Orient Expression

20 June, 2008

Dirty Secret (Lite)

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 4:02 pm
Tags: , ,

I have a confession to make. I did something recently that I shouldn’t have done, for various reasons, and I’ve avoided telling people where possible because of the shame.
It’s addictive, expensive and endlessly distracting, and I’ve come up with all sorts of rationalisations, but the fact is I shouldn’t have done it, and now I can’t stop.

I bought a Nintendo DS Lite.

So far I don’t have many games for it, but I can see that it’s going to be an effort not to start pampering it like a spinster would a beloved pet. I’ve already found myself “brain-training” during my lunch break – and no, I can’t claim the time back as “training and personal development”. That’s the excuse I use for trolling Slashdot.

My inherited puritanical guilt is being subsumed, however, by the relentless onslaught of sheer childish delight. I’ve not been attracted by the power of its graphics or the range and intensity of its games (Mario can go felch Yoshi for all I care), nor even by its shiny black case (and just how did we ever phone people before the iPhone…?).

So if it’s neither the love of hardcore gaming nor posing techno-lust, what (I hear you ask) has wooed me so?
It’s just so much fun!
Not in the blam blam zoom k’pow way – and I’m someone who once lived for the seated adrenalin-rush of blasting the legs off an attacking swarm of ant-lions from a speeding dune-buggy in the resplendent immersion of Half-Life 2. If I want to relish in that kind of pornographically-violent thrill, I have a whole hulk of a PC purpose-built for the task.

No, the thrill of my newest toy is something much simpler: it really is a toy. Its very design-principle seems to have been “Don’t try to impress – just make it fun,” and everything seems to have flowed from that.

I’ll give you a nice pure example of the sort of thing I’m talking about here: Electroplankton. This fantastically intuitive bit of kit isn’t a game – there is no goal, no reward system, nothing of the sort. In essence you are interacting with a whole host of little semi-autonomous fellas, who in turn interact with their environment and one another, and create sounds as they go, resulting in some occasionally breathtaking symphonic chain-reactions.
This goes beyond bashing out drum rhythms. You influence things by poking them, moving them, directing them with your stylus; by altering tempo, frequency and even fluid current direction with various buttons; even by talking, singing and clapping into the microphone! This isn’t a game, but it’s undeniably fun. The obvious word is toy.

Even something as straight-forward as the cute platformer wholesomeness of Lego Indiana Jones is infected with this sense of intuitive fun. You want to blow out torches in the Temple of Doom? Blow into the microphone! Need to swing across the rooftops of Cairo? Drag across the screen in the direction you want to “whip”! Such simple elements, but they all add up to offer a cornucopia of immersive delight and discovery from a device with a couple of screens the size of business cards.

The classic Brain Training titles, to give another example, are the adult’s equivalent of those interactive play-mat things that parents get for their babies so they can develop normally in a sterile lab: in a similar but more direct way, the point is to learn and to enhance your brain’s natural abilities by interacting with something rewarding, and by working things out yourself. No adrenalin, no tension, no steep learning curve, just get stuck in and enjoy yourself.

A final mention goes to the imminent arrival through my letter-box of one of the most valuable bits of kit for the DS I could hope to obtain: a Kanji dictionary. You can use the stylus to actually write a Kanji, and it’ll recognise your atrocious scrawl and present you with a definition! No more hunting through the dictionary by Stroke-Count or Radical, just write the damned thing in. If I were to buy an electronic kanji dictionary even approaching that level of functionality, I’d be looking at a few hundred quid for a start.

All this speaks well of the DS, but there also seems to be a universal appreciation of the Nintendo Wii – the DS’s big brother – that has overcome the traditional barriers and boundaries of gaming culture and the usual hardcore market demographic by having much the same philosophy. Presumably as a result of this, the DS and Wii are exalted leaders in their respective markets. How is it that Nintendo got it so right where others seemed to be churning out the same old thing, harder and faster than ever before?

I’m tempted to think that it says something about Japanese culture. I’ve always felt that, as a society, Japan seems to be fairly unashamed to pursue its own interests on an individual level (such are the observations one makes when wasting teenaged Friday evenings watching Eurotrash). Maybe it’s down to the fact that people are unlikely to say anything if you act a little differently over there (however strongly they might feel), or maybe I’m just demonstrating my as-yet juvenile understanding of the culture.
It seems to make sense though. In all matters of personal taste and expression, Japan seems to shamelessly pursue an unfettered purity. From fashion to film to fun to – let’s face it – porn, if you want to know how far it can go, look to Japan. Maybe that’s unhealthy when applied to some of our less-savoury appetites, but I can’t think of a better philosophy when it comes to just having fun.

Of course, that whole idea falls down when you remember that one of their direct competitors – Sony – is principally Japanese also, and hasn’t managed to generate half the market-trouncing furore of Nintendo. Still, if you want multimedia excellence right along the chain from artists through production to electronic reproduction, you could do worse…

Okay, I admit it. I’m doing some intense high-brow rationalising here. £100 is £100, but I really am enjoying myself. Brain Training repeatedly tells me I have a Brain Age of about 20, and this gives me a bit of glee every time. At least it did until someone told me it doesn’t go below 20, and Dr Kawashima is probably trying to imply that my Brain Age is somewhere nearer 8.

I don’t care. I’m having fun, and I don’t have to blow the legs of anything to do so.
If you don’t mind, I’m going to go trade games with my Japanese teacher’s 8 year old son…


1 Comment »

  1. Great review, and I quite agree: when the Japanese make a product that does one thing well, they can do amazing stuff. Check out those toilet seats!

    The PS3 and the PSP were not so much games consoles, as Sony’s bid for world domination; and they’d have got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky Nintendo kids. Nintendo understood that “more fun” trumps “faster, better, stronger” every time. They built a product that was focussed on fun, and the rest is history.

    But the PS3 did succeed in at least one respect: it was the decisive factor in the Bluray vs. HD-DVD wars.

    Comment by Peter Mc — 23 June, 2008 @ 10:33 am | Reply

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