Drums Like John Bonham

Hit the notes, hope for the best (^^;)

Actually, no. Not in the slightest. I suppose it’s due time to dig into the recent haul from Japan, and I’m already deep into Taiko no Tatsujin: Dokodon! Mystery Adventure. The games in this series aren’t particularly interesting to write about as they’re essentially just A) an up-to-date summary of Japan’s pop, anime, and game music at any given time, and B) means to eventually barrage any gamer of any skill level with such ruthless note sequences that you probably have to be an innate rhythm virtuoso, then die, and then resurrect to have any chance of beating them.

Although the game’s selection of more than 70 songs is alluring, I first chose to experience its story mode. This time around, the ever-so-familiar taiko drums Don and Katsu end up helping out a priestess called Tia and her monkey sidekick against a coalition of villains headed by a whimsical pink-haired witch brat. Or something very roughly along those lines, as the language barrier in this one is nigh on insurmountable. Thankfully, this lightweight JRPG journey follows the standard town-dungeon-boss cycle, so I’m making headway without really understanding anything.

Despite the story mode, the game is still very much all about rhythm, and all random encounters in the dungeons are handled in a good old Taiko no Tatsujin style. A song starts playing, followed up by blue notes that you hit with shoulder buttons and red notes that you hit with pretty much any other button. Big notes require two buttons, and long notes are all about hitting buttons as fast as possible. Missed notes deal damage to your own party, and it also counts as a loss if you fail to beat the opposing party by the end of the song. After you win a battle, some adversaries might even plead to join your own party, which seems to hold up to nine members. They are then leveled up, improved via items, or nonchalantly chucked into an alchemy bin to turn a bunch of weaklings into one slightly more adept individual. Or, once again, something like that, as I honestly have very little clue about what is going on.

After about four hours, I’m now banging my head against a sturdy wall of an incredibly cranky boss dragon. Even if he keeps on wiping me out, at least every failed attempt is still rewarded with experience points, so thanks to the holy blessing of mindless grinding, he’ll eventually succumb. Ability to read might make things easier but what the heck, this isn’t entirely hopeless. Granted, rhythm games don’t really even need stories like these but as long as it’s there, I’m going to see it through, even if just as a weird little appetizer before the actual musical steak.

Feisty Fish

Three arms and a bowl. I’M INVINCIBLE!! Until next stage.

This lazy Sunday has been all about extravagant nothing. My only accomplishment has been grabbing the last few trophies of a two-year-old indie 2D shooter Shütshimi: Seriously Swole. It’s yet another fake retro style release that was given free to PlayStation Plus subscribers a little over a year ago. Back then, its humorous angle was much appreciated but since the game always felt awfully challenging, it ended up being something I played on and off in little bursts over a long period of time. Apparently each session still taught me something, as I finally managed to complete the damn thing. To be precise, I actually finished it last week, triumphed over its boss rush mode last Friday, and spent today cleaning off its remaining few trophies.

Shütshimi’s take on shoot’em ups is amusing and brisk. You play as a totally pissed-off gold fish that defends its home waters against all sorts of maritime nasties, be they laser-shooting sharks or even underwater bears. Each stage only lasts about ten seconds, and between them you get to quickly choose between three random bonuses. Some of them are genuinely useful (say, a protective fish bowl, extra arms for additional damage, or a bouncy castle where everyone plays nice), others mostly cosmetic (a huge pile of hats), and the rest downright nasty (inverted controls, twice the size, or plenty more enemies to kill). You only get a few seconds to choose between these verbosely described bonuses, so it’s either a matter of blind luck or getting good enough to spot the ones that are practical or, in the worst case scenario, at least remotely less annoying.

At first, Shütshimi seems easy and relaxed. Every five enemy waves, a brutal boss appears. You shoot them for as much as the time allows, and if that’s not enough, it’s another five waves to survive to continue from where you left off. Even if no stage lasts longer than those ten seconds, it’s often long enough for the enemy hordes to flatten your stalwart gold-scaled hero and, since the game plays like a dream, you always have no one but yourself to blame. It probably doesn’t take longer than an evening or two to deal with the three main bosses of the game, but when you are then challenged to beat their advanced forms… I haven’t kept track of time spent with this one but as mentioned, it’s a game that has been steadily bugging me for a year or so.

While the indie scene is hopelessly crammed with these pixel-art forays, Shütshimi was a pleasant little surprise. It’s a simple, challenging game that I ended up coming back to over and over again, just like back in my youth when some games were equally brutal and yet somehow inexplicably compelling. I guess that’s the best recommendation I can give.

A Girl and Her Golem

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Since the heavy hitters of gaming often require so much time and commitment, I think I’ll conserve most of them until summer vacation. Until then, there are delightfully compact experiences to enjoy on everyday weekends such as this one. This Saturday, for example, was all about jolly good time spent with A Rose in the Twilight. Then again, jolly might not exactly be the best adjective here, considering the game is a gloomy story of a cursed little girl, Rose, who wakes up in a dungeon of a decrepit castle with a white, thorny rose growing from her back. There’s not a living soul in sight and everything looks dreary, so it’s definitely due time to get out. Soon enough, Rose finds out she’s immortal and that her rose is capable of absorbing both color and time from objects nearby. Sadly, most of the color around is nothing but blood, giving Rose a glimpse into the final moments of the deceased as well as her own, forgotten past. What could be considered slight consolation, she at least bumps into a mysterious golem that just might help her find her away outside.

If you wanted the briefest of summaries of A Rose in the Twilight, it would be Japanese Limbo. A fragile little girl paves her physics-based way through forlorn surroundings, brutally dying dozens and dozens of times on the way. Even if the player was skilled enough, by the time new areas of the castle need to be opened, Rose has no choice but to bravely enter an execution chamber to give up one more of her infinite lives to offer blood to the brambles guarding the door to the next area. It’s all extremely harsh, although still skewed more towards desolate sadness than pure sadism.

Thankfully, there’s the golem. The two main characters are swiftly switched between by the press of a button, and unless both are present at the exit gate of any given area, it’s no-go. Not only does the golem have no trouble pushing through thorns that are fatal to Rose, it can also grab, carry, and throw stuff, Rose included. She, on the other hand, excels on absorbing color and momentum from objects and then transferring it somewhere else. The game mechanics are a breeze to pick up, and they serve a lovely round of puzzle-induced platforming. The two often get separated but the eventual reunion is always a jubilant occasion.

A Rose in the Twilight is stylish in a minimalistic fashion. Aside from a bunch of diary entries and a few tutorial messages, there’s hardly anything to read. The golem is mute, of course, but so is Rose. The story is all about hunting down and watching unspoken theatrical cutscenes, and the music is all instrumental, artfully conveying a feel of solitude. The best part is the presence of an actual story. The game can be a bit challenging at times, and by the first time the credits roll it might feel like enough is enough. Choose to push on, though, and it’s so much more worth it.

That’s not to say the game wouldn’t be an occasional, massive arsehole, though. All platformers relying on physics are more or less unpredictable, and by the time you restart a checkpoint for the tenth time to get to the next one while multitasking between two different characters with two different skill sets under an annoying time limit, it’s not necessarily fun. Even if everything else goes peachy, Rose’s (ac)cursed rose is probably in full bloom when it shouldn’t and the other way around. My personal nine-hour journey now feels worth every minute but during it, things weren’t always quite as elated.

The game has some speedrun trophies that can just as well shove it, but the overall experience was decidedly a good one. A Rose in the Twilight might not set the gaming world on fire but as a grim, yet fundamentally beautiful fairytale, it leaves behind an aftertaste most exquisite!

Just Business

About to get medieval on your ass, you racist little prick!

Not only did this Easter vacation give me a chance to rest my still awfully temperamental hip, it was just enough to complete Mafia III. As a delightful surprise, the story missions towards the end actually involved a bit of handwriting. While they still weren’t anything more than massive firefights, at least they took place in spectacular settings. Since getting to Marcano also required to go through most of his relatives as well, Clay’s vengeful odyssey began to pack some serious assertiveness. When the CIA just spurs you along while a priest watches in horror what the once upright young man is turning into, it’s something you start thinking as a player, too. At least you still get your say in the final decisions, and as I try to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, let’s just say the eventual meeting between Sal Marcano and Lincoln Clay is a small, yet beautiful and memorable piece of storytelling in games.

Before Marcano, I paid a quick visit to the Faster, Baby! DLC, which opens up an entirely new district on the map. Sinclair Parish is a pathetic backwater suburb where the official authorities are essentially nazis and asshole residents proudly don their white bedsheet capes. Together with a hard-boiled afro chick, Roxy, Clay gets to wreak biblical havoc on the local, utterly racist excuse of a sheriff. The best word to describe this DLC is speed. The area is flat and unobstructed, designed around excessive speeds and massive police chases, which is what the add-on is all about with the absurdity meter cranked up to eleven. Using Roxy’s bad-ass pickup, you end up trashing half the neighborhood and jumping through billboards in cinematic fashion that pays homage to every car chase movie ever. It’s a nice, rambunctious break from the main game but then again, it hardly takes more than a couple of hours to experience, including plenty of cutscenes. It also gives you a chance to grow and cultivate cannabis to sell but the darn seedlings took so long to sprout that I ended up passing my chance for the joys of horticulture. Still, there’s supposed to be two more story-focused add-ons released later this year, so perhaps I’ll get back to this come summertime.

As a concluding statement, Mafia III isn’t particularly noteworthy but also not nearly as hopeless as its review scores might imply. It falls short on storytelling, which is strong in the beginning and in the end, but the beef in the middle is just repetitious, meaningless fluff. Still, during my playthrough of 41 hours, I pretty much never felt unsatisfied or annoyed, and the time just flew by. The game might not provide a captivating story but as a 60’s sandbox, it was certainly worth one very merry Easter!

Mojo Working

They didn’t survive…

Easter of sheer gaming continues with Mafia III, and after 34 hours I’m starting to like it for reals! After affiliating himself with a Haitian, an Irish, and an Italian, Clay has managed to take over pretty much all the organized crime of New Bordeaux. The sleazy Sal Marcano is now only protected by his three Capos, and I’m fairly certain to deal with them by tomorrow. Still, there are so many side missions, street races, and miscellaneous collectibles left that the game most likely has quite a bit of mileage left in it, especially as its Collector’s Edition came with a season pass that seems to grant a sizable chunk of DLC. Everything has been pretty much the same, though. Despite occasional tailing, chasing, and grand theft auto, Mafia III is still very much a game in which you just end up killing a bunch of people. When going for the boss of any given district, you might be given a choice between a full frontal assault or a slightly sneakier approach but even then, it’s mostly about how many poor saps end up having to cross their path with Clay.

Despite its notably lazy script and a cast of characters borderlining on tired old stereotypes, Mafia III is fun. New Bordeaux first felt a bit quiet and it still is, but at least its architecture and attention to detail are top-notch. If you, just for once, forget rushing off to the next mission marker and instead choose to cruise around and soak it all in, that’s when the 60’s with its adverts, enterprises, restaurants, and bars begins to work its magic. The superb soundtrack is propped by news that not only cover Clay’s most notable achievements but also address topical issues such as Kennedy and Nixon, racial discrimination, the murder of Martin Luther King, the race to the Moon, foreign relations, and what else! As another delightful feature, the otherwise trivial journey is often intercepted by short documentaries in which a state prosecutor, a CIA agent, and a priest from Clay’s youth look back on what the man achieved, years after it took place.

The best part of Mafia III, however, are its cars. Those chromed showboats of the era might’ve never been that fast or practical but not only do they look cool, driving them is pure joy! After finally getting the speed up, tearing towards an intersection, and hopping on the woefully poor brakes just to realize your tons of metal will irreversibly plough towards the nearest wall and maybe even a pedestrian… That’s truly a time to smile and grimace at the same time. The weight and the handling of the cars is spot on, and even if the big blocks could always sound a bit more throaty and the tires often feel a bit too grippy, they still make a lovely sound both on asphalt and gravel.

After all I’ve experienced so far, I’m actually kinda pleased. Sure, Mafia III is awfully repetitious and as far as its story goes, utterly forgettable. Still, it gives me stuff to collect and whenever there’s a firefight, I’m free to choose my approach. Good enough, works for me!

The Swinging Sixties

Yes, I am hidden (^^;)

Despite just recently getting out of the 80’s, I’ve somehow found myself back in the past once more. As predicted, Mafia III jumped the line and took me to 1968, the year Lincoln Clay returns home from a four year sortie in Vietnam. He’s keen to start living a normal life and get an honest job but his foster family is having a bit of trouble. Haitian ruffians are hampering their lottery racket and they have fallen badly behind in payments to the town’s most prominent mafia family, the Marcanos. Clay, with his special forces expertise, wastes no time dealing with the Haitians and even a ballsy, most lucrative heist of the Federal Reserve Bank goes without a hitch. The money stolen should be more than enough to appease Sal Marcano, yet the ruthless Don prefers to keep it all to himself and get rid of Clay and his friends for good. Clay is the only one to barely survive the ensuing bloodbath, and after recuperating for a few months, it’s time to strike down upon Marcano and his lackeys with great vengeance and furious anger. No style points for originality but it’s still a decent setup for yet another sandbox.

Mafia III takes place in the fictional city of New Bordeaux on the Gulf Coast of the United States. It’s a nicely varied blend of business, industry, and slum districts. There’s plenty of neon, ramshackled shanties, playful alligators, and 60’s classic rock. Heck, when even the main menu song is Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, you can be certain that the musical aspect of the game, at least, is in good hands. Still, even if the game’s radio stations are full of excellent music and there’s plenty of mighty nice looking screenshots on the internet, New Bordeaux comes off remarkably flat, faded, and muffled. The roads are smooth and wide, there’s a little bit of traffic, and at least a handful of pedestrians who randomly greet Clay or scold him if he bumps into them. Everything you’d expect is present but rather than a bustling metropolis, the city feels more like a subdued ghost town.

As for actual gameplay, Mafia III is equally bland, if perhaps a tad more enjoyable. You go after Marcano by taking over his rackets one by one. By first roughing up informants, you learn what is going down and where. After that, you cause enough economic damage to the racket that its leader has no choice but to come forth. They are then either killed for some quick cash or recruited to Clay’s side for less money but more long-term benefits. For the first seven hours or so nearly all missions have been variations of the theme “go to the given location and deal with everyone there in a way of your choosing.” This is where Mafia III gets unwittingly silly. If you prefer to use firearms, the game regresses into a mundane cover-based shooter. It’s remarkably more fun to sneak from cover to cover and use melee attacks to get rid of the enemies with stealth. They’re dumb as bricks and apparently half blind, too, so every area is essentially just an empowering stealth track where it’s nigh on impossible to screw up. Besides, even if you get discovered, it’s just a matter of whipping out a pistol or a rifle and rain lead on the remaining baddies who either charge you or hide behind cover, waiting for that inevitable headshot. It’s all very unimaginative and unchallenging but, in some perverse fashion, also pretty damn relaxing.

Even if I’ve barely just started the game, it already feels like an antithesis of Mafia II. That one had a great story but was a pointless sandbox whereas this time around the scales tip the other way. Grand Theft Auto this most definitely isn’t but at least it’s awkward in a good, adorable way. It probably was a huge disappointment as a day one AAA behemoth but as a B-class bargain bin find, it’s actually really quite entertaining.

Aw yiss, motha f**kin P5!

As for having to curse like a sailor, there was no need for that, after all. Earlier this week, Atlus’ purportedly stellar Persona 5 finally found itself to my household, accompanied by NIS America’s gloomy puzzle platformer (I guess?) A Rose in the Twilight. While my original plan was to dedicate this four day Easter holiday to the first of those two, I’m making such jolly progress in Mafia III that perhaps a little break from Japanese games is in order. Of course, considering how fast my backlog grows, I’m destined to have projects long into my potential retirement years. Still, can’t really complain; these are exceptionally good times to be a console gamer!

Return to Modern Day Everyday

Don’t ask…

After homecoming and a bit of physiotherapy, my life is falling back into its normal pattern. I even managed to finish my plate of early spring games by finally beating Yakuza 0 from almost a couple of months back, although only by skipping a notable amount of side content. Even after more than 65 hours, my completion percentage was a paltry 60.69%. No can do; all Yakuza games are such huge strawberry cakes that even if they are the most enjoyable thing for quite some time, enough is eventually enough. Still, the main story was brilliant as usual. Towards the memorable, bittersweet conclusion the game really amped up its drama, manly tears were shed, and the families vying for ever more power in the clan got caught up in a storm of treacherous scheming and mutual backstabbing. It wasn’t even a matter of distinctly good and bad guys duking it out more than it was about different shades of gray. Impressive!

I actually planned to complete the game more than a couple of weeks ago. The final confrontations, however, got so punishing even on the easiest difficulty that I respectfully backed down and first finished both Kiryu’s real estate management and Majima’s hostess club side stories. Completing them rewarded both characters with so much income and other goodies that by the time I headed back to the final fray, even the strongest of adversaries were total pushovers. Granted, I also could’ve learned all the intricacies of the surprisingly deep battle system in the very beginning but in this series, it’s deceptively easy to rely on just mindless button mashing and a couple of simple combos that eventually get the job done. Still, it’s only nice that you can enjoy the game as casually or seriously as you prefer.

As for side content, there’s definitely more than enough. Achieving absolutely everything the game has to offer would require two playthroughs and most likely more than double the hours invested. As for myself, I had a great time with all the hilarious social stuff but voluntarily skipped most fighting activities and more than a dozen bar, gambling, and board games that have already been featured throughout the series. Even if comprehensive tutorials are there to teach you even the likes of shogi and mahjong, it’s very much a matter of each to their own. Many of the minigames and other miscellaneous stuff are perhaps a little too plain and repetitious but at least there’s plenty to choose from.

On whole, Yakuza 0 is, at least for now, hands down the most enjoyable gaming experience I’ve had this year. Those of us who have been along the ride since the very first game might already find it a little too familiar at times but the developers always pack so much emotion and warmth to these games that come summer and Yakuza Kiwami, I’ll most likely find myself back in Kamurocho once more.

A lovely haul any other week than this :/

I’m actually quite pleased to have the aforementioned juggernaut out of the way. While I’ve been not-gaming, yet more PS4 releases managed to sneak in. Nier: Automata, praised by both critics and gamers alike, really is most intriguing. Before jumping into it, though, I think its PS3 predecessor, Nier, warrants a replay. Even if I’ve come to understand that Automata is pretty much a sequel in name only, this genre-defying action-JRPG series is so unique that it’ll probably be even better by enjoying both games in succession. Besides, it has been closer to seven years since I last played Nier, so it’s definitely due for another go-round.

In the meantime, by now Square Enix must have made some sort of world record by following up on Kingdom Hearts II with about a gazillion other Kingdom Hearts games that seem connected only by the fact that none of them is Kingdom Hearts III. I’ve only played through the first two games of the main series but now that PS4 got yet another not-KH3, namely Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 Remix, I think that by the time I’ve completed its compilation of six different games, it might be time for the actual third part to be released. Around 2021 or something.

Considering the games I currently have, I’m actually most tempted to dwell into Mafia III, even if it didn’t garner much acclaim back when it was released. However, considering the games I DON’T have, there’s that certain recent Atlus mega-release that in my case seems to enjoy yet another merry weekend in transit (that’s what you get for being a petty cheapskate and importing from across the world). Damn it! Thankfully I was going to be busy this weekend, anyway, so it’s not the end of the world. Still, if that undoubtedly highly mysterious game isn’t by my doorstep come the four-day Easter holiday next week, my cursing will also be heard in the neighboring municipalities. You have been warned.

Fun Sans Sakura

This blog has been hibernating for yet another week but at least this time I have a vaguely defensible reason for that. I’ve spent the past seven days the same way it always seems to go around this time of year, i.e. enjoying the ever-so-lovely Japan. The past few years have always been either about Tokyo or Osaka. This year, I wanted a little variation and decided to check out what Nagoya has to offer. Some have described this manufacturing powerhouse of Japan as the country’s most boring city that isn’t even appreciated by its own denizens. Even if my trip wasn’t a complete success, the city’s hardly to blame. So, here’s a compact(-ish) travelogue of my ups and downs throughout the journey.

Getting there was an ordeal, as usual. Since I live in the backwoods, it took two and a half hours on train just to reach the airport. Then a flight of over nine hours with no real chances to get proper sleep, one more hour to reach downtown from Chubu airport, and then killing time until 3PM to be able to check in to the hotel. Since the flight was overbooked, two volunteers were bribed with 300 and 500 euro gift certificates to fly to Nagoya via Seoul. That would’ve “only” meant an extra three hours but the distance between Finland and Japan is bad enough as it is. Also, I’ve pretty much never had a good experience with connecting flights, so even if the offer was a generous one, I stuck to my original plan of a direct flight.

The arrival itself was most pleasant. There are considerably less foreigners arriving in Nagoya when compared to the bigger cities, so the immigration formalities were over in mere fifteen minutes. Chubu airport was delightfully easy to navigate and I had no problems finding my way downtown. For accommodation, I had chosen Nagoya B’s Hotel mostly because of its location and fair prices, but it turned out to be even better than I expected. Sure, the rooms were small even by Japanese standards but on the other hand they had free breakfast, Wi-Fi, gym, spa, vending machines, and even a separate room for us smokers who still prefer non-smoking rooms for themselves. All this was just a fifteen minute walk from Nagoya station, and a five minute walk to the nearest metro station of Fushimi, from where all central metro lines were easily within reach. 10/10, would book again!

Even if jetlag was severe enough to tempt going to bed right after checking in, past trips have proven that it’s better to get adjusted to the new timezone as soon as possible, no matter what it takes. Thus, after unpacking and a quick shower, I lurched my sleep-deprived zombie body outside and headed off to the nearby Kululu Meieki, a superb restaurant serving Nagoya’s famous Cochin breed chicken in all sorts of delectable ways. After a couple of tasty entrées, a kind older lady arrived to cook a lovely bowl of sukiyaki right in front me, and an equally kind bartender taught this baka gaijin to the art of dipping the wonders of that hot pot in whipped raw egg. All in all, it was perhaps my most tasty chicken dinner ever!

After that, I spotted a quaint little festival right next to the river near my hotel. Music was blaring and countless market stalls sold various snacks and, most importantly, sake. Even if the cherry trees on the river bank were not yet blooming, the locals were clearly ready to welcome this year’s hanami season. The atmosphere was pleasantly mellow, and in hindsight I regret not paying more attention to this event. My body was, however, keenly reminding me that I had missed an entire night of sleep.

Since the night was still young and a gamer is a gamer, I ventured a couple blocks further to pay respects to the gaming bar culture of Nagoya. And boy, was it worth it! Critical Hit, hidden downstairs in a secluded alley, instantly became a regular joint for the entire trip. Especially for those of us not speaking Japanese, it’s probably the best representative of its ilk in the entire country. Nice decor, retro music, bar counter with several SNES consoles, loads of games, and reasonable prices (500 yen or one drink per hour) all made me feel cozy the moment I stepped in. The owner of the place, Alex Fraioli, was a most attentive and wonderful host, and this really is a place where you’re free to be just as social or withdrawn as you like. Still, after only a couple of beers I had to admit that I had finally ran out of charge, so back to the hotel to sleep everything off. Whatever the case, this was the best arrival day ever!

The second day was when everything start to go downhill. Even if I managed to triumph over jetlag, it rained throughout the day and the temperature stayed below ten degrees. Granted, I had arrived a little too early this year but come on! The program for the day was mostly indoors, though, so it was up and away to test out the Nagoya subway network. My Pasmo IC card that I got from Tokyo six years ago was still working just fine, and traveling between the clearly marked stations was extremely easy and fast.

The first stop of the day was the aquarium in the harbor area of Nagoya. Of course, I should have known that if a tourist has come up with a nice way to spend a rainy day then about a million others have come to the same conclusion. The line to the ticket booth was almost an hour long and I began to worry if the visit would be as stressful and crowded as it was in Osaka. Thankfully the place was vast enough to cope with the huge number of visitors and it was quite possible to enjoy everything without a fuss. A mighty orca, seals, porpoises, penguins, gazillion sardines, jellyfish, giant tortoises… An aquarium might be just an aquarium but this was still a splendid way to spend the morning.

The quality of the nearby food court was poor. Still, a cheap portion of yakisoba and takoyaki gave me enough energy to keep on going. The second stop of the day was the SCMAGLEV and Railway Park, and it sure was cool! They had more than twenty trains and carriages up for display, ranging from early wooden 20’s models that did a hundred kilometers per hour to the very latest Maglev that does 581 km/h. Winning a lottery would’ve given a chance to try out a virtual simulator of such trains but since the lines were long and it probably would’ve been a bit awkward thanks to the language barrier and all, I enjoyed the action from the sidelines. An authentic cabin and a massive widescreen made it look really neat, though.

Aside from just casual strolling here and there, that’s pretty much all this gray day had to offer. I ended up having a dinner at the local Outback but that one’s a habit I really should get rid off. A proper steak and grilled shrimps were decent, sure, but nothing more than that, and the quality/price ratio is woeful. An ordinary burger probably would’ve sufficed and only the after-dinner Baileys coffee is something that could be recommended.

This vacation had barely started when my hip began to shout loud objections towards plenty of walking. It was a small comfort that my hotel also had automatized massage chairs that sported so many servos, pneumatic cushions, and nodules that I almost expected a tentacle or two to shoot out from somewhere. Didn’t happen, but at least I felt a little better for a while. All in all, however, the day was just cold, wet, and painful, so I went to sleep not in the best of moods.

My third day was reserved for Osu, which is supposed to be the equivalent of Tokyo’s Akihabara and Osaka’s Den-Den Town. In other words, a nerdy day full of anime, manga, and game awsum. The skies were crystal clear once more but that was pretty much the only upside. Osu’s covered shopping streets were idyllic as such but as for gaming, there’s very little to be experienced. Sure, gamers’ local pilgrimage point, Super Potato, is there and a couple of other retro game stores reside in its instant vicinity but the overall feeling of Osu was decidedly “Oh, so this is it?” Taito only has one three-story arcade in the district and even that one mostly focuses on modern games that us westerners have no hope to comprehend. Thankfully the second floor of the massive Phoedra, right across the street, sports enough arcade cabinets both retro and new. Granted, Nagoya is smaller than Tokyo and Osaka but I still expected Osu to be much, much more. No can do; Akihabara is Akihabara and the others come waaaaaaaaay behind.

Not only were my hip and lower back screaming mercy throughout the day, I was further put down by my credit card allegedly not working. In Japan, cash is always king but no matter how big a budget you plan out ahead, there’s always so much enticing stuff to buy that a credit card would come in handy. It was quite mortifying to bring a bunch of games to the cashier only to find out that your card is bust and that most of your cash is (needlessly but just in case) back in the hotel. I begged the clerk to swipe the card a few more times but it just didn’t work. The only option was to apologize profusely and return back to home base to do some math of what is still affordable. No two ways about it, this was another shitty day.

After all this needless punishment, everything thankfully got loads better. The fourth day started with a stroll through the Nagoya castle, and it sure was impressive. The top floor offered nice views throughout the city and there were historical artifacts and dioramas aplenty. It was rather amusing that the castle also featured some weird Star Wars exhibition. Because Japan. Wonder if Ieyasu Tokugawa would have condoned such blatant frivolity…

From there, I headed to Nagoya City Science Museum, which turned out to be a bit of a letdown if you don’t understand Japanese. Children had dozens of interactive points of interest for some hands-down demonstration of physics but as heartwarming as it was to witness their excitement, the place wasn’t anything special. It had a neat mini-tornado and a cold room where you could experience what -30°C feels like but from a Finnish point of view, that’s hardly an experience.

After a quick bite of fried chicken, I paid a visit to the Nagoya station to check out the Midland Square observatory. Even at 250 meters, it was once again impressive how the metropolitan cities just keep on going no matter where you look. Very cool! As the evening fell, I headed to the ever-bustling Sakae to catch a few more glimpses of the city from the 180-meter-high Nagoya TV Tower. The city bathing in neon was truly a sight to behold.

After a pleasant (and budget friendly) day, I ended up in what might be the best steak joint in the city. Midtown BBQ (former Sienna) had received so much praise online that it was a stop on my original itinerary. What came as a most pleasant surprise was that just a week ago, the place had not only renamed but also moved from back of Sakae right to the same block as my hotel. Lucky! After an absolutely heavenly portion of Angus ribeye steak and the crunchiest fries ever, this traveler called it a day with the biggest of smiles on his face.

Day five, and it just kept on getting better. After breakfast, I decided to see if the nearby 7-Eleven ATM would recognize my credit card and, lo and behold, it did. Yay! With money woes behind me, I took a little side trip to the outskirts of Nagoya to visit Toyota Automobile Museum. It took half an hour of traveling but the place is well worth it. There are more than 160 cars on display, ranging from the very first times of automotive history to the very present. As a bonus, there’s even an amusing annex exhibit of a wide range of utility articles from the 60’s to the 80’s.

By the early afternoon, I finally located Nagoya’s only owl cafe, Fukuro no Iru Mori, which I had already hunted for a couple of days. Hidden in the fourth floor of a nondescript office building, it was a truly charming experience. For an hour, you get to admire and photograph over a dozen owls and once you’re done, you can pose with the one of your choice. Compared to other owl cafes in the country, this one was the most serene. Even if it’s questionable whether an urban environment is good for owls, the local residents seemed quite pleased with themselves.

From there, it was back to Osu to resume shopping before another enjoyable dinner at Midtown BBQ. For once in my life, I celebrated Japan with a proper 10oz steak of wagyu, the caviar of beef. As Vincent Vega might say, I don’t know if it’s worth its price but it was pretty effing good steak! I spent the rest of the night with more beer and video games back in Critical Hit and ended another day on a high note.

The final day went the exact same way it always goes when in Japan: ditching all modesty and burning through the remaining travel budget. As the temperature reached 18°C for the first time during the trip, I also visited the nearby Tsurumai park to see if there would already be even a hint of sakura. Unfortunately I had to admit that I was in Japan a little too early while the cherry blossoms were a little too late. The park certainly had plenty of market stalls and people enjoying a sunny day but the explosion of pink still hadn’t quite started. Oh well, I’ve experienced it before so it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Lousy timing had its benefits, though. The return flight wasn’t even half full, and with no one sitting next to me, being able to lower the seat without annoying anyone sitting behind me, and not having to wait to use the loo all meant that the ten hour flight was a breeze. Aside from those couple of crappy days this year’s trip was definitely a success. Granted, it’s questionable whether Nagoya is worth an entire week but vacations are at their best when you never have a single day planned out hour by hour. I had a great, stress-free time just chilling and wandering about. Now that I’ve come to know the city, though, it could probably be squeezed into a compact 2-3 day side visit on some longer trip. After all, I have a feeling this still wasn’t my last trip to Japan, provided I get my back in better shape for future travels.

So what about the loot? It was a joyful pile striking balance between retro and new. My GBA collection grew with the quintet of Crayon Shin-chan: Densetsu o Yobu Omake no To Shukkugaan! (or something along those lines), Kuru Kuru Kururin, Gunstar Super Heroes, Klonoa G2: Dream Champ Tournament, and Rhythm Tengoku (I must be a masochist). After pondering it long and hard, I finally gave in and bought the ridiculously expensive but also really quite rare PS1 shooter Harmful Park. As for the more modern stuff, there’s Taiko no Tatsujin: Dokodon! Mystery Adventure for the 3DS, and a shameless PS4 quartet of pure fan service; Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash, SG/ZH: School Girl Zombie Hunter, The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars, and Musou Stars. That one was delayed from early March but was luckily released on my final day of travel. There’s probably going to be more about these as soon as I get rid of jetlag and back pain.