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Being a newbie to this country, I knew I had to experience the Japanese way of video gaming.

Disclaimer: I am not a geek. I have not owned a game system since the Sega Genesis and I can’t speak a lick of Klingon. But since I arrived here in May, I’ve appreciated seeing names such as Konami and Sega grace the sides of downtown city structures.

In a lot of ways, Japan seems like the birthplace of modern gaming. Video games and arcades are in fine form here, whereas in the States, the average person doesn’t visit Chuck E. Cheese or Dave and Busters very often.

So recently, I set out to explore some of the arcades in the Tokyo area to compare and contrast, and possibly acquire the video game bug for the first time in years.

The first thing I noticed about Japanese arcades are the UFO machines. They are big and bright and usually right near the entrances. They’re a draw even for non-gamers, who come in to try to manipulate the mechanical arms in these machines to pick up stuffed animals, ice cream and, believe it or not, ready-made dinners.

My friend, a veteran of the Japanese arcade scene, demonstrated the machines by picking up a mini ice cream on his first try. I followed and duplicated his success. I was an instant fan.

Another attraction, popular with teens, is the photo booths. You go in and have your picture taken, and it prints out a strip of wallet-size photos. You see these in the States, but they don’t seem to be as big a hit as they are here.

Each booth is elaborate in its decoration, and some even have clothes set aside for people to play dress up.

When it came to games, there was one that used theme cards that really caught my attention. The player sits down, and between him and the screen is a flat surface on which he can place cards. As the player continually repositions the cards, the movements dictate the action on the screen. There are also buttons at the player’s disposal that factor into the game play. In some of the sports games, players view their own progress and point of view of the action from their respective screens, while the game as a whole is depicted on a big screen visible to everyone. I’ve never seen anything like this in the States, and my guess is somebody somewhere is pouting about that.

In several arcades, I encountered something called "Gundam." You play this game inside a one-person pod using joysticks and foot pedals. It boasts a panoramic display as well as network connectivity. You can battle other players in adjoining pods or in other arcades. You’re also issued a card that stores all your combat data to track your progress.

Seeing the pods, my inner geek was reminded of the contraption responsible for marrying Jeff Goldblum with a wayward housefly. And being in a room of them feels an awful lot like Sigourney Weaver finding herself in the middle of a Queen Alien egg farm, only the eggs are supersized.

But that wasn’t what turned me off to them, because I love those movies. Rather, it was my distinct impression that it was a "one of us" kind of game. Meaning, if you couldn’t play ball, you had no business being on the field.

I’d have to spend countless hours and money making a digital name for myself in the "Gundam "universe. I went near one of the pods to get a better look and nearly got run over by a guy who thought I was pod-swiping. Needless to say, I felt a little out of my element, so I moved on.

Being a journalist, a typing game that killed your character unless you could type fast enough piqued my interest, although I didn’t try my hand at it. In the same area several quiz games seemed pretty popular. Friends gathered around cheering for each other as, one by one, they tested their smarts.

When I finally got down to the game playing, I thought I’d be able to shake off some rust by playing tennis. If there was any game where I could come right in and hold my own, it’s tennis. I played a guy sitting across from me. He was playing as veteran journeyman Sebastian Grosjean and I was Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal. I didn’t win a single game but I was satisfied with my performance. Very cool game. The computerized Nadal hit his forehands exactly like Nadal does in real life.

One game genre for which I have an affinity is car racing. From "Pole Position" and "R.C. Pro Am" to "Super Hang-On," I’ve driven my fair share of video game cars. I sat down in the "driver’s seat" of a hip-looking racing game I found in a Tachikawa-area arcade.

My critique: Why the heck do they have to make the car handling so dang hard? This seems to be the case too with a lot of the other racing games I’ve tried over the past few years. It’s like the harder it is to drive, the more accomplished the game. If I were more of a gamer, I think I’d develop a pet peeve over this. As it is, it’s merely an observation that only cost me 100 yen and lots of dinged-up animated car.

This experience had me craving some "Mario Kart." You know when you see those big, goofy characters from Mario Brothers lore driving around that the game play is not going to outsmart you. For my money, after having played it for a good half hour, "Mario Kart 4" is the best game around. It’s easy to play and the animation is just a ton of fun. I had no problem continually forking over 100 yen to keep my play going. One possible criticism is that the game is too loud, although it did help me escape into a complete "Mario Kart" consciousness and tune out everything else that was going on in the arcade.

But even "Mario Kart" couldn’t claim the prize for biggest money-taker. That honor went to one of the UFO machines that caught my eye as I walked out of my final arcade in Shibuya. Perhaps a little cocky after my success with the ice cream machine at another arcade, I was convinced I could walk out of there with this really cool-looking container of hair grease. Alas, my hair today is every bit the dry hair that it was yesterday, but I’ll be back with a pocket full of yen tomorrow.


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