‘Streetfighter IV’ leads the coin-op charge


Making their debut on the arcade-entertainment scene at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe exhibition venue on Saturday were Crimson Viper, a redhead with a predilection for cross-dressing and ultraviolence, and Abel, a Teutonic blond whose rippling physique seemed to bear the hallmarks of some serious steroid abuse. Hordes of gamers gathered for what proved to be the main draw of this year’s AOU Amusement Expo, prepared to tough out a two-hour wait in order to get their sticky mitts on the controls for the latest arcade version of Capcom’s seminal fighting game “Street Fighter.”

The Expo is the industry’s equivalent of a coming-out ball, where game fans get a tantalizing glimpse of the year’s upcoming releases. Children cuddled up and had their picture taken with their favorite furry characters, while older gamers grabbed a photo opportunity with glamorous models sporting scanty costumes (cuddling up was strictly off the menu).

In addition to checking out costumed characters and stage shows, it was also possible to try the latest releases before they hit arcades later in the year. Of course, the most important question of the day was whether it was worth queuing up to play “Street Fighter IV.”

Thomas Soubrier, a 25-year-old Web designer from France, certainly seemed to think so: “The basics are still the same — the same attacks and so on — but the whole game is very different from the past episodes,” he said. “The game design is the best I’ve ever seen. The graphics are as near perfect as you get for a fighting video game.”

Karl Schutz from Sweden, a 24-year-old student of Japanese, agreed, with a few equivocations: “The control is kind of sticky. But this is the demo so it’s not the final product by far,” he said. “I’m pretty curious about the new characters. It’s a very beautiful game. I like what they’ve done with the 3-D cell-shading graphics; it’s very, very nice.”

The backgrounds are, indeed, very impressive, even down to realistic faded-red wood textures in a Chinatown fight scene and the movements of bystanders, who take photos and cheer on the adrenaline-fueled pummel-fest.

New features include focus attacks, which allow the player to unleash a powerful counterblow while in a defensive state, and are designed to add depth for experienced players while being easy for newcomers to pull off; and the revenge gauge, which increases every time the player takes a hit, presumably allowing them to use a special life-saving attack when all hope seems lost.

Capcom would not divulge much about the new characters, saying only that Crimson Viper “is a mysterious woman” and Abel “is a man who can’t remember his past.” It looks like fans are going to have to wait until the release (chalked in for summertime) to find out more.

In addition to the plethora of “version ups,” there were several brand new games. Konami’s “Action Cop” attracted huge interest with its innovative controls designed to follow the player’s movement, allowing you to punch, block, shoot and smash opponents to satisfying smithereens.

The cabinet’s screen is gratifyingly large, giving the feeling that you are up close and personal with your opponent. Although motion sensitive, the segment of the game I caught did not appear to be particularly politically sensitive, with white protagonists fighting a gang of muscular black baddies. But as watchers of the “Grand Theft Auto” series will attest, political incorrectness is no barrier to international success.

Another new title was Square Enix’s “Lord of Vermilion,” a fantasy adventure where players collect physical cards, each representing a character, which can be placed on a board in front of the screen to access the character during play. The cards have been designed by artists including Aiba Ryosuke, who designed characters for “Final Fantasy IV,” and cartoonist Katsuya Terada. Those who braved the 90-minute line were rewarded with limited-edition cards to be used when the game is released later this year.

Engineer Kenichiro Takayasu, 29, enthused: “Out of everything at the fair I liked it best. It’s interesting because it’s a card game, and many different artists designed the characters.”

A whole lot of hoopla was going on over the unveiling of “Jubeat,” due in the summer, with professional dancers cavorting in states of apparent ecstasy around the flashing cabinets. The latest product from Konami — creator of rhythm games “Beatmania,” “Pop’n Music” and “Dance Dance Revolution” — “Jubeat” is music-based, with players having to hit keys in time to the rhythm. But there’s one big and most-welcome difference: Instead of looking up at a screen while your hands do the hitting down below, the buttons themselves contain the visual display. Looking like a cross between a Rubik’s Cube and the box from “Hellraiser,” the game is a real blast from the 1980s past and an indication that the industry is well aware of the rising trend for retro gaming.

Kei Takada, 26, an office worker, played the game and remarked: “I’m a big fan of ‘Beatmania,’ so I was pretty interested because this game is completely original. I found the controls really easy to use, but I wondered whether this kind of game system would be difficult to maintain in an arcade, where the sensitive keys can take a lot of bashing.”

Developer Taito went even further on the retro tip by releasing a souped-up version of its classic arcade game “Space Invaders.” Timed to celebrate the game’s 30th anniversary, “Space Invaders Extreme” has a new arsenal of weapons, introduces a bonus-points system for gunning down aliens and has the enemy ships swooping down in more interesting attack formations. However, while many had hoped this would be an arcade version, the game is in fact to be released on the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS hand-held consoles.

The space had not been totally invaded by the big-hitting corporations: This year also saw the triumph of the small guy. Nagasato Souichi, CEO of MechaTracks Co., was showing off “Robo Catcher,” a potentially revolutionary twist on the UFO-catcher arcade machine, where hopefuls steer a crane-mounted claw to try to grab prizes.

Eschewing the traditional claw, “Robo Catcher” lets players operate a miniature robot, making the whole process of being swindled out of your small change that little bit more pleasurable: Instead of the usual position, drop and grab controls familiar to UFO-catcher fans, the player hits buttons to maneuver the robot to the prizes, bend down to grab them, and then carry any winnings safely to the deposit chute. Of course, actually winning something remains fiendishly difficult.

“Robo Catcher” was launched in December last year, but so far it can only be found in 30 arcades around Japan.

For the moment, the lure of the UFO catcher remains strong, as testified by the swarm of preteens lining up in the hope of snagging something shiny from the free-to-play machines on various manufacturers’ stalls.

“I love UFO catchers,” beamed a jubilant Natsumi Yagino, 11. “I won a small doll — it’s soooo cute.”

As for the prizes, there was a plethora of plastic injection-molded/cuddly toys on show at the Bandi-Namco stand. Alongside new models of the usual suspects — toys based on “Kamen Rider,” “Gundam,” “Ultraman” and “Pokemon,” etc. — was newcomer Moicho, a white chick who sports a red scarf and “likes lettuce and peanuts.” Come July, Moicho appeal will be tested in the cutthroat market of kawaii (cute). Over on the Sanrio stand, Kitty-chan was dressed to kill as a lovable panda. Isn’t the panda a threatened species? Who knows, maybe Moicho stands a fighting chance.

“What I like best is that there is a lot of stuff for different age groups,” said 25-year-old Australian Brad Cameron, who is teaching English in Japan. “There’s even stuff for toddlers.”

Cameron’s words sum up the broad and abiding appeal of the arcade industry. Coin-op games may not attract the volumes of players they once did, but the sheer number of both young and old(ish) gamers who eagerly lined up to try out the latest technology at the AOU Amusement Expo was living proof that the industry is alive and power-kicking its way through the 21st century.