windows version was released on September 26, 2003, and the PS2 version (CROSS†CHANNEL~to all people~) on March 18, 2004.

Story

Gunjo Gakuen (Deep Blue School) is a facility designed to gather and isolate those students who got a high score on an adaptation exam (Scoring high on this exam indicates that the student is less likely to be able to be adapted to the society) mandated by the government.

After a failed summer vacation with other members of the school’s broadcasting club, Taichi Kurosu and some of the other club members return to the city, only to find that all living creatures within it except for the club members have completely vanished. In order to confirm the status of the outside world, Taichi decides to gather other club members to help Misato Miyasumi, the president of the broadcasting club, who is trying to set up a broadcasting antenna to contact any possible survivors. However, Taichi soon discovers that the world is actually repeating the week after they found the others vanished…

Nanaca Crash!! (officially spelled NANACA†CRASH!!) is an online spin off game featuring characters from Cross Channel. The object of the game is to click, hold and release the mouse button to determine the angle and velocity of Nanaka crashing her bicycle towards Taichi, sending him flying across the screen. Your score is determined by the distance of his flight. Certain characters he crashes into will greatly affect his velocity.

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