Japan Experience Quasi-Review

by Jonathan Metts - December 14, 2001, 8:58 pm PST

Not sure if you should buy PGC's new video CD set? Jonny cuts through the hype to give you a straight answer.

As you may know, we just started selling a 2-CD video documentary that Billy and (MailMan) Mike Hrusecky made of Billy’s experience in Japan…Spaceworld, Akihabara, NCL Invasion, and of course, the Japanese GameCube Launch. Some of us staff have had the video for a few days, and I thought it would be a good idea if I gave a sort of review for it. Sure, I have a little bias, but I wasn’t in Japan for these events, and I’m a hardcore Nintendo fan, so I figure some of you might be able to relate to my opinion. I told Billy I would do it on one condition: that I could be honest. So don’t expect an overly gushy, drooling account of all the zany stuff that happens on the video…I’m more interested in being realistic, highlighting the best parts, and making note of some things that may not appeal to everyone. And of course, we hope that by giving you all a clearer picture of what’s on the video, some of you may get interested and decide to buy it.

Planet GameCube Japan Experience 2001 starts off in America, with Billy saying goodbye to his beloved cat (not to mention our site mascot and infamous RUMARS Editor), Louie. Aside from being cute and funny, the scene is a good taste of reality…it’s hard to be away from home for such a long time, especially when you’re leaving behind people and things you love.

The next time we see Billy, he’s in his hotel room in Japan. There’s a pretty neat little tour of the room, which is definitely much different from an American hotel room. Look out for the Robo-Bidet!

Pretty soon you’ll meet Billy’s traveling companions for the first part of the trip, including Hong from New Zealand, Justin Wood a.k.a. J-Dub, Kelly from Australia’s Nintendo Gamer magazine, and various Tendo Box people. They all go to the famous Pokemon Center in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, and there is quite a bit of footage of that store. Pokemon and/or otaku fans will definitely eat it all up…the store is chock full of quirky Japanese stuff, and tons of Japanese people.

Pokehaters might want to fast forward to the rest of Akihabara, where you can see massive rows of Japanese N64, Game Boy Color/Advance, and Dreamcast stuff for sale. And yes, Sin & Punishment!!! Akihabara is just a generally impressive place, with neon to rival Vegas and all kinds of weird sights to see. There’s also a foreshadowing shot of the Laox store, where a large portion of the second disc takes place.

During these scenes, Billy is filming while walking, so the picture is sometimes quite jumpy. It wasn’t enough to bother me, but I thought it was worth a mention. The audio, however, is surprisingly clear for a handheld camera. Even with plenty of background noise in Akihabara, you can always hear and understand the constant banter among the group, which is often quite funny. This part, and later on when Billy’s in line for the launch, you get to experience some awesome conversation among gamers. For some of you, that probably isn’t a big deal, but if you’re like me and didn’t grow up with anyone who was nearly as much into Nintendo as you were, it is seriously a treat to hang out with other people who know what they’re talking about and can discuss the gaming topics du jour with you. I first got to really experience that at E3 2001 with the PGC staff, and the same sort of thing is captured a few times on this video.

The team shortly heads to the pre-Spaceworld Nintendo press conference, a place where some dreams were realized and others smashed to bits, depending on who you ask. Obviously an event of monumental importance, the press conference is given extreme priority in this video. It takes up about half of the first disc, from approach to the conference itself to the aftermath.

Billy’s footage captures absolutely the ENTIRE press conference, and the biggest difference between this and some other video clips you may have seen is that here, you can hear everything in English. Members of the press were given electronic translators during the conference, and Billy managed to get the audio from that thing into the video. So in the background you can hear Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto speaking in Japanese, but the foreground audio belongs to the translator. At first it’s a bit difficult to understand the translation, since it is obviously being spoken by a Japanese man, but I got used to it pretty quickly. The game footage is the star here, particularly for Mario Sunshine and Legend of Zelda, and it’s also cool to see the new Kirby for GameCube and also Animal Forest +.

After the conference, members of the press were given an opportunity to play some of the games. Here you’ll get probably five or ten minutes of Super Smash Bros. Melee footage…it’s gonna be uninteresting to those of you who already have the game, but if you’re expecting it for Christmas, it’s a lot of good clear footage you haven’t seen before. There’s also an extensive clip of Star Fox Adventures, including several runs through the Arwing shooting level – a special treat, especially if you didn’t get to experience the game at Nintendo’s Cube Clubs in America. My favorite game footage here is of Animal Leader, the VERY strange evolution game that’ll be out in Japan early next year. Before watching this video, I had only seen a handful of screenshots; Billy has captured over a minute of actual gameplay footage, and it’s both intriguing and hilarious.

Next day begins with breakfast with NOA execs. On the way Billy has a nice little walking chat with Fran from IGNcube, proving that he's a fan of the new Zelda look and also that he is very much non-female. At the breakfast, you get to see a little pep talk from his greatness, Peter Main. Fans of the PETERMAINCO will be especially interested in that, because it’s one of the last events he was involved in before his retirement. Plus, he makes a really nice remark towards the shoulder event of the previous day…heheh.

Spaceworld itself starts soon after, but only to the media. This section is one of the best parts from the first disc, because it has so much game footage of GameCube titles that were shown only on that day. You can see someone playing the Kirby demo much differently than Miyamoto’s lackey did. There is some very revealing footage of the new Bomberman, including both the adventure mode and a multiplayer game. It was interesting for me to see the expo itself…it’s sort of like E3, except everything is in one (giant) room and there’s more open space. The lighting is also much brighter and consistent than at E3, where dozens of publishers are competing for your attention with every color and style of lighting you can imagine. It’s also much quieter overall, although that certainly changes once the public arrives the next day. ;-)

The first disc ends with Billy opening up his new Japanese Wario Land 4 and playing it for the first time…it’s nothing hugely special, but rather a good look at what a goober Billy is when it comes to new games. You’ll see a lot more of that in the second half, heh.

Disc two begins with Billy and the gang walking to the first public day of Spaceworld. They enter through the “top-secret” press entrance, and then the onslaught of Japanese families begins. The public’s presence makes this day quite a lot more interesting than what we saw on disc one, although you can tell how much harder it was to get any playing time.

This section contains quite a large amount of gameplay footage, and most of it is worth watching. There’s an Eternal Darkness demo in Japanese (a translated version was at the Cube Clubs), Phantasy Star Online for GameCube including some video of the four-player splitscreen mode, Super Mario Advance 2, and Columns Crown for GBA.

The public days are obviously FAR more crowded and loud, partly because of what I call “town criers”. These people are hired to speak Japanese very quickly into their microphones and get you to come see whatever game they’re hawking. The funniest example is at the Smash Bros. Tournament, where two very cute Japanese girls ramble incessantly about who-knows-what, then prelude each battle with a hilarious “Leady, Fight!!” The tournament itself is definitely cool, and the guy who wins is AWESOME with Mario…wow, I don’t ever want to play against him. There’s even a pre-fight interview with the two finalists, and if you listen closely you can hear Billy cracking on this one dude’s outrageous hair.

Elsewhere at Spaceworld, there’s a nifty little run-in with Peter MacDougall, and a lengthy shot of a GBA promo reel showcasing quite a few Japanese titles from Nintendo and its second parties. This was the first video I’d seen of most of these games: Fire Emblem Advance, Battland from HAL, Tomato Adventure, a tilt-pak puzzle game called Happy Panetsu, Brownie Brown’s Magical Vacation, Luna Braze, and Legend of Starfi. Other GBA footage includes Diddy Kong Racing, SabreWulf, and Super Mario Advance 2. You also get a look at the Nintendo store there, and an amazing shot of dozens and dozens of Japanese people gathered along a wall, trading and playing their Pokemon cards.

Spaceworld 2001 ends, and Billy sets out to find Nintendo Co. Ltd. headquarters in Kyoto. Yes, he finds it; no, he doesn’t get in. But he does pick up a little press packet for his troubles, and it’s worth seeing this relatively short segment (about seven minutes long) just to hear Billy squeal like a little girl when he sees the building in the distance. And, silly as it may sound, I got a bit emotional at seeing it too. Nintendo has drastically affected my life over the years, and probably yours too, so don’t be surprised if seeing the building strikes up a little wisp of longing.

The Japanese GameCube launch takes up the rest of the second disc, or about one-third of the entire video set. We see Billy getting ready for his camp-out, and then he’s at the Akihabara Laox…with fourteen hours to go. And he’s not even first in line! That honor goes to a Japanese fella named Yoshi, who was also first in line for the GBA launch and happens to speak fairly understandable English, albeit slowly. I’m sure this marathon waiting session got pretty boring at times, but thanks to careful editing and a pretty colorful cast of characters on the scene, it never gets dull on video. There’s definitely an atmosphere going on there, and it builds up steadily as GameCube draws ever nearer…

Others joining Billy and Hong in line include a trio of Nintendo fans from Italy, a couple of British lads, and one man from Frankfurt, Germany with an incredibly cool beard. Yeah, there are a few Japanese people, but overall the group is very international, and of course, they’re all hardcore gamers. I particularly enjoyed the in-depth gaming discussions enjoyed over beers in the wee morning hours. Our buddy Steven Kent from MSNBC even shows up to chill for a while! There’s much playing of GBA, and you’ll get to witness the insane antics of the Laox security guards…where did they find those guys?

This very long segment reminds me of a Survivor episode; there’s not very much actually going on, but the conversations happening and relationships forming make for a compelling experience, with lots of laughs along the way. Finally, just the guys in line (and probably you, the viewer) start to get a bit restless, sunlight breaks and excrement hits the proverbial fan. The Japanese media start showing up…in droves. It’s pretty wild to see Billy interviewed on live TV, while Hong films it from the side. The line in front of Laox has also gotten really long by this time. All these elements work together to really build up the store’s opening, the moment of truth, the gaming catharsis that Billy had been awaiting for two and a half years. It was an exciting place and time, and despite myself, I got excited too just from watching the whole event on video.

FINALLY the store opens, everyone runs inside (Yoshi first, of course), and we have a very up close and personal immortalization of the first legit GameCube sale in the entire world. Billy looks like he’s about to wet himself as his system and games are bagged up. Hong gets his too, and the duo splits ASAP…they need sleep, badly.

After a much-needed nap, Billy shows us the grand opening of his GameCube and all the stuff he got with it. Other than seeing the much different Japanese packaging, I wasn’t very interested in this part, but it’s hard to blame Billy for wanting to capture the occasion. With the system “laid out like that”, the action moves down to the hotel lobby, where the brand new GameCube is hooked up for the first time and WaveRace is put through its first paces. Then the video ends…on a pretty abrupt, but fitting, note.

A few important notes about the video as a whole…first, the language is pretty bad. Billy said it would probably be rated PG-13, but actually a real Hollywood movie would get R for this language. Billy is a potty-mouth, which can add to or take away from the experience depending on your tolerance for such things. As for the audio and video quality: the sound is excellent, with voices always easy to make out and understand, and background noise audible but still in the background. (One exception to this: the Beth Llewelyn interview, which is an audio-only file on the first disc, is pretty difficult to hear because of the very heavy background noise. That problem doesn’t occur in any of the video though.) The video quality certainly isn’t anything close to what you’d get on a typical DVD, but it’s way more than adequate, especially considering the extremely heavy compression. Four hours of video over two regular compact discs, and yet the picture isn’t fuzzy or rolling, and the framerate doesn’t skip around. My only gripe, and I mentioned this earlier, is that the camera is sometimes shaky when Billy’s walking and filming at the same time. Hey, he’s not a professional cameraman. The good news is that the video is very, very stable during the parts where that is most important: the press conference and the gameplay footage.

Should you buy this video? Although it’s a great value at $20 for four hours, PGC’s Japan Experience 2001 isn’t for everyone. I recommend it to fairly hardcore Nintendo fans who can appreciate some (ok, a LOT) of gushing over the company and its products. You also need to want to experience the Japanese GameCube launch, because it does comprise a very large portion of the video. It’s very well done and an inherently amazing thing to witness in my opinion, but others may not be so interested. Finally, there is a pretty good amount of game footage…I’d say it makes up at least 10% of the video. I personally found it great, since most of it is of Japanese games or games that just haven’t been shown at all in America, but the game footage may not appeal to some people. Just thought I’d make that clear.

If you’re interested in purchasing Planet GameCube’s Japan Experience 2001 2-CD set, hit this link.

Questions or comments about this review are much appreciated. Feel free to email the author, Jonathan Metts.

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