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Even the Pittsburgh Pirates played video games this year.
Knock on wood, you guys, but I managed to get through 2012 without having all my video games stolen from my house while I was sleeping [EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s 2013 now, you dummy. You don’t need to knock on wood]. Should that even be an achievement?
2012 seems to be a shift in the status quo. Perhaps it’s because the new console generation hasn’t yet kicked off, but I feel like fewer and fewer AAA, big budget titles have been grabbing my attention lately. Of the 56 games on this list I feel like very few (about 12) were big, huge landmark games. Maybe that’s not all that different, but it feels different…
Also, like last year I do count games on this list that did not launch in 2012, but that I played, started, or beat in 2012.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective – The weirdest thing about my time with this game was that I chose to play it in Spanish. It was fine practice and, off the top of my head, it taught me two Spanish words I had no use for before playing it (sotano and cachorro, meaning basement and puppy/cub/kitten, respectively), but it also featured very funny writing by Phoenix Wright’s creator and a bizarrely complicated story for such a slight-looking game. In fact, 2012 was kind of a year of interactive fiction, as you’ll see, so it’s appropriate to see GT get top billing. It’s also worth mentioning that the animation in this game is spectacular.
Rayman: Origins – Also known as the game where Min and I attained Super Saiyan level for the first time. No lie, guys, the treasure chest levels and the final Level of the Dead or whatever it was called was a zen-like achievement for the pair of us. If New Super Mario Bros. isn’t your bag, but you think you might still love platformers then you absolutely need to try this game out.
Chrono Trigger DS – Yeah, I played this in the 90s. Yep, it was my first RPG. The DS port added some marginal sections, including an epilogue that sets up for Chrono Cross in the most depressing way possible, but it also came with a new translation that I thought was interesting and brought some freshness to an otherwise “solved” game for me.
Earthbound – I wish I’d spent more time trying to replay Earthbound, but I just didn’t. Heck, I don’t think I got too far past meeting Buzz Buzz…Still love this game.
Cave Story + – How I long for dynamic difficulty level changing! Cave Story + is a fantastic Metroidvania-style pixel shooter, but my hubris determined I would play on the hardest difficulty, which means I’m stuck on Monster X until I can get my skills down pat.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 – Remember how everyone’s favorite character in FF XIII was Lightning’s sister and some guy no one ever saw in FF XIII? Wait…those weren’t your favorite characters? You don’t want to play another 40 hours as those chuckleheads and watch Snow, Hope, and Sazh from afar while playing a nearly incomprehensible story? Too bad!
Saints Row: The Third – I feel bad for you if you’ve never played Saints Row: The Third. I felt bad for myself for not having played it sooner than I did. For maximum awesomeness be sure to give your boss the Latina voice. It’s priceless. Seriously though, this game is the best open world game I have ever played. Period. It’s absurd, ridiculous, and nonsensical, but it’s winking every step of the way and I’m right there with it.
Rhythm Heaven Fever – When I first started writing this list I forgot that this little gem came out in 2012. Can you believe it?! Min, I know you don’t understand the appeal here, but this is honestly among my favorite game of this year. Did I spend $80 importing the soundtrack from Japan? You betcha. Goddammit this game is so good. It’s a must play for anyone with a Wii (or a Wii U). Seriously, go buy it. It’s incredible.
Devil Survivor 2 – Man, the Megrez fight is so stupid and I’m not properly equipped, demon-wise, to tackle it, which is why I never beat this game. It’s better than DS1, mechanically, but I just need to sit down and grind my way out of this and I really don’t want to have to do that…Bonus points for also pretty much being Evangelion
Mass Effect 3 – Hoo boy…What a shitshow this game’s release was…I wish I’d beaten it faster than I had because by the time I reached the ending, well, the internet had practically exploded with criticism. I spent more time wading in comments sections and forums defending the artistic integrity of a game that I honestly didn’t find that impressive compared to the rest of the year’s releases, but it just rubbed me the wrong way to see the fanboys demand changes from Bioware. I mean, whine all you want, but so long as Bioware doesn’t cave– What’s that? You say they did cave? They did change the ending as a response to fan whining? My respect for Bioware and this game flew out the window the second that happened. As far as I’m concerned, I played the real Mass Effect 3, but I never got the chance to enjoy it. Now that the doctors are gone from Bioware and the company is soliciting advice on what direction to take Dragon Age III, I find myself thinking, “Man, what happened to Bioware?” It’s a real shame because Mass Effect 3 was actually quite good.
Shadow Complex – Way late to the party on this one, but I was feeling that Metroidvania itch and, well, this game kind of scratches it. I hate the third dimension they added to the gun because it makes aiming a pain. Other than that it’s fine. Serviceable, really, but it also gets credit for being the first “autolog” type game that I can think of.
Jamestown – I don’t play a lot of vertical/horizontal shooters. Jamestown just happened to be out in a lull and I owned it from a Humble Bundle. It’s enjoyable enough and I dig playing it with multiple people, but it’s not going to set the world on fire. Playing the story in “funny” mode is fun too because the alternative is almost obnoxiously self-serious.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP – Cool music and a cool aesthetic, but it controls weird on the PC. I wish I had an iPad for stuff like this and that I put more time into this game.
The Walking Dead – I thought about separating this out into episodes across the series, but it seems cleaner to talk about this game in one fell swoop even though I started it in April and finished it in November. I know I said that Rhythm Heaven Fever was the best game of this year, but The Walking Dead is actually the best thing to have come out this year. I’ll grant you that it’s more interactive fiction than game, but even that’s not that important, really. I mean, would putting more puzzles in this adventure game make it any better? Of course not! The Walking Dead is the success it is because it’s a character-driven story of the likes we haven’t seen before. Lee Everett may not be making the galaxy-defining choices that Commander Shepard makes on a daily basis, but the stakes always seem higher as he does his best to shepherd young Clementine through a world that only gets worse and worse for everyone. That last scene in the jewelry store as Lee coaches Clem to safety…It touched me (and I’m sure most anyone who played it) in a way that nothing else this year could. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that everyone should play this game. It’s brilliant.
Fez – Speaking of brilliant, Fez has that in spades. We’re talking about a game where every detail feels deliberate and mysterious. That’s not an exaggeration either. With maybe one exception, there’s not a single puzzle in Fez that you couldn’t necessarily figure out in some way from clues in the world. They might be obscure, difficult to interpret clues, but they’re there. Add in a soundtrack that is hauntingly beautiful and a rotating mechanic that is as fun as anything else you’ve ever done and you’ve got the most interesting experience of 2012. I can still pull up intense memories of the empty solitude of some of the screens and the fitting music that made me feel isolated, alone, a little scared, and a little excited to discover a cube or an anticube. Fez was awesome, guys.
Diablo 3 – I’ve had this talk with Min so many times, but maybe I didn’t understand what Diablo was before I played D3. I’d only ever played D2 with my brother or a few friends. It was a small-scale endeavor and Torchlight, its closest analogue for me, was a single-player affair. There was no Auction House there to circumvent loot drops or other players to set up trades with on forums. There was the purity of the RNG and the thrill of the hunt. Diablo 3 awakened that feeling inside me that activates when I feel like I’ve been cheated. It was like I took the red pill and I saw the Matrix of the game for the first time when I realized what I’d have to do to beat the game on Inferno. I’ve never felt like a game’s systems were so transparently evil before (I don’t play Facebook games) and Diablo 3 soured me on Blizzard as a developer. Maybe next year you’ll see an entry about Heart of the Swarm, but as of right now, thanks to Diablo 3, I plan on never spending another cent on a Blizzard game (unless a new Warcraft RTS comes out. I actually like those).
Tropico 4 – Min likes to tease me about being an evil dictator when I play this game, but it’s much more complicated for me. When I play Tropico I don’t exercise my ability to rig elections or execute citizens at will. I do my best to be a benevolent leader and resist the control/interference of the US or USSR. I do my best to make the tropical paradise that I feel my people have been denied. It’s a deeply (and weirdly) personal experience for me. Plus the music is pretty sweet.
The Binding of Isaac: Wrath of the Lamb – Yeah, yeah, expansion pack for a game that I played relentlessly last year. I don’t care, guys, it was almost a new game with how much it added. If you read my blog and you tried/enjoyed FTL, you really should check this out.
No More Heroes: Paradise – I think I’m at assassin #7 or #6? It’s got its purposefully tedious parts in it and it’s so stylized that it’s hilarious, but it lost some steam with me and I never finished it. Whoops.
Spelunky – Forget what that other guy said about the best game of this year because Spelunky is awesome. It’s so sharp in the way that it plays. Die and it’s almost 100% your fault. Brutally difficult, endearingly fun and funny, and tightly controlled. I only wish I had more friends to play local multiplayer with.
Penny Arcade 2 – Not as funny as PA1 and not as fun as PA3
Penny Arcade 3 – PA goes 16-bit RPG. The combat is frighteningly difficult, but the game is tons of fun because of it. These new classes are super neat. It’s like they figured out all the boundaries to RPG combat and sharpened them to a knife’s edge. Really interesting, but easy to bone yourself with bad class selection.
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion – Each game takes forever, but playing a few matches with Min was tons of fun.
Greed Corp – Did not like. Sorry, Eric.
Puzzle Agent – Tried this before I went down the Professor Layton rabbit’s hole. Surprisingly funny and surprisingly well-written. I’m fairly certain that these didn’t sell well enough to keep making them, but I really enjoyed the setting and the story. Very cute.
Max Payne 3 – I’m the guy who’s never played a Max Payne game before so when I play this grimy, glitzy, greasy shooter I’m unburdened by Payne’s history. There’s no comparison to the way it used to be or the way I wanted a sequel to be. It’s just an awesome shooter with a dumb, but neat story. Brazil is here to stay as a setting and even though Rockstar characters are all deplorable assholes who I hate, I had a soft spot for Max and Giovanna. Pretty solid shooter.
Sonic Generations – Modern Sonic games suck. All of them. Everyone who thinks Generations is “not that bad” or “good” is wrong. You’re wrong.
BIT.TRIP.RUNNER – A rhythm game! I didn’t realize it before I tried it. The first boss fight sucks and I stopped playing after it. I hear that was a mistake.
Persona 4 Arena – I got a little bogged down by being forced to play other perspectives before finishing the main narrative, but the continuation of the Persona story was solid enough to make me interested in the game, even if I didn’t really care for the fighting mechanic. Guys, who knew a fighting game could have a sweet story?
Driver: San Francisco – Didn’t get enough in to say anything definitive, but I don’t really like the car mechanics.
Trine 2 – I don’t think either of these Trine games are for me, but I’ve only ever played 5 hours of a Trine game ever. It’s the physics model. I don’t like the imprecision in a platformer. I had the same issue with Little Big Planet.
Iron Brigade – The most frustrating networking experience of 2012. It’s a shame too because Min, Lee, and I should have loved playing this.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – Goddammit I love me some Counter-Strike. I didn’t put that many hours into this, but playing it with Simon and some of the old War Cry guys was awesome. If you have any interest in shooters, but you don’t play this…well I don’t understand you.
Orcs Must Die 2 – Not the best tower defense game, but I think I’m under 10 hrs with it so maybe it picks up?
The Last Story – Got so bogged down writing about this with David (remember that feature?) that I never continued it. Lots of promise there with characters that seem deeper than your usual anime bullshit, but I need to give it another 20 hours to be sure.
Mark of the Ninja – The tightest stealth game (mechanics-wise) you will ever play. Seriously, man. It’s pretty boss. The story is fairly dumb, but playing it is so much fun that you can’t help but smile. A solid win in my book.
FTL: Faster Than Light – I’ve recorded 31.5 hours of me playing this game as of when I write this sentence. A game that has such tight mechanics that you can’t help but love it. This was the year of roguelikes for me. FTL plays like the space sim you always wish you had. I don’t see myself getting bored of this game until I unlock all the ships. That won’t be for a while because I’m somewhat terrible with some of the ships, but I do love me this game.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 – More Mario platforming. Not the most inspired Mario game, but it has its moments. Not gonna set the world on fire and, like the first one, not my favorite Mario game.
Torchlight 2 – I can’t really claim to have played this game since the first day was a clusterfuck and I didn’t get past the menu screen. Had tons of fun chatting with Min and his cousin though.
Borderlands 2 – Until the very end of December I was the only one of my close video gaming friends who had this game. As a solo affair (and even as a group affair), the early parts of this game are pretty terrible/boring/tedious. In a group I’ve enjoyed playing this tons more. It’s just fun to have three friends rolling around Pandora with you. I hope we keep playing.
Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy – I love rhythm games. I love Final Fantasy music. This game is beautiful and perfect and could only be made better with more FF VI music.
Kirby’s Dream Collection – Picked it up to own Kirby Super Star. Played a bit of that with Min. Lots of fun, but not gonna set the world on fire.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter – Played it for a few minutes because it was the only sequel I could find in the store. Based on those few minutes I bought the rest of the franchise.
Pokemon White Version 2 – I wish I hadn’t pushed Min and David to get Black and White because the Version 2s are so much better. There has never been a better put together Pokemon game. I’ve sunk over a hundred hours into this game playing it Nuzlocke style and I still have yet to defeat the Elite Four or Team Plasma. I’m not kidding, guys, this is the closest you can come to a perfect Pokemon game.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Ok, for realsies now, guys. This is the best game of the year. Just so much fun to play in Classic Ironman mode where every mistake is locked in place and humanity hangs in the balance. Tactical, turn-based combat has never been better implemented and every system works well. My only gripe is that you “can’t fail” the final mission in the sense that losing it sends you to the start. Losing an Ironman run in the final mission would be brilliant (and sadistic), wouldn’t it?
Professor Layton and the Curious Village – It has a fairly ridiculous plot twist that almost makes zero sense and doesn’t hit with any oomph, but you’re supposed to be here for the puzzles anyway. They’re fun and the characters are charming enough that I’m more than happy to spend hours upon hours just completing brain teasers.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted – I wish this was more Burnout Paradise instead. I don’t like the way the “campaign” is laid out with the unlocks for all the cars. I hate how I have to earn nitro every time I swap cars. It’s just not as good as the Burnout stuff. I’m sorry. That said, it’s so much fun to race at top speed in real-world automobiles. Super fun.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask – The 365 puzzles (one a day) and the fact that I bought it digitally are what keeps me coming back to this game over and over again since I haven’t yet beaten the previous iterations. Solid puzzle work and a great 3DS package, but I can’t wait to actually see the narrative.
Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box – More Layton, but on a train!
To the Moon – The Walking Dead kind of ruined this game for me. Everyone was lauding it as this grand, mature narrative, but then The Walking Dead goes and does something truly spectacular while To the Moon failed to really hit with me. The twist was neat and I dug the story, but I didn’t find it to be as amazing as I’d heard. It’s solid storytelling in a mediocre engine package, but it’s worth checking out for sure.
Hotline Miami – Certainly the game that’s inspired the most cackling laughter in me. Just brutal, ugly, sleazy, and weird. Hotline Miami has a kickass soundtrack and relentless gameplay. The bosses are kind of obnoxious, but it plays fairly sharply and I’d recommend it to almost anyone.
Nintendo Land – Fantastic in group settings, but somewhat lacking as a solo endeavor. I’m happy to own it and I think asynchronous information/capabilities makes for way more interesting games than the same old stuff we’re used to, but without a group to play this it can get a little boring.
New Super Mario Bros. U – Haven’t put a lot of time in it, but the course design is definitely superior to the DS version. Can’t wait to beat this with Min, but I’m not breaking down any doors to play it.
Donkey Kong Country Returns – I’m only two worlds in, but it feels slighter/weaker than the old DKCs. We’ll see how it pans out, I guess.
Sleeping Dogs – I’m getting open world fatigue pretty early in this one. Unlike Saints Row: The Third, this is more serious and I feel like not being ridiculous is to its detriment. Sleeping Dogs’ dating system is ridiculous and the cop story is fairly predictable, but I’m in love with the Hong Kong setting and the fact that this is a game not taking place in LA, NY, or Miami. Also really nice to see non-white protagonists. The Batman fighting style is neat, but, like I said, already hitting open world fatigue.
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors – I’m glad I played and finished this before the end of the year because it’s absolutely brilliant. Any game that uses the mechanics of the system its on is an instant plus for me and the final puzzle/revelation is brilliant. How many games make you think about morphic resonance and information transfer like this one? Just the fact that I found myself thinking about philosophical questions like Locke’s Socks/The Ship of Theseus and that it ALL MADE SENSE was really brilliant. Look, visual novels are divisive, but you shouldn’t let that get in your way. 999 has one of the neatest stories of the year (2010) and it’s easily one of my favorite games this year.
Robert Downy, Jr. was definitely the MVP of the movie. (Photo courtesy JakesplacePS)
Readership assemble! Min and I made the great sacrifice of seeing The Avengers for you. Our verdict? It’s excellent. Go see it, y’all. Seriously.
The Avengers – It does precisely what I thought was impossible by focusing on each individual character for a bit and giving them all arcs. Granted, most of the groundwork was laid in all the other Marvel movies, but it’s still tough to do. High props to Mark Ruffalo for his portrayal of the Hulk. His barely contained anger was chilling and, most importantly, awesome. Joss Whedon’s writing also gels quite nicely with the movie, RDJ version of Iron Man.
The Five-Year Engagement – It’s a little long, but it’s also very funny and definitely well acted. This movie gave roles to all kinds of hilarious guys like Mindy Kaling, Chris Parnell, Brian Posehn, and Kevin Hart. Not to mention the supporting roles for Alison Brie and Chris Pratt. Emily Blunt remains charming and Jason Segel is his usual lovable oaf self. Don’t expect anything amazing and you’ll enjoy this light romantic comedy.
Mad Men – I have no idea where this season is headed, but man am I just stoked to be on the journey. Last week had all-star performances all around. Can’t wait to see what happened last night.
Girls – Best line: “Ok, American History X.” Awkward humor is where it’s at now, huh? Not complaining, but it’s interesting how that’s the norm now. This show continues to surprise me week to week. It’s better than you might think.
Veep – Another solid, solid episode. I wasn’t sure if the show would be able to maintain its awesomeness, but it has met and exceeded expectations. I really do love this show.
Parks and Recreation – I read one reviewer call the campaign bus running over the Sweetums guy overkill, but I thought it was hilarious. Great work by the cast, but I’m ready for the election storyline to finish.
New Girl – From week to week you’re the one show that really gives me pause, New Girl. You’re really not the best hang-out comedy out there, but you put in work that is passable and regularly funny. I feel like you get more credit than you deserve, but I do enjoy watching you, I guess. At least you name dropped Coach this week. I know you couldn’t bring him back to prevent confusion and because you had to build Winston up from scratch, but I hope you bring back Coach for an episode one day.
Community – Starburns is dead. The study group is expelled. I liked that they rallied from that dark moment thanks to Troy. Makes me wonder what’s coming up at the end of the season. Will they succeed in taking him to the A/C Annex or will the group rally in his support? Does it matter if they’re not all taking classes together any more? This season certainly deviated from that…
The Fez soundtrack deserves special mention. It is a joy to listen to in the background thanks to its ambient nature, but it doesn’t let the listener get too comfortable. The dissonance creates an uneasy feeling that I’m perhaps pairing with my game experience too much, but I think it’s still absolutely worth listening to. Especially for you, Min. It’s got no words.
Eh, nope. I gotta get back into reading soon. I almost bought a book this weekend, but physical books feel so expensive to me now!
Fez – Certainly the best downloadable console game I’ve played this year. We’re talking Grade A awesomeness in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity. Figuring out a puzzle will make you feel like a genius. Turns into a bit of a pain to navigate as the number of secrets narrows down, but still a game that everyone should play as soon as it’s out on PC, I guess, since none of my readers have an Xbox (that I can think of)
Mass Effect 3 – Played a couple of levels from the Resurgence Pack. They seem big and/or complicated, but I like them. If only they’d vary the enemy types or game modes I’d be happier spending a ton more time in this game. Oh well.
Shadow Complex – It’s funny how I find save rooms so antiquated now. Losing a bunch of progress and listening to the same dialogue over and over because I died isn’t acceptable any more. Still scratches that Metroidvania itch and I dig that.
Devil Survivor 2 – Just unlocked the ability to transfer between Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya instantaneously. I wish the third region had been Sapporo, Hiroshima, or Okinawa. This is a sharp game. Very similar to DS1, but that was a sharp game too. I’m wondering where the story is going in this one, but not in a bad way. I really should play this more…
The Old Republic – The Trooper story continues to be interesting to me. I like the whole “Reassemble Havoc Squad” thing it’s got going on. I even like the companions! Sergeant Dorne, the Imperial defector, seems like she’d add an interesting wrinkle to my game, especially since she disapproves of my character’s rule-breaking habits. The storytelling in this game is absolutely superb. So glad that Min and I are playing this now, but we’ve only got a week before Diablo 3…
That's the second largest autographed baseball I've ever seen!
The last full day of the trip! Even though I was ready to go home, it still felt like I had unresolved business out in Japan. I wanted to go home and be back in my apartment and not traveling, but I also wanted to stay and watch more Japanese baseball and chow down on more curry.
After an early morning check-out from the Tokyo Garden Palace and a short taxi to the train station, we made our way deep into the station’s bowels, down several storeys on our way to the station that housed the shinkansen bound for Sendai. Along the way I got my last taste of onigiri, only this time it finally looked like it normally did in the cartoons.
Finally, onigiri that lived up to the expectations and stereotypes I held.
Deep in the cavernous depths of the station, the stations were so tall that I saw my first double-decker trains. The Poke-craze continued down there too as I saw whole trains decorated with Pokemon characters.
A summer travel-themed Pokemon train.
The train ride to Sendai was rather uneventful. Once again I failed at napping, but I did get more Devil Survivor time in and achieved another of the six or so endings of the game, but this is all boring, so let’s fast forward. Sendai is one of the major cities of the Northern part of Japan, but we didn’t really have much time to explore. Our train arrived in what seemed like the heart of the city and we left the station to go to our hotel, a grueling 300 meters away. We were too early to check-in, but our bags remained while we all spread out to explore and I set out to get Min a gift.
Pictrued: What I should have got Min. Not pictured: The book of piano music that I actually did get him.
If you saw the spoiler above, you already know what I got Min. Thinking that I might see something cool in there and looking to kill time, I stepped into a music shop to see what kind of stock they had. Since an instrument was totally out of the question, I was about to head out of the shop when I noticed a huge shelf of music books. Inspiration struck and I remembered that Min is a pretty good piano player who plays both on a keyboard in his room and on a grand in a Hopkins practice room. Shelf browsing produced a book containing a “greatest hits” piano selection from the Final Fantasy series.
Unrelated: This public sink does everything. Soap dispenses from the left, water from the right, and holding your hands over the inside (closest to the handwasher) activates a hand dryer.
My next task was to find a replacement sake cup for the one I broke. Lucky for me, there was another Seibu Loft right next to the train station. After exploring the building with the music shop and seeing a convenience store and an anime/manga store, I went back to the station to explore the Seibu Loft, hoping that they would have the sake cup, unlike the one in Tokyo. Lucky for me, they not only had the same set, but an even better looking one. I decided to keep the more spartan one whose glass I replaced and get a new set for a gift.
I did see a ridiculous timepiece at the Seibu Loft that I have to share here:
When retro goes too far.
Another welcome surprise in Sendai was spotting some Eagles-themed vending machines. Like the Carp in Hiroshima, the Fighters in Hokkaido, and the Hawks out in Fukuoka, the Eagles are pretty much the only team in their region, allowing them to spread out and create an identity for the team, unlike the over-congestion of teams in the Tokyo area. This sight started to turn me to the Eagles, but for the time being I was still wearing my Marines jersey and looking to root for Chiba that night.
Looks like the lame crushed penny machines are on this side of the Pacific too...
Lunch that day was pretty cool too. I ordered a dish that was the “kitchen sink” of this omelet restaurant. It was complete with shrimp, crab croquettes, hamburger steak, a tempura shrimp, and the Japanese-style omelet that has rice nestled inside the egg.
Rice inside omelets...strange, but delicious.
Once enough time had elapsed, it was time to check-in and then hop on the train toward Kleenex Stadium.Miyagi. As I waited for my bags to be retrieved from the back room, I noticed a steady stream of surprisingly Marines-themed dress coming out of the elevators. It suddenly dawned on me that we were staying in the same hotel as the Chiba Lotte Marines. These were the players coming down to the lobby to head over to the stadium to prep for the game!
Instead of freaking out, I decided that I would play it cool. When one player walked by, I pointed at my jersey and then at him and nodded to show my support. Since I’d received my bags by then, I shot out a smooth ganbare as I passed by him. When the elevator discharged another Marines player, I said the same and headed upstairs to my room.
After dropping some stuff off and settling in, we met again downstairs to take the train to the JR station. Like other teams in good fan regions, the stadium station, nicknamed Baseball Station, was chock-full of Eagles decals, colors, and spirit. My kind of station.
The Baseball Station in Sendai has a lot of Eagles pride.
Kleenex Stadium Miyagi has a pretty unfortunate name thanks to the evils of corporate name sponsorship, but it’s actually a really nice ballpark. Since the team is so new (started in 2005, I think), the stadium is filled with open hallways, bright colors, and a modern look.
It's unfortunate that thinking about this place makes me think of blowing my nose.
Outside the ballpark they had a stage with live music being played and a bunch of food stalls and games for kids. Also present were these go-karts that had the names of the mascots written on them…but there was something strange about the naming convention.
...and...Mr. Carrasco...? Where did he come from?
Since the Eagles were having a great year (they ended up finishing in second place), they were also advertising for the Climax Series and selling merchandise, but they chose a different phrase from the Lions and Hawks.
It's super different. Now it says "Go *TO* Climax"
The other great thing about the stadium was that all the employees were dressed like Gordon’s fishermen.
They make fishsticks in between innings.
Before the game, I picked up a Masahiro Tanaka jersey, one of the two real ace pitchers for the Golden Eagles. When I noticed that he would be taking the mound for the game that night, I decided to switch allegiances and throw on my Tanaka jersey that night. It turned out to be a good choice for me, since the Eagles won 9-5 and I found myself drawn to the team, allowing them to become my Pacific League team.
Batting Practice at Kleenex Stadium Miyagi
The only real downside of the Golden Eagles is that they suffer from too many mascots. Aside from Clutch, Clutchina, and Mr. Carrasco, there were two walking cacti, a hawk-man with wings and talons, and three gnomes. Too many mascots…
You can see tons of the mascots in the distance.
Another great thing was this group of drunk salarymen whose boss had way too much to drink. All game long (that he was there for), he was yelling and rooting for Todd Linden, no matter who was up. It was hilarious and the crowd around him started to join in and scream about Linden too.
The outfield and the scoreboard.
The game was fun, but the most hilarious part was when I got back to the hotel. Right when I arrived, staff was setting up spaces for people to wait for the players to arrive, but I quickly noticed that all of the fans awaiting the players in the hotel were young ladies. I got to walk past a bunch of groupies who cared nothing about me on my way up to my room. Another crazy early morning was ahead of me. The last day…
The greatest sign I've ever seen anywhere in the world.
This was one of the days I was most looking forward to on the trip. The Hanshin Tigers may not have the raw popularity of the Yomiuri Giants, but they’ve definitely got the most rabid fanbase in the entire country. Beyond that, Koshien Stadium is said to be the “soul of Japanese baseball,” most likely because, beyond the already crazy Tigers that play there, everything from college games to the high school championships are housed within Koshien. It’s a storied stadium most often compared to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park here in the States.
A statue-type thing in the open-air vendor area outside of Koshien.
We’re not ready to get too far into that yet, I’ve still got a little bit of Kyoto to cover before we got on the train to head for Nishinomiya. My morning was mostly occupied with wandering around the Kyoto station area to check some stuff out. I started out with going to the local Bic Camera to check out the games in stock. It turns out that quite a few others had the same idea, as there was a queue outside the shop just before the shop opened at 1000 that morning.
Maybe they're trying to get some shopping in before the work day starts?
Out of curiosity, I asked about the availability of the new Pokemon games that had come out the day before. They were predictably completely sold out. Browsing the shelves, I found a copy of a game I’ve been wanting to import since I played Elite Beat Agents, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan. The sequel was nowhere to be found, but I definitely picked up the game to play during my downtime on the tour.
Not Ouendan, but the Japanese boxart of the game I played the most in Japan, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. The US boxart is near identical, the only difference is the placement of the title to accomodate the ESRB rating.
My need to browse video games now sated, I headed into The Cube to take a look around and grab breakfast. I spotted a Mister Donut, one of the more famous donut shops in Japan, and I decided that I would break my Western food boycott for the morning to sample this Japanese take on an American staple. Boy was I surprised when I spotted the donut you see below this text. Not only did the Japanese understand that donuts should be tasty and sweet, but here they were, out-American-ing the Americans with their chocolate donut, topped with powdered sugar, and filled with cream.
Just looking at that picture has probably raised your blood sugar to dangerous levels.
After taking about a week off of my life just by eating that donut, I decided to climb back up to the top of The Cube to see what it’s like in the daylight and snap some shots for David.
A different sight in the daylight, this is The Cube. There are folks gathering for a concert that will begin in an hour or two.
At the top was the familiar Happy Terrace, which looks completely different without the ambient light and lovers seated at the benches.
Sorry folks, no creepy "happy" picture of me this time. I didn't have someone else to hold the camera.
Still, it’s a completely relaxing rooftop to hang out on and I could see myself taking lunch breaks up there.
It's very peaceful.
Dave and I were excited about the prospect of taking pictures of the Kyoto skyline from the top of The Cube, but it turns out that the Kyoto skyline isn’t really that interesting (to me).
Thanks to my amazing photographic skills, you also get to see my ghostly reflection in the glass as a bonus.
After that it was about time to start taking trains to head to Nishinomiya, so I made my way down to the platform and eventually hopped on a local line. It was reassuring to see the number of Tigers fans increase the closer we got to Koshien, especially since some of them have very elaborately decorated clothing.
An example of an extremely customized jersey. The name, number, and other patches on his jersey were all hand-sewn (or ironed) on. Not content with what he already has, he seems to be shopping for more patches.
We eventually reached Nishinomiya and swapped onto the Hanshin train line that conveniently (and coincidentally!) ran to Koshien where we were immediately greeted by a sea of yellow and black jerseys and merchandise, both on display and on the tons of fans in the area. I don’t think I saw a single Baystars fan in the area. I made my way around and eventually bought a Takashi Toritani jersey and an awesome super deformed patch to eventually iron or sew on at home.
The area just outside the subway platform is lined with stalls selling all kinds of Tigers gear.
One of the most interesting things about Koshien Stadium is that there is a shrine just next door. Even more interesting is that this shrine seems to cater to baseball-related prayers.
A baseball-themed statue housed within the shrine.
For those unfamiliar with Shinto traditions (as I am), worshippers are able to go to shrines, purchase ema, wooden plaques for prayers and wishes, and pin them to the prayer/wish board. I’m oversimplifying, but that’s the basic idea (you can learn more from the wiki link I put up earlier or through your own research).
Most of the ema for sale at this shrine are baseball and/or Tigers-related.
I’ve been told that many of these boards are prayers for the Tigers to succeed. I think that’s way cool.
I don't think I can spot a single non-baseball-related ema.
If there’s one thing I absolutely love about Tigers fans, its those loose, flowing pants they love to wear. They’re typically yellow, white with pinstripes, or black, and they also typically feature pictures of Tigers or sewn on patches. The Tigers definitely have my favorite fans in all of Japan.
It's a long-distance shot, but you can see a few pairs of Tigers pants in this shot.
While it’s not totally unheard of to see a rival mascot at a ballpark (see the Buffaloes game for reference), I don’t think I’ve ever seen the rival mascots posing for pictures around the rabid fans of the home squad.
I'm hoping that I missed the part where they all boo him and throw fruit at him.
Worse still, I saw the opposing mascots hanging out together!
Now here's a couple of Benedict Arnolds. Shameful.
For all their rabid love for the team, the Tigers haven’t won a Japan Series or really come all that close (aside from a loss in the 2003 Japan Series) since their only win in 1985 thanks to the Curse of the Colonel! :cue scary music:
This is the scariest picture of the Colonel I've ever seen.
There are a few American fast food franchises that have made it big in Japan and Kentucky Fried Chicken is one of the bigger ones. While locations in America have all but abandoned the Colonel statue as a fixture of their stores, just about every KFC I’ve ever seen in Japan has themselves a statue of the famous Colonel Sanders, sometimes dressed up for whatever location he’s occupying.
One such Colonel Sanders, lightly decorated in Lions garb.
The story goes like this: After finally winning their first Japan Series (the Tigers were founded in 1935) in 1985, the fans, already rabid without a reason to celebrate, went absolutely crazy to celebrate the victory. As the mob made its way to Ebisubashi Bridge, they began a pretty cool ritual where they called out a player’s name and a member of the mob who looked like him would jump into the canal the bridge spanned. Unfortunately for the Tigers, not one of the Japanese fans looked like one of the key components to their championship team, Randy Bass. Since all gaijin look alike anyway and, more importantly, the Colonel had a beard, one rabid fan grabbed a Sanders statue from a local KFC and tossed it into the canal in place of an actual person. Little did he know that this casual disregard for the property of a KFC would anger the spirit of Colonel Harland Sanders, cursing the team to failure until the day they finally recovered the statue.
You know, he doesn't seem all that much like a vindictive evil spirit to me.
As I said earlier, the team has really only come close to even approaching a Japan Series title once in 24 years, with most of the other seasons ending in last or near-last place. The moral of the story, never anger the spirit of a chicken-loving Southern gentleman.
You can dress him up in your team's colors all you want, but that won't guarantee he'll come around.
There is hope for Tigers fans who actually believe in curses. Just this year, on 10 March, the upper-body of the cursed Colonel statue was located while completing a beautification project on the Dōtonbori River. The right hand and the lower-body were located the next day, but his glasses and left hand remain at large. What does this mean for Tigers fans hoping for a return to glory after 24 years? So far, nothing. Despite a weak start to the season, the Tigers were in serious contention for the Climax Series up until their last game with the Swallows. Unfortunately, the Swallows were able to knock the Tigers out of the playoffs, but perhaps next year the curse will be lifted and the Tigers can once again win a series.
After spending 24 years in the drink, this Colonel statue looks surprisingly...who am I kidding, it looks disgusting.
Koshien Stadium is, thankfully, one of three ballparks with actual grass growing in them (Skymark and Mazda are the other two) and it features an all-dirt infield that it seems like they over-water before the game.
You can tell it's real because it's patchy. Don't they have groundskeepers to take care of that?
The fans at Koshien are definitely dominant and so rabid, but I was legitimately shocked at how tiny the cheer section that was allotted to the Baystars was. Unlike other ballparks which give whole sections of the outfield, these guys were relegated to a small section. I don’t know if this is just because the Baystars are a marginal team or if this is a legitimate action by the Tigers. If it’s the latter, it just seems contrary to the Japanese culture of polite fairness.
The most pathetic (in size) cheer section we saw on the trip. The flag is being waved by a random Baystars fan in a clsoer section.
That night’s game featured some solid, National League-style baseball with low scoring and plenty of small ball. The final score was 2-1 and the ever-famous Japanese closer, Kyuji Fujikawa, came out to finish the game.
Getting to see a legendary pitcher close out a game is always a plus.
One post-game celebration later, we were on our way back to Kyoto!…Except that the trains were furiously backed up thanks to all the post-game traffic. Our eight-man crew braved the line for about a half hour before even getting down to the platform. The train ride was fairly uneventful, but I was told by Ken that the gaggle of women on the train to Kyoto to go out that night were not interested in me because I “wasn’t tall enough.” I hate to set these girls up for disappointment, but I’m pretty sure that I’m well over the average height for the entire country. Them’s the breaks, I guess.
After we arrived in Kyoto, we all headed back to our rooms. The next day would be spent flying to Sapporo, so we had to get our rest to be up in time catch the proper trains and make our flight. It was also the final day that Jill and Nora would be on the tour, since they had to get back to their jobs at the university they worked at. Our group was down to six, but we were definitely going strong. Only four games to go.
Can they finally break the curse and win the Japan Series this year? Nope. Maybe next year.
Today's post brought to you by Coca-Cola (Not really! Please don't sue me!)
Ok, so I’m being a little dramatic in the title, but with David gone and most of the day occupied by riding bullet trains across Japan, the day was definitely on the dull side.
The thrilling remains of a lunch eaten on an exciting train ride to Fukuoka.
Most of the train ride was spent playing Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, an SRPG whose setting is within the JR Yamanote line of Tokyo. The coolest part of the ride was the fact that we had to take an underwater tunnel to get to Fukuoka, since it is on Kyūshū, one of the four major islands of Japan. There was one other major event that occurred: the bullet train, shining example of punctuality, was ten minutes late to Fukuoka. So jarring was this tardiness that I almost got off at the wrong stop anyway because we it was time, we had to be there. I’m sure it’s not the first time the Shinkansen has been late, but it was the first (and last) time any train anywhere in Japan was late when I was there.
Station, taxi, hotel. Hoo boy…the Tokyo Garden Palace, The Official JapanBall Tokyo Hotel of Choice, had a decent-sized single that they put me in. This hotel, the Fukuoka Garden Palace, put me in a hotel room single smaller than the smallest single dorm room. Funny thing is, this wouldn’t be the smallest hotel room, by any means, that I’d stay in on the trip. That title goes to the room in Kyoto, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
My spacious room in Fukuoka.
Most of the group decided to head to the local Hard Rock Cafe, but I opted not to go because I was doing my best to avoid as much Western food as I could while I was out in Japan. Beyond that, I’m not even a fan of the HRC when I am in the states thanks to its overpriced, mediocre food. Instead I hung out in the room and watched tv/uploaded pictures for a bit before catching a cab to the the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome.
This idol was on tv giving a concert. I think she's famous from anime, because she sang the theme songs from Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Pokemon, Sailor Moon, and many others in her set. I have no idea who she is
The taxi dropped me off near the stadium, but it was far too early to start to get to my seat, so I decided to investigate the nearby “Hawks Town.”
Nothing like team branding to get people in a shopping mood!
The shopping mall wasn’t too huge and it contained the usual Japanese staples: clothing stores, restaurants, an arcade, and a toy store. Looking to kill some time, I entered the Toys R Us and was reminded that Pokemon is still king in this country.
Pokemon and Doraemon, that is.
The toy store had its share of toys from other anime and video game series, but Pokemon dominated the list by far. Whether it was the arcade machines near the door, the figurines, the plush toys, or the other merchandise, Pikachu and his pals were the most represented in the store. I also found a great, kind of creepy looking Woody mask.
It's both awesome and kind of creepy the way those empty eyes seem to stare into your very soul.
After successfully killing the aforementioned time, I decided to make my way to the stadium to take some photos and complete by jersey-buying ritual. Corporate name sponsorship is nothing new to baseball. From Tropicana Field to LandShark Stadium and Citi Field, there are tons of examples of MLB ballparks with corporate sponsors. Even Japan has its share of them, so I initially thought nothing of the fact that the Hawks played in a Yahoo!-branded ballpark, assuming that the corporate representation would be fairly standard when compared to other stadiums. Note the foreshadowing…
Not to mention that Yahoo! is an increasingly irrelevant brand out here in America. I have a feeling this ballpark may change names soon.
I kind of liked Hawks Town and the surrounding area because it seemed to show team spirit. The escalator up to the ballpark was specially painted to show pictures of the mascots, which was also pretty cool. I started to notice a problem when I saw a sign showing what you couldn’t bring into the stadium.
Is it just me or does it look like the final picture is saying "No burgers with cigarettes inside!"
It’s not immediately obvious from the picture, but I was concerned about the number of mascots populating the bottom of the sign. Wow, I thought, there sure do seem to be a lot of them. Most of the ballparks had multiple mascots, but I’d say the average count was three. The Giants had four space bunnies (mom, dad, two kids), the Swallows had three (dad, boy, and girl), the Buffaloes, Tigers, and Marines had two each, and the Carp had one on-field and one for merchandise (the Phanatic knockoff is the former and the young boy is the latter). Represented in this picture were six Hawks. I realized why when I got up to the stands set up outside the ballpark: merchandising.
Gotta collect all the mascots!
Say you’re a team located in a country that trends toward owning complete collections of things. Say you’re a team that wants to make money. Why not have a ton of mascots so that, while some will only collect the ones they like, plenty will try and complete the whole set. Release limited editions with different costumes or even uniforms and you’ve earned yourself quite a bit of cash. It’s brilliant marketing.
Also brilliant marketing.
You already know about my hatred for domed stadiums, so I won’t retread old ground, but the Yahoo! Dome’s youth works toward correcting some of those problems. Unlike other domes in Japan, the Yahoo! Dome has a retractable roof, so fair weather can be enjoyed when it’s there while too hot days and rain can be bypassed. There was an ever-present threat of rain that day, so the dome remained tortuously closed that night, bringing my Games in Dome count up to 2.5 (the Seibu Dome counts for half).
Another result of the dome's youth is newer, corporate food stalls.
As I made my way to my seat, the full stadium greeted me in all its ad-filled glory. Aside from the batter’s eye, there was not one spot missed by the clever ad-space leasing crew.
Not a bad field, for a dome, buy why bother with artificial turf when you've got a retractable roof?
The upper sections of the stadium were filled with luxury boxes, something that was lacking in most of the smaller or older stadiums I’d been to on the trip before today.
Someone needed to tell the Yahoo! folks that there's such a thing as too much luxury.
There’s no escape from the advertising, even the armrests were adspace.
Down to the armrests you can find ads in the Yahoo! Dome.
Worse than that was that between at bats the jumbotron even showed a commercial for whatever product they were hocking that day. There is no peace in Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome to enjoy the game of baseball without an ad screaming at you.
Even the free fan they gave me was advertising a new piece of software.
There are two things which I will always associate with the Yahoo! Dome: ads and this guy.
If you couldn't tell, "this guy" is the white dude in the photo.
I’m not quite sure if he’s a major part of every game or if he only comes out a few times, but this guy will always be the unofficial mascot of the Hawks. He knows Japanese well enough to speak it in a lame, cheesy, game show announcer voice and he appears in video segments before the game and during most of the between inning video segments. I’m not kidding when I say he’s as corny as they come. There’s just something about him that screams inauthentic, but it seems like the Hawks and the fans are totally into it.
Let’s talk about the actual game. There was yet another rare instance of the Japanese national anthem being played. That’s only the second occurrence in six games and all of them were in Pacific League games.
In six games we've only heard this twice. A far cry from the USA.
Another thing I noticed were the elaborate team introductions. Beyond just the usual name and number, they go and put up height, weight, hometown, and handedness. It’s nothing beyond what you’d get on a typical baseball card, but it’s more than I’d seen before on the trip, so I thought I’d snap a shot.
All that's missing is "Likes: Long walks on the beach"
This game also marked the first time I’d seen something kind of interesting for the kids. Instead of having the typical player introduction, a mascot and a kid went out to every position on the field (That’s nine mascots, up from the six I mentioned early. That’s right, there’s some sort of grandfather hawk and an uncle hawk and something else). The cool part is that each of these kids is there when a player comes out on the field. I would have killed to be out on the field before a baseball game to meet a ballplayer as a kid. Hell, I’d kill to do it now!
Here we have some green, old Hawk mascot. It's like they're just making up Hawk variants.
The game itself was a solid affair. It was close for most of the game, but the Hawks were ahead 3-1 by the time the game entered the ninth inning. Some teams would give up, but they’re not the Golden Eagles. Thanks to a pitiful performance by their closer, the Eagles were able to knock in six runs in the ninth, four of which came from a grand slam. For the rest of the trip, my fellow tourgoers and I would remark that a team was not yet safe in the ninth until it had passed beyond Grand Slam Range.
If only she knew what kind of heartbreak was awaiting her that night.
As a quick aside, at the ballgame I ate something I’d never had before and would absolutely love to have again. Tell me, would you trust a pizza from a place called Strawberry Cones?
Everyone knows that Strawberry Cones is synonymous with pizza!
I saw the stand and almost dismissed it off hand for being Western food in Japan, but then I saw a picture of one of the pizzas they offered, and I knew I had to try it. Only one problem, the guy in front of me got the last one. The only thing left to do was pray for symmetry and walk around the stadium searching for another stall.
The pizza in question. Yes, those are shrimp, calamari, and other miscellaneous seafoods.
I know what you’re thinking. “Seafood pizza? Come on Dan, that can’t be good…can it?”
Yes. Yes it can.
And that was all she wrote for the Hawks and Fukuoka. We took a cab back to the hotel and got set to head back to Kyoto the next day. It would be our home base as we went to see games in Nagoya (the Dragons) and Nishinomiya (the Tigers). I’ll close with a picture of the hat of my favorite vendor at the Yahoo! Dome.
It's blurry, but it's the best I got. This is the hat of a takoyaki vendor at the Yahoo! Dome.