Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review: Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, by Chris Kohler

Indianapolis, IN: Bradygames, 2004, pp. 312.

Chris Kohler's book, as the title promises, is concerned with the revolution wrought by Japanese video game makers between the 1970s and the 1990s, in which Nintendo and its most famous titles (from Donkey Kong to Pokemon) loomed so large. The subject is complex enough that, rather than attempting to offer a relatively linear history of the field, the book goes through it subject by subject, generally with good results. Kohler displays a robust interest in the formal aspects of the games--their appearance, structure, modes of play and storytelling--and explains these incisively, both in cases of specific, earlier pioneering games, and the larger history of the form. This extends to minute analysis of classics from Donkey Kong to the original Final Fantasy with the aid of numerous screen captures arranged in flow chart-like fashion, affording not just something of a lesson in the Poetics of Video Gaming, but enabling us to look at these old games with fresh eyes.

In doing justice to his subject matter Kohler's discussion extends well beyond gaming to its interconnections with manga, anime, pop music and other corners of Japanese pop culture--which did so much to make Japanese video games what they were. The creative stars were not techies, but had interests and backgrounds in the visual arts and storytelling media (like manga), as was the case with Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani; Donkey Kong, Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto; and Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii. And this was crucial to the contributions that they did make to their field--the appealing characters, narratives, visuals, music and gameplay experience, and the associated techniques and refinements (like cinematic cut scenes) that lifted the genre above the minimalist sports and shooting games that defined the early, more narrowly programmer-driven history of the field. This extends even to glances at intriguing but oft-overlooked games like Miyamoto's RPG Mother, and Fumito Ueda's ICO. There is also a good deal of material on how the product had to be translated and localized for sale in foreign markets.

It might be added that Kohler's book contains enough material on the history of the business to be interesting as a recounting of the development of the information technology sector--the more so for how different this recounting is from the Silicon Valley mythology to which discussion of the American gaming industry (all too predictably) conforms. Start-ups by computer programmers (like INIS) do have their part in the story. However, the businesses that played the central role were established companies in other fields that took a chance on the new sector (Nintendo, for example, was an almost century-old manufacturer of playing cards), and the stars of the story, artists that they were, Company Men, rather than entrepreneurs striking out on their own. As is appropriate for a history of the Japanese gaming industry, the book focuses on the activity of Japanese companies, and gives a good deal of attention to the domestic market that was so central to their decisionmaking (to the point of devoting a chapter to the subject of video game shopping in Akhihabara and comparable districts in other major Japanese urban centers).

Moreover, while Kohler's book has undoubtedly dated in its coverage of a relatively fast-changing field, much of what it says still seems relevant--in particular, Nintendo's accent on sheer fun (which in the years since held the Wii in good stead, relative to the high cost and harder orientation of other gaming systems). Additionally, the timing of Power-Up's release--in the early 2000s--is still recent enough to provide a certain amount of perspective on the major changes in gaming since then, namely the decline of the standing of Japanese firms relative to Western ones in the field; the claims that Nintendo may have gone from cutting-edge to backward-looking; and the possibility that this is just part of a still larger story, namely the transition of gaming away from consoles to online and mobile devices.

That said, it could be argued that, important as Nintendo is in this story, the discussion may be a bit too Nintendo-centric. (Despite some very real successes, Sega, for example, does not even rate an index listing here.1) It should also be remembered that while Kohler is generally knowledgeable about and respectful of the culture of which he is writing, this is nonetheless an American book for an American market. Anyone looking for much discussion of the reception for Japanese games in any foreign market but the U.S. would have to look elsewhere. On some occasions, he also discusses of his subject through the lens of American stereotypes about the two countries (e.g. conformist, stifling Japan vs. everybody-chases-their-dreams America), as when he recounts the career of Pokemon creator Satoshi Tajiri, declaring that
had Japanese societal norms had their way, Pokemon would never have been born, its creator not given the freedom to follow his own path . . . he wouldn't go on to college, but spent two years at a technical school. His father got him a job as an electrical technician. He refused to take it.
The expectation that one go on to college and take the workaday job rather than devote oneself to a creative career is hardly some foreign exoticism, but similarly the norm in America (where parents are also apt to be far from pleased to hear their kid tell them they mean to be an artist rather than go for the practical degree and the steady eight-to-six).

There are also instances in which the presentation of his information could have been improved. Despite the distinctly American view, Kohler does not always provide the clarifying notes that an American audience would expect. (The Super Mario Brothers 2 discussed in his overview of that series is not the one we recall in North America--and that fact only gets proper acknowledgment in a much later chapter.) Additionally, there are sometimes listings of information within the main text of a chapter that might have been better reserved for tables or appendices--as with a seven page listing of releases of soundtracks of the music of the Final Fantasy game franchise.

However, these are comparative quibbles in a book that I, for one, found to be well worth my while; and it probably says something positive about it that Kohler released an updated and expanded edition of the book in 2016 (24 pages longer, according to its page on Amazon). You can read about it here.

1. Sega's Master system, after all, was the closest thing Nintendo had to a rival in the 8-bit era, and its Genesis console virtually on par as competitor in the 16-bit era, while later consoles met with varying degrees of success up to the Dreamcast. Additionally Sega produced one of the few video game characters that can be compared with Mario as a pop culture icon, Sonic the Hedgehog.

A Fragment on Fan Writing
2/5/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Twilight of the Action RPG?
8/18/16
My Posts on Gaming
3/20/16
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
12/19/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
On the Differences Between Japanese and Western RPGs
8/6/14

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Fragment on Fan Writing

In researching Star Wars in Context I was time and again surprised to find that answers to many fairly obvious questions about the Star Wars franchise--even discussion of those questions--were awfully scarce on the web. Some of it was even nonexistent.

For example, "everyone" knows that George Lucas based Star Wars on Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress to a considerable degree. Indeed, in a typically shallow and pointless display of erudition, Ted Mosby even dropped this little factoid on Stella while sitting her down for her first viewing of the movie on How I Met Your Mother.

Yet, just how did one film inspire the other? And not less important, what are the significant differences? Actual discussion of the connections and parallels between one film and the other, even of the most superficial kind, is actually quite elusive for a Googler--and for anyone in general.

This was not a problem for me because I had plenty of my own to say about that; and anyway, to the extent that I was saying something others weren't, well, that said to me that writing the book wasn't so pointless as I'd feared.

All the same, why is this kind of thing so often the case?

Simply put, it's a lot easier to serve up generalizations than home in on the finer details, easier to offer impressions than analysis, easier to assert than to really explain--and while generalizations, impressions and assertions are not necessarily uninformative or unhelpful (some of them actually are informative and helpful), we could generally do with a whole lot more detail, analysis and explanation than we are getting in our online chatter.1

It probably doesn't help that the comparative few capable of doing better--who have the grasp of the history and technique of the medium they want to write about, who really know something about film and actually see films like Hidden Fortress (black and white, subtitles, etc.) so that they understand them and can communicate that understanding--rarely (not never, but rarely) write about films like Star Wars. And when they bother, they rarely take the same trouble that they do with more "serious" subjects.

And so a Mosby can get away with such a pointless display of erudition as dropping the name of Kurosawa's film--pointless because I'm not sure what significance this could have had for Stella in the scene, unless she was familiar with the other film, and it was some sort of cinematic touchstone for her, and we were never given reason to think that she was; and because making too much of the connection has doubtless confused the issue for many.

SFTV for the Younger Crowd: A Few Thoughts
2/5/17
Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress: Thoughts on my First Viewing
12/12/16
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
12/19/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
"The 25 Most Hated Sitcom Characters of All Time"
9/15/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Notes on Kirby Buckets Warped

I'm just as surprised as anyone to be writing about this show.

I was scarcely aware of the existence of Kirby Buckets until just a few weeks ago, and have as yet seen very little of it prior to the recent third season, which caught my attention because of how unusual it has been for broadcast television--the sharp shift of the show in genre and structure (the episodic tween sitcom about an aspiring cartoonist become a 13-episode story of interdimensional hopping, heavy on science fiction parody), and the unique airing schedule (the 13 episodes airing on 13 weekday mornings over three weeks).

Alas, the writing rarely rises above the level of the mildly amusing. In fact, the heavy reliance on gross-out humor reflects a certain laziness in its pursuit of its target demographic. All the same, the makers of the show actually do serve up an arc, rather than just tease the audience with the prospect--and manage to have some fun with science fiction clichés they evoke. (Of course there's a post-apocalyptic dimension where the characters meet the Mad Max versions of the people they know; here they even come complete with Australian accents.)

Additionally, the cast is a pleasant surprise, accomplishing a lot even when they have just a little to work with, with two members standouts. Suzi Barrett shows a good deal flair for the role of Kirby's mom, getting more than her fair share of laughs. His sister Dawn, generally conforming to the stereotype of the shallow, superficial high school girl/big sister-from-hell, comes off as surprisingly sympathetic and charming, principally due to the efforts of Olivia Stuck. And of course, improv master, veteran voice actor and "Simlish" cocreator Stephen Kearin's Principal Mitchell is a memorable mass of eccentricities sufficient to (almost) singlehandedly make the hackiest of shows watchable.

And so it went up to the finale (aired Thursday), which, to the creative team's credit, actually wrapped up a storyline, and in the process, offered the sense of a bigger tale ending as Kirby, Mitchell, Dawn and the rest closed one chapter in their lives and began another. However, whether all this will be enough to lead to a fourth season is a different matter. The show, poorly rated to begin with (one reason for the change, I suspect), has seen its viewership plunge to abysmal levels--under 200,000 if I read the numbers right, rather worse than the shows Disney XD so recently axed, Lab Rats: Elite Force and Gamer's Guide to Pretty Much Everything. Whether it will survive that will depend, I suppose, on whether viewership picks up in the reruns this weekend (and further airings of the show), whether the executives feel bothered by the way they are running out of live-action shows to put on the air--or the creators can sell them on another sharp shift of course. And maybe all of them together.

SFTV for the Younger Crowd: A Few Thoughts
2/5/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Small-Screen Superhero Boom
5/21/16
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
12/19/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Science Fiction Television
12/20/12

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