Before the Mega Drive came along, I thought of Japan as merely the home of Walkmen, chopsticks and Godzilla. The Far East fell well outside of my childhood interests, and it wasn't until I received my second SEGA console that I learnt a little bit more about Japan, and more specifically Tokyo. There were two Mega Drive games in particular that challenged my preconceptions, helping me to build a more complete picture of what was quintessentially Japanese (kabuki sumo and road-kill cows).
The first of my 16-bit eye openers was Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition. It was 24 Megs of cultural enlightenment, teaching me all about the lives and customs of people from all over the world: Americans enjoy hanging out on airstrips, Spaniards are adept at climbing chain link fences, Brazilians emit electricity etc. Japan contributed two very different characters, featuring equally contrasting stages. Ryu's was the minimalistic, peaceful and traditional backdrop of a Japanese castle, while E Honda's stage was part tradition, part modernity - a clash that has come to define post-war Japan. Our sumo in kabuki face paint brawled in a Japanese bathhouse, complete with images of Mt Fuji, the rising sun and decorative lanterns, all of which came to life in flashing lights at the end of each bout. No other level dared to include so many cultural references, with the bath house being only a ninja, wide-eyed school girl and Mothra short of being all things 日本.
The second part of my Japanese education, or Japa-cation if you will, was Road Rash 3. The Japan stage of EA's bike-brawler was a mish-mash of themes and iconography that was as memorable as it was comic. Mt Fuji and Tokyo loomed in the background, punctuating a cherry red sky, but no matter how fast you raced you never got any closer to the big city. Temples and Buddhist statutes littered the roadside, awaiting a head on crash as you swerved to avoid cows, a common sight in the largest metropolitan centre in the world.
I have come across plenty of other Japan-based games since my elementary course in sumos and anti-social bikers. While Road Rash 3 may have been a bit off in its depiction of Japan, Shenmue absolutely nailed the backstreets of Greater Tokyo. I can only speak to the first few hours of Ryo's quest for vengeance, but in its recreation of suburban Yokosuka, a port city in Kanagawa prefecture, I caught glimpses of places I have lived and visited during my time in Japan. There is a surprising amount of character in it's no frills, non-descript backstreets, with every shop facade, arcade, seedy bar and concrete park coming together to capture the feel of a Japanese, run-of-the-mill town.
Another Sega franchise, Yakuza, has continued this tradition of realism, albeit in a slightly more colourful fashion. Yakuza's lively depiction of Shinjuku's red-light and entertainment district, Kabukicho, is not a carbon copy, but anyone who has spent time in that part of Tokyo will instantly make the connection. Kamurocho is the star of the series, and is as vibrant and alive a mini sandbox as you could ever hope to find. The streets are full of real life stores and brands, and are populated by people who look like they belong. School girls gather outside coffee shops, engrossed in the latest mobile game; ginger mullets swagger around in their offensive turtle necks, paying no mind to police walking the beat, who are keeping an eye on a drunken salary man staggering with tie strapped to head. With the exception of the non-stop violence and a zombie apocalypse, Kamurocho is the most true to life, digital Tokyo that I have experienced.
I was initially drawn to Yakuza by its setting, perhaps hoping for the opportunity to re-live past nights out on the piss in Shinjuku: arcade-izakaya-karaoke, with added sideburns and a hideous suit. Though they may not have been quite as memorable, the Okinawan scenes in Yakuza 3 and 4 offered respite from the hustle and bustle of Kamurocho and a glimpse of a very different slice of Japanese life. The Yakuza studio has since explored Japan of the future with Binary Domain, but unfortunately the setting was perhaps the least memorable part of what was an enjoyable romp. Hopefully, Yakuza 5 will provide a more engaging view of street level Japan, taking in a number of different locales, including Osaka and Sapporo.
Shibuya has long been a major tourist attraction in Tokyo, thanks to its popular night life, iconic pedestrian crossing, youth and fashion culture, and it should come as no surprise that it has been the focus of a number of video games. Square-Enix built a whole RPG around this part of town, The World Ends with You, taking a great deal of artistic influence from the sub-cultures it nurtures. In a cell-shaded Shibuya, Jet Set Radio found the perfect setting for its bladed rudies and even managed to make the bus station seem cool. Games like these owe part of their success to their setting, but have also contributed in kind to Shibuya's reputation as a vibrant and hip city. I'm not sure what exactly Tokyo Jungle adds to Shibuya's image, though I have seen far stranger things than a fully clothed Pomeranian walking those streets at night.
Tokyo remains a favourite of racing games. It is one of the few genres where western developers have not been shy in appropriating the city, putting it to good use in games such as Blur, Burnout, Need for Speed and Project Gotham Racing. In real life, central Tokyo would be a bloody awful place for a street race, with a huge amount of pedestrian traffic, police boxes on every corner and a never ending supply of traffic lights, but in a virtual world it has proved irresistible. You can also avoid the streets and hit the railroads instead, with any number of Japanese train sims. Most of them have not seen the light of day outside their home territory, but as the proud owner of more than one copy of Densha de Go, I can tell you that you aren't missing too much.
Japan is often portrayed as a near-future destination, but it also makes for an excellent historical setting. Call of Duty: World at War gave us Okinawa, a peaceful and beautiful collection of islands, as one of the most brutal theatres of the Second World War. It didn't give the most balanced of views - USA, USA, USA etc - but it did a pretty good job of depicting the staggering loss of life and sheer desperation of that campaign. Onimusha made feudal Japan oh-so Resident Evil, blending real places and historical figures with beautiful, Capcom nonsense; I'm always on the look-out for demons and/or Jean Reno when I visit Japanese castles. With Kenzan!, SEGA took Yakuza back in time to early seventeenth century Kyoto - a charming city that has been criminally underutilised in video games - and the Way of the Samurai series has been telling the story of nineteenth century samurai for the best part of a decade.
I always considered Midgar to be a twisted, dilapidated Neo Tokyo. The biggest city in Final Fantasy VII made no such claims; I simply forced a blinkered view of Tokyo onto the opening setting of one of my favourite Japanese games. When I first visited the city in 2004 (Tokyo, not Midgar), I wasted my first three days searching for a Mako Reactor and was bitterly disappointed when not a single local would squat-battle me. For better or worse, Tokyo is not quite the city that you find in countless video games, nor the bat-shit crazy, home of the future that so many TV shows, movies and books would have you believe. However, every now and again you might come across something that feels like it's straight out of a work of fiction, that will catch you off guard.
I'll never forget the first time a sumo wrestler sat next to me on the train. Living just down the road from the traditional sumo centre of Ryogoku, I saw plenty of E Honda's milling around, minus the face paint. One particular giant stood out, riding a bicycle in his London Calling, Clash t-shirt - a wonderful mix of East and West. It was one of those moments where I wish I’d reverted to shameless tourist mode, shoved a camera in his face and asked him to do the hundred hand slap, but unfortunately I’m just far too polite.
My most game-like experience living in Japan occurred one evening spent in an izakaya (bar/restaurant) in Shibuya, drinking with friends. We were just starting to get merry when a gaggle of angry chinpira (rubbish Yakuza) stormed the building and began fighting with the kitchen staff who, from what we could gather, owed the gentleman some money. The fisticuffs spilled into our part of the room as the senior member of the angry thugs, topless and bearing his tattoos for all to see, decided to sit at our table, have a drink and practice his English! The violence eventually came to a halt, no thanks to the police who waited patiently by the front door, unwilling to get involved. Yakuza 4, eat your heart out!
Digital Japan comes in all shapes and sizes. Over the years, it has been everything from the home of demon fighting high-schoolers to a playground for skater vandals, and has played host to a diverse collection of iconic characters, including a flying sumo and a lovable, karaoke-going gangster. Whether you are looking for realism, or wish to explore the more fanciful side of an unfamiliar culture, you can always rely on Japan and its capital to host something unique and entertaining.