November 2, 2007

Sorry for the long delay, folks. I'm the new Japandemonium guy, GaijinMonogatari. Nice to meet you! I'm down in the far southwest corner of Japan, lovely Kumamoto City, working at a kindergarten of all places. If you have any Japan-related questions, feel the need to find out more about me, or just want to say "Hi", feel free to write in! It's been a long while since the last update, so I'm trying to make up for lost time here. Forgive me if I get a bit wordy...

RPGs are pretty few on the list this week, but those that are here are all at the top. And there is more to come this month, so RPGs are sure to have a larger representation in coming weeks. The DS in particular is having a really good run of it this season.

Position Up / Down Title Publisher Platform
1 New Release! Final Fantasy Tactics A2 Square Enix
2 New Release! Ar tonelico II Banpresto
6 New Release! Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion Bandai-Namco
12 Down from 5 Pokémon Dungeon: Time Explorers Nintendo
14 Down from 9 Pokemon Dungeon: Darkness Explorers Nintendo
20 Down from 14 Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Square Enix
Source: Dengeki Online

As part of the big Mana revival of the past two years, Friends of Mana is a bit of an odd duck. Not only is it not actually part of the same continuity as Children, Heroes and Dawn of Mana, it's not for any console released outside of Japan. It is, in fact, a mobile-phone game. And that's just where things start to get different.

So how is it different? That's what I get to try and answer now. By wonderful coincidence, the demo for this game was included on my most recent cellphone upgrade, and I even put out the 525 yen to download the full version. Here's what I've found out:

Well, first of all, this isn't an action game we're looking at here. Given the difficult nature of mobile-phone controls, this is probably a good thing. Your character, a wandering minstrel (choice of four avatars) has the ability to direct monsters with his or her music. As you travel around the world, your faithful pet of choice follows you around, collecting items or fighting monsters as needed.

I guess what the biggest surprise for me, besides the battles, was the realization that Friends of Mana is an online RPG of sorts. While you play it solo, the game is extensively networked through the mobile-phone providers. What you download onto your phone is actually just the basic program, and every time you enter a different area, you have to wait as data is loaded from the network. Li'l Cactus (or his female counterpart) give semi-helpful advice as you wait through the load-time. It's also possible (and encouraged) to make contact and interact with other players, inviting them to "visit" your in-game house, and leave messages. Special events occur according to the season, and every week there's a ratings list showing which region in Japan had the most activity, measured in Happiness Points.

This brings us to the story. Like I said above, this game is completely out of continuity with the other three World of Mana project games. If this game is anything, it's actually a sequel of sorts to Legend of Mana, with many of that game's locations and characters featuring prominently. The characters provide services and quests for the player, much like in an online RPG.

Where was I? Oh yes, the story. When you start a new game, it begins almost exactly like the beginning of Legend of Mana, with the spirit of the Mana Tree wishing that people would remember Happiness, and asking you to help remind them. The intro sequence is interrupted halfway through by marauding spirits called the Thanatos, and that pretty much sets the mood for the game. It's your job to help people and bring some happiness back to the world, strengthening the Mana Goddess in the process. In your way are the Thanatos, swirly black entities that like to cause chaos and unhappiness.

Progress in the game is measured in Happiness Points, which are gained by successfully completing the quests people give you, be it defeating a particular monster, finding a particular item, or rounding up all the monster eggs that the Thanatos let out of Mr. Moti's Pet Shoppe. A higher happiness rating means more quests, some actual storyline progression, and a boost in your area's Happiness Ratings in the weekly lists.

While it was interesting for a while, I never really got into this game, to be honest. It really does play like an online RPG, and I can't say those have ever really been my cup of tea. Well also, there's the issue of all those network connection charges on my mobile-phone account. That sort of thing can add up in a hurry, y'know?

This little gem was also available in demo form on my mobile-phone, and it's provided me with much enjoyment while I've had to wait at various train stations across the island.

Who here remembers the Final Fantasy Adventure? Anyone? Thought so. Even after close to 20 years, this is still a game I enjoy, and also one of the few original Game Boy games I have ever seen priced over 1000 yen in Japan (the norm is 300 yen or less). Now who remembers the interesting, if not always well-applied, remake Sword of Mana? Not the same sort of experience, was it?

Well, for anyone craving that old-school FFA with those tasty GBA graphics, then there is good news! You just need to get a Japanese mobile-phone, and download it for the standard 525 yen. This is the exact same game: same gameplay, same story without modifications, same everything, but with a graphical makeover. The only differences of note are the existence of a second sickle weapon, which is useful, I guess, and a much improved world map available via the menu. If anyone can recall, the original game's world map consisted of a big gray grid with only the towns marked out. Now you can actually tell where you are with some certainty.

All this lovely portable goodness comes at a price, however, and that is the control interface. Specifically, you have to use the center ring button on your mobile as a D-pad, with the surrounding buttons serving as (upper-left) Menu, (upper-right) Item/Magic, and (lower-right) Pause / Quit. Can anyone else see a problem in placing the Quit button in close proximity to the effective D-pad? Yeah, mistakes happen, especially whenever you move to the right. As well, the sword's straight thrust attack becomes almost impossible to use in this setup.

The sound quality is actually better than it would have been on the GBA, which isn't that surprising when you think about it. The game gives you the option of changing the volume at startup but not at any other time, so pick your setting carefully!

Well, obviously it's been a few months since we've done any reporting on the state of cool, random stuff offered in Japan. Here's a few glimpses at what we've been missing.

First we have this lovely ensemble of items for all those fans of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2. Starting with the box, we also have decals for the DS, an extra stylus, a ballpoint pen casing, and a swatch for cleaning your touch screen. It's all available Oct. 25th, for the low price of 1,869 yen (about US$16).

For your musical needs, we have a new soundtrack out for Ar tonelico II, due out October 24, for 3,150 yen (about US$28)

Not to be outdone by its distant cousin FFTA2, the new Crystal Chronicles game Ring of Fates has its own set of DS swag to show off. Originally out last August, these little accessories are still available in stores in Japan, for 1,869 yen altogether (about US$16).

And what Swag Section update would be complete without Prinnies? These cute little Prinny Pochi (pouches) went up for sale around the end of last month, for 3,675 yen (about US$32) apiece.

Source: Dengeki Online

Serendipity: an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

So, you are asking, what does this have to do with Japandemonium or anything? And I say, everything. Japan's just bursting with the kinds of things I can use in a column, but I've got to find them first, and often that amounts to sheer luck. For example, last Tuesday I stopped by the local Family Mart convenience store, wondering about what I could use to finish off my first column. I go to pick up a drink, and suddenly the answer is staring me in the face:

From left to right, starting after the Potion logo shot, that's: Aeris, Cloud, Tifa, Vincent, Yuffie, Red XIII and Cait Sith, Zack, Sephiroth, and the last two are Angeal and Genesis, from Crisis Core (on the same can, but I couldn't get them in one picture together). And those are just the cans I could find at the one store. From the promo poster on the wall, I could see I was missing at least six more, including Barrett, Cid, and the Turks, and second versions of the Cloud, Tifa, Yuffie, and Sephiroth cans.

The occasion? The 10th anniversary of Final Fantasy VII, of course. Square Enix has decided to market their own soft drink for a limited time, having previously only included the concoction in promotional packages with very steep price tags. A can of Potion won't set you back much, just 200 yen (about a dollar-fifty), though that's still twice as much as a canned drink usually costs around here.

Anyway, a very special thank-you to the staff at my local Family Mart, for humoring the funny foreign guy as he pulled nine cans out of the cooler, lined them up next to the register, and snapped pictures with his mobile phone. And then only bought one.

So how does it taste?

It tastes a lot like a Japanese-style vitamin soda, actually. Very sugary (royal jelly is listed as an ingredient), with a bit of grape flavoring to it. A saidaa, as they say over here. Honestly, it's not my favorite sort of soda, though my girlfriend might like it. It's not that bad, though. *Gaijin gains 50 HP*

Could've been worse. Atlus could have started marketing the MegaTen series' infamous Muscle Drinks instead.

An actual, 100% real letter!

Dear Gaijin,

I might just be an ignorant American, but is there any handy guide to Japanese suffixes that you might have? I'm playing Persona 3 and watching several subbed animes, so knowing the difference between -kun and -sama would be greatly appreciated. Also, what's the deal with using first or last names at different times?

- Lunatic


Yay! Something to answer in this convenient space.

Well, it all comes down to politeness, in the end. Specifically, Japanese as a language reflects Japan as a society's emphasis on relative social rank and seniority. The language has evolved all sorts of ways of distinguishing between people of differing social levels, up to and including tons of alternative grammar constructions and verbs.

It's the honorifics we're talking about here. In English, we only use a few, such as Mr., Mrs., Sir, Madame, etc. and even then we don't use them to the extent seen in Japanese. Here's the list of ones you're likely to see in P3:

"-san": This is the most gender- and status-neutral of them all. Tack it onto anyone's name, and you're most likely OK. You might get a few funny looks if you use it for animals, though.

"-chan": This one is a diminutive version of -san. You can use it for children up to second-grade or so, or for young women of equal or lower social status to you. It's often used as a term of endearment. It's also often applied to pets, regardless of gender.

"-kun": This is the masculine equivalent of -chan, and is often used for little boys once they've outgrown the -chan suffix. It can be used for any man of lower status in your own group, but is considered a bit familiar. A boss might use it for an employee he approves of.

"-sama": Honestly, don't use this one. It translates more or less as Sir or Lord, and is commonly used by crazed, screaming fangirls in reference to their favorite pop stars. In more appropriate Japanese, it appears in a lot of polite phrases, including the Japanese word for customer ("o-kyaku-sama").

As well, Japanese has a huge selection of epithets, which are usually job titles that can be tacked on to names, like the honorifics, or used by themselves. Sensei is probably the most familiar one, and literally refers to someone with much greater experience than your own. It can be used for teachers or medical doctors (though you've probably only heard it for teachers).

The other two you're likely to see in P3 are senpai and kohai, which mean "senior" and "junior", respectively. Remember the freshman / upperclassman relationship thing in high school? Increase its importance by a magnitude, and then make it really matter. Kohai are supposed to look to their senpai superiors for advice and direction when necessary, and a good senpai provides. The relationship even extends into the working years, with senior members of the company providing guidance for the new hires.

Dang, that was a lot of explanation for a little bit of question. Just goes to show how complicated it can be, though. Oh, and the bit about first names vs. last names? That's also a status issue. Close friends can call you by your given name, but for everyone else, it's your last name. A change in what someone calls you usually shows a major attitude change on their part.

Well, it's been a blast, not to mention a mind-bender, trying to figure out all the stuff necessary to make a column here. Makes me appreciate our Q&A hosts all the more!

So please, if you have anything you'd like to know about Japan, or just hate seeing all this blank page space going to waste, write in and give me something to answer!

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