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Tokyo Game Show misses Nintendo

2007 event bigger than ever but lacks fun of Wii and co.

by Brian Ashcraft

This year’s Tokyo Game Show was supposed to be bigger, but that doesn’t mean the industry event was better. It was expanded from three days (one press, two public days) to four days (two press, two public) as Sony, Microsoft and third-party video game publishers played host at this year’s Tokyo Game Show (Sept. 20-23) at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe. One noticeable absentee? Nintendo. The Kyoto-based creator of popular series like “Super Mario Bros.” and “The Legend of Zelda” routinely sits TGS out and instead holds its own Nintendo event during the year.

The first public day of the show saw 64,795 attendees compared to 84,823 attendees. By the second day, visitors were filing out hours before the doors closed, making it unlikely that this year’s TGS will pull in 192,411 visitors. Sure, last year brought Japan’s first hands-on experience with the PS3, which certainly helps to explain the discrepancy. “I thought it was going to be more out of control, like you couldn’t move,” says 33 year-old attendee Takashi Fujigaki. The floor at TGS 2006 was so crowded that it can only be described like attending the Super Bowl, a Beatles concert and the circus — at the same time.

Since Sony dominated the past two console generations, Nintendo wasn’t missed at the earlier shows really. Now, with the Nintendo’s Wii and DS ruling home console and hand-held gaming sales, its absence was profoundly apparent. Video game software sales charts are wall-to-wall DS and Wii games with the occasional PSP and PS3 cameos. “The video game industry is in a very healthy state thanks to the success of Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii, which makes Nintendo’s continued reluctance to partake in TGS that much more disappointing,” says Ryan Payton, assistant producer of Konami. “The press wants to cover the industry, gamers want to play and celebrate games at the Makuhari Messe, but the industry’s biggest player continues to ignore it. It’s tragic.”

That doesn’t mean the show was a complete bust. On the press day keynote, Sony announced that it was re-introducing the rumble to its PlayStation controller. The previous PS2 controller, the Dual Shock 2, had force feedback, but after a lawsuit over using the technology, Sony removed it for its PS3 controller and added motion sensing instead. The newly announced controlled, dubbed Dual Shock 3, has both the rumble feature as well as motion sensing. However, the night before the keynote unveiling, the new Dual Shock 3 was accidently put out for members of the press to play at an Electronic Arts party.

Standout titles drew crowds, proving that TGS still matters for Japanese game publishers. “TGS is still the best venue to show off your game to over 100,000 people,” Payton said. “From press to hardcore gamers.” Case in point: His company Konami showed off the eagerly anticipated PS3 title “Metal Gear Solid 4.” Anticipation for the stealth action game has hit fever pitch. Konami rolled out almost 50 MGS4 playable demo kiosks, three times the TGS average, and with the waiting time to play the game averaging three hours plus. By noon Sunday, the lines were so long that gamers were being turned away. The online co-op game “Metal Gear Online” also drew big crowds, and the line for that game also clocked in at around three hours.

Other crowded booths included Osaka publisher Capcom’s, where the line for the multiplatform game “Devil May Cry 4″ was so long that the wait sign simply said “Until there’s room.” There wasn’t even space for attendees to wait. The Square Enix booth was also crowded with people eager to see a preview trailer of the PS3 title “Final Fantasy XIII,” a title that most likely won’t be out until 2008 or beyond. The line for the Square Enix store also packed them in. “I came all the way from Aichi to buy ‘Final Fantasy’ key chains,” says college student Yumi Hashimoto.

But the prize for the biggest crowds of the show had to go to Fukuoka developer Level 5, which drew the hordes by offering free take-home demo cartridges of its upcoming puzzle game “Professor Layton and the Devil’s Box” and soccer RPG “Inazuma Eleven” — both of which are DS games. Literally, within minutes of opening, the line swelled to the point where people had to wait an hour and a half. Before the morning ended, the line was shut down. This was on the first closed press day. Just imagine if Nintendo had appeared.

Without Nintendo, console makers Sony and Microsoft went head-to-head. It’s somewhat an uneven battle as Microsoft is having an uphill climb in entering the mature Japanese gaming market. Sony packed them in at this year’s show with its upcoming PS3 titles as well as games for the newly released PSP Slim and Lite. But the sluggish sales for the PS3 have meant that Microsoft and Sony have been on more equal footing in recent times. “This year it was interesting to see that there were a lot more people interested in the Xbox 360 system judging from the lines and crowds that gathered during the floor shows,” said 27 year-old businessman Kenji Ito, who even played at the show. “By far it seems that Microsoft is doing better this year than it did last year.” The Xbox 360 booth was reasonably crowded, and people were even waiting an hour and a half for “Halo 3.” This was impressive considering first-person-shooters like “Halo” typically do not do well in Japan.

The theme for this year’s TGS (yes, every year has a theme) was “Connect, widen, to the World.” Sure, players connected, but organizers must be disappointed that Tokyo Game Show 2007 didn’t exactly widen the way they hoped. Yes, it was crowded, and yes, it was even hot. But no, it was not the insanity that was TGS 2006. The extra press day was nice, thanks for that, but it’s going to take more than that for next year’s Tokyo Game Show. Is Nintendo busy next September?